Stories

A Pocket Guide to Sakhalin Island

Words by Ekaterina Shtyurts / Photography by Ekaterina Shtyurts, Ekaterina KorzininaIslanders Surf School

Ekaterina Shtyurts is the founder of Moscow Mate Itineraries, a service for those who need help planning their visit to the capital of Russia. Born and raised in the Russian Far East, Ekaterina spent a decade on Sakhalin before moving to the UK to pursue her studies at Oxford. Having lived in several countries, Ekaterina has now settled in Belgium. However, she always loves coming back to Sakhalin for a breath of fresh sea air, heart-stopping sunsets, untouched nature and tastiest crab legs cooked in sea water. And she wants more people to find out about this magical island.

Overview

Sakhalin, the only Russian territory made up entirely of islands and the largest island in Russia, is one of the most understated gems in the Far East of Russia. It is known to visitors for its stunning nature, intermingled cultures, genuine generosity of locals and some high-profile bribery cases. Yet geographically Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands are so remote from Central Russia that even some of the fellow Russians are in the dark about their existence.

Remoteness was also the reason for using Sakhalin Island as a penal colony in mid-19th century. On another historical note, its close proximity to the land of the rising sun preconditioned a track record of territorial disputes and associated military conflicts between the countries. Thus, the southern part of Sakhalin was owned by Japan for forty years until 1945. There are still loads of unique architectural reminders of this period, including Torii gates, a narrow-gauge railway system and a gorgeous building in the Imperial Crown style.

Architecture, however, is not the main sight that attracts visitors to the region. Nor are the landmarks in its capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  That said, a huge deal of work has been done to refresh the capital and you should surely spend some time wandering around it. Appreciate a new look of the city park, check out the Victory Memorial Complex, explore historical sites, indulge in fresh seafood generously offered by market vendors, pamper yourself at a traditional Korean bathhouse. Perhaps even mingle with the locals and dance away the evening to live music in an Irish pub.    

However, the real draw here is the nature, diverse and practically untouched by humans. The outdoor treasures are endless: there are taiga forests for you, meadows, volcanoes, cliffs, mountains, abundant wildlife. Hence, locals never really experience shortage in recreational activities. You can easily start your day with admiring sunrise in taiga and for a sundowner head over to the seaside. Opportunities to stay active include winter sports, camping trips, whale watching, fishing, hiking, paragliding, surfing, sailing and diving. If the sound of this is something that floats your boat, Sakhalin might be a perfect destination for an adventurous getaway. The easiest way to get to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is to take a direct flight from Moscow priced at around €260 if bought in advance. Below are some of the recommendations of great things not to miss out on:

Admire authentic Japanese architecture

Whereas most of the evidence of penal colony times on Sakhalin was destroyed, some architectural heritage built in the period of the Japanese occupation can still be found scattered around the island. Thus, the most recognisable Japanese landmark is now home to the Sakhalin Regional Museum. This gorgeous edifice, unique to the whole of Russia, is built in traditional Japanese style and is easily identifiable by its curved roof. And there are dozens of other objects in the city that still remind of the times when it was called Toyohara.

Travel further up north to discover the ruins of Oji paper factory in Korsakov, or ceremonial Torii gates in the town of Vzmorye which used to mark the entrance to a Shinto temple. If you have a spare day, plan a visit to the Aniva Lighthouse, which is probably the most fascinating legacy left by the Japanese. Sadly abandoned in 2006, the lighthouse now stands empty. Bear in mind that lighthouse stands on a craggy island which is accesible by boat only. Chances are you'll meet local inhabitants including dolphins, whales and seals during this scenic boat trip. Climb to the top for breathtaking views of the gulf.

Lose yourself in the rows of a fish market

Being an island region, it is no brainer that the region’s fishing industry is thriving. Albeit the fact that a large share of fresh fish and seafood is exported, a good deal of it is intended for the domestic market and is certainly a mainstay of the local diet. Hence, if you are looking for a place to go out for a nice meal in the capital, sushi and other Japanese-inspired cuisine is well represented and is always a good choice.

A much more authentic experience would be, however, to stock up on fresh fishermen’s produce at the market and gather your friends for a seafood feast. Wash it down with Sakhalin beers which are made locally in the island breweries. As for the market experience itself, be prepared to lose yourself in a whole plentifulness of fruits de mer. Don't miss out on the Kamchatka crab, scallops, oysters, prawns, sea urchin roe, sea cucumbers, mussels, octopus, red caviar, endless types of fish. Well, you get the idea.

While at the market, you might as well grab some of the Korean salads for takeaway. With the Koreans being the largest ethnic minority in Sakhalin, Korean cuisine is very widespread and loved in the region. On top of that, you can purchase some of the wild harvest that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Such as magnolia berry, otherwise known as five-flavour berry. It comes in the form of a syrup or dried and has enough vitamin C and other goodness to get you through even the coldest of winters.

Throw in a bit of adrenaline

Those who love being outdoors and enjoy sliding down a hill on a crisp day will definitely appreciate Sakhalin in winter. December through April is the time when you see people passing by with snowboards in the city centre. And there is a reason for this. Nested among the rolling hills, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is home to one of the best ski resorts in the country situated spot on in the heart of the city. During the Soviet era, at the peak of its glory the resort was used for competitions at national and international levels. In 2008, it underwent a full revamp and now offers a substantial range of facilities including gondola lifts, snowboard park and equipment hire. A bonus for after dark visitors is a panoramic view of the whole city in its lights. Winters are quite mild in the south of the island and the slopes get up to two meters of snow, which makes it a dream of a location for winter sports.

As far as the wave hunters are concerned, many are drawn to Sakhalin as an exotic location for surfing. It is a relatively young sport for the area which definitely has tons of room for picking up traction. The experience will appeal to those who appreciate off-the-beaten-track surf spots. Lack of infrastructure, stunning beauty of the wilderness and absence of lineup traffic make the adventure quite raw and allow you to closely bond with the nature. Even if it means changing into a wetsuit out on the beach in absolutely nipping temperatures. And yes, surf season here starts as soon as the sea ice melts and runs through November.

Thus, if you’re bold enough to brave the cold weather, you’ll be rewarded with completely different level of emotions, as well as landscape vistas seen by only the fortunate few. Spicing things up are encounters with curious seals which make occasional appearances. Killer whales and sharks can come across in some areas too. When it comes to beginner surfers, founders of Islanders school on Sakhalin recommend coming in summer when waves are relatively small and temperatures are more comfortable.

Unlike snowboarding, planning a surf trip to the region does require logistics prepping since some of the best spots can’t be reached by public transport. Hence best is to contact local experts in advance and make all the transport arrangements. Even more so if you are heading to the Kuril Islands where waves are allegedly some of the best in the country due to closer proximity to the ocean. Anyone who wants to visit the archipelago needs a special permission issued by border control.    

Go camping in the wilderness

Activities-wise, a visit to the islands is clearly a completely different spin to a city break. In order to discover the reason why locals are so truly in love with their land, you will have to go out in the bush. Ideal way to get to know this region better is to spend a good couple of days (or weeks depending on time at your disposal) exploring the great outdoors and camping.

The same as with a surf trip, if you’d like to visit the best locations be sure to research your logistics options and find experienced locals who can arrange transportation for you. Some of the most awe-inspiring spots require not just any transport to get there, but a four-wheel drive to navigate through kilometers of complete off road, mud and shallow rivers. You might even have to find out how the pulling winch on a car is operated. For security considerations, it is always best to travel in a group with several cars. So that when the nearest signposts of civilisation remain way far-off, there is someone to help out with getting your vehicle unstuck from mud hole or sand.

On top of that, even though oil and gas industries are booming in the area, the roads in general are still far from perfect. Brace your stomach for a good few hours of wobbly journey. In the end, you'll be rewarded with complete disconnection from the hustle and bustle of any kind, apart from maybe fetching some wood for the fire and setting up a tent.

In terms of landmarks for admiring picture-postcard beauty of the region, you should definitely check out the following:    

Cape Velikan - Sakhalin's natural wonder with arch-shaped rocks towering up from the sea and noisy seagulls in the background.

Cape Crillon - the southernmost point of Sakhalin Island, Cape Crillon is only accessible with an off-road vehicle through a 70km stretch of beach during low tide. Apart from the grand sea vistas, check out a 19th-century lighthouse and an amazingly preserved Japanese fortress. Get to the very tip of the island and have a look at your phone. It's very likely that it finds Japanese mobile network. After all, Hokkaido is just 45km away!

Lake lovers should head out to Tunaicha, the second biggest and the deepest lake on Sakhalin. It is home to a diverse range of rare species, which campers love to observe. If planning to cast your rod, be sure to check local regulations for recreational fishing.

Explore neighbouring islands of Iturup and Kunashir. This will require obtaining a special pass from the border control and an additional flight/ferry trip. But those who will do an extra stretch on effort and costs will be in for an unforgettable journey to see vast sweeps barely touched by civilisation. Be ready to overnight surrounded by volcanoes, take a bath in hot springs, make your morning tea using crystal clear river water, stroll around waterfalls and white cliffs, wave to curious seals that peep out of the water. On Iturup, this idyllic scenery breaks off with reminders of strategic importance of island’s bordering location. Here, you can stumble upon a semi-abandoned military town and an airport built by the Japanese in Kasatka Bay and used for the Pearl Harbour attack.