The flocks of birds fly to the South
In clear skies of Autumn days.
They go to some place nice and warm,
But I will always stay with you.
I'll always stay with you, my land,
My only country in the World.
Popular song of the 1950-s
With every passing month it got more and more easy to travel abroad, but more and more difficult to move around the former Soviet Union. Some of the most interesting places became so inaccessible that they could as well not exist at all. Soon there will be few people left who know the names like TorrePorreIz Range, Hyihoiheihai Explosive Field, or Oroktuktuk Fissure Labyrinth.
The publishing house I was working for went bankrupt. The Russian translation of Kipling's The Jungle Books which took me six months to complete never got published. But I got paid for it, and used the money to hitchhike around Europe. I made some more money in Israel, and decided to go to China in summer. I realized that as despised and hated Russian citizens were, they could still travel more comfortably and safely in any other country than in their own.
Honestly, I'm missing the lost empire a bit. Not the regime, of course, but the vast territory almost untouched by tourist industry. It was so nice to explore pristine mountains, forests, and deserts, being almost alone most of time.
In May 1993 I was suddenly challenged to cross the country once again. An eruption of Shiveluch Volcano began in Northeastern Kamchatka. I couldn't touch the money I had for China trip, and thought I'd have to miss it. Then I was contacted by a French guy named Nicola, who wanted to visit Kamchatka and was ready to cover my expenses if I would agree to be his guide.
There were only two problems. First of all, Nicola had never been to a place so remote. The visit to Moscow was his first time out of France. Second, the airfare for foreigners was way too high for a poor student like Nicola. I had to get him Russian documents. Fortunately, one of my friends looked a little bit similar. I got Nicola on board using my friend's passport. It was a bit risky, because he knew only a handful of Russian words. But it worked. We made it to Petropavlovsk after getting one last view of Taimyr tundra and Kolyma Highway.
Then it got tough. Everything had changed on Kamchatka. The Volcanology Institute had no money at all. It couldn't send its scientists to the erupting volcano, and they had to rely on American satellite pictures for information. Helicopter flights were so expensive that no one could pay for them, so the heliport looked deserted. Airplane flights to Klyuchi were now weekly, not daily, and there were no tickets until the end of the month. It would be possible to get to Ust-Kamchatsk by a passenger boat, but the boats had ceased to exist. The Transkamchatkan Highway was closed 150 km before Klyuchi because of a missing bridge and ongoing breakup of the ice on Kamchatka River. And there was almost no traffic anywhere due to high fuel prices.
We decided to give it a try anyway, and hitchhiked to the Central Valley. There were still spots of melting snow there, and buds weren't open on larch trees. We camped at a roadside for two days before getting a ride to a village called Atlasovo. It is located in the very center of Kamchatka in a small island of spruce forest, the only one on the entire peninsula. We spent another day on the road outside the village, being constantly watched by hawk-owls from treetops.
Then a car showed up. There were five people inside, but we squeezed in. They told us that the eruption was over and the road was still closed. They offered to take us to Esso instead. Nicola wanted to see some native people, so we agreed.
The driver was an old man. He had an aluminum can of alcohol besides him, and took a big gulp out of it every few kilometers. By the time we got into the mountains of Midline Range he was so drunk that we slipped into a ditch and turned over. An hour later a passing truck pulled our car back on the road. The old man's son got behind the wheel, but soon he screwed up the transmission. We were only fifteen kilometers from Esso, so we got there on foot.
We spent a couple days there enjoying the hot springs. Local folks had just restored the old ostrog (fort), built by Cossacks in the 18th century. Then we hitchhiked back to Petropavlovsk. The weather was good, so we got a splendid view of Tolbachik and Klyuchi volcanoes, colossal cones of blue snow.
We tried to get air tickets to Moscow, but the only ones we could get were for some weird flight with five stops along the way. We had three days left, and decided to go to Mutnovski Volcano. The rest of Kamchatka was completely inaccessible because of transport paralysis.
You could take a bus to a village 60 km before the volcano. We decided to hike from there, waiting for a passing truck, and to spend the night in one of roadside cabins. The road goes through the most scenic of Kamchatkan forests: parklands of "dancing" stone birch. The weather was unbelievable: we haven't seen a single cloud during the entire trip. We walked by Vilyuchik Volcano, a beautiful rocky pyramid. In summer it would be black and green, but in May it was all golden and pink in the sunlight. It was cut along the median by a deep gorge with huge frozen waterfall in it.
We suddenly found ourselves back in winter. This part of Kamchatka gets up to 20 m of snow a year, so there was no sign of spring yet, except for sunshine. By noon we got to a small cabin, buried in the snow up to its roof. Nearby was a hot pool lined with smooth basalt rocks. I decided to fire up the stove to have hot tea by the time we got out of the hot spring, and asked Nicola to get some water from a creek below. He took a kettle and went down to the creek Just as he got there, a grim silhouette of a large skinny bear rose from the bushes on the other side. The bear was just out of den, and looked a bit scary, but Nicola's eyeglasses were in his pocket. He put the kettle on the snow and said very politely in broken Russian:
"We sorry, we stay your cabin."
The bear raised one ear, looking very puzzled.
"OK we stay your cabin?" Nicola asked.
The bear roared and ran away. Nicola put on his glasses, saw who he'd been talking to, turned around and ran in the opposite direction.
It was so nice to swim in the hot pool surrounded by sunlit mountains and forests! We finished our lunch and climbed to the plateau known as "the Museum of Natural Disasters". We were still twenty kilometers from Mutnovski when a passing truck picked us up.
We should have walked instead. There were four drunks in the cabin, so we had to ride in the trunk, with heavy fuel barrels jumping around. The road was almost a tunnel in the snow; otherwise the truck would have turned over at least five times. We knew that an accident there would be much more serious than the previous two. If the truck landed in the snow wheels up, we wouldn't be able to get from under the trunk, and would freeze to death before morning. Nicola's face was pale-green, and I felt very uncomfortable, too. It was already dark, and the place looked like some cold planet of snow-covered volcanoes and bright stars. Then we got over the summit, and there was the village, with electric lights and roaring pillars of hot steam.
Nothing had changed at the construction site in five years. There were still only two buildings there. This time we had to enter through third floor windows, so deep was the snow. The tourist season hadn't begun yet, so people were friendly.
Next morning we tried to get to the crater. At first the snow was hard enough to walk on, but then the sun melted the crust, and we had to walk waist-deep in wet snow. Nicola looked very upset. He was suddenly brought from warm green Moscow into frozen mountain tundra. After six hours of climbing he got blisters and was very cold. I almost dragged him to the canyon which led inside the crater. The snow was even deeper there, but we were only two hundred meters from our destination. At this moment a tiny avalanche fell from a canyon wall. Nicola looked at the smoking canyon that looked like an entrance to hell, sat on a rock and said:
"Berezina! I will not go there."
I already knew that French exclamation "Berezina!" was used in really desperate situations. For me it was just a name of a river in Belorussia, known for a nice Nature reserve in its headwaters. It took me a while to recall that in 1812 the retreating Napoleon's army had lost 30,000 soldiers trying to cross it under attack. I couldn't convince Nicola to go any further, so I left him to rest for half an hour, and ran to the crater and back. We did not know that it was our last chance to see that unimaginable place. A few months later much of its beauty was destroyed by an eruption. I still feel sorry for not forcing my friend to get there.
As a consolation prize, I took him to a fumarole field on our way back. It was a nice collection of rainbow-colored mud bowls, whistling steam spurts, and boiling pools. He got better there, but said he would have to spend the next day in bed to recover.
Back in the village I met Nikita, an old friend of mine. He was a mechanic, but also an amateur naturalist, and a great expert on local travel. He offered me to join him for a trip to a remote place far to the south, and found plastic skis for me. We waited for the snow to freeze over after sunset, and took off. It really felt like flying, so fast could we slide over hills and valleys.
The only settlements in Kamchatka south from Mutnovski are two villages on Ozernaya River, plus a border guard station at the southern tip of the peninsula. We were sliding across a rolling plateau with towering volcanoes to the west and deep gorges to the east. Each of these canyons led to a fjord. We reached an old crater with birch grove inside. There was a hot lake in the middle of the crater. A small river flowed out of the lake and into one of the canyons through a deep cut in crater rim. Two hundred meters downstream from the lake there was a small cabin. We left our clothes in the cabin, and walked to the lake in bright moonlight. The canyon was filled with steam, so it wasn't cold in there. We jumped in the lake. It was shallow, with soft sandy bottom, and surrounded by walls of layered snow fifteen meters high.
Half an hour later the show began. At least sixty black capercallies came to the lake, one of the largest leks on Kamchatka. Gray females watched from tree tops, while males walked around, clicking and scratching the snow with their wings.
We had to walk back to Mutnovski in soft wet snow, seeing one fiery fox and lots of bear tracks along the way. We reached the village late at night. Nicola was asleep after spending most of the day in steam room. Next morning we could already exit the building through second floor windows, so rapidly was the snow melting. We got an ATV ride all the way to Petropavlovsk.
The flight to Moscow was awful. At each one of the five stops we had to show our documents to get back on the plane. We had almost no money left, so if Nicola got caught, we'd be in deep trouble. The poor guy lost count of the small airports along the way: all of them looked exactly the same. It felt like we were flying in circles.
I was sure he would never come back to Russia again. Amazingly, he liked it. Next summer he called me in Moscow. He was on his way to Kamchatka as a head of a large film-making crew. I was out of town at the time when they were supposed to get back, so I don't know if they survived the trip.
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