A trail bike adventure between volcanoes and waves in the former Russian military zone of Kamchatka.
Words Philipp ‘El Flamingo’ Becker
Photography Constantin Fiene
We’re in the last hour of the longest domestic flight in the world, and it’s been a pretty shaky one. Suddenly a snow-covered volcano pops out of the grey clouds outside the window, seeming really close to the plane, but as fast as it appeared, it disappears again. Just a glimpse of what we can expect for the upcoming days. The excitement grows as we realise we’re almost there, after 20 hours of travelling. From Dusseldorf in Germany on a plane to Moscow, then a crazy taxi drive from Sheremetyevo International Airport through the city to Vnukovo International Airport to catch the eight-hour flight we’re now on to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
On the edge of the east.
Our friend and athlete Patrick ‘Bengel’ Rasche came up with the idea for this adventure some weeks ago, thinking it would be a great location to film. When he showed us the pictures, we knew we had to make it happen, and the last weeks of September promised to be perfect timing for the trip.
After landing we wait for our luggage in what looks more like a greenhouse than an airport – just one baggage conveyor belt under a blue plastic roof. Luckily our bikes show up in one piece and we leave the airport through a big rusty sign with Russian letters. Patrick had one year of Russian in school, but that’s years ago. I guess it’s time for a little refresh right now. The sign might say something like ‘Welcome To Kamchatka’, but that’s a wild guess.
Kamchatka is a peninsula in the Russian Far East, located in the Pacific Ocean north of Japan. It has a wild coastline with 160 volcanoes, of which 29 are active, rising from sea level up to 4,700 m. The capital of the peninsula is Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with 180,000 people – half the population of Kamchatka. Until 1990 Kamchatka was a restricted military area closed to the public and especially closed to tourists. Those interested in winter sports might have heard about it, as it has become quite famous for heli-skiing over recent decades. But for mountain bikers, this part of East Siberia is still a no man’s land.
Originally we came to the Russian wilderness in search of freeride lines, but we had a feeling we should bring trail bikes as well. Alexei, a local, is one of the few guys trying to bring mountain biking to this wild place and we plan to spend some days in Petropavlovsk, at his place called the Bay House.
Smoked salmon and warm beer.
First we drive into town to prepare for our time in the backcountry. We get some Russian sim cards, even if we know our mobiles won’t be a big help around here. As soon as you’re outside the city there is no mobile reception anyway. Next stop is the fish market to taste the famous Kamchatka red caviar. We also get some delicious smoked salmon before our driver goes for the ‘Pivo Stop’ – a shop where you can draw (warm) local beer in two-litre plastic bottles. It was much appreciated by our German crew in this land of vodka.
We arrive at the Bay House and meet Alexei and the team. They’re starting to build up a guiding business and mountain biking will be part of their portfolio in the future. Right now they’re starting from zero regarding bike infrastructure. We show them what we’re looking for and Alexei is sure he has some secrets to offer for us. The weather is horrible, so we convince him to go for a scouting trip along the coast.
We’re back in the car and roll through what seems like abandoned industrial areas for a couple of hours. Wrecked ships in the water. Broken-down cars all over the place. Houses and factories looking like lost places. It’s exactly what comes to mind when you think about old soviet cities. But we’ve learned this doesn’t mean it’s really abandoned. It’s just a completely different style; it seems Russians don’t really care about what houses look from the outside. The inside is way more important for them. No wonder, as most of the outsides are covered in mud and snow most of the year.
Alexei stops next to a ruined house. It’s hard to tell if those houses are still inhabited or not, but this is uninhabited for sure – there’s a hole in the wall the size of our truck and the roof has gone. We hesitate to step out of the car because there’s a big wild looking dog outside. Alexei says it’s OK and we step into the rain. Once again, junk all over the place. Rusty cars here. A tank there. Three soldiers looking through the broken window of a rusty container. Are they are amused about our visit? As we leave the car we realise we’re right on the edge of the dramatic coastline. The Pacific Ocean rumbles against the 100-metre-high rock walls below us. This is the eastern edge of Russia and only the ocean separates us from Alaska. It’s easy to see why this was a military zone until 1990. There are tanks hidden in the cliffs and cabins with weird antennae all round us. We have to be careful not to be blown off the cliffs while we search out a path that connects the military wasteland on top with the water below. The path might have never seen a bike tyre before, but it’s a pleasure to ride. The dramatic conditions make it even more special. Patrick has to be really careful, because there are just a couple of metres or less separating the slippy trail from the 100-meter free fall into the Pacific Ocean. Our media guys are impressed by the scenery and so we end up riding this coastal trail until the gear and the crew are wet to the bone.
It never rains, but it pours.
Over a few days we learn that the weather in Kamchatka is as extreme as the landscape itself. If it rains, it pours down like nowhere else. If it’s stormy, it’s so stormy you can’t hear the words of someone standing next to you. And, yes, if you’re lucky and the sun comes up, it can be really nice and, especially during the last two weeks of September, very colourful. Summers are short up here and so is autumn. The forest takes exactly one week to turn from deep green into gold, then a few days later you’ll find the trees without any leaves and ready for the long winter that starts in October.
Starting early on what looks like a sunny day, we leave the city towards the Kozielski volcano that rises right behind Petropavlovsk. Once again, two hours in the truck on dirt roads that are nothing like you’ve ever seen before. The holes in the ground are so massive you could take a bath in them. And there are not just a few of these holes – they are all over the road, everywhere on Kamchatka. We see some fresh snow covering the top of the volcanoes as Alexei steers his truck through the volcanic landscape. We can’t believe where you can go with a car. There is no road anymore and it feels like a rollercoaster through the bushes that scratch every centimetre of the car. Branches bash against the windows, but that doesn’t seem to hold him back. He tells us to be careful, because it’s the weekend and Russians are out hunting in the hills. We will learn what that means later…
Guns and vodka.
We stop at a hill to take some pictures with Kozielski in the background. Patrick hikes up a small run. If we turn left we see the blue ocean on the horizon and if we turn right the snowy top of Kozielski rises out of the clouds. It’s really windy. At the moment Patrick reaches the top of his run we can hear some Russian screams. There’s a crowd of hunters hidden in the bushes some hills away from us. We’re not sure if they are stoked about Patrick’s idea or if we’re disturbing their hunting plans. Our photographer Constantin gives Patrick the drop in and he carves a black line of turns into the loose lava dirt. When he reaches the bottom of the run the hunters fire gunshots in the air and scream even louder. Alexei tells us that this is their way to celebrate Patrick’s action. That’s the real Russian style. There might be some vodka involved as well.
We continue our journey up the volcano. After some wrong turns and having to dig out the car on steep sections we arrive at a plateau below the snow line. It’s nearly impossible to open the doors of the truck, thanks to a wind like we’ve never experienced before. Alexei has to turn the car around so the wind doesn’t rip off the car doors. It blows away hand-sized rocks and we realise that riding is not an option today. Alexei is not amused. Unfortunately this is not the Kamchatka he wanted to show us. He says he has some different ideas and so we start to drive all the way back towards the city.
Back to nature
Alexei steers his truck left, out of urban decay and into a beautiful birch forest. On Kamchatka, the glories of nature are very close to ugly junkyards and abandoned houses. We roll through the birches on something that you should not call ‘road’. It seems random when Alexei stops for a second. “I remember there was a trail some years ago. I don’t know if it still exists,” he tells us, “Let’s take a look.”
We unload the bikes and search for a trail entry. There are no signs that there has ever been a mountain biker around here. But he’s still searching for the hidden trail. We find a small line in the leaves and start to roll. Yes, this might be the trail we’ve been searching for.
It rolls with big turns through the hills covered with knobby birches deformed by the wind. Suddenly the forest opens up and we can’t believe what we’re riding into – the sun just pops out of the clouds and golden rays light up the whole of Avacha Bay below us. Everything is glowing; we can see the volcanoes in the background and the trail winding down the mountain towards the water. A real moment to remember.
The trail, as fresh as it gets, makes us wonder even more. Perfect turns, some steep and rocky sections, and scenic views all the way down. Our tyres dig into soft volcanic dirt with every untracked turn; we’re the only ones around here. Alexei is happy to see us having fun on his trails. For him there is nothing secret about it – his only fear is that nature will take it back because there is no one to ride these world-class trails. We see a lot of potential for this area. Of course, it’s not easy to get here, and if you’re looking for a comfortable bike holiday, you are definitely in the wrong place. But if you want to experience a real adventure and ride trails in wild places, you are one hundred per cent right. We barely scratched the surface of the possibilities around the Avacha Bay.
All good things.
The trail ends next to the highway and Alexei tells us that he wants to shuttle this area next summer. Sounds like a great plan. We would definitely go up for another ride, but it’s dark as we reach our car and unfortunately it’s our last evening in the Russian wilderness.
We have a last dinner at the Bay House and talk about our two weeks here. What a crazy trip. Compared to the mission on Kamchatka, our adventure trips in Europe or Canada were pure relaxation. Leaving the comfort zone was more than just an Instagram title to describe these few days. And it showed us once again how the simple love for riding bikes can connect people all over the world, no matter how big the linguistic and cultural differences. We thought we’d visit a place with no biking community but we had a really great time on first-class singletrack. We’re certain you’ll hear more about this place in the future. We will be back for sure. And we will definitely bring our trail bikes to explore more of these trail jewels hidden in Russia’s far east.