Petropavlovsk On Russia’s Pacific Frontier

Petropavlovsk, the major port city of the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia is not what one would call a “garden spot.” It is a frontier city in what is called the “Russian Far East,” located more than 10,000 kilometers from Moscow and accessible only by air or sea. In this far eastern frontier of the great Taiga or boreal forest, roads are nearly absent. Distances are so vast and measured in thousands of kilometers and the population highly concentrated in just a few small cities or towns primarily along the Trans Siberian Railroad or clinging to the Pacific shore.

The cold and forbidding Kuril Islands between Kamchatka and Hokkaido are volcanic and offer little in the way of settlement potential.
The cold and forbidding Kuril Islands between Kamchatka and Hokkaido are volcanic and offer little in the way of settlement potential.

The Kamchatka Peninsula, larger than California, is one of the most forbidding, yet most majestic of landscapes in all of Russia. The mountainous rib that is the backbone of this peninsula that juts southeast into the northern Pacific Ocean is more than 1,300 kilometers in length. Its towering peaks are all of young volcanic origin, and most are explosively active. The peninsula straddles the boundary between the Eurasian, North American and Pacific geological plates and is wracked by periodic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Despite its volatility, this is a land of impressive forests, deep glacial lakes, fast flowing rivers and grassy meadows. And it is home to grizzly bear, lynx, wolverine, otter, sable, reindeer and moose while its rivers teem with salmon. Offshore humpback, gray and sperm whales along with many species of seal and walrus further enrich the biodiversity. But winter holds the peninsula in an icy grip for over seven months of the year, with summer being a brief interlude, as is true in so much of Siberia.

Because of its inaccessibility to the rest of Russia, the peninsula is essentially pristine, as human imprint has been limited to just a handful of isolated settlements, most only dating back to 1740, when Vitus Bering established a base as part of his plan for the exploration of Alaska. Naming it for his two ships, St. Peter and St. Paul, the port got the name of Petropavlovsk. Before Bering, there had been a few attempts at exploration of this vast land, but strong native resistance thwarted any development. Ultimately native numbers would later decline thanks to the introduction of diseases previously unknown. After the establishment of Petropavlovsk, the Russian government saw the peninsula as a storehouse of furs, and as a place of exile for dissidents. And the port of Petropavlovsk was seen as a site for a naval base given the interest the great powers had in establishing zones of influence over China. There is a monument just outside the city that greets people arriving by air. It reads “Here  Begins Russia,” as this is the most easterly city in the country.

The monument outside of Petropavlovsk that claims "Russia begins here."
The monument outside of Petropavlovsk that claims “Russia begins here.”

During the years of the Cold War, Petropavlovsk expanded to become a major naval base, especially for submarines, which still holds true today. The city was off limits to foreign visitors, thus the development of a tourist infrastructure is today in its infancy. But the potential is there even with the limited infrastructure.

Why would cruise ships visit such a remote and climatically forbidding place? There are essentially two categories of cruises that include the Kamchatka Peninsula:

  • Repositioning cruises between Southeast Asia and Alaska bring a handful of luxury cruise ships to Petropavlovsk. In early Spring, ships travel north from Vietnam or Hong Kong, via Japan to Petropavlovsk before following along the Aleutian Island chain to the ports for Anchorage where the first southbound Alaska cruise of the season begins, terminating in Vancouver. Again in late September, several major cruise ships make a reverse journey from Vancouver to the ports of Seward or Whittier (Anchorage) before continuing on to Petropavlovsk, Japan, Hong Kong where Southeast Asian itineraries begin.
  • Small, specially built exploration vessels, cruise many of the more remote coastal villages of Kamchatka and the Bering Sea coasts of both Russia and Alaska. These are oriented toward guests who are seeking a less luxurious, more adventurous type of cruise that explores the landscape in depth with an emphasis upon the natural landscape and its wildlife.

Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky, as it is properly called in Russian, is definitely a frontier city. It lacks the great monumental buildings, grand palaces, ancient fortresses and monasteries that are found in St. Petersburg, Moscow or other major Russian cities. This is a rough around the edges city of the Russian frontier that has developed as a center for exploration, a military outpost since the mid 19th century and an important salmon and crab fishing port. The present population is just over 200,000, but actually down from a high of over 270,000 back in the mid 1980’s when there were attempts to develop minor industries based upon local mineral deposits. But since the fall of the Soviet Union many of those activities turned out to be unprofitable.

The two sleeping volcanoes of Koryaksky and Avachinsky brood over the waterfront of Petropavlovsk
The two sleeping volcanoes of Koryaksky and Avachinsky brood over the waterfront of Petropavlovsk

Tourism is developing in Petropavlovsk, apart from the few cruise ships that visit as part of their repositioning or the handful of exploration vessels that also call in port. What is there to see and do in this far flung outpost? Surprisingly quite a bit, and many are discovering the rich geographic landscape, the hunting and fishing potential and limited winter sports. But for those making a one-day visit by cruise ship, there are still several exciting options, which include:

  • Volcano tours usually by special vehicles that handle off road mountain terrain and deep snow are especially popular. The two great volcanic peaks of Koryaksky (3,456 meters or 11,339 feet) and Avachinsky (2,741 meters or 8,993 feet) located directly behind Petropavlovsk are snow capped year around and potentially quite active. The last minor eruption of Koryaksky was in 2009. They form an absolutely spectacular backdrop for the city, but are not the only volcanic cones visible from the city.
Koryaksky Volcano is the massive and potentially explosive peak that overlooks Petropavlovsk
Koryaksky Volcano is the massive and potentially explosive peak that overlooks Petropavlovsk
Avachinsky Volcano is the smaller of the two massive peaks behind Petropavlovsk
Avachinsky Volcano is the smaller of the two massive peaks behind Petropavlovsk
  • Some cruise lines offer Helicopter tours to the Valley of Geysers or Uzon Volcano, and these are especially breathtaking experiences.
  • Visiting a country dacha is a popular half-day tour for those seeking to see some of the countryside but with less exertion. Tea in a country dacha under the watchful eye of Koryaksky gives one a chance to experience the rural flavor of Kamchatka.
A dramatic view of the many volcanic peaks just south of Petropavlovsk.
A dramatic view of the many volcanic peaks just south of Petropavlovsk.
  • Tours of Petropavlovsk enable the visitor to see a city that is almost arrested in time with its predominance of pre revolutionary single family wood houses and its multitude of Soviet Era apartment blocks. Tours also show visitors the historic old heart of the city that dates back to the time of Vitus Bering in the mid 1700’s. Statues of St. Peter and St. Paul vie with a major statue of Vladimir Lenin as decorative art in the old city center. A new Russian Orthodox Cathedral sits high above the old city and looks out at the twin volcanic peaks.
In the city center of the older part of Petropavlovsk
In the city center of the older part of Petropavlovsk
  • For those seeking local museums, there is the Salmon Museum, the Kamchatka Regional Art Museum, the Geological Museum and the Military-Historical Museum of Military Forces in the North East.
  • Native tribal visits are possible, if your cruise line has arranged it. The local Koryak people live in small villages outside of the city. And they are most welcoming, performing traditional songs and dances in their native costumes, giving guests a chance to learn about the pre Russian indigenous cultures of the region.

And lastly, if the weather is clear, the views of the numerous volcanic cones and mountain crags seen while sailing into or out of Avacha Bay add to the overall sense of majesty of this southern portion of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Although remote and not culturally or historically very stimulating, the dramatic scenery makes a visit to Petropavlovsk meaningful.

Sailing into Avacha Bay in the early morning hours
Sailing into Avacha Bay in the early morning hours

Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch www.doctorlew.com

Also see Russia’s Far East On Silver Discoverer by Ralph Grizzle

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