Stalin tried to establish a socialist Jewish utopia in Russia’s Far East. I had read about this extraordinary project -many years prior to this trip, but had no idea though that it was close to Khabarovsk. How did I learn that the Jewish Autonomous Region of Oblast started right across the bridge
Siberian cities? Doesn’t everybody’s phantasy run wild? Dirty, cold, mosquito infested, dull places? Well you could not be more wrong, Khabarovsk is a beautiful city, green as it can be, trees line every street, with lots of parks full of kids. there are numerous museums, a lively art scene and a water front. Winters are harsh though with 30 degrees minus but the city and people are equipped for these temperatures. Like so often when visiting unusual places, I realize how manipulated and brainwashed we all have become and what terrible stereotypes we live with.
Iturup has a certain rawness that comes with being such a remote and exposed place. For me, simply being in such an inaccessible place was already an adventure. Add climbing volcanoes, walking along endless beaches and bleach-white cliffs, soaking in super hot rivers, marveling at spectacular waterfalls, chasing bears and catching my first fish ever. It was an epic trip.
The story begins in 2016 when I met Seereen during a trip in Kamchatka. A native of London she is working for SHELL in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. We kept in touch and this is how I learned about a planed trip to Iturup with some of her friends. I had not heard the name Iturup before, this fact got me immediately interested. A quick google search revealed Itrurup as the largest island of the Kuriles, a chain of volcanic islands between Japan and Kamchatka. Cradled by the Sea of Okhotsk and the northern Pacific this 200km long island and neighboring Kunashir are is still claimed by Japan.
Paradise was the first word that came to my mind when the Mi-8 descended onto the little heliport next to the small cabin on Lake Kurile. The water of the lake below was painted in different colors, green forests threw their shadow into the lake where bears were hunting salmons, lots of bears. Kronotsky Nature Reserve in southern Kamchatka is Bears’ Country.
Vladivostok and San Francisco have quite a few things in common. The phantastic setting on hills overlooking a huge bay, streets climbing up and down these hills and the most elegant bridges taking you to green islands. I spent four days simply walking and discovering this great city
On Olkhon Island shamanic symbols are omnipresent with Shaman Rock being the most famous one. I had expected the island to be green, but it looked more like a savannah. Later I learned that Olkhon is the driest spot in the whole of Lake Baikal. The cliffs around Cape Khoboy are spectacular even on a foggy day. Khuzir, the not so lovely capital grows on you, watching the Russian holiday makers with their beach gear became my favorite pastime.
The city celebrated its 350th birthday a few years ago, hard to imagine. It is not a hectic, cosmopolitan place but definitely a thriving city with beautiful architecture. Famous are the 19th old wooden houses of Irkutsk with beautifully painted window panes. Some of them are nicely renovated, whereas others look neglected.
Moscow’s metro stations are still a sight on their own. My last to Moscow was in 1983, even back then I marveled at the beautifully decorated stations. My absolute favorite became one that is dominated by a dog chiseled in black marble. To touch its nose brings good luck. I could not believe how many Muscovites rushed by, quickly brushing over the nose that has changed color already into a dirty white. Some things even outlast Communism.
The start of this one-month trip to Russia’s far east was super easy. My first stop was Moscow where I was welcomed by Sanita and Yuili in their riverside apartment. I met Sanita in 2011 in Ethiopia and we have stayed in contact ever since. There is no better way to get to know a place than with local friends.