Untapped Frontiers

Lake Baikal, the Sayan Mountains, Kamchatka, and the Commander and Kuril Islands

Mar 1, 2004
Outside Magazine
Lake Froliha

Casting into the dawn on Lake Froliha    Photo: Hafis Remi/Courtesy, Kamchatintour

NEARLY 400 MILES LONG, 5,700 feet deep, and holding one-fifth of the freshwater on earth, Lake Baikal has long been a favorite stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The southern end is by far the most accessible: Irkutsk, a cosmopolitan city of more than half a million, is 45 miles from the lake, where outfitters run hiking, sea-kayaking, or cycling trips up the southwest coast to Olkhon Island's mountain-bike-perfect grasslands and sheltered (but frigid) diving waters. In winter, the resort town of Baikalsk, at the lake's southern end, offers 1,800 vertical feet of lift-served runs—popular with big shots like President Vladimir Putin—as well as backcountry chutes overlooking the lake. Northern Lake Baikal is a different story: One of the most remote areas in Siberia, it is a free-for-all of trekking, biking, climbing, and skiing. It's an adventure scene in its infancy, as we found on our reindeer-packing and rafting trip into the Barguzin Mountains, a place that sees few Western visitors.
Frontier Factor: 2 (southern end), 4 (northern end)—Fickle weather, unreliable transportation, and a dearth of guides make northern adventures much sketchier.
Getting There—It's a 75-hour train trip to Irkutsk from Moscow, and 72 from Vladivostok, so fly in from Moscow ($300; Siberia Airlines, english.s7.ru). Fly to Severobaikalsk from Irkutsk, or take the train ($44; 35 hours from Irkutsk or six days from Moscow). In summer, a hydrofoil makes the 11-hour trip across the lake from Irkutsk ($35-$60; www.eastland.ru).
Outfitters—In southern Lake Baikal, contact BaikalComplex ([email protected], www.baikalcomplex.irk.ru) or Sputnik Baikal (www.sputnikbaikal.ru). Rashit Yahin, of BAMTours ($30 per day per guide; [email protected]), operates in northern Lake Baikal.

RISING NEARLY 12,000 FEET, the snowy Sayans fold like a crumpled blanket from the southern end of Lake Baikal northwest along the Mongolian border. Once nicknamed "Little Tibet" as much for their topography as for their Buddhist temples, the Sayans are home to the cattle-herding Buryat, who still summer in yurts and—as you'll see if you join a horse trek through Buryatia—are demons in the saddle. For climbing, head to the Tunka Valley, 95 miles southwest of Irkutsk, where multipitch granite walls can be reached via a one-day hike from Arshan, a 150-year-old resort town with mineral springs. Russians have also put up 5.12 routes on 7,429-foot Svezdny Pik, 300 air miles to the west. Paddlers will find Class IV whitewater on the Oka and Kyzyl-Khem rivers, while trekkers can explore the Shumak, or Valley of One Hundred Springs, a five-day loop from the village of Nylova Pustyn.
Frontier Factor: 3—As rough as these mountains get, there are lots of warm springs to soothe aching muscles. Roads from Irkutsk makes the Sayan region fairly accessible.
Getting There—Irkutsk is served by flights from a host of Russian cities ($300 from Moscow, an eight-hour flight) or by train from Moscow (75 hours, and only slightly cheaper). From Irkutsk, catch a bus to Ashran ($12; four hours) or Orlik ($15; eight hours).
Outfitters—Irkutsk adventurer Youry Nemirovsky, of BaikalComplex ([email protected], www.baikalcomplex.irk.ru), runs 12-day horse treks through Buryatia ($840) and rafting trips on the Oka River. Omsk, Siberia-based K2 Adventures ([email protected], extreme.k2.omsknet.ru/eng) offers an 11-day rafting trip on the Oka for $830.

WITHIN MISSLE RANGE of North America, the Kamchatka Peninsula and its 200 volcanoes were closed until 1991. International mountaineers formed the first wave of tourists, followed quickly by the Western hook-and-bullet crowd in search of salmon and Kamchatkan brown bear. Even so, foreign visitors are still rare, rising from 7,465 in 2001 to about 8,000 last year. Hard to believe if you've ever sampled its fresh salmon caviar and snappy cedar-nut-flavored vodka. Fishing for salmon and arctic char on the Bystraya River is a must, but for a real treat, fly to the isolated Zhuponova, on the east coast. Guides are recommended in Kamchatka, due to hazards like closed military zones, bears, falling rocks, and—as we found on the crater rim of 8,990-foot Avachinsky volcano—paper-thin crust covering scalding mud.
Frontier Factor: 3—Adventure can be as tame as a climb up Mount Hood or as rough as a survival hike through the Yukon. We saw little sign of the Kamchatka of the nineties, reportedly a hotbed of mafia corruption; indeed, the region's hub, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, or PK, seemed one of Russia's safest cities.
Getting There—Anchorage-based Magadan Airlines makes the four-hour flight to PK weekly ($1,300 round-trip; 907-248-2994, [email protected]). Thrice-daily flights from Moscow take nine hours ($450; Transaero, www.transaero.ru); from Vladivostok, it's a three-hour flight ($270 round-trip; Vladivostok Airlines, www.vladavia.ru).
Outfitters—Kamchatka's outfitters offer English-speaking guides and better meals and accommodations than elsewhere in Russia. For trekking and rafting, try Kamchatintour ([email protected], www.kamchatintour.ru); for fishing, Vulkan Tours ([email protected], www.kamchattour.com/eng.html); and for mountaineering, The Climb ([email protected], www.kamchatkaclimb.ru/english).

SOME OF RUSSIA'S WILDEST regions are those most accessible from America's West Coast. The Commander Islands, 120 miles east of Kamchatka, are the farthest extension of the Aleutian archipelago, some 1,800 miles southwest of Anchorage. Scuba divers make exploratory dives alongside sea otters and sea lions. In the volcanic Kuril Islands, between Kamchatka and Japan, travelers hike up 9,000-foot volcanoes, sea-kayak with gray whales, and dive in crystal-clear lagoons. All of this is served up amid eerie reminders of a history as volatile as the landscape: encampments long abandoned by the indigenous Ainu, villages wiped out by tsunamis, and a secret Soviet submarine base on Simushir Island—built in 1972 and abandoned in 1991—entered via a tiny channel into a volcanic caldera.
Frontier Factor: 3—You'll likely be on an outfitter's ship, so no matter how wild your day, you'll return to a cold beer and a warm bunk.
Getting There—A nine-hour flight from Moscow ($450; Transaero, www.transaero.ru) takes you to PK. From Alaska, Magadan Airlines ($1,300 round-trip; 907-248-2994, [email protected]) flies to PK weekly. Independent travelers can try catching an unreliable ferry to the Kurils, either from PK to the northern island of Paramushir or from Hokkaido to the southern island of Kunashir. Outfitters are your ticket to the Commanders.
Outfitters—Local operator Sergey Frolov (206-784-8701, www.siberianadventures.com) offers sea-kayaking and diving trips on the 120-foot Tyfun, a former rescue ship, and Kamchatintour (www.kamchatintour.ru) offers similar expeditions.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web