Those that roam the Fire and Ice


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Europe » Russia » Far East » Kamchatka
April 11th 2011
Published: May 4th 2011
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My time in Anavgay began naked, outdoors, in -20°C. Readers, please don't get excited: no photos were taken, since in that situation the last thing one thinks about is fiddling around with a camera. But how did I find myself in such circumstances at night in a wooden-shack indigenous village, population 600, in the middle of the Kamchatkan wilderness, one might ask? Good question.

We had arrived here, at the end of the road north, with lorry drivers who still had thirty six hours to drive along frozen river surfaces to the isolated town of Palana. Having stepped out of the lorries and quickly realising that sleeping in the tent was a very undesirable option, we stopped the first passer-by we saw, a girl in her late teens, and dropped the one name we could: Nikolai Igorevitch, the uncle of a girl Kostya had met in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Having been shown to his house, knocked on the door and found that he was not in we then ascertained from the next passer-by t hathe was at the local school watching a volleyball match. We decided it would be rude to interrupt and that we should just walk around and try to keep warm.

The next passer-by, however, noticing our non-localness, stopped to talk.

"We're going out to the tundra tomorrow to round up the horse herd!" he slurred drunkenly. "You should come!"

"Thanks..." I muttered.

"You'll see us riding around like this with shotguns... Pow! Pow! Pow!" he shouted, pretending to point a shotgun in the air and fire it while on horseback. "But hey, aren't you cold now? You should go and have a swim."

"What do you mean?" Kostya asked.

"We have an open air pool. The village is built on hot springs that heat all the houses and provide all the water," he told us.

"But it's pretty cold," Kostya said.

"Don't worry, we have a nice, warm changing room!" he lied. So off we went.

The changing room turned out to be an unlit wooden shack five metres from the edge of the pool, a short walk across a field from the main street. The many holes in its walls and the enormous entrance, perhaps a metre and a half wide by two tall, allowed the wind to blow freely on any unfortunate half-naked people who happened to be inside. As it was, at that particular time, this included only us. I had intended to position my clothes and towl in a sensible order with the things I would need first upon exiting the pool on top to avoid fumbling around in the cold and dark after getting out but, by the time I had got down to my boxers, the biting cold and raging, snow-filled wind were attacking certain extremeties with such intensity that all thoughts of neatly folding and piling garments on the one bench provided fled my mind like a cat out of a bag. I staggered as quickly as I could across the slippery surfaces surrounding the pool, climbed down the steps hewn from the same stone that lined the walls, stubbing my toe on the way, and immersed myself in the wonderfully hot water.

For a few minutes we explored the boundaries of our small haven from the cold, weightlessly moving across the slimy stones at the bottom while snow flew horizontally over our heads from one end of the pool to the other and mixed with the steam that drifted up from the water's surface. Within minutes, however, my ears had become painfully cold and it became necessary for us to take turns standing under the small waterfall of near-scalding water that fed the pool. When we began to feel drowsy and lethargic due to the heat, we decided it was time to get out. We ran back to the changing room and began drying all the water off our bodies as quickly as possible. So cold was it, standing there in just wet boxers that it was tempting not to do a proper job and get dressed straight away, hoping that my clothes would dry some of the water off my body themselves, but the thought of water turning to ice on my skin, damp clothing freezing over and skin and clothing freezing together kept me rubbing vigorously with my towel until I was dry. Evidently I was not thorough enough though and, having as usual made only the most cursory of drying efforts in regard to my hair, many clumps of it froze solid as this now fully-dressed pair of tourists walked away from the Anavgay pool.
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By good luck Nikolai Igorevitch arrived back at his house a few minutes after us.

"Who are you looking for?" he asked, seeing us standing next to his fence.

"Nikolai Igorevitch," Kostya replied.

"That's me," he told us.

"Hello, Nikolai Igorevitch," Kostya said. "We came here hitch hiking from Klyuchi and before that The Town . We're acquaintances of your niece Alina, she gave us your name because we were interested in Anavgay, Even culture and reindeer herding."

"Ah yes, she mentioned you," he said. "What are your names?"

We introduced ourselves.

"Well if you want, we're going out to where the reindeer herders are tomorrow morning," he said in a gentle voice almost devoid of changes in pitch or intonation. "We're taking two snowmobiles so there's space for both of you if you want."

"That would be great," Kostya said.

"Really amazing," I agreed.

"Well then, you've got until 8:30am to sleep and get ready. We'll meet back here then," he said, beginning to walk away.

"Er, excuse me, Nikolai Igorevitch," Kostya began, "this is a bit of a difficult question, but... well, we were planning on sleeping in a tent but it's so cold tonight, we were just wondering if there might be any possibility of sleeping on someone's floor?"

"Ah, ok," he said. "I'll take you to my sister's house."

We crossed his yard and exited through the back onto another street. A couple of minutes away we knocked on a door which was opened by a middle-aged Even woman with straight, neatly-combed gret hair that came halfway down her neck and who was dressed as if she was about to go to bed. Nikolai Igorevitch explained our situation to her then went home.

"OK, come in," she said. We took off our boots and entered. "My name's Lilia. Put your stuff in that room to the left then come into the kitchen to have some tea and something to eat."

She introduced us to some guests sitting around the kitchen table, one late twenties, spotty Russian woman with her two toddlers and one early twenties Even girl who might have been pretty if her face had not been hard beyond its years.

"What do you do?" I asked the younger one.

"Nothing," she replied.

Lilia scooped two bowlfuls of pasta and reindeer meat out of a large cauldron and plonked them on the table in front of us along with a tube of ketchup and one of mayonnaise.

"I'll just make you some tea, too," she said. "And if you want some cold water there's some there." She pointed to a slightly rusty metal bucket on the floor by the door.

"Thank you very much," I said, "This is really kind of you."

"No problem," she replied. "So why are you going to see our horse herders and reindeer herders?"

"It's just interesting," Kostya replied. "We've both lived with reindeer herders before on several occasions."

"Well be careful. Even are not straightforward people. They always try to find a way of making money from people. Even the early explorers, those Cossacks of the seventeenth century, noticed that Yakuts, Chukchi and Koryaks were friendly and hospitable, whereas Evenki were sly."

"But here you're Even, not Evenki," Kostya said.

"But until the Russians came Even and Evenki were almost the same, until a hundred and fifty years ago when our ancestors arrived here from... from..." she searched for the name.

"Yakutia," I helped her out.

"That's right, from Yakutia."

"When were the last people alive who remembered that migration?" Kostya asked.

"My grandparents' grandparents remembered arriving here in Anavgay and choosing it as a place to settle," she replied. The thought of those Even who had trekked thousands of kilometres through the bear-infested swamps, tundra and volcanoes sent a shiver down my spine. They were among the handful of people who have made it to Kamchatka overland in recorded history. What had possessed them to wander so far? I was about to ask but got cut off. The train of thought was interrupted and I forgot about it.

"Edward, have some more," Lilia said, taking my bowl, padding softly over to the cauldron in her slippers and doling out another portion of pasta into it, the folds of her nightie fluttering slightly in a draft that came from a furnace stood on the floor next to her, the smoke from which was evacuated through a long, narrow chimney out of the roof. "So how long have you lived in Russia?"

"Almost four years," I replied.

"So that's why you speak good Russian," she said, the corners of the lips on her gentle, middle-aged but remarkably wrinkle-free face curling softly upwards and dimples forming at the edges of her smile. "You know, the most important thing is to know how to f**king swear properly, f**k yeah! I'll teach you if you want."

We both sat in silence for a second.

“Well…” I began.

“I’ll teach you how to f**king swear, f**k yeah, when you f**king get back from the tundra if you want,” she said in her ever-tranquil, monotone voice that sounded as if she had a cold. “What’s so funny? You didn’t think old Auntie Lilia f**king swore? I’ll f**king teach you!”

“I already know a little bit,” I said, by now forcing my words around mouthfuls of stifled laughter.

“Ok,” she replied, standing up and taking our empty bowls over to the sink. “I’ll teach you some stuff you definitely don’t know when you get back though. But now it’s time to sleep. It’s late and you’ve got to get up early tomorrow.”

“Would you mind if I took a quick bath?” I asked her.

“Well if you want, but you know we have only boiling water in Anavgay. The cold water you drank is from melted ice. You’ll have to fill up the tub then wait for it to cool down.”

“By the way, what happened with Dmitry?” Lilia asked the Even girl as we were filing out of the kitchen.

“He called me, like apologising down the phone and crying,” the girl replied, her usually tough, stern face smiling very slightly.

“Ach!” Lilia said, disgustedly. “When a man cries, that’s really just degenerate.”

“I didn’t mean like that,” the girl said quickly. “I mean he was saying like, ‘I’m so sorry, I was selfish, it was my fault, now I’ve lost you and I can’t bear it.’”

“Pah!” Lilia said. “Men shouldn’t talk like that. Only women should.”

* * *

We left Lilia’s at 9am the next morning after two more bowls of pasta, reindeer mear, mayonnaise and ketchup for breakfast. As we walked down the wooden steps outside her porch, two small children sat and watched from on top of a snow drift next to her house.

“Be careful up there, you two!” Lilia called softly to them. “Don’t mess around or you might yobnutsya!”

The extremely rude word yobnutsya is hard to translate into English. The literal meaning is “to f**k yourself,” but in real usage it means “to fall,” a verb for which the English language has no offensive options that I can think of.

We found Nikolai Igorevitch in his garden with a young Even probably about twenty years old and another who looked as if he was in his mid thirties but who I mentally placed at twenty seven, due to the weathering effects that a life of hunting, fishing and herding in the cold has on the skin (I later found out that I was spot on).

“At last!” Nikolai Igorevitch said as he and the older of the other two tied some ropes around the blanket-covered cargo on the back of the sledges attached to two snowmobiles. “You’re late! We’re ready to go.”

“Ok, sorry,” Kostya said. “So what are everyone’s names?”

“Kolya,” Nikolai Igorevitch said, pointing to himself and letting us know that we could use the familiar, shortened form of his name rather than the more respectful full version and attached patronymic as we had previously, “Egor,” he indicated the older of the other two, dressed like him in camouflage clothing, “and Ilya,” he introduced the youngest of the trio.

While they secured the ropes around the sledges we ran to the nearest shop and stocked up on what few edible products were available there. Fifteen minutes later we were off down Anavgay's main street, every bump, every slightly uneven patch of ground, every stone translating into a bruise to my backside as the sledge on which I sat jolted up and down, swinging from side to side behind the snowmobile to which it was attached.

After four months of winter in Moscow with almost no exercise I was extremely inflexible and any position I sat in soon became uncomfortable. I tried sitting with my legs outstretched in front of me at a right angle to my body, then knees up, then feet down hugging the sides of the sledge, a position in which when we tilted to an angle or went round a corner they would hit the ground and add an enormous shower of cold whiteness to the snow spray and exhaust fumes that the snowmobile was already pumping into my face.

When I managed to distract myself from these minor discomforts, however, I stared around me in awe at the stark, northern, natural beauty that we suddenly found ourselves enveloped by on leaving Anavgay. This was it at last, the real Kamchatka, the wilderness Land of Fire and Ice that had enthralled me ever since I had first learned of its existence outside of the Risk board. Mountains surrounded us on all sides, sometimes undulating gently away towards the horizon, interspersed by tree-lined valleys, others jagged, almost sheer peaks that would be near-impossible to climb. Everywhere was white, the only darkness visible being the trees that occasionally took complete control of the landscape's colour scheme while at other times disappearing utterly to leave only the constant blanket of uninterrupted snow to dazzle us with the rays it reflected from the morning sun that shone down from a clear blue sky.

At first we followed a zimnik, a type of temporary winter road made of compressed snow or along a frozen river surface to link communities in the vast roadless regions of the Russian Far East and Far North. It led up into the mountains not far out of Anavgay, at which point my toes began to get cold. I had not brought my enormous Arctic boots with me and was wearing just a pair of shin-high ones with two thick pairs of woolen socks which evidently were not going to be enough for a six hour snowmobile ride. Thankfully at least the clothing on the rest of my body was good down to -50C and it was only my footwear that was insufficient.

I tried wiggling my toes up and down for ten minutes, but still the cold in them increased until it really was painful. I kept them scrunched up so that they were pressing against the balls of my feet but it was no good. I tried clenching and unclenching, clenching and unclenching but still they were freezing. Thankfully we stopped for a cigarette break about half an hour after leaving and I began running around and jogging on the spot, my feet sinking into the snow sometimes up to my hip.

"Alright, let's go, everyone. Ed, you're running behind us this time!" Kolya joked.

On we went, myself now concentrating only on my toes, constantly clenching and unclenching them. Half an hour later the zimnik leveled off as it crossed the mountains at a pass and we stopped again.

"Where does this road go?" I asked while they smoked and I jogged on the spot.

"Ust Khayryuzovo," Kolya replied, scanning the surrounding mountain slopes through a pair of binoculars. "It's a village on the west coast, much further than where we're going today."

"How do people get there in summer, when there's no road?" I asked, getting tired, standing still and beginning to clench and unclench my toes again.

"Only by all-terrain vehicle," Kolya answered. I had seen these gargantuan, tank-like monstrosities sitting in the snow outside a few houses in Anavgay.

"Do they go as public transport or do they just take goods?" I asked. Clench, unclench.

"Someone just owns them all and pays drivers to transport goods to all the places where there's no road. If you need to go there the driver will usually give you a lift though."

"And how do you get out to the woods and to where the reindeer herders are in summer? Do you have an all-terrain vehicle?"

"No, we go by horse," he replied.

"And by the way, why are you going there? Do you work as temporary reindeer herders? Or horse herders?"

"No we just go there hunting and fishing."

"What do you hunt?"

"Bear, wolverine, lynx, whatever we find. Anyway, time to go," he said, throwing his cigarette away into the snow.

On we went, descending the mountains on the other side and leaving the zimnik behind us as we veered off to the left into a wooded area. As we shot through its leafless world of browns, greys and oranges, arms held up to defend faces from overhanging branches, my toes entered the realms of excruciation with over four hours of our journey to go. I was no longer even able to clench and unclench them as fully or with as much rapidity as previously.

Thankfully at our next stop Kostya mentioned that he had brewed some tea and put it in a thermos before leaving. We dug it out from under some bags on the back of one of the sledges and I greedily glugged back three cupfuls, significantly warming up my whole body and even bringing life back to my toes.

Ten minutes later, having exited the woods for gently rolling, snowy flatlands covered in enormous, dry, brown ferns, Egor, who was driving the snowmobile to which my sledge was attached, turned round to look at me and pointed ahead of us. In the distance and slightly downhill from us a small dark dot which gradually became recognisable as another snowmobile was crawling across the landscape in our direction. When we eventually met, the tall, young Russian driver stopped the engine and a slightly older Even man fell off the sledge tied to the back. He stood up, clasped his head with both hands and staggered a few paces to his left, then one forwards, then two to his right, then one backwards. Egor, Kolya and Ilya laughed heartily and a smile lit up the man’s face as though he understood that what he was doing was funny and was even proud of it.

“How are you?” Kolya asked after the man had made it over to where we were standing. The driver had remained seated on his snowmobile and was smoking.

“I’ve got one f**ker of a hangover,” the Even man said in a loud, deep voice that sounded as though he was giving some surprising bad news about which nothing could be done. He swayed back and forth in the snow as he stood, occasionally staggering a pace or two and nearly falling over.

“Why are you going back to Anavgay?” Kolya asked.

“We’ve run out of vodka at the tabun .”

After five minutes they continued on their way. Just before we set off again, Kostya commented that the Even man had been very drunk.

“He wasn’t drunk,” Egor said, “it was just a bad hangover.”

Somehow the tea from the previous stop, my constant clenching and unclenching within my boots and the fact that we were down out of the mountains kept my toes tolerably warm during the rest of the journey. Around 4pm we entered another patch of woodland and began driving more slowly as Egor and Kolya looked around for the best route through, occasionally having to stop and reverse when the way became blocked by trees. Eventually we came to a stop next to a small cabin made of tree trunks and roughly hewn logs from the forest around us.

"We'll sleep here tonight then go to the tabun tomorrow," Kolya announced on dismounting his snowmobile. "It's only half an hour from here but there's not enough space for us all to sleep there and I can't be bothered to put up my yurt."

The front door to the log cabin was wide open. Kolya stooped down, passed through the entrance and came into a small, dark room, nearly slipping on the ice that covered its floor. He glanced at a closed door that clearly led to the cabin's main room, went outside, rummaged around on a sledge until he found an axe then went back in and began hacking at the ice on the floor around the inner door. After a minute I understood why: the ice was almost a foot deep and the door was jammed shut by it.

"Where did all this ice come from?" Kostya asked.

"There's a river nearby," Kolya explained. "It must have flooded."

While Kolya broke up the ice Egor started a fire a couple of metres in front of the cabin. Once it was going he placed a tree stump a few feet on either side of it and laid a long, thin branch between them. He then disappeared off into the forest carrying two blackened old pots, filled them up at the river, came back and hung them on the long, thin branch so that they dangled over the fire. While he busied himself with keeping it going, Ilya, Kostya and I went off to forage for more wood.

"Is this ok firewood?" I asked Egor, returning with my arms full of dry, dead branches I had managed to gather.

"It's fine," he replied, but I realised he had just been being polite when I saw Ilya and Kostya coming back and dragging entire tree trunks behind them that dwarfed the thin, gnarled little pieces I had collected.

When there was a large enough pile we went inside to help Kolya break up the ice and clear out all the shards while Egor brewed tea and chopped wood. It took us an hour and a half to get all the ice out, by which time there was a regular mountain of it next to the front door. When all was done we sat down on two tree trunks to drink tea and eat slices of lard on bread.

"Where's Kostya?" Kolya suddenly asked, noticing that he was not with us. "Gone off to sh*t?"

I smirked, Kolya noticed and roared with laughter.

"You understand a few rude words in Russian?" he asked.

"A few," I replied.

"So you live in Moscow, right?"

"Yes," I said.

"Did you bring any vodka with you?"

"No," I replied. "Why?"

"We just have a few fans of it there at the tabun."

"Did you bring any?" I asked.

"No," he answered. "Certain people here mustn't drink or we'll go a bit crazy and probably get lost in the woods. So why do you live in Moscow? Most Russians want to get the f**k out of here, but you decided to come by choice!"

"I work there," I told him.

"But what, you couldn't find work in England?"

"Yes, but it's just interesting for me to live in Russia."

"Interesting? What's interesting?" he muttered, taking a sip of his tea. "Is it interesting to look at a country in ruins?"

After tea they took some fishing lines from one of the sledges, Kolya accidentally knocking my camera onto the snow in the process.

"Oops, someone's camera yobnulsya !" he said.

"Whose camera yobnulsya?" I asked without looking. Everyone doubled up in laughter at the foreigner using these words.

We walked for five minutes through the trees until we came to the river, the thick snow at the top of its banks overhanging by half a foot or so with icicles dangling down almost to the gurg;ling waters. Egor caught a rainbow trout within a minute and Ilya reeled in another, even bigger one a moment later, its scales shining with the colours that gave it its name as if it was covered in a thin coating of oil. He tore it off his hook, threw it on the snow, curled up his fist and punched it hard in the head to stop it jumping.

"You f**ked it up," I said. Tears came to Ilya's eyes as he laughed and Egor nearly dropped his line in the water.

"You should teach us some words like these in English!" he said.

Over the next half hour Ilya patiently tried to teach me how to throw the line and wind it in. Strangely though, not a single other fish was caught after those first two. As everyone was walking off back to the cabin, however, I threw my line one last time. Something caught and began tugging at it. I excitedly began to wind it in but must have done it too fast as whatever had been stuck on my hook suddenly broke loose.

"It f**ked off," Ilya said, having been watching, and grinned at me.

We got back to the cabin and unloaded a few things from the sledges.

"Here, take this piece of sh*t inside," Kolya said, handing me a thermos. The word he actually used was 'khuynya', derived from a certain part of the male anatomy, but 'piece of sh*t' is the best English translation I can think of for what it means.

"What's in this khuynya?" I asked, to his approval. "Tea?"

The word 'khuynya' replaced, for the rest of that evening, the name of almost every object that was spoken by anyone, and was greeted with particularly uproarious laughter every time I was the one to use it.

Immediately within the cabin's inner door was a small area with a stove where Ilya set to boiling some water for dumplings. Further in was the sleeping and eating area with a small, square table at the far end and two raised wooden sleeping surfaces on either side of it. Kostya and I sat on one, facing Egor and Kolya who sat on the other.

"So how often do you come out here to hunt or fish?" I asked.

"We're constantly going back and forth," Kolya replied.

"And how long do you spend out here each time?"

"A week or two, but not always right here, obviously. There are lots of cabins around and if we're somewhere where there isn't one I just put up my yurt."

"And how often do you kill a bear?" I asked.

"Just whenever we need to, whenever we need the meat. Why kill a lot? Why kill more than you need? We kill one, eat some of it ourselves, sell a bit and give a piece to each of our relations."

"Is it difficult to kill them?" I asked.

"No, not if you have a good gun. It can be tricky if they're running, but it's usually not a problem. Pass me that khuynya," he added, pointing to the ashtray.

After dinner the conversation ran into silliness and jokes of a savage vulgarity literally incomparable to anything I had ever heard previously. We lay down on our hard, wooden beds at around 11.

"We'll get up as soon as it's light tomorrow," Kolya told us, "and Kostya and Ed can go with Egor to the tabun."

* * *

The next morning, after a half-hour ride through the woods, across the fern-littered tundra and two frozen rivers, we drew up outside another cabin. We clambered off the sledge and went inside to find two Russians and three Even lounging around. They brewed some tea, at the same time laying the table with bread and butter.

"So how many of you are out here at the moment?" I asked.

"Just the five of us," replied one of the Russians, an unusually tall, broad-shouldered man in his early forties, "but more will come when mating season begins."

"And how many reindeer do you have?"

"About three hundred and twenty five. They're about five minutes from here," he told me in a gruff voice. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm just interested in reindeer herders. I've visited them in Mongolia, Arkhangelsk Province and on the Yamal," I replied.

"Ah," said the big Russian man. "On the Yamal it's very different from here. There they never stopped living as nomads with enormous herds. There used to be an enormous herd here too, but after the collapse of the USSR people had no food and just began stealing and killing reindeer. Over half the herd was lost like that and from reindeer just running away and becoming wild."

"Our reindeer were stronger back then too," said a tiny old Even man, his wrinkled little face scrunched up into a ball as he sipped his tea. "We used to let them mix and breed with with the wild reindeer. They were strong, like horses, you could ride them from here to Anavgay. But we've stopped that practice now and they've become weak."

"Your snowmobile's looking a bit old and rusty," the big Russian man said, pointing out of the window at Egor's machine.

"I'm planning on buying a Yamaha next year," Egor replied, shrugging.

"What, you don't drink or something?" the Russian asked.

"No, not at all," Egor replied. "I used to when I was at school but now I have a baby to feed."

It was the turn of one of the other Even men, Zhenka, to go out and keep an eye on the herd, so he, Egor, Kostya and I headed off on the snowmobile to where the animals were grazing. Kostya and I took a few photos then we drove back to the cabin, leaving Zhenka to keep watch on the herd while sitting under some bushes for protection from the heavy snow that had begun to fall.

"Where were the horses?" I asked Egor, back at the cabin.

"They're spread out. It's almost mating season so we need to round them up but it can take up to two weeks, as they move further and faster than reindeer."

"And why did that guy ask you whether you drank or not after you said you wanted to buy a Yamaha?"

"He just thought I probably did drink, and that I would spend all my money on vodka and not be able to afford a Yamaha snowmobile."

The next day I had to head back to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, The Town, as everyone called it, so after saying goodbye to Kostya, Ilya and Kolya I set off for Anavgay on the back of a sledge attached to a snowmobile driven by Egor who also needed to go back.

"Take these," Kolya said, handing me some dark snow goggles. "You'll need them on the way, but be sure to give them to Egor before you leave Anavgay. Good luck. If you were cold on the way here, you'll freeze today."

Off we went, the cold, wet snow drifting heavily down on us and soaking our clothing. I lay down, stretched out on the now cargo-free sledge, and gazed up at the pure white sky as I drifted along far below it. When I sat up to glance around I almost started: I could see nothing at all. We were in a pure white out. Very soon over a foot of snow had fallen and we simply could not drive up some of the steeper slopes, both of us having to get off and push the snowmobile uphill.

Eventually some trees came into view, making the world less unsettlingly white than it had been previously, and we began the ascent of the mountains. As Egor said, with God's help we would make it over the pass.



Click this link for advice on independent travel in Kamchatka

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4th May 2011

You always have wonderful adventures
Carry on!
5th May 2011

Great job!
your writing has significantly improved. Not that it was bad before but this one is really good. Book critics cant complain!

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