Sakhalin Island (north of Japan and Vladivostok) is a rainy, snowy, windy, lush, green, 950-kilometer (590-mile-long) island in the Russian Far East. Almost touching Japan and occupied during first half of the 20th century by Japan, it is overrun with mosquitos in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. In many places the sea is frozen six months of the year. Fogs often hang over the water and the coastal towns. A very remote place, it also suffers from frequent earthquakes. Most road are dirt. The airport in the north for a long time was unusable in the rain. The economy has traditionally been based on fishing and collecting seaweed. Website: Official portal of the Ministry of Sports, Tourism, and Youth Policy of Sakhalin Oblast:

In 1890, the famous Russian writer Anton Chekhov visited Sakhalin and wrote about his impressions of the island and the plight of the prisoners who lived there. In “The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin” he described Sakhalin as “utter hell” where people live “sleepy, drunken lives”. Westerners who visit Sakhalin today don’t necessarily take such a grim view. Among the island’s attractions are pristine scenery, crisp cool air, summer wild flowers, good fishing, herds of reindeer, lack of people and the chance to eat as much homemade bread and butter, fresh lingonberry jam, salmon caviar as they want and indulge in local delicacies like salmon dipped in seal oil, washed down with raspberry-, blueberry-, cloudberry and blaeberry-flavored vodka.

Sakhakin Island covers 72,492 square kilometers (27,989 square miles), is home to about 500,000 people and has a population density of eight people per square kilometer. About 80 percent of the population live in urban areas. The city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinskis the capital and largest city, with about 175,000 people. Most of the people on Sakhalin are Russians who live in the south. Among the groups indigenous to the island are about 190 Oroks, 1,200 Orochi and 5,000 Nivkhs and some Ainu. There are also Korean-Russians brought during the Japanese occupation. The Japanese that lived here were forced to leave.

Sakhalin is rich in coal, uranium, silver, timber and other resources. The waters off the island are teaming with cod, herring and crabs. There are salmon runs in the summer. Western oil companies have drilled and developed sites in the waters off the island, which contain large deposits of oil and gas. Much of the development has taken place in the north. Sakhalin's mountainous southern half is still very wild.Tatar Strait between Sakhalin Island and the Russian mainland is the world's longest strait according to the Guinness Book of Records. It runs 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the Sea of Japan to Sakhalinsky Zaliv. The Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia is of similar length.

James Brooke wrote in the New York Times: “Only 25 miles across La Perouse strait from Japan, Sakhalin has long loomed as a scary place, slumbering out of sight across the northern horizon...Now, this long-closed island, the size of Maine but with less than half Maine's population, is opening up. Three of the world's largest oil companies, Shell, BP and ExxonMobil are investing billions of dollars, making Sakhalin the largest target for foreign investment in Russia's history....The vast oil investments are taking place offshore or in the north, which is a pancake-flat river delta, lined with old seismic lines cut through the forest for oil exploration.” But despite all this many people on Sakhalin are very poor. [Source: James Brooke, New York Times, October 5, 2003]

History of Sakhalin

Sakhalin was originally claimed by Japan and Russia. The first settlers were Japanese from Hokkaido attracted by the waters offshore that were rich with fish and whales. In the mid 1800s a deal was struck that gave the Russians Sakhalin and the Japanese the Kuril islands.

Russia formally took possession of Sakhalin in 1855. The tsars made Sakhalin into a penal colony, where the worst criminals, most unrepentant murders and despicable spies were sent.
Chekhov made his 10,000-kilometer journey to Sakhalin island in 1890s, to survey the population at a penal colony there. He suffered greatly on the trip and when it was finished wrote Gusev, a brilliant story about the acceptance of death. Recalling the trip he wrote, "I have seen Ceylon, and it is heaven: And now I have seen Sakhalin, and it is hell...The residents live their sleepy, drunken lives and in general live hungrier and more naked than God created them.” There was “something not Russian” about their lives. “If only those who wanted to live here, Sakhalin would be deserted”" The trip to Sakhalin was regarded as a turning point in his life. Afterwards he was consumed with the idea of collective guilt and responsibility and produced his four theatrical masterpieces.

From 1905 to 1945 the Japanese controlled the southern part of Sakhalin Island and also had great influence on the northern part of the island. Tens of thousands of Korean were forced by the Japanese to perform slave labor on the island. They were trapped on the island at the end of World War II and not allowed to return home.

James Brooke wrote in the New York Times: “In mid-August 1945, Soviet troops moved south, killing as many as 2,000 Japanese soldiers in battles down the railroad line. From the air, this 1930s-era DMZ is still visible as an east-west scar across the island. At the base of Bolshevik Mountain, Victory Square contains a sobering list of the names of hundreds of Soviet soldiers who died fighting this obscure coda to World War II. Obscure or not, the Soviets went on to take four small islands in the Kuril chain from Japan, a seizure that has kept Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty nearly six decades after the end of World War II — Japan still claims the islands, which Russia administers out of Sakhalin.” [Source: James Brooke, New York Times, October 5, 2003]

In the Soviet era, the island was home to a gulag and contained an air base, submarine base and some fishing facilities and little else. It was a restricted area. Korean Airlines flight 007 was shot down near Sakhalin in 1983, killing all 267 on board. It has only opened to the outside world in the 21st century

Sakhalin was one of Russia’s poorest regions after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the mid 1990s the average income was equivalent to US$200 a year. Some people lived in very harsh conditions. In some places it was so cold and heat was in such short supply that people pitched tents in their living room so they could stay warm. Power outages sometimes lasted for days. Brooks wrote: A census in the early 2000s, showed that Sakhalin's population had dropped almost by a quarter since 1990, to 546,000, with the rural population only 13 percent of that, and one-third of Sakhalin's people living in the main city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where oil wealth jacked up apartments rents, US$3,000 a month, more than many poorer Sakhalin residents earned in their entire lifetimes.

Sakhalin Island Oil and Natural Gas

There is a lot of oil offshore of Sakhalin Island in far eastern Russia. The reserves have been estimated at 15 billion barrels, compared to 22 billion barrels in all the United States. There are also large amounts of natural gas there too (200 trillion cubic feet, 6 million cubic meters). Onshore oil has been extracted here since 1920 but development of offshore oil is relatively recent. The development has been spurred by the large reserves and nearness to large markets in Japan, China, South Korea and Asia. Japan is only a couple days away by tanker, much closer than the Middle East. The Sakhalin-2 project started producing oil in 1999 and natural gas in 2009.

Sakhalin Island is located off Russia's eastern shore. The offshore area to the east of Sakhalin Island is home to a number of large oil and natural gas fields with significant investment by international companies. Much of Sakhalin's resources are being developed under two production-sharing agreements (PSA) signed in the mid-1990s. The Sakhalin-1 PSA is operated by ExxonMobil, which holds a 30 percent stake. Other members of the PSA include Rosneft (through two subsidiaries), Indian state-owned oil company ONGC Videsh, and a consortium of Japanese companies.The Sakhalin-1 PSA covers three oil and gas fields: Chayvo, Oduptu, and Arkutun-Dagi. Production started at Chayvo field in 2005, at Oduptu field in 2010, and at Arkutun-Dagi field in January 2015. Sakhalin-1 mainly produces crude oil and other liquids, most of which are exported via the De-Kastri oil terminal. Most of the natural gas currently produced at Sakhalin-1 is reinjected with small volumes of gas sold domestically. [Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, July 2015 ~]

The Sakhalin-2 PSA covers two major fields, the Piltun-Astokhskoye oil field and the Lunskoye gas field, and it includes twin oil and gas pipelines running from the north of the island to the south end of the island where the consortium has an oil export terminal and an LNG liquefaction and export terminal. The Sakhalin-2 consortium members include Gazprom which owns 50 percent plus one share, Shell with 27.5 percent, Mitsui with 12.5 percent, and Mitsubishi with 10 percent. When the PSA was originally signed, the consortium did not include any Russian companies and, compared with most PSAs, the terms were heavily weighted in favor of the interests of the consortium over the interests of the government. Sakhalin-2 produced its first oil in 1999 and first LNG in 2009. The project incurred significant cost overruns and delays, and these were part of the justification the Russian government used to force Shell, which at the time owned a 55 percent interest in Sakhalin-2, and the other consortium members to sell a controlling interest in the consortium to Gazprom. ~

Developing Sakhalin Island Oil and Gas

A number of obstacles have to overcome to drill and pump oil off of Sakhalin: snow, fog, drifting ice, earthquakes, tsunami and environmental concerns. Ice flows, with enough power to bend steel fill the sea for six month. Powerful earthquakes regularly occur. The drilling season is only five months long. One oil man told the New York Times, “Take Alaska and the North Sea, combine the worst of both, and you have Sakhalin.”

Developing Sakhalin requires the latest technology and large amounts of capital. Russia has turned to foreign investors to develop it,. As of 2001, 25 percent of all foreign invest in Russia went to Sakhalin and $22 billion had been promised. An additional $35 billion was expected to be spent. Many local people have gotten jobs but the best jobs have gone to outsiders. Sakhalin will only get around 8 percent of the royalties from the oil and gas projects.

Much of the work involves improving the infrastructure. A rail line runs north and south through Sakhalin, making it easier to support oil development there. That and a few roads and airports is all that Russia has provided. In 2003, construction began on Russia’s first gas liquification plant. It will process gas so it can be taken by tanker to Japan and will be one of the largest of its kind in the world.

New ports, roads, storage plants, and housing have been built. Undersea pipelines are being built up to carry oil and gas from the platforms to the shore, where it be funneled into 500-mile-long pipelines built down the spine of the island to terminals on the southern part of the island where the oil and gas will be transported by tankers.

Sakhalin Island Oil, Whales and the Environment

Some American and European companies were attracted to the Sakhalin because the environmental laws are more lax. Companies can dump toxic drilling mud, use tankers in ice-clogged waterways, drill in fish-filled water, and don’t need t have spill-responses teams nearby as they would in the U.S. or Europe.

One of the biggest environmental concerns at Sakhalin is the gray whales that live there. The gray whales off of Sakhalin are one of just two populations in the world. They were thought to be extinct but a 1995 study found 106 of them feeding in shallow lagoon off the northeast coat of Sakhalin.

There around 17,500 gray whales that migrate along the west coast of the Americas. Their numbers are regarded as healthy. But that in not the case with their Asian-Russian cousins on the other side of the Pacific, who spend their summers of the coast of the Russian Far East and their winters in the South China Sea.

About 100 or so gray whales feed during the summer off of Sakhalin island, near where large foreign energy companies are drilling for oil and gas. There are worries that the whales could be harmed by collisions with boats or contamination of their feeding areas by an oil spill. The use of explosives in seismic testing appears ro disturb them and drive them from the area. There are plans to put pipeline and offshore platforms right in the middle of their feeding areas. The oil companies are planning to limit construction while the whales are feeding and other measures.

One of ExxonMobile’s drilling sites is next to the feeding areas for the gray whales. The company has been accused of using seismic blasting only 2½ miles form the site. ExxonMobile killed 15,000 sticklebank and smelt with a faulty culvert in a stream near a drilling site. Near one platform, 900 tons of dead herring spread out over eight miles. Officials said the die off was caused by lack of oxygen due to unusually high amounts of petroleum and heavy metals in the fish.

Foreign Investors in Sakhalin Island

Exxon-Mobil, Texaco and Royal Dutch/Shell are exploring and developing petroleum and natural gas around Sakhalin island. BP is also prospecting there and expects to spend billions there. One oil man told the New York Times in 2003, “If you are in oil and gas this the place to be. This is the biggest oil and gas development happening around the world today.”

Russia needs the technology and know-how that foreign oil companies possess to develop the oil and gas in the harsh conditions at Sakhalin. It has given investors special incentives—namely laws that guarantee consistent taxes and royalties—not available elsewhere to attract them. Still companies have complained about the red tape. Some companies said they needed entire teams devoted to getting permits for this and that.

Royal Dutch/Shell’s project is heavily involved in Sakhalin II and has been hampered by cost overruns and environmental concerns. The Sakhalin project was slated to cost the company $9.6 billion but had cost it $13.5 billion as of 2004. It built Russia’s first offshore oil production platform. Environmentalist want the project delayed because it was in a feeding ground for endangered gray whales. In 2001, Royal Dutch/Shell was pumping 35,000 barrels per day from the region.

The Japanese have been trying to develop Sakhalin since 1975. A number of Japanese energy are involved in projects in Siberia and Far East Russia. Itochu, Marubeni, Mitsui, Mitsubishi and others are involved with Sakhalin 1 and 2. Japanese companies are sought for their expertise and money. Having them and the Japanese government involved in these projects is viewed by the Russians and others involved as a way of reducing risk and having a reliable market for its oil. Japanese companies own 30 percent of the Sakhalin project in part ensure that gas from the project ends up in Japan. There are estimated reserves of 485 billion cubic meters in the Sakhalin 1 project, enough to supply Japan's gas needs for six years.

The first shipment of Sakhalin-2 gas arrived in Japan in April 2009. It takes three to four days to ship LNG from Sakhalin, considerably less time than from the Middle East. About 60 percent of the gas from Sakhalin 2 is earmarked for Japan with the remainder going to the United States and South Korea. Sakhalin 2 gas will account for 7 percent of Japan's annual gas imports and reduce its dependance on the Middle East for energy. The plan is to sell Japan five million tons of liquified gas a year for 24 years, starting in 2009.

ExxonMobile on Sakhalin Island

ExxonMobile is the leading investor in the Sakhalin project. It own 30 percent of the Sakhalin 1 project. ExxonMobile initially said it planned to invest $12 billion in Sakhalin over 10 years. The Sakhalin-1 PSA covers three oil and gas fields: Chayvo, Oduptu, and Arkutun-Dagi. Production started at Chayvo field in 2005, at Oduptu field in 2010, and at Arkutun-Dagi field in January 2015.

From Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the main town on Sakhalin, it takes 15 hours by train and four hours by truck to reach the Chayvo oil field on the Sea of Okhotsk, where ExxonMobile is drilling. To drill wells over 10,000 meter deep ExxonMobile brought in a 22-story oil drilling rig from Louisiana. Platforms have to be that large to withstand the heavy load of ice encases it half the year. ExxonMobile built special housing for its workers.

As of 2002, Exxon had invested $650 million in the Sakhalin 1 consortium but was having difficulty finding buyers in Japan and China. China has had discussions with Exxon Mobile about buying gas from their fields off Sakhalin Island, which Japan assumed was going to go to them. Exxon Mobile is somewhat angry with Japan for not moving faster to build a pipeline from Sakhalin to Japan. Disruptions on the Sakhalin projects and promises by Exxon to give China gas from Sakhalin 1 may mean that Japan gets less natural gas.

People of Sakhalin Island

The Nivkhs are an ethnic groups that live along the lower Amur River and on Sakhalin Island. Also known as the Gilak, Gilyak, Giriya and Nibuhi, they are the earliest inhabitants of Sakhalin Island and were described by Anton Chekhov in his book The Island. The speak a language related to the languages of the Ket, Yukagir, Chukchi and Koryak and have traditionally been seal hunters and fishermen who lived wooden or subterranean houses or spent time in temporary shelters made from fish skin while pursuing game and fish,

There are about 5,000 Nivkhs. About half live on the lower Amur River . The other half live on Sakhalin Island. They have traditionally hunted sea lions and seals with harpoons and clubs in the spring and fished much of the year, with a particular emphasis on catching Siberian and humpback salmon. The did some hunting and trapping and gathering of plants and kept dogs but were not involved in reindeer herding.

The Ainu are indigenous to northern Japan. Some also resided on the southern half of Sakhalin Island and the Kurile Islands of Russia. There were several thousand of them in Russian territory in the early 20th century. Their culture was affected by alternating periods of Russian and Japanese rule. They are no longer recognized as a separate ethnic group in Russia. Little information is available on them in Russia. See Separate Article on the Ainu under Japan

The Orok are a South Tungistic tribe. There are about 190 of them on Sakhalin Island. The Orochi are a people that live in the Far East, mainly near the mouth of the Tumni River in Khabarovsk Krai and on Sakhalin Island. In the past they lived on the Amur River and around Lake Kizi. They speak and Altaic language similar to Manchu and Tungus and have intermarried with Russians and other groups. Few speak their native language anymore

Tourism on Sakhalin Island

Sakhalin’s attractions include scenic mountains, rivers, waterfalls, hot springs, bamboo, diverse wildlife and volcanoes. Sakhalin Oblast is the only island region of Russia. It consists of three large islands: Sakhalin and its closest “neighbors” Moneron and Tyuleniy, as well as 56 islands of the Kuril Chain. Visitors can enjoy Korean cuisine, Japanese architecture and Russian and indigenous group traditions. The capital of the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk began as a Russian settlement for convicts called Vladimirovka.

The weather in Sakhalin is often and can change very quickly. Winters are cold and snowy, with snowdrifts often reaching the second floor. Springs are more like a lingering winter than spring. The short summers are relatively warm. Fog and frequent, unpredictable storms pose problem throughout the year. The best time of the year to visit Sakhalin is late summer and autumn, when there are more suny days and less fog and precipitation than other times of th year.

Activities including hitting the slopes near Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where skiers and snowboarders keep going until mid-April; visiting sacred places of the Ainu and other indigenous peoples. Local cuisine features all kinds of fish, caviar, crabs, salted keta salmon, fresh shrimp, scallops, trepang. Giant oysters, sea urchins and many other species of marine life live in Lake Busse. In some places the fish are so plentiful you can catch them with your hands. Crabs can be purchased from roadside vendors. In 2003, local conservatives imposed an internal travel permit system for foreigners and Russians from the mainland. But soon after they did the island was flooded with so many foreign workers authorities were forced to discard the system, in effect opening up Sakhalin for tourism.

James Brooke wrote in the New York Times: “On an island that is 85 percent covered with taiga forest of fir and birch, hiking and bear watching are summer activities, best done with guides. With the oil up north and the mountains and the capital down south, there is little clash between industry and outdoor recreation. Sakhalin is surrounded by some of Russia's richest fishing grounds and the island itself is cut by as many as 60,000 rivers and streams. This means excellent salmon fishing by day and good seafood eating by night in the capital's rapidly improving restaurants. [Source: James Brooke, New York Times, October 5, 2003]

“Outsiders interested in fishing or exploring bubbling formations known locally as mud volcanoes can tap into a small group of guides who developed their English guiding oil company workers during the 1990s. Their ads usually are found in the competing, free English fortnightlies that the island now supports: The Sakhalin Independent and The Sakhalin Times. “''There's salmon fishing, fly-fishing, paragliding off a mountain, seal watching, visits to reindeer farms,'' said Aleksandr L. Dashevsky, a guide. ''Last weekend, I took two guys fishing and they caught big char.''

Transportation and Getting to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Getting There: The Tatar Strait separates Sakhalin Island from Khabarovsk Krai on the Russian mainland. There is an international airport in Yuzhno Sakhalink. By Boat: Ferries run daily between Vanino (Khabarovsk Krai) and Kholmsk (Sakhalin region). The travel time is from 13 to 18 hours. There are occasional boat trips between Korsakov on Sakhalin Island and Yuzno-Kurlisk on the Kuril Islands.According to Lonely Planet: “It can be murder trying to buy a ticket in the summer months. Although sailings are supposed to take place daily, in reality there is no set schedule. There are also irregular sailings from Korsakov, on Sakhalin, across to Yuzhno-Kurilsk in the Kuril Island chain (you'll need a permit for visiting the Kurils to make this voyage).” In 1999, a ferry service was opened between the ports of Korsakov and Wakkanai, Japan, and operated through the autumn of 2015, when service was suspended. Beginning in 2016 summer season, this route was served by a highspeed catamaran ferry. The ferry is owned by Penguin International Limited and operated by Sakhalin Shipping Company.

By Air: . There are flights to Yuzhno Sakhalink from Moscow (daily), Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk, Vladivostok, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Blagoveshchensk. The distance to the capital is 10,400 kilometers, travel time is about 8.5 hours. A flight costs from RUB 22,950 on Rossiya Airlines and from RUB 26,100 on Aeroflot. Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Airport has regularly scheduled international flights to Hakodate, Japan, and Seoul and Busan, South Korea. There are also charter flights to the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Niigata, and Sapporo and to the Chinese cities of Shanghai, Dalian and Harbin. The island used to be served by Alaska Airlines from Anchorage, Petropavlovsk, and Magadan.

On driving and the roads on Sakhalin Island, the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT) reports: “The road network is inadequate to handle the rapid growth in population and number of vehicles that occurred after discovery of oil and gas deposits in 2001. Many vehicles are in poor condition. About 50 percent of vehicles are over 10 years old. Many vehicles are imported from Japan and have the steering wheel on the right. Only 75 percent of roads have road signs. 65 percent of existing signs do not meet federal standards. There are few sidewalks. Road lighting and traffic lights often do not work. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT)]

“From 2000 to 2004, road crash fatalities increased 13 percent, while injuries increased 45 percent. In 2004, there were 66 road fatalities per 10,000 vehicles and 277 fatalities per 100,000 population. The majority of road crashes are car-pedestrian crashes, head-on or rear-end crashes or rollover crashes. Drivers violating traffic law is a factor in over 75 percent of road crashes; 33 percent were speeding; 10 percent were driving on the wrong side of the road; 20 percent were driving under the influence of alcohol; and 25 percent lacked a driver’s license.”


Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is the main town on Sakhalin. Located on the southern end of Sakhalin, it is home to 175.,000 people and filled with people connected with the oil and natural gas businesses. New hotels, an entertainment center and American-style suburban housing have been built to accommodate them.

Foreign investment and oil and as money has not trickled down to the poor Russians who live in Yuzhno Sakhalink. They occupy a parallel world with erratic electricity, piles of garbage on the sidewalks, rusting car frames in the woods, dogs running wild on the street scavenging for food. Old women sells slabs of dried salmon and cups of sunflower seeds on the streets. Some building had have new facades with crumbling stone structures behind them.

Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk itself is not so attractive. The countryside around it is quite lovely and there are enough decent hotels and restaurants to make staying in the city here not an altogether unpleasant experience. Tourism is geared more oil and gas people living on Sakhalin rather than outsiders. Places of interest Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk include destinations links to its past as a Russian penal colony and a Japanese colony. New buildings, modern highways, pedestrian areas and gardens open up each year.

James Brooke wrote in the New York Times: “In the summer or winter, the best orientation for the capital is to go to the end of Kommunistichesky Prospekt and take the trail from Gorky Street that winds for half an hour to an overlook. From there, visitors can see the rectangular city grid, with boxy apartment blocks set on a north-south axis to catch the rising and setting sun. Good restaurants seem to open monthly in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk....Near the Sapporo Hotel are travel agencies and cellphone rental companies. Services are still bumpy. On a recent day, it was impossible to buy an international airline ticket with dollars or a credit card. Only rubles were accepted, in cash.” [Source: James Brooke, New York Times, October 5, 2003]

Accommodation in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Mega Palace Hotel is located in the city center and is popular with foreigners. The hotel arranges sightseeing tours of the island. You can book a room online. Santa Resort hotel has a spa complex, gym, and a swimming pool. In the winter, you can rent skiing gear here. The restaurant serves European, Pan-Asian and Japanese cuisines. The Pacific Plaza Sakhalin has a convenient location and well-trained staff. Museums are within walking distance. The average hotel room in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk goes for around RUB 5,000.

James Brooke wrote in the New York Times in 2003: “Finding lodging in an oil boom town means planning, looking for home stays and being prepared to spend the night on a friend's sofa. “The most convenient hotel is the much-sought-after Hotel Sakhalin Sapporo, a six-story white shoebox with 128 rooms at 181 Lenin Street, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk; (7-4242) 72-15-60, fax (7-4242) 72-38-89. A single with a big bed, private bathroom, phone, international television and breakfast is US$126, at 31 rubles to the dollar. I have stayed twice over the last year. The prices are reasonable, although phone calls to Moscow doubled my bill. The décor is 1970s suburban American, with shag rugs, brass fittings and stained doors. But the kitchen offers the best Okhotsk seafood in town. And with its central location, the bar is a major meeting spot. [Source: James Brooke, New York Times, October 5, 2003].

“The most expensive hotel on the island is the Santa Resort Hotel, in Gagarin Park, about 15 minutes from downtown Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Built by a Japanese company, the Santa has 14 suites, 75 standard rooms (US$200), Continental and Japanese restaurants, a bar, a spa, a gift shop and two outdoor tennis courts.The Santa Resort Hotel charges as much as US$400 a night. The food and rooms don't live up to the London prices. But the tennis courts are set in a forest bowl worthy of any private summer club in the Berkshires. Reservations: (7-50985) 65-550 or (7-4242) 46-28-24, fax (7-50985) 65-555; or by e-mail:

A more moderate option is the newly renovated Natalya, at Chekhov and Anton Bujukly Streets, two blocks from the Sapporo, (7-4242) 73-95-63, fax (7-504) 41-62-701, e-mail: Some of 16 singles and 16 doubles have limited kitchenettes (US$90). There is a small café.

“With oil companies booking the city's 12 hotels months in advance, an option is to try a home stay. A year ago, I spent a night in the home of Bae Kan Sun, an elderly retired Korean-Russian seamstress who served me kimchi and other Korean staples as we communicated in broken Russian and Japanese. She grew up in Sakhalin, unable to travel to South Korea for decades because of the cold war. But a recent trip to her ethnic, if unfamiliar, homeland fulfilled her.”

Sights in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Symbols of the Soviet era still are featured prominently. Tourist sights include a large statue of Lenin, surrounded by mosaics dedicated to Soviet workers, Gagarin Park, a Soviet built amusement park, statues of Chekhov and open-air markets. The Regional Museum is interesting. It contains fish-skin and seal-skin robes used but the Ainu. There are some stuffed animals and a garden in front of the museum. There is also regional art museum. Remnants of the Japanese era including flowering cherry trees, a Shinto shrine, the Japanese bank building and the museum governorship of Karafuto.

James Brooke wrote in the New York Times: ““Immediately below is Gagarin Park, a 220-acre expanse of green, with a pond, walking trails and a children's railroad. Deep in the park is the island's most expensive hotel, the Santa Resort Hotel.At the base of the mountain, work started this summer on a cross-country ski center, the start of a multimillion project to turn the ski hill into a ski resort, with new trails, condominiums, a conference center and lift attendants who are not swayed by packs of cigarettes. From this mountain aerie, the black bronze Lenin statue offers the best point of urban reference.To the left is the Sapporo Hotel...A few steps away is Furusato, a chic new Japanese restaurant at a prestige downtown address, the corner of Karl Marx and Lenin Streets. [Source: James Brooke, New York Times, October 5, 2003]

“From the mountain side, looking behind the bronze Lenin, stands the capital's railroad station... For more history, human and natural, the regional history museum on Kommunistichesky Prospekt, about one block from Gagarin Park near downtown, is in a lovely building with pagoda-style red tile roofs, one of the last major Japanese buildings still standing in the south. There are displays on reindeer cultivation, and the native Ainu and Nivhki peoples, who lived here before the Europeans.

“Back on Bolshevik Mountain, sharp-eyed climbers can spot a charming green-gabled two-story house, the Chekhov Museum on Kurilskaya Street. ''The only museum for a single book,'' claims Nina Aleksandrovna Dvorkina, the director of the museum, which is devoted to ''The Island of Sakhalin,'' Chekhov's exposé of Tsarist labor camps on the island, written in 1890. On the first floor are photos of the first European colonists, gaunt men who carried their iron shackles in wheelbarrows. They have few descendants, as most prisoners died fighting in the Russian-Japanese War, which Russia lost in 1905, along with the bottom half of Sakhalin.”

Museum of Local Lore is located in the Japanese-built Imperial Crown Style building. This is the only building of this type in Russia. Of all the Japanese buildings in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (which are about 20 in the town), the museum building has been preserved best. The museum’s expositions focus mainly the Japanese period (when the city was known as Toyohara), the penal colony, and the Russo-Japanese war.

Devil's Bridge was built in 1928 by the Japanese as part of the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk - Polyakov railway line. Here at the Nikolaichuk - Kamyshovo-Sakhalinsk stretech, the train passes through two tunnels, goes almost to the top of a hill and passes over the Devil's Bridge at an altitude of 41 meters above the entrance to the lower tunnel, overlooking the railway below. This is a complex engineering structure. In the area of Devil's Bridge in 1945, during the Second World War, there were fierce battles. With the fighting here led by the 113th Infantry Brigade of the Red Army. In 1994, traffic on the bridge was stopped.

Near Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Most of Sakhalin Island is wild and undeveloped, full of virgin forests, mountains, bamboo thickets and plains of high grass. There is little scheduled public transportation. The only way to get around is by boat, helicopter or in a hired car. Trips that can be arranged from he city include a horseback-riding tour of the mountains, a stay in a Russian dacha, vodka-drinking at a hot spring, or salmon fishing in a wild river. There are “mud volcanoes” 20 kilometers northwest of the city. At the southern tip of the island are the picturesque lakes of Tunaicha and Busse, known for water with many shades.

Wild nature is close at hand. You can drive an hour down to Aniva Bay in April to watch the annual spring migration of swans heading north to the Sea of Okhotsk. In the summer, locals shrimp in salt water lagoons with hand nets and go to the nearby hills to pick cranberries, blackberries and blueberries. It takes 15 minutes to get to the Gorny Vozdukh ski resort, which is buzzing with activities in the summer as well as winter.

There are about 25 lighthouses on Sakhalin.Aniva Lighthouse (150 kilometers southeast of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) is one of the most inaccessible lighthouses in Russia. It was built by the Japanese, using materials delivered by sea. The lighthouse was designed to operated in extreme conditions by a lonely person. It had a food warehouse, a cabin, living rooms, and equipment. Today it is no longer operating and has been looted, but is still beautiful. The lighthouse sits on a rock island and is usually reached by boat. Some brave — or foolhardy — tourists walk to the lighthouse at low tide, but you'd better not perform such feats. A tour costs from RUB 5,000.

Korsakov (42 kilometers south from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) is the center of the island's fishing industry and the home of Russia's first liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant. Travel companies in Sakhalin offer tours of the huge LNG plant. Tankers dock at the long pier. The plant looks awesome when it is lit up at night.

Train Rides from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

On the train that begins at Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk station, James Brooke wrote in the New York Times: “The lifeline of this long spine of an island is its railroad, built to a narrow gauge during Japan's occupation of the southern half of the island, from 1905 to 1945...I joined a boatload of Japanese tourists for a 90-minute ride on the train, pulled by a coal-burning locomotive and announced by a steam whistle.”[Source: James Brooke, New York Times, October 5, 2003]

“This spring, I took the serious train, a 14-hour overnight trip to Nogliki, 350 miles north of the capital. The round trip, in a first-class a semi-private sleeper cabin, was US$144...At night, as the train ambled up the island at about 25 miles an hour, we passed the 50th Parallel, which until the summer of 1945 was a tectonic fault line between two great empires — Soviet and Japanese.

“On the train, time passed easily, with the hours spent drinking beer in the bar car and snoozing with the rocking ride. In the morning, endless stands of white birches could be seen behind cheery yellow curtains, printed with the word ''solntsa,'' or ''sun.'' From Tsarist gulag to World War II battleground to cold war outpost, modern Sakhalin seems to be finally emerging from its hibernation in history, blinking in the Pacific sun.

Chekhov's Peak

Chekhov's Peak (eight kilometers east of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) is a popular hiking destination with some routes starting right in the city. The peak is located in a mountain highlands area on Susunai ridge to the northeast of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. It takes out five hours of brisk wlaking to reach the peak and get back down, with the elevation change being about 1,000 meters.

To get to the foot of Chekhov's Peak you need to walk along the border of Yuri Gagarin Park and follow a ski track to the Santa Resort Hotel complex. There walk an old road leading to the village of Lesnoye that follows the right bank of the River Rogatka. This river supplies the Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk reservoir with water. The path extends for about eight kilometers. In The Soviet era, climbing Chekhov's Peak was equal to passing the GTO (Ready for Labour and Defense) test. Nowadays is you successful participate in mass hike of the mountain you can get a 3rd grade tourism certificate.

/The path from the foot of the mountain to the first peak goes up through a forest of fir trees, then through a bamboo growth where the trail becomes more difficult to follow. Further the ascent becomes steeper, and there are scattered stones and boulders up five meters high. Following a path on a steep grassy flank you reach the ridge. From here you walk along the south flank to the east. Skirting the Borodavka Mountain from the north and through cowberries and rhododendron thicket, the path leads north to the summit of Chekhov's Peak. Skirting the local rock peaks from the east, the path leads to the summit where you can find a concrete block and a triangulation station.

In good weather the summit has a panoramic view of the Sea of Okhotsk, and a lake on the eastern shore. The peak is climbed all year round. In in the winter some adventurers climb the mountains and slide down on a snowboard or skis). The main climbing season is from May until November. During these months there is little snow, which usually makes climbing difficult. Climbing Chekhov's Peak in the winter time is not a good idea as there is a risk of avalanches.

Gorny Vozduh Ski Resort

Gorny Vozduh Ski Resort (three kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) has 25 kilometers of slopes, three cable cars, and 14 tracks of various difficulty. The ski resort has no hotels, so you'll have to stay in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk hotels and come here. The Gorniy Vozdukh Sports Complex is located on the hillside of Mount Bolshevik at an altitude of between 100 and 600 meters above sea level. The complex is connected to the city via a highway 2.5 kilometers long.

The history of Gorniy Vozdukh dates back to 1960. In 1962, a club house was built for tourists; the reconstruction of a ski jump began and the height was increased to 60 meters upon its completion. Shortly thereafter, an 80-meter ski jump and a 1,200-meter slalom track were put into operation. A ski lodge started working by 1963. Before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sapporo in 1972, the entire complex was upgraded. 70- and 90-meter ski jumps, each of which with seven launch pads, were opened shortly after that. Members of the U.S.S.R. Olympic team trained here before the Winter Olympics in Sapporo. In mid-1970s, Gorniy Vozdukh hosted ski-jumping competitions and a four-storey hotel was opened. By the mid-1990s, the tourist complex was in a state of serious neglect. Almost all facilities were in a state of disrepair. Only in 2004 did a gradual revival of this unique part of the island's capital begin.

The complex is now equipped with a modern gondola and chair lift, which connects the upper area of the complex with the city. The new facility allows skiers and snowboarders to climb to the top of the mountain in maximum comfort. The cableway is the world's fastest, the gondolas travel at a speed of six meters per second, each able to carry eight people with equipment. The gondola and chair lift operates year-round, allowing residents and visitors of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to admire the panorama of the city, regardless of the season.

On the skiing scene in the early 2000s, James Brooke wrote in the New York Times: ““Unlike western Russia's big cities and Japan's megacities, the outdoors is as close in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk as the bus route that stops in front of the municipal ski area, Gorni Vozdukh, or Mountain Air. As in much of the Russian Far East, life here at the end of the line, is generally slightly funky, slightly charming. [Source: James Brooke, New York Times, October 5, 2003]

“''The T-bar costs 50 cents a ride, but if you give the guy beer and cigarettes, you can ride for free,'' said Ben Warner. An American, Ben came to Sakhalin for the Peace Corps, married Natasha, and now runs an oil company supply business. Mountain Air is much like a 1950s New England ski hill, with plentiful snow by Christmas covering its only two runs down Bolshevik Mountain. For more excitement, skiers and snowboarders often meet Saturday mornings at the Mountain Air parking lot for heli-skiing. For 1,000 rubles (US$33) a ride, a local pilot on his day off, but presumably with his company's permission, flies snowboarders and skiers to Mount Chekhov, a nearby summit. (Riding helicopters in Russia's wild, wild east can be hit or miss. Igor Farkhutdinov, Sakhalin's suave modernizing governor, and 19 traveling companions were killed when their MI-8 helicopter crashed Aug. 20 in the neighboring region of Kamchatka.”

Mud Volcanoes of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Mud Volcanoes of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (18 kilometers northwest of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) are bubbling formations that are better described as muddy hot springs than volcanoes. On Sakhalin, “mud volcanoes” are found in four locations: 1) in the outskirts of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 2) near Pugachyovo settlement, 3) in Lesnoy settlement, and 4) near the Dagi Gulf in the north of Sakhalin, 30 kilometers to the north of Nogliki urban-type settlement. The ones near Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk are in a round, flat field about 200 meters in diameter. The bubbling “volcanoes” emit methane gas, carbon dioxide, water and a little bit of oil.

Mud volcanos are usually attached to either oil-and-gas bearing deposits, or the areas of “common” volcanos. The largest and most typical mud volcanos in Russia are concentrated in two regions: on Taman Peninsula and on Sakhalin Island. Abroad, there are mud volcanos in Azerbaijan, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, and Central America.

Mud volcanism is a very interesting phenomenon that is closely related to the tectonic activity and oil-and-gas bearing capacity of the earth’s depths. The mechanism of such volcanos’ formation is still not completely understood by scientists. The total number of known mud volcanos on Earth is around 700. In the oil-and-gas bearing areas, mud volcanos exude methane and, to a lesser degree, carbon dioxide, or, sometimes, carbon monoxide and nitrogen. Their waters contain bromine, iodide and boron, thus making it possible to use the mud for therapeutic purposes.

Steller Sea Lion Rookery at Nevelsk Port

Steller Sea Lion Rookery (in Nevelsk, 75 kilometers Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) can be heard before you see it. The bass roar of the huge males can be heard several kilometers away and reminds some people of a loud ship's whistle. For over 50 years, about 500 eared seals have gathered here at the old breakwater of the Nevelsk port annually. You can see such rookeries near human settlements in only three places: Kamchatka, Seattle and Sakhalin. A wall has been built to prevent sea lions from being scared away by people, who approach the animals to check them out. The rookery is most active in late winter. The sea lions can be seen on the old breakwater until the end of June.

The animals started to come to the Nevelsk breakwater in the second half of the 1960s. They appear to have members of groups that traditionally swam past Nevelsk to the rookeries of the Moneron island (see below) and Cape Krillon in southern part of Sakhalin, but decided to make their home on one of the breakwaters of the Nevelsk sea fishing port. The port has welcomed the relatively. The port's management implemented rules for sea vessels not to approach the sea lions too closely or make loud noises near them.

Steller Sea lions are the largest of the eared seals, with males weighing as much as a ton.The body length of males is 2.6-3.9 meters;, females, up to 2.6 meters. Males generally weigh around 1100 kilograms; females, 270-350 kilograms.Named after an explorer who explored the east coast of Russia, they live in the North Pacific and breed in Kamchatka, Sakhalin Island, the Pribilof Islands, and in North America as far south as southern California. Steller sea lions live mainly in coastal zone. At their rookeries, the males behave uneasily and are constantly roaring with a lingering bass roar that is reminiscent of a steamer horn. The roar can be heard for several kilometers away.

The Sea lions seem quite happy at the breakwater. Local say they “talk” to the sea and the city, to people and ships day and night. Their booming roars can be heard for great distances and seem to signal ships caught in the fog that a sheltered bay in nearby. The sea lions have a symbol of Nevelsk and are pictured on its coat of arms.

Moneron Island

Moneron Island (75 kilometers by road plus 75 kilometers by boat west-southwest of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 80 kilometers north of Hokkaido, Japan) is accessible by boat from Nevelsk, which can be reached by train or bus from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. On the island are rare unusual plants, Alpine meadows, waterfalls, large sea bird colonies, seals and a Japanese lighthouse that still operates. Of particular interest are towering, natural rock pillars and water that is so clear that you can see the bottom at a depth of 40 meters. The island is part of the border zone, so you need to get a pass to visit it. There is a small recreation center and Russian sauna on the shore. A tour costs about RUB 16,000.

Moneron Island (Coin Island) is a famous tourist destination in Sakhalin Oblast. Nine important cultural heritage sites are located there: ancient camps and settlements from the Neolithic age (the 3rd millenium B.C.), 18th century Ainu culture sites and monuments erected by the Japanese and Russians at the beginning of the 20th century. Among these are the Moneron lighthouse, built in 1914, and the remains of a 1906 Japanese telegraph station, part of the intercontinental telegraph line that connected Japan with the mainland. It is notable that the underwater cable was laid from Soya Cape through Moneron up to De-Kastri Bay.

In addition, it is possible to see the only concrete Japanese pedestrian bridge in Sakhalin Oblast; a concrete port-basin built in 1934; the remains of a Japanese road on Chuprov's Bay; the remains of Shinto Temple Ninomiya Jinja and Japanese memorial stones in the Bay of Kologeras; a Russian cemetery in Krasnaya basin; and the remains of a Soviet frontier post from the 1940s-1950s. The island also has placer deposits of semi-precious stones (agate and calcedony) that are sold as popular souvenirs.

The island's clear-water rivers are very picturesque. Thanks to the amazingly clear mountain water that flows into the Strait, the waters adjacent to the island are incredibly pure (the transparency of the sea water near the island's coast is 20 meters). Unique waterfalls, rock shelters, and rock crevices are some of the other natural features on the island. Flora of the island numbers 448 species of plants, and also 59 species of trees, nearly 30 of them are listed in the Red Book. Krasnaya basin includes a small fir tree forest that is more than 100 years old.

Colonies of sea birds live on the small coastal islands and rocks. In some places it seems that every cornice, every shelf, or accumulation of stones that is fit for habitation is home to a bird. The most widespread gulls are the kittiwake and black-tailed gull. There are also lots of cormorants. The spectacled guillemot nests in the alcoves. Steppe guillemots sit along the cliffs (they occupy the same cliff spots year after year). Nearby on a hillside, the earth is completely covered with soft rye grass and holes made by horn-billed puffins.

Sea lions and bay seals have organized breeding grounds here. The largest sea lion population. with 300-350 animals, can be observed near the south and southwest coasts of the island from the end of February until May. Up to 1000 seals visit their breeding grounds in the early spring and at the end of December. The underwater world of the island's shelf zone is unique. The main resource of Moneron is the marine fauna. The rare combination of the warming influence of Tsushima current and the unique underwater relief around the island has made it possible for subtropical species — abalone, sea cucumber, sea urchin, and starfish — to thrive here.

Kholmsk, the Dr. Zhivago Inn and Tatar Strait

Tatar Strait between Sakhalin Island and Khabarovsk Krai of the Russian mainland is the world's longest strait according to the Guinness Book of Records. It runs 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the Sea of Japan to Sakhalinsky Zaliv. The Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia is of similar length.

Kholmsk, a fishing village on the southwest coast of Sakhalin, has regular ferry service. Ferries are supposed to run daily between Vanino (Khabarovsk Krai) and Kholmsk (Sakhalin region). The travel time is from 13 to 18 hours. According to Lonely Planet: “It can be murder trying to buy a ticket in the summer months. Although sailings are supposed to take place daily, in reality there is no set schedule.”

James Brooke wrote in the New York Times: “One icon” of Salkhalin Island “is the Dr. Zhivago Inn, a wooden gingerbread structure, 17 miles west of town on the highway to Kholmsk, a scenic new road that curves down through the mountains to the Tatar Straits. Supplied largely by hunters and fishermen, the Dr. Zhivago claims that it is the only restaurant on the island to serve bear — bear dumplings, bear cutlets, fried bear and bear in a pot. In the cutesy interior, a bit like Goldilocks's cottage, it might be best to take a seat by the door. According to The Sakhalin Times's review, ''In the 10 years of its existence, the inn burned down nine times.'' Sabotage by a bear liberation group?” [Source: James Brooke, New York Times, October 5, 2003]

Northern Sakhalin Island

Most of Sakhalin Island is wild and undeveloped, full of virgin forests, mountains, bamboo thickets and plains of high grass. This probably more so the truth in north than in the south. There is little scheduled public transportation. The only way to get around is by boat, helicopter or in a hired car. Nogliki, an area in the far north is known for it bird rookeries and seal colonies.

Most of the oil and natural gas development is taking place offshore or in the north, much of which is “a pancake-flat river delta, lined with old seismic lines cut through the forest for oil exploration.” The two main Sakhalin-2 PSA fields are Piltun-Astokhskoye oil field and the Lunskoye gas field. A twin oil and gas pipelines runs from the north of the island to the south end of the island where there is an oil export terminal and an LNG liquefaction and export terminal.

Chekhov and Sakhalin Museum (in Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky on the west coast in northern Sakhalin, 400 kilometers north of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk) contains the house where the writer lived. The building is a typical example of Siberian wooden architecture. The museum’s collections reflect the history, life and hard prison labor of the island. The first museum was opened on Sakhalin Island in the Alexander office, built in 1896 using penal colony labor. In 1990 a monument to Chekhov by sculptor M.K. Anikushin was raised in the park of the museum. The museum contains an exhibition with materials about Chekhov's 1890 visit to Sakhalin Island in the summer of 1890, and the history of the book "The Island of Sakhalin". The museum also offers excursions on literary and historical exhibitions, from "Sakhalin Chekhov" (duration - between five and six hours (at the customer's car).

Cape Jonquiere (near Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky) is the home of an impressive group of cliffs in Tatar Strait. In the distant past, the cliffs and Cape Jonquière were one, but gradually, the sea and wind divided them. Cape Lamanon is a geological natural complex located on the island’s western coast, to the south of Izylmetyev Bay and near the source of the Ichara River. The cape and pushes out into the Tatar Strait and has steep 42-meter-high ledges.

Kuril Islands

Kuril Islands (south of Sakhalin Island) are group of islands that run in a line between Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Chilly and beautiful, the islands boast fjords, smoking volcanos, waterfalls, fish-filled streams, giant bamboos, spruce forests, mountains with cypress trees covered in lichens and moss and cloaked in mist. The only problem with the place is the weather: it is nearly always cold, windy, damp and foggy. Most of the people that live on the islands are soldiers or workers in the fishing industry. The islands should be relatively easy to get to from Japan but tension between Russia and Japan over who owns them keeps that from happening. The Kuril Island are administered from Sakhalin Island. Website: Official Portal of the Agency for Sports, Tourism, and Youth Policy of Sakhalin Oblast:

The first people to arrive on the islands were Ainu tribes people and Japanese who came from the south. Later Cossack trappers came from the north in search of fur seals French explorer Jean-François Galaup called the islands "horrible... uninhabitable...arid rocks" when he passed by in 1787. The weather was so foggy he abandoned his plan to go ashore.

The Kuril islands cover 3,360 square kilometers (1,211 square miles). There are 30 islands and major islets in the Kuril Islands. The largest islands are Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Paramushir. The Japanese claim the southern Kuril Islands, which includes Shikotan, Iturup, the Habomais and Kunashir. Kunashir is only 20 kilometers from Hokkaido. These islands make up four of the five Kuril islands that inhabited.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Kuril Islands suffered from frequent power blackouts, and fuel shortages in the cold winter. Sometimes the lights and heat remained off until a Japanese ship showed up with emergency supplies. After a 1994 earthquake, Japanese rebuilt the destroyed power plant and built new modern medical center.

History of the Kuril Islands

Known to the Russians as the southern Kurils and the Japanese as the Northern Territories, the islands of Etorofu, Kanashiri, Shikiotatan and the Habomai group originally belonged to Japan in accordance with a treaty signed between czarist Russia and the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1856.

The 1856 treaty established the Japanese-Russian border between the islands of Ituruo and Urup. In 1875, Russia gave Japan its Kuril Islands in exchange for southern Sakhalin, giving Russian all of Sakhalin Island. After the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, Japan reclaimed its Sakhalin territory.

The islands of Etorofu, Kanashiri, Shikiotatan and the Habomai group were seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II. The Russians consider the islands and fish-rich waters around them as the spoils of water. The Russians have said Soviet troops honorably "liberated" the Kuril Islands even though Japan had already surrendered and the liberated citizens were all deported.

Soviet workers were moved to the Kuril Islands first to work Japanese fish factories and later to make the islands into a full scale fishing base. By 1948 all the original residents had been deported. Many were given only 24 hours to pack their things and board barge-like boats. By 1949, 17,000 Japanese had been were expelled from the Kuril, mostly the southern islands of Shikotan, Iturup, the Habomais and Kunashir.

In 1956, when ties between Japan and the Soviet Union were normalized, Moscow offered to give two of the islands back and discuss the future of the two other islands. But Japan refused on the grounds that all four islands were theirs and it was not a matter of negotiation. Since then there have been numerous shooting incidents involving Russian patrols and Japanese fishing boats.

In 1973, Brezhnev told Japan there was no dispute over the Kurils. In 2000, there were 17,000 Russian fishermen and cannery workers living on the four southern Kuril islands claimed by Japan.

Geology and Wildlife of the Kuril Islands

The Kuril islands are the home of 35 active volcanos. The island’s name is derived from the Russian word kurit ("to smoke"). Among the most several active volcanos are Bogdan- Khmslnitski which was struck with artillery shells from navy ships in an effort to keep it from erupting dangerously). There are abundant lakes and natural supplies of hot and cold water. One of the islands’ greatest attraction are geysers and plentiful hot springs.

Wild life includes bears, ermines and chipmunks. There are lilies and magnolias. The Kuril Islands is one of the least biologically studied regions in the world. The uninhabited island of Yankicha, for example, is the home of unique species that exist in a unique environment were cold glacial waters intermingle with water heated by volcanic vents. One two year studies by the Nation Science Foundation turned up 60 new species: mostly insects, spiders and mollusks. Birds such as Blakiston's fish owl, tufted puffin, Stellar’s sea eagle and red-crowned puffins which are regarded near extinction in Japan are found in significant numbers on the Kurils.

Japan and Russia have proposed setting up a cross-border bridge, which would be the first of its kind in Asia. There are a lot of questions about what would happen to the Kurils ifof Japan were ever to take them over. Some worry the pristine wilderness would fall victim to Japanese tourism or its dam-pave-and-develop mentality.

Volcanoes on the Kuril Islands

There are 48 volcanoes of Kuril Islands
Paramushir Island (6 volcanoes): Chikurachki, Ebeko, Fuss Peak, Karpinsky, Lemonosov, Vernadskii Ridge
Northern Kuriles (7 volcanoes): Alaid, Chirinkotan, Ekarma, Kharimkotan, Nemo Peak, Shirinki, Tao-Rusyr
Shiashkotan Island (2 volcanoes): Kuntomintar, Sinarka. [Source:]

Central Kuriles (7 volcanoes): Ketoi, Raikoke, Rasshua, Sarychev Peak, Srednii, unnamed, Ushishur
Simushir Island (5 volcanoes): Goriaschaia Sopka, Milna, Prevo Peak, Urataman, Zavaritzki

North of Urup (2 volcanoes): Chirpoi, unnamed submarine
Urup Island (4 volcanoes): Ivao, Kolokol, Rudakov, Tri Sestry
Iturup Island (11 volcanoes): Atsonupuri, Baransky, Berutarube, Bogatyr Ridge, Chirip, Demon, Golets-Tornyi, Grozny, Lvinaya Past, Medvezhia, unnamed
Kunashir Island (4 volcanoes): Golovnin, Mendeleev, Smirnov, Tiatia

Sarychev Peak

Sarychev Peak has erupted periodically since 1760 and is now regarded as one of the Kuril Island’s most active volcanos. Located on Matua Island, it is a 1,496-meter (4,908-foot) stratovolcano named after admiral Gavril Sarychev of the Imperial Russian Navy. The volcano covers almost all of Matua Island. It is young and highly symmetrical cone. It in 1760, 1805, 1879, 1923, 1927, 1928, 1930, 1932, 1946, 1954, 1960, 1965, 1976, 1986 and 1989.

Sarychev Peak erupted spectacularly in June 2009, sending up huge ash plumes that disrupted some of the main air routes between East Asia and North America. During an early stage of the eruption,, the International Space Station passed overhead and astronauts photographed the event. A hole in the overhead clouds, possibly caused by the shock wave from the explosion, allowed a clear view of the plume and pyroclastic flow down the sides of the mountain.

National Geographic reported: “A hot fist of steam and ash punches through the cloud cover above the Sarychev volcano..Crew members on the International Space Station captured the image on June 12, 2009 soon after the mountain burst open. Over three days the the ash column topped 50,000 feet, diverting aire travel as debris and sulfur dioxide belched skyward. The smooth white cap atop the plume is likely a pileus cloud — a transient puff of condensation that forms when a climbing air mass cools above an ash column. But the cloud’s peehole in an enigma. It may have resulted from the eruption’s shock wave, or from evaporation as air sank and warmed around the plume. Or perhaps it was simply a lucky window onto the epic blast.”[Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic]

People on the Kuril Islands

The Kuril Islands are home to 19,000 people. They have given the Soviets access to the straits connecting Russian waters and the Pacific Ocean and possession of some of the world's richest fishing grounds. They are also rich in gold and silver and other minerals.

Only five of the islands are permanently inhabited, Paramushir with 4,500 people; Kunashir with 4,000 people, Shikotan with 1,500; the Habomais with 300; and Iturup with 6,000. There are also 7,000 Russian border troops on remote bases scattered about the islands. Shikotan, Iturup, the Habomais and Kunashir, only 20 kilometers from Hokkaido, make up the southern Kuril Islands, which are claimed by Japanese, who launched their attack on Pearl harbor from Iturup.

Most of the people live in seven towns, in which slightly less than half the homes don't have indoor plumbing. Most of the money from the lucrative fishing industry goes to Moscow, which largely ignores the island's residents, leaving them to fend for themselves. Many of the residents were drawn here in the Soviet era by wages that were triple those paid on the mainland. After the collapse of the Soviet Union they were lucky if they got paid at all. To make matters worse, prices are high because everything has to be brought in. Packaged noodles are considered "the national dish."

Kuril Islands is mainly a fishing base. The Kuril Islands boast rich fisheries, with salmon, flounder, tuna, shrimp, clams, crab, kelp and sea urchins. A third of Russia's fish catch comes from the greater island region.

Many of the residents if the Kuril Islands feel neglected by Moscow and some wouldn't mind if the islands were turned over to the Japanese. One Russian resident told the Los Angeles Times, "When the Japanese left, there were flowers growing along the river that they had planted. Now all this beauty has turned into dumps and garbage sites." These days things are better for Russians in the Kuril Islands as they are making money from fish.

The Ainu are indigenous to northern Japan. Some also resided on the southern half of Sakhalin Island and the Kurile Islands of Russia. There were several thousand of them in Russian territory in the early 20th century. Their culture was affected by alternating periods of Russian and Japanese rule. They are no longer recognized as a separate ethnic group in Russia. Little information is available on them in Russia. See Separate Article on the Ainu under Japan.

Travel in the Kuril Islands

Among the Kuril Islands’s attractions are 169 volcanoes, almost a quarter of them are active. In some places there are so many fish you can catch them by hand. You can also visit Ainu settlements, quench your thirst from a carbonated mineral spring and check out Ilya Muromets, Russia's largest waterfall.

Not many foreigners or Russians visit the Kuril Islands. There are no roads only tracks that are reconditioned by steamrollers every few years. Buses are outfit with massive tractor wheels. Locals are still very suspicious of outsiders and travel is hampered by corruption and bureaucracy. Only those who are stubborn and ardent adventurers go to the Kuril Islands and those that make endure endless money-sucking or time-consuming hassles but are rewarded, extraordinary sights and as places where it seems no person has gone before.

Getting around the Kuril Islands is very cumbersome. Flights between some of the islands often connect to Sakhalin Island or even the Russian mainland first and sometimes are delayed for days by bad weather. The southern Kuril Islands are connected by ferry.

Visitors often wait a week or more to catch a plane and a boat there and then are not sure when they will return. Foreign travelers claim they have been shaken down for bribes if they want to get anywhere. It takes a lot fo money for permits, transportation and bribes. Flights are often delayed because the heavy fogs and mist that often envelop the area.

Kunashira Island is 60 percent nature preserve. No fishing, camping, or even hiking is allowed. The only people allowed in are researchers and rangers. Rare animals that prosper in the undisturbed wilderness include Stellar’s sea lions, tufted puffins, Stellar's sea eagle and the white-tailed sea eagle. Yuzhno-Kurilsk, with 2,500 people, is the depressing main town. There are some thermal springs there.

Getting There: You can get to the Kuril Islands by plane from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk or by ferry from Korsakov. In case of an arranged tour, expect a minimum of four days. Tours are arranged all year round, costing upwards of RUB 45,000. Make sure to figure in time bad for weather and other vagaries of nature.

Shikotan: Island of Love

Shikotan (one of the Kuril Islands) is 27-kilometers (17-miles) long and 13-kilometers (eight miles) wide. It is sometimes called the Island of Love because in the 1960s to the 1980s about 80 percent of the 3,000 residents were women drawn by high salaries to work in the island's fish processing plants.

One resident told the Los Angeles Times, "It was a free-love zone, The sailors came with money and love. Everyone was young. No one had any commitments to anyone. One day your man would be living with you — the next he'd living with another woman." Another said. "We'd go around kiss and cuddle together and maybe more than that. Young girls would come here, breaking away from their parents. They just couldn't resist the temptation."

These women are now in the 60s and 70s. Many had children from men who abandoned them. Some continue to work hard in the fish factories but aren't paid very much. Others have been unemployed since 1994, when an earthquake destroyed four of the island's fish plants. Like much of the Far East the women have been forgotten by far away Moscow.

Malokurilskoye is the main town on Shikotan. It is a dreary place with a fish processing plant and a handful of "kiosks that pass for shops."

Iturup Island

Iturup is the biggest island in the Kuril Island. It name means “big salmon” in Ainu Atractions include majestic volcanoes, 12 of which are active. At Medvezhya caldera, you can find four volcanoes, frozen rivers of lava streams, multiple lakes (two of which have hot water), all inside the huge ring-shaped caldera

Kudryavyi Volcano has multiple craters and fumarole fields. At night, one can observe the amazing luminescence of the fumarole fields. The Atsonupuri Volcano is also popular. On the surface, it is similar to the Tyatya Volcano in Kunashir, but it is much more picturesque. The Lion's Mouth Caldera is an old volcano crater filled with sea water. The striking bay is protected by a stone-lion, a beautiful rock that looks like a sphinx. From above, the caldera looks like the claw of a large crab.

Hikers will find interesting walks along the Ivan the Terrible range. Among the destinations are the volcanoes Yermak, Ivan the Terrible, Dragon, Machekha, Tabenkov, and Baransky. The latter is favored by locals. Here you can find an abundance of thermal springs, picturesque mud pools, fumarole exits, and even thermal swamps. On volcano-heated Kipyashchaya River you can swim in any seasons along its entire length. There are even several hot-water waterfalls.

There are more than 30 lakes on the island. The largest of them (Blagodatnoye, Kasatka, and Dobroye) are of lagoonal origin and are great for snorkeling and diving. Ilya Muromets Waterfall — the tallest (141 meters) multistage waterfall of the Russian Far East — is located on the northern part of the island on the slopes of Demon Mountain. There are many smaller waterfalls with a height up to 50 meters on the coast of Itrup from Rogatyi Cape to Medvezhya Bay.

The most beautiful forests on the Kurils, rich in berries and mushrooms, are located on Itrup. Locals gather a special Japanese mushroom that is about the size of a frying pan. People say it is never grub-ridden and tastes as good as a white mushroom. Hydrangea, Sumac (Toxicodendron), and Kuril Cherry are among the flowering plants found on the island.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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