ON THE ROCKS
Along with drinking vodka, a Russian's favourite pastime is to sit in a steamy room and be flogged by a bunch of birch branches. Each to their own. The banya, though it's lost its original essentially hygienic role with the advent of running water and water boilers, is nonetheless revered with a ritualistic passion that an Englishman reserves for tea or Australians for barbecues. Rarely do the Russians combine their two beloved pleasures: one doesn't knock back vodka in the steam room, but in the changing room or café outside. But on the Kamchatka Peninsula at the very eastern tip of Russia's grasp, I've seen both. Except we were sitting atop a 2,700-meter high volcano at the time.
Kamchatka is dubbed 'The Land of Fire and Ice.' The peninsula is huge, stretching over nearly half a million square kilometres, and sparsely populated even by the standards of Russia's aching wilderness. Over 300 volcanoes puncture its putative prehistoric landscapes, nearly 30 of them active, but temperatures can still drop below - 50°C, and snow drifts can sometimes bury forests four-floors deep. Located at the northern end of the Pacific Rim of Fire, the peninsula is in the throes of creation: fumaroles and solfataras huff from the perfect cones of its snow-cloaked peaks; geysers and mud pools toil and bubble; earthquakes rock the towns; and some volcanoes are little over 2,000 years old.
The one we were sitting on, Avacha, is thought to be about 4,000 years old. But it seemed very sprightly to me. Vapour muffled everything. It skimmed and scudded across the brick-red and burnt yellow bare surfaces, chased and harassed by the deafening wind which whipped over the top of the volcano. At times, we couldn't see a thing, and stood motionless in sulphuric blankets, gagging for air, claustrophobic, but not daring to take another step as we edged around the rim of the crater. At its heart, a morass of black rock had been frozen in time as it pushed up from the Earth's core and met the freezing air. It steamed and hissed like a machinating dragon. The crater's outer edges fell precipitously. Geysers billowed from the rim's cracks, emerging from gaping, lurid mouths, coloured green and yellow, as if the Earth were spewing bile.
As well as volcanoes, Kamchatka is full of bears. There are perhaps 6,000 of them in all, roaming the fish-rich rivers. In Spring, the waterways are choked with tens of thousands of spawning salmon who swap their silvery scales for their vermilion wedding best. Up to 30 bears have been spotted on a one-kilometre stretch of river. For our rafting trip along the River Bystraya which flows westwards across the peninsula, we'd been promised the chance of spotting some of these creatures. "Loafing" seems to describe a bear, or at least that's how they appear in a zoo. But these 150 to 200-kilo (some reach a staggering 600 kilos) beasts can in fact gallop as fast as a horse over short distances. They walk over 100 kilometres a day on average, and sit in icy rivers for hours on end. About the only thing they can't do is climb trees (would-be survivalists, take note...) or ensure their continued existence.
I wasn't personally fortunate enough to spot a bear, though one of the other craft did. I don't entirely trust their judgement however. By the time they spotted the bear, their vodka-induced navigation skills consisted of observing the boat spin in the current, while they dozed on the hulls. Perhaps they spotted a black-headed marmot, or were emulating them. These creatures hibernate for a phenomenal eight months of the year. During that time, they may wake up occasionally to urinate, possibly fornicate, but then drop off again.
We were also promised salmon. And on that score we weren't disappointed. By dinner on Day 2, we had amassed four at over eight kilos a piece, and a bag of various other fish. For breakfast on Day 3, we feasted on what amounted to nearly a kilo of shiny and salty red caviar. All flapping fresh, and prepared to perfection by Tatiana the cook, who mummied me for the entire duration of the trip.
The rafting was anything but white-knuckle. In fact, it was more white-spirit. "Have vodka, will paddle" about sums it up. I did fear we'd run out. I'd read that the extraordinarily tall grass that grows on Kamchatka, puchka, if distilled, makes a heady draught that results in hallucinations and a suicidal hangover the next day. The indigenous Itelmens had extracted sugar from it, but, predictably enough, it was the Cossacks who attempted to distil it, effectively hampering the colonisation of the peninsula which began in the 17th century. Fortunately, the seven litres we brought with us proved sufficient.
The Itelmens feared the volcanoes of their land. They believed giant mountain demons called Gomools inhabited their tops. At night, the giants would set out for the ocean to catch whales. They returned wearing a whale on each finger. The whales were then cooked on a fire, which is why the volcanoes glowed at night. They believed that if you climbed the volcanoes, you would find whale bones up there. Within the blown-off top of the Mutnovsky Volcano, we didn't find any whale bones. But we stared down at a milky, impossibly-turquoise lake which had filled one of the craters left behind after an explosion. It seemed fathomable enough for a whale to be nosing around it somewhere, and in the adjoining crater, plumes of acrid smoke rose up in huffs like a whale breaking water.
In the Valley of the Geysers, over 20 large geysers erupt at periodic intervals. Some of them top 30 metres in height before receding once again. But I never did work out how they know when it's their turn to perform. Geysers shot palls up the mountainside, staining the rocks ghastly shades of green. Below, muddy pools percolated, working themselves into boiling frenzies before returning to near-dormancy. Although the steam is impressive, their bases are arguably more fascinating. They form strange launch-pads made of geyserite - silica crystallised in boiling water. Over hundreds of years, the geyserite builds up. It creates wondrous shapes, from flower blossoms and albino dreadlocks, to shrouded faces and miniature Towers of Babel.
A ten minute-helicopter drone from the Valley of the Geysers, the Uzon Caldera opens up beneath you like a giant arena of Creation. Some 2,000 years ago Uzon exploded, leaving a shallow cauldron 12 kilometres in diameter. Since then, Life has regained a foothold, but it's still primeval in parts. Opaque, opal pools bubble malignantly, orange-brown puddles are laced with arsenic, antimony and mercury compounds, sapphire-coloured sediment moors itself to stones in the streams, jets of steam still billow in the distance.
Autumn had begun. The bushes and bushels were all dying in fits of rusts, bordeaux, rubies, and purples, between tufts of flaxen cotton grass and shoots of the brightest green. It seemed like an at-once magical and yet terrifyingly cruel part of the planet. I didn't want to leave, and longed to stay in the park warden's tumble-down blue-washed house. But there was no vodka there. So we left.
On our way around the rim of the Avacha volcano, something had puzzled me. Short planks of wood lay strewn about the landscape. They could only have come up with hikers. But why? As we huddled behind a convenient rock to shelter from the wind, I sat down. But after a few seconds, I was squatting again. The earth was warm. In fact, so warm as to be uncomfortable. Someone fetched some planks, and we all sat back down, this time enjoying the indescribably delicious sensation of hot steam wafting over our nether regions while gazing over the landscape that lay before us. Then someone got the vodka out.
Purists would say this wasn't a true Russian banya. For that you need hirsute bodies, ceramic tiling, fungal infections and a good thwacking with birch. But when you're steaming happily away with plunging glaciers, white-capped cones, lowland forests, distant peaks and the thin ribbon of the Pacific before you, purism is pure pedantry.
See website www.kamchatkapeninsula.com for more