THIS WILDERNESS, reaching 500 miles north from St. Petersburg to the Arctic Circle, is a Tolkienesque land of ancient birch forests dotted with 60,000 lakesincluding Ladoga and Onega, Europe's largest. Thanks to post-Soviet urban migration, it's also filled with ghost villagesporches leading to nonexistent houses, bushes heavy with fruit, and a silence punctuated only by whining mosquitoes. Into this netherworld has come an adventure revolution led by paddlers, mountain bikers, and Russian climbers, who work the granite outcrops 180 feet above Yastrebinoe Lake. Kayakers boat the Class II-III Shuya or the Class V Vuoksi, site of last August's inaugural inflatable-doll race. Contestants praised the dolls to the newspaper Pravda for being "nice to touch," "floating wonderfully," and "not wanting to get married."
Frontier Factor (1-5): 1You'll face bloodthirsty insectsor rejection from a doll.
Getting ThereTrain service runs from St. Petersburg to Petrozavodsk, a welcoming city on Onega Lake ($75 for a second-class sleeper; six hours). Outfitters can arrange four-wheel-drive transportation to the village of Priozersk, three hours north of St. Petersburg.
OutfittersContact St. Petersburg-based outfitter Top Sport Travel ([email protected], www.slope.ru); or try Geographic Bureau ([email protected], www.geographicbureau.com) for 14-day bike trips for $1,265.
*2| KOLA PENINSULA*
ALTHOUGH EACH SUMMER a trickle of Russian alpinists, hikers, and fishermen roam the 320-mile-long Kola Peninsula, east of Finland between the White and Barents seas, this traditional home of Sami reindeer herders has been open to foreigners only since the early nineties. Yet to be discovered is a labyrinth of mountain-bike-ready four-wheel-drive tracks (left by post-World War II geological expeditions) and virgin 2,000-foot bowls in copter- or skins-accessed backcountry. Prefer the lifts? The freestyle-skiing mecca of Kirovsk offers long, inexpensive runs. Wherever you are, beware rugged conditions: Inspecting two memorial plaques bolted to rocks in the Kola's compact Khibiny Mountains, our guide announced, "This one is for four skiers, killed when the slope below us avalanched. And this one, he froze in a stormright here!"
Frontier Factor: 2It's not hard to get to the Kola, but the sheer number of memorials is testimony to its Arctic storms.
Getting ThereMurmansk, the Kola's largest city, is a six-hour flight from Moscow, or three from St. Petersburg ($100; Pulkovo Aviation, eng.pulkovo.ru). From there, catch a train to the former mining town and gulag site of Apatity ($7; three to five hours), then bus 12 more miles to Kirovsk.
OutfittersTop Sport Travel (www.slope.ru) offers ten-day cross-country ski trips for $790. Geographic Bureau (www.geographicbureau.com) runs a 15-day Khibiny trek for $985.
STRETCHING FROM the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, on Russia's southern border, the Caucasus Mountains are the Alps on steroids: 730 miles of glaciated peaks, among them 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest point. In recent years, terrorism in Chechnya has cast a pall over Russia's favorite adventure destination, but it hasn't stanched the flow of visitors, who chill in the cozy ski village of Terskol, the base for Elbrus climbs, or head to the Bezengi Wall, a 7.5-mile-long massif spiked with three 16,000-foot summits. In the western Caucasus, Dombay is your base for skiing and climbing. Postadventure, unwind like the czars did, soaking in hot springs in the resort towns of Kislovodsk and Pyatigorsk.
Frontier Factor: 4The range straddles the boundaries of Chechnya, Ossetia, and Dagestanall areas plagued by ethnic unrest. Although Russian travelers point out the isolated nature of the violence, the U.S. State Department warns against travel to the Caucasus, Chechnya, and its border areas. Stick to the resorts, and travel with caution.
Getting ThereFrom Moscow, there are regular flights ($100; Aeroflot, www.aeroflot.com), trains ($55 for a second-class sleeper; 30 hours), and buses ($50) to Mineralnye Vody, the region's northern gateway. Then it's a six-hour bus trip to Dombay, or three to Terskol.
OutfittersMany Russian outfitters offer trips to the Caucasus. For mountaineering and trekking, try Top Sport Travel (www.slope.ru). Pilgrim Tours ([email protected], www.pilgrim-tours.com) is also a good bet.