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Monday, 31 December, 2001, 15:07 GMT
Adventure in Russia's wilderness
On the crater of Avacha volcano
Stark beauty of the Kamchatka peninsula
BBC News Online's Kate Goldberg reports from Russia's Kamchatka peninsula

After two weeks trekking in Kamchatka, I feel lucky to have returned alive.

I was not afraid of terrorist attacks - even though the peninsula is a Russian military base. And I was not afraid of flying in ageing Ilyushin aircraft or decrepit Soviet helicopters.

The source of my fear was far more basic. It was Kamchatka's wilderness.

A hot bath at the bottom of Veluchivsky volcano
A hot bath at the bottom of Veluchivsky volcano
There can be few lonelier and more remote places on Earth than Kamchatka, whose secret world of active volcanoes, hot springs and abundant wildlife was closed to both foreigners and Russians alike until 10 years ago.

There are no roads to this peninsula, and the 11,000km trip from Moscow takes nine hours.

We flew into Petropavlovsk, the regional capital. At the airport Soviet military aircraft lay rusting at the side of the runway.

Spy paranoia

I foolishly took a picture, which resulted in a long session with the airport police. Kamchatka appears to be gripped by a paranoid Soviet hang-over about the dangers of foreign espionage - which has only been heightened by the events of September 11.

In the city itself, row after row of discoloured cement tower blocks scar an otherwise dramatic landscape.

You really think I will show you where our rockets are? Even though I know?

Kamchatka guide Dima
One may have expected the people of the peninsula to embrace tourism as a possible saviour but Russian bureaucracy still thwarts many potential travellers.

Foreigners need to secure permission from the successor organisation to the KGB - the FSB - for each place they visit, including volcanoes and waterfalls.

Deep in the wilderness, it is hard to imagine what one could possibly see that would jeopardise Russia's strategic interests.

I pestered our guide a little on the question and he stared at me incredulously: "You really think I will show you where our rockets are? Even though I know? Of course I will not!" he said, adding: "Maybe you are.. spion?"

I looked around for tell-tale signs of hidden installations - a suspiciously regular rock or a sliding door in the side of the volcano but it all looked untouched to me.

Boiling mud

Far more obvious dangers lurked in the volcano's crater, a strange and constantly-evolving lunar landscape of gaping fumaroles, spewing sulphurous fumes.

There was nothing but the guide to prevent us from unwittingly stumbling into a bubbling vat of sulphuric acid or a cauldron of boiling mud.

For most ordinary mortals, it would be impossible to explore Kamchatka without a guide - although we did hear of a German mountain-biker crossing the inhospitable terrain alone.

Avacha volcano
Guide: "What do locals care about mountain walking?"
Our guide Dima was a gruff but reassuringly capable Russian.

Although he was not conversationally gifted, he did much more than merely show us the way. He caught fresh fish for our dinner, carried us across rivers and fended off bears at night.

He wore thigh-length rubber boots - or sapogi - folded to just below the knee. Instead of socks he wrapped his feet in felt blankets. From his huge rucksack he produced an amazing variety of unlikely camping utensils.

Come lunchtime, he would take out an axe, cut down a tree or two, and make a fire. He would then go to elaborate lengths to secure a green branch above the campfire from which he hung the large saucepan and kettle that he also carried with him.

Russian cure

Unfortunately, after one of his culinary creations - fish and vodka soup, a traditional Kamchatkan delicacy - my sister turned a lurid green.

She spent the rest of the evening juggling the conflicting impulses to empty her stomach and stay in the tent, well away from the rampaging bears outside. The next morning I told Dima that Emma had food-poisoning.

"I'll cure her the Russian way if you like," he said. Out came the vodka bottle again.

Unspoilt beauty - for those who beat the bureaucracy
Unspoilt beauty - for those who beat the bureaucracy
I watched, astonished, as he fed her a quadruple vodka and salt. "I've never tasted anything so vile," she said.

Whether the concoction killed the bacteria or simply distracted her from the food poisoning I don't know, but her spirits were soon up, which I suppose is the Russian way.

We packed up our rucksacks and embarked on a slow 10-hour tramp across the mountain passes to some of Kamchatka's famous hot springs.

"Why don't they make a footpath across here?" I asked Dima, as I hacked my way through thick bushes and trees which caught on my rucksack every other step.

"Who do you think has time to make footpaths?" he snapped. "The local people work night and day just to survive. What do they care about walking in the mountains? And the government doesn't even have enough money to pay pensions, let alone make footpaths!"

I did not mention footpaths again. Yet not all locals are indifferent to the peninsula's bold and stark beauty.

Mountain spa

In a former gold mine at the foot of Veluchivsky volcano, some enterprising Kamchatkans have built a charming, understated spa resort, where they can ski and also bathe in the therapeutic waters.

"When the Soviet geologists decided to abandon the gold mine, they left all their rubbish - their rusting machinery and disused barracks," said Sasha, one of the inhabitants. "We cleared it all up, and built this with our own money."

The valley of the Geysers - the biggest concentration of geysers in the world
The Valley of the Geysers - the biggest concentration of geysers in the world
It is the only place we saw that uses geothermal energy for heating and hot water. Wooden walkways and little bridges link the timber cabins to various geothermally heated pools and hot springs. After a week of camping, little can beat the feeling of soaking in a steaming hot bath, surrounded by hills and stars.

I asked whether foreigners who are not fit enough to trek can stay in the resort, explaining that my mother would love to visit Kamchatka, but has problems with her back.

"She should definitely come," said Sasha. "But tell her to consult her doctor first - she should find out which kind of water is most beneficial to her particular condition. We have many waters here - mountain waters, spring waters, silver water, and various other mineral waters."

I imagined the reaction of her GP, and ventured to Sasha that this might not be the cure he would prescribe. "Well then he should come too. Maybe he learn something," he said.

I would certainly encourage it. Kamchatka may have an unorthodox approach to tourism, but it has a lot to teach the open-minded.

See also:

27 Mar 00 | Europe
Russia testfires missiles
03 Mar 01 | Europe
Russia arrests Chinese 'spy'
05 Dec 97 | Monitoring
Volcano erupts in Russian Far East
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