A dense carpet of stunted Mongolian oak gives way to cliff and then to ocean in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve in Russia. Languid waves massage the sands of Khuntami Bay in the distance, while somewhere inland a wildfire smolders and pushes an ashy haze towards the Sea of Japan.
Up here, perched on a cathedral of rock a hundred meters above the ocean surface, the air is filled with the insect-like twitters of Pacific swifts; funnels of them that lance past on invisible currents of cool ocean breeze. On the cliff face, flashes of dark fur blend with the grey of the rock; these are long-tailed gorals—stocky and goat-like creatures that wisely take refuge here from the Amur tigers, Eurasian lynx, and occasional wolves that pace the game trails along the cliff’s crest. Far below, at the water, Temminck’s and pelagic cormorants huddle on guano-stained crags and unfurl their damp wings deferentially to the sun.
The Khuntami cliffs stand tall and imposing; like a sentinel guarding this place where nature remains wild.
My colleagues in the Russian Far East are serious outdoorsmen; individuals who scavenge meat from dead animals, remain unwashed for days or weeks, stand stock-still to endure bluff charges from bears and tigers, and react resolutely when such attacks turn out to be more than feigned.
I sometime wonder, if life were film, what music would trail these men. A fitting soundtrack might be raw and acoustic; a lo-fi recording of light-fingered guitarists and rhythmic stomping that lofts sawdust from floorboards underfoot. Or perhaps something heavier: a grinding wave of rusty industrial noise to highlight the rough edges of this place.
In reality, there is an arresting dichotomy between my gruff Russian companions and the music they select to augment their travel experiences. On long rides churning through mud and skirting cliffs against backdrops of magnificent mountains and twisting rivers, they actively choose to listen to what I would expect to hear at a middle-school dance party instead.
I spoke with a conservation inspector last year, the fellow singly responsible for enforcing wildlife and natural resource law across all of Ternei County–an area larger than Massachusetts–in northern Primorye, Russia. He recounted his experiences in 2008, a year when the pine forests yielded an atypically productive harvest of cones packed with commercially-valuable pine nuts. People fell over themselves to profit from this bounty, and the inspector animatedly recalled numerous skirmishes fought over the resource.
In one case, a band of Chinese shishkari (pine nut collectors) were robbed of their harvest by Russian competitors from the village of Malaya Kema, men who stumbled upon the Chinese camp and its neatly-organized sacks of cones while their owners were in the forest collecting more. The Chinese men returned to find their hoard missing, rushed out in pursuit, and were almost surprised they found the robbers so quickly. They rounded a curve in the forest road to see the Russians cursing and smoking and bent under the hood of their truck. Their get-away vehicle had selected an untimely moment to break down. The Russian thieves were beaten with sticks and the stolen cones triumphantly reclaimed. The Chinese victory was short lived, however. The Kema men fixed their truck, returned to their village to rally compatriots, and descended on the Chinese camp with rifles. The Chinese team decided against the indignity of burial in hastily-dug graves in the Russian wilderness; opting instead to cede the forest and leave their aromatic treasures behind.