The Princess staff must have really wanted our visit to Korsakov to be a success; they worked very hard to make it happen. Although the Russians can be very hospitable once you finally meet them, their bureaucrats make it oh so challenging to do so. Yesterday we had to stand in line to legally check out of Japan and hand in our passports. The Princess crew inserted special Russian landing cards which we had signed earlier into our passports and grouped them by the time we were to get off the ship for our tours. Unless you had paid $100+ to obtain a visa, there was no getting off at all unless you were on a ship’s tour. Since it would be difficult to obtain rubles and the locals would not accept anything else, Princess collected $20 from anyone interested and gave us a voucher so we each could get 600 rubles on the bus during our visit. Lots of filling out forms and paperwork involved in that process as well.
We were visiting Sakhalin Island, a part of the Soviet Gulag where prisoners had been banished, usually never to be seen again. Korsakov, population 33,000 is a fishing village with absolutely no tourist infrastructure. Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk an hour drive away had about 180,000 people, but is also not on the tourist route. Princess had 2,000+ passengers on board anxious to get off the ship and see what there was to see. There weren’t enough coaches, few locals speak English (or Japanese?) and there was nowhere to dock. We were warned that there was no guide for our four hour tour. We wondered how we would know where to get off, when to get on and what on earth we were seeing. But it was the only game in town.
This was why we found ourselves in the Princess Theater with tour tickets in hand at 6:30am after having lost two hours of sleep due to time zone changes. What a way to begin our anniversary! We waited ninety minutes until it was time to get off. We were tendering (taking the ship’s life boats) to shore and the crew that manned the boats and never intended to get off of them, unexpectedly found themselves going through Russian immigration. Huge delay. Each of us were inspected by one Russian official who checked our passport photo, looked for the Russian landing card and then allowed us to get on the tender. Another huge delay. A deck above us a KGB looking chap filmed us all with what looked like a Go-Pro camera.
But once we got past all of that the trip to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk went smoothly. The bus ran well and had clean, comfortable, spacious seats. A rest stop at the newly built ice area had plenty of clean, well functioning toilets; they even had toilet paper. A Princess crew volunteer on our bus had a basic game plan with timings and he counted us on and off the bus. At each stop a small group of English speaking locals, told us or in some cases nervously read to us from pieces of paper a little info about where we were. At the regional museum we even had a 45 minute tour with a fluent English speaker. It all worked just fine.
The Sakhalin Islands were originally populated by the Ainu, the same vaguely Eskimo looking folks that also got pushed into northern Japan by the advancing Japanese. In the Sakhalins, the Ainu were crowded out by the ever growing population of blond, blue eyed Russian prisoners that were banished here under Stalin. Today we saw Asian looking locals, but the Slavic looking types were definitely in the majority. We saw plenty of those dreary looking Soviet era block housing units, but there was definitely a lot of new building taking place as well. Gas and oil have been discovered in the area and it had a bit of a boom town feel.
Between 1905 when the Russians lost their war with Japan and lost the Sakhalins and World War II when they got them back again, many Japanese style buildings were erected. Even those damaged during the war were lovingly rebuilt in the Japanese style. One of these housed the regional museum, which was a collection of stuffed animals, historical exhibits and displays showing how the Ainu lived. Originally the museum was begun by Russian prisoners, was moved to Japan, and then opened for local visitors once again in 1946. The displays were well done, nicely lit in clean glass cases with lots of written explanation - in Russian, of course. Having visited Russia a few times, these were not conditions we took for granted.
We also visited the newly reconstructed Church of St. Nicholas, built from logs and toped with iconic gold onion domes and Russian orthodox crosses. Spring flowers were freshly planted on the grounds. Spring has just arrived here; tulips and lilacs bloomed profusely. Although Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was not immaculately clean the way the towns in Japan have been, things were picked up more or less and there was little garbage laying around. Lots of workers were out and about mowing the grass and trimming the bushes. It felt like a place where people felt proud to be.
Our shopping opportunity was limited not only by the 600 rubles in our pockets and but also by what was for sale. Once you already own stacking dolls, what more is there? Ken found a Sakhalin T-shirt, which will probably fit one of us. We were the first group from the ship to shop. One can only imagine how disappointed the last groups will be with their fistfuls of rubles and the meagre supply of items for sale picked clean.
Lenin Square still proudly displays a huge statue of Lenin in the Soviet tradition and is a gathering place for locals. Little “trees” there are festooned with ribbons which newly married couples tie on their branches. Nearby small bridges are full of locks attached by lovers as symbols of their undying love. And thus, I will end with these lovely images on our anniversary.