Destination: Kungur Ice Cave. With an epic-sounding name, and the mystique of being located in what one would think is the middle of nowhere, we spent the morning entertaining fantasies of arriving to explore the vast, icy reaches of a publicly accessible, but little-known cave system.
Needless to say, we weren't expecting to find something quite so official:
The cave can only be visited by tour, and comes with a hefty price tag. After talking it over, we decided to go for it. This was the sole purpose of our visit to Kungur, and curiosity got the better of us. Ice. Cave. In. Russia!
Tickets in hand, we followed our tour group to a concrete tunnel leading into the surrounding hillside. The moment our guide pulled open the door, it felt like we'd stepped into a giant meat locker. The rush of cold air was invigorating, it was hot out today! So hot, in fact, that we almost left our jackets in the car. It was good thing we didn't – the hour long tour was very, very chilly.
In the first grotto, everything was crusted with a fat layer of sparkling white crystals.
In the next, there were one or two large ice formations, and lots of icy build-up. Unfortunately, though, by the time we'd wound through a narrow passageway into the the third grotto, the ice was replaced with a slick dampness, and the rest of our tour was "normal cave stuff".
There were craggy walls decorated with the shadows cast by grimy lanterns, slippery stairs to climb and descend, and underground pools, rippling from the echo-y droplets of water falling on their glassy surfaces.
Our guide spoke Russian, so we could only understand meager bits and pieces of what she was saying. But, I'm pretty sure we didn't miss much, as she spent most of her time with a red laser pointer, making rapid circles on rock formations, pointing out what animals they seemed to resemble. Honestly, the content of the tour was mostly a strange, subterranean cloud-watching session.
Soon, we came to a grotto with a huge hanging screen. Our guide flipped off the lights, providing us with a moment of pure darkness (I wish there had been a lot more of that, I love that sort of thing) and then, really loud music started echoing through the chamber we were in.
It sounded like "Pirates of the Caribbean" was about to begin, when lasers fired up, rapidly drawing swirling images of all kinds on the mesh screen, from silly spirographs, to gods, to crystal formations, to czars. I'm pretty sure it was the history of (and mythology surrounding) the caves.
After our flashy laser show, the tour quickly wrapped up. Back outside, back in the sticky heat, everyone peeled off their layers and made for the parking area. After pursuing the souvenir stand for a few minutes, we headed back to the car, ready to start our nightly free-camp hunt. More on that, in a bit.