Sakhalin Island, Russia: Visiting a Hidden Place Few Will Ever See

“Are you seeking a lift to the North?” Inquired a voice speaking Russian.

I looked away from a map of the railways on Sakhalin Island. The person speaking was a woman in her forties.

“We’re renting a vehicle to Nogliki,” she continued.

Due to the frequent changes in transportation schedules, contact information is limited. Planning ahead is challenging in Siberia. I had no specific destination in mind and only three days available. Nogliki seemed like a suitable choice.

“Someone from the local area, of course, had informed me about their travels in Sakhalin as we became acquainted on the train ride, and they shared their stories with me.”

Encountering Olga and Greg

“What does Sakhalin bring to you?,” Olga, the woman who was traveling with an American named Greg, spoke in Russian, but I didn’t know any locals.

Greg asked me, “What brings anyone to Sakhalin, since I saw it, I wanted to go there ever since I came to Taiwan from the Arctic port of Tiksi, mostly because it was an island.”

Sakhalin Island Russia
Sakhalin Island

Greg explained that we are paleoglaciologists, which I understood to mean the study of glaciers that are no longer present. He further mentioned that we are currently conducting a pilot study on tree rings.

As per Olga, the regional governor resides in Australia and shows no concern about the fate of the island.

The proposal was agreed upon, so we crowded into the vehicle. That seemed more captivating than my initial intention, which was to locate a released soldier I had encountered on the locomotive.

I looked out of the window and saw a landscape filled with plenty of trees, particularly the distinctive and solemn larches, which are crooked and horizontal, resembling vultures perched on begging branches. Although Sakhalin is not a heavily-populated island, it is home to over 600,000 residents and stretches for 1000 miles (600 km).

Researching Climate Change on Sakhalin Island

Greg proceeded, “We research the phenomenon of climate change.” Depending on the temperature, trees thrive at varying speeds. In that particular year, one can deduce the prevailing weather conditions by examining the growth rings.

“What’s the matter with the trees in this area?” I inquired as we drove along the road, observing the forest go by.

Dense moss blankets the terrain, though it lacks a grassy appearance. The trees stand alone or in sparse clusters, or they are completely absent. The tundra resembles an arctic version of a savanna. It materialized in a matter of hours, emerging in gaps amidst the woodlands.

What you want is a healthy old tree, with well-spaced rings from each year faithfully putting down its growth. The growth of the tree, including how close it is to other trees, is affected by a lot of things, including how far down you tell a geologist to take it. I’ve dug with a shovel, but never hit the dirt.

Ancient Peat Marsh

“No greenery is emerging, but there’s no ancient or long periods have charred these areas. When you observe the patches in the forest, it’s evident why that is. There is no growth, only the bog peat is thriving on this land. After I recounted the story to him, Greg understood.”

Greg cores a tree.
Greg cores a tree.

I noticed a few isolated individuals in the vast, moss-covered area. I inquired Olga about their activities.

“Collecting berries. Numerous berries thrive in the tundra.”

The driver dropped us off at a particular spot in the tundra, where we got out and hid our gear in a dry location.

Collecting tree cores may not be very enjoyable if it’s your summer job, but it sounded unique to me.

The deal was finalized, and they had a tent in their room. If I was asked, I could spend two days with them – is it possible? Anyway, Lonely Planet said that Nogliki is more like a dump than a place to tromp around.

Travelers weary from the ferry watch Sakhalin Island approach.
Travelers weary from the ferry watch Sakhalin Island approach.

Soon after Olga and I arrived in the tundra, we encountered a deep puddle covered in moss. As we stepped into it, our boots quickly became wet. It didn’t take long for us to realize that mosquitoes were swarming around us, questioning why we had ventured into this wet and mossy terrain.

Disregarding the Mosquitoes

Plenty of mosquitoes managed to find their way past my armor, circling around me in dozens. Despite the hot summer on Sakhalin, I made sure to wear long pants, long sleeves, a mosquito net, and a hat. I didn’t have the same indifference towards the exoskeletal buzzards as Olga and Greg, but I chose to ignore the mosquitoes.

The berries served as compensation for the mosquitoes.

While strolling, we gathered and consumed berries at the peak of the blueberry season. Olga expressed her belief that the berry she ate, resembling an enlarged raspberry, was most likely not harmful.

At the end of each day, I noticed that everyone was enjoying the delicious berry. I managed to survive the next few minutes. I attempted to try each one, and fortunately, a few minutes after, she was not deceased.

Blueberry Harvest Time on Sakhalin Island

Inside the ferry boat to Sakhalin Island, Russia.
Inside the ferry boat to Sakhalin Island, Russia.

We once discovered a tree core using a contraption resembling a cork-screw-like tool, which we used to bore a hole into the trunk. Neither the berries nor the puddles nor the mosquitoes were what brought us out in the Tundra, of course.

If the tree is old enough, it is helpful to avoid sticking any kind of straw or similar objects into the core. Once you have gone at least halfway through the tree with a very low-tech, metal bit, it will assist you in extracting the wood. It is difficult to guess exactly where in the tree you will be, but ideally, you should go straight through the core.

Greg asked if we were hurting the trees. “Not much,” he said. I’ve been patching up the trees for the past few years, and they’re all doing well.

I didn’t really expect my backpack to be rain-proofed for camping. The rain started pouring during the night. We camped along the Tim river near Nogliki, after a day of gallivanting around the tundra.

Observing and examining a core is the only way to truly determine if a tree is decaying and unhealthy. Geologists explained that larger trees are not always older; in fact, it is often the case that larger trees are younger. Picking out a decaying tree proves to be more challenging than one might think. I woke up in the morning to find my belongings drenched in the drizzling rain.

Riverfront Camping

We spent the morning attempting to heat ourselves around the bonfire. Conversations revolved around films. Greg had adored The Day After Tomorrow. “Are you joking?” He exclaimed. “A paleoglaciologist saves the world. I adored it! However, it’s a shame they didn’t consult with someone. The scientific aspects would have been more logical.”

After bidding farewell around midday, I made the decision to trek back to the nearest town, locate a hotel, and dry my belongings once it became evident that the rain wouldn’t cease.

Next time, I want to see the wilds of Russia that geologists from a team will find. Although I spent a week on the island, I saw many picturesque places, but nothing was as memorable as its neighboring burnt forests and the gloomy, soggy tundra.

How to Reach Sakhalin Island

I arrived and departed by ferry, although it is possible to travel by air to the capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, from mainland Russia or Japan. Visiting Sakhalin demands patience, a passion for exploration, and a strong grasp of the Russian language… Or a substantial amount of money.

I arrived at the station where the line, lasting for 11 hours, only slightly decreases in length. It is said that tickets (priced below $100) can be booked by phone (7 421 37 57708) for the journey from Kholmsk to Vanino, the final stop of the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway in Russia, on the two daily ferry trips.

I left Wakkanai, Japan for Korsakov on the ferry, which was much more comfortable. In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (Ulitsa Lenina 154), you can reserve fantastic tickets to Sakhalin for $170 at 420917 4242 7.

Many hotels in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk are often fully booked, but there are numerous options available. There are more hotels in larger cities. Although there is limited transportation coverage outside major areas, some individuals may prefer to use trains or buses to travel around Sakhalin, while others may choose to hitchhike, a common method of transportation among the locals.

If you visit Nogliki, avoid staying in the city center. Opt for a significantly more affordable hotel near the train station.