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Home » Sakhalin: Your Essential Guide to Russia’s Enigmatic Eastern Island

Sakhalin: Your Essential Guide to Russia’s Enigmatic Eastern Island

A Journey Through Giant Burdocks, Wild Bears, and the Echoes of Ancient Japanese Temples

From the most dreaded place of exile in the Russian Empire to a Japanese industrial base and one of the most attractive and inaccessible places for domestic tourism in Russia.

An island that was Russian, then Japanese, and then Russian again

From the 17th to the mid-19th century, it was believed that Sakhalin was a peninsula. This misconception firmly established itself on the maps of the time, as navigators failed to circumnavigate the island. The proximity of Sakhalin’s southern tip to the mainland created a false impression of being impassable for ships. An additional complexity arose from the fact that the route taken by ships from the Russian Empire involved passing through a narrow strait, which Nevelskoy managed to navigate only in 1849.

For a long time, people did not believe Nevelskoy, but he insisted that he had discovered a route through the strait, for which he became something of a hero in Primorye. Monuments and plaques dedicated to him can be found in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Vladivostok, and Khabarovsk. The H4H creative association created a graphic novel based on this story, which won a cultural initiatives contest and became part of the interior of the Khabarovsk Airport. By the way, the Sakhalin region is the only Russian entity entirely located on islands.

A graphic novel, based on the story of Nevelskoy's passage through the narrow strait along Sakhalin and proving that Sakhalin is an island, became part of the interior of the Khabarovsk Airport. Photo: Hero4Hero Group / vk.com
A graphic novel, based on the story of Nevelskoy’s passage through the narrow strait along Sakhalin and proving that Sakhalin is an island, became part of the interior of the Khabarovsk Airport. Photo: Hero4Hero Group / vk.com

The remote and isolated location of the island during the Russian Empire was used as a natural barrier, and it became the site of penal colonies for hard labor prisoners. Its geographical position led to Sakhalin’s hard labor being regarded as particularly cruel.

During the period of the island’s development, Russian ships followed the Amur River and reached the island from the north, where the oldest port, Alexandrovsk, was founded. The Japanese attempted to develop the island from the south, entering through the Kuril Islands (part of the Sakhalin region) and Aniva Bay. For a long time, the Kurils were inhabited by the Ainu, representatives of a small indigenous people. The very word “Kurils” comes from the Ainu: “kuru” means “man.”

In the 17th century, Japan conducted its first expeditions towards the islands and began their development. Russia reached them later. The first mentions of the islands in Russian language date back to the late 17th century. For a long time, Russian, Dutch, Japanese, and Anglo-French navigators studied the islands, landed on them, and disputed their territorial ownership. However, only Russia and Japan managed to establish a foothold. To end the territorial disputes, the governments of the two countries signed an agreement under which the Kuril Islands went to Japan, and Sakhalin to Russia, which continued to develop the island mainly from the north. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, which ended in Russia’s defeat, the southern part of Sakhalin became part of Japan as the Karafuto Prefecture.

Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was formerly the Japanese city of Toyohara. The photo shows a festive procession in honor of the city day in 1937
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was formerly the Japanese city of Toyohara. The photo shows a festive procession in honor of the city day in 1937
There are two similar stories: first, the Japanese government deported Russian subjects after the Russo-Japanese War. However, according to some accounts, this was done according to all norms of law and ethics. Then, the Soviet government deported Koreans who had been interned (forcibly brought for labor purposes) by Japan to Sakhalin. In the city of Korsakov, there is a monument to this event.

Until the second half of the 20th century, the island was owned by Japan and was quite successful in developing its resources. A huge number of mines were opened, several cities and lighthouses were built. In particular, the current regional center, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, was the former Japanese city of Toyohara. The famous Aniva lighthouse, now considered a symbol of Sakhalin, was built by Japanese engineers. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the island passed to the Soviet Union. Contrary to history, the main life of the island moved from the north to the south. Alexandrovsk, which was convenient to reach by water, lost to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk with its infrastructure built by the Japanese, connections to neighboring cities, and airport. Interestingly, before leaving, the Japanese buried and hid the mining sites, and locals say that not all the old mines have been found yet, and they are sometimes stumbled upon during walks.

Because the island belonged to three different countries in just over a hundred years, it did not have time to develop any significant urban infrastructure. The cities lack outstanding architectural monuments and unique museums. However, some unusual Japanese architecture has remained. Meanwhile, Sakhalin compactly houses incredible natural attractions. Here, one can climb through forests and bamboo thickets to breathtakingly beautiful mountains as if outlined in graphite, and through a mountain pass reach the sea, into which clear mountain rivers flow with fish splashing in them.

In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, several buildings in the Neo-Japanese style have been preserved, such as the Karafuto Governorate Museum built in the 1930s. It is now occupied by the Sakhalin Regional Museum. Photo: Sakhalinio / Wikimedia.org
In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, several buildings in the Neo-Japanese style have been preserved, such as the Karafuto Governorate Museum built in the 1930s. It is now occupied by the Sakhalin Regional Museum. Photo: Sakhalinio / Wikimedia.org

The Ainu and Nivkh: Inhabitants of Sakhalin

For a long time, the island was mainly inhabited by the Ainu and Nivkh peoples. These ethnic groups are very different, making their coexistence as unusual as the neighboring of birch and bamboo on the slopes of Sakhalin’s mountains. Both are isolate peoples. However, the Ainu belong to the Australoid race, while the Nivkh are Mongoloids (the main population of Asian territories). It’s fascinating how representatives of different races have coexisted for ages on a small piece of land at the edge of the world.

There is no single version regarding the origin of the Ainu, leading to a multitude of theories — both scientific and conspiratorial. One theory suggests that the Ainu are the ancestors of the indigenous population of Australia, remaining in the north after continental migration. Some researchers write that the Ainu are the forebears of the Japanese. This theory is supported by the fact that before Japanese expansion, the Ainu mainly inhabited the Japanese island of Hokkaido. However, the Ainu suffered greatly from Japanese imperialism, and their culture and language were almost completely destroyed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now, there are just over two thousand Ainu living on Sakhalin.

Some researchers believe that the Ainu are the ancestors of the Japanese. This is supported by the fact that, before Japanese expansion, the Ainu primarily inhabited the Japanese island of Hokkaido
Some researchers believe that the Ainu are the ancestors of the Japanese. This is supported by the fact that, before Japanese expansion, the Ainu primarily inhabited the Japanese island of Hokkaido

The Nivkh are among the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the north. They suffered less from Japanese rule. However, during the Soviet era, they experienced a difficult phase of literacy development, destruction of tribal communities, and relocation to cities. About 2,200 Nivkh live in the Sakhalin region and another approximately two thousand in Khabarovsk.

The Nivkhs are among the indigenous and small-numbered peoples of the North. Currently, there are about 2,200 Nivkhs living in the Sakhalin region and another approximately two thousand in the Khabarovsk region
The Nivkhs are among the indigenous and small-numbered peoples of the North. Currently, there are about 2,200 Nivkhs living in the Sakhalin region and another approximately two thousand in the Khabarovsk region

During the Karafuto period, Japan brought captured Koreans to Sakhalin for hard labor. By the mid-20th century, the Korean population of the island was about 45,000 people. For comparison, the current population of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is 180,000. This large number of people, deprived of their homeland, was forced to adapt to life first under Japanese and then Soviet rule. In the USSR, Koreans were issued passports, and there were national kindergartens and schools. However, Sakhalin Koreans did not feel part of the larger community of Soviet Koreans (Koryo-saram) and struggled to integrate. Moreover, they were considered members of an ‘unreliable nation’ because they had lived in the Japanese Empire.

During the Karafuto period, Japan brought captured Koreans to Sakhalin for hard labor. In Soviet times, Koreans were issued passports, and there were national kindergartens and schools. However, Sakhalin Koreans did not feel part of the larger community of Soviet Koreans (Koryo-saram) and struggled to integrate
During the Karafuto period, Japan brought captured Koreans to Sakhalin for hard labor. In Soviet times, Koreans were issued passports, and there were national kindergartens and schools. However, Sakhalin Koreans did not feel part of the larger community of Soviet Koreans (Koryo-saram) and struggled to integrate

In the late 1990s, three countries – Russia, South Korea, and Japan – began a repatriation campaign for the first generation of Sakhalin Koreans (born before August 15, 1945) to their historical homeland. Now, about 3,500 repatriates from Russia live in South Korea. Under the program, the Korean government provides medical insurance and a monthly allowance to the repatriates. The Japanese government, in turn, buys housing (apartments up to 40 m²) and covers transportation costs. Additionally, every two years, Sakhalin Koreans who have moved to their homeland have the right to visit Sakhalin for free, funded by the Japanese government. Most Sakhalin Koreans settled in the city of Ansan, where 500 apartments were specially built for them.

Korean influence is weakly traced on Sakhalin: many Sakhalin Koreans no longer know the language and do not associate themselves with Korea. However, there are several authentic restaurants (for example, “Koba”) on the island where you can try traditional dishes.

Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk — the capital and base for exploring the island

The city is predominantly characterized by typical Soviet architecture, with almost no remaining Japanese buildings. This is because during the Soviet period, the city was radically rebuilt after being liberated from ‘imperialist Japanese rule.’ Many buildings were demolished, and from the few that remained, some were turned into museums. Perhaps the main thing that has been preserved from the Japanese period is the layout. The city was founded from scratch near the Russian village of Vladimirovka, and Chicago was chosen as the model for its layout. Toyohara was divided into four parts by two main streets, O-dori (now Lenin) and Maoka-dori (Sakhalinskaya).

The main thing preserved in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk from the Japanese period is the layout. The city was founded from scratch, and Chicago was chosen as the model for its layout. Photo: Meilcont / Wikimedia.org
The main thing preserved in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk from the Japanese period is the layout. The city was founded from scratch, and Chicago was chosen as the model for its layout. Photo: Meilcont / Wikimedia.org

Japan established itself thoroughly on the island. In Toyohara, trade routes converged, new bays were developed, and roads were built. The city’s population grew steadily. Initially due to the military garrison, and later due to a paper mill, a sugar and distillery plant. Now, the buildings of the former Japanese factories are abandoned. Many of them can only be accessed with rare tours, while others are completely closed. However, their presence is still recalled by street names, such as Paper Street.

The headquarters of the Karafuto Guard Troops (44a Nevelskogo Street) looks like a stereotypical building in ‘Japanese style.’ Nowadays, it is possible to visit it with rare tourist groups.

The headquarters of the Karafuto Guard Troops looks like a stereotypical building in 'Japanese style.'
The headquarters of the Karafuto Guard Troops looks like a stereotypical building in ‘Japanese style.’

Another building in the Neo-Japanese style is the Karafuto Governorate Museum built in the 1930s (29 Communist Avenue). It now houses the Sakhalin Regional Museum. And in the former bank of colonial development, there is the Art Museum (137 Lenin Street).

The former bank of colonial development now houses the Art Museum. Photo: Anna Kudryavtseva / Wikimapia.org
The former bank of colonial development now houses the Art Museum. Photo: Anna Kudryavtseva / Wikimapia.org

Several other iconic buildings constructed by the Japanese have been preserved: the central hospital of Toyohara (41 Chekhov Street), the conference hall of the Karafuto Governorate (30 Dzerzhinsky Street), and the Toyohara City Hall (41 Communist Avenue). The Sakhalin Railway Museum in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is distinct from many similar museums in Russia due to its exhibits. This is because the island long maintained the Japanese standard of railway gauge, which differs from the Russian standard. Accordingly, the rolling stock was entirely different.

Upon arrival in Sakhalin, a text message with a link to the regional tourism portal is received on the phone, where one can find various routes, learn about attractions or events. I downloaded from there tips on what to do when encountering a bear and how to behave near Steller sea lions.

If in Vladivostok everything is named after the Far Eastern explorer and writer Vladimir Arsenyev, then in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, mentions of Chekhov are everywhere. At the end of the 19th century, Sakhalin was both the most dreaded place for exile to hard labor and one of the most tempting corners of Russia, which was not so easy to access. Chekhov received an editorial assignment and embarked on a ship along with prisoners, military personnel, and sailors to the most remote point of the empire. In his notes, which Chekhov compiled under the title ‘The Island of Sakhalin,’ the writer talked about many things: the geography and climate of the island, the life of the convicts, and ordinary residents. This book caused a great resonance at the time, and even now it was very interesting to read it while traveling to Sakhalin: some things have changed drastically, while others have remained the same. Now in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, there is even a museum dedicated to this one book, which turned out to be so significant for the island.

GoSakhalin is the website of the Sakhalin Tourist and Information Center. And in their official Telegram channel, you can find announcements of affordable excursions shortly before they start.

In any case, for travelers, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk remains primarily a hub and a place of rest. Here they return for the night and dinner, and it seems that real adventures begin outside the doorstep.

Surrounding Area

10–20 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

The main reason people visit Sakhalin is for its unique nature. Mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, and the sea, all on a small piece of land. In one day, you can travel from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Sea of Japan, cross several climate zones, see bamboo groves, birches, and spruces in one place, spot a running fox and a swimming orca. The island’s landscapes can boldly compete in Instagram appeal with Iceland or Norway.

Ecotrails

Within Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk alone, there are about 30 kilometers of marked ecotrails, with brief descriptions and routes available on the official tourism portal. I also found an ecotrail in Nevelsk, which is not mentioned on the official website.

The ecotrails in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk start from the ‘Mountain Air’ ski center on the sopka (a term for mountains in the Far East) Bolshevik. There are five in total: ‘Children’s’ (2.7 kilometers), ‘Eight’ (8 kilometers), ‘Northern Ring’ (9 kilometers), ‘Russian’ (3.2 kilometers), and ‘Yelanka’ (5 kilometers). You can take a cable car to the start of the trails and then slowly descend through the forest and park to the city. However, the lift does not operate in rainy and windy weather.

You can take a funicular to the start of the ecotrails, and then slowly descend through the forest and park to the city. Photo: Tatters / Flickr.com
You can take a funicular to the start of the ecotrails, and then slowly descend through the forest and park to the city. Photo: Tatters / Flickr.com

Hiking the ‘Eight’ trail took me no more than three hours, including stops to catch my breath and take photos. Every kilometer and a half along the route, there are benches. From the top of the mountain, there is a view of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and it seems you can see a piece of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Within the limits of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk alone, there are about 30 kilometers of marked ecotrails. Photo: Tatters / Flickr.com
Within the limits of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk alone, there are about 30 kilometers of marked ecotrails. Photo: Tatters / Flickr.com

Chekhov Peak

The route to Chekhov Peak is a high-mountain trekking path that requires a certain level of physical fitness. Chekhov Peak has an elevation of 1045 meters, with an absolute altitude gain of 752 meters. The trail is narrow and slippery in places, hardly suitable for children or people with limited mobility.

The elevation of Chekhov Peak is 1045 meters, of which the absolute elevation gain is 752 meters. Photo: Tatters / Flickr.com
The elevation of Chekhov Peak is 1045 meters, of which the absolute elevation gain is 752 meters. Photo: Tatters / Flickr.com

Chekhov Peak is part of the Susunai Range, which supports Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk from the southeast. You can exit from Gagarin city park to the foothills in about half an hour. The ascent to the peak itself cannot be missed: a marked trail and informational signs lead to it. On particularly steep ascents, ropes are hung for safety, but it is possible to walk up the slope without them.

In late spring, the forest trail has many streams, as well as May primroses and butterflies. The foothills are scattered with rare, incredibly large, and wonderfully fragrant marsh callas. Halfway to the peak, bamboo thickets are encountered, through which birches break through. This is also a kind of magic because, as a biologist friend explained to me, birch and bamboo are not supposed to coexist in the natural environment, but somehow they manage to do so. Occasionally, spruces are encountered — not tall, but very fluffy. Closer to the top, the vegetation becomes sparser, and the impressive views of the sea, mountains, and lakes open up from the height.

Even in summer, there is snow on the summit of Chekhov Peak. In the afternoon, it begins to melt, making it more difficult to walk
Even in summer, there is snow on the summit of Chekhov Peak. In the afternoon, it begins to melt, making it more difficult to walk

Tips:

  • The entire hike takes five to six hours.
  • Even in summer, there is snow on the summit. In the afternoon, it starts to melt, making it more difficult to walk.
  • Don’t forget to bring food and water.
  • Wear boots with covered ankles, a jacket, and a head covering.
  • Inform your family and friends, and someone living in Sakhalin, before setting out on the route. If you’re traveling alone, you could notify, for example, the hotel receptionist or roommates in a hostel.
  • Snakes and bears are found around the trail. Watch your feet and try to make as much noise as possible. For example, play music on your phone and sing along occasionally.
  • The ascent to Chekhov Peak can be the start of a journey to the village of Lesnoye on the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk. The distance to the village is 27 kilometers. With good preparation and an early start from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, this distance can be covered in one day.
Halfway to the peak, bamboo thickets are encountered, through which birches break through. This is unusual because birch and bamboo are not supposed to coexist in a natural environment, but they manage to do so
Halfway to the peak, bamboo thickets are encountered, through which birches break through. This is unusual because birch and bamboo are not supposed to coexist in a natural environment, but they manage to do so

Mud Volcano in Klyuchi

A mud volcano is an eruption on the earth’s surface of clay masses, mineralized waters, and gases. The mechanism of formation of these volcanoes is not fully understood. According to the existing theory, such volcanoes are formed near oil fields.

The mud volcano in Klyuchi consists of a mud field about 200 meters in diameter. There, you can see about 20 points of activity, resembling miniature volcano craters. This mud volcano became active in 1959, 1979, 2001, and 2011 (the last time due to a strong earthquake in Japan). During these eruptions, mud columns reached several tens of meters in height. Bus 189 goes to Klyuchi from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. The distance from the village to the top of the volcano is nine kilometers and takes about two and a half hours to walk.

The mud volcano in Klyuchi consists of a mud field about 200 meters in diameter. On it, you can see about 20 points of activity, resembling miniature volcano craters. Photo: Sergey Lyakhovets / Wikimedia.org
The mud volcano in Klyuchi consists of a mud field about 200 meters in diameter. On it, you can see about 20 points of activity, resembling miniature volcano craters. Photo: Sergey Lyakhovets / Wikimedia.org

Ecopark in the Vestochka area: Frog Rock, Aikhor Waterfall, ‘Sunny Glade’ Recreation Park

Not far from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, there is a fairly large ecopark, known primarily for the Frog Rock outcrop. An outcrop is a remnant of harder rock around which softer rock has eroded over time. Outcrops are often known for their unusual shapes and are natural monuments. Frog Rock is part of a series of rocks standing one behind the other. This was once the seabed of an ancient sea, and fossilized shells can be found in its vicinity. From the top of the rock, amazing views of the Aniva Bay, Tunaycha and Changeable Lakes open up. This place was sacred to the Ainu, the indigenous inhabitants of the island.

Not far from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, there is a fairly large ecopark, known primarily for the Frog Rock outcrop. An outcrop is a remnant of harder rock around which softer rock has eroded over time
Not far from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, there is a fairly large ecopark, known primarily for the Frog Rock outcrop. An outcrop is a remnant of harder rock around which softer rock has eroded over time

The trail to the ‘Sunny Glade’ ecopark begins behind the ‘Electron’ culture house. Despite its name, it is not a city park, but a full-fledged forest with laid-out paths. There are houses, glades with tables for rest where you can cook barbecues, and wooden walkways leading to various attractions. These are all paid services.

In the 'Sunny Glade' park, there is the Aikhor Waterfall, which is also a short climb away, but along a less well-maintained trail. Photo: Tatters / Flickr.com
In the ‘Sunny Glade’ park, there is the Aikhor Waterfall, which is also a short climb away, but along a less well-maintained trail. Photo: Tatters / Flickr.com

The path to Frog Rock outcrop goes along the Komissarovka River. In areas of spring flooding, callas bloom and bamboo grows. The outcrop is located on a hill, with a total elevation gain of about 300 meters. The road is quite challenging, usually taking from an hour to an hour and a half. The higher you climb, the more you can see: the sea, the mountain gorge, the road to Vestochka. In the same park is the Aikhor Waterfall, which is also a short climb away, but along a less well-maintained trail. You can plan a whole day to visit Vestochka and even spend the night, without returning to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

The road to the Frog Rock outcrop goes along the Komissarovka River. In areas of spring flooding, callas bloom and bamboo grows
The road to the Frog Rock outcrop goes along the Komissarovka River. In areas of spring flooding, callas bloom and bamboo grows

Vestochka is three high-rise buildings on one side of the road and a cottage settlement on the other. It is part of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, though located 15 kilometers from the main part of the city. A taxi there costs about 1000 rubles and takes 40 minutes. About a kilometer after turning off the main road, the asphalt ends and a terribly dusty dirt road begins. If you’re lucky, you can catch a bus that runs three times a day.

What else to see on the island

Korsakov

40 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

The oldest city in the south of Sakhalin, founded by Nevelskoy’s expedition. Here you can find a huge number of monuments dedicated to sailors, naval battles, and ships. The most significant monument in the city in recent decades has become the stele dedicated to ‘Koreans interned by the Japanese in Sakhalin, who never returned to their homeland,’ located on Mount Sorrow, created through the efforts of three countries’ governments (Russia, Japan, and Korea).

Korsakov is the oldest city in the south of Sakhalin, founded by Nevelskoy's expedition. Photo: Artem Svetlov / Wikimedia.org
Korsakov is the oldest city in the south of Sakhalin, founded by Nevelskoy’s expedition. Photo: Artem Svetlov / Wikimedia.org

In Korsakov, some Japanese heritage has been preserved: the former building of the Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, a colonial development bank (Sovetskaya Street, 3), trade warehouses in the port, a document storage facility ‘Bunsyoko’ (Krasnoflotskaya Street, 1), a couple of rusty fire hydrants, and remnants of Shinto temples in the form of pillars with hieroglyphs. One of the local nighttime entertainments is watching the lights of the gas processing plant.

How to get there. Three electric trains a day, the journey takes just over an hour, and the ticket costs 75 rubles (0.80 euros).

In Korsakov, some Japanese heritage has been preserved, for example, the former building of the Hokkaido Takushoku Bank. Photo: sakhalin.info
In Korsakov, some Japanese heritage has been preserved, for example, the former building of the Hokkaido Takushoku Bank. Photo: sakhalin.info

Bird and Giant Capes

90 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Two capes, recognized as natural monuments in 1990, along whose coasts are many wind and wave-carved grottoes, caves, arches, and columns of various sizes and whimsical shapes, among which colonies of sea birds reside.

The place is not very close, but it’s very picturesque at any time of the year. In the area of one of the rocks, there is a pool where, during the salmon spawning period, you can observe a fascinating spectacle — a huge gathering of pink salmon.

Many tourists stay on the coast overnight to witness the sunset and sunrise. Near Cape Giant, there is a toilet, parking, and a rest area with benches.

How to get there. The journey from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk goes through the village of Okhotskoe, where you can buy fresh crabs, and takes about three hours one way. The road is fully passable only by high vehicles like Mitsubishi Pajero, Suzuki Jimny, as the last ten kilometers of the route have deep puddles, potholes, small cliffs, and rivers.

Along the coasts of Bird and Giant Capes, there are numerous wind and wave-formed grottoes, caves, arches, and columns of various sizes and whimsical shapes. Photo: Rost.galis / Wikimedia.org
Along the coasts of Bird and Giant Capes, there are numerous wind and wave-formed grottoes, caves, arches, and columns of various sizes and whimsical shapes. Photo: Rost.galis / Wikimedia.org

Nevelsk and Steller Sea Lions

90 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Nevelsk is nestled between mountains and sea. The rocky mountains and the coast, which consists of small stone needles and shells, in every way explain why Chekhov so often mentioned in ‘The Island of Sakhalin’ how harsh the land of Sakhalin is.

The rocky mountains and the coast, consisting of small stone needles and shells, explain in every way why Chekhov so often mentioned in 'The Island of Sakhalin' how harsh the land of Sakhalin is
The rocky mountains and the coast, consisting of small stone needles and shells, explain in every way why Chekhov so often mentioned in ‘The Island of Sakhalin’ how harsh the land of Sakhalin is

Steller sea lions are the largest of the eared seals. One of their habitats is the breakwater in Nevelsk. As soon as you arrive in the town, the smell from the Steller sea lions’ haul-out site hits you. ‘They eat there, live, give birth to their young – that’s why it smells,’ the locals explain. Another feature is the noise. Steller sea lions are very loud!

You can view the sea lions from the central square, where binoculars are installed. However, tourists usually hire a boat and approach the haul-out site to get a closer look at the seals. You can see how the Steller sea lions bark, lie in the sun, jump into the sea and, most interestingly, try to jump back. The views from the square through binoculars are not as detailed and impressive. A place on the boat will cost 1000–1500 rubles (10.71 – (16.06 euros). You can also buy a tour from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for 3500 rubles (37.48 euros). The most animals are present in spring and early summer. In autumn, there may be a couple of dozen individuals left.

You can watch the Steller sea lions from the central square, where binoculars are set up. However, tourists usually hire a boat and approach the sea lions' haul-out site to get a closer look at the seals
You can watch the Steller sea lions from the central square, where binoculars are set up. However, tourists usually hire a boat and approach the sea lions’ haul-out site to get a closer look at the seals

From the embankment, you can observe the huge kelp laminaria floating in the sea. Some travelers catch them themselves and eat them. Although dishes made from seaweed are found in cafes and also sold in stores. Signs are installed on the shore indicating where to run in case of a tsunami. The last major earthquake with waves was recorded in 2007. Many houses were destroyed and two people died. The most famous Sakhalin tsunami was the 1952 tragedy, when the aftermath of the earthquake almost completely destroyed Severo-Kurilsk.

How to get there. From the bus station (Karl Marx Street, 51b) in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, buses go to Nevelsk, the ticket costs 300 rubles (3.21 euros), and the journey takes about an hour. Tickets can be purchased at the bus station ticket office or from the driver (cash or transfer). It’s not possible to board the bus somewhere in the city, as the bus does not make stops. It’s better to buy a return ticket immediately upon arrival in Nevelsk at the Nevelsk bus station ticket office (Lenina Street, 1). The bus is popular with locals, and there may simply be no seats left.

Kholmsk

90 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Remnants of structures from the Karafuto period include the Maoka-Jinja temple with a Japanese-style garden and an abandoned railway built by the Japanese. It used to connect Kholmsk with Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Tourists usually come to see two photogenic bridges – Devil’s and Witch’s – and a tunnel in the mountain that makes a full circle inside it. The trail passes along the old rails, and there are many vipers, so one needs to watch their step.

How to get there. The bus to Kholmsk takes two hours, the ticket costs 450 rubles (4.82 euros), with 14 trips a day.

Tourists usually visit Kholmsk to see two photogenic bridges - Devil's and Witch's - and a tunnel in the mountain that makes a full circle inside it. Photo: Ivan / Unsplash.com
Tourists usually visit Kholmsk to see two photogenic bridges – Devil’s and Witch’s – and a tunnel in the mountain that makes a full circle inside it. Photo: Ivan / Unsplash.com

Slepikovsky Cape and Lighthouse

120 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

At Slepikovsky Cape, there is the only relic grove of Korean cedar on Sakhalin. Also located here is the functioning Slepikovsky Lighthouse, which is a 27-meter tall round tower, connected by corridors to utility and residential buildings.

The 27-meter lighthouse on Slepikovsky Cape is connected by corridors to utility and residential buildings. Photo: Katya2407 / Wikimedia.org
The 27-meter lighthouse on Slepikovsky Cape is connected by corridors to utility and residential buildings. Photo: Katya2407 / Wikimedia.org

The cape and lighthouse are named after the commander of the Russian partisan detachment Bronislav Grotto-Slepikovsky, who operated in Southern Sakhalin during the 1904–1905 war. The route to the lighthouse goes through the villages of Yablochnoe and Sadovniki, where some of the best beaches on Sakhalin are located — with the cleanest water and white sand.

How to get there. The cape is located 29 kilometers north of Kholmsk. From Kholmsk to the turn towards the lighthouse, there is asphalt with dirt sections. From the turn to the lighthouse, there is first a dirt road, then beach sand, which is recommended to be driven on with deflated tires. Visiting time is from spring to autumn, as the road to the cape is not cleared in winter.

Vzmorye

110 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

In 1891, when the island had a penal colony, this was the Russian village of Siraroko, named after a nearby Ainu settlement. In 1905, the south of Sakhalin was given to the Japanese, and the village was renamed Higashi Shiraura. Here there were a railway station, a brick factory, and a coal mine. 40 years later, the settlement was renamed Vzmorye.

During the Japanese times, there was the Shinto shrine Higashi Shiraura Inari-Jinja. Only the torii gates remain — P-shaped gates without doors that are placed on the path to a Shinto shrine. These are the only torii on Sakhalin. On the torii, there is an inscription ‘In honor of the 2600th anniversary of the foundation of Great Japan’ — this mythological date was widely celebrated in 1940.

Torii are P-shaped gates without doors, which are installed on the path to a Shinto shrine. The torii in Vzmorye are the only ones on Sakhalin. Photo: 特急東海 / Wikimedia.org
Torii are P-shaped gates without doors, which are installed on the path to a Shinto shrine. The torii in Vzmorye are the only ones on Sakhalin. Photo: 特急東海 / Wikimedia.org

On the way to the torii, you can see the famous giant burdocks and bear’s garlic. Vzmorye is also known as a place where poached crabs are sold along the highway.

How to get there. Two electric trains and one train that start from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk stop in Vzmorye. Unfortunately, all three are in the evening. You can also get there on passing buses that go to the north of the island.

Tikhaya Bay

140 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

On one side, the bay is framed by Mount Smely, and on the other side, the majestic Zhdanko Ridge begins. To the left in the bay itself is an island-kekur, which can be reached during low tide, as well as the epic cliffs of Tikhaya Cape. By the way, behind this cape, there are waterfalls that become icefalls in winter. At the base of the bay is the mouth of the Tikhaya River, where during the season you can see the spawning of pink salmon and chum salmon. Bears are aware of this, so they are often encountered here.

How to get there. Buses going to Poronaysk stop in the village of Tikhoye, near which the bay is located. There are four trips a day.

In Tikhaya Bay, there is an island-kekur, which can be reached during low tide, as well as the epic cliffs of Tikhaya Cape. Photo: Sergey Lyakhovets / Wikimedia.org
In Tikhaya Bay, there is an island-kekur, which can be reached during low tide, as well as the epic cliffs of Tikhaya Cape. Photo: Sergey Lyakhovets / Wikimedia.org

Aniva Lighthouse

140 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

The Aniva Lighthouse is the most famous landmark of the island. Built during the Karafuto era, the lighthouse looks unusual – it seems as if it is growing out of the rock on which it stands. The lighthouse is not painted in the usual red and white colors, but is entirely made of light natural stone, which stands out against the dark cliff. Now, Aniva is a large bird bazaar. Seagulls nest there everywhere, and believe me, these are the biggest seagulls I have ever seen.

The Aniva Lighthouse is not painted in the usual red and white colors, but is entirely made of light natural stone, which stands out against the dark cliff
The Aniva Lighthouse is not painted in the usual red and white colors, but is entirely made of light natural stone, which stands out against the dark cliff

The lighthouse has a complex history: there were attempts to maintain it under Soviet rule, but Aniva was so remote from inhabited areas that it was not profitable. Eventually, the lighthouse was switched to autonomous mode, bringing in a radioactive isotope to sustain its operation, and then it was completely closed. To this day, you can find signs on the walls reading ‘Caution, radioactive’. But now this warning is outdated, as the radioactive isotope was removed when the lighthouse was decommissioned. The lighthouse is very beautiful, offering views of the island and sea, and inside you can explore the remnants of rooms and working areas.

Now Aniva is a large bird bazaar. Seagulls nest there everywhere
Now Aniva is a large bird bazaar. Seagulls nest there everywhere
The lighthouse is very beautiful, offering views of the island and the sea, and inside, you can explore the remnants of rooms and working areas
The lighthouse is very beautiful, offering views of the island and the sea, and inside, you can explore the remnants of rooms and working areas

On the return trip, tourists are also taken to Mramornaya Bay, where you can also climb a mountain and view the jagged coast of Sakhalin from above. Orcas and whales are often encountered in these areas, most frequently in summer. I would also recommend taking a combined tour in summer to Aniva Lighthouse, the Blue Lakes, and Busse Lagoon, where you can see the amazingly blue waters and try sea urchins.

On the way back from Aniva Lighthouse, tourists are also taken to Mramornaya Bay, where you can also climb a mountain and view the jagged coast of Sakhalin from above
On the way back from Aniva Lighthouse, tourists are also taken to Mramornaya Bay, where you can also climb a mountain and view the jagged coast of Sakhalin from above

A kilometer from Novikov is Cape Tri Kamnya (46.320342 143.373006), which can even be reached by car. Four kilometers from the cape is the small Strelka waterfall, which requires a walk. If you stay in the village overnight, you can take a hike to the Blue (turquoise) Lakes (46.359603, 143.471909). On the way, there’s an abandoned Japanese power station. You can extend your route by another 15 kilometers and reach the opposite shore of the peninsula – to Cape Evstafiya. The road from Novikov to Cape Evstafyeva through the Blue Lakes can be driven in a jeep, if there hasn’t been prolonged rain before. But it’s better to ask in advance those who have recently been there, and get the phone number of a local tractor driver in Novikov, so that if something happens, he can pull you out.

You can extend your route from Novikovo to the Blue Lakes by another 15 kilometers and reach the opposite shore of the peninsula - to Cape Evstafiya. Photo: Aleksei Anatskii / Unsplash.com
You can extend your route from Novikovo to the Blue Lakes by another 15 kilometers and reach the opposite shore of the peninsula – to Cape Evstafiya. Photo: Aleksei Anatskii / Unsplash.com

How to get there. Getting there independently is almost impossible. The lighthouse is located on a rocky outcrop in the sea, and the nearest land is a high cliff. However, some people do reach Novikovo (the nearest village) by bus or car, and then walk 44 kilometers on foot to Aniva (the name of both the lighthouse and the bay). It takes about one and a half hours to drive from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to Novikovo. And then another two hours of rough dirt road to the boat dock. A tour from the company ‘Friends-Hikers’ costs 6000 rubles (64.25 euros) in May (in summer – 7000 rubles (74.96 euros)).

Klokovsky Waterfall

190 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Klokovsky Waterfall is one of the highest waterfalls on Sakhalin Island. Its height is variously reported to be 48–49 meters, with a width of up to nine meters. The waterfall is accessible year-round, but is most full in late spring and early summer.

Klokovsky Waterfall is one of the highest waterfalls on Sakhalin Island. Its height is variously reported to be 48–49 meters. Photo: xmixa / Wikimapia.org
Klokovsky Waterfall is one of the highest waterfalls on Sakhalin Island. Its height is variously reported to be 48–49 meters. Photo: xmixa / Wikimapia.org
How to get there. First, you need to reach the town of Makarov by electric train or train (one trip per day) or by bus (six trips). Then, take one of the local buses (№101, 502, 504, 509, 510) to the ‘Grebenskaya’ stop. From there, it’s a five-kilometer walk. Alternatively, you can ask the minibus driver from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to stop on the highway near the turn to the waterfall – this would be the easiest option.

Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky

540 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Once the largest and most beautiful city of Sakhalin, welcoming travelers coming out of the mouth of the Amur. Now, Alexandrovsk is in decline and far from all trade and tourist routes. The city has several small museums: the historical-literary museum ‘Chekhov and Sakhalin’ (Chekhov Street, 19) and the Chekhov regional museum (Tsapko Street, 3). Also, the city retains some architecture from the period of the Russian Empire.

Once the largest and most beautiful city of Sakhalin, welcoming travelers coming from the mouth of the Amur River. Now, Alexandrovsk is in decline and far from all trade and tourist routes. Photo: Maxim Trukhin / Wikimedia.org
Once the largest and most beautiful city of Sakhalin, welcoming travelers coming from the mouth of the Amur River. Now, Alexandrovsk is in decline and far from all trade and tourist routes. Photo: Maxim Trukhin / Wikimedia.org

The ‘Tri Brata’ (Three Brothers) rocks are definitely a symbol of Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky, and perhaps of the entire island. They are located in the Alexandrovsk Gulf almost opposite Cape Zhonkiyor. From the cape, there is a stunning view of the vast Tatar Strait and the Three Brothers. At low tide, it’s possible to calmly explore all the attractions of the gulf, collect seaweed and shells, see hermit crabs scuttling along the seabed with their shells on their backs, or watch the leaves of laminaria sway. At the strongest low tide, you can even walk to the Three Brothers through the water.

The 'Tri Brata' (Three Brothers) rocks are definitely a symbol of Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky, and perhaps of the entire island. They are located in the Alexandrovsk Gulf almost opposite Cape Zhonkiyor. Photo: GoSakhalin
The ‘Tri Brata’ (Three Brothers) rocks are definitely a symbol of Alexandrovsk-Sakhalinsky, and perhaps of the entire island. They are located in the Alexandrovsk Gulf almost opposite Cape Zhonkiyor. Photo: GoSakhalin

In the 19th century, convicts carved a 90-meter tunnel through Cape Zhonkiyor to service the lighthouse. To reach the tunnel by land, you need to come at low tide. Otherwise, you’ll have to climb the rocks. The tunnel is lined with logs, but there is almost always water at the bottom and a strong wind howls through it. If you pass through the tunnel, you will see the ‘Tri Sestry’ (Three Sisters) rocks and an old lighthouse from the end of the 19th century. All these places are described by Chekhov in ‘The Island of Sakhalin’: ‘Most often we went to the lighthouse, which stands high above the valley, on Cape Zhonkiyor. During the day, the lighthouse, if looked at from below, is a modest white house with a mast and lantern, but at night it shines brightly in the darkness, and then it seems that the penal colony looks at the world with its red eye. The road to the house climbs steeply, winding around the mountain, past old larches and firs. The higher you climb, the freer you breathe; the sea spreads before your eyes, thoughts gradually come, having nothing to do with the prison, the penal colony, or the exile settlement, and only then do you realize how dull and difficult life is down below.’

How to get there. From Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, there is one bus trip per day – at 12:10. The ticket costs 2200 rubles (23.56 euros), and the journey takes nine hours.

In the 19th century, convicts carved a 90-meter tunnel through Cape Zhonkiyor to service the lighthouse. Photo: Maxim Trukhin / Wikimedia.org
In the 19th century, convicts carved a 90-meter tunnel through Cape Zhonkiyor to service the lighthouse. Photo: Maxim Trukhin / Wikimedia.org

Nogliki

600 kilometers from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

The main transit point on the way to the oil refineries. The village might be of interest to those curious to see a harsh northern town living off production: low-rise buildings made of siding and unexpectedly bright murals on the walls of five-story buildings. There is a local history museum in the village (Sovetskaya Street, 3) – it is praised for its excellent exhibition of the Nivkh culture and a monument to Nevelskoy. Also, one of the longest rivers of Sakhalin, the Tym (which translates from Nivkh as ‘spawning river’), flows through the town.

How to get there. A night train goes to Nogliki every day, taking almost 12 hours. The cheapest ticket in a seated carriage costs 1100 rubles (11.78 euros), a compartment – 4100 (43.90 euros). There is even a luxury (SV) carriage for 12600 rubles (134.92 euros).

Islands

Kuril Islands

The Sakhalin region includes not only Sakhalin Island but also the chain of the Kuril Islands. On Paramushir, you can see a cemetery of sunken ships, Iturup is known for its white cliffs and volcanoes, and Kunashir for its basalt columns, volcanoes, and fumaroles. On all three islands, there are thermal springs and the overall captivating nature of untouched terrain, where grass grows as tall as a person, rare flowers emit their fragrance, and stones and rocks form unearthly landscapes.

The Sakhalin region includes not only Sakhalin Island but also the chain of the Kuril Islands. On Paramushir, you can see a cemetery of sunken ships, Iturup is known for its white cliffs and volcanoes, and Kunashir for its basalt columns, volcanoes, and fumaroles. Photo: Aleksei Anatskii / Unsplash.com
The Sakhalin region includes not only Sakhalin Island but also the chain of the Kuril Islands. On Paramushir, you can see a cemetery of sunken ships, Iturup is known for its white cliffs and volcanoes, and Kunashir for its basalt columns, volcanoes, and fumaroles. Photo: Aleksei Anatskii / Unsplash.com

Moneron

Moneron is the only island nature park. It is a specially protected area that can only be accessed as part of tourist groups or with special permission. Private boats take people to Moneron for 100,000 rubles (1,070.80 euros), and the boat can accommodate ten people. The island is 50 kilometers off the coast.

Here, nature is completely untouched, and animals are not afraid of people. You can go diving, take sea boat rides, and trek. A night in a double room costs from 3300 rubles (35.34 euros).

In the Moneron Park, nature is completely untouched, and animals are not afraid of people. Here, you can go diving, take sea boat rides, and trek. Photo: Victor Morozov, Ванифатов Павел / Wikimedia.org

In the Moneron Park, nature is completely untouched, and animals are not afraid of people. Here, you can go diving, take sea boat rides, and trek. Photo: Victor Morozov, Ванифатов Павел / Wikimedia.org
In the Moneron Park, nature is completely untouched, and animals are not afraid of people. Here, you can go diving, take sea boat rides, and trek. Photo: Victor Morozov, Ванифатов Павел / Wikimedia.org

Food

On the island, food (and almost everything else) is more expensive than in mainland Russia. A kilogram of Chinese apples or bananas costs 200-300 rubles (2.14 – 3.21 euros). Butter is 300 rubles per pack, ‘Vyazanka’ sausages are 355 rubles (3.80 euros) for 450 grams, cottage cheese is 250 rubles (2.68 euros) for 300 grams, chicken fillet is 400-450 rubles (4.28 – 4.82 euros) per kilogram. Grains cost about the same as in Moscow. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and some other vegetables are grown in local greenhouses, so their price is not super expensive. Familiar yogurts and curd snacks, sausages, and cheeses are available, but the assortment is not as wide as in a typical supermarket in Nizhny Novgorod. Products from Japan, China, or Korea may be cheaper than similar Russian goods. The main grocery store is ‘Pervy Semeyny’, found on every corner.

On the island, food (and almost everything else) is more expensive than in mainland Russia. A kilogram of Chinese apples or bananas costs 200-300 rubles
On the island, food (and almost everything else) is more expensive than in mainland Russia. A kilogram of Chinese apples or bananas costs 200-300 rubles

At the fish market in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a kilogram of red caviar costs 3500-4000 rubles (37.48 – 42.83 euros), smoked fish varies from 1500-3000 (16.06 – 32.12 euros) depending on the type, and a whole crab is about 4000 (42.83 euros). You can also try various types of oysters, sea urchins, scallops, trumpeter fish, and octopus from the seafood selection.

At the fish market in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a kilogram of red caviar costs 3500–4000 rubles, smoked fish is 1500–3000 depending on the type, and a whole crab is about 4000. Photo: Tatters / Flickr.com
At the fish market in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a kilogram of red caviar costs 3500–4000 rubles, smoked fish is 1500–3000 depending on the type, and a whole crab is about 4000. Photo: Tatters / Flickr.com

The average bill for lunch in Sakhalin cafes is 1000–1500 rubles (10.71 – 16.06 euros). Dishes made from fish and seafood often cost more than the same in Central Russia. In ‘My Dream Fish’, there are aquariums with live crabs and oysters. A kilogram of crab costs from 2100 rubles (22.49 euros), while snacks and hot dishes are about 1000 (10.71 euros), the cheapest is to eat a bowl of soup for 600 rubles (6.42 euros). Soho specializes in seafood and cocktails. Also, here you can have an unusual (with a local cuisine twist) and inexpensive (by Sakhalin standards) business lunch. Fish zrazy, pink salmon soup, eel rolls, miso soup, and all this in a business lunch menu for 650 rubles (6.96 euros). Restaurant 601 is located in the mountains at an altitude of 601 meters, offering a great view of the surroundings and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. But they boast not only the view but also the dishes. You can try unusual snacks made from fern or burdock, ‘Caesar’ salad with crab, and for the main course, something grilled. Expect prices around 600–800 rubles (6.42 – 8.57 euros) for appetizers and salads, and from 1000 (10.71 euros) for hot dishes.

Restaurant 601 is located in the mountains at an altitude of 601 meters, offering a cool view of the surroundings and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Photo: 601
Restaurant 601 is located in the mountains at an altitude of 601 meters, offering a cool view of the surroundings and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Photo: 601

‘Nihon Mitai’ and Hokkaido are the main Japanese cuisine spots in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. At the ‘Pleskavitsa’ cafe, they not only prepare Balkan cuisine dishes but also local seafood – the scallops there are excellent. There is ‘Dodo Pizza’ and the ‘Melnitsa’ coffee shop chain, where they make coffee, desserts, and ready-to-eat food. Many grocery stores have counters with ready-made food – a great option for those who want to save as much as possible.

Where to Stay

Hostels in the Far East are divided into work and tourist types. The former will also accommodate tourists, but the atmosphere there is like a dormitory where their own rules are already established, and you may feel like an uninvited guest. To avoid such a hostel, it’s important to carefully read the reviews, not book the cheapest hostels, not stay on the outskirts or near airports and train stations.

In the Islander hostel, mainly travelers stay, it’s very cozy, with convenient kitchen and showers with toilets. A double room costs 3000 rubles per day, and dorms – from 900 rubles (9.64 euros) per night. If you book directly through the website and for a long term, you can get a good discount.

The ‘Moneron’ hotel is located near the railway and bus stations. It’s a classic budget hotel with small clean rooms. The ‘comfort’ class rooms have a bath, and the hotel provides a complete set with slippers, towels, and a hairdryer. Prices start from 2800 rubles (29.98 euros) per night for a single economy room, while ‘comfort’ costs 4900 rubles (52.47 euros). Breakfast is included in the price.

The ‘Belka’ hotel building is made using Finnish technology in a wooden style from milled timber. The cost of large rooms with wooden walls and huge beds starts from 5800 rubles (62.11 euros). Breakfast is also included in the price. The hotel complex includes a sauna, spa, tavern, and gym.

Near Bussé Bay is the island’s only dome-shaped glamping site. A night for two costs 8000-10,000 rubles (85.66 – 107.08 euros). An extra bed is 2000 (21.42 euros). Each dome has a shower, toilet, and electricity. On cooler days, you can light the stove and sit by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa.

Near Bussé Bay is the island's only dome-shaped glamping site. A night for two costs 8000–10,000 rubles. Photo: Laguna Bussé
Near Bussé Bay is the island’s only dome-shaped glamping site. A night for two costs 8000–10,000 rubles. Photo: Laguna Bussé

In other towns, apart from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the choice of hotels is quite modest and usually limited to one or two hotels, which cannot always be booked online. They have to be found on the map and booked by phone.

Transport on the Island

Car. If you’re only traveling between cities, there won’t be any problems – the roads between them are mostly paved, and the dirt roads are of more or less good quality. It gets more complicated with natural attractions. Almost all of them are accessed by dirt roads, which not every car can navigate.

In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, ‘Yandex.Taxi’ and ‘Maxim’ operate (also in Korsakov and Kholmsk). A trip within the city limits will cost a maximum of 300 rubles (3.21 euros).

If you travel only between cities, there won't be any problems - the roads between them are mostly paved, and the dirt roads are of more or less good quality. Photo: Max Shestera / Wikimedia.org
If you travel only between cities, there won’t be any problems – the roads between them are mostly paved, and the dirt roads are of more or less good quality. Photo: Max Shestera / Wikimedia.org

Railway. From Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, about 30 electric trains depart daily. Most of them go to nearby areas like Dalnyaya, Khristoforovka, and Novoaleksandrovka stations – 8–23 minutes travel time.

To other cities, there’s only one electric train per day. It takes an hour to Korsakov and the ticket costs 80 rubles (0.86 euro). To Tomari, it’s four hours and 300 rubles (3.21 euros). To Poronaysk, it’s five hours of travel and 500 rubles (5.35 euros) for a ticket. Long-distance electric trains depart in the evening, as these routes are used by residents of the province who return from work in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to their homes.

There is also one train on the island – Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to Nogliki, 12 hours of travel and 1100 rubles (11.78 euros) for a ticket in a sitting carriage.

From Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, about 30 electric trains depart daily. However, most of them go only to nearby areas. Therefore, using the railway for traveling around the island is not very convenient. Photo: Svetlov Artem / Wikimedia.org
From Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, about 30 electric trains depart daily. However, most of them go only to nearby areas. Therefore, using the railway for traveling around the island is not very convenient. Photo: Svetlov Artem / Wikimedia.org

Buses. It seems you can reach even the most remote settlements by bus. Often there’s only one trip per day, but at least it exists. To Kholmsk, Nevelsk, and Korsakov, the journey takes about an hour and a half, with tickets costing around 300 rubles (3.21 euros); to Poronaysk and Uglegorsk, it’s four to five hours and 1200 rubles (12.85 euros) for a ticket. You can check the current schedule on avtovokzaly.ru. But it’s always better to double-check by phone: +7 (4242) 72-25-53. The address of the bus station is Karl Marx Street, 51b.

Airplane. Sakhalin has a quite extensive network of airports, and you can fly from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to Okha, Zonalnoye, Shakhtyorsk, Poronaysk, Smirnykh, Yuzhno-Kurilsk, and Iturup. Flights are operated by the Far Eastern airlines ‘Aurora’ and ‘Taiga’. These routes are served by small propeller planes Bombardier and Mi-8 helicopters. Such a flight is an interesting experience in itself. Moreover, some flights are quite inexpensive. For example, to Zonalnoye, Shakhtyorsk, and Poronaysk, tickets cost 2000–3000 rubles (21.42 – 32.12 euros) one way. To Okha and the Kurils – from 6000 rubles (64.25 euros).

Ferry. From Korsakov, ferries run to different settlements in the Kurils every three to four days. The ferry to Kurilsk takes about 22 hours, to Yuzhno-Kurilsk – 22–30 hours, and to Malokurilskoye – about 40 hours. Interestingly, a ticket to any of these settlements costs from 2800 rubles (29.98 euros), available on the website of the ferry company.

How to get there

By plain. To travel to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk from Europe, passengers typically fly through major transit hubs. Common routes involve flying from a European city to one of the major Russian airports offering direct flights to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, such as Moscow’s Sheremetyevo or Domodedovo airports. In 2023 it is only possible to fly to Moscow from major transit hubs such as Istanbul or Erevan. From there, travelers can catch one of the direct flights to the island. Some routes might also include stops or transfers in other large cities in Russia or Asia, depending on the airline and the flight itinerary, for instance, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Chita, Blagoveshchensk, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Sovetskaya Gavan, and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. There is even one international flight from Harbin, China.

In good weather, on approach to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, you can see the Tatar Strait, the Western Ridge, and the city itself. The airport is located within the city limits, and from there, you can easily reach any point by public transport (buses 63 and 3) or taxi.

In good weather, during the approach to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, you can see the Tatar Strait, the Western Ridge, and the city itself
In good weather, during the approach to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, you can see the Tatar Strait, the Western Ridge, and the city itself

Ferry. Vanino (Khabarovsk Krai) to Kholmsk (Sakhalin). Passenger tickets for the ferry are sold at the Vanino railway station or at the ticket office in Kholmsk (Lenin Square, 5). They can also be reserved by phone: +7 (42137) 74088 (Vanino), +7 (42433) 50880 (Kholmsk). The ferries run daily, with a journey time of 18–20 hours. A seat costs 650 rubles (6.96 euros), while the cheapest cabin spot is 1400 rubles (14.99 euros). There is a dining room on board.

When to Go

I was on the island in early May, and this has its pros and cons. On one hand, it’s already not very cold in Sakhalin at this time, and you can walk around in a light jacket or sweatshirt, and sometimes even just in a T-shirt. At the end of spring, you can catch the largest number of Steller sea lions in Nevelsk (closer to summer they migrate towards Avacha Bay). Also at this time, you can see the forest awakening: streams penetrate it from all sides, in their floodplains swamp callas bloom, meadows fill with primroses, and the hills are covered with bright green bamboo shoots. On the other hand, there is still snow in the mountains, in which you can get stuck while climbing, and the sea, which is not very warm in these areas, is completely unsuitable for swimming.

In summer, Sakhalin is not very hot, the coast blooms with wild roses, the sea warms up a bit, and there is less chance of bad weather when visiting remote attractions. Also, it’s precisely at this time you can see orcas (June – July) and whales (July – August), as well as the salmon spawning.

In winter, snowboarders and skiers come to Sakhalin. The mountains on the island are not high, so they are suitable even for beginners.

In summer, Sakhalin is not very hot, the coast blooms with wild roses, the sea warms up a bit, and there is less chance of bad weather when visiting remote attractions. Photo: Michail Dementiev / Unsplash.com
In summer, Sakhalin is not very hot, the coast blooms with wild roses, the sea warms up a bit, and there is less chance of bad weather when visiting remote attractions. Photo: Michail Dementiev / Unsplash.com

Text and photo: Maria Vorobyeva
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