Esso: Stairs, flying Birkenstocks & the hospital

✍️: Erin 📸: Jan & Erin

Have you ever seen Birkenstocks fly off someone’s feet like missiles? It’s hilarious. But after digging Jan’s hippie sandals out of the bushes — a solid 15 feet from where he slipped on a hillside staircase — I turn around and gasp. On his arm, where he’d caught his fall, a grotesque blob was rising.

We’d just gotten off a bus in Esso, a tiny mountain town in the center of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. It’s Friday evening, most everything is closed, and we’re now a nine-hour bus ride away — mostly along dirt roads — from the nearest city.

I’m convinced a broken bone (or a mutant mouse) is trying to push out of Jan’s bloodied skin. I panic.

Arriving in Esso, on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula

Bystrinsky Nature Park

We came to Esso because it’s near Bystrinsky Nature Park, which we’d been told was the best region in Kamchatka for independent hiking. Similar to a national park in the U.S., it has well-marked trails compared to elsewhere on the secluded peninsula.

Esso’s small tourism office provides great maps and the required hiking permits. The office is closed on weekends, at least as of August 2019, which we learned the hard way. We couldn’t find maps online before we arrived, so here’s the one we picked up (note distances are one-way):

Map of hiking trails in Bystrinsky Nature Park in Kamchatka, Russia

Our plan was to hike on our own for about a week, after our frustrating attempt to do the same near southern Kamchatka’s volcanoes. So we were really excited to be in Esso — until Jan fell. (In full disclosure, my left foot has been throbbing thanks to self-diagnosed plantar fasciitis, so we weren’t sure how much hiking we’d be able to do. But because I’m writing this post, I get to blame him. #TeamErin)


Nervous walk in Esso

Jan is impressively calm despite the lemon-sized mound on his left forearm, maybe because he can sense I’m scared. He quickly finds the crap-tastic cabin we’ve rented for a few nights. It’s up a different but equally perilous wooden staircase nearby. (We’d later swap to the haven that is the Grushanka Guesthouse; more on that and other better experiences later in this post.)

Jan also, to my dismay, pushes and pokes his arm blob. He twists his wrist, convinced there are no broken bones. I’m not convinced.

We drop our heavy backpacks in the smelly cabin and walk up a road to what Google Maps indicates is a medical clinic. We find a grouping of buildings that appear to be a small hospital, so we walk inside. It seems empty. We cautiously walk down a barren hallway painted bright blue, hearing a TV show in a distant room.

A stern-looking woman suddenly appears. Jan shows her his arm. She whips out a cellphone and starts asking questions through a translator app. She, too, pokes and pulls on the blob. She calls the doctor, who shows up about 10 minutes later in running gear, looking equally stern. More poking and pulling, and then everyone disappears into an examination room.

I’m now alone in the empty hallway.

The Diagnosis

After about 30 minutes, Jan emerges with the now white-coated doctor. His left forearm is thickly wrapped in gauze. The diagnosis: A hematoma, basically a blood clot with swelling at the point of impact. The treatment: a pair of small incisions to release the clot and drain the hematoma. (Jan took photos, and they’re gross. I’ll spare you, unlike he did me.)

His wound also needs to be redressed … by the doctor … at the hospital … every morning for the next four days. We’d read that medical costs vary widely in Russia for travelers, from free in some small towns to $100 for a mere consultation in Moscow. So, we hold our breath, find some frozen dumplings in lieu of ice to tend to the swelling — and take it easy for the next few days.

(Warning: the last photo in the series below shows the arm blob pre-incision — it’s a bit graphic, unless you’re a nurse — so manually scroll through the photos to get to it.)

  • Jan using frozen dumplings to ice his wound
  • Jan with bandaged arm
  • Jan's arm wound

Finally, the last day at the hospital. We read that bringing a small gift to the doctor is appreciated in smaller towns, so we bring a box of chocolates.

The doctor, who hasn’t cracked a smile in four days, lights up. He graciously accepts, smiles and laughs.

Then he motions to Jan to take a selfie. Here are the BFFs:

Jan taking a selfie with the doctor in Esso

Oh, and the total cost for the four-day treatment: $60. That’s it.


Visit Esso (just watch your step)

Despite spending most of our time at the hospital, Esso was a highlight of our trip to Kamchatka — thanks in part to rafting along the Bystraya River. The river is frigid but full of rapids, crystal clear water and trout basically begging to get caught. Read Jan’s full report here!

We found the trip thanks to the Grushanka Guesthouse, where we spent our last four nights in Esso. The guesthouse is secluded and on the outskirts of town, with wonderful home-cooked breakfasts and dinners if you pay a bit extra. The place is exceptionally clean and family owned.

Our host, Olya, speaks fluent English and quickly organized our rafting trip. She even came along to provide translations. She later put an evening tea gathering together after learning Jan and I were newlyweds, so we joined the seven other guests that evening — four South Koreans, two Swiss women and their Russian guide — for great conversation, tea and dessert.

Tea at Grushanka Guesthouse in Esso, Kamchatka, Russia

Pro tip: Avoid staying anywhere close to the public hot springs pool in Esso. The outdoor pool is nice, in a scenic spot, and generally mellow during the day with a large wooden deck. But we learned the hard way that it attracts a rowdy crew on weekends: loud laughing at 2 a.m., fighting at 3 a.m., and screaming at 4 a.m. Trash the next morning reflected the ruckus, though it was cleaned up by afternoon.


In the End …

We attempted a hike on a warm, blue-sky day late in our stay — but my ailing foot (along with an overgrown, muddy trail, and killer mosquitoes) deter us from going much farther than 4 miles.

The scenery is beautiful, and we’re really bummed we can’t explore it more. Coming all this way only to get sidelined by a couple of dumb injuries. But, that’s OK. We met great people and just had a different experience than expected.


If You Go:

We couldn’t find any information on the bus trip to Esso before we took it, except for a couple guidebooks noting it existed. So if you’re looking to take the bus, you found the right place! Click here for our full report, including tips on how to avoid terrible pit toilets.

Some of our down time is also spent at the local ethnographic museum, which is worth a visit. It highlights the region’s early inhabitants and their culture, similar to the early peoples in North America.

Post Script (from ✍️ Jan): A little something for my VUE / CET Team)

Finally, a word about Russian pharmacies (or apteka, I assume a form of ‘apothecary’). This is Jan appending Erin’s post: #TeamJan. They’re quite different from what we’re used to in the States. In larger towns, you’ll find some open on the weekends, but in Esso, that wasn’t the case. There was one pharmacy in town. And it was open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The term “over the counter” is taken literally. One does not simply pick up a box of “Ibuprom” (Russian Ibuprofin) in the aisles and take it to the register. Anything you want is handed to you, over the counter, by the white-frocked pharmacist. When you don’t speak Russian, and a large gauze bandage encases your left forearm, and it throbs because a couple of days ago, the good doctor put a scalpel to it, you have to figure out a way to ask the lady (all of the pharmacists I saw in Russia were women) behind the glass wall for Ibuprofen. Thankfully, the magic of AI (thank you Google Translate) helped make things a little easier. That and a lot of pointing and nodding and agreeing to things that you don’t understand.

This experience was particularly interesting because of the time I spent working for a large drug store chain on customer experience. And I can’t help but think it’s ironic that the first pharmacy experience we’ve had on this trip was in Kamchatka — the folks on my team will understand why that’s funny. Here’s hoping I don’t have a reason to visit a pharmacy in Goa! (I miss you guys… #TeamVUE)

A small town Russian pharmacy
Apteka No. 40 Esso Kamchatka

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