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Russia's Far East

A rare expedition provides glimpses of Cold War ruins, earthly explosions and extraordinary wildlife.



IN RUSSIA’S SECRECY-SHROUDED Far East — a day before a volcano sensationally erupts in front of my rubber raft — I feel like James Bond as we skim across sapphire waters in a Zodiac dinghy and land on a remote deserted island to explore a ghostly abandoned Soviet military base from the 45-year Cold War. No, the KGB isn’t tailing me, I reassure myself while stumbling over rusted artillery ammo. Gingerly stepping into a blast-proof concrete bunker, I face off with a spooky germ warfare gas mask.

This covert peek at a long-contentious foreign rival is so bizarrely fascinating — maybe because my Cold War childhood memories include paranoia-fostering “duck and cover” drills under school desks in case the Communist Soviet Union nuked opposing superpower America. Or because more recently, Russia’s aggressive president Vladimir Putin can seem, well, a hair trigger from starting World War III.

I freely roam through a sprawling stronghold, once alive with soldiers but now a graveyard of decrepit barracks, radio communication trailers, bomb shelters, radar stations, thousands of empty fuel drums and piles of haphazard electronic equipment emblazoned with cryptic Russian writing, all left to nature sometime after the Cold War ended in 1991. Armored vehicles rot in waist-high fields of flowering Queen Anne’s lace. Before the Soviets seized it in 1945, this once mightily fortified tiny Kuril Island of Matua was a World War II air base for thousands of troops in the Imperial Japanese Army; I nearly fall into defensive trenches hidden by alder thickets and trek over the meadow-grass-choked lengthy runway from where Japanese dive-bombers took off to attack Allied forces.

I get to this obscure edge of the world only because I’m on a rare 16-day expedition cruise in Russia’s most mysterious, barely accessible frontier. There are no roads or regular transportation, but Ponant, a French cruise ship company, annually brings adventurers to this ruggedly beautiful region in the volcanically volatile Pacific Ring of Fire. Cold War history haunts, craters blow, wildlife astonishes. Humans are uncommon, so unafraid arctic foxes remarkably doze at our feet on a caldera’s beach, hundreds of exuberant seals mob our 10-person Zodiacs, and pods of orca whales playfully chase our fashionable 132-stateroom ship, Le Soléal.

For maritime melodrama, during our entire 2,300- mile Russia-to-Japan voyage, typhoons force us off course, although our tall, movie-star-quality Parisian captain exudes total confidence — after all, he was once held hostage by Somali pirates with his 29-member crew aboard another Ponant ship.

A bit of background: the isolated military-strategic area we visit, north of Japan and more than 4,000 miles from Moscow, was long home to the Soviet navy’s robust Pacific Fleet and off-limits to foreigners until after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Today it’s still hard to see. Ponant tackles the bureaucratic muddle for permits, but you’ll need to obtain visas and fly from San Francisco to South Korea before hopping a Ponant-chartered flight to Petropavlovsk, a struggling Russian port city where a barking German shepherd guards the dock and a nuclear submarine base sits across the bay. MiG fighter jets are parked on the barbwire-ringed runway when we land and are ushered into a ’60s-era Quonset hut to be scrutinized by stony-faced immigration officers.

But nyet worries. My husband and I soon clink welcome flutes of French bubbly next to the two-story abstract-art fish sculpture in the atrium of our berthed mod floating hotel. This is a whole other story, but before setting sail, we took a prearranged bus trip — past Russian army soldiers outside an ominous military compound adorned with red star symbols — to a reconstructed aboriginal village of Koryak reindeer herders. Inside a conical tent draped in animal pelts, a cheery elder named “Small Land” fried up traditional flour-and-water flat cakes for us while singing a song about Kutkh, the revered raven god.

Evidently we needed a blessing, because now we gather in the ship’s cushy theater with our 121 fellow passengers (one other American, 16 other nationalities) and Capt. Patrick Marchesseau points to a scarlet-red monstrosity on a weather map. “It’s a nightmare for sure,” he warns, albeit in a suave French accent. “Something big is coming.”

“Big” means a mother of a typhoon. In our path.

So instead of heading south to the Kuril Islands — the gist of our itinerary — we escape north and stick along the Kamchatka Peninsula, studded with 300 volcanoes and largely unpopulated except for 10,000 roving supersize brown bears. Our five naturalist guides are accessorized with rifles when we’re ashore.

This is a Russia you don’t imagine. Sloshing in our gum boots, we investigate a mystifying corroded shipwreck of a Japanese fishing barge in a verdant cove of shimmery waterfalls; we drift in Zodiacs down the unspoiled Zhupanova River, crowned by majestic snow-coated puffing volcanoes and hefty Steller’s sea eagles perched atop ancient birch trees.

In Russkaya Bay, we comb through another Cold War bastion, a Soviet border guard village once on the lookout for U.S. vessels and intruders. Paperwork still plasters walls inside crumbling buildings. A man’s scuffed black boots eerily wait at a front door as if he might return. The five-blade rotor of a crashed military transport helicopter sticks up in the rocky beach, the rest of its wreckage nearby. Atop a shrubby knoll are the graves of two border agents supposedly killed here by a winter avalanche. All so strange, and then I’m jolted by an ear-splitting crack. Across from sleek anchored Le Soléal, two Russian fishermen wearing watch caps are on a rusty boat spray-painted with the word “HAPY.” They’re drinking and shooting semiautomatic guns into the air.

Batten down the hatches. Our ship dodges another typhoon, but the next 24-plus hours at high seas are so rollicking that, shiver me timbers, the spa cancels all treatments, including decadent lemon marmalade scrubs.

We’re now among the Kurils, a stunning volcanic chain of 30 main islands that our expedition leader Raphael declares “the most forgotten islands on earth.” Not to Japan. Ever since World War II’s end, when Russia took the Kurils, Japan has been demanding back four islands. We stay clear of those but had eagerly planned to go to Simushir Island, a forsaken top-secret Soviet submarine base festooned with propaganda murals depicting Communist founder Vladimir Lenin. Raphael tells us that Russia, now in the throes of a large military buildup, may reactivate Simushir as a base and has abruptly revoked our permission to visit.

The places we do explore seem otherworldly. We sail Zodiacs through a narrow passage and into the turquoise lagoon of Yankicha, a fantastical volcanic caldera flooded by seawater and enveloped by craggy pea-green peaks straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien’s head. The first thing I spot on the untamed shore is a white-linen-draped table laden with pastel ganache-filled Parisian Ladurée macaroons and a silver bucket chilling bottles of brut sparkling wine. The most-surreal-ever snack time. Steam whirls up from the earth’s crust; volcanic hot springs bubble.

But here’s the highlight: three cocoa-colored, golden-eyed arctic foxes. Traditionally hunted for their fur, these foxes in this uninhabited haven have no predators and exhibit little fear. One fuzzy critter sleeps curled up like a household cat just inches from two-footed strangers on a pebbly beach. When the fox awakens, he slowly pads over to a visitor and sniffs the man’s clothed knee. Then the fox ambles farther and curiously nibbles straps of a backpack lying on the ground before taking another doze, engulfed by photo-snapping humans.

The next day, we stand slack-jawed on deck. “When are you ever going to see killer whales swimming in front of an erupting volcano?” the captain incredulously asks. Directly ahead, the Snow crater on the island of Chirpoy is unleashing a fury of mushrooming smoke from its cone as lava flows explode into billows of steam at the shoreline. Meanwhile, 20 aquatic giants perform a delicate dorsal-fin ballet.

Soon we’re amazingly bobbing in a Zodiac 50 feet from the fuming showstopper. The volcano rumbles violently and shoots continuous plumes of gases into the heavens. Hot basaltic rocks tumble into the water, thunderously hissing on contact into torrents of white and brown steam. Ashes stick to our heated faces. It is a mind-blowing once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

That night, our ship is deep in Cold War history, traversing the Sea of Okhotsk to Sakhalin Island. We learn that in these enemy waters the U.S. navy pulled off a daring espionage mission in the ’70s to wiretap undersea cables of the Soviet navy. In 1983, Cold War tensions severely escalated when a Korean Air New York–to-Seoul passenger jet strayed off course around here and, possibly mistaken for a spy plane, was shot down by the Soviets. All 269 aboard died. Russian ballistic missile submarines still heavily patrol the waters, but all I see is infinite pitch-blackness.

Daylight brings delirium. Hundreds of bellowing, belching, baa-ing Steller sea lions and northern fur seals cavort with our Zodiac, humorously popping up like periscopes to eyeball the peculiar invaders in red Ponant-logo parkas. We are floating off the pinprick island of Tyuleniy and it could be a campy horror film. Ramshackle wood buildings — part of a deserted marine research station — are overrun by thousands of raucous seals and sea lions that completely smother the island, a monochrome beige-and-brown pinniped planet. In the action-packed waters, inquisitive whiskered creatures amusedly splash us and seem to want to jump onto our raft.

Our 16-day cruise will end in Kanazawa, Japan. On the last leg, my husband and I, as part of a regular nightly ritual, drop into the ship’s command-center bridge — it’s open 24-7 to passengers.

A young French navigation officer greets us: “(Expletive!) I’ve never seen waves this big!”

Not that we haven’t noticed. Gnarly 35-foot swells smash against and over the bridge’s fifth-deck windows, screeching gale-force gusts are clocked at nearly 70 miles per hour and the pitching ship keeps slamming into the sea.

But what’s a little inclement weather? Our captain tried to fend off Somali pirates with a water hose before they peppered his Ponant ship with assault-rifle fire off the coast of Yemen in 2008 and held him and his 29-person staff hostage for a week until a reported $2.1 million ransom was paid. Marchesseau was later awarded France’s Legion of Honor for bravery.

We shakily return to our cabin. On the dresser is the autographed Captain’s Gala dinner menu from when we joined Marchesseau and guests, who nibbled oscietre caviar with mussels and seaweed poulette washed down with a standout 2012 Pouilly-Fuissé. The captain had scrawled, “Smooth seas and fair winds always. Best regards.”

The storm passes. But oh, how this epic journey endures.


IF YOU GO

This year the “Kuril Archipelago” cruise departs September 21 from Russia. The cost starts at $10,340 per person based on double occupancy and includes a chartered flight from Seoul to Petropavlovsk and a hotel overnight in Seoul. Another Russian Far East cruise, “The Best of Kamchatka,” departs September 7 from Alaska. It starts at $10,780 per person based on double occupancy and includes a flight from Seattle to Nome (the embarkation point) and a chartered flight afterward from Petropavlovsk to Seoul and an overnight in a Seoul hotel. en.ponant.com

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