What a wonderful world
At last it was time to check in for our flight to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski. This time, our excess baggage cost ‘only’ 7000 Rouble – a special price. When boarding the plane, one could still recognize where the Soviet flag – with hammer and sickle – had been on the body. Somehow, the Russian markings seemed temporary. When we were settled in the plane, the departure time passed without anything happening. We couldn’t understand the Russian announcements, and the crew’s English pretty poor. About two hours later, we finally rolled onto the runway and the Iljushin – which was full almost to the last seat – set course in the direction of the far east of Russia, to Kamchatka. The flight was to take 8 hours. The time difference to Central Europe is +11 hours.
still in Germany,
we had told Martha that we would arrive in Petropavlovsk on 4 August,
When Martha picked us up at the airport, she told us that she had actually expected us the previous day. At first, we said we were sure we had not made a mistake and had arrived when we said we would. Later, we noticed that we had, in fact, miscalculated by a day. It was already 5 August and not, as we thought, the 4th of August. So for then, we could only go for a short walk through Jelizovo.
That was why we caught the bus to Milkovo the next day. The next morning, we were very nervous - the bus was to leave at 9.30 hrs, and our watches showed 9 o’clock. However, it was really only 8 a.m. – we had set our watches incorrectly the previous day. Martha’s husband took us – complete with all our luggage – to the bus station. Although we speak almost no Russian and he spoke just as little English, we managed to communicate – using hands and feet. He bade us farewell with a hearty embrace.
Unfortunately, we had to disappoint the old woman who wanted to start a conversation with us while we were waiting for the bus. We couldn’t understand her. Our fears that we would not recognize the right bus proved unfounded – our knowledge of the Cyrillic letters was enough for this. A bigger problem was to find a place for all our luggage. What didn’t fit in the luggage compartment of the bus had to go in the aisle.
The journey to Milkovo took about four hours. The first 100 kilometres, and the last thirty, of the road are surfaced – between these, there is a dry dust track, on which people drive and overtake at breakneck speed. One can see oncoming traffic fairly soon – as a cloud od dust!
Milkovo is not directly on the river, but 10 – 20 km further. I noticed that we crossed the bridge over the Kamchatka, but our Russian was not good enough to tell the bus driver that we wanted to get out there.
That was why, a few minutes later, together with all of our luggage, we were standing in the centre of Milkovo. Here, there was a small supermarket (Магазин) and a ‘pub`, of the old Soviet type. But how could we get to the river?
Somehow, we managed to make two men who had been on the same bus as us understand where we wanted to go. They stopped a car (a Lada) and, in a lot of words, explained our problem to the driver. After a look at our luggage, he said he would have to see his friend, but he would be back in about a quarter of an hour and would help us.
We stood there and hoped that we had understood everything correctly. It was rather hot that afternoon and the little old lady (Бабужка) who was looking after the pub and the toilets took good care of us.
After about 20 minutes, two cars did in fact come. We loaded all our luggage into them. Annette got in one car, I in the other, and we drove back to the bridge over the Kamchatka. On the bridge, there is a traffic police checkpoint, where all cars are stopped and controlled. We turned off the road before this and drove in the direction of the river bank. There we unloaded our luggage, thanked our helpers in our rudimentary Russian, plus a few rouble notes.
Our helpers had only just vanished, leaving us alone by the river, when the ‘arm of the law’ – which had, of course, observed the whole procedure, appeared and wanted to see our papers. Our passports, visas, and registration forms were all in order, and the police asked us about our plans, which we tried to explain to them. As the boats had not yet been put together, we could only explain very roughly.
After the tent had been set up and our things stowed away, Annette made herself comfortable in the tent and I started to assemble the boats. I succeeded in doing so quite easily and quickly. The stinging, biting and sucking insects of Kamchatka soon proved that they were specially obnoxious and mean. Some of the beasts repeatedly managed to get under the mosquito nets. In the first few hours, I killed hundreds of them, but there still seemed to be just as many. We had refrained from bringing anti-mosquito spray and relied on the mosquito nets. This is a mistake in Kamchatka.
In the course of the afternoon, a young woman came by and wanted to sell us fish. I felt that, under the Milkovo bridge, there was little danger of bears. However, when she came back, the promised fish turned out to be caviar. Much as we like fish, neither Annette nor I like caviar, but it was not easy to make Russians understand this. For them, caviar is the greatest. They even throw the fish away. I had difficulty explaining to the woman, Tanja, that – although I would have liked fish, I definitely did not want caviar. She had only caviar, so there was no sale.
In the meantime, the weather had become sultry and thundery. The mosquitos were becoming more and more of a problem. I had to take refuge in the tent, so there was nothing to eat that evening. During the night, and the next morning, it was raining. We decide to remain ‘in the care of the police’ for another day. My arms and legs were badly swollen and burning. In the course of the day, we packed most things in the canoe bags. As we also had our backpacks, we also had to find room for these in the boats.
The next morning – just as I was getting breakfast, an older police officer came and invited us to have tea, or coffee, with him. I told him we would come later. However, our ideas of time seemed to differ. While we were eating breakfast in the tent (because of the mosquitos), he came again. We took our pictorial dictionary and our phrase book with us. I also put our passports in the inner pocket of my fleecy jacket. We were given a very warm welcome and we tried to make ourselves understood in one way or another. While drinking coffee, we all decided that our phrase book (picture dictionary) was useless. But somehow we managed – using hands and feet. After the police had kindly provided us with anti-mosquito spray, we finally got on with packing. By about 12.30 hrs, we had everything stowed in and on the kayaks. One could say these were ‘heavily loaded’.
When I pushed Annette’s boat into the water, I found that the water soon became very deep, so I had to turn my boat round and get in with it against the current. When I was sitting, I remembered that the fleecy jacket was lying behind me, so I threw it down between my legs. Here, the river flowed rather fast – a measurement, using GPS, gave a speed of ca. 7 – 8 km/h. This meant that, using the paddles, we reached a speed of 10 – 11 km/h. The bears that Annette thought she had seen were not visible with our binoculars. Perhaps they had already moved on. The otter or beaver which was swimming, against the current, near the bank was too fast for us to follow it with the glasses.
In places, the river surged and gurgled around tree trunks, branches and other obstacles in the water. One had to watch out like hell! The current was rather strong.
On some of the sandbanks, we saw men fishing from rubber dinghies. From the river, one couldn’t see the houses of Milkovo, but the smoke plume from the coal-fired power plant accompanied us for several hours. The next, and last, bridge over the Kamchatka isn’t until Dolinovka. Gradually, we became accustomed to the rhythm of the river. Here, obstacles could be heard from quite a distance away. However, the river demanded one’s continuous attention. Where had I already read something similar? Oh, yes, in a description of the Yukon River, on which I took a trip in 1997. But, at that time, the Yukon was running so little water that there was no danger. On a sandbank, where we took a short break, we saw the first bear tracks – but there were no signs of bears. Well, we didn’t want to frighten them, and we were not particularly anxious to have to get off to a quick start.
On a gravel bank in a right bend, I get too far into the shallows. The current drags the boat over stones. That can be dangerous in a collapsible boat. I certainly can’t do with a hole in the skin of the boat just now. I have to get out, in order to get the boat into deeper water again. When I’m sitting in the boat again and can breathe freely, I notice a lot of driftwood, coming directly towards me. I was just one stroke of the paddle too late. The boot tilts, and then capsizes. As I do not have a spray-cover, I more or less fall out of the boat. Coughing and spluttering, I come to the surface again and try to swim out of the main current, to the bank. Breathing heavily, I manage to grasp a branch and to pull myself – hand over hand – towards the bank. It is about 15.15 hrs. A fisherman who saw me asked something and I answered ‘yes’, then he paddled on. I stand there. I have no idea where Annette is at this moment. I only know that she was in her kayak, in front of me. I wait. Was my boat pressed down under the wood? I can’t see it anywhere. The river divides into two arms here. Which is the right one, down which did Annette continue to paddle?
At about 16 hrs, I made a decision – which turned out to be the wrong one – and followed the left arm of the river. This afternoon must have been a big feast for the mosquitos. While walking, I remembered that our passports were in my fleecy jacket. Oh hell! Without papers in a country like Russia! At about 18 hrs, I met a fisherman, who explained to me that I had gone the wrong way. First, he took me in his boat to the other bank, then to where he hid his boat in the woods. After that, he took me in his car to the police in Milkovo.
There, after several telephone calls which I could not understand, the fishery inspector was contacted – and he took it into his hands to continue the search. Luckily, he spoke English reasonably well. By about 8 p.m., the large rubber boat had been inflated, the outboard motor mounted and adjusted, so we could put the boat into the water. Now, with very different light conditions, it was not too easy to find the place where I had capsized. Suddenly, on another gravel bank, we saw Annette’s boat pulled up – but there was no sign of Annette. The fishery inspector and I got out, the others carried on. Then the fishery inspector discovered a group of three persons on the opposite bank and directed the boat to them. A little later, they returned – with Annette (and my boat). I was extremely happy to see Annette again.
This is my description of what happened. Read Annette’s version, as written in our travel diary, and compare them:
‘I saw that Reinhold had drifted too far in the direction of the sandbank and had problems in getting back into more rapidly flowing water. However, I was in the main stream, so it was impossible for me to do anything without the risk of capsizing. In front of me was an enormous log barrier, which reduced the river to a third of its width, dammed it, and made the current extremely strong. Directly behind the logs, I paddled into the backwater and waited for Reinhold. But he didn’t come, so his problem must have been relatively serious. After some time, I got out, grabbed hold of my bear bell and wanted to walk along the sandbank. Just at that moment, Reinhold’s capsized kayak drifted along in the main stream. I panicked – immediately, I jumped into my boat. The first attempt to push off failed (I was on a sandbank). Out of the boat, drop the fleece and the bear bell, a new attempt to start and follow Reinhold’s boat. This time, all went well – three hundred metres down stream, I succeeded in getting hold of Reinhold’s boat and pushing it in the direction of the bank. In desperation, I tried to turn it over. My spray-cover was open and in no time my boat was full of water. I couldn’t prevent it from capsizing. Getting out was quite easy but the current forced me under Reinhold’s kayak. I managed to dive under the boat and pull myself – on branches – towards the bank. The fisherman, who had seen Reinhold, came by in a rubber dinghy. I had to swim the last three metres to the bank. The man pulled Reinhold’s boat out of the river, together, we pulled it up onto the bank and emptied it. (…)
Further up the river, we could see a red boat and men – was this help? The boat came up to us, there were men in uniform on it, we loaded our gear onto the boat and it started. In the boat, the police officer said ‘your husband is alive’ and then he was standing there on the sandbank. (…).’
By the time that first our gear and then we had been taken back to Milkovo, an interpreter was waiting. We were given a room in the Dolina Hotel for the night. On the way to the hotel, we had a short tour with the Lenin Memorial and the ‘Street of Victory’. After we had checked in, the interpreter ‘organized’ some bread, cheese and beer from the supermarket next to the hotel. However, we didn’t sleep much that night – the shock was still too deep-rooted in us.
The next morning, at ten o’clock, we were picked up by our interpreter Michail. Again we went to the fishery inspector. The search for my fleecy jacket - and the passports – had been unsuccessful.
The inspector took a break from his work in order to go with us to the local history museum, so we did not become bored with having to wait around. The guided tour there was in Russian, using a pointer, and Michail translated into English. Among other things in the museum, there was the office of the kolchose director – with a picture of Stalin on the wall. Then we went back to the office, the long wait got on our nerves. As both cameras had also got water in them, we wanted to look for replacements in Petropavlovsk. Also, Martha had copies of our passports there. So we took the twelve o’clock bus (which was luckily a bit late) to Petropavlovsk.
On arrival in Petropavlovsk, we first wanted to phone Martha. We soon found a public telephone – but it only worked with a telephone card. Only after a longer search were we able to buy a telephone card in a kiosk and, after several attempts, we also managed to use it to call Martha.
After we had told Martha our story, she first made several phone calls. She explained to us that it was essential that we went to certain offices the next day, and that, until now, we had been extremely lucky. In Russia, papers are still very important. From her, we learned that two Germans who had capsized on the Avancha River had been flown back to Germany immediately. But we were still there and we wanted to go back to the river, because the second part of our river trip – from Kozyrevsk to Ust-Kamchatsk, with our guide Slava – was to start on 16 August.
The next day, our first visit was to the Lost Property Office in Petropavlovsk. Martha had arranged for us to have an interpreter – and we must admit that, without her, we would have been rather helpless. With the certificate confirming our loss, we then went to the Passport and Visa Office. However, it was not possible to go there the same day, as the Lost Property Office, a minute cubby-hole with bars, behind which there was a man in uniform – instead of a watchdog, he had a watchcat – was only open from 17 – 18 hrs daily. The Confirmation of Loss was ca. 10 x 10cm in size and cost us 100 Rouble. The visit to the Passport and Visa Office - with Lena, the manager of Diligans, the next day – was not so pleasant at first. We were threatened with an earlier return home, as Lena tried to explain to us (in Russian) and our interpreter in English. After that, we were rather discouraged. However, that evening we received the news, from Martha, that it would be possible for us to stay until 3 September, as planned. We then decided to phone the German Embassy in Moscow that evening. They promised to issue us with replacements for our passports, and to handle all the formalities necessary for leaving the country again. We were told that we should have new passport photos taken as soon as possible and, when the promised application forms arrived, we should complete these and send them – together with the photos – to the German Embassy in Moscow.
On Saturday morning, we had the photos taken, filled out the passport application forms and sent them, by Express Post, to Moscow. The post office clerk kindly wrote the address of the Embassy and our address on the envelope, in Cyrillic script.
That afternoon, we phoned Michail in Milkovo and asked him to book a room for us at the Dolina Hotel. When we arrived in the evening, he picked us up at the bus-stop and took us to the hotel. This time, we didn’t have a ‘luxury’ room, but it cost only half as much, and was absolutely in order.
As neither the fishery inspector nor his assistants could be reached on a Sunday and our gear was stored in the garage there, we spent the Sunday in Milkovo, sleeping and going for walks. On Monday morning, we visited the fishery inspector again. Our passports had not been found while we were away. Luckily, we had – together with Martha – made all the necessary arrangements. While I packed the boats, Annette got copies of the original reports from the fishery inspector and the police. When it was almost half past eleven, we had to put a move on, in order to catch the bus to Kozyrevsk, which left at twelve. However, the bus didn’t actually leave until after one and, to make place for our ca. 100kg of luggage, two of the spare tyres had to be left behind. Shortly before we left, the police office Sergej passed by to wish us a good trip.
About 35km from Milkovo, there was a bump and one could hear one of the tyres burst. The bus driver ignored the sound for the next 10km but, on reaching the downhill stretch, both drivers got out and the way in which they frowned showed that they had no choice but to change the tyre.
Just before Kozyrevsk, the Kamchatka had to be crossed by ferry. Busses had to reverse onto the ferry, so they could drive off forwards. We arrived in Kozyrevsk at about 17.45 hrs. Af first, we had no success in finding someone to take us and our gear to the river. Somebody had promised to come by on a motorbike but, after waiting for half an hour, I made my way – with Annette’s boat – in the direction of the river. About 1 km. When I was making my third trip – while Annette waited at the bus-stop, a motorbike with a sidecar pulled up, and the rider asked her where we had got to. He took Annette, plus the remaining luggage, down to the river, where I was already starting to set up the tent on the bank. The farmer who had picked up Annette suggested that we put the tent up in his garden, and we gladly accepted his invitation to tea. We refused the caviar that we were offered but enjoyed the dried salmon. It is impossible to make Russians understand that we don’t like caviar. After he had opened the second bottle of home-brew, we tried to leave in the direction of our tent. As a woman, Annette could politely decline. My guess is that the home-brew contained at least 60% alcohol. It also contained some kind of herbs in it. I couldn’t manage more than one glass. The farmer couldn’t really understand that, and it was difficult for me to explain politely. But it was also a lesson in Russian hospitality, which we were to experience repeatedly and which caused us to have a ‘guilty conscience’ for a while.
The next day, I put our boats together again. The unanimous comment of all passers by was: no motor and far too small for the great river. On hearing our destination, they laughed knowingly. Luckily, we could not understand most of the remarks and commentaries. Some of these were certainly not flattering.
to the third part of our Kamchatka trip
© Annette Baur and Reinhold Strecker , Octgober 2007