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Kamchatka's convoluted landscape, its brown bears and bubbling geysers are the show-stoppers of the Russian Far East. These ranks of smouldering, snow-capped volcanoes form a link in the Pacific 'Ring of Fire'. In this Wild West frontier region, off-limits to travellers until recent years, travel is undertaken on an epic scale, whether by six-wheel-drive truck, 22-seater military-style helicopter or by inflatable rubber boat. Ironically, much of the region remains protected by strict nature reserves reserved in Soviet times. The Russian Far East, located in the same time zone as New Zealand, nine hours east of Moscow, is not a destination for intrepid backpackers. An expedition cruise, drawing on local expertise and contacts, offers the best way to venture into this heavily indented and largely trackless terrain.


Kuril conundrum The Kuril Islands are not a people place, a haven, rather, for sea birds and marine mammals. Largely treeless, often cold and fog-bound, these volatile volcanic outliers form a link in the Pacific 'Ring of Fire' which stretches between Kamchatka and Sakhalin in the Russian Far East. Fought over by Japan and Russia, the northern and central islands are now largely uninhabited. Yet lingering traces remain of now-vanished Ainu inhabitants, of Japanese garrisons and of Russian fishermen, prisoners of the Gulag, even Soviet navy submariners.


Birching in the banya Some time after midnight. Three naked males - myself and two virtual strangers - are sweating profusely in the 80-degree heat of a banya or bath house attached to a dacha, or weekend cottage, in the countryside outside Moscow. One companion grabs a swatch of aromatic birch branches and starts systematically beating another. Meet the Muscovites who really know how to unwind! This is male bonding, Russian-style; and little wonder that Russians share the great European dream of a little house in the country.


Living the Russian Dream A cottage in the countryside, be it weekend retreat or retirement home, is a fairly universal aspiration, but nowhere more so than in Russia, where even the Soviet regime recognised the importance of this social safety valve. Meet retired banker Mikhail Kareline, busily building his very own dacha outside Moscow...


Moscow's Magic There's much to explore in the Russian capital, deservedly one of the world's great cities. Feel the buzz of Red Square or the bucolic tranquillity of Novodevichy Monastery; the lingering menace of Lubyanka Square or the staunch piety of the worshippers praying in countless onion-domed churches. But first, come to terms with the Metro, a Gorgon's head of intersecting subways conceived as a showpiece of Soviet might. In the world's most expensive city, a train ride across town costs well under a dollar.


Golden Ring From the somnolent museum town of Suzdal to the Volga River port of Yaroslavl, the historic towns and cities northeast of Moscow exert their gentle charm. Several are former Russian capitals.


St Petersburg: a pattern of islands. Conceived from the first to be one of Europe's great cities, St Petersburg grew from the vision of just one man, a monarch who engaged the finest architects of the day. At first sight almost too beautiful, Peter the Great's showcase capital, his gateway to the world, raised from a windswept marshland, has survived, and mellowed, for over two hundred years. Stay up on a summer's night to see the bridges raised in the wee hours - reverting to Peter's own vision of a Venice of the North.



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