Why Now Is the Perfect Time to Visit the Russian Far East
There’s still a region of this world that feels untouched by humans. In the Russian Far East, bears roam freely, whales dominate the seas and millions of seabirds fly in the open air.
During most of the 20th century, the Soviet government restricted travel to the region for military reasons. “The Russian Far East is undeveloped and remains remote from the rest of Russia, as well as the rest of the world,” says Susan Currie, a Geologist and a member of Silversea’s Expedition Team.
The sheer size of the Russian Far East is another reason why most of the region has seen little interference from humans. Although it’s a large section of the world’s biggest country, it has very few inhabitants. The Kamchatka Peninsula alone covers nearly 140,000 square miles (360,000 square kilometers) yet is home to just over 320,000 people.
Breathtaking, unique and still off the radar of most travelers, read on to learn why now is the best moment to discover the untouched Russian Far East.
1. Pristine Wilderness That Takes Your Breath Away
From active volcanoes and snow-capped mountains to hidden lakes and lush green valleys, the sheer beauty of the Russian Far East keeps travelers wanting more. As most of the region is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, it’s an active volcanic area with gorgeous views. “As a Geologist, I am particularly attracted by the region’s landscapes,” says Susan, who regularly cruises in the Russian Far East with Silversea. “On Ushishir in the Kuril Islands is the volcano Yankicha, a caldera that has been breached and then flooded by the sea.”
Weather permitting, Susan recommends entering the caldera in a Zodiac and landing on an interior beach to access a stunning walk to the rim of the Yankicha volcano. “One can see the Pacific Ocean on one side—sometimes with orcas spotted along the coast—and the interior of the caldera on the other with its calm water and steaming ground near the beach, stained yellow by sulfur,” Susan adds. “If there is a little bit of mist it is even more impressive.” The Kamchatka Peninsula itself is home to more than 150 active volcanoes. Chirpoi Island in the Kuril Islands is one of the most active, while Atlasov Island is dominated by one of the most spectacular and symmetrical volcanoes to be found anywhere in the world.
Cape Kuyveveem puts ancient geology on display in the sea cliffs along the coast, where giant black basaltic dikes cut through the light gray granite. Waves have eroded the cliffs, leaving caves that can be explored via a Zodiac in good weather conditions.
2. An Abundant Array of Wildlife Call It Home
The region’s remoteness, as well as travel restrictions put in place under the Soviet Union until 1990, protected the area from the outside world, allowing its flora and fauna to flourish.
From whales to seabirds to brown bears, the rich biodiversity astounds even the most seasoned of travelers. The sea is brimming with marine life. Steller sea lions and walrus colonies dot the Chukotka coast, while puffins, fulmars and cormorants take flight and circle overhead, in search of their next meal. Lucky visitors to the region even catch glimpses of brown bears, but this is a rare occurrence.
Traveling with a pod of orcas or watching humpback whales and grey whales surface will leave you in awe at their sheer size. Susan remembers her most memorable encounter with a whale while on a Zodiac at Kekkurny Point, off the Russian coast. “A large male individual surfaced barely 10 meters from our boat, breached, and then dived back down to continue his hunt,” she recalls. “He knew we were there, but we did not know that he was! It was, quite literally, a take-your-breath-away experience.”
3. The Region Is Home to Fascinating Indigenous Cultures
Indigenous people—such as the Ainu, Nivkhs and Koryaks—have lived in the Russian Far East for millennia. Their cultures have been shaped by their relationship with the unique landscape.
Living as hunters and fishermen, the Ainu people have called the Kamchatka Peninsula, Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island home for more than eight centuries. Elaborate tattoos, including on the face and lips, are traditionally an important rite of passage for Ainu women. The Ainu are also lovers of music and have developed their own instruments, such as the tonkori, a five-stringed example which resembles a guitar.
The Nivkh are another ethnic group initially from the northern half of Sakhalin Island and the Amur River estuary in Kamchatka Krai. A semi-nomadic people, they are known for their bear worship tradition. In Nivkh culture, the mammals play a pivotal role in their shaman traditions. The Bear Festival, a sacred ritual usually held in winter, features several elaborate rituals intended to honor the bear.
For the Koryak people from Kamchatka Krai, the reindeer play a vital role in their culture. Raised in herds, the animal is their primary source of food. The group uses every part of its body for clothes, tools and weapons. Like their Alaskan and Canadian native neighbors, another animal is an integral part of their religious beliefs: the raven, which is considered to be the helper of a Supreme Being.
4. History Has Created an Intriguing Blend of Russian, Japanese and Chinese Influence
The history of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the surrounding area is a tale of shifting influences and changing borders. Chinese culture prevailed in these parts for centuries, until Imperial Russia began to push eastwards in the 17th century. Then, ethnic Russian settlers started moving to the area, establishing cities such as Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
Relations between Russia and Japan shaped the region’s character in the 20th century. Several wars saw parts of the area change hands, and the shifting borders particularly impacted Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands. This shared heritage is reflected in the region’s history, culture and architecture.
5. It’s One of the World’s Last Undiscovered Regions
More than 4,200 miles (6,773 kilometers) from Moscow, the Far East’s remote location means it eludes most travelers’ radar. The absence of mass tourism has preserved the region’s natural beauty, wildlife and cultures. “This is a truly wild, remote area. Traveling in the Russian Far East, from the Kuril Islands all the way north to Cape Dezhnev, one is entirely at the mercy of the weather. And, as the wildlife is still truly wild, it is not possible to predict what one may see,” explains Susan. “This is exactly what makes the experience of a voyage to the Russian Far East so special. Every single journey to this part of the world is unique and amazing.” For now, the Russian Far East remains a well-kept secret, known only among travel connoisseurs.