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Trip 18 -- Northeast Asia

Part 2: Risking it all on Kamchatka
20 June 2016

The 400-passenger Donghae-Vladivostok ferry had a nightclub, complete with a choreographed show and a saxophonist playing American standards. I settled in with a bottle of shochu next to two Russian men. The show ended and a DJ took over. We stayed put until summoned to the dance floor by Olga, a Russian woman about 50 years old. "Malchiki!" she shouted at us. "Boys! Come, get up."

I did what I was told. The dance floor was packed, mostly with Koreans in their 50s who had boundless energy. When I needed a break, they kept going, pulling me back into the mix when they felt I had paused long enough. There was also a group of Russians about the same age, plus a few Russians in their twenties.

When the DJ finished, Olga invited me to sit, and I exchanged the usual where-are-you-from-and-what-do-you-do pleasantries with her Russian group, which consisted largely of travel agents in the city of Nakhodka, near Vladivostok. I befriended a young woman named Dasha. I've met lots of Mashas and Pashas, and to spare the locals the "th" in my name I sometimes go by Sasha in Russia, but this was my first Dasha. I happened to see her passport and noticed that her birthday was January 7. "Russian Christmas," she said. "My name is short for Daria, like in 'podarok,' a present."

Her father played the banjo and preferred country music. "My first lullaby was 'Chattanooga Choo-Choo.'" She was with her mother, traveling home to Khabarovsk, where she was a radio and television DJ. Khabarovsk, an overnight train ride from Vladivostok, happened to be my next destination.

"My friend Jane is meeting us in Vladivostok," she said. "We can show you around the city."

Vladivostok is often compared to San Francisco, which I think is a stretch, but it is nevertheless beautiful -- and hilly. We approached port by sailing under the long suspension bridge to Russky Island, with its red, white, and blue cables (the Russian and U.S. flags have the same colors). Modern apartment buildings tapered off toward the sky, and the gold domes of the Russian Orthodox Church sparkled from the waterfront. We docked, I descended the world's most rickety set of gangway steps, and I was in Russia for the first time since 1999.

Jane met us in the parking lot across from the ferry terminal and the railway station. We piled into her car -- Dasha, her mother, Jane, her friend -- another Dasha! -- and I.

We drove over two suspension bridges -- first to the Cherkavskovo Peninsula, a dangerous mafia-controlled area in the 1990s, and then to Russky Island, where we hoped to take a stroll on the shore. But as it was formerly a military island and now contains a federal college, the beach access was closed to visitors at that moment.

Our plans foiled, we drove up to the statue of Cyril and Methodius, who invented the Cyrillic alphabet. There was a wide-open view of the city.

Dasha and her mother had booked an earlier train to Khabarovsk than I, so I joined them for a quick lunch and they were on their way. "Call me tomorrow," she said. "You can come visit me at work."

I had about four hours on my own in Vladivostok. I bought a Russian SIM card and then walked along the waterfront to the gleaming church I'd seen from the boat. Next to it was the S-56, a World War II submarine. I went inside and admired the zillions of controls and depth gauges, and I gave thanks that I didn't have to work in the claustrophobia-inducing communications room. Farther along the waterfront, people strolled along a long promenade with snack vendors and restaurants, and I sat down with a shashlik and a beer and watched the sun set.

If you go to the Khabarovsk page on Wikitravel and call up the city map, you are presented with a perfect-looking plan. There's a train station at the north end, from which a wide boulevard with a median park for pedestrians heads south. It ends at the waterfront, a leafy space with museums. On the way are countless restaurants and shopping opportunities.

What you don't immediately see on the map is how spread out everything is. It's about a 40-minute walk from one end to the other.

I called Dasha, but the number was wrong -- a man answered. Fortunately Jane had also given me her number. I got on a bus to the city and called. In the confusion, I tried to pay part of my bus fare with a Korean coin. But the fare collector was so intrigued by it, she let it pass.

Dasha called me back a few minutes later. "Where are you?"

Khabarovsk buses are great. The fare is only about 30 cents. There's a crystal-clear announcement telling you what stop you're approaching, and when you get there, there's another announcement of the next stop, perfectly timed so as to be drowned out by the doors opening.

"The Amur Hotel," I said.

"Oh, good, you're very close. I'll send you the address and a map."

If only she had told me to get off the bus. By the time the information arrived, the bus had looped around the waterfront and was heading back north, about a mile away. I hoofed it to her workplace, the offices of Europa Plus radio.

She gave me tea and cookies and introduced me to a few co-workers: this one did the news, that one did sports. They sat around a horseshoe-shaped table, each with a headset and microphone. "See? Broken," she said, showing me her headphones with one detached earpiece.

The newscaster said, "So today is a day of mourning in America."

"Why?" I hadn't heard about the Orlando shootings. He explained.

"That's terrible," I said.

"Yes. And it might make Donald Trump strengthen his plans to send out Muslims."

"He doesn't understand that most Muslims aren't like that."

"But enough about politics," he said.

Dasha was on for only a few seconds at a time -- just enough to introduce the next European pop song, or give the weather forecast, or explain how listeners could enter to win a bicycle by sending a text message during certain hours. Most of the time she was talking with us, and she seamlessly transitioned to radio-speak when necessary, interrupting our conversation in mid-sentence to broadcast the temperature and then picking up where she left off. I stepped out to use the toilet, above which a sign depicted activities forbidden in the stall. It would never have occurred to me to try fishing.

Before I left, Dasha plied me with teabags, cups, and tissues. She tried to get me to take more cookies, but I didn't want the extra weight.

I took a minibus through the birch forest to Birobidzhan, the main city in the Jewish Autonomous Region of Russia. The area was established in the 1930s and there is still a healthy Jewish presence, though the number has dropped from five digits to four. Signage is in Russian and Yiddish. On Sholom Aleichem Street, behind a silver statue of a squat shofar player, I found the door to the synagogue open.

A man led me to the sanctuary, a smallish room with wooden chairs around a slightly raised bimah. The ark was off to the side. Prayer books lined the yellow walls. It felt more like a courtroom than a sanctuary.

"What kind of synagogue is this?" I asked. "Orthodox?"


"How many Jewish families are here?"

"There's still a good number," he said. "Not everyone has left."

Next door was Cafe Simcha, where I was presented with separate Russian and Jewish menus. I stuck with the latter and lunched on a Jewish version of okroshka (cold vegetable soup with egg) and meaty potato pancakes.

Nearby the regional museum should have been open, but finding it closed, I had a walk around the city. It was Khabarovsk on a manageable scale: the train station at the north end, a ten-minute walk south down a leafy boulevard (with a statue of a jolly accordion player) to the kids' park and river, and a couple of main east-west streets, including a pedestrianized section of Sholom Aleichem Street leading to the central market and a pensive statue of the author with his pen. It was a pleasant place to spend an afternoon.

On the train back to Khabarovsk I sat across from a surly girl of about six and her mother, who spent the whole ride glued to her phone. Midway through the girl took a drink of water from her bottle. I smiled and nodded ("That's a good idea"), and then I took a drink from mine. And we spent the last hour of the ride turning our water bottles into musical shakers, corn on the cob, toothbrushes, and zooming airplanes. The mother looked up once and then went back to her phone.

I was in the mood for a classy Russian dinner, and I found it at the Russky Restaurant. I knew I was going to be the only diner even before I opened the door. The room was regally decorated, with gold fringes and the kind of tall chairs that curl up backward. I feasted on duck salad and elk burger, each with its own berry sauce.

My flight to Kamchatka was at 5:40 a.m., so I rounded out the night at a quirky Czech-themed bar, Pani-Fazani, where a waitress rode a rocking horse and the staff chanted poems encouraging people to drink up. I made friends with a pilot for Nordwind Airlines, who bought me one more beer than perhaps I intended to have. Then I looked for a taxi to the airport and instead was picked up by a man with a van, who looked trustworthy enough for me to spend 15 minutes riding with him for $3.

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky is the only airport where I've walked down the steps from the plane and immediately through the outdoor gate into the real world. I never entered a building. Two minutes after getting off the plane I was on the bus into the city.

When I told Americans I was headed for Kamchatka, Irkutsk, and Yakutsk, most who had heard of them at all knew them from the board game Risk. The Risk map skews the geography -- it has them all touching, whereas Kamchatka is several flying hours and time zones away and is the only one of the three that's a real region (the 'kutsks are distinct cities). Risk is also where I first heard of them; they had always been fun to say and sounded exotic and appealing.

I approached reception at the Geyser Hotel.

"Maybe I have a reservation," I said. I'd booked on-line but never received a confirmation.

The receptionist found it and led me to a room with a wide-open view of Avacha Bay and the snowy mountain peaks on the other side. Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the planet's second-largest city unreachable by road (the largest is Iquitos in Peru), has a main thoroughfare about as long as its name. Most of the restaurants were near the Geyser, as was a large food market, where vendors tout their sea offerings. "Come, buy some Kamchatka crab! Try a piece of the king salmon, go ahead!" I bought some smoked black halibut from a lively guy in the center of the hall. "Come back and see me again!" he said. To the side a woman sold me some salmon salad and a chicken cutlet with a hard-boiled egg. My Russian is usually good enough to get around, but she seemed confused when I asked for a "tarelka," pointing to a plastic fork. I later looked it up and discovered I had requested a plate.

The main drag goes down, down, down to a beach area and then to a harbor. I was blessed with warm weather, so I decided to walk it. Several months later, past the longest pedestrian signal I'd ever seen (it counts down from four minutes and three seconds!), I reached the downtown area, with its lake, beach, chapel, and obligatory Lenin statue.

I stopped in at a tour agency to see what I should do on Kamchatka. Activities depend a lot on the weather and how many people are around, so it was difficult to commit to anything in advance. My original plan was to go to Esso, a ten-hour bus ride north, where hiking opportunities abounded and I could get a sense of Kamchatka's hot springs, volcanoes, and bears -- all safely, ideally. But if something else happened to fall into place -- a helicopter ride to the Valley of the Geysers, for instance -- I'd have been game for that.

All they could offer was a couple of day trips from the capital, however. Most tours didn't begin until July, and they were for longer durations than I had available time. Esso it would be. I took a bus back up the long road to the bus station, only to find out the ticket office for Esso had closed four minutes earlier. A woman at another ticket window assured me there would be space if I came in the morning, though.

I had dinner at San Marino, known for serving Kamchatka's seafood specialities. Once again, I was the only diner. The menu had helpful paragraphs of the health benefits of various local foods. So I learned that my reindeer appetizer was rich in amino acids and vitamins PP, E, B1, and B2 (which I think were also elevator buttons at Gimpo Airport in Seoul).

They were playing jazz covers of American pop songs. I could almost get behind a light-swing version of "Material Girl," but I'll never understand the attraction to that Michael Jackson song about Bonnie Jean or Billie Jean King or whatever it is. I get it, you say the kid isn't yours. Take a paternity test, go on "Maury," and leave me out of it. Or throw in a key change. It was intruding on my enjoyment of my king crab.

The rate at the Geyser included breakfast, which officially started at 7:30, but they opened the door a few minutes late. I wanted to be at the bus station as close to eight as possible, when the ticket office opened for the bus leaving at nine. I walked in and was ignored by the person in back. "What's up?" he finally said after I caught his eye.

"Is there breakfast?"

"Yes, it's coming." He brought out a tray a few moments later. "There's silverware," he grunted, pointing to a container on the bar as he walked back into the kitchen. I was grateful that the Geyser hadn't renovated away a touch of classic Soviet indifference.

Plates kept coming: grits, yogurt, sausage, cheese, bread, a kind of quiche. I gobbled everything up and headed for the bus station.

"I just have a seat way in the back," said the ticket seller.

"Well, that's better than no seat!" I said.

That was the next-to-last seat; the last one went a few seconds later. Most of the passengers were children on their way to summer camp.

I visited Kamchatka for its scenic variety, and I got it on the way to Esso. There was asphalt road, a gravel section, a dusty unpaved section, a bouncy section, and several detours where they're rebuilding bridges. So many kinds of discomfort! We stopped in Sokoch, a town known for its pirozhki, savory or sweet filled pastries. They had unusual flavors: Honeysuckle! Lingonberry! And, of course, the usual meat, cabbage, and potato. They were giant.

During the lunch stop in Milkovo, an archaeologist from the town approached me and asked the time. When it became clear I wasn't local, he told me about the place.

"All these homes were built in nineteen seventy-five, for the gold rush. Now they are digging for platinum," he said.

"The year I was born," said a man whom I recognized as the person who had gotten the last bus ticket.

"And the year after I," I said.

"I'm Michael," said the archaeologist.

"I'm Tumen," said the other passenger. "I'm Buryat," he added, referring to the region outside Ulan-Ude near Lake Baikal, where he was born. I later saw him in a market in Esso. He explained that he now lived in the far northwest of Kamchatka. The only way home for him was on the bus to Esso and then a trip in a helicopter.

Michael transitioned and started speaking perfect Buryat.

"I'm Seth," I said. "Or Sasha in Russian."

"No," said Michael. "Sasha is Alexander."

I didn't know there were such strict rules about nicknames in Russian. It seemed you could tack on "asha" to your initial consonant and you were done.

"Good talking to you," I said. I got back on the bus and we proceeded. As we approached Esso, some of the kids saw a brown bear from the other side of the bus, but I missed it.

Nestled among volcanic mountains and fed by hot springs, and made up of wooden houses painted a distinctive dark green or blue, Esso is beautifully rustic. I'd called ahead to the Sichey guest house. The proprietor, Natalia Petrovna (the same one from Turgenev's play?), set me up in one room of a two-story house with a refrigerator, tea kettle, hot pot, and microwave oven. There was a little terrace and a large garden. It was a 30-second walk to the public hot bath, free and open all the time, with an evening soundtrack of frogs. The sunset, with brilliant red colors around clouds barely penetrated by mountains, was from 9 to 11 p.m. Other than the hard bed, it was a perfect place to stay.

The nearby Altai guest house ran excursions and rented bikes. "I was going to ask at the Altai about excursions," I told Natalia. "Or maybe you know."

"I know everything," she said, giving me maps to peruse. "I work in the visit center."

The visit center was surrounded by information boards about the flora, fauna, and geology of Esso. There was also a "dendrophone," a kind of xylophone made from different local trees. It was fun to knock them together and make music.

I found Natalia there the next morning. "Hello, again," we said to each other.

We looked at the map and considered the various hikes I could take, and we settled on White Cliffs. It was about three miles out west and then up a mountain. Just above it was another trail that could take me back to the city, but there was a gap on the map.

"Can I continue up to connect them?" I asked.

"Yes, like this," she said, and she drew arrows to the northeast to meet the upper trail. I was glad to be able to do a circular and not retrace my steps.

"What about the bears?" I asked.

"Bears walk around everywhere," she said. It wasn't the answer I wanted to hear. "But they generally don't bother people. First, a bear will eat plants. Then it will eat a fish. But if a person happens to be there...."

I bought lunch from the grocery store nearby: sausage, cheese, crackers, an apple, water, and some fudge for dessert. And a pirozhok from the outdoor market.

I set off. The trail was a dirt track wide enough for a car. It took me past a horse farm. The horses stopped grazing and eyed me suspiciously.

The trail continued dead straight through the forest for a half hour. The monotony was eerily mesmerizing. It was an easy walk, but I thought about the bears. I'd learn about them the next day, at the Bear Museum. The brown bear can run faster than a human, lives 15 to 30 years, and grows to around a thousand pounds. Mothers usually give birth to two cubs, sometimes four, but only half survive. They're born in winter, and the mother nurtures them for two years (the father's work is done at conception, those chauvinist bastards). They hibernate in winter, eat fruits and nuts in the spring, and feast on salmon in the fall. I was glad that the spring feeding frenzy was over by mid-June, but I was still wary.

It's good to make noise to avoid surprising a bear. So I sang to myself the whole time I was on this level track. But the only song I could think of was "La vie en rose." And I don't remember most of the words.

At kilometer four, the trail turned abruptly to the right and steeply upward. It was warm and calm, and with the narrow path and steep slope I forgot about the bears, stopped singing, and concentrated on going up the mountain.

The trail got steeper and steeper. I realized I was climbing almost vertically. But it didn't seem that I had much farther to go. I pressed on.

The trail all but disappeared. Each step became harder and harder. I wasn't stable, and I was hanging onto whatever would support my body: a tree branch, a cluster of grass, or a rock. I tested each before committing. I dangled and tried to find footholds in the dirt.

I don't intentionally get into trouble on mountains. I have momentum, I hasten upward, and I forget that it's a lot harder going down. Two years ago, on a trail in the Nagorno Karabagh region of either Armenia or Azerbaijan (depending on whose side you're on), I got stuck on a narrow trail made of loose dirt with a steep drop to the river. I was paralyzed and couldn't move for fear of tumbling down the mountain. But at least that time I had but a few feet to go to reach safety.

This time I didn't think I could plummet to my death. But the possibility of falling a few feet and breaking a limb was real. It was long, steep, and grueling, and I had to consider each footstep with the ultimate care. I'd grasp a branch only to realize it wasn't connected to anything. Or I'd find a stable branch, seek out the next one, and lose my foothold. Some of the bushes had thorns, so I had to be careful what I touched.

I thought I might be stuck for hours. I yelled out for help in vain. I never saw anyone else on the trail. All was silent except my heart pounding louder than a Friday-night disco.

I grasped at anything that might bring me up. I dug my fingers into the dirt.

I kept thinking I was almost at the top. Then I'd see that there was at least another layer to go. Was I even still on the trail?

After a while -- an hour? -- of climbing, I arrived at a thin wooden bench. But it was small comfort. It was in the middle of a steep slope. It was nice to know I was in the correct place, but there wasn't room to spread out and have a picnic.

My legs and arms had scratches from the thorny bushes. I'd been hiking in shorts, but now I attached the legs that convert them into pants.

I took a look around, but I couldn't enjoy it. The cliffs were formed from acidic lava that cooled into tufa. To my right was a pock-marked white tufa cliff. Below me was the steep slope I'd just climbed. Above me was...what? How far? I had long passed the point of considering retracing my steps. I had to go find the upper trail.

I didn't linger. I sat on the bench for about five minutes, trying to control my acrophobia, and then pressed on upward. As long as I faced forward, I was just climbing a small hill in the city, right?

The scruffy trees and bushes gave way to shards of tufa. I was nowhere near the top. I had to climb over a long slope of rock first.

The danger of falling was over. If I fell, I'd be caught by the rock shards. The only danger was in causing a rock slide. Most of the time the rock was stable. I crafted each footstep with extreme care, certain not to slip. One time the rocks my hands held began to give way, and I let go gently but quickly.

I headed up to the right, only to realize it was impassable. I backtracked and headed left.

The wind picked up. It had been a sunny day, but I looked up and saw a few clouds. "Please, don't rain," I said.

The wind continued. There were two giant slabs of stable rock. I wedged myself between them.

It finally hit me. It's windy at the top of a mountain. Was I really there? For an hour -- an hour and a half? -- I'm usually pretty good about time, but the mountain had distorted my senses -- I had been deceived by the rocks above me, thinking I was home free, and then realizing I had so much farther to go.

I climbed up a few more feet. I really was there! Stable ground, at last!

And that's why there is no line on the map linking the two trails. You have to make up your own way.

"Yah!" I yelled. And I sang the only victory song I could thing of. "For he's a jolly good fellow...."

I looked around. There were volcanoes on all sides, some extinct. I picked up a rock of tufa and admired its holed patterns. I took note of a beautiful green plant, with curves and symmetry. Geometry presented itself in the arched beams of fallen trees.

Now, to find the other trail. Someone had tied ribbons every few feet, so it was easy to see where to go. I started heading across the plateau.

Then I thought about the bears again. "Quand je da da da da da, da da da da da da, da da la vie en rose," I sang at the top of my lungs. It was a long walk across the plateau. I sang a classical theme and variations, complete with the obligatory variation in a minor key, a section in three-four time, and a grand finale with an andante introduction.

After an easy hour, I saw the wooden hut that marked the top of Pioneer Hill, the shortest trail on the map. I spread out my lunch and was joined by a few bees, but according to one of the helpful signs at the visit center, they don't sting.

I took a walking stick and headed down Pioneer Hill. It was steep, but nowhere nearly as arduous as White Cliffs. I was happy to pass the horse farm on the outskirts of town, and even happier to see a person. She was a girl of about seven, next to the river. She seemed to be fetching water. "Little Cosette," I said. "I love you."

On the way into town, I stopped at the ethnographic museum. Northern Kamchatka is inhabited by various non-Russian ethnic groups, including the indigenous Koryat and the Even, who arrived from the west in the late 1800s. Most have darker skin than Russians. The Even celebrated an ancient bear festival, with men cooking and eating bear meat and burying the bones; women were forbidden from participating, as they were seen as close relatives to the bears -- traditionally, a bear's mother was human. One room of the museum was laid out like a Koryat home, a seven-meter-high octagonal log teepee. It had a vertical ladder to the top, which was the way in and out during the winter, and a low tunnel to the side, for access in the summer. Not far from the museum was Chow-Chiv, a Koryat camp where I was shown around the yurt and able to see the tools used for turning reindeer into cushions and clothing.

I saw Natalia that evening.

"So, how was it?" she asked.

"I'm alive."

She chuckled.

"So dangerous! Up and up and up. Have you been there?"

"A long time ago," she answered.

"It was very difficult."

"Well, of course," she said nonchalantly. "This is Russia. What did you want, a stroll through Central Park?" Those weren't her exact words, but that was the sense of it.

I dined at the only restaurant and bar in town. It was almost ten. I had an interesting spicy fish omelet and a glass of vodka. There was no one else there.

"Wait until midnight," said the proprietor. "It'll be full."

She was right. I headed upstairs with a beer, and eventually the people came. Nikolai, a gruff man in his thirties with a gold tooth, insisted we play pool. He was there with his wife, Marina, and their friend Ksenia.

We were both terrible pool players. I won the first game only because he sank the eight ball, and the second game got abandoned among vodka shots. He had one every few minutes. I knew I had no hope of keeping up, even with the compulsory chaser of dried yak meat, so I'd drink a tiny sip and then hide my glass behind my beer.

The hours went by. I met Ksenia's brother, who took sixth place in the prestigious thousand-kilometer Beringia dog-sled race a few years ago. Ksenia's aunt was also there: the person who had checked me into Chow-Chiv. By the time we left, it was daylight, but then again, daylight comes around 3:30 a.m. in June on Kamchatka.

Nikolai insisted I accompany him and Marina home. I took the walk and went inside, but I was taken aback to see his two naked young daughters walking around. I thanked him and went back to the Sichey.

The next day I rented a bicycle from a woman at the Altai guest house. I explained that I intended to ride out to Lake Ikar.

"You're not afraid of the bears?" she asked.

"Should I be?"

"No, but if you see one, just yell. And it'll go away."

I thanked her and started down the path, but it had rained, and it soon became bumpy and muddy. I turned back and instead rode out to the natural hot springs on the outskirts of town. I sat in the pool -- remarkably clean except for a few floating dead bugs -- and watched the swift flow of the Uksichan River, whose name comes from the Even for "hot water."

I returned to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the bus and climbed up Mishennaya Hill for views of Avacha Bay and all the volcanoes in the distance. With the clouds and light ever changing, I wondered if I could tire of looking at them.

I stocked up again at the market before flying to Irkutsk, a three-flight trip that would take half a day. My seafood guy recognized me. "What'll it be this time?" I intended to just get crab meat, but I let him talk me into smoked king salmon and king-salmon caviar.

Then I went back to the little grocery on the side, and I bought some beet salad. "And here is a 'vilka,'" the woman said, stressing the word for "fork."

Siberian Airlines had no record of my reservation for the first hop, to Khabarovsk. At first the agent said I had to buy a new ticket, but when I presented a print-out with the ticket number, she had it verified. But it was a tense moment, as they checked everyone else in and then forced the system to print a boarding pass even though they still couldn't find the ticket. I was the last to board -- I had my own bus trip out to the plane -- and was rewarded with a whole row to myself and a two-hour chorus of Russia's noisiest children. The average age was about three, and they all screamed exactly alike, like loud mosquitoes that I wasn't supposed to squish. I'd take Michael Jackson over that any day.

I gnawed on smoked king salmon and watched Kamchatka's peaks fade away.

Go on to part 3: Playing it safe around Lake Baikal