A Land of Volcanoes and Geysers
Published: May 30, 2012 (Issue # 1710)
JULIA PHILLIPS / FOR SPT
Kamchatka is home to the Valley of the Geysers, the only geyser field in Eurasia, and also to the tallest active volcano on the continent.
PETROPAVLOVSK-KAMCHATSKY — In a corner of this huge country, at the very edge of the world, the Kamchatka Peninsula juts 1,500 kilometers into the Pacific.
Eight thousand kilometers east of Moscow, Kamchatka is an incredible place. It holds such titles as the highest recorded density of brown bears on Earth, the only geyser field in Eurasia and the tallest active volcano on the continent. For decades the peninsula was shut by the Soviet government to protect its local military assets, but the Soviet collapse caused this region to open, bringing in waves of outsiders.
Perestroika prompted a massive exodus from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Kamchatka’s capital city, which more than half the peninsula’s population calls home. Nearly 100,000 people have left since 1992. The city therefore appears much as you’d expect a slowly emptying military outpost to look with cracked cement buildings, icy streets and abandoned bunkers tucked into hills.
Still, visitors keep flowing into Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
“Twenty years ago there were three travel agencies here. Now there are more than 100,” said Tamara Tatushkina, the region’s former top tourism official. A range of agencies offer helicopter flights to the world-famous Valley of the Geysers. Adventurous winter athletes also board Kamchatka’s helicopters for a chance to heli-ski, descending as many as eight different peaks in a single day.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is surrounded by nature parks, state reserves and sanctuaries, so this small city of 179,395 has become a jumping-off point for investors and tourists eager to explore the region’s untouched wilderness.
While the military maintains a strong presence in the city, commercial fishing has emerged as Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s chief industry. Kamchatkan rivers, where one-quarter of all Pacific salmon spawn, are leased to private companies, and laws against fish poaching are strictly enforced. Markets here are filled with tubs of caviar. Kamchatkan salmon is rightly famed for its deliciousness, and any visitor to the peninsula quickly develops a taste for its pink meat.
The peninsula is also exploring its potential for energy production. Russia’s first geothermal electric station was established here in 1966. As befits a region bubbling with constant thermal activity, Kamchatka has created a network of geothermal power plants that now satisfy up to 30 percent of local electricity needs, and it has plans for more work. In October, Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko signed an agreement with Iceland to cooperate in the design and construction of additional geothermal plants in Kamchatka, and recently the peninsula’s government presented power plant investment opportunities to South Korea.
Local legend holds that the raven-god Kutkh created Kamchatka when he dropped one of his feathers into the sea. Although these days you’re most likely to encounter Kutkh as a carved wooden souvenir in a regional gift shop, Kamchatka, with its glaciers, geysers, and 130 volcanoes, still seems like a place where gods could walk. Humble as Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky may seem to an outsider’s eye, it serves as the gateway to a peninsula rich with indigenous heritage, Soviet legacies and natural wonders.
What to do if you have two hours
Slip on your most comfortable shoes and take a stroll around the city’s historical center. Stand first at the shore along Ozernovskaya Kosa Ulitsa. This stretch gives you a view of Avacha Bay, with a local fishing port to your right and an outlet to the Pacific Ocean on your left. Across the bay are the lights of Vilyuchinsk, a closed military settlement.
Walk along Ozernovskaya Kosa past the statue of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s namesake Saints Peter and Paul until you reach Lenin Square. Here, you’ll see the faces of the local administration building and the city’s recently renovated theater. Continue on Leninskaya Ulitsa, make a right onto Ulitsa Krasintzev, and begin climbing up Nikolskaya Hill. At its peak, you’ll find a row of cannons, several monuments commemorating local military history and the best view of the bay in the city.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s Regional Museum (20 Leninskaya Ulitsa; +7 4152-42-18-82) has plenty to offer any history buff. Founded in 1911, the museum holds relics of the peninsula’s past, with special attention given to Koryak, Chukchi, Even and Itelmen objects. An afternoon in the regional museum gives city visitors a rare chance to value these indigenous groups’ contributions to Kamchatka.
What to do if you have two days
Summer in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is brief but gorgeous. In warm weather, get a new perspective on the city by joining an Avacha Bay boat tour, which lasts about three hours. This will give you the chance to view up close the iconic Three Brothers, a set of sheer cliffs standing in the water. Legend has it that these huge rocks are actually the forms of three men who long ago chose to save their people from a tsunami by guarding the mouth of the bay.
JULIA PHILLIPS / FOR SPT
The most popular time for tourists to visit Kamchatka is during its brief summer and fall seasons.
Athletes will find whole worlds to explore inside the city’s borders. Strap on your skis and hit the slopes at Krasnaya Sopka (13 Strelkovaya Ulitsa; +7 4152-42-38-21). The hill’s four ski trails, each more than a kilometer long, tip so drastically toward the ocean that you may feel you’ll slide right into the bay at the bottom.
For exhilaration of a different sort, visit the Lesnaya cross-country ski base (50 Severo-Vostochnoye Shosse;
+7 4152-29-27-69), which offers 42 kilometers of trails through the forest at the city’s edge. Try not to blink as local skiers blast by.
What to do with the family
Make sure to visit the Puppet Theater (42 Ulitsa Maksutova; +7 4152-42-68-48; kamteatr-kukol.com), an establishment beloved by local children. Handcrafted puppets and passionate performers make every performance come alive. The theater features its own enchanted telephone, through which young audience members can speak to such Russian cultural icons as Ded Moroz and Baba Yaga.
Kamchatka’s Theater of Drama and Comedy (75 Leninskaya Ulitsa;
+7 4152-42-02-94; kamteatr.com), founded in 1914, offers a variety of plays ranging from Russian classics to contemporary works. The theater was remodeled only two years ago and now treats its well-turned-out audiences to a new facade and retooled sound system.
The recently opened nightclub Ikra (2 Prospekt Pobedi; +7 4152-34-34-44; vk.com/kamikra) boasts European-style furnishings, a glossy dance floor and a pack of security guards who enforce strict face control at the door. A few drinks deep, you’ll swear you’re in Moscow.
Local bards perform on Friday and Saturday evenings at Zelyonaya Kareta (1a Solnechnaya Ulitsa;
+7 4152-33-71-11). Spend a few hours listening to original acoustic compositions while treating yourself to some traditional Russian cuisine at the club’s cafe.
Where to eat
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s proximity to Korea, China and Japan has brought dozens of restaurants specializing in high-quality Asian cuisine to the city’s streets. Local government officials frequent Korea House (26 Leninskaya Ulitsa; +7 4152-41-11-93), which offers authentic dishes at extravagant prices. Dinner for two costs about 4,000 rubles ($135).
More budget-conscious visitors should try Chzhen (4 Ulitsa Lukashevskovo; +7 4152-23-06-66) for Eurasian fusion. The pork shank comes highly recommended. Dinner for two costs about 2,000 rubles.
JULIA PHILLIPS / FOR SPT
Nearby mountains open up alpinism opportunities for people of every skill level.
Where to stay
Hotel Avacha (61 Leningradskaya Ulitsa; +7 4152-42-72-01; avacha-hotel.ru) is located in the city center and convenient from every bus line. It’s recognized as the city’s top hotel. Renting one of its 94 rooms, which range from standard to luxury, will run you from 3,800 rubles to 25,000 rubles ($130 to $850) a night.
Hotel Petropavlovsk (31a Prospekt Karla Marksa; +7 4152-25-25-25; petropavlovsk-hotel.ru) was the first hotel in the region to be awarded three stars. Prince Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, stayed here during his visit to Kamchatka. Rooms run from 5,000 rubles to 12,000 rubles ($155 to $375) a night.
Mention either the state of the roads or the price of the groceries. Despite an election-year campaign to repave city streets, most roads are in disrepair — harsh winters and constant earthquakes do little to maintain smooth asphalt. And due to the peninsula’s isolation, food prices soar to reflect high import costs. Bringing up either of these two constants of life in Kamchatka is sure to get you into a long discussion with any local.
How to get there
There are no direct flights to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky from St. Petersburg. Travelers will most often need to connect in Moscow where they can take a nine-hour flight with Aeroflot or Transaero to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Airport (+7 4153-19-95-61; airport-pkc.ru). From St. Petersburg the full travel time is at least 12 hours — often more. A round-trip fare costs between about 9,000 and 35,000 rubles ($280 to $1,100) depending on the season.
The airport is located 30 kilometers from the city. Take an hour-long bus ride to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s center for 40 rubles ($1.25), or save time by taking a taxi for 1,000 rubles ($31) or more.
Main industries: Fishing, energy,
Mayor: Vladimir Semchyov
Founded in 1740
JULIA PHILLIPS / FOR SPT
Shipping cranes and boats frame a view of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s shore.
Interesting fact: Kamchatka’s eastern coast, where Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is located, is one of the most seismically active spots in the world. During the
last century, it has seen 13 earthquakes that ranked more than 7 on the Richter scale.
Sister cities: Kushiro City, Japan; Sevastopol, Ukraine; Unalaska,
Helpful contacts: • Mayor Vladimir
Semchyov (14 Leninskaya Ulitsa;
+7 4152-42-40-38; dumapk.ru); • Oksana Gerasimova, head of the Kamchatka government’s investment and enterprise department
(1 Ploshchad Lenina;
+7 4152-42-56-59; kamchatka.gov.ru).
• Akros (43 Shturmana Yelagina Ulitsa; +7 4152-24-37-17; akros.ru) is one
of the three largest fishing
companies in Russia.
• Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky Trade
Sea Port (+7 4152-43-41-00;
port.kamchatka.ru) is centrally located and open year-round.
• Kamchatgazprom (19 Pogranichnaya Ulitsa; +7 4152-41-00-94; gazprom.kamchatka.ru), the local branch of energy giant Gazprom, extracts oil and gas throughout the Kamchatka region.