Wednesday, September 23, 2009

[Travelogue] From Russia with (unexpected) love

Russia wins the prize for the port of call that most exceeded my expectations, and not just because my expectations were set pretty low. We were primed for all sorts of bureaucratic hassles with immigration, but it actually went very smoothly. Nancy and I were cleared to go ashore before we actually ready to go.

Our first impression was not very promising. A fog bank had rolled in, which cast a gloomy pall over the rusty fishing boats in the harbor. We were about a half hour early for our tour so we decided to take a quick walk. It turned out we went the wrong direction. If we had turned right we would have ended up in the town center, but we turned left instead (both directions looked about the same from our vantage point when we made the decision). We ended up doing one of the most unpleasant walks I've ever done, alongside a busy highway filled with old cars that had never even been in close proximity to a catalytic converter. We almost choked to death on the fumes.

We made our way back to the dock, coughing the whole way, and got on the bus. There was some sort of delay because it took another hour before the bulk of the people on the tour actually showed up from the ship. The busses trundled out of town, and we encountered the aftermaths of not one but two car accidents along the way, one fender-bender, and one apparent head-on collision that totaled both vehicles.

Yeah, I know, it all sounds pretty bad. And it was. But then the sun came out, and about fifteen minutes later we were in the countryside in the metaphorical shadow of three spectacular snow-capped volcanoes. All three are active, and little wisps of steam were coming off their tops the whole day. We visited a dog-sledding operation. It was the usual blend of activities for a rural cultural experience: some native dances, lunch, a walk in the woods. But it was all really well done. The dances were actually interesting. We had been told in advance that part of the ritual is that the women make these hooting noises that sound just like seagulls, and that is exactly (and I mean *exactly*) what they sounded like. But in the context of the dancing it didn't sound weird, it made sense in a you-had-to-be-there kind of way. And the lunch (mushroom soup and smoked salmon) was *really* good. Even the beer (made locally) was good, and I don't normally like beer. The people were all really friendly, as were the dogs (Nancy got completely covered with fur). I'm not sure I would rush back to Kamchatka any time soon, but I would certainly not caution people to stay away, as I was pretty sure I was going to do earlier in the day.

I learned, incidentally, that the correct name of the town is actually Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and the accent is on "PAV" not "OVSK". It means "Peter-Paul-town". (Any of you Star Trek fans remember Pavel Chekov? Pavel is Russian for Paul.) There's another Petropavlovsk in Kazakhstan, and they append the "-Kamchatsky" to distinguish it. If you're ever in Eastern Russia I think you could probably do worse. But be sure to turn right.

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