Destination Discovery: Russian Far East


For Cruisers Who Have Done It All

By Matt Hannafin

Next Stop: Russian Far East . . .

Welcome to the end of the earth, the place where East lies to the west of West. Sitting just two and a half miles from Alaska at its closest point and stretching more than 1,400 miles from north to south, the harsh, sparsely populated, but spectacularly beautiful Russian Far East is unlike anyplace most travelers will ever experience.

Going there is like falling off the map, like sailing into the distant past — or distant future — and like waking up in a world where civilization has barely got a foothold. It seems too fantastical to be real, but at the same time it’s the realest place you’ll ever be.

Get Your Bearings

Twelve thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, this was a place scientists now call Beringia, a thousand-mile grassland steppe that stretched from Siberia to the Alaskan mainland, forming the “land bridge” by which hunters crossed into and settled the Americas. When the Ice Age ended, rising seas flooded Beringia, making islands of its volcanic peaks, turning highlands into coast, and delineating the boundary between North America and Asia. Today, the Asian half of Beringia comprises Russia’s Far Eastern territories, from Chukotka in the north through the Kamchatka Peninsula to the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin Island in the south.

See the Sights

• Watch the wildlife: Wildlife viewing is one of the main draws of Russian Far East cruises, with birdwatchers especially drawn to see the 46 species of migratory seabirds who nest here in summer. Kamchatka’s Koryakskiy Reserve alone sees some 700,000 white-fronted geese, bean geese, whooper swans, little brown cranes, and other birds annually. The cliffs of the Kuril Islands are also home to innumerable rookeries. On land, Kamchatka has the densest population of brown bears in the world, while Chukotka’s Wrangel Island has the world’s greatest density of polar bears, who come her to birth their cubs. Wolves, wolverines, red foxes, Siberian musk deer, musk ox, moose, and reindeer also roam the region, while walrus and blue, fin, sperm, humpback, grey, orca, beluga, and other whale species swim in the cold waters offshore.

• Hike the tundra: Tundra is basically the only thing that will grow in the wet, permafrost-underlaid soil of Chukotka and northern Kamchatka. Essentially a micro-forest ground-cover of grass, mosses, heath, lichens, and dwarf shrubs, tundra can range from a few inches to a few feet thick and make for an unusually spongy hiking experience. Tread lightly to minimize damage, and be extra-careful in the thick stuff, which can hide ankle-turning holes and boot-soaking puddles. Hiking polls aren’t a bad idea.

• Experience Native culture: At various villages, visiting groups are often treated to programs of traditional song and dance, their storylines depicting heroic tales from the past or traditional activities such as hunting and sewing skins. Songs are sung in unison by the group and include imitations of walrus and seal vocalizations. Underpinning it all is the sharp attack of walrus- or reindeer-skin hoop drums, the only instruments used in the region’s traditional music. Reminders of Native history also dot the region, including the remains of Ainu villages in the Kurils and, on Chukotka’s uninhabited Yttigran Island, hundreds of sun-bleached whale ribs and jawbones standing upright in the ground like an Arctic version of Stonehenge.

This is an excerpt only. To read this article in its entirety, pick up the current issue of Porthole Cruise Magazine.