Far East Russia travel guide
This beautiful, mountainous, forested area is home to Kamchatka's indigenous Even people. The region has two main settlements: Esso, population 2,000, is a mixture of Evens and ethnic Russians while Anavgay's 600 inhabitants are mostly Even. They live by reindeer and horse herding, fishing and hunting, including for bears. In summer they get out to their hunters' lodges and reindeer herds by horse and in winter by snowmobile. There are a couple of guest houses and locals who rent out rooms in both villages. They can also organize sledge, snowmobile or horse trips, although if you do not speak Russian it is better arrange this in Esso. A trip here is also worth it for their thermal springs, folk dance troupes and, of course, the surrounding nature. One bus makes the grueling ten-hour trip here from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky every day. The dirt track ends at Esso, leaving all settlements further north isolated and inaccessible in summer. In winter, however, Anavgay is the starting point for a network of temporary winter roads that stretches right to the far north of the peninsula.
Before the 17th century Kamchatka was inhabited solely by Koryaks, Itelmen, Ainu, Aleuts and Chukchi. The indigenous Even arrived a hundred and fifty years ago, migrating away from Russian expansion in Yakutia or from other indigenous groups who moved into Even territory after being pushed out of their own. The Itelmen and Ainu have now been assimilated into mainstream Russian society, although many still claim indigenous origins as it grants certain hunting and fishing privileges. The Aleuts were re-settled by the Soviet government to the remote Commander Islands where they live in one village to this day. The Even, though still herding reindeer and horses, have mostly forgotten their own language and are fairly "Russified". The reindeer-herding Koryaks have their own autonomous region which takes up the whole northern half of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Chukchi live in the far north of that region. A few of the Koryaks from Olyutorsky and Penzhinsky Districts in the far north of Kamchatka have preserved their shamanistic religion and some of their traditional chants.
Over 8,500 kilometres from Moscow and just 30 from China, the Far East's second largest city feels surprisingly cosmopolitan. Though cold in winter, in summer an explosion of greenery fills the city's streets and parks, street cafes open up and locals hang out on the beach or stroll along the banks of the Amur. Forts were first built here in the 1650s by Cossacks intent on exacting fur tribute from the natives. They were destroyed fairly quickly though by the local Nanai people, the Koreans and the Chinese, the area becoming a part of China for well over a century and a half. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did the area fall back into Russian hands and Khabarovsk was gradually built up. Beautiful old buildings remain from the early days but the more recent architects and planners at work in Khabarovsk have also done well at keeping the centre looking fairly classical. Nearby villages of the indigenous Nanai people can be visited, including Sikhachi-Alyan which has ancient petroglyphs, but they are now fairly "Russified" compared to some other Siberian peoples.
The BAM's biggest and prettiest town, Komsomolsk-Na-Amure is only eleven hours from the railway's terminus on the Pacific coast (and the ferry to Sakhalin island) or six from Khabarovsk on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It was named after volunteers from the Komsomol youth organization but was actually mostly built by Gulag concentration camp victims. Women from all over the Soviet Union were then sent out to populate the previously all-male city. Unusually for a Stalin-built town, particularly for a BAM town, its centre has pretty, modestly colourful buildings built in the Tsarist style, some wide avenues, strollable river banks, outdoor cafes and even a beach. Not far out of town there are impressive mountains with trekking, rafting and skiing possibilities. There are also some villages of the indigenous Nanai people in the area, although most of what remains of their pre-Russian culture is limited to museum displays.
Traveling for hours or even days along Eastern Siberia's BAM railway through endless taiga forests, towering snow-streaked mountains, following the white waters of rivers crashing over lethal looking rapids with chunks of ice the size of houses still melting near their banks, it can be quite a shock when all of a sudden the pristine, primordial, middle-of-nowhere nature disappears to be replaced by somewhere like Novy Urgal. Founded in 1974 mostly by people from Ukraine and the Baltics and with a population of around 6,000, its peeling paint, crumbling walls and lack of any new buildings give the impression that the town has gone into decay somewhat. And, given the fact that itâ€™s the biggest settlement for 14 hours in one direction and 24 in the other, there's not really anyone around to do anything about it. Novy Urgal is probably not the sort of place your average tourist will be keen to visit, but for those fascinated by the BAM, the Soviet Union or the Russian Far East in general it makes for an interesting stop.
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the starting point of almost any trip to Kamchatka, is the archetypal Far Eastern city in many ways, encapsulating in one bleak town the Soviet thrust of industrialization versus nature. Nothing new has been built since the collapse of the USSR, leaving the breathtaking natural beauty that surrounds the city to contrast with crumbling, grey, five-storey apartment blocks, dirty, ice-bound streets and drifts of filthy snow burying abandoned cars and sometimes reaching second-floor windows. Don't let it put you off though - most visitors leave almost as soon as they arrive to explore the Kamchatkan wilderness. Meanwhile, for those without enough time to get further afield, the volcanoes surrounding Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and lovely Avacha Bay are jaw-droppingly beautiful themselves. Local tour agencies can organize trekking, skiing, paragliding, heli-skiing and so on or the more adventurous can head out on their own if armed with local advice on routes.
Either the end, or even better, the start of the Trans-Siberian railway, 9288 km from Moscow. This harbour town is beautifully set along a peninsula separating Golden Horn Bay from the Amursky Golf. It is the base for Russia's Pacific fleet which gives the town a real navy feel, with a fort and a submarine museum inside a docked submarine. There is even a city beach, which must be quite a sight on one of the few hot summer days. If you are planning on going east, it's possible to take the ferry to both Japan and South Korea.
The towering, oft-smoking Klyuchevskaya Sopka is the Northern Hemisphere's tallest active volcano (4750 m). You might therefore expect the nearby village of Klyuchi to be at least slightly geared towards tourism. Not so. This collection of wooden cottages and dirt lanes is situated inside a closed area requiring a permit to enter and has not a single hotel, although a vulcanologist who has lived and worked here for over 35 years has a couple of dormitory rooms he rents out to the odd traveller that passes through. From the village there is a track leading to a vulcanologists' cabin at the base of the volcano. In winter you will probably need skis or a snowmobile to reach it though and in summer there are lots of bears in the area, so watch out! One bus a day makes the ten-hour journey to Klyuchi from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky along a road that starts off as low quality asphalt before petering out into a dirt track. On the way there is a river with no bridge: in winter the bus drives across the ice, in summer there is a ferry and for a while in spring and autumn neither bus nor ferry can cross!