Saturday, June 7, 2014

Landing in Siberia

I half-sleeping there, in the gray forsaken banks of Khabarovsk-Novy airport. Anyone who saw me there never thought that there was a day I was a hard-working student full of intellectual worries, seeing the weight of the world in such abstracts things as double derivatives and wave equations.
It is commonly known that appearances may be deceiving; well my appearance is very deceiving of my past.

In the morning, the owner of that shopping outlet still doesn't like that I am there, scaring customers. I think I like her attitude more than if she saw me on television anyway.

I remember having sometimes dreamed about my first flight back in a quite glorious way. But life is an independent mind; it cares little for short-sighted fantasies of us humans.

The fact of life is that as I am writing this text, I can't remember the people who I was sitting next to as the plane took off from Khabarovsk. I didn't exchange a word with them until touchdown. I imagine the landscape under us, it must be as monochromatic for thousands and thousands of kilometers of birch and pine trees. At some point, we will fly over the mighty Baikal lake. I will visit it some other time.
I just remember after we touched down in Novosibirsk, a place which was a huge neglected place filled with rubble.
Roads are wide and messy. People are busy and bored. From time to time, from the rubble emerge magnificent Orthodox cathedrals. The Siberian weather is fast-changing. It either too hot or too cold. I keep switching clothes.
As I look for a means of transportation that could get me to Tomsk, I go to about every corner of the city before I manage to orientate myself. I am calling Janela but I'm clueless and she's helpless.

I wouldn't be so harsh to judge it but I must admit that I expected a bit more civilization out of the capital of Siberia. Or is it that maybe I always imagined myself return to civilization but fate made me return to Janela. And let's be honest, when you are with a girl like Janela, you don't really care to meet her in a warzone.
At this point, we are both running low on money. We made the choice of her not meeting me at the airport. Novosibirsk, though not so far, is a half-day ride from Tomsk because of the state of the roads. And since I hitchhiked all this way, I can manage to get there myself.

Since I paid for that airplane, I suddenly don't feel like hitchhiking. As if breaking the rule about free transportation, I took a bite out of the apple and got transported from Eden to Novosibirsk. In that sense, I did two trips in one, one spatial and one spiritual.
No wonder I feel lost.

I try to find a bus to Tomsk but nothing is going. I change my mind between hitchhiking and usual transport a thousand times. My mind is not serene, as it was as I entered every previous city, it was agitated, close to panic. An exaggerated emotional response to a mere few thousand kilometer leap but a more understandable given a trip across dimensions.

Everytime I want to buy a ticket, they expect money for me, it feels so unnatural, so absurd... why am I paying to move when I know thousands of people going there, will take me for free? But I am not a traveler now, I am a computer engineer on holiday; why would I hitchhike?

I run in between train stations, bus stations and I spend most of my time getting lost. The weather oscillates between too hot and too cold faster as evening approaches. And I am jet-laged. In the evening, after missing the last bus, I negotiate a ride for 1500 RUB (about 35 USD) in a group taxi. It's something between a taxi and a bus. There was another Russian guy and a Chinese lady who also spoke Russian; with an accent though.

But at least, I was going to Tomsk. From there, I have a stable place to stay because Janela will be there. No obligations or mental debt for being hosted by a good soul, I will be home.
As we drive and the sun sets on the lonely road between Novosibirsk and Tomsk, I wonder about all the cars that would take me there faster and free of charge.

Night falls and the taxi greets me farewell in something that looks like a nice and empty train station. I leave my bag and wait.
My phone is dying. I hope Jan had gotten my last messages. Maybe she is sleeping. I can wait until morning.

She comes by taxi. She's as excited, worried, bubbly and beautiful as ever. She is wearing a short elegant dress, way too sexy to be safe alone in random Russian taxi.
Way too sexy to be worn in the middle of the night in Tomsk. In this region of the world (Tomsk is far from being an example but is included), rape is common and so widely accepted that many men don't even grasp the difference between rape and consensual sex. Looking back, wearing a short dress was a risk incredibly disproportionate to look good.

Our reunion is as passionate as lighting.
Couples in the world can be lucky to have a hollywood-style spasmodic embrace, the two heroes running in the rain with the whole world blowing up around them and falling onto each other.
For us, it is the only way we meet.

The taxi driver, who was visibly more than happy to take in such a cute young lady, couldn't hide his disappointment when I entered the vehicle and he was completely ignored by our reunion.
He was so cast-aside that I actually felt for him. Janela is a contradictory gal, I thought. She can be so sensitive to feelings of her Kyrgyz acquaintances from the village, especially family to the point that she desperately hides her relationship and fears criticism as it were stabbings of a knife. Yet, she discards any feelings of attention, frustration of that taxi driver, hell she even discards any form of common decency in the back of that car that you can't help but wonder if she is the same person.
Why is that? Is it because he isn't central-asian? Or, most likely because all people are different and she has very complex personality which grew through the elements, constantly searching for light.

We drive to Zalivnaya street, in some part of Tomsk, not too far but not too close to the center. It's a wonder I can actually remember part of the address.
The apartment is close to a mysterious wooden mansion. There are some stairs leading to it and even a working elevator.

It is a cute place, exactly what I need to put to rest my failing strengths. There is a clean bed, there is a shower, a bathtub even, there is a fridge full of good stuff. And we are here together.

It would be unfair to make from us a flawless couple. We have passion but we have grown apart from each other, our lives have drifted in different directions. We'll have to work to reconnect.
But now, we are both happy. The rain is falling and I am somewhere safe. We don't have to worry about my being attacked during the night or Janela getting kidnapped again. We don't have to worry about having anything to eat or about time differences.

There is so few things to worry about. And I just realize that I am so tired, socially and physically. I couldn't last a day more.

I could imagine a worse ending for my trip
I don't know if you, reader, imagine the unlikelihood of how all this ends. I am returning home but throughout this year, home has become a girl from some country called Kyrgyzstan who looks Chinese, who is Muslim, who is in a village where they home-cook bread and have a room with chicken in it, who lives in Siberia, who speaks English and Russian and who I didn't even know when this trip started.
And she is the person who is the closest to me which makes sense because she is my girlfriend but which also makes no sense because she is a Kyrgyz girl living in siberia from a village who looks Chinese.

"I think you can throw out your shoes," she says. It is true thay they look awful and I have the right to buy new shoes now that I have given up my travelling principles.
I wouldn't throw away things, all full of memories but my bag only has a finite capacity. And since Janela bought me a bunch of great clothes (she has very good taste), I decide to part of my korean jeans which are at least 5 sizes too big for me.

New clothes, I throw the old
Clean clothes now, hey, I'm almost an engineer again tomorrow!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Continental Russia

I am going through the small city of Vanino, or Sovetskaya Gavan', pretty much wandering around with no goal. I do have a goal though and that is get to the next big city of Khabarovsk where I can take the plane and everything will be finished.
Vanino is a place with not much there, but somehow still big enough for it to have no end by walk.
The Japanese sakuras are long gone and everywhere I see the neverending green of far eastern russia. Pine and birch trees live there, merely tolerating Vanino in their midst.
Vanineans, as most Russians I met, are busy people, bored and busy with their work. They don't pay much attention to me which I welcome because I have had my share of fame.
I wonder if I helped this Kyrgyz guy enouugh, if I should have helped him more of if I got cheated.
It matters not now, I am trying to make sense of my tablet's map.
The sun is shining through the blue sky and I feel like I would stay a bit more. But I also feel like the biggest adventure, the most usual thing would be returning home, to the usual things.
I get a ride just outside of Vanino by some russian guy in an old car, eager to help.

There, there is just an empty road, with no other destination than mine. Nobody stops and I understand that most of the traffic would be trucks from the ship. Unfortunately, they must be long gone; I surely lost too much time finding solutions for my Kyrgyz friend and getting to the spot. I should have overcome my fame-phobia and found myself a transport straight from the ship.

As I stand there in approaching noon, I can already take off my warmer clothes and just wait in a T-shirt. I so like approaching summer.

A truck stops. No miracle there, the driver is from the ship, there was some hickups unloading. Aren't we in Russia?
He says he's taking me because he saw me on TV but he doesn't make much of a fuss of it. He is a truck driver returning to his family. And he has a day more ride ahead.
My hitchhiking spot in the middle of the far east vegetation
The ride isn't very eventful. He asks me the two questions anyone asks me in Russia: what's the deal with that law about gay marriage being legal in France? and What do you think about Ukraine?
I tell him that I am not gay and that I don't trust much what the media says about Ukraine so who knows who's right?
He tells me it's a conspiracy involving America.
I tell him that I am dating a Kyrgyz girl and he warns me about the dangers of getting into the muslim culture and asks if the parents agree. As far as I know, they do.
I dismiss his worries, putting them on the account of ignorance but I'll later discover that I was the one who was being ignorant. The paving on the road stops but the road is still wide and in relatively good condition. It seems that we will never fall into the tiring 5km/h driving as we did with Ilona in Kazakh trucks.
What is amazing though, is how endlessly the landscape repeats itself. Would there not be this road, I could lose myself in this land forever. The diversity of vegetation is so little that I feel like I am in a video game from the beginning of this century. Pine trees, birch trees and them some other completely similar pine trees.
The road to Khabarovsk
I wonder how the explorers who built this road managed to orientate themselves. Or maybe many of them perished before the land was mapped.
We stop at a place where lay many pieces of timber. The driver says he must make this long and boring trip worthwhile and thus, we shall steal a small portion of this wood. He takes out a chainsaw and we cut some logs.
We cut some logs
My driver owns his truck so he is free to dispose of his time and vehicle as he wishes. It is hard work but it pays and it needs a capital. It costs about 2000 dollars for the boat trip from Sakhalin and back. So he better have a full cargo.

As a hobby, he likes to take care of his garden in Khabarovsk and he tells me many things about it. For instance, he likes planting trees. And the best trees grow exactly here, in the middle of the Russian far east so we stop again and again, take out a shovel and load small or bigger trees onto the truck. After that, we eat some Korean soup. It's from Sakhalin which is still way inside east Asia. He puts an egg in it and I eat it with sticks. Oh Korea, I miss you! Korea where are you? Claim me back! I may be Korean, I may be Japanese, what am I doing going home, the most foreign of all places?

Another stop is the road builders. That is where we take on gas. Gas is expensive in the cities but the road builders get a bunch of it for very little and can sell it for very little as well. My driver fills his tanks and I get a pack of milk. Apparently, the road builders get a free pack per day to compensate for the hard work. And hard work it is! There are just two or three guys building that road, int he middle of nowhere with no phone coverage and don't even think of the internet.

The repeating landscape reminds you that there is nothing... forever. Some guys spend up to three months there at a time. One of them has a girlfriend in Khabarovsk, they must be in much more long-distance relationship than I am.

On the road again, we drive and drive. Nature repeats itself and I fall in a quiet state of sweet end of adventure. Fate is putting me down into feathers.
Sometimes, we pass a bridge. Lucky decision it was to hitchhike this few kilometers, I would have regretted not to see the legendary Siberian wooden bridges.
They are big bridges spanning widely across streams or rivers and despite their untrustworthy look, every vehicle, big or small, passes through them.

"Это хороший мост," (this is a good bridge) says my driver pointing at the wooden wreck.
I really don't share his enthusiasm. I have collected enough respect for the might of nature not to risk drowning so close to my goalless destination.
"I wouldn't drive across this bridge with a skateboard, let alone with a truck!"
"Alright french guy," says the driver with an amused look. "I'll drive and you can film me".
 I run and the driver drives. Some logs crack lightly but the truck goes trough without any trouble. I love this bridge.

We stop at a place to eat dinner. It's a beautiful sunset in the far eastern video game. Russian far east, you are boring, predictable, you are scary, wild, I love you, you are just like my girlfriend!

As soon as I have set foot in Russia, I have decided that I won't try to trick any Russians into charity, the consequences may be Putin-esques. But I get invited for the borsch soup anyway.

And we pass the Amur river. Mighty and beautiful, it eats the cold ground into thousands of little ponds. The landscape near the Gassi lake is truly breathtaking. Impenetrable except on thick winter ice because of the many swamps.
Me and the Amur river have just met, I love her already and already must we break up. This last ride is both calm and eventless and full of breakups with newly founds loves of my life.

At last, we exit the green and in the dark of the night we reach the absurd city of Khabarovsk which I don't love. Why absurd? Because it has nothing to do there. Birch trees, pine trees, and an endless single road. That is what is Russian far east. Not cities, not Khabarovsk. Birch trees, pine trees, roads. Khabarovsk, go screw yourself, you know nothing of the place you live in.

The driver greets me farewell at the airport. I empty my luggage next to a shopping outlet that sells the most useless things in the world. The lady doesn't like it because I am scaring away her customers. I buy a ticket to Novosibirsk for 400 dollars. This gesture leaves me completely lost. I am paying for transport which completely absurd. Not only is there no reason I shouldn't get a free airplane but I am paying for a distance that I could cover by foot. The world has become crazy and I with it. My unshaven, unwashed silhouette, hung with a dirty black backpack repaired with a strong Japanese fishermen's string from Hokkaido and deer horns completely illustrates how crazy the world is. The only constant in my life right now is Janela. The rest is seriously fucked up.
My bag weighs 19.6 kilograms

This is my fucking life!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Famous on a floating piece of junk

The boat I am supposed to take just left. It is a cargo boat which also acts as a ferry. The only glitch is that a precise schedule isn't really a thing in russia. Word goes it will dock tomorrow. Little do I know that I should take tomorrow in a general sense, in the sense "tomorrow, mankind will set foot on Mars" not tomorrow as the day after today. But what would you expect of someone who has been living in Japan until a few days ago?

Kholmsk has its own beauty. It is still a junkyard but it is also a cute little city amongst hills just besides the ocean. Wherever you go you have a beautiful view. Some roads are paved, some are dirt roads.
Kholmsk amongst hills
I don't know what is it about Sakhalin but it gives me an eerie sense of zenitude. The sun is shining and I enjoy the green again and again. Just in sight is an oil rig platform, floating in the sea. There is a majestic volcano visible from everywhere. It looks as if it was the protector mountain of Kholmsk.
"Beware Sakhalinians," it says, "I look over you but remember that once I was a hellish beast."
The city ends very quickly to give into wilderness and I wonder where are these wild bears.
They are my main worry and I start looking for a shelter for the night.

Not too much into the city as I don't want to get woken up by people sneaking into my tent in the night but not too far because of the bears. I end up climbing a small hill just behind the last houses behind Kholmsk. Someone started building something there. Maybe just a shelter, maybe even a house. It is made out of concrete and bricks. One of the walls has partially fallen down but the resistant concrete holds the roof in place. I decide to build my tent on the roof. It was basically a choice of whom I was more afraid: bears or russians. I could have hidden the tent from the russians inside the half/opened shelter and risk a visit by bears or put it high up risking discovery by russians but safe from bears.
My tent is safe from bears
View from my tent
I had quite a difficult climb up there so I feel safe. And since I am not on a strict no-money policy, instead of eating the great Sakhalin fish I got from the girls I bought a bunch of cookies with cream and chocolate and spent the evening eating them in my tent.
Since I am still afraid of bears, I seal my food in a plastic bag and hide it a fair distance from my tent. The fish are quite far and I keep some bread just under the shelter.
The sun is setting late again, I am just a couple of weeks again from the summer solstice. So I am sitting in my tent, the ticket money in my pocket, safe from bears and russians looking at the sea and I realize a very strange thing: I think I am bored.

Sunset on that little platform
The next day, in the morning, I try to find my food. The bread that I left downstairs was eaten and the plastic bags were torn. I couldn't find a trace of those fish.
As I go towards the ticket office to track that ticket of mine, I notice people staring at me in the street. I wonder if I have offended someone. But things get even more strange when I ask a guy where is that ticket office for the ferry to Vanino.

"I love France! France is great! Zinedine Zidane!"
"Excuse me?"
"Yes yes! You take your girlfriend to France! Your trip is great!"
"I think you've got me confused with someone else"
That sounds like me but is it possible that the news report is already out? And even if it had already aired, who the hell still watches television in the 21st century?
Turns out that everyone. And turns out that ASTV is not some small shitty television, it's the first channel watched on this island. For someone who has never watched TV like me, this is a first hand lesson of reality.
"No no, you are Filip, guys this is Filip, he has hitchhiked from France all the way to Sakhalin. Of all places, Sakhalin!"
He tells me where to take the tickets and I am quite happy to leave his company, this situation is a bit uncomfortable for me. I don't know what they told about me on TV and I have no idea which person  these people expect me to be. One thing I fear is that they destroyed my sex life on Sakhalin forever and a day because they probably mentioned Janela as my girlfriend.
Many people who read my blog would wonder why do I have such a free attitude towards women given the fact that I have a girlfriend whom I love. This is because we always had a free relationship which allows intercourse on the side as long as it is done in a safe and responsible way and as long as there is no romantic feelings involved.
Of course I very much doubt that Sakhalin television would portray me as such.

The lady at the counter tells me that the boat is not there and that it will come tomorrow. Therefore, I go on killing time by walking in the streets and nature of Kholmsk. The seacoast is beautiful and quiet but it is separated from the path I am walking in by heaps of rusted debris. Giant pipes which may or may not still be in working condition are running alongside it. I wonder what they are here for? It seems that this city has the potential of doing something in a steampunk universe but like the old volcanoes around, it is asleep. The sky is blue and the sun is shining on me. Long gone are the days when I had to wear my coat. I go to main square to buy some chocolate because that's all I eat when left on my own.

Some guy comes to talk to me with his son. He says he finds my hitchhikings internesting and didn't see me on TV and that is very reassuring because I don't have anything mysterious to live to.

When he hears I am waiting for the boat he invites me home, appearently it will be a long wait. He lives in a building in the center of Kholmsk (but the town is so small that everything is the center) which looks like the average Sakhalinian ruin. Inside however, the appartment is nice and cosy and even with fast internet.
My host's wife cooks borch, the russian soup and I can have a shower. One thing about russia is that I can no more find over-luxurious hotels like in Japan to sneak in and have showers as much as I want.

My host and his son
When my social mood is lower, I just go play with little Max. He spends his time playing with cars and saying *vik, *vik, *vik because he can't say gruzavik yet which means truck.
Max and his "vik"
My host gives me another bag of Sakhalinian fish.  In the evening we drink a bottle of blackcurrant wine which turns out to be one of the few alcoholik drinks that I like.
When I am completly drunk, I get a phone call. It is the french radio and I have my usual interview. Sakhalin is definitly not my place for the media. I end up being drunk live on the radio station in front of probably thousands of listeners. But strangely enough, it is not my worst interview. I can even put it on my blog, as opposed to my TV interview where I really look stupid and that's not even Nina's fault.

The next day the ferry is still not there and after I finish playing with Max and talking to the wife who by the way looks gorgeous, my host takes me on a tour of the wherebouts of Kholmsk. We go all the way until the road stops. There is a lot of green and the coast is rocky. There are a few beaches on the city but they are so littered which garbage that you can't even see the sand. Broken glass from vodka bottles is sticking out everywhere and sometimes even rusted needles. It would be especially unwise to lie on this in a mere bathing suit.

Remember that littering sucks

Kholmsk is a pretty place
In the early afternoon at last the boat has arrived. The rusted harbour where nothing seems to work and where nobody seems to care about anything has a strict as hell traffic control. There even is an X-Ray scanner for the bags which go on the ferry.
The ferry. Or cargo boat which occasionaly takes passengers, the Sakhalin-8 is a fortress. It is huge, so huge that I can't even get it all into my camera frame. But as much as the Sakhalin-8 is a fortress, I am not so sure it is a floating one. I am a trusting person, I trust that the Titanic won't sink even though I watch that movie for the tenth time but this, this is going to sink!
The Sakhalin-8
The mighty Sakhalin-8 is even more rusty than the harbour in docked in. It must have been built during the early Soviet Times and hasn't been touched ever since. It is a piece of garbage, just like the garbage on the beach except that this one floats. Momentarily. Passengers start to gather in the hallway and people check my passport from time to time. I mostly start conversations with two people. The first one is a Kyrgyz guy who seems very kind to help me. He says that he is going to see his russian girlfriend in Krasnoyarsk and he is travelling on very low budget like me. I am quite moved that I met a fellow Kyrgyz and I tend to trust him.
The second one is a big guy who seems to have a lot of influance around here. I don't understand what is his position but people seem to respect him, including the police.
We are told several times that the departure is imminent but everytime it is postponed.
Me and a the Kyrgyz guy
At last we depart. Or at least, we start the security checks. I don't know what the big deal is about exiting Sakhalin. They don't have enough budget to hire the lady behind the counter full time but they have the security personel to control the ins and outs of Manhattan. First we are checked by the police at the entrance of the lobby, then we are checked again before the entrance to the harbour.
And there, we wait again. People have concerned looks on their faces. The scene reminds me of gloomy version of the late british settlers disembarking on the American continent.
Rusted iron pipes are hanging above our heads and I wonder what purpose they could have served and if they serve anymore.
Passengers waiting for the boat
At last we embark on a bus which takes us to the boat. It looks even more like a piece of junk from close by. As cool as it sounds to embark on something that is going to sink, I really do not want to sink with it. I am the only true foreigner here. There are Kyrgyz people but that's the soviet republics.

We enter the giant floating garbage can that is supposed to be a ferry slash freighter.
I hear that people have been refused entry into this thing for no reason because it is russia and security officers pretty much do what they want. But I was wise to make friends with the big fat master of the flock and I was on television.
"Vsyo normalno," he says to the policeman who was giving me an inquisitive look. He lets me go.
As I enter the big giant of rotten steel, I wonder if I didn't push it a little too far... again. Nata was right, Russia is tough. Tougher than any country in europe probably. Tough and random, it is not made from soft frenchies raised in the Cote d'Azur. Everybody on that ship looks like they just have been released from prison. Ironically, I shall not judge them, I still have my number 20 glued to my glasses as a souvenir of my detention in Tokyo.

Throughout the whole way, the Kyrgyz guy is very helpful. He is carrying a television set but he asks if he can help me with my bags. We enter the floating junkyard through a rusted blue iron tunnel.
There is so much rust from the inside that I feel like the gas molecules in the trans-russian gazprom pipeline.
Passengers entering the ferry
The boat is giant. Maybe it is leaking in but it is so big that it would take it a day to sink. And that's about the length of the sea crossing.

I climb up the iron stairs, it is as I was exploring an abandonned house. But this abandonned house will be set afloat through 250 kilometers of sea. From the deck the Kholmsk harbour is in ruins. Actually it is not really in ruins, that is just its normal state. I look at the deck. It looks as if it belongs to that port. I am riding a ruin. The green paint fails to hide the rotten metal underneath the boat and there is a smell of burned plastic as the motors warm up.
The corridors are old and they stink. They lead to the cabins. The cabins are metal boxes with no aeration, the air is heavy and oxygen is scarse. Everywhere there are heavy metal shafts that I am afraid to touch if they were to open into the sea and flood the cabins.
In my cabin I can hear the ship going through the water and I wonder how far am I from that scene in Titanic where Leo and Kate racing through the flooded corridors towards the surface.

The deck
The boat leaves the harbour slowly but surely. I already miss Kholmsk in the distance. I guess this is the conclusion.

The Kyrgyz guy meets me on deck, he asks if I need help but I have a feeling that he actually is more lost than me and he's beeing a little too helpful for some reason.
"Hey that's the TV guy!" I hear somewhere behind.
A few people are waving me huge signs. Others want a picture with me. Oh no, this is not cool. I still don't know what they showed on TV, what are these people expecting of me?
After I have lunch with a bunch of people who think they know me and who I don't know I go on deck where some guy jumps at me from behind. He is exactly the type of stereotypical russian who makes pushups with his fingers and lifts cars with his legs. Fortunately he doesn't want to throw me overboard, he just wants a picture with me to put on facebook. I spend most of my time with the Kyrgyz people because I feel them closest to me.

Me and some of the Kyrgyz onboard
But I feel trapped, on this boat. It is huge but it is not big enough for me to hide from my little fame. People think they can control fame but it is one of the things hardest to control. In this boat, with all those people who whatch Sakhalin-TV, I feel a little bit like an unwilling participant in a reality TV show.
I end up going down to my cabin and pretending to sleep until I actually end up sleeping.
Our boat is slow but steady. The next day the sky is blue and the boat is almost in Vanino. It was a very long ride.
The more and more we approach Vanino, the more the Kyrgyz guy tries to stay close to me. I realize that his helping and protecting persona was all an act. He wasn't the leader he pretended to be, he was a lost child in need of help. Altough I explained to him countless times my way of travel he didn't really understand that I truly meant to hitchhike until I left the central bus station of Vanino where the bus took us from the harbour.
He was hoping that I would help him to take a bus to his girlfriend and pay for it because he didn't have enough money to get to his destination.
This was not for a lack of clarity, it was just a cultural misunderstanding. Kyrgyz people talk and act differently, I just meant what I said. I gave the poor guy my remaining rubbles (russian money), that was enough to get him to Khabarovsk. It was interesting to see how the journey changed me. I had less money than this guy, I did not speak the local tongue as perfect as he was and I had no real plan of what to do. Yet I was calm of reassuring of my temporary friend.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Crossing a place nobody knows

In the morning I am awakened by Nina the reporter. I kind of thought they've forgotten about me but it seems not. I don't want to get up, I feel so comfortable in Ekatarina's appartment. I would like to know her more, to know Sakhalin more. But I have to go on. Nina took my timeline in consideration and organized to interview me in the morning. I kind of hoped for a translator: since I will  have my face appear on television, they can't expect me to talk in my bad russian.

"We didn't have time to take a translator to English," says Nina, "And your russian is about the same as our translator's anyway"

I am bit startled by that quote but I not that surprised. If it goes horribly wrong, I should be off that island before everybody hates me.

A television shooting can be loosely linked to reality at best. This is not the reporter's fault and especially not Nina's the media is like this by nature. We often say news reporting as unreliable, yet deep down, we trust it, we take infortmation from it, it affects our reality directly.
For example we see a clear demarcation line between a news report or documentary and a movie fiction. From what I came to see, that line is much more blurry if it even exists.
When King Geoffrey Baratheon sadistically slaughters people in Game of Thrones you do not hate Jack Gleeson, the actor who plays him. However, if a guy beats up another guy on a reality TV show or even a news report, you do not hate the character, you hate the person.
And you should because there is no such thing as a person on television. There are just characters and that we fail to realize.

A movie is a series of sequences acted by actors according to a script. A news report is also a series of acted moments according to a script. There are differences of course. A news report has freer script, more room for improvisation from both the actors and the reporter. Another big difference is that actors in a news report are not professional actors, they are normal people who act a part tightly based on themselves.
But they still remain actors, characters. They are not film doing things while they are doing them, they are re-enacting them at best.

But I have to be fair. It would not be true to say that a story reported by the news is plain fiction; it is linked to reality. Things may not have happened in the same order as shown on the screen and most of the implied things will be misleading but that is just how television is made.

It is no reason for scandal or for accusing reporters of doing a bad job. This is their job description and Nina is doing it great. The public should just be more informed of how television works. By the way, my videos report my journey about as accurately as television would. If you want a close measure of reality, read the blog.

I didn't know that television was like this when they first pointed the camera at me but even if I had known, I would still do the news report and gladly.
Attached to a bit of television fame was the hope of leaving the island and finally getting... almost home.

Nina was really passionate about the report. She came with the cameraman with a big black car. The cameraman was a bit scary but then again so was everyone else.

We did a series of unrelated shots which would later be reassembled. Most of the interview was shot above the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on an elevated wooden platformed which made everything look more impressive. Other shots were made of me walking and typing on my tablet.

I am being interviewed in the hills above the capital city of Sakhalin

My russian was a bit ridiculous but Nina was great with her guidance. She was much more into it than the cameraman and I felt a bit sorry that I couldn't do a better performance because of my poor russian skills.

Time was running out and at 11 AM I needed to get going. Nina wanted to film my last hitch from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk but in case it wouldn't work, the cameraman would take me with his car. Against their scepticism I got a ride in a few moments in a dirty but powerful jeep.

It is one thing I noticed here on Sakhalin, cars are strong and often covered with dirt, sometimes even in the capital city. That is because access roads to the most interesting oil sources are very bad and russians can afford big jeeps.

The road that we follow is surprisingly nice, it is paved and there is a lot of traffic... at least compared to Mongolia. I had already given up one of my plans to hitchhike to the northern top of the island and then take the hovercraft accross the very tiny strait of tatary (7.3km wide) because I thought no traffic would go there. I was wrong; on Sakhalin everybody is riding to every place to that island because of rich oil sources.

The jeep leaves me to the intersection, on a gas station. There are some police cars and I am a little bit scared. I am a little bit scared of everything on Sakhalin since I left Japan. I would like to stay a bit more with Ekatarina and Nina. But nobody cares about me and whenever they care, they are nice. It's just... I can't believe how remote a place I am... I can't believe I will be home soon. Now I am on Sakhalin, a post-apocalyptic island 9 time-zones away from home and soon I will be with Janela living a normal life. How can I hitchhike now as the toughest of the survivors when I am to be a computer engeneer tomorrow? It is as weird as when I first started. Only backwards. Perhaps it is so scary because I don't want anything bad to happen so close to the end.

The next car drives me a little bit further. It is a kind russian fisherman who likes my journey. Every experience is reassuring. He leaves me on another intersection but this one is quiet. The road is still good, there is no gas station and nothing there. I like quiet. I sit to contemplate the silent beauty around me. Nothing is wrong. I would like to stay there a while, in this state of wonder and just innocent happiness flowing at me directly from the surrounding nature. But the daydreaming must stop and I have to go. I am on a deadline. And I should be afraid of Bears. Bears, bears, bears, Sakhalin is full of bears and I don't want to encounter them. I have dome my share of one bear encounter in Japan and that was enough thank you very much.

I am picked up by two very young girls. They are 19 and 21. They are going to a nearby village and want to show me the whereabouts. They are so afraid of bears that they seldom exit the car. We get stuck in mud one time but the older one steers it like she were in an action movie.
I get a big bag full of Sakhalinian dried fish which are about the best dried fish I have tested in my life. Even better than whatever I could find in Japan.

We exit the car near a river with white rocks. Everything is green, quiet and beautiful. God will  I miss the east... Will I miss beautiful girls showing me around with a smile and giving me their number as opposed to their western counterparts with one finger on 911 as soon as you ask them for the time. Will I miss the hospitality, the air, the russian language. The thrill. Maybe I won't miss the thrill...

My guides for the brief time here
The girls tell me about life in Sakhalin, about the beauty, about bears. They have seen them many times, better find a good shelter for the night. They tell me to stay longer but I have to go on, to Kholmsk. They just briefly show me their village which is a really small pack of houses on the side of a dirt road. They leave me on the main way and sign farewell. With my bag of deliscious dried fish in my hand, I have just become a lot more interesting for the bear population which, by the way, is probably bigger than the human one.

The guy who drives me to Kholmsk is just great. He hears that I want to hitchhike a boat and he is determined to find the managment office.

We find it, it is not far from the Kholmsk harbour. A blond woman opens.
"I have an unusual request."
"Is there something as usual requests here on Sakhalin?"
I explain to her my situation and contrary to the Japanese, she is not the least bit surprised.
"I'll get you the chief"
This is the first time I meet someone who treats my journey as a casual matter and fully understands it at the same time.

The chief is a tall man in a suit with a little bit of gray hair. He doesn't speak much, he doesn't show a whole lot of emotions but his presence feels the room.
I explain my journey to him and hand him the map of my way.
"And I would like a free ticket to Vanino on your ferry, sir"
There is a moment of silence.
"Where did you learn Russian?"
"Here and there, on the way."
He pauses again and dives into deep thought. He then picks up his phone and dials the ticket office. No reply.
He looks at me with an inquisitive look. I regret a little bit that I entered this office, now he will call the FSB and I'll end up in jail.
"You know what, you have some courage to come to my office to ask for a ticket. And I appreciate a man who has balls. So here is your ticket. You know where the terminal is." He gives me an enveloppe with the price of the ticket in it. "This is the fastest way. Good luck."

And he drowns his gaze back in the computer.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Sakhalin is my home after a thermonuclear disaster

In 170 kilometers in the North-Eastern direction I will be crossing 2 time zones. Last time that happened was when I crossed from Kazakhstan to China, ages ago.
But this time, I won't step into the unknown that much. I know the language of the country I am stepping in and this is the first time such a thing happens on this trip... ever.
Russia will be the last foreign country I step into in this hitchhiking trip and today feels like a beginning of the conclusion.
Sakhalin time, left, Japanese time, right
So that's it, I guess I can hitchhike to anywhere. I don't feel I have to prove anything to anyone. Thus, I don't need to get to Kamchatka. I might get there sometime in my life, why not. By paid plane, probably. Could I get to Kamchatka by hitchhiking? I think, yes; but you'd have to take my word for it and frankly, I don't care at all if you don't believe me.

As I am resting while the ferry is slowly advancing through the water, I feel a huge relief. Right until now, everything worked. It doesn't really stress me out that I will still technically be on an island.
I don't really think about the future so much, I just enjoy the view. And it is stunning. Islands are scattered across the seascape like proud breadcrumbs.

On board there are several people, almost all Japanese. There is the CEO who everyone tries to get a hold of him, especially the russian camera crew also onboard, and the poor man doesn't know where to go and he ends up talking to me, maybe because I am the only guy who doesn't try to catch him with a net. He is a polite Japanese man, a little bit shy given his position. We don't speak much though, my Japanese is not that good and my mind is slowly switching to russian.

After a long ride, land appears, wide and far away from the right side. It is the tip of one arm of the large Sakhalin bay.
The tip of the west arm of Sakhalin bay appears on the right
It is a very long arm and it seems inhabited... at some point at least. I can see a round white structure, seemingly observation posts or something. After a while, there is land on both sides and then I see Korsakov, the southern harbour of Sakhalin. It is an industrial ugly harbour with lots of machines falling apart in a depressive manner, needless to say that everything that stands here is from the soviet times and hasn't been touched since.

There are many talks between improving relations between Japan and Russia since they are geographically very close neighbours but seem unnaturally distant. In my mind, I have always blamed the Japanese and their nationalism for this but I must say I was wrong.
The russians don't even have a proper customs office in the harbour. It's seems like foreigners disembarking at the shores of Sakhalin are an unlikely inconvenience.

Approaching Korsakov harbour
As we dock to shore and wait a bit, two russian customs officers get on our ferry. They have a bag full of documents and stamps and that russian look on their faces that makes you wonder weather they are bored to death or if they want to kill you.

The two bored to death officers just sat at some table on the ferry with their computer and began arguing amongst each other. Evidently, they had no idea what to do with us, the passengers. After a while, they opened agent, a chat application used by everyone, especially teenagers for sexting. The protocol is unencrypted and it's one more example that officials know nothing about technology.

Thank god we have hollywood movies to show us how able and dangerous everyone is.

After the russian officials exchanged confidential information on agent which were probably intercepted by anonymous, we were escorted to a big recycled bus which arrives into the docks. The way between the ship and the bus is supervised by other bored to death officers. The bored to death driver drives us to a semi-destroyed backyard. We enter the house by a backdoor and inside are the customs. Unreal, russia does not disappoint with stereotype.

On Sakhalin, women are stunning beyond description, they are redefining my vision of how a girl could even look like. Girls don't even look like that in my fantasies and I can assure you that my imagination wanders a long way from reality. They are tall, shortly dressed with makeup and high heels walking through the rubble. Men look like super-ripped human tanks who are bored with life and I wouldn't want to get into a fight with one of these guys... except maybe if I was fighting for a Sakhalinian girl.

I start a conversation with one of the russian girls on the ship, she is one of the reporters, she is from Moscow but one day she decided to work on Sakhalin which was a choice misunderstood by everyone. Because Sakhalin is a very different type of civilisation. But russians have guts.

Average Sakhalinian supermodel crossing train tracks on red light, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk
When we are processed (I have to explain why I have deer horns around my bag) I ride with the reporters towards the capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Nina, that is her name wants to interview me for Sakhalin television and while I don't like TV much, Nina is nice and I agree to it.
There is another upside to giving an interview. I need one more boat hitchhike and I need fast. Maybe if I am on Sakhalin TV in may play in my favour when I ask for a free ticket.

As we drive forward, I can't help smiling how everything looks familiar. I talk with Nina and I understand all she's saying. I can read the road signs. They might be in a slightly different language and in a slightly different dialect but overall, I feel like driving through my home town of Prague after thermonuclear explosion went off there. I feel home.
This military base did not fight and bravely resist. It kind of always was like this.
I even have a couchsurfing there, so lucky me! In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, one person and one only replied to my couchsurfing, Ekaterina. She is finishing her apartment and she lets me stay there. It is good I managed to learn Russian on the way because while Ekaterina seems to write good English with the help of the internet she certainly doesn't want to or can't speak it.
Nina and Ekaterina organized the transfer from the television car to her apartment and I was soon comfortable with a place to stay in yet another city.
Ekaterina was my russian guardian angel, she even gave me a beeline sim card with internet access. And I certainly felt more safe that way, the first days in a foreign country are the most intimidating. And while Sakhalin feels a bit like home, it also feels like a warzone and I don't really know which one should I choose.

Ekaterina dances, she pole dances as a hobby. She is a Russian pole dancer on an island after a nuclear apocalypse. Try to beat that. To be fair, she is actually an accountant.

Couchsurfing in Sakhalin
I should be fair to Sakhalin's civilisation. Yes, it is a pile of rubble but it is a functioning one. The military bases who wouldn't attract the filthiest Parisian squatter operate probably better than their french counterparts. The rotten train tracks have functioning barriers which lift automatically when a train is passing thus blocking cars from forcing their way through. The awful communist-style buildings which look like they're rotten to the bone have electronic secure and reinforced doors.
Yuzhno-Sakhalin works, it is war-ready; it is just not pretty. But I guess russians don't care about that, if you take a look at their faces they seem to be bored with life anyway.

The upside to all this is that you can drop a thermonuclear warhead on Sakhalin any number of times you wish, it will still look the same, work the same and the population will barely notice. I guess that counts for something, especially during the soviet times.
Don't bother nuking Sakhalin

Medical vehicle
I grew to like Sakhalin as Ekaterina and her friends showed me around. From the hill just above Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk you can see the whole town and there is a ski trail running from there to the very town. In winter, when the sun goes down and the lights are up it must be quite a magic ride. Ekaterina's friends are really cool and I am pleased to realize that they don't intend to murder me because of the Ukrainian crisis.
Usually there are two questions that russian people ask me:

  • What's your position on the Ukrainian crisis?
  • What's your position on gay marriage?
Fortunately I am now fed up with Europe because they accuse my girlfriend of being a prostitute because she's asian so my opinions about Europe fall right into the Russian propaganda system. And also, I am not gay. Nevertheless, even if I was, Ekaterina and her friends are tolerant enough not to kill me.

We eat strawberries on the hill while watching the sunset. Not often but sometimes, I see the Japanese cherry blossom. It is the latest cherry blossom that happens, here on Sakhalin. The town is a bit polluted so we don't see much clearly.
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk from the top of the ski trail
Ekaterina is going to visit her parents so I have the apartment for myself. I even have my own key, like... forever, it's a gift. I think it is a nice though that for the rest of my life I'll have a key to an apartment in the middle of a forgotten island on the other side of the world.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Dominoes fall

First off, I enter the Russian consulate in Sapporo. I wait there, about one hour before it opens. I meet a russian guy, also waiting and realize I haven't completely forgotten my Russian.
The lady at the window tells me to wait. She is very nice and reassuring. She tells me not to worry. I think about all that the contempt with which, we, europeans, have treated the russian people. The refused visas, the accusation of prostitution, of belonging to organised crime, the uptight snobbish tone of french journalists Gilles Bouleau and Jean-Pierre Elkabbach asking Putin about his inhumane acts while their own country was massively dropping a asylum demands for Ukrainian refugees... like Jack the Ripper having an ethics debate with a gas chamber.

I will not get that visa, I thought. And hell if I understand. Had I been Russia, I would stamp a big fat fuck you on every european passport.

"Your russian is really good," says the consul and gives me the visa. A day early, in 9 days instead of 10 and without all the compulsory documents.

So what? Am I pro-Putin or something? I am not. He is a smart and possibly very talented leader but he is a fucking dictator. He spreads a lot of hate, for practical purposes maybe but I have become very critical of hate and dictatorships since Turkmenistan. There is little excuse for that.
And there is little excuse for mass-killings to preserve oneself by closing borders as we do in Europe.

We are made humans, not computers, we are supposed to make emotional decisions together with the rational ones. That is why, at the price of inconsistency, we are able to understand beautiful truths, ones that we could not appreciate were we purely rational.
I think I'd rather die with a conscience than live as a turing machine.

I take my visa and run to the center of Sapporo, to the HeartLand Ferry, for the last time. It is May 29th, 3 days left to go before I emerge in Russia. I hope they haven't changed their mind.

They have not. I am in that conference room again. I get ice tea instead of coffee because it's warmer now. After I show the visa, they give me the a white and pink piece of paper: the ferry ticket.
My ticket!

Visa and ticket

They asked me when I will manage to reach Wakkanai, the Northernmost city of Hokkaido, I tell them the day after tomorrow, on 31st. So on 1st, I will embark on a boat to Rishiri island and I will take the last ferry back to Wakkanai.

I should meet one of the executives on my arrival, contact him and he will give me a ticket. The official reason why I embark for free is that I am their Public Relations person, it's even written on my ticket.
Then on June 2nd, I will embark on my ultimate trip to Sakhalin.

T. tells me that the CEO will be on this first trip and I can drive with him from the harbour to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 40 kilometers North.

With this dream-deal, I leave Sapporo with the hope of covering some ground before it gets dark. Unfortunately it is dark pretty fast and I am walking there, in the wet night with my tablet playing music into my ears but with the warm feeling that I am almost there.

At last, I get a ride with some huge car which looks everything like a monster truck. In there is a young guy and his girlfriend and they buy me lunch. Turns out I am not falling into money as fast as I though.

I am picked up by a monster truck, North of Sapporo
I put my tent and sleep like a baby. The next day it is raining. Picks me up an old lady but we get stuck in heavy rain in a restaurant and we eat excellent Hokkaido food. I think it's some kind of shrimp soup.

The old lady is of Ainu origin and she was born on Sakhalin. However, she was thrown out after the war. I think she still has relatives there though. She invites me into her house until the rain stops. But since it doesn't seem to stop, she just tells me to stay there and goes to visit her mother. 
So here I am, having a house all for myself. There is stuff to cook and chocolate. And yes, internet!

The old lady comes from Sakhalin
The next day I don't start early. first off, I feel very comfortable in that house, it is actually the first time on this trip that I have complete privacy together with the comfort of a shower. Scratch that, bathtub. Last but not least, she made a nice little sign for me saying Wakkanai. That would be last sign for this trip. Ever. A japanese sign saying Wakkanai written by an old lady from Sakhalin who lent me her house. I don't know but as I realize this I perceive it as a quite moving.
But the trip is not over yet, I should get to Wakkanai. It threatens to rain again and nobody is picking me up. The thing in Japan is according to hitchwiki, rain transforms you into an untouchable subject so I have to catch cars in brief times of drought.

A couple of guys stops, they are going to Wakkanai, straight to the ferry terminal because there is an annual marathon around the island. They decide to buy me so much food that I can't put it into my bag. I notified the executive that I arrived and he told me shelter me somehow because of heavy coastal winds. I set up camp in the harbour, under a little concrete roof.
Everything was going well except there is a glitch: the ferry arrives at 9 AM at Rishiri island and leaves at 5 PM. That leaves me 8 hours total and if I miss the last ferry to Wakkanai, I am screwed. My ferry for Sakhalin leaves the next morning so even if I take the first ferry tomorrow from Rishiri to Wakkanai, I will miss Sakhalin and I doubt I will get a second international free ticket.

In short, I have 8 hours to ascent and descent and the ascension only takes 6 hours and the total time ascent+descent is estimated to 11 hours. It is a tough climb. And these numbers are taken on experienced climbers (now I have learned the hard way to take Japanese estimations seriously) and they are taken from base camp, situated 5 kilometers from the harbour where my countdown begins. Plus, the assumption doesn't include my 25-kilogram heavy backpack with all my souvenirs and heavy deer horns on top.
To assume that I can hold a 5km/hour walk in a mountainous terrain with a heavy bag, I will spend 2 hours walking to and from base camp which leaves me exactly 6 hours to complete my ascension and descent that takes 11 hours theoretically, with no luggage.

Thanks god for my ego which clearly concludes that I can do it even though experience attests otherwise. But I want to climb up Mount Rishiri, I want it so much because I have never yet been on a mountain in the middle of sea and while yes, it is kind of the case with Mount Halla in Korea, trust me when I tell you that the Rishiri mountain is a completely different mindfuck. 
The only thing even more fucked up than Rishiri is Matua island in the Kurils. And there's a very good argument for Japanese ownership of the Kurils: they are crazy.
Mount Rishiri rises up from the left side and from the sea as if it were a spatial object. It grows up, as a floating mountain, you can't actually see it's base at the beginning, just it's top and it really feels fucked up. Everyone is crazy with cameras, taking pictures as if the object could disappear anytime as easily as it had appeared.

I have embarked on the first ferry but before, I have decided to make my bag lighter. I have hidden it under some rubbish between two buildings in Wakkanai, a little distance from the harbour. I had then met my friend from HeartLand Ferry who gave me a ticket addressed to "Mr. Hitchhiker Filip" which I guess, has a nice ring to it.
Going to climb Mount Rishiri

The mountain in the sea suddenly appears

Seagulls are usually resting on the boats
After an incredible ride, we finally arrive at the harbour. The sky is blue which doesn't happen often on islands like this which usually accumulate clouds. I press myself towards the exit to save every minute I can for my superman run. 11 hours in less than 6. Of course I start by getting lost in the coastal village and lose time there but I find myself again soon. I hitch a ride for about 500 meters and then the road is empty. All people who wanted to be on the top again already began the ascent. They arrived by yesterday's ferry and camped there. But this doesn't discourage me. I walk and run on the road up. Nothing to see there, I'll slow down when I am on the top. I won't have a choice anyway, I'll be too exhausted. I have a small piece of paper detailing ascent and descent in 10 steps with optimal times. I read the times for descent and try to fit them into my ascension phase. And every time I want to slow down I imagine the ferry leaving without me and energy finds me again.

At the bottom of the mountain the vegetation is full of leaves and dense, I almost can't see the sky. But as I climb quickly, I am actually quite amazed by my speed, it thins out and snow begins to appear. The wind, too becomes stronger. 
The vegetation becomes thinner and I can see the sky
The view is unbelievable, it is as if I was floating on my mountain in the sea. I am in a mountain, but there is nothing around. flat blue, that's it. It's like I am flying.

It's like I am flying
Strange flowers are starting to appear and I sometimes slip on the snow. I still manage to keep my climbing average under my optimistic expectations. I guess I have acquired quite a physical condition over this trip. I start to encounter people but they are mostly going down. Soon, I get to a shelter. It is a shelter that allows people to rest and possibly camp near the top, maybe in hope to reach the top very early and see the sunrise. That should be a sight to behold. I leave the rest of my bag in the shelter. I now don't carry almost anything, not even my bottle of water. I even left my tablet.
Strange flowers start to appear
As I reach the 9th mark of my 10-mark itinerary to the top, the path turns to a series of volcanic rubbish which just slides under your field. The wind blows fiercely but now it pushes me up. I climb on the wind up to the top. I see the ferry leaving. There still is one to go. Mount Rishiri, being the sea mountain that it is, it goes from 1750 meters to zero very fast and it feels like you are watching the ground from a small plane or a parachute.

I see the ferry leaving
Soon, I reach the top and I am still on time. Fuck yeah! The view is unlike anything I've ever seen. Either I have never lost my sense of wonder or Japan is just an inflation of awesomeness. I guess the same effect could be achieved with a fair amount of drugs but seriously, since our dearly soon-to be departed Shulgin is soon-to-be-departed, who can make decent LSD these days? So next best thing, I am on a cone in the sea, wherever I look there is blue, yet I stand on a fucking mountain! Far away, to the south, I see the prominent silhouette of Wakkanai bay. It looks just like on my map on my tablet, except now, it's real. I never manage to see the link between maps and reality, they always tell me shit, it always looks different than advertised except now.

Right in front of me is the island of Rebun also called Flower Island. And a little bit more north, I see the vague Silhouette of Sakhalin (or Karafuto as the Japanese call it). I can't believe I am going there. Oh right, yes, I am going there. I better run down that mountain, now!
Panorama of the top of Mount Rishiri
I run and slide down that mountain and while it took me 3 hours to climb instead of six, surprisingly it only took me 3 hours to get down instead of four. At base camp, I met a couple going back to the village who saw that I was in a hurry and drove me all the way to the harbour. There, I realized that I still had an hour left so I wondered around.

The ferry was overflowing with people because everybody was coming back via the last boat. I was just lying there on the floor (that is normal in Japanese ferries, people sit on floors); resting whatever I could of my poor body. I don't regret failing Shiretoko and Asahikawa, Mount Rishiri just was worth the shot.
On my return, I recovered my things in between the two buildings and I built my tent at the usual camping spot. I set all my electronics as alarm clocks to wake me up tomorrow morning. I just can't miss that boat, that would be the summit of stupidity. To be sure I wake up tomorrow, I don't sleep.

On June 2nd, in the morning, the hall is full of people with costumes and cameras, TV crews everywhere. It is the 50th anniversary of HearLandFerry and in a period of crisis this company is most direct mainstream link between Japan and Russia. So I guess it is of some importance.

The good executive wishes me good luck and farewell and gives me a deck of cards with the company's brand. Mascots and TV crews are filming us as we embark on the Eins-Soya. Music is playing as they wave us goodbye. And I am sitting on the ferry deck wondering weather or not I am on drugs.
счастливо пути, nice Japanese effort in Russian language

Embarking on the ferry to Sakhalin

Goodbye Wakkanai, goodbye Hokkaido!
The boat is almost empty but I am on it. Someone brings me a tray of japanese food. Neat! Lunch comes with the free ticket. That might be the last great food I am going to eat, I hear myself thinking. The great volcanic Mount Rishiri appears again on the horizon and then disappears as we sail even further away. We are now in Russian waters.

Dominoes fall. Dominoes are on the ground.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dominoes tremble

I know I wrote there were just four domino pieces but now it feels like four giant domino constructions. And I am just one domino piece among them, waiting to fall in place. I am currently waiting for my Russian visa and stressed to the bone. Why did I have to play the rebel card with my russian visa by not giving them the compulsory travel insurance?
Now I must wait two weeks, two weeks of uncertainty and I just want to get to Russia. Let me sum up the situation again.

I am running out of time, I have to get back to my girlfriend in the beginning of June which is less than two weeks ahead. She will be either in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) or in Tomsk (Siberia, Russia). In both cases my flight is about $1000 and I realize that this time, I don't have the money available. I can't make the flight even if I wanted. Here is what I can afford (Keep in mind Sakhalin is also an island):
Travel path Pros Cons Realistic?
Tokyo → Bishkek/Tomsk
Can afford
Not enough time, unless I hitchhike to
Tokyo in which case too expensive
Sapporo → Paris
Can afford
I can't see my girlfriend
Sapporo → Bishkek/Tomsk
I get to see my girlfriend!
Can't afford

  1. Pay for Hokkaido → Sakhalin
  2. Fly Sakhalin → Tomsk
I get to see my girlfriend!
I can only afford one of the two options

  1. Pay for Hokkaido → Sakhalin
  2. Hitchhike Sakhalin → Tomsk
Can afford
Not enough time to cross half of Russia
  1. Hitchhike Hokkaido → Sakhalin
  2. Pay for Sakhalin → Tomsk
Can afford
I spend all my money and hope
my girlfriend has become a millionaire meanwhile
  1. Hitchhike Hokkaido → Sakhalin
  2. Hitchhike Sakhalin → Tomsk
It's free!
None whatsoever
If miracles are realistic, then Yes!

As you see, my success depends on more than one coincidence and I can only influence so much,  that's why I keep talking about dominoes and me being one of them, the only domino which can feel stress. 

But this is useless now, I should do something with my life before they give me the visa and ticket, if they do. I hitchhike in the rain to lake Toya, it is a round lake with a round island. But I am becoming sick again, I don't have much food and everything is wet.

In front of Toya lake
I try gathering small goals to keep my mind from the stress so I decide to go to Noboribetsu, a place labeled door to hell or something because there is smoke coming from the ground and hot springs everywhere. After a few days spent in the rain I was kind of marinating in my half-dirty half-wet clothes and I really needed a shower. My last camp was under heavy rain after I failed to hitchhike far enough from Sapporo. I waited until late morning hoping that the rain would stop but it didn't. Ground was slowly becoming muddy with a lot of grass and leaves to retain the water so I packed the disgusting mess and left. I stopped at a local McDonalds to wait for a better weather but I was kicked out because I didn't intend to buy anything. It happens. I was adopted for a long ride by an almost english-speaking couple who had a spare hamburger and two dogs.

It's was a few rainy rides.
The sky got clearer towards early afternoon where I was left in front of a kombini. Long quiet waves were washing the sandy coast of Hokkaido's south coast.

Waves washing on Hokkaido's coast
The ride towards Noboribetsu was long because of never-ending cities and thus difficulties to catch a ride. My last ride was a kind widow with a little daughter who mistook me for her dad. I even visited the family house and they forced me another 2000 yen into my pocket while I was holding the child. She drove me all the way to the place I was looking for which was a few kilometers north of Noboribetsu. It was a tourist resort with various hotels and attractions. It was really hard to say goodbye because the daughter was really holding on to me.

I did my usual stunt to get a shower. I left my bag in the lobby and I wondered to onsen floor. It is for the resort residents only but nobody checks and luckily I had the floor for myself. As usual, there was a giannt pool of hot mineral water and luxurious showers with shampoo, soap and all the body oils you can imagine. All this with temperature control. Plus, a sauna. Showers really mean the world in times like these.
Next question was to find camp and I was a bit paranoid because of the fumes and also the bears. Sulfur is coming from the ground virtually everywhere.

The next morning I went uphill to see the volcano and there was an amazing lake which was a lake of boiling water with everything around it dead. It was kind of scary walking on the crust between the bubbles of black mineral water, wondering what would happen if I stepped into that bubbling hell.

Boiling lake
Climbing the volcano nearby was kind of stupid because there was no climbable path so I had to rely on unstable rocks, plus there were sulfur fumes everywhere around.
On my way back I started a conversation with a couple who forced another 1000-yen bill in my pocket. This is not about food anymore, I can almost have a small salary in Japan just by accepting donations.
Under the lake there was a river of hot water which formed a pond as well as a smaller stream. Following that stream was a place which had cooled enough to take a comfortable bath. But since I already had used the hotel, I could skip.

My next stop in my wait for a visa was cape Erimo. I didn't get there right away. I was taken in by some retired guy who was going on a hike with his friends. It was a botanic hike, people were taking pictures of flowers for the whole time and it was fairy boring. I was invited to his place which is fine since I didn't sleep in a Hokkaido home yet.

My host lives in Niikappu, a coastal village and his house is a few meters from the sea. Hokkaido's coast seems more poor than what I was used in Japan. If you showed me Honshu's east coast now and Hokkaido's coast and asked me where the tsunami hit, I would tend to point at the latter.
My host's house looked a bit built with improvisation but never at the expense of comfort. It still had a bathtub although it was a bit miniature.

I was glad to rest at that place and the next day I was supposed to get going but my host and his friend wanted to take me to a bar and since I never was in a Japanese bar yet so I said yes.

Me and my hosts at a small village bar
My hosts spent an insane amount of money at the bar. There were two girls serving stuff and it was clear that much more than serving, their job was to keep the consumers entertained. You were paying to talk to a pretty girl. And it worked great. The girls were laughing and talking to my hosts who were otherwise lonely and/or retired; in neither case could they have the opportunity to have such a live conversation with the girls.

They were pretty girls alright but according to Japanese standards they were actually average which doesn't matter much since this was a small village with no competition and while that might be a sexist paragraph that is exactly how the bar owners thought.

Me and one of the bar girls
It's funny how it was all unfolding, the girls were pushing my hosts to buy drinks and food, half of which was almost obviously useless but it would be too shameless to give money for conversation time. On my end, I was eating as much food as I could, sushi, cheese and whatever as well as copious amounts of alcohol. The girls didn't try to make me buy anything and one of them bought me a drink which was probably against guidelines but I am probably the only gaijin here in a hundred years. 

We went to 2 bars and my hosts spent almost 20,000 yen which is a little bit more than 12 Beijing prostitutes or 3 french psychologists. My hosts called a special driver for drunk people who can't drive home and he charged them about 2 Beijing prostitutes worth for the drive home.

The next day, I met one of the guys because he wanted to drive me to Cape Erimo where, south point of Hokkaido where I originally wanted to go.
Woman with cat, because... Japan
Erimo-Misaki means cape Erimo in Japanese. It is a clear day and it is always very windy at these pointy ends going endlessly into the sea. On the way I had the chance to catch internet. I received an email from the ferry company. It reads:
Hi hitchhiker !
Filip, Can you visit our office tomorrow 20/05 around 16:00 ?
We would like confirm your russian visa and talk something.
Pls prompt reply.
T. / Heart Land Ferry
I don't know how to interpret this but I guess it's good. I can't confirm my Russian visa since I still have one week to wait until I get the answer but at least they didn't tell me to fuck off. Also, I am on the other side of Hokkaido and I have to return to the capital tomorrow.
Cape Erimo
Fortunately my driver has to get home too and I drive with him until halway between Tomakomai, Hokkaido's big harbour and the capital Sapporo. I have a couch-surfing there, in Iwamizawa city, with a guy named Yuya. Luckily, I get there in time. When I find internet, I get an angry email from heart and land ferry saying that I didn't reply although I did. Now they don't know if I am coming so what if they were going to hand me the ticket and now they'll cancel the whole thing? Damn, if I wasn't stressed enough. Moreover, I have an interview tonight, with a french radio about the prison episode, not the lightest of talks.

Fortunately, my host was most kind and understanding and so were his parents. I got my usual Japanese lunchbox from the mother and I printed my travel maps instead I needed to impress the ferry company once more. That is, if they still want me there since they don't see to receive my emails.
Fortunately, I get an email in the morning saying that everything is ok, my emails were found and they are waiting for me. I hitchhike to Sapporo and I am in front of the HeartLand ferry building again. I don't know what stresses me more: waiting for the russian visa or getting the free ticket.
Security looks at me suspiciously as I enter the building, I must be the only human there not wearing office clothing. And I am quite far from it, I am actually pretty close to your usual homeless drunk with mild mental issues.

I am welcomed in the office, just as any respectable collaborator. The good secretary brings me and T. coffee as usual. Enter two more people enter, one of them is the manager for the Sakhalin connection.
"Do you have your russian visa?" Dreaded question.
"It's in process"
A moment goes by and I wish to teleport home.
"We can't give you the ticket before you get the visa. But we decided to give you the ticket on one condition"
"... What's that?"
"We have discussed it and we have think that Japan has many interesting places and it is a shame not to visit those places before leaving Japan."
"Yes..." I am not sure what they are getting at, now.
"We think you should visit the island of Rishiri or Rebun"
Turns out that the HeartLand ferry doesn't only connect Hokkaido to Sakhalin island, it also goes to the two small islands North-west of Hokkaido. Rebun is a long island famous for its unique flowers and Rishiri is a perfect round volcano in the sea reaching over 1700 meters of altitude.
People say it is possible to see Sakhalin on a clear day.
But I am not sure if they mean what I think they mean.

"Are you saying that you are giving me a ticket to Sakhalin on the condition that you give me also a ticket to Rishiri or Rebun?"
"Yes, is that an acceptable condition?"
That's about as acceptable of a condition as getting two pizzas for the price of... zero so, "Yes!"
"Please come collect your ticket when you have your russian visa"

Meeting is over, I have great news and Janela is happy too. I have still about ten days left to explore Hokkaido before I return to Sapporo again to collect my visa (hopefully, hopefully), take my ticket (if they don't change their mind) and I am off to Sakhalin! Needless to say this all feels unreal.

What now? I go east. I want to reach the easternmost point and that is cape Nemuro, just next to the Kuril islands. By close I mean really close, 2 kilometer-ish close, "you can see them from the coast"-close. My way there was relatively fast, I didn't stop much. I think mainly once, in a giant garden full of flowers and strawberries. I received food and money on the way, as usual. I still didn't spend any money, not even the donated from the moment I set foot in Japan.

Finally I arrive at Nemuro, driving with a Hokkaidean fisherman. He speaks only Japanese but at this point I can already handle a conversation. It's hard to believe that when I return, I won't be able to speak Japanese again, I'll forget everything.
The Nemuro peninsula is polished by strong winds from all directions. You can smell the sea pretty much everywhere and seagulls are everywhere. The sea feels cold and wavy. I didn't really think that straight when I considered going to Kamchatka through that angry watery element.

As we approach Russia, a strange phenomenon appears: Road signs, usually written in Kanji and subtitles in Romanji (romanized Japanese script) are now also subtitled in Russian. It is the first time that I see three popular alphabets in one place. Earlier, in Xinjiang, it road signs were in Chinese and Arabic.
I start seeing Japanese/Russians signs
What about people speaking Russian? Dream on! Russia may be the closest country to Japan geographically, it is not culturally. Japan is as close to Russia as Tokyo is to Moscow. In fact, as long as the Japanese are concerned, when I cross the narrow sea patch between Hokkaido and Sakhalin, I will be crossing the border from Asia to a weird part of Europe. And while road signs are in Russian, we are reminded of the territorial dispute between the two countries: the Kuril islands are seen as "Japanese northern territories" as seen here above the town hall:

Kuril islands labeled as Japanese northern territories
From my side of things I tend to side with the Japanese on the dispute but it may very well be because I am on the Japanese side of things. But as I travel around I meet fishermen who go fishing to Kunashir, the closest of the Kuril islands because they used to go there for generations. The island is part of their daily life even though it isn't theirs. I also speak to Japanese born on Sakhalin and who migrated to Hokkaido. 
I arrive to Cape Nemuro in hellish wind. Behind the lighthouse, black volcanic rocks are the last mark of land in the sea. Damn no, I am not going into there, especially not alone.

The easternmost point of my trip

If you look closely, you can see the closest Kuril island
Even through the mist, I can see Russia ahead, the closest of the Kuril islands. There is a Russian lighthouse, even closer, taking waves in the middle of the sea. It seems to be constructed in a micro-island just to say: Yes we are here!
And a mere thousand kilometers north east, following that patch of islands is the tip of Kamchatka. That is strange. But I am not going to Kamchatka anymore, I have decided that in my cell in Tokyo. I am glad to go Sakhalin and I very much want to live.

My next destination is another peninsula called Shiretoko. It is also the wildest part of Japan, volcanoes, bears and extreme sea weather concentrated in one place. No trails.
The closest town is called Rausu, I will try to get there tomorrow. Now, I camp in a sort of neighborhood of abandoned houses. 

For the first time, I use money to buy some food at a Seiko-mart. It feels strange to give money for something, even more strange if that something is food. I haven't bought anything for nearly two months. But money is fast to get accustomed to. It works a lot like a hard drug: if you don't use it, you don't really need it. But as soon as you start using, you never stop. You can't use a little, you can't use it once; you start using it on a regular basis and you soon stop all other ways to sustain yourself. Very soon, you even forget the possibility to get things by other means than money. You stop accepting gifts, you stop trusting people, you only trust money to get the things you want.
And even if one day, you stop using money again, it will stay somewhere, in the back of your head, reminding to you that it is the easy alternative to anything you do and that it is... everywhere.
Dependency-wise, money hooks you up faster than heroin or crack cocaine.
But in our world, you never come to see it as a dependency because everyone is hooked up on it. It is only if, like me, you decide to go on a close to zero or zero-budget that you start seeing the similarities.

In countries with no controlled economy and only a little education, for instance Kyrgyzstan, people have such an unhealthy relationship to money that you could talk about money-junkies but that is a topic for another time.

My camp is a ditch but the view is still beautiful. The Shiretoko peninsula is very narrow and mountainous and this time of the year it has a lot of snow.
My camp, with view of the Shiretoko peninsula
The next day, I buy myself breakfast and the offered breakfast by my first ride goes to waste. Then I have no rides for a long time. There is not much going through that road anyway. So I walk for a long time until a journalist stops. She has good English and she has been to Kunashir, the first Kuril island. Actually, it is worth noting that even though Kunashir is Russia, military land and disputed territory, you'll have a hard time finding a person here who has not been to Kunashir, either legally or not. That journalist has been there legally because there is a special permit for scientists or journalists. I wonder weather I could try to infiltrate some journalistic crew or scientific mission to get there. I don't keep a precise log but that might not be the craziest thing I have attempted on this trip. But besides the craziness, the main issue is time. I have worked and hoped a lot to get that ferry to Sakhalin, what will I gain if I miss it and get stuck on Kunashir island instead.
The journalist tells me that fishermen often go there and sometimes they get sprayed by machine gun fire. Sometimes they get kidnapped, do some forced labor and are sent back. I imagine, with a 5000-something population, the Russians welcome an extra hand.

The journalist leaves me at Rausu where I spend some time getting information from the tourist office but they just tell me that there is no path and to not go there. It is merely 15 kilometers from the moment the road ends but people who I question about it talk of 5-day hikes. I hitch a ride to the end of the road by a fisherman who has also been at Kunashir. At the end of the road there is a bit cynical inscription that says that the way is very hard and that unless you are in an extremely good physical shape, you should not attempt the hike. But you are free to die there if you don't bother anybody. I actually like the japanese hiking style more. As opposed to the Korean, they treat you as an adult, they don't try to tell you that stuff is impossible, they just don't want to be bothered rescuing you if you end up in trouble which is fair.

The warning sign
I get lunch and good luck from the fisherman and I am on my way. The road continues with a few houses and then it becomes a stony beach. It is amazing how fast I transition from civilization to total wilderness. My feet hurt a little because my shoes are seriously destroyed and I feel the stones under my feet. Houses are slowly stopping to look like Japanese houses and more looking like improvised shelters. There is still electricity lines though, for a while and then it also stops.
The end of the road

One of the last houses
In the beginning I can walk comfortably (if I forget about the pain in my feet) but then it becomes more difficult. As advertized, the stony beach stops and I have to climb rocks. I climb with my heavy bag over steep rocks. But still, civilisation has not given up on me. Even though there is no house to be found, I come across a bridge which surely was constructed by man. And then it's rocks, rocks and only rocks. I feel overwhelmed and a little bit scared by the immensity of the nature. Shiretoko truly is an impressive wonder.
Civilisation is fading away but there is still this bridge!
I walk among rocks in a beautiful landscape

As I don't think I will meet any more civilisation after that heavy climb I discover a fishing settlement of three houses, several boats and even a bulldozer. There are a lot of Sika Deer nearby as well as deer horns. These deers are beautiful, unlike ours they have shiny white horns which are left around freely because deer are eaten by bears all the time. They transported the stuff to here by boat... obviously. They are fishing around Shiretoko and Kushiro. I ask them if there is another settlement later but they tell me they are the last. I replenish my reserves of water and continue my way. At the last house, the path stops again but this time there is no bridge and no nothing. A group of fishermen are coming home with huge fish through the rock.
"...San Higuma..." they say which to my knowledge means they saw three bears. However, they really don't seem to be very concerned by the presence of bears.

One of Shiretoko's isolated fishing settlement
Since the road has stopped I must climb. Not too high because I don't want to encounter the "extremely high concentration of brown bear" but not too low because there is there are only cliffs and no flat space. The problem is that in-between the high and low, the way wasn't too comfortable. I was hanging out in mid-air on a steep slope covered with grass, holding to the grass with my hands, hoping that the grass will not detach and I will not end up impaled on the sharp rocks underneath. I better make small steps. This is the most difficult climb I ever made and I am in my best shape. After a while of nearly killing myself by falling down cliffs I decide to climb up, to the forest. I didn't feel too reassured with all the sounds around but most of them were deers. It really looks like all Japanese wildlife got concentrated here at Shiretoko. After a moment of paranoia I take a pair of deer horns as a weapon and/or souvenir. As I reach the biggest heights I see the silhouette of Kunashir emerging from the sea.
I climb through the narrow patch of grass between bear land and cliffs
I emerge on the other side of the rocks, there is another stony beach and another settlement. It is abandoned and it falling in ruins. However, there are enough abandoned boats to take me through the Kuril islands and even Kamchatka if I knew something about boat repair and sailing. So my initial plan wasn't so dumb to begin with. Crazy, yes but somehow feasible. May this serve as additional information for people who want to try the adventure to Kamchatka.

I eat my lunch on the abandoned beach and continue my climb. But I am tired, my bag is heavy and the terrain even more harsh. I climb again and again through even more rocks and I don't see a beach anytime soon. And I start getting cramps. I leave my bag above a cliff and continue a little bit alone. But it is getting late and I soon give up. I'll be lucky if I make it at least to the settlement.

I cross back to the abandoned settlement and startup the climb back but it is harder than the first time. The lighting is worse, my strength too. I barely fall down a few times so I go higher again. Within minutes of stepping into the trees I fall face to face with a bear. It looks at me and then walks away in a bored manner. It is a Japanese bear and respects the law: bears don't eat humans, bears eat deer. But it obviously knows that it can eat me just as easily, it's just a law-abiding bear.

I end up somehow sliding or descending the last slopes down to the three-house settlement. As I pass it for the second time, I am invited in. I am more than glad to rest somewhere comfortable. Since there is no electricity lines, they use a a gas generator.
Since the water in this part of Hokkaido is infected by the Echinococcosis parasite, they use home-made filters. It was the most primitive way of life that I have seen in Japan so far. I guess it is a country of all standards.The fishermen were going to Kunashir tomorrow and I was just thinking that contrary to common beliefs, reaching this island is quite an easy task provided enough social skills and guts.

Home-made filter
I am spending the night in the fishing settlement in Shiretoko

The next morning we all have breakfast and get busy with our lives. The fishermen go fishing to Kunashir and I go walking back.

It starts raining again as I hitchhike on the empty roads. People seem to have lost their spirit the same way as I have given up my hike to the end of the Shiretoko peninsula. What I mean is that I've had a series of emotionally empty rides.

That is until this man stop at Lake Kussharo. He is in his fifties and he is an artist. And if you thought artists are crazy, then you haven't met Japanese artists. They are double crazy. This guy was an artist with money so he decided to build a hotel with an onsen which he decorated with his pottery and various art he made or sponsored. The lobby was made of wooden sticks disposed in a way to make rainbows indoors through a system of mirrors positioned outside.
Water does not resonate with the body well enough, henceforth it is better to bathe in... sulfuric acid. That is why in the basement of the hotel there is an onsen with undiluted water from the hot sulfuric source. The hotel already had one inhabitant: the rainbow artist who was responsible of the lobby.

Lake Kussharo, man loading a boat on his car
"You have a cool trip man!," said the artist, "I would be happy to welcome you in my hotel. For free. But it's not finished."
It may not be finished but it has internet and shower.

The lobby or "rainbow room"
The artist drove me to his hotel and left me there with his artist friend "who also speaks english". That is how I lived for a few days in a japanese artist community. My host's friend was a rainbow artist. He had designed wonderful spaces with dancing rainbows all over the world, especially India and now he was doing that lobby.
He was a man in his fifties with great talent and wisdom and completely childish ideas about love. He was in an idealised and pretty much one-sided romantic relationship with an Italian girl whom he met in India when she was still a child. She is now in her twenties and has a boyfriend, a thing the rainbow artist failed to accept. His life story was as scattered as his art itself, full of mirrors and broken dreams. It was hard to understand what exactly happened in India but it seemed to change his life forever. Somehow the village hated him and he had to run away only to come back later. I just can't remember or understand why. But his vision of love remained as naive as the one in Disney movies, an ultimate goal to reach in life, a goal he shall never reach or he might be disappointed after 50 years of idealization.
An example of rainbow's work

We go to a bar that the hotel artist has also designed with the hotel artist and the rainbow artist too. A friend of his was serving stuff in there. She was nice and very motherly. I don't know if she was also an artist but she surely had taste.
The barmaid gave me food for later but I didn't use it until a long time because we were eating together with the rainbow artist. Even with limited resources he managed to make real good stuff. Hotel artist went away probably see some women entangled in an arty relationship only Japanese artists who bathe in hydrochloric acid can understand.
The hallway in the making
Soon, as I was living there, I was also bathing in the hydrochloric acid and dancing in between rainbows. It is alright if you keep it out of the eyes and put water on yourself afterwards.

On my last day there, we all went to hotel artist's main house where he was living with his girlfriend who was a real beauty for her age and an expert in pottery. The home was a strange construction combining a oven for pottery, various art pieces everywhere and constructions of strange machines which purpose could only make you wonder.

I wasn't as bad as pottery as I thought I would be. We were supposed to make pottery pieces that were to serve as weights to keep the rainbow mirrors in place.
Hotel artist's home

We all make Pottery

Various creations, I made the one with the road
The next day, I leave. I say my goodbyes to Rainbow Artist and I am on my way. I liked this town. I liked the sulfuric streams and the boiling rivers. Before I go I hitchhike to Lake Mashuko, a volcanic lake that looks absolutely amazing. I get there with two rides, a policewoman and a very cool family of Singaporeans. The daughter was a funny one, I actually liked her a lot and we went together into a screaming hole which was venting fumes from the ground.
Hot stream of sulfuric water

So funny! I am obstructing a volcanic vent!
I have only a few days left and after my failure to hike to the end of Shiretoko, I want to climb the highest mountain of Hokkaido, the 2000-something meters high Mount Asahi. Yes like the beer. The first part of the climb is by done by ropeway but it's too expensive for me so I give my bag to some random tourists who go there by ropeway and go there without luggage. The way is closed says everyone but I ignore them because I think they are exaggerating. I should have learned by now, the Japanese are not pussies, usually when they close, they mean business but nobody forces me. I climb the steep mountain using pieces of sharp wood as a replacement for a much needed ice axe. I climb the last hundred meters on hard snow only using my pieces of wood to maintain myself.

Top of the ropeway
At the top of the ropeway the snow has become thick and I fall down knee-deep on every step. This is not good. I have to abandon again. That's the second challenge that I abandon, I hope I will not give up Rishiri. So I go down under the mountain to the mountain resort and take a much needed shower at one of the hotels in my usual infiltration-style.

Foxes and deers are crossing the streets and I am exhausted. I go to sleep. Tomorrow, for the last time hopefully, I return to Sapporo. I will know if I get my visa and I will collect my ticket. That is, if everything goes right. Wish me a miracle.
My bag with Sika Deer horns