When it comes to Russia, you may not have heard of Sakhalin Island. The first images of Russia that enter an Indian traveler’s mind are the St Basil’s Church and Red Square in Moscow. These are probably followed by the ornamental churches and palaces of St. Petersburg. But, thousands of kilometers away from the cultural treasure troves of European Russia, which will witness an unprecedented boom of tourists thanks to the FIFA World Cup in June-July, is a stretch of land that is blessed with an abundance of unparalleled natural beauty. And a population density of one person per square kilometer.
I am talking about the Russian Far East, an area that spans 6.2 million square meters. And borders Siberia in the west and the Pacific Ocean in the East. One of the most diverse places in the Russian Far East is Sakhalin Island, an island that is just north of Japan. The island occasionally makes it to the headlines of financial newspapers since ONGC has a large stake in an oil and gas project there. But it is largely unexplored by travelers, given its distant location.
With 16,000 lakes, numerous mountain ranges, diverse wildlife and more than 1800 kilometers of coastline, the island is a treat for visitors in all four seasons. It’s attractions warrant a separate visit in each of its colorful seasons. This article will focus on the summer since the summer months are just around the corner.
Sakhalin Island – Fusion architecture
The southern half of Sakhalin Island was under Japanese rule from 1905 to 1945. This led to these parts having an ever-so-subtle Japanese heritage. The most famous building on the island now houses the Sakhalin Regional Museum. It was the main administrative building of the Japanese when southern Sakhalin was called Karafuto.
The building in Sakhalin’s capital city, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, at first glance resembles a Japanese palace but has very distinct European architectural elements. This fusion style has no parallel in any other part of Russia or in Japan.
The well-maintained garden with its fountains is a place for families to bask in the summer sun. Temperatures in the summer rarely rise above 25 degrees Celsius.
It also houses a fine collection of natural and historical artifacts. In fact, the island has been inhabited since the Paleolithic age.
There are numerous symbols of a one-time Japanese presence in the southern part of Sakhalin Island. There is even an old and unused railway line from the port of Kholmsk to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk that is popular with bicyclists.
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As a result of an economic boom caused by the development of oil and gas projects, several Japanese restaurants opened by businessmen from Hokkaido serve the most authentic Japanese food you can expect in Russia.
Gagarin Park and Gorniy Vozdukh
One of the highlights of a visit to the capital city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is a trip to Gagarin Park, named after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
The central park is on the outskirts of a major forest range and has a large lake, as well as walking and hiking trails. It also has a nice set of cafes and children’s amusement park.
Further ahead is the Gorniy Vozdukh Ski resort, which is closed in the summer but has a working gondola. There are breath-taking views of the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk from the top of the resort. It also makes for a great picnic spot in the summer when the city has long days that culminate with a sunset after 10 pm.
Sports enthusiasts in the city can hike all the way up to Chekhov’s Peak, which stands at 1044 meters above sea level. The hike is a treat for botany fans as the vegetation changes from sub-tropical to alpine, and bamboo forests give way to paths full of Rhododendrons.
As I mentioned earlier, the island has 16,000 lakes, most of which freeze over in the winter months. Summer is a great time to swim in them or take part in water sports. The lakes are all within an hour’s drive from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and their shores make for great camping spots.
The most scenic of the lakes in southern Sakhalin is the Izmenchivoe, which is separated from the Sea of Okhotsk (northern Pacific Ocean) by a narrow strip of land. It’s a popular spot to fish for scallops. The mud on the banks is believed to be therapeutic and used for treating skin diseases.
Okhostkoye Beach and Cape Velikan
The fishing village of Okhotskoye gets transformed from a frozen white wonderland in the winter to a beachside resort that is popular with sunbathers in July and August.
The beaches range from rocky to sandy and face the east. Don’t even think of taking a dip in the water, given how cold the water is. In the warmest days in August, the temperature of the water touches 10 degrees Celsius.
Further ahead from Okhotskoye is Cape Velikan, which has a large number of natural sea gates. A drive through pine forests with a large and active bear population brings you to this surreal marine wilderness.
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From seals to the endangered Western Grey Whales, the island is blessed with marine wildlife. The whale species, believed to be 30 million years old, grow to a length of up to 15 meters. It weighs 40 tons!
The whales come every summer to a feeding area near the eastern coast of Sakhalin Island. They feed on shrimp and small fish.
Visitors to Sakhalin can also take a day trip to the Tyulenniy or Seal Island to see large colonies of seals. Seals are also visible from many of the island’s beaches.
Fishing enthusiasts visit Sakhalin in the summer to try their hand at catching salmon that come to the island for spawning. The most delicious of the salmon species that come to the island is the Southern Pacific Cherry Salmon.
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is connected to Moscow with daily flights (8 hours and 50 minutes). There are also daily flights from Vladivostok (1 hour 20 minutes), which is well connected to Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Saigon.
Free Visas for Indians
Indian citizens can obtain a 9-day free permit to visit the Russian Far East here
This is a guest post by Ajay Kamalakaran. Ajay is the author of Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island. Do check out his book on Amazon for some interesting stories from this obscure corner of the world.
All Images have been provided by the author.