On Top of the World: Four Cruises that Showcase the Best of the Russian Far East
A full nine time zones from Moscow, the first thing to know about the Russian Far East is that it is inconceivably remote. The region’s second largest city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka, has no roads connecting it to other part of the country, is closer to Los Angeles than St. Petersburg and is easier to reach by boat than plane. Taxis come in the form of dog-sleds. Brown bears, which have been known to wander into town unannounced, average about 1 per 10 km2. So suffice to say, the Russian Far East is about as off the beaten track as it gets.
Which is all the better for those who do make the journey. Because this magnificent region is also home to some of Russia’s unpolished jewels, such as the fertile Sea of Okhotsk and the fabled Russia Ring of Fire. Certainly, the region’s remoteness is a blessing for its wildlife which flies, swims and roams above, below and around you.
The Russian Far East’s vast distance from well, everywhere, as well as the Soviet’s cold war restrictions, has meant that visitors in the past have been restricted to military and scientific research vessels only. But all that is slowly changing. As the government opens itself up to the idea of tourism, the area has been garnering interest in the traveling community. However, limited infrastructure and roads means visiting the region is very challenging. Luxury expedition cruising is fast becoming the best way to explore and provides a way to see parts of the region that would be very difficult to see otherwise. So if you are curious about what really is at the top of the world, these four Russian Far East cruises will not disappoint.
1. Seward to Anchorage: An Ancient State of Architecture
The Russian Far East might lag behind the fast pace of the West, but that does not mean that it has nothing to offer. Rather the opposite; this corner of the world is proud of its heritage and has no plans of letting it go. This is particularly noticeable in the region’s churches; the onion-domed Orthodox churches of the area are well worth the journey alone. Bathed in gold and masterpieces of architecture, the buildings straddle both past and present.
The startling Holy Trinity Cathedral in Petropavlovsk is one such example. Built only recently and still to be finished (funds have run out), the Trinity Cathedral is an homage to other significant Orthodox buildings. Yet, despite its traditional exterior, it has very modern roots. The church has seismic underpinnings to withstand a 10-point earthquake, the architect Oleg Lukomsky believing that if such a thing were to happen, survivors would need a place of worship. Larger churches, such as this or the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Anadyr, which has the auspicious title of being the world’s largest wooden Orthodox church, are able to seat 1,000 worshipers at a time. Masses last sometimes up to seven hours.
While large churches are an important part of city life in the Russian Far East, smaller ones are essential to rural living. These churches are to be found shining brightly amid the frozen landscape in almost every village. Most often built-in the traditional “izba” style – i.e. a small log cabin with modest exterior decorations – the beauty of these village churches lies inside. The glorious iconography offers a window on the region’s rich and storied past, yet remains very much part of modern worship today. Churches can be found in inaccessible and impoverished (by western standards) villages, and provide a lifeline for isolated communities, which are otherwise cut off from other human interaction for long weeks at a time.
Visiting these churches and feeling part of the community is a once in a lifetime opportunity for westerners. Unique expedition cruises such as this Seward to Anchorage itinerary offer guests a chance to be part of this very isolated world, while being accompanied by a local guide and translator.
2. Nome to Seward: Wonderful Wildlife
The astonishing wildlife of the Russian Far East is quite possibly the most powerful reason to visit this incredible region. From northern fur seals and Steller sea lions to the thousands of seabirds, nothing can prepare you for the plethora of animals. The vast size of the region is one reason why species thrive here: at 140,000 square miles, there is little to upset the natural biological evolution. The weather is another determining factor. At times extreme, (temperatures can get as low as -50˚C/-58˚F), winters are too cold for non-endemic species to survive. Here, northern temperate mammals rule the land –brown bears, Arctic foxes, lynxes and occasionally polar bears far outnumber people. In the air, over 300 different species call the region home. In fact, almost 30% of Russia’s endangered species can be found between 750-mile Kamchatka coast in the north and the Kuril Islands in the south.
The Bering Sea story is much the same. Named after the Danish explorer who discovered the connection between Russia and Alaska in the 18th century, the Bering Sea supports much in the way of marine life. Aside from the many species of fish that thrive in the icy waters, 18 species of whale call the sea home (including the incredibly rare North Pacific right whale). However, this could soon change – two Bering Sea species (the Steller’s sea cow and Spectacled Cormorant) have already been declared extinct through human over exploitation.
Given the region’s tremendous size, 70% of which is covered in forest, it is unsurprising that the wildlife of the Russian Far is one of its biggest assets. But guests should err on the side of caution when visiting. Expeditions to see animals in their natural habitat should always be undertaken with a qualified guide. Similarly, the vast diversity of life above and below you is lost if you are not accompanied by a Marine Biologist or Ornithologist. Eight qualified Expedition Experts accompany every Silversea Expedition Cruise to the Russian Far East and allow immersive experiences in the region in full security.
This voyage will allow several Zodiac cruises looking for whales, walrus and thousands of seabirds. Additionally, with Anadyr’s museum, an outstanding collection of walrus tusk carvings (and other ethnographic objects) is not to be missed.
3. Nome to Nome: Cold Climate, Warm Welcomes
The region’s human history is equally compelling. The original settlers were Ainu and Itelmen from the Sea of Okhotsk, who were displaced with the arrival of the Cossacks in the 18th century after Vitus Bering had put the region on the map. With centuries of Slavic fraternity behind them, locals are thus friendly, if a little curious. With travelers slowly beginning to discover the region, villages with dwindling populations have been given a new lease of life. Local communities are brimming with pride at being able to show off their customs to visitors. However, visitors still remain rare, and while tourism is on the up, the infrastructure is still very far from what many westerners might be used to. This, of course, works in favor of those who like to travel deeper. The region is so sparsely populated that human interaction remains rare and unusual, and deep connections are assured. Authenticity is the name of the game here; from local dance troupes that greet your ship upon arrival to fishermen discussing their catch of the day, there is a genuine desire to interact with others.
The Russian government is also doing much in the way of promoting the region. Among these, the International Oil and Gas Forum on Sakhalin Island in the south of the region has been well-received by industry professionals, as well as an international film festival and a surprisingly popular ice sculpting festival in the north. Visitors should note that in 2019, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that “promoting tourism in the Russian Far East was priority no.1”. His statement means good news for the 17,000 people who live in the region; however, it could mean that legitimate experiences become extinct within the next decade.
One of the highlights of luxury expedition cruising is the opportunity of visiting Uelen, the north-eastern fishing village of just 420 inhabitants. The harsh climate means that hospitality is especially prized and a Chukchi welcome can mean an impromptu folkloric dance that tells the story of the village’s evolution. Druzhba (or friendship) is the village’s most precious commodity, and any visitor lucky enough to experience it will not be left indifferent. Christian Walter, Silversea’s Expedition Specialist, pinpoints this voyage as the most fulfilling.
4. Otaru to Seward: Millennia Old Geology
If spirituality, endemic wildlife and being greeted like long-lost family are not reason enough to visit the Russian Far East, then the landscape will certainly sway you. The area is a vast botanical and geological wonderland. Part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the region can claim 68 active volcanoes, more than 10% of the total found on land 452 volcanoes. With many of these dwarfing Japan’s famous Mount Fuji by at least 1,000 meters, the region’s geology will excite even the most experienced of travelers. Best seen (from a distance) by ship, the volcanoes slip in and out of sight during your voyage as you cruise up the Kamchatka peninsula. On land, this, of course, means that thermal geysers splutter and spit under your feet, with superheated thermal baths being part of the experience. The landscape is thus unexpectedly lush – think vivid green and chrome yellows against onyx sands and leafy forests rife with life. The Kuril Islands (population 19,500 for 10,500 km2 or 1 person per 2 km2) offers particularly stunning photographic opportunities.
“As part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, this Russian Far East cruise offers spectacular geology with several active volcanoes, from the Kuril to the Aleutian Islands”, says Christian Walter. “But the entire area is geologically rich, and won’t disappoint”.