Thursday, August 19, 2010

Magadan - Khabarovsk - Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky

I wound up my wonderful week in Magadan with a private performance at the music school and a session repairing the guitar hero drum kit of my couch surfing host. To my relief the repair went perfectly and we spent many fine hours playing the best of western pop!

Next morning I went through the familiar ritual of packing and saying goodbye to people I have bonded with and will probably never see again. But one can hope. Took a bus to the airport, where security was pretty interesting. Luggage was thrown into the truck by hand, then driven through heavy rain to the plane, where it was also loaded by hand. Wall was decorated with stamped metal sheets commemorating events and locations in Russia. Several planes of defunct airlines were parked on the grass nearby, their rear engines and drooping wings (in the Soviet style) looking both sad and menacing at the same time. In the departure lounge I met another Australian (the third for this trip!), a geophysicist who was doing work at Cupol, where apparently the ore grade is as good as 28g/T in places, meaning the extraction cost is about $340/ounce, and the market price is around $1200/ounce. Like a gold mine! Apparently their capacity of 1000T a day of ore is unspectacular - some other mines manage as much as 20000T/day. Hooray.

The flight had a great view of the tops of clouds, some coast lines, secret military installations, the enormous Amur river (joined by the Ussuri river at Khabarovsk), and about 20 uniformed and face-masked troops sitting at the back of the plane.

In Khabarovsk I found a Cser with 2 very cute kittens, chatted, walked around the city, and slept the night. The next morning after a brief walk, more talking, and farewells I had to depart - one of my quickest couch surfs ever (mainly because of difficulties in getting plane tickets). Back at the airport things went much more smoothly. I had a lunch of chocolate and apple juice (probably a little high on sugar), and passed security without a blip. This was regarded as suspicious (I had even removed my belt buckle), so I was frisked by one very lucky Olga! Back to the plane, which also had excellent food (kudos Vladivostok Air!), more secret military installations, and a flight to Kamchatka over Sakhalin Island, which I've heard is very beautiful, but looked green and flat from way up high. I've heard the main hobby of people on the island is to make home-made gliders and test them by being dragged behind jeeps. Frequent crashes and broken bones!

The plane cruised over Kamchatka. Kamchatka resembles a flint spear point thrust into the Pacific Ocean, and is quite young (only 4 million years). Somewhat similar geographically to New Zealand, it has the highest density of active volcanoes of almost anywhere on the planet. Which is why I'm here! The plane cruised past two biggies, Koryaksky and Avachinsky, landed at the airport, and we disembarked (by bus, of course). Waited for luggage and just watched these two mountains. Only 30kms or so from the city, both are active. Koryaksky is currently in an eruptive phase, and Avachinsky erupts about once every 10 years, last in 2001. One can hope :). Avachinsky is about 2700m, Koryaksky 3456m, but both their summets were hidden by layers of clouds, as their flanks were covered in forest stripes with lava flows. This place is as close as one can get to heaven. One might even say the edge of the world, where some bits are still in pieces!

Took a bus into the city to Avacha hotel, a place with 5 star prices and 3 star standards, but a cheap dinner, clean room, comfortable bed, 47 channels on TV (one in English - Russia Today, but basically propaganda), and two Caterpillar reps from South Africa, with whom I had a good chat. Shower, food, clean clothes! Hooray. Also waiting for me at Avacha hotel (which was an enormous pain to organise) was a postal ballot for the Australian federal election, which I duly completed (voting below the line for the senate, of course!), enveloped, and posted the following morning. I read (at 8pm, when I recieved the delivery), that the outgoing envelope must be post marked on or before the 18th of August, which was the same day. Obviously this was impossible, but I pointed out in my letter (in which I had to explain why no Australian could witness the procedure) that I was unfairly close to the wrong side of the international date line and that this would be posted while it was still the 18th on more than half of the world. If Russian post even works at all. Hypothetically, I could have chartered a plane to Anchorage... ;P.

Next morning I woke early, ate breakfast (included in the $150/night bill), posted the letter, and tried to get in touch with a couch surfer's father. Said Cser, Denis, is out of the city but promised to lend me his flat. Neither he nor his father (who had the key) spoke English, so it was an adventure. But in time for the checkout it was all organised (with the help of a friend who speaks English, admittedly - though I would like to think my Russian contributed only 50% of the difficulty - the remainder being the fact that my phone's speaker is less than functional...) and I have the run of a flat for 2 weeks, free of charge. I was pretty embarassed by this generousity and good fortune, but then Denis' mother Nina handed me two shopping bags full of groceries and insisted I was too skinny. Now it's nearly midnight and I look forward to eating something, but am too busy completing a blog update!

In the meantime I met an English speaker randomly on the street who offered to show me the best places in the city (and saved me a big walk up the central hill), for an awesome view of the entire city nestled between extinct cinder cones and the distant peaks of Koryaksky and Avachinsky, the bay, the river delta, the port, the closed city and volcano of Vilyunchinsky across the bay, and on the horizon Mutnovsky, yet another volcano famed for unique sulfer formations in the crater.

In the evening Denis' friend Roman and I walked around the square and 'lover's hill', skimmed some rocks, and watched an awe-inspiring sunset before returning to the flat for tea. This place is unreal! I thought maybe I saved Kamchatka for last for financial reasons (helicopters are not cheap), but now realise I saved the best for last. I often thought Scarborough (north of Wollongong) or Sydney's northern beaches could be improved by the addition of a few stratovolcanoes, and here's a place that offers a pretty good idea of what that would be like. So, people, start digging!

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