A journey not only into the wilderness, but into the mind.
The small villages sped past in the window: small wooden huts, dusty roads and beautiful orthodox churches, with spires as bright as the sun. We were enjoying a 5-day journey from Irkutsk in Central Russia to Vladivostok in the east on the legendary Trans-Siberian express.
5 days in a train?! Remarkably, it is almost impossible to get bored or frustrated on such a long journey. You would think there is not much to do all day in a train, for five days straight, when actually, it is one of the best travel experiences I have had. The trans-Siberian is full of small adventures, from drinking its trademark tea in early 20th century-styled mugs, to wandering down the train meeting new people from all corners of Russia, the world and walks of life. Travelling by train is the most leisurely of transport methods, looking out of the windows you have time to take in the landscapes and scenes that buzz by, and digest them.
Apart from listening to the persisting ‘tut-tut, tut-tut’ of the rails beneath us, you have the irreplicable midnight encounters as newcomers from obscure Russian stops come to claim their bunks in your cabin. And then there’s the channelling of your inner Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Pushkin, as you see the celebrated Buryat landscapes and Lake Baikal roll past.
"And then there’s the channelling of your inner Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Pushkin, as you see the celebrated Buryat landscapes and Lake Baikal roll past."
But most importantly, these five days gave me the time to read up on the place we were heading to. The Kamchatka peninsula, as it is known, is the easternmost section of Russia, above Japan and on the Pacific Ocean and the sea of Okhotsk. It is largely said to contain the largest bears, one of the smallest populations per sqm, and the world’s most savage wild trout. Which, of course, is why we are heading there.
We boarded the plane in Vladivostok and flew out to Petropavlovsk, the town where 2/3rds of Kamchatka’s inhabitants reside. From here, we took a nightmarish 6-hour bus ride along what can only be described as a “gravel highway from hell”. Trust me, going full speed along gravelled roads in a bus with little-to-no suspension for 6 hours straight is a gauntlet in itself. Of course, you’d be tempted to take regular breaks, stretch your legs, and go to the toilets. And yes, that’s reasonable.
But only if you factor-out the mosquito swarms that devour you as soon as you step outside the bus. And indeed, it was a struggle to keep them exclusively outside the bus during this 6-hour journey. Arguably the most torturous part of this journey was that we really had time to digest how soon we were going to run out of mosquito-repellent.
"Arguably the most torturous part of this 6-hour journey was that we really had time to digest how soon we were going to run out of mosquito-repellent."
Due to previous experiences we had asked our guide Wladimir when organising the trip to ensure 3 things for us. First, that we fish in a place with few/if no mosquitoes. Second, that we fish in a place with little to no signs of human life. And third, that we fish in a place with no bears.
By this time it was already clear that two of those where never going to happen. As soon as we landed a large bear caught our scent and strolled up to us. Here, it is important to note that bears in Kamchatka are not like their cousins in North America. In Alaska we were told to talk to the bears if confronted by one. “Hey bear, hey bear” is the phrase that’s often used.
In Russia, they tell you to fire a flare straight at the bear if confronted by one.
So that’s exactly what happened barely 30 minutes into the beginning of our adventure on the side of the Ozernaja river in Kamchatka. Vlad the Russian bear strolled up to us, at which point we all started chanting “hey bear, hey bear” – only to be interrupted by the ‘bang’ of the flare, fired by our guide straight at the bear.
They say you learn fast in the Wilderness. In Russia, you learn even faster.
"For us, it was the first of many moments of brutal realization that we were truly alone here, and at the mercy of the elements nature would confront us with."
For us, it was the first of many moments of brutal realization that we were truly alone here, and at the mercy of the elements nature would confront us with. No google, no phones or indeed hospitals to help you out when you have a problem. It was a moment that brought us down-to-earth after a few days of travel during which we discovered the mystique of Russian culture.
Out in the wilderness, this mystique was replaced by the beautiful yet deceiving façade of nature, which beneath it had a brutality and unforgiveness about it that could very well be fatal.
To be continued.