Saturday, April 26, 2008

Petropavlovsk - its not about Snowboarding and Volcanos!!!!!!!!


With the news that the weather is unlikely to clear tomorrow, and in celebration of one of the guides' birthday, we decided to go to one of Petropavlovsk's night spots. I was told the the places only starts to rock at 2am (15h00 Moscow time = body clocks). When 2 am rolled around, I was blown away, absolutely blown away.

I was blown away by how many women there were, I was blown away by how beautiful the many women were, I was blown away by how friendly the many beautiful women were, and I was blown away with how many of the friendly beautiful women spoke English. I was even told by one that "although my English isn't as good as my friends', I make up with it with my beautiful smile", upon which she flashed her beautiful smile.

Just when I thought I couldn't be more pleasantly surprised, in walk a new surprise; someone I knew!

While sitting in Bakshis (aka the Green Punjabi) in Gulmarg, Kashmir in late February after buying a ridiculous one-piece at the market and relaxing over a chai with Michael, in walked a Zelena and she asked what we where drinking and if it was any good. Zelena had just arrived in Gulmarg for some freeskiing and we struck up a conversation. She is Russian and originally from Petropavlovsk although no longer living there. She was back on holiday when I ran into her. In Gulmarg she had warned me that I might not get powder in May in Kamchatka, a statement that had been eating away at me in the back of my mind since. We spoke for a while in the sportbar about the new frontiers of skiing and boarding and also introduced me to some of her friends that I had already had the pleasure of meeting.

It was after 6am by the time I got home and I was happy for bad weather and a long sleep off on Saturday.

To anyone whoever finds themselves in Petropavlovsk, I highly recommend a trip to the Sportbar on a Friday or Saturday night. Its a great way to get your body onto local time, its a great way meet locals, and its an absolutely fantastic party.

I don't think my worlds really do the Sportbar justice. Its a polished diamond when you are expecting pebbles. It is enigmatic. It is as good a party as you find anywhere. Here are a few pictures.





Friday, April 25, 2008

Petropavlovsk - First impressions

"It is 9:15 local time and the weather in Petropavlovsk is NASTY!" is verbatim what the Aeroflot flight attendant announced in a heavy Russian accent on our approach to PKC, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatksy. Unfortunately I didn't have the good fortune of a window seat like Colleen so I didn't get the opportuinity to see the volcanos poking through the cloud cover as we flew in.

On my way off the plane and onto the a overcast and dreary looking tarmac I managed to lose my lovely Kashmir Alpine beanie (Another reason to return to Gulmarg next year!). PKC airport is nothing to write home about. Furtunately the weather wasn't as NASTY as I had anticipated and I didn't mind waiting in the parking lot for the outhouse that is the baggage claim to open. Mine was the last piece of luggage to arrive. Marja, who had had a very short connection in Moscow feared that she wouldn't get hers at all. Hers was the first to arrive.

The countryside we saw in Kamchatka on our drive from the airport to our unimaginatively named Hotel Petropavlovsk was much like the snow and mud covered industrial wasteland I associate with the Soviet Union and my first trip to Russia in 1993. I had heard about the ship graveyard in Petropavlovsk but I hadn't realised that every house in the countryside would also have a graveyard for cars. It would seem that the rest of the world sends their cars to Kamchatka to rest in peace.

I am told there are only 3 hotels in Petropavlovsk and hotel Petropavlovsk is the second best. We share the hotel with other Vertikalny Mir skiers and boarders and a few blood thristy bear hunters. I too was warned that on occasion we share our ski room with a bear skin. If one of them leaves a gun around, they will be lucky if all I do is mess with the sites.

I am surprised by how well the hotel staff speak English. Another pleasant surprise.

In the afternoon we headed out to the local market; a fish and caviar lovers dream. Strangely however there was a long queue for eggs. This too reminded me of Soviet days when queueing for food wasn't uncommon. What I found puzzling about this however was that there were other stalls selling eggs. If someone can explain all of this to me, I am all ears.

We had lunch in a local bistro. I cant read the menu and I left the ordering up to the others. I am tired and I am happy to eat whatever is put in front of me. Patrick and Marja quickly made friends with some locals and were pretty soon knocking back Vodkas.

Moscow to Petropavlovsk

Tony had noticed that on our flights to Patropavlovsk we were all entitled to a 40kg baggage allowance. What a pleasant surprise. It was only when we arrived at the airport that we saw why. With our snowboard bags and gear, when compared to our fellow passengers, we were still relatively light packers.

I think our fellow passengers broadly fit into three categories: There were fellow skiers and snowboarders, there were Russians taking every conceivable luxury and household good presumably not available in Kamchatka, and lastly there were American and German hunters packing some serious heat!


It turns out that Kamchatka also attracts a lot of hunting tourism. I am a little uncomfortable with sharing the beautiful surrounds and natural beauty of Kamchatka with hunters. I do not object to hunting per se. I have shot at a few ducks on a friends farm before. Had we been successful we would have taken them home to his mother and they would have been lunch. I however do draw the line somewhere. It just doesn't seem right to me to travel half way across the world to a place that has less stringent regulations than your own countries to go out and shoot bears whilst they are still yawning and stretching out after having just woken up from their winter hibernation. What chance do they have when they still have sleep in their eyes? I just don't get trophy hunting.

We all managed to land the front row of economy which is great if you can stretch your legs out into the aisle. If like me, you are sandwiched in the middle, you have a X hour flight without straightening your legs. I guess it could have been worse. I could have been allergic to pollen and been sandwiched next to a flower weilding mamuschka like Colleen and Andrew

The person sitting next to me was Marja Persson who it turned out that was heading out to join Patrik Linqvist and others in Kamchatka for a shoot and would be flying in the same helicopter as us.

I had some sleeping tablets shortly after take off (the guys behind us were using vodka instead) and managed a few fitful burst of sleep before being woken 7 hours into our 9 hour journey for breakfast, my 9th airline meal in 5 days (was it breakfast?). I still wasn't quite with it when we touched down to an overcast Petropavlovsk at about 10 am local time.

It was a very uneventful flight really. I remember it being dark only very briefly. In future I would try to get a window seat so that I could take a look at the volcanoes poking through the clouds in event of bad weather. I also would ask not to be woken for food. It seems you have no choice.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The glitzy Hotel Cosmos (Гостиница "Космос", Москва): Solaris nightclub



Surprisingly we didn't find a place in Moscow to go out in. We didn't like the look of the Casinos on the strip, and the pub we had been directed to was closing when we arrived. After watching the champions league game and a street fight, we headed back to Hotel Cosmos and where greeted by an invitation to go to the local night club called Solaris. I had hoped to do some dancing and had hoped to punctuate out trip through Moscow with some of its famous night life. There was plenty of dancing, of every variety, very little of which was performed by any of the nightclub's patrons.

Another Supermodel

After my lengthy battle to sort out my Option freeplus snowboard, I arrived in Moscow with only my old and battered Burton Air 161, a board far too small for the conditions I anticipated in Kamchatka, especially given the gear I would be carrying.

Fortunately I was able to sort this out in between my sightseeing during my short 2 day stop in Moscow. Marko, an old friend of mine and my host from my first visit to Moscow in 1993, was able to hook me up with some of his former colleagues and he kindly took me off to the KAHT at the Moscow Alps to pick a new board.

They had a fantastic selection, especially given the time of year. It is far better than anything I have seen on the net over the last 6 weeks. I was able to get a Burton Supermodel for a bargain price, and picked up a few extra bits and pieces along the way.

Thanks Marko and Kaht!

Getting around Moscow: There is an easier way



Its seems every single time I am in Moscow, someone always takes me to the University to see Moscow by night. This was my third trip there and by far the most impressive. It was a cold night, with an unreal sunset.

Maria, a colleague of Andrew's, had decided to take us under her wing and took us first to the University, then her local church, and lastly dropped us off at a fabulous steak restaurant. We had thought that she was going to join us (Andrew had hoped), but we were surprised when she left us at the restaurant and told us that we could find our way home by simply flagging down any car and they would take us to wherever we wanted to go for a few rubles.

We were all a little dumbstruck. Just about every publication I had read had warned about getting into unmarked cars and here someone that had gone out of her way to enhance our experience of Moscow was telling us to do just this. In nervous anticipation, we spent much of our dinner discussing the interesting trip that no doubt lay ahead.

It gave me more time to reflect on my thoughts of Russia and of how it has embraced capitalism. The noise of colourful advertising is everywhere, with everyone trying to grab your attention. Once again I had cause too to reflect on a suspicion of mine that countries traditionally thought of as democratic free markets, which are characterized by regulations and institutions that entrench the economically empowered, have a lot to learn from those we view as less developed economies, where the major barrier to entry into the economy is simply education. In some of my travels in Africa I have thought that it is a place where the free-market, above all else, rules. It is a place that the rest of the world sends their disused machinery so that they even more value can be squeezed from them. It is a place where everything has a price dictated by market forces. Malawi is a place where everyone with a vehicle is in the transport business, the only question is one of price. Russia it would seem is little different.

The first car we flagged down pulled over for us. A second stopped too to wait to see if we could all fit into one car. Our journey was rather uneventful, punctuated only by our excitement at having pulled it off, some local music, and the observation from Tony that never before have we ever seen 14 lane wide streets!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Moscow, the Kremlin, and the FSB (AKA KGB)

Moscow isn't new to me. I spent time there in April 1993 as an impressionable young teenager when on an exchange program at school. I stayed 10 minutes away from Red Square and the Kremlin. Its probably the only part of Moscow that I recognise on subsequent visits. The rest has changed so much in the last 15 years.

My first night was a bit of a blur. My body shut down whilst I was watching the Champions league in the hotel bar and i remember waking the next morning at 6am and catching up with Andrew. I needed to share with him the delights of Gulmarg and woke him up to watch Castel: India * Kashmir!



I hadn't been in Red square more than 10 minutes when I was approached by an official from the FSB. Initially doubting his authenticity since he was not in uniform (until he was joined by two companions in uniform), I was not particularly cooperative. He felt that I was taking too many pictures, that my telephoto lens was too powerful, and had decided that I was a professional photographer and I needed to obtain special permission.

On the back of my travel marathon, after dealing with constant harrassment in India and recently having to pay a fortune in bakshish in Delhi to sort out my flight to Moscow via Kiev, I was in a particularly disagreeable mood. Furthermore I suspected that the FSB official was only interested in extracting a bribe from me, which I wholly intended not to do. At first I played my hardest at not understanding what he was saying, despite his rather good English. I then argued that there was nothing special about my camera, and after he requested my passport, I clearly pointed out to him that I had registered my arrival in Moscow within 72 hours (apparently a common reason that tourist are fined about USD 500). I was reaching for my phone and telling him that I was going to phone my embassy so that he could explain to them what the problem was when he backed off and decided to let me continue. Not 20 minutes later I was approached again by another FSB official. He was dispatched with even greater ease. It could become a sport.

Meeting up in Moscow

Its great to no longer be traveling solo.

I have been joined by Andrew, Tony and Colleen.

Meet them:









Tony:













Colleen:


















Andrew














Me:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Luggage weighing me down at Delhi international airport

I had read about Delhi airport months ago when I wanted to find out if there was a left luggage facility for me to leave my snowboard gear in. There is. It is opposite the car park at international arrivals. Its quite easy to find once you have made your way through all the taxis trying to tout their services.






Its pretty good at only 30 rupees a day and I was encouraged to see plenty of snowboards in there when I first arrived. The guys running it were also really friendly.









In my research I read other people's views on the nightmare that is Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport. There are major improvements underway at the moment. That means that at the time of writing, one of the worst international airports in the world is even worse than normal because it is in a total state of confusion. Add to this that I was the first Aerosvit passenger to purchase a ticket on the internet that needed to be issued by the service agents at Delhi airport, and my 15 hour layover quickly turned into a lot of sitting in offices, argueing and in the end it was a rather frantic affair to try and get my ticket issued before our 5am departure. My additional snowboard gear also cost me a pretty penny.

My normal bag was pretty light, well under the 20kg limit but I was given no credit for this in the calculation of my snowboard bag until I started repacking on the airport floor. Never before have I seen passengers with bags that weight 57 kgs (I thought 32 or 35 kgs was an international occupational health and safety limit) but none of the 50+ Singhs on the flights (While waiting in the service agents office I saw the passenger list) paid a cent in excess luggage charges.

Overall, it was one of my less enjoyable experiences in India, but then I don't think it fair to judge India by its airport.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A travel Marathon: BNE-HKG-DEL-KBP-SVO

I am really looking forward to meeting up with friends in Moscow and heading out on the town. Its been a while since I last did. I only have one reservation: My body clock is likely to be rather messed up.

Having been introduced to ITA Matrix by a former college, I was able to book very rather tailored routing from Brisbane to Moscow which worked out far cheaper than other options I had found on line. I also tailored my trip so that I could visit a friend in Hong Kong and not pay extra for a stopover, and fly past Delhi to collect all my snowboarding gear from my recent trip to Gulmarg. That saved me lugging a 20kg boardbag all the way from India to New Zealand and Australia and then back again.

The reality of the connections that I have chosen means that I will have been in 5 airports, in 5 countries (Australia, China, India, Ukraine and Russia) from Sunday morning through to Tuesday evening, eat a whole stack of airline food and likely be in desperate need of a shower... airport security have just confiscated my deodorant from my hand luggage at Honk Kong Airport. I argued in vain that it was an aerosol i.e. gas, and not a liquid or gel and that none of the airports in Australia, New Zealand, India or Singapore that I have passed through recently had a problem with it.

I have done a few calculations courtesy of Google Earth and my itineraries:

Brisbane to Moscow:

Travel time: 59 hours
Flying time: 24 hours
Distance travelled: 16'025 kilometers or about 9;955 miles

By the time I have reached Petropavlovsk those numbers will look more like this (and I will be back on New Zealand time):

Brisbane to Kamchatka:
Travel time: 121 hours
Flying time: 33
Distance travelled: 22'816 kilometers or about 14'175 miles

All of this isn't too bad really. I don't mind. I am not complaining, just presenting my reality. I enjoyed my brief stop in Hong Kong. I caught up with a friend, Jonathan. I got to see a bit of the city. He took me for some amazing prawns. I am collecting airmiles. And I don't really believe that airline food is that bad.

I always request a special meal, usually low sodium or low carbs because that way you always get served first, and can go to sleep sooner. Try it one day. The meals are usually the same, just without salt, which you can then add, or a less fattening desert.

This probably doesn't have its place in this blog, but I am going to venture on with some of my thoughts on airline food. I remember flying out of Blantyre in Malawi a few years back and I decided that people who complain about airline food have got it too good. A few days earlier I had been walking around the village of Liwonde when I came upon someone selling dried rats to eat. The were sorted into size and cost next to nothing and where going like hot cakes. To the villagers, there wasn't anything out of the ordinary going on. There weren't foreign journalists documenting this disturbing reality. It was totally normal. Some food for thought.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Nothing strange here


This is my response to a post I saw on the following blog: Even normal recreation is getting weird

"Talk about people getting too jaded and needing extreme excitement to prevail over boredom!!

Talk about being out of your freaking mind!"

I don't see anything unusual with snowboarding or skiing on volcanoes. I just see them as a different type of mountain, that might results is some interesting terrain. I think that Kamchatka is likely to be a lot more mellow than Krasnaya Polyana in the Caucuses or Gulmarg in the Pir Pinjal range, both being places I benchmark my trips against. I certainly don't consider riding a volcano to be extreme, crazy, or fringe. I think spending your waking hours working to make other people's dreams come true rather than your own is crazy.

In fact, judging by most people's actions, I think they are fine with snowboarding or skiing volcanoes, even if they haven't ever consciously thought about it. Mammoth, amongst others, is actually a volcano, a fact that often escapes a lot of people.

For me I simply see Kamchatka as an exotic and vast snowboarding destination (larger than France, Belgium and Luxembourg combined), with a long winter, runs filled with endless powder turns, and hopefully enough variation to be technically challenging. Unlike skiers, I can't simply satisfy myself with nice symmetrical zigzag's down the mountain. Bring on hips, lips, drops and gullies! I don't expect to find many trees but then we can't have it all.

There is one volcano that I do want to snowboard that I do think does fall into the crazy, fringe, extreme category. Its Cotopaxi in Ecuador! We have a history. About 4 year ago, with only 100 metres left to climb largest active volcano in the world (according to the 2002 CIA World factbook), my guide decided that the risk of avalanche was too severe and turned me back. I have sworn to go back and conquer that baby, and when I do, I might consider strapping a board to my pack and snowboarding down to declare victory on the sleeping icy beast that will one day kill thousands.

Each to their own really, but I certainly don't see anything too extreme about heliboarding in Kamchatka. What is perhaps extreme is how far away it is from everywhere, including most people's consciousness.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Kamchatka - Facts, figures, and my preconceptions

I first heard about Kamchatka sitting in a bar in Krasnaya Polyana. Sacha and Ivan from Croatia, and Tony and I were discussing the idea of going there after the thrill of our first heliboarding trip in Russia. An elderly gentleman lent over and spoke to us. "Until 10 years ago not even Russians were allowed into Kamchatka" he told us. "Kamchatka is controlled by the Russian military and only members of the military or those born in Kamchatka and fishing the Bering sea were allowed there." he explained. With the dismantling of the former Soviet Union access to Kamchatka has improved and there are daily flights, all of 13 hours across 9 time zones, from Moscow into Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (totalling 7500 m or 4690 miles!!!). When last I looked one could also fly into Kamchatka (PKC) from Vladivostock, Magadan, Chabarovsk, Irkutsk, Novosibirsk and internationally from Seoul and Anchorage. The only other access is via sea, either on freight or fishing boats. We managed to score a great deal on getting there from Moscow. Our flight cost Euro 130 for a one way ticket (I am fly out to Vladivostok and catching a train back to Europe after calling curtains on Winter 07/08).

In the two years that the Kamchatka has rolled off my lips, the large majority of people that have any conception of where it is are those that have at some time in their lives played the game of Risk. For those that don't know much about Kamchatka, I have outlined more of what I have learned about it below. I clearly have some preconceptions of what to expect and I think it will be interesting for me to document my expectations prior to my arrival. This is what I know and/or suspect.Kamchatka, a world heritage sight, is also called the Land of Fire and Ice and is a 1250km long volcanic peninsula on the Pacific rim that's stretches 1000 kilometres to the northeast of Japan. I have been told that it is a territory that Japan once laid claim to and there remains a low-level diplomatic dispute over the sovereignty of this territory (a refreshing change from a recent trip to Gulmarg in Kashmir).

There are over 300 volcanoes, of which about 30 are active, with the highest called Klyuchevskaya Sopka being 4750 meters above see level. During the winter, snow stretches from the top of these volcanoes down to see leave and it is possible to board onto the beach. I am looking forward to that.

The main industry in Kamchatka remains the fishing industry but due to its unique and unspoilt nature, tourism to this area is growing. I think I read a few years back that there was no GSM (cellphone) network but I understand that has changed, and finding an ATM isn't too difficult either.

I did read this crazy story about two guys that walked across the Beiring straight from Alaska and, upon their arrival, were detained and imprisoned for immigration violations. Its crazy stuff. Take a look at it.

The population is approximately 400'000 with more than half of those living in the main city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Until 1990, no foreigners or nonresident Russians were allowed to visit. In 1991, the Russian Federation was established as an independent republic and Kamchatka was opened for visiting by foreign guests.

The main industry is the fishing industry, and there is a greater variety of Salmonid (trout, salmon etc) than anywhere else in the world. I have already made notes on the pictures I want to take of the fish markets.

In terms of skiing and snowboarding terrain, I expect it to be a lot more mellow than Krasnaya Polyana. I think that the geology of volcanoes means that it will not have incredibly steap pitches. I hope I am proved otherwise. I am looking forward to a challenge after Gulmarg.

A trip that never was: Kamchatka April 2007


Colleen and Tony kindly agreed to postpone their own trips to Kamchatka last year after I became injured. Sasha and Ivan, two Croatians that had been part of our original trip to Krasnaya Polyana and with whom we had coordinated our trip to Kamchatka went along with there planned trip in April 2007 and after I got hold of Sasha to find out how he had got along and what I could expect from our trip, this is what he replied to me:


He also sent me a link to his pictures. Take a look at some of these. They are incredible. As well as the absolutely amazing terrain and geography of the place (take a look at the picture with the Volcano going off in the distance), I am encouraged by the fact that Kamchatksky-Petropavlovsk looks like it has a night life which is a lot more than I can say for Krasnaya Polyana. For that, you need to travel through to Sochi.

Photo Credits: Sasha (boobster.net)

Snowboards: Looking into other options


I have finally heard back from the Swiss distributor of Option Snowboards. He offered me a 20% discount on the 08/09 models that will become available September. I don't think they have taken much time to understand why I have complained. I still have boarding to do this winter. A board a discounted board in September is of no use to me know, and a 20% discount on beginning of season prices isn't really worth waiting for in my opinion when I am able to pick up some fantastic discounts at this time of year on current year models. I am not a firm believer that newer is better. I think a lot more innovation is going into custom ski making than snowboards these days which have kinda plateaued. I would be quite happy to ride a two season old Option Freeplus. I loved that board. Well, I loved its ride characteristic. My after sales service experience has been appalling and I have waited three months to learn that it wont be covered. I have come to terms with that. I am just really irritated that it has taken three months, three months where my life has only been about riding, and I have had to ride my old board.

I wasn't surprised to learn that others have had similar experiences in the past. I found this comment from someone else while I was looking into when Option moved from a one year to a two year limited warrantee (the reason my board wasn't covered despite only having about 20 days riding in it):

Customer Service:
Getting Option to warranty their boards is like getting the Pope to sell his soul to the devil. Option Customer Service is argumentative and blames all delaminations on rock damage even if there is no sign of abuse. My boards were in perfect shape (except for the delamination)You might get option to repair your board (not replace) but they will charge you for it even if you are within the warranty period. Paying over $400 for a high end board should merit a company standing behind its higher end products. Option does not stand behind their products at all.

So, I am now looking into new boards, something with some decent pop, but is stiff enough not to chatter at the end of the day when I am flying home down icy groomers, and something that is big enough for champagne powder whem I am carrying my backpack with avalanche gear and my camera on my back. I guess we can't have it all. I have ridden Burton's Malolo earlier this season and although I enjoyed it when I took it off-piste, there is no way that I can mess around and ride switch when you return to the groomers. I am also doing quite a bit of travel so I want one stick that does it all, from park to big mountain. I am not too keen to carry around a quiver with me wherever I go. (i got wacked £230 in excess baggage on my Air India flight from London to Delhi in early February because snowboards aren't skis and the rules only specify an allowance for skis and surfboards! That's another story.)

If there is anyone out there that has any great advice, feel free to drop me a line. I am currently looking at the Rome Anthem, Burton Supermodel, Burton Custom, and a few Ride boards. I have also heard that Elan make great boards, and many other manufacturers actually outsource their manufacturing of boards to Elan in Slovenia. I don't really know their range though so if there e is anyone that wants to share their wisdom, please let me know.

I like the idea of designing my own board and stumbled on a number of sites. The first was when I was looking into Elan boards, and the other I came upon while doing some research. I also met a few custom designers at Freestyle.ch in Zurich last September and have found a wealth of information here. Take a look at it, its really interesting.

I am not sure that I have the time, the facilities and tools, and the technical know-how, but the idea of manufacturing my own board is appealing. I take my hats off to all these guys who do. Take a look at the gallery pictures and read up how it is done. If I find myself settling in one place for long enough, with time enough to spare, I might try my hand.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Reflections


This has nothing to do with heliboarding in Kamchatka, but its worth taking a look at these official pictures of vice president Dick Cheney. Its pretty funny stuff and I am not sure how much longer this will be up. Take a careful look at the reflection in his glasses

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