The Russian Far East has a mystique that’s been luring travellers for generations. With the volcanoes and geysers of Kamchatka, ancient stone pillars on the Lena River and some of the world’s coldest and remotest human settlements, as well as the cosmopolitan cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, the region has something for everyone. Russia’s poignant past is present here too, from the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) railway to the infamous Kolyma Highway that runs to Magadan, the most notorious outpost of the Far Eastern Gulag system.
The ‘Master of the East’, a hip, dynamic city with an impressive setting in the Golden Horn Bay, Vladivostok is the unofficial capital of the Russian Far East and a cultural heavyweight in its own right. St Petersburg’s renowned Mariinsky Theatre has inaugurated the Primorsky Stage in the city in recent years, joining the new Hermitage Vladivostok branch and the stellar Zarya Centre for Contemporary Art as the city’s premier cultural attractions. Meanwhile, the S-56 Submarine, Fort No 7 and the Vladivostok Fortress Museum pay homage to the city’s background as Russia’s most important eastern naval base. Vladivostok’s dining scene is second only to Moscow and St Petersburg, and numerous cocktail bars and pubs attract night owls. If the frenetic pace is a little overwhelming, you can always escape to the beaches on Russky Island and Popov Island.
Right in the heart of the legendary Kamchatka peninsula, the little town of Esso is the jumping-off spot for some terrific hiking, soaking in the istochniki (hot springs) and rafting on the nearby Bystraya River. Charming izbas (wooden cottages) sit in a pine-scented valley, surrounded by forested mountains. A well-marked network of hiking trails threads its way through the surrounding Bystrinsky Nature Park, ranging in difficulty and in length – the shortest is 2km, the longest 42km.
Valley of Geysers, Kamchatka
Accessible only by a helicopter tour from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the smoking Dolina Geyzerov is the star attraction of Kamchatka – the volcano- and geyser-studded peninsula that has the most dramatic, volatile topography in all of Russia. This 8km-long valley, bisected by the Geysernaya River, is dotted with several dozen geysers that sporadically blast steam, mud and water towards the sky. Some of the more colourful ones can be admired while strolling along a specially made boardwalk.
The remote capital of the Sakha Republic, Yakutsk is both the world’s coldest city and a marvel of Soviet engineering, built entirely on permafrost. Its tangle of overground pipes, carrying water and gas, is a peculiar sight, but Yakutsk is a surprisingly cosmopolitan place despite its isolation. A visit to the quirky Permafrost Kingdom is particularly worthwhile, with its never-melting sculptures of pagan gods and mythological characters, while the National Art Museum introduces you to the mammoth tusk carvings and paintings by Sakha artists. The best places to try Sakha delicacies such as indigirka (raw, frozen fish), reindeer and zherebyatiny (colt fillet) are Chochur Muran and Makhtal restaurants.
Riding the BAM railway
Stretching for some 4324km from Severobaikalsk (on the northern shores of Lake Baikal) to the Sea of Okhotsk, the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) is a triumph of railway engineering (and convict labour) and the less-taken alternative to the Trans-Siberian Railway. With its bridges spanning the mighty Lena and Amur rivers, its tunnels blasted through kilometres of sheer rock, and its tracks running through dense spruce forest and taiga, riding the BAM is a wonderful way to get to know ordinary Russians. You might find yourself sharing a beer or hot tea and heaped spoons of caviar with miners or lumberjacks, who’ll be intensely curious about you. It’s worth disembarking in Tynda, where travel writer Dervla Murphy got stuck while writing Through Siberia by Accident, to visit the BAM Museum, and in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, to check out the grand Soviet-era mosaics and the riverside beach.
Some 650km east of Yakutsk, the tiny reindeer and silver fox breeding station of Oymyakon (population around 500) is the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth, with temperatures in the nearby valleys dropping as low as -82°C. Various travel agencies in Yakutsk, including Visit Yakutia, organise week-long tours to Oymyakon to attend the annual Pole of Cold Festival in late March, featuring reindeer races, outdoor concerts and other festivities.
Whether you come here in winter for the ice sculptures, or in summer for the lively nightlife and the Amur River beach, Khabarovsk is a breath of fresh air, especially if you’ve spent days cooped up on the train before getting here. Its wide boulevards are lined with stately, tsarist-era buildings (spot the Far Eastern State Research Library and the Tsentralny Gastronom), and there are numerous green walkways for strolling around the city, including those on Amursky bul and Ussuriysky bul. The burgeoning dining scene’s highlights are Georgian cuisine at Satsivi and fusion at Farsh; some good bars are dotted around the city centre, including the hipster Brozbar, with a good range of craft beer.
Magadan and Kolyma Highway
Surrounded by snow-capped mountains and hemmed in by the Sea of Okhotsk, Magadan is a surprisingly pleasant city, given its dark past. Described as the ‘pole of cold and cruelty’ in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, it was the most notorious of the Stalinist forced labour camps from the 1930s to mid-1950s. The harsh sub-Arctic climate and dreadful work conditions are believed to have killed over a million prisoners in the Kolyma region, commemorated by the giant Mask of Sorrow monument on a hillside above Magadan, as well as at the Magadan Regional Museum. You can get here by air, or via the Russian Far East’s most ambitious road trip – a three- or four-day journey from Yakutsk by 6WD vehicle or truck along the Kolyma Highway, aka the ‘road of bones’, built on the backs of countless Gulag labourers.
The Russian Far East’s most popular cruise is the two-day jaunt from Yakutsk to the Lenskie Stolby (Lena Pillars) along the mighty Lena River. Resembling a petrified forest, the 80km-long, 35-million-year-old limestone pillars reach for the sky along the riverbank – a startling sight after you’ve spent many hours floating through impenetrable spruce forest. Lena Tur Flot runs 36- and 46-hour cruises here aboard its two comfy cruise ships; you’ll even get to see a shaman ceremony.
A remote Russian outpost since 1644, this frontier town faces its rather more modern Chinese neighbour, Heihe, across the Amur River. However, it’s worth making the detour 110km south of the main Trans-Siberian Railway line to Blagoveshchensk to check out the charming tsarist-era architecture that dots the town centre; another highlight is the extensive Amur Regional Museum. Blagoveshchensk is also one of the easiest places in Russia from which to enter China (though you’ll need to organise your visa in advance).