Sakhalin (Russian: Сахали́н, suh-khah-LEEN), formerly known as Karafuto (樺太, kah-rah-foo-toh) to the Japanese, is a large and very sparsely populated island which was the center of a long power struggle between Russia/USSR and Japan for control of its large oil and gas resources. Sakhalin is beautiful, but has an undeveloped tourist sector. Because of the energy business, however, good food and hotels catering to foreigners are available.
Sakhalin has been inhabited by several indigenous tribes since the stone age, The Ainu people, also present on Hokkaido in Japan, populated the southern half of the island, and while a small group of Sakhalin Ainu is still present on the island, most were repatriated to Japan after the end of WWII. The largest group of the islands original population is the Nivkh tribe of the northern taigas.
Sakhalin has long been the scene of a power struggle between the major Asian powers: Russia, Japan and even the Chinese Qing Empire have put forward claims on the island. In the 17th century both Japan and Russia started colonizing the island, from different ends, dividing the island into a northern Russian part and a southern Japanese part. Aside from a 25 year period at the end of the 19th century, the island remained divided until the waning days of WWII, when Soviet troops broke through the defensive line and invaded the Japanese half. After the end of the war, the Japanese and Ainu people were forcefully repatriated to Japan, while a sizable Korean minority – brought by the Japanese into forced labour camps – remained on the island and were denied repatriation until the last years of Soviet rule, though many still remain on Sakhalin.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sakhalin has experienced an oil boom with Russian and foreign oil companies pouring into the island, bringing with it much needed investment in the islands infrastructure. This comes with a price though, as pipelines and logging pose a significant threat to the island's spectacular nature. There have also been complaints that the many oil dollars pouring in aren't benefiting the island's population.
Thanks to the cold and raw Sea of Okhotsk which surrounds the island, the climate on Sakhalin is generally cool and humid. In the depth of winter the average temperature ranges from a bearable –6°C in the south to a bone chilling –24°C in the north, while temperatures as cold as –54°C have been reported. In the summer temperature rarely exceeds +19°C, often much cooler and floating ice can be observed around the island, even in the height of summer. Generally the north is much colder than the south, in part due to a warm current running along the Tartar strait in the southern end, the winter is a full 2 months longer in the North (October-May). The annual precipitation ranges between 600-1200 mm, and snowfall can be heavy – in the mountains accumulation of 5 meter snow or more is not unusual.
At more than 70,000 km2, Sakhalin is Russia's largest island. From the 40 km La Pérouse Strait separating Sakhalin from the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the island stretches nearly 1000 km northwards in a long and narrow shape along the mainland's east coast. It's quite mountainous with two low mountain-ranges running parallel to each other separated by a valley tract. To the north the island flattens into a swampy taiga, while the central part of the island is densely forested.
These central forests are home to more than 2000 Sakhalin brown bears, which are often spotted even on the outskirts of the cities. Otters and sables are also common sightings. Up north there are numerous reindeer, many of them are herded by the indigenous Nivkhi tribe. Whales are also a common sighting along the east coast of the island, and Sakhalin is the only known feeding ground of the west pacific colony of the Gray Whales. Other whales spotted around the island include the Right Whale, the Bowhead Whale and the Beluga Whale, and up on the shores it's possible to spot Northern fur seals and sea lions.
The Nivkh are the only remaining significant indigenous ethnic group, of a population that previously also included the Ainu and Orok people: around 5000 live on Sakhalin, mainly in the northern taigas, with the village of Nekrasovska near Okha being the largest remaining community. They are traditionally a semi-nomadic people, living near the coasts in the summer and wintering inland along streams and rivers to catch salmon; but in no small part thanks to Soviet centralist policies, and pollution of their natural habitats and food sources, the Nivkhs now live in mixed population villages and faring a fairly modern life style, and only a handful of principally anthropological factors have so far averted their total assimilation. Their unique language, which has not been proven to be related to any other language on Earth, is also under threat, and less than 20% of the Nivkh can speak it fluently.
It's not all doom and gloom – there has been a revival of Nivkh culture in recent years, and many Nivkhs are actively involved in the restoration of their cultural traditions and language, which is largely shamanistic and animist, with ties to Mongolian traditional beliefs. According to Nivkh legends, Sakhalin is a giant beast lying on its belly with the trees of the island as its hair. When the beast is upset, it awakens and trembles the earth causing earthquakes.
As elsewhere in Russia, Russian is the predominant language, but there are also an estimated 30,000 Koreans, although many do not speak Korean. They are mostly centered on the island capital, which also hosts a sizable minority of Azerbaijanis - especially, it seems, among taxi drivers. Due to the proximity to Japan, you may also find staff in upmarket hotels and restaurants in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk with at least some understanding of Japanese.
While Stalin attempted to construct a tunnel under the Tartar strait with forced labour from the Gulags in eastern Siberia, construction was abandoned after a few kilometres had been completed, and while there is intent to finish the project eventually, no money is forthcoming and for now the only options are to sail or fly.
Entry Procedures and Registration
In 2008 the Russian Federal Government declared Sakhalin Island a special border region, however restrictions on entry have been lifted and as of 2013 there are no special entry requirements for Russian nationals nor foreign visitors beyond standard passport and Russian visa requirements. Ferry passengers also report only being subject to standard Russian passport control and customs on arrival.
There are several ferry routes connecting the mainland with Sakhalin, but unless you posses time, patience, and Russian skills in abundance, your choice is pretty much limited to the daily ferry service between Vanino on the mainland, and Kholmsk on the islands western coast. Vanino is linked with the rest of the Russian railway network by a daily service to Vladivostok, with stops in Komsomolsk and Khabarovsk en route. In the summer months another option is a Japanese operated ferry service linking Korsakov on the shore of Aniva Bay, at the southern tip of the island, with Wakkanai on the northern tip of Hokkaido.
The booming oil industry has ensured an unusual abundance of options to reach a destination as remote, and sparsely populated, as Sakhalin. The airport in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk has connections not only to major cities in the Russian Far East, but also flights to Japan, South Korea and China several times per week. If you are dubious about flying with a Russian airline, the only other option is the weekly Asiana flight from Seoul, South Korea.
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is the main hub for all means of transportation. Local and regional buses, charter minibuses, and trains all depart from the Station in the city center,
SAT Airlines (Sakhalinskie Aviatrassy) , the island's native carrier, operates flights between its main hub in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and the oil hubs Okha and Nogliki on the northern part of the island.
Sakhalin has an extensive railway network, much of it built by the Japanese. Services are scattered and infrequent, but a daily train (#001 & #002) connecting Nogilky and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is still the main mode of transport between the south and north part of the island. While there is a railway line between Kholmsk and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, it's in a sorry state, and carries no traffic. Railway enthusiasts wanting to continue their journey by railway after disembarking the ferry need to catch a once or twice daily connection to Tomari (#1611) 80 km to the north, then take another once daily train (#123) from there to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk or Korsakov – but unless you are a truly dedicated railway buff, this huge detour is probably not worth the effort. This situation could improve in the future though, as a 1 billion ruble refurbishment plan of Sakhalin's railway lines is in the works.
You can check the current railway schedule at the Russian Railways website .
While train is the mode of transport for longer trips, short trips are mainly done by bus. On the southern part of the island road conditions are fairly good, and many destinations can be easily reached from the bus terminal in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, offering departures for the ports of Korsakov and Kholmsk every 30-60 minutes throughout most of the day, Nevelsk six times daily, Makarov once daily, and several other smaller cities at varying intervals. If you speak Russian, call (4242) 722553 for details. Further north, buses bound for Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky and Okha connect to the daily train in Tymovsk and Nogilki respectively, but remember to check if official permits are needed if you leave the main transport corridor along the main railway line and road.
An alternative the the public buses are the many private marshruthkas (minibuses), which also do intercity trips. They cost around double of the buses, have no schedules and tend to be more crammed - but on the plus side they are usually faster, more frequent and more comfortable than the often worn out public buses. A simple "marshrutka City name?" should suffice in getting locals pointing you in the right direction.
There are several Tour companies on Sakhalin that can provide varying itineraries. Sunrise Tour Company (email@example.com and Omega-Plus Tour Company (firstname.lastname@example.org) two companies that have provided useful information and itineraries to visitors wishing to see city or natural sights including ecological sights and ethnographic/cultural sights. Please use Google Translate to translate your inquiries into Russian, and vice-versa for responses. Advance arrangements will be of immense benefit, although Sunrise was able to provide assistance to this author upon arrival to Sakhalin.
Expect to do a lot of walking in the city, rent a car, or use the public transportation. Public buses run about 15 Rubles (June 2013) payable when you enter and state your destination, or you can use one of the many public use vans, the route being posted on the sides. There is only one Auto rental agency at the time of this writing (Avtoprokat, 553 Lenina St, 2nd Floor. Tel (4242)62-16-21 or (4242)61-96-19/ (Автопократ, 155 Ленина Ул.) Hertz used to advertise rentals in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, but does not rent vehicles in Sakhalin any longer. The staff did not speak English, but were very helpful with an English/Russian Dictionary. Daily rental of a well-used vehicle runs from 1800-2400 Rubles per day (24 hour period), inclusive of insurance.
Sakhalin has plenty of stunning natural scenery to offer. However, transportation out in the wilderness of Sakhalin requires patience, and a lot of careful and thoughtful planning. An easier alternative is shelling out the extra cost for enlisting the aid of a local tour operator.
The cuisine on Sakhalin is largely influenced by the traditional Russian cuisine, and in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk a wide variety of international restaurants is available. But for some local color in your meal, dive into the seafood! Freshly caught fish from the rivers - especially salmon - are widely available in season, and often dirt cheap. Look for 'Крабы' (Crab), 'Копченый лосось' (Smoked salmon), 'Корюшка жареная' (Fried Smelt) and Красная икра (Red caviar) on the menu to sample some of the islands delicious seafood. Up north, you can try the indigenous cuisine of the Nivkh tribe which also features fish, but in interesting varieties such as dried (madjir-ma/юкола) and iced fish (kyn-cho/строганина), and also seal, reindeer, and bear meat with mushrooms and wild berries like Crowberries (yghygh-alrh/шикша) and Blueberries (Голубика)
Strangely enough, Yuzhno-Sakhalinwith its large population of stranded Sakhalin Koreans, has very limited options for Korean Cuisine, with Korean visitors noting strong differences with their cuisine back home.
The Kolos brewery in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk makes some excellent beers, particularly their Bir Rinzo and Pivzavod Sahalinskij, but in the newly acquired Russian tradition, they pump out 10 other brands from their hoses as well, and serve them on their own brewpub on the brewery grounds on Sakhalinskaya Street . Interestingly Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is not the only city with its own beer – almost every major town on the island, despite their modest size, has a local brewery.
Bears roam the forests across the entire island, and always pose a danger. The most important thing in this respect is never to surprise a bear. Sing, call out in regular intervals or wear a bell. Save the odd lunatics, bears rarely seeks confrontations with humans and will normally shy away when hearing one. If you do encounter one, make sure it sees you (it will smell you soon enough anyway), hold you hands above you head to make yourself as big as possible, and slowly back away while avoiding any sudden movements – don't trip or run! Make sure any food is packed away in airtight containers or plastic bags.
If you require medical attention, head for Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, as there are many expat workers from the oil industry here, and the medical facilities that come with them. In an emergency in the northern part of the island, the oil processing plants in Nogliki and Okha are your best bets, they may not be very welcoming, but they are used to dealing with foreign staff and have airlift capabilities – cash is king, but a medical/travel insurance certificate should also help.