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 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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch www.doctorlew.com
Also see Russia’s Far East On Silver Discoverer by Ralph Grizzle