Sakhalin Island, Russia: Visiting a Place Few Will Ever See
By Joshua K. Hartshorne
“Are you looking for a ride North?” asked a voice in Russian.
I turned around from a map of Sakhalin Island’s railways. The speaker was a middle-aged woman.
“We’re hiring a car to Nogliki,” she continued.
Nogliki sounded fine. I had three days and nowhere particular in mind to go. It’s hard to plan ahead in Siberia. Information is scarce, phone numbers change as rapidly as transportation schedules. An acquaintance on the train here had regaled me with stories of her travels about Sakhalin, finishing each tale with, “Of course, you have to know somebody local to go there.”
Meeting Olga and Greg
I didn’t know anyone local yet. The woman, Olga, was traveling with an American by the name of Greg who didn’t appear to speak Russian. “So what brings you to Sakhalin?”
I asked Greg. What brings anyone to Sakhalin? I came nominally because it was “on the way” to Taiwan from the Arctic port of Tiksi, but mostly because it was an island. Ever since I saw it on the map, I’d wanted to go.
“We are paleoglaciologists,” Greg explained, which I gathered meant the study of glaciers that no longer exist. “We are doing a pilot tree-ring study.”
That sounded more interesting than my original plan, which was to track down a discharged soldier I’d met on the train, so I accepted the offer. We piled into the car.
I looked out the window. Sakhalin certainly has plenty of trees. It’s not a heavily-populated island. 600 miles (1000 km) long, it has just over 600,000 residents. Most are pines. The most distinctive, though, are the larches – scraggly and solemn, with crooked horizontal branches just begging a vulture to perch.
Studying Climate Change
“We study climate change,” Greg continued. “Trees grow at different rates depending on the temperature. You look at the rings and you can estimate what the weather was like that year.”
We drive down the road for a bit, watching the forest pass. “What’s wrong with the trees here?” I asked.
“Well, tree growth is affected by a lot of things, including how close the tree is to other trees. What you want is a healthy old tree, well spaced from its neighbors, faithfully putting down rings each year. The best place on this island is the tundra, which is still a bit north.”
Within a few hours, the tundra appeared, showing up in breaks between the forests. What exactly is tundra? It’s something like an arctic savanna. The trees are solitary or in breathy groves or entirely nonexistent. The ground, however, is not grassy but covered by a deep moss. It would take a geologist to tell you how far down the moss goes. I’ve dug with a shovel but never hit dirt.
Old Peat Bog
“Actually, most of this is growing on an old peat bog,” Greg explained after I told him that story. “That’s why when you look at the patches of forest here that has burned down, nothing is growing. Some of these burns are years or decades old, but there’s nothing green coming up.”
I spotted some solitary figures out in the mossy expanse. I asked Olga what they were doing.
“Picking berries. Lots of berries grow in the tundra.”
Coring trees is probably not so much fun if it’s what you do all summer, but I it sounded novel to me. Rather than tromp around Nogliki, which the Lonely Planet said was a dump anyway – and it is! – I asked if I could spend a day or two with them. They had room in their tent, and the deal was sealed.
The driver dropped us off at some particularly choice tundra. We hid our gear in a dry spot, got out the tools of the trade and set off into the tundra.
The moment foot hit moss, the mosquitoes found us. There’s no question as to where they came from; tundra is wet, as Olga soon found when she stepped into a moss-covered puddle over a foot deep, and it wasn’t long before Greg and I both had wet boots as well. Greg and Olga ignored the mosquitoes, but I didn’t have the veteran’s indifference to the exoskeletal buzzards. Despite the summer heat – yes, even Sakhalin gets hot in the summer – I had on long pants, long sleeves, a hat and my mosquito net. Even so, with dozens circling around me, plenty found their way past my armor.
The compensation for the mosquitoes was the berries. It was the height of blueberry season, and we picked and ate as we walked. There was another berry, shaped like an over-large raspberry, which Olga said “probably isn’t poisonous” as she popped one into her mouth. When she wasn’t dead after a few minutes, I tried one. I survived the next few minutes, and the berry was good, so by the end of the day I was eating every one I saw.
Of course, neither the mosquitoes nor the puddles nor the berries were what brought us out in the tundra. Once we found a tree to core, we had a cork-screw like contraption that we used to bore a hole into the trunk.
I asked Greg if we were hurting the trees. “Not much,” he said. “I’ve been to patches I’ve cored years later and all the trees were doing fine. The healthy ones sap over pretty quickly and that’s about it.”
Picking a tree turns out to be harder than one would think. “The big ones are often not that old,” the geologists explained. “They’re often sick and rotting. The only way to really know is core it and take a look.”
After a day of gallivanting about the tundra, we camped along the river Tim, near Nogliki. During the night, the rain began to pour. I hadn’t really expected to be camping and so my backpack wasn’t really rain-proofed. I woke in the morning to drizzle and soaked belongings.
We spent the morning trying to warm ourselves around the campfire. We talked of movies. Greg had loved The Day After Tomorrow. “Are you kidding?” he said. “A paleoglaciologist saves the world. I loved it! Too bad they didn’t run it by someone, though. The science would have made more sense.”
When it was clear that it wasn’t going to stop raining, I decided to hike back to the closest town, find a hotel and dry my things. A little after noon, I said my goodbyes and set off.
Though I spent a week on the island and saw many more picturesque places, nothing was quite so memorable as the soggy, gloomy tundra and its burnt neighboring forests. Next time I want to see the Russian wilds, I will find a team of geologists.
Going to Sakhalin
Sakhalin requires patience, a love of exploration and a good command of Russian… or lots of money. You can fly to the capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, from mainland Russia or Japan, though I arrived and left by ferry.
I arrived on the twice-daily ferry runs from Vanino, the terminus of the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway in Russia, to Kholmsk. Tickets (under $100) can supposedly be reserved by phone (7 421 37 57708), though that only marginally shortens the 11-hour-long line at the station. I left on the infinitely more comfortable ferry from Korsakov to Wakkanai, Japan. Tickets can be reserved from $170 at Sakhalin Fantastic (7 4242 420917, 7 4242 744163in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (Ulitsa Lenina 154).
Locals travel around Sakhalin by hitchhiking, but others may want to use the buses or trains, though neither have much coverage outside the several major cities. There are hotels in the larger cities. In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, it pays to have reservations as the hotels are numerous but frequently book out. If you travel to Nogliki, do not stay downtown. Use the infinitely cheaper hotel by the train station.
Joshua K. Hartshorne writes freelance from his base in Taipei, Taiwan.
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