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Midnight sun
Seeing the light in Kamchatka

By Amir Khosrow Sheibany
April 23, 2002
The Iranian

Where is the farthest you can go to get away from Iran and civilization in general? Well, one could make a trip to outer space I suppose. A bit expensive but possible. Another option is to dive deep under the murky depths of the Blue Sea. And then there is the spectacular Kamchatka.

Few places on our planet remain true wilderness areas, but in the remote far east of Russia, across the Bering Sea from Alaska, the wild peninsula of Kamchatka juts into the Pacific. Almost 150 fiery volcanoes (most permanently ice-capped and 28 still very much active), geysers and boiling mud pools pierce the earth's crust. See photos

The peninsula is aglow with colorful lichens and flowers in the summer. Home to grizzly bears (the largest in the world), wolves, and great herds of reindeer, this extremely remote and savagely beautiful land is a true explorer's destination. In fact, in recognition of this great biodiversity, the United Nations established an area known as Kronotsky Preserve as a World Heritage Site.

It was Kamchatka that I had planned to visit when I took the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok. The other side of the world (from Manhattan) and very much untouched by any tourist. During and after World War II, Kamchatka began to develop as a military region. With nuclear submarine bases and boarder patrols stretched along its borders, Kamchatka was long closed to foreigners and Russians alike. Only in 1991 did it cautiously open its borders.

Having taken a plane from Vladivostok to Petropavlosk-Kamchatski, the first sight is a region dotted with mountains like ant hills. They tend to have perfect symmetrical slopes that stirs ones imagination. The land is abounds with rivers and lakes. In fact I came across waterfalls almost every single day of my two and a half week visit there.

The Capital is called Petropavlosk located at Avacha Bay. It was founded in 1740 by the famous navigator Vitus Bering who was commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great to investigate whether Asia and America were linked. About 300,000 of the 500,000 people living in Kamchatka live here, mostly in rows of drab Soviet style apartment buildings that dot the surrounding hills.

The city center is very small and all its activities take place between two streets, Leninskaya and Sovietskaya. Here I visited a museum of the indigenous people. I would later meet some of these indigenous peoples and get to discuss their religion: Shamanism. (Shamanism is the belief that the gods live in nature like crows, trees rivers etc.)

Simplicity of these people and their beliefs give a good insight into how and why people invented spiritual beliefs and what religion is all about. In a part of the world where all the worlds' main religions failed to reach, one can witness society as it could have been like in the Neolithic Age.

I observed that humans are inherently good, with a natural comprehension of what is morally good and bad and how to preserve life, dignity, environment, love... The main religions of the world have added a more sophisticated veneer on this basic condition and don't seem to have saved humanity from abject poverty and cruelty and mindlessness as the Semitic theologians seem to be telling us. In fact the hermetic nature of many religions, with their highly partisan gods, may well be the cause of much cruelty and evil between men.

Outside of Petropavlosk the most popular destination for outsiders is the Valley of Geysers. (A geyser is a hot spring that periodically erupts throwing water high into the air and is extremely rare to find in nature). The Valley is only accessible by helicopter and only forty tourists are allowed at one time. It was discovered by geologist Tatyana Ustinova in 1941 who just happened to be traveling in the area by dogsled. 

As one walks around on the Wooden walkways, placed to protect the natural environment from tourists, one can just imagine what it would have been like for this female scientist when she first sighted this amazing place. This valley can only be compared in scale with USA's Yellowstone Park (Iceland's and New Zealand's geysers would rank 3rd and 4th).

I joined a tourist group managed by Zoya & Friends for a 12 day camping trip around some remote volcanoes. Before departing we were given a pamphlet on what to do in case of emergencies, including how to avoid a bear attack. Steps involved are

(1.) If bear attacks, throw all your food at it and move away.

(2.) If it is after you and not your food, stand your ground, stare at it in the eyes and call it's bluff.

(3.) If it is not a bluff, drop dead onto the ground, get into the fetal position, covering you face with your hands and arms. Be submissive, let it scratch you a bit, and it should then see you are not a threat and walk away.

(4.) But if it starts to eat your flesh, then fight it with all your might!

But then they told us in a straight face that an attack is unlikely in summer as bears stomachs are full with Salmon, and it is the volcanoes that are the real danger especially as one we are visiting erupted just days ago.

The main part of the expedition with this tourist group was a 110 km walk, over seven days, in the wilderness. We had to carry our own gear, which made this a strenuous physical exercise as well, though we had porters who would carry the tents and food. This part of the trip was a story onto itself and it's best told with an album of photo's whichcan be seen here.

The trip started with a Russian army truck taking us for two days into a vast space uninhabited by any other humans. Sleeping in our tents for seven nights, including being stranded in a freezing snow storm in middle of August!! (unfortunately I lost sensation to both my toes). And concluded in trips to the craters of a few active volcanoes which were warm to the touch and finally relaxing in hot natural spring water, fishing salmon and barbecuing fresh reindeer.

And as luck would have it, our group did see lava flow from an active volcano. As it was in the day though, we just saw a black smudge on a snowy ice cap and nothing too exciting.

But what was certainly exciting and could be considered a heavenly sign happened just after midnight on August 21st 2001 at 12:04 am. We had eaten by the camp fire and most of our team had gone to sleep. A few of us were staring at the stars (and satellites) above waiting for the fire to die down and avoiding to the last minute the freezing walk to the sleeping bags. Then suddenly night became day! It was simply amazing. For a full second and a half it was as if the midday sun had come out.

When such a thing happens it is hard to figure out what is going on. Is it a nuclear bomb? Where is the mushroom cloud? For that instant I could clearly see everything, even the shadows the source of light had created with the mountains. The guys who immediately look at the source of light had been temporarily blinded and missed the amazing sight of a "white" light making night into a bright day. The guys who were asleep in their tents asked the next morning if anyone had shone a light into their eyes the night before.

It only lasted a couple of seconds but my heart was pumping so much that I was still digesting what had happened minutes later. It was a 'super'-meteorite. The light was seen hundreds of miles away and the phenomenon was written about in the papers in Petropavlosk. Our guide told us he has seen meteors many a time, but this was the brightest and longest he had ever seen in his thirty something years in Kamchatka.

The reason for such a heavenly display, we found later, was that it never actually entered the earth's orbit, it just bounced off the atmosphere and continued on its heavenly journey into outer-space.

When the fireball struck, I happened to be thinking (no good thoughts) about the backward mollas ruling our country. Was this a heavenly sign, an omen of some thing spectacular to come for Iran? The conclusion of my summer 2001 holiday trip, returning home via China gave the required insight to answer this. See photos

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