In a vast wilderness in eastern Russia, scientists and tourism entrepreneurs are anxiously working out how much is left of one of the world’s great natural wonders, Geyser Valley.
Hidden behind a veil of secrecy in Soviet times, the far eastern Kamchatka peninsula boasts nature at its most unpredictable, as demonstrated by a recent landslide that obliterated many of its prized geysers.
In Soviet times, Kamchatka was closed even to most Soviet citizens due to its sensitive location not far from United States territory — Alaska is right across the Bering Sea — and due to its military sites, such as the submarine base near the main city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
But gradually since the Soviet collapse in 1991 the region has opened up, attracting a steady trickle of tourists, particularly from eastern neighbours Japan and the US.
They are drawn by the sense of entering the unknown and by the miraculously shifting landscape, which includes such bizarre sights as the Velikan geyser, with its 40m-high hot-springs jet.
French tour guide Laurent Tavignot, who moved here in 2000, enthusiastically recalled a recent journey into the crater of a just-erupted volcano.
“There’s always one or another volcano erupting,” he said. “The last one, Mutnovsky, was in mid-April. We went into the crater via a canyon and saw suspended glaciers, gas jets, mud pools.”
Martha Madsen, who works for the United Nations Development Programme assisting the nascent tourism sector, describes the effect of such sights on visitors. “You find yourself on top of a volcano and all you see is endless mountains, totally preserved. It moves people to tears,” she said.
Recently attention has focused on the 6km Geyser Valley on Kamchatka’s eastern coast, after a dramatic landslide that some fear may have blocked many geysers forever.
A rare phenomena, geysers are believed to number only about 1 000 worldwide — about half in Yellowstone National Park in the American state of Wyoming — concentrated mainly in five major fields, including the one on Kamchatka.
On June 3, the torrent of mud and rock spread across a large part of the Kamchatka valley, apparently triggered by an earthquake. It dammed a river and created a lake that submerged numerous geysers.
Responses discussed in the media have included the drastic one of trying to unblock the valley using controlled explosions, a technique commonly used to break the ice on Siberian rivers.
Initial claims that Kamchatka’s main tourist attraction had been completely obliterated now appear exaggerated. Nonetheless, the landscape was drastically changed, says Lyudmila Osipenka, a researcher from Kamchatka’s Institute of Vulcanology.
Forced to travel there on expensive helicopter flights due to a lack of roads, she and her colleagues have been trying to get a better picture of the precise extent of this geographical convulsion. “Many of the magnificent geysers that I used to see have been destroyed,” said Osipenka.
The head of the vulcanology institute, Nikolai Seliverstov, remains philosophical, however, noting that water levels in the newly created lake are now falling. “Geysers are an ephemeral phenomenon. Some disappear, others form…. You have to wait and watch. There’s nothing you can do about it,” he said.
Whatever the damage, in all probability adventurous tourists will still be lured to Kamchatka.
Regional tourism head Tamara Tutushkina stresses that basic amenities such as a supermarket have been built in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and the city even boasts casinos, billiard halls and nightclubs.
Last year, Kamchatka was visited by 20 000 Russian tourists and 14 000 foreign tourists, including 5 000 Japanese, 3 500 Americans and 770 Germans, said Tutushkina.
Nonetheless, visiting remains a challenge as special permits are still required and the only direct international flights are special charter flights.
For the foreseeable future, Kamchatka is likely to remain a select destination for a limited number of fairly well-heeled adventure tourists, says Madsen.
“It’s isolated here. There still aren’t direct flights to the US and Russia isn’t prepared to relax the rules to let them in,” the UN workers said. — AFP