A Sakhalin Road TripGUEST BLOGGERS, ROAD TRIPS, RUSSIA — By Brian R. Williams on July 26, 2010 at 16:42
By guest blogger Brian R. Williams
Photos Copyright © 2005 Brian Williams
SEEKING ADVENTURE and income in the Spring of 2005, I took on a job as construction manager on the remote island of Sakhalin, Russia, situated less than fifty miles north of Japan. I never knew this place existed, but it was to be my home for an undetermined period of time.
My employer was based in the capital city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, recently transformed by the discovery of a vast oil field at the north end of the island. After recovering from the culture shock and settling in to something of a routine, I began to enjoy the city and social excursions with my new Russian friends.
Four weeks into the project, I was to visit construction sites near Chayvo on the northern part of the island. My chosen mode of travel was by car, since it offered the best opportunity for a hands-on experience. After acquiring a well-equipped Land Cruiser and shady-looking driver, Vladimir, from the motor pool, co-worker Victor and I settled in for a chauffer-driven tour covering over 400 of Sakhalin’s 589 miles.
Vlad knew very little English and didn’t speak much. Victor had a limited grasp of our language, but at least we could communicate. The first couple hours we traveled smooth, paved highways from town to town, making our way to the eastern coast road, which followed some 30 miles of beach along the Sea of Okhotsk—better known as the North Pacific.
A few miles up the coast, Victor announced we would be stopping at a restaurant for lunch, known for its barbecue. Not the type of cuisine I was expecting, but it sounded good. We pulled up next to a group of houses on the beach. Nothing here resembled an eating establishment; there was not even a sign to indicate its presence. “Was this somebody’s house?” I wondered aloud. “Come, we go” was the answer. Inside the unmarked cottage was a tiny café and a few small tables. Though not drowned in BBQ sauce, the tender pork was as good as any I’d had in Texas.
Time for a pit-stop before hitting the road again. “Where’s the banya?” I asked. Vlad pointed to a tiny A-frame shack further down the beach. It was an outhouse, with a hole in the floor and some newspaper (no, not for reading). No light, no heat, no water. I just imagined what it must be like in the winter.
Again I solicited my travel partners, using sign language to indicate washing hands, this time being led to the other side of the café where an outdoor basin was mounted on the side of a deck. And once more I pondered the weather in January.
Back on the road, Vladimir popped in a Pink Floyd cassette. It was perfect. Misty low-hanging clouds over an alien landscape merged with the eerie music to create a completely surreal experience (see main photo).Our next stop was in the town of Vzmor’e, where we’d say da-svedanya (goodbye) to the ocean view. Vzmor’e was a small village, marked by a tilted rusty sign. The road was lined with dilapidated old buildings and junk yards. There was life here, as evidenced by people and animals walking along the highway. This was clearly the primary means of travel for most residents.
“Time for dessert,” says Victor as we pull in to what looks like a small roadside flea market near the edge of town. The vendors’ folding tables were lined up in front of their cars, some covered in sheets. This seemed an odd way to sell one’s wares.As we approached the first table, we were greeted by a smiling babushka as she lifted her sheet to reveal a beautiful collection of freshly cooked snow crabs. Our selections cost no more than $3 apiece. Standing next to the car, we consumed these delectable snacks using only our bare hands.
Still early into the trip, this would be our last stop for some time. A few miles out of town, we came across the remains of a recent accident – a tractor-trailer had lost control on a sharp inclined curve and rolled.
Vladimir was rummaging through his cassette case again, this time emerging with Chris Rea. A couple minutes later the pavement ended. It was at this point Vlad turned to me with a sinister grin. “Now you are on the road to Hell!” which just happened to be the song’s namesake. We all laughed out loud. But should I trust this guy?
The seemingly endless but well-traveled dirt road took us through the vast central valley, protected from the sea by a volcanic mountain range, its mile-high peaks lost in the clouds. As we traveled northward, I noticed there was less and less foliage on the trees. It was already June, yet we were fast leaving spring behind.We soon discovered just how bad this road could be when we came upon a 6-wheel-drive truck with 48” mud tires, buried to the axles in the middle of the road. After a long smoke-break chatting with other travelers, Vlad inspected the scene and decided we would try to make it through.
There was a set of deep ruts around one side of the disabled truck. My years of off-road experience told me it was iffy at best. But Vlad was an excellent driver and the Toyota’s oversized mud tires provided barely enough clearance. Whew. The idea of camping out there was less than appealing.
While I was wondering how they might free the stranded truck, we passed a dozer heading that way.Near the exact center of the island, we pulled over just before a river crossing. This was a historic site, marked by a WWII memorial. There were several old bunkers, which I learned were installed by the Japanese during the time they occupied the southern half of Sakhalin, from 1905 until 1945 when the war ended. To this day, five of the Kuril islands—reaching all the way into the eastern bay of Hokkaido, Japan—are still in dispute.
The final leg of our journey was uneventful but afforded some unusual wildlife sightings, including an arctic fox and a glimpse of the protected Steller’s Sea Eagle, known in Russian as “Orlan.”
It was an unforgettable ride, through a part of Russia seldom visited by outsiders.
—–BRIAN WILLIAMS is an electronics engineer and consultant, specializing in telecommunications. Through his company, ComTekk, he designs software for public safety communications. Brian was a wilderness Search & Rescue volunteer for over ten years in the Rocky Mountains of northern New Mexico. He functioned as a State Police Field Coordinator for five years, commanding more than fifty successful SAR missions. Brian is the main photographer for Milliver’s Travels.