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Full Circle

Day 15: Petropavlovsk

Velican blows on time 
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Kronotsky Reserve. Velican blows on time.
Michael Palin - Full Circle For the moment we have this odd, suppurating landscape entirely to ourselves, though there are clear signs that bears are not far away. Sergei points to a fresh pile of droppings.

'Here,' he calls us over, 'you see this here. It is . . . what you say?'

'Shit.' Nigel suggests helpfully.

'Yes...' Sergei seems to be searching for something more scientific, 'Yes, it's... er... shit... yes.'

He leads us on past a sub-lunar landscape of bleached white, scalding sands. Much of it is quicksand and we are given a lecture on the perils of straying from the track. But life survives even in the hottest part of this great oozing stew. Sergei shows me a translucent, almost jellyfish-like plant, trailing fine white tentacles, which grows around holes from which water flows at a constant temperature of 90° centrigrade. It is unique to Kamchatka.

A more spectacular thermal display is on offer in the nearby Valley of the Geysers, described as the world's largest concentration of hot springs outside of Yellowstone National Park. Whereas Yellowstone is one of America's busiest tourist attractions, Kamchatka's geysers are inaccessible by road and visitor facilities are confined to a single rickety wooden lodge and a network of duck-boarded pathways. Sergei is not unhappy about this. He is anxious that plants and wildlife be given preference over tourists.

The valley consists of a series of narrow fissures opened up by a fault line, through which steaming hot water from nearby volcanic systems emerges in various ways, ranging from the impressive to the frankly theatrical. You can almost set your watch by the great spout they call Velican (the Giant). This shoots a plume of boiling water almost 100 feet high, once every three hours. Sergei, checking his watch, leads me right up to the blow-hole. I peer down 35 feet into the earth's crust. An ominous bronchial wheezing rises from the darkness, as if the earth itself is not at all well.

A path leads along by the river to a gorge, one whole side of which is punctured by dozens of horizontal geysers. Some spurt neatly out over the river, others wildly loose off in all directions. The entire 200-foot cliff wall emits a great wheezing chorus of steam which reminds me of King's Cross station in the 1950s. On our way back we pass other delights such as the Gates Of Hell - two dark chambers whose cavernous entrances can be glimpsed only briefly through the clouds of foul-smelling sulphurous mist that guard them. Nothing is safe and sound and settled here; the earth seems to be in perpetual motion. This is nature at its most extravagant, melodramatic and bizarre.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 15
  • Country/sea: Eastern Russia
  • Place: Petropavlovsk
  • Book page no: 33

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