The Russian Revolution

Crossing the world's biggest country iby train, plane, reindeer, and foot, Outside's adventure scout uncovers a wilderness of opportunity

Mar 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

VLADIMIR MIKHAILOVICH SHIPOV was pumped. For the past seven hours, the Chelyabinsk lawyer and climber had led me up slopes of shifting rock to the 5,577-foot summit of Medved Gora ("Bear Mountain"), in Siberia's Barguzin Mountains. About 4,000 feet below, Frolikha Lake sported water so clear, I could read the contours of its bathymetry. Beyond was the unnamed pass we'd crossed, pack reindeer carrying the rafts we'd paddle down the Frolikha River to Lake Baikal, the world's deepest inland sea.

Now, on this hot August evening, Vlad bounded across the ridge to give me a hearty Soviet backslap. He put a match to an ancient smoke flare, which he'd brought to signal our success to friends below, and held it aloft. With his bare chest, camo cutoffs, and Lawrence of Arabia headgear, he looked like a parody of Lady Liberty. I was staring mesmerized at the erratic pfft coming from the brown-paper cylinder when—bang!—a deafening flash of smoke-filled light erupted. Vlad stood staring down at his charred palm.

That's Russia for you: One minute you're on top of the world; the next, you're on fire. Was this country really ready for Western adventurers, I wondered as I bandaged Vlad's hand. And were we ready for it?

Nearly twice the size of the United States, with just over half the population and eleven time zones of wilderness, Russia has emerged as one of the world's few remaining adventure frontiers. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1991, only a few very lucky outsiders had sampled mad Siberian whitewater or climbed in the Altay Mountains, and all of them had returned with stories of no-limits adventure and bighearted hosts. When the Iron Curtain fell, Westerners rushed in, starting an adventure renaissance that, like everything else in this fledgling capitalist state, has emerged in fits and starts.

To assess the current state of play, my wife, Rosy, and I spent three months crossing Russia, from the mountains of the Caucasus to the volcanoes of Kamchatka. We traveled by plane, train, car, raft, reindeer, and foot, often for days on end. We slept in lodges, tents, and apartments, and our new friends even sent the kids to Grandma's to make room.

On the following pages are our picks for Russia's top ten adventure hot spots. What we discovered is a vast playground waiting for those who don't mind a fair dose of chaos with their wide-open tundra. Russia, gloriously, is not for the faint of heart. In Kamchatka, our guides were first-class. In the Altays, they got lost—and then hypothermic. Food was fresh-caught salmon one night, three tins of sardines for 17 trekkers the next. But our pre-trip worries—ethnic violence, the mafia, political unrest—evaporated as Russia unfolded a heady mix of warm hospitality, a nonstop adrenaline drip, and the odd vodka binge. Best of all, I discovered something I'd enjoyed as a boy in the Rockies but had thought was lost forever: miles and miles of untrammeled country.

That's not to say miles of untrammeled, pristine country. The Cold War may have kept Russia a blank spot on the Western map, but Soviet demands for resources left little time for something so frivolous as the environment, and no traveler can fail to miss the signs: On the Kola Peninsula, a nickel-processing plant emits clouds of sulfur dioxide. In Siberia, industrial waste flows into Lake Baikal. Ironically, Westerners, and our adventure-tourism dollars, are now among the best hopes for preserving wilderness in a country we'd threatened to annihilate for decades. How the world turns.

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