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.