A vista forged by volcanoes and a history swept up in Cold War hostility, Kamchatka is a place best experienced by bike
"Kamchatka makes you feel like an explorer," says Tobias Woggon when contemplating the Russian peninsula often labeled one of the least populated and remote corners of Earth. A landscape carved by active volcanoes, thermal springs, and geysers—it has only recently opened up to the world after 50 years of Soviet military zone restrictions.
During the Cold War, the political leaders of the Soviet Union feared that America could invade Russia from Alaska through the narrow Bering Sea. When the Soviet regime fell in 1991, so did the expectation of an invasion on Kamchatka. Travel is now permitted, but decades of zero infrastructure investment have made it notoriously hard for touring unless travel on a bike. Spread over a landmass larger than Germany, there are 29 active volcanoes and arguably one of the biggest concentrations of bears in the world. The ratio of humans to bears is just 20:1, meaning there are roughly 18,000 of them.
Majestic mountain ranges that peak at 4,750 meters and a biodiverse environment amongst the richest in the world make Kamchatka is a natural wonder. A striking backdrop coupled in a post-Soviet military setting has refashioned this region into an explorers paradise. Although there is no developed network of trails or routes, mountain bikes are permitted across the countryside. All tracks suitable for biking have to be climbed carrying the bike on your back. But after you climb the mountain, the riding possibilities are endless, explains Woggon in Nordic Cycle. Widespread public interest in this former military zone has put Kamchatka in the eyesight of adventure seekers, although a journey here is more complicated than others. Setting the scene for this vast wilderness during the September sun, German-native Woggon reflects on his journey and biking through active volcanoes.
"The most important destination on our Russian sightseeing tour is Tolbachik, a picturesque and imposing 3,682-meter high volcano in the north of the region. The destination would be the grand finale of our trip. As an intrepid explorer, I had a burning desire to watch the sunrise behind this impressive mountain. While researching the trip, this wish burrowed within me and became non-negotiable.
It was mid-September, the weather was getting noticeably chillier and more unpredictable. But luckily, there were a few days of good weather in the forecast, so we decided to take the chance and head towards Tolbachik. We wanted to spend over a week in the region around the volcano. The remote location was a few hours away from the nearest supermarket and even further away from the next hotel. Therefore, we needed to prepare holistically and bring everything from mountaineering gear to food provisions and safety equipment. The air was full of excitement and trepidation for all those souls who never witnessed the power of an active volcano.
Just before we left the camp, our chief guide Alex informed us that the first stage of our hike would take approximately eight hours to reach the first campground. But from our journey so far, I learned to add another three hours to his estimation. After hours of hiking, the forest began to grow lighter. I started to smell sulfur: bitter and rotten. Through the trees, we could see the edge of the lava fields, the sections that ate their way down through the woods during the massive eruptions of 1976.
On we trek through woodland until the landscape begins to become more open, sparse, and hauntingly eerie. An hour later, we were standing in the middle of a lava field, where dead gnarled trees thrust out from blackened soil. The trees were desiccated, dried out by the hot air of the volcano that blew down into the valley during the eruption. Now, these trees serve as a fortification for our basecamp. Unfortunately, extreme weather conditions held us captive there for three days. The weather fluctuated enormously. It either rained cats and dogs, or it was so foggy that there was nothing to see but the volcanoes around us. Although we made small bike trips to go exploring, the rides were more for mental health and to keep spirits high.
We desperately wanted to climb up the volcano nearest the camp to get a good view of Tolbachik. The downhill ride from there by bike was going to be difficult but not impossible. That night, we were full of hope and went to bed early to get up before sunrise the next day. The sky was starry as we packed up our things and set off to the volcano.
As our headlamps flickered, the treacherous terrain under our feet made conditions highly dangerous. We carried our bikes up the steep ascent along the arduous paths, which lead us to impassable scenes of natural beauty. I saw, in that hazy twilight, the first outlines of the snow-covered Tolbachik become visible: white and majestic, the cone-shaped volcano. At last, to behold the gigantic structure that had drawn us to the east of Russia finally began to rise above the black landscape of cooled lava. We reached the summit just before sunrise. Soon after, I placed my bike down and realized the sun would soon appear behind the mighty mountain.
My body felt deep anticipation, electricity pulsating through me as I absorbed this incredible moment. During this interval of time, I reflected on everything that had led up to this moment. The months of preparation, bureaucracy, and setbacks of the journey itself had put a strain on me. Relentless cold nights in the tent and long days in the uncomfortable Kamaz, all for this moment to watch the dawn come against the backdrop of those great mountains. We undertook this journey by ourselves. Standing there in that moment, at the edge of a lava desert with a view of the snowy Tolbachik on one side and the far-away Pacific Ocean on the other, there was wilderness as far as the eye could see. Time slowed down as we felt that sunrise and the pride in our journey to get to that point. I will always remember sitting perched on my bike in front of that incredible scenery.
Until that morning, it wasn't clear to us if we would even be able to see the mountain at sunrise. To then stand following an adventure-filled journey of four weeks and know that we had reached our destination, we paused for a moment. The first sun rays flashed over the horizon, and as quick as flash off we went.”