Russian Far East and Kamchatka, the world’s last undiscovered regions

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In the north-eastern most region of Russia, they have a saying “God is a long way up there, but Moscow is even further away” that is true in so many respects. Isolated, uncrowded, and strikingly beautiful, the Russian Far East is extraordinarily far from Russia’s major population centers in Europe and is usually visited separately. Sparsely populated but teeming with wildlife, this beautiful remote corner of our planet is unknown to even the most experienced travelers, the culture, the climate, the history, the heritage; it is a world away from the Russia you might have explored. In the Russian Far East, bears roam freely, whales dominate the seas and millions of seabirds fly in the open air. And yet, Russia Far East cruises are few and far between compared to expeditions to other remote destinations. The savage beauty of this destination encompasses the most active volcanoes in Russia, the dramatic Valley of the Geysers, snow-capped mountains, hidden lakes, and lush green valleys. Most of the region is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, an active volcanic area with gorgeous views. The region claims 68 active volcanoes, it is more than 10% of the total found on land; 452 volcanoes.

Expedition Vessel MV Spirit of Enderby Image wwwexpeditionsonlinecom

During most of the 20th century, the Soviet government restricted travel to the region for military reasons. Visitors in the past have been restricted to military and scientific research vessels only. But all that is slowly changing. As the government opens itself up to the idea of tourism, the area has been garnering interest in the traveling community. However, limited infrastructure and roads means visiting the region is particularly challenging. Luxury expedition cruising is fast becoming the best way to explore and provides a way to see parts of the region that would be exceedingly difficult to see otherwise. The area is undeveloped and remains remote from the rest of Russia, as well as the rest of the world. To this day, Russian Far East military bases underscore the geopolitical importance of the region. The sheer size of this region is another reason why it has seen little interference from humans. Although it is a large section of the world’s biggest country, it has very few inhabitants. It is closer to Tokyo than it is to Moscow. It is more isolated than Siberia. And its famed Kamchatka Peninsula alone covers nearly 140,000 square miles (360,000 square kilometers) yet is home to just over 320,000 people.

Zodiac excursions sometimes have a few VIP guests – Grey Whale Watching – Kamchatka-Richard Sidey

The region falls into three quite distinct and unique geographical regions: the Kamchatka peninsula; the Commander islands and the Kuril Islands. Each has their own story and endemic plants and birds. Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula dominates the North Pacific and is in turn dominated by a large number of volcanoes, dense forest, and unforgettable scenery. The Peninsula is a 1,250 kilometer of land which lies between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. About 30% of the land area is protected in national reserves. The most significant feature of the landscape is around 160 volcanoes, of which 29 are still active. This dramatic landscape makes the area one of the most popular for Russian cruises. More than half of the population of Kamchatka lives alongside Avacha Bay in the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy and in the neighboring town of Yelizovo. The influence of the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk makes Kamchatka’s climate milder than continental parts of the Russian Far East. In general, winters are long with heavy snows, and summers are short, cool, and rainy. Heavy fog and sudden changes in atmospheric pressure are common.

Kamchatka’s isolation has protected its wilderness and wildlife. The main inhabitants of these lands are brown bears, killer whales, walruses, and countless bird’s colonies, as well as the localized Kamchatka Gull, which is now regarded by some as distinct from Common or Mew Gull. In the winter much of the shoreline is choked by ice. During spring and summer the region is a hive of activity. The best time of year to visit Kamchatka is during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, from late May through early September, with each month offering its own virtues and unique opportunities for exploration and wildlife sightings. The landscape in the Kamchatka Peninsula could easily be considered some of Russia’s most breathtaking and fascinating scenery. The dramatic coastline is full of volcanoes, hot springs, snow peaked mountains and flowing rivers all surrounded by absolute wilderness. The Peninsula accommodates 127 volcanoes, with 22 of them recorded as still active. What is so unique about the Kamchatka region is that it is one of the few places in the world not connected to the outside society by a single road. Adventure in this area is simply calling the name of its visitors. With the collapse of the state-subsidized transport system, the shrinking of the local population, the excessive cost of travel in the region and the lack of funding to replace ageing aircraft and ships, this area is less accessible than ever. However, this is what makes Kamchatka so well suited for an expedition cruise. It is the only way to get up close and personal with Kamchatka’s natural wonders. Ditch any preconceptions you may have about ‘cruising’ – an expedition cruise is different: the boat is much smaller; there will be barely 100 passengers; the onboard entertainment involves ecology talks and photography tips, and strict itineraries are chucked out the porthole. Cruising in Kamchatka is a journey, not a tour, to a destination that has been neither organized nor commercialized, but has simply been left, a staggeringly beautiful untamed wilderness where travelers must travel on nature’s terms and not to timetables.

Other Russian far East highlights

Pacific Ring of Fire

The Pacific Ring of Fire exhibits itself in various areas along the rim of the Pacific Ocean but nowhere more dramatically than in Russia’s Far East. Ongoing subductions of the Pacific Oceanic Plate underneath the Eurasian plate cause volcanism, evident throughout the Russian Far East however more specifically in Kamchatka. The volcanic and geothermal activity has resulted in a breathtaking landscape of snowy peaks, rugged mountains, hot springs, and active volcanoes. The deep trenches formed through these processes harbor the perfect conditions for seabirds and cetaceans.

Wildlife

The famed auks are out for display and it is possible to spot up to fourteen species including Tufted and Horned puffins, Whiskered and Rhinoceros Auklets, Parakeets, along with Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots. The excitement does not end in the sky; in the oceans you have the chance to spot orcas, grey whales, sea lions and sea otters. On land spot the local brown bears, arctic foxes and if you are travelling to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wrangel Island, Polar bears, considered being “polar bear nursery” for the high number of dens there.

Commander and Kuril Islands

The Commander Islands is on the Western extremity of the Aleutian chain of islands linking Asia and North America. The island features flora and fauna unique to the region and some not found anywhere else in Russia with many coming from North America. The dramatic coastline is full of volcanoes, hot springs, snow peaked mountains and flowing rivers all surrounded by absolute wilderness.

The archipelago of the 56 islands that make up the Kuril Islands spans for 1200km from the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula to the northeastern corner of Japan’s Hokkaido. It is recorded that the Islands have at least 160 volcanoes spread throughout them with 40 of them still active. Rich in history, the island contains artifacts recovered from various excavations.

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