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.