Land's End

We followed this island chain for many days, and all islands were as inhospitable as Hell.
Jean-Francois La Perouse. Report on the Pacific expedition.

Personally, I think the Kuril Islands are the most scenic part of the former Soviet Union. The southern part of the island chain with its magnolias, cranes, golden waterfalls, and rainbow-colored hot lakes is so beautiful that I won't even attempt to describe it, so I'll start this story from the moment I was trying to get out from there. I'd spent a few weeks exploring twelve vegetation zones and ten active volcanoes of the Southern Kurils, and now wanted to get to the Northern ones. But there was no transportation between the islands, so I had to get to the mainland (in this case, a large Sakhalin Island) first.

There was an art every macho man in the Soviet Union had to master: begging officials for something. I was talking to a traffic controller of a military airfield, hidden in larch forests in the central part of Iturup Island. A fighter plane was leaving for Sakhalin in less that an hour, and I asked the colonel to let me get on it.

But he refused. He said it was illegal for civilians to fly in fighter planes, and even to enter the airfield. What could I do? Nearby, soldiers were loading the plane with boxes of caviar. I threw my backpack inside, and ran back to the colonel.

"I am awfully sorry," I said, "but while we were talking, your guys put my backpack on the plane, and now it is underneath all these boxes. Could you please unload the plane, so I could get my scientific equipment back? It is state-owned, and very expensive."

Ten minutes later I was watching the island from above: a long green crocodile's jaw, dotted with craters and snow banks. I made a bet with the pilot that I'll not get sick, so he let me enjoy some exciting aerobatics. At one point I noticed a large waterfall below, falling into a sea-flooded crater, where two gray whales could be seen. They probably tried to get rid of parasites by staying in fresh water.

The pilot lost the bet (he didn't know I couldn't throw up, because I hadn't eaten for three days), so he had to drive me to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the island capital. The only regular way to get from there to Northern Kurils was via Kamchatka.

The problem was, flying anywhere in the Far East in summer was almost impossible. In the 1980-s, almost entire population of Siberia and the Far East (Russians normally don't include Pacific Coast areas into Siberia) used to spend summer vacations on the Black Sea resorts. When I got to Aeroflot office next morning, the street in front of it was filled by a huge crowd. I needed to fly in an opposite direction, but it was the same line. It took me nine hours of wrestling to get a ticket to Kamchatka for the next week.

I decided to go to the port and try to get on a ship to the Kurils to save time and money. After I helped the dispatcher solve a crossword puzzle, he told me to try Kolguev cargo ship. The captain said it was OK for me to get on board, but he wanted me to give the crew a lecture as part of obligatory "cultural education". "The topic is up to you," he said, "as long as it's not about the health hazards of drinking. We already had two such lectures this year. Besides, the guys will throw you overboard if you tell them drinking is bad."

In two days, we got to Middle Kurils - small uninhabited volcanic islands covered with tundra, alder bushes, and seabird colonies. Here I gave a lecture called "Wildlife of the Sea of Okhotsk." It was fun, because the animals I was talking about were all around the ship. I've seen all seas of the Soviet Union, and the Sea of Okhotsk had more wildlife than any other. Only some waters off Peru and California are better. The crew liked the lecture so much that I talked them into visiting one of the islands. We chose Matua, where half a million seabirds nested, many of them inside the crater. We returned to the ship covered with guano, but very happy.

Soon we got to Northern Kurils. From the sea these islands looked striped: black volcanic rocks and white snow in ravines. Our destination was Paramushir, the largest island in the area. Next morning we were in the harbor of Severo-Kurilsk, the only civilian settlement in the northern part of the island chain. Not far from our ship a large whale was swimming in circles, feeding. We launched a lifeboat and got very close to it. I couldn't resist the temptation, jumped into the water, and managed to ride on the whale's back for a few seconds. It was Northern right whale, the rarest of them all. It left the harbor half an hour later.

I decided to climb Ebeko, an active volcano just above the town. The guys from my ship warned me that it had been erupting just a week earlier, gave me a gas mask, two hard hats, and a thick coat. The trail was easy, so in a few hours I reached the crater rim. I noticed that snow fields were all black with ash, and there were no lichens on the rocks, but didn't give it much thought. The summit was dotted with fumaroles - streams of hot gas, hissing out of golden-yellow sulfur hills. Inside the crater was a lake of sulfuric acid, which looked like milk from above. Near the lake edge were two huge holes. I looked inside them and saw boiling sulfur far below. After climbing out of the crater I found a flat stone to sit on, opened a can of beef, and started eating. Suddenly a pillar of yellow smoke started rising from one of the holes. As I was getting my camera out of my backpack, the ground began to shake. Next moment a black cloud of ash, dust and stones was shot out of the crater. Red-hot rocks were falling all around me, blowing up into pieces when they hit the snow. Deafened by the noise, I put on both hard hats, picked up my backpack, pulled a box of activated charcoal from my gas mask, and, holding it in my teeth, ran downhill. I got hit by falling stones a few times; one was big enough to send me rolling over my head. When I got up, one of my hard hats was broken into pieces, and the other one was on fire. I took off again, and kept running for so long that I descended through a thin layer of clouds, and stopped when the roar of the eruption couldn't be heard any more.

Here I noticed something like a bullet hole in my leg. It took me a while to get a tiny piece of rock out of the wound. The volcano looked quiet again, except for a small yellow cloud high above the summit. I realized that I'd crossed the island from the Pacific side to the Sea of Okhotsk. I got to the shore, opened another can of meat, and spent the rest of the day playing with sea otters in surprisingly warm water.

Next day I went back to the town, nicknamed Deathrow City by the locals. It was founded by the Japanese in 1935, and seized by the Soviets in 1945. In 1966, a tsunami destroyed it almost entirely. There was a warning, and most people were waiting it out in the hills, but came back to their homes after the first wave, and were killed by a second one. The city was later rebuilt higher uphill, but its troubles weren't over. There are four very active volcanoes in the area, so it's raining ash most of time. Earthquakes occur almost weekly. October to May is snowstorm season. All streets are lined with ropes, but people get lost or blown away every year. In 1972, two heavy tanks with crews were rolled over a cliff by the wind. Armored carriers are the prime mode of transportation. Once I saw a bridal procession: the newlyweds were riding on top of a carrier, their backs covered with a thick layer of mud flying up from the tracks. Relatives and friends were following on motorcycles.

The most beautiful island in the Northern Kurils is Onnekotan, the next one south from Paramushir. I was lucky to get a ride there and back on a helicopter that flies once a month to a border guard post there. Onnekotan is made up of two volcanoes. One of them has a bright-green ring-shaped crater lake with an inner cone in the middle, and this inner cone has another crater lake on its summit, this one dark blue.

Because of border zone regime, lack of transportation and information, and high cost of travel, tourists almost never visited the Kurils. The ones who did were mostly KGB employees: they could easily get a pass, and were allowed to fly by Aeroflot for free once a year. They usually visited Kunashir, the southernmost island, and spent time there watching Japanese porno on TV and searching beaches for Japanese garbage. Local border guards told me that from 1945 to 1988, the island had been visited by approximately twenty-five tourists.

When Soviets seized the Kurils in 1945, the islands were densely populated. The Japanese killed all Ainu, the native people, as well as all fur seals, deer, most whales and bears. The Soviet administration started by moving all Japanese residents to Hokkaido, and destroying all roads, bridges, tunnels, villages, and powerplants. Nobody knows why they were doing this. Currently the islands have no infrastructure except for some dirt roads. Local folklore mostly consists of stories about underground arsenals said to be left by the Japanese: caves full of goods, connected by secret tunnels between the islands. But the only Japanese-made structures still in use are lighthouses, including the most famous one at Land's End Cape on Shikotan.

There are only five civilian and three military settlements on the Kurils. Most were built to show the World that the USSR was using the islands in some way. The only place that was actually making profit was the infamous "Pentagon" on Shikotan, closed in 1988. It was one of the largest canning factories in the Pacific. Each spring, thousands of workers were carried there from the mainland. Almost all were women, locally called "saira", and although most of time they were exhausted by hard labor, Shikotan was known as "Love Island" throughout the Russian Far East.

Currently the islands are practically a Nature reserve. If the southern ones will be openly or secretly sold to Japan, they will immediately be destroyed by canning factories, trawling boats, roads, hotels, and golf courses. But now traveling there makes you feel like all their natural wonders are yours alone.

I spent a week exploring crater lakes, kelp forests, underwater hot springs, and other interesting things around the town, and then got on a boat to Petropavlovsk. The ocean was choppy. The coast of Southeastern Kamchatka was visible to the left: a chaos of sharp-edged ridges, deep fjords, black rocks, and snow-striped volcanoes. This unpopulated country is stunningly beautiful and almost unexplored. It gets up to twenty meters of snow in winter.

Next morning we were in Avacha Bay - a labyrinth of small islands, bays, and channels. The city of Petropavlovsk was ahead, and lots of adventures were waiting for me.

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