Russian Far East
Russia’s distant end of the line, the wild wild east feels likes its own entity. ‘Moscow is far’ runs the local mantra, and trade and transport connections with its Asian neighbours are growing fast.
Kamchatka, the vast mountainous peninsula at the end of Russia, is the star of the show with smoking volcanoes, hot springs and snow-capped peaks to rival any on earth. Elsewhere the region is not as scenically spectacular, but does boast two charming cities in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, the exceptional engineering feat of the BAM railway (the travel nerd's alternative to the Trans-Siberian), the vast wildernesses of Sakha, old Gulag camps, Cossack fort towns and entire cities raised on stilts over permafrost.
Many travellers skip the Far East entirely, cutting south from Lake Baikal to China – but that’s all the better for those who make it here. Elbow room is definitely not in short supply.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Russian Far East.
A fully militarised zone for most of the past 150 years, this big island just offshore has been reinvented as a business and academic centre and is home to the sprawling Far Eastern Federal University campus and the new Oceanarium. There's great tourism potential here, not least for some excellent beaches as you go deeper and deeper into the island and away from the city, but at the moment Russky Island is very much a DIY attraction.
Located in an evocative 1894 red-brick building, this museum contains an excellent overview of Russian and Soviet history, despite not having a single word of non-Russian signage. Galleries take you decade by decade through the past with fascinating propaganda posters, old film clips, audio snippets, black-and-white photos (like the sad crowds gathered at the announcement of Stalin's demise) and rooms with period furnishings and accoutrements that give a taste of what life was like.
This massive new development on Russky Island is one of Vladivostok's planned key attractions and opened with great fanfare in 2016. It's a vast space in a remote, purpose-built building, and while it has all the potential to be a great attraction, it actually had the feel of a place struggling on our last visit. The dolphinarium was closed, many tanks were empty and no food or drinks were available. Hopefully things will improve in time.
This extraordinary new addition to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk's otherwise ho-hum architectural ensemble is a staggeringly impressive golden-domed cathedral, which at 81m high is the tallest church in the Russian Far East. While the building was completed in 2016, it was still having its interior frescoes painted in 2017, and may not be fully complete for some time yet, although visitors are welcome.
Tynda’s pride and joy has four rooms of BAM relics and photos – sadly all devoid of English labelling – as well as exhibits on native Evenki culture, WWII, local art and regional wildlife. Don't miss the 9m-long 'barrel of Diogenes' parked in the yard, where many BAM workers lived during the railroad's construction. After crossing the pedestrian bridge from the train station, take the first left, continue 200m and turn right up Sportivnaya, where you'll soon see it on your left.
The full renovation and repurposing of a former clothing factory into a giant creative complex containing offices, studios, cafes and work spaces is one of Vladivostok's most interesting recent developments. Visitors will be most interested in the excellent Zarya Centre for Contemporary Art, which is divided into two exhibition halls where top-notch contemporary art and design exhibitions are held. Check out what's on via the website.
Created in 2012 by the merger of several smaller reserves, this vast tract of forest wilderness is still slowly developing as a tourist destination, but its main function is to preserve the few remaining Amur leopards, the world's rarest big cat, around 80 of which are believed to be in existence. While your chances of seeing one of these majestic creatures in the wild are basically nil, trips to the park are still worthwhile to explore these unique primal forests.
Based on Chekhov’s seminal account of his few months working as a doctor on Sakhalin in the 1890s, this museum provides insight not only into life on Sakhalin in tsarist Russia but also into the life of the great playwright. More interesting than the untranslated Chekhov works are multimedia exhibits and lifesize models that give an idea of life on the island; there's even a recreated sleeping quarters for convicts (though you'll have to imagine the roaches and bedbugs).
This park, on the site of the original hunting settlement that later became Yakutsk, contains a series of excellently preserved historic buildings that date from as early as the 17th century, which serve to document the incremental influence of Russian culture on the indigenous peoples. There's a church, a summer yurt, a copy of Peter Beketov's boat and a number of interesting exhibits documenting the traditional lives of the Yakuts, Evenki, Chukchis and other peoples native to the Far East.