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Trip 20 -- Asia, Cold and Hot

Part 3: Minus thirty-two (Russia)

Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is a thin strip of a city nestled between mountains near the southern part of Sakhalin island, itself a relatively thin strip, in eastern Russia. It's not as far north as it seems; it's about the same latitude as Quebec City. It's a vague grid system with two parallel north-south streets, Lenin Street and Prospekt Mira; the train station is just off the former, with overnight journeys to Nogliki three-quarters of the way up the island.

The airport bus let me off in the city center. It was snowing lightly and well below freezing, but there was a calm joy in the air, enhanced by the impending start of the Children of Asia Games. Over the next few days, I'd see teams from various countries excitedly tramping through the snow as they headed to and from competitions in skiing, snowboarding, figure skating, and hockey.

I wore an undershirt, a thin sweater, a fleece sweater, a winter coat, long underwear (this was a first for me), gloves, a hat, and a scarf. This would be my costume for my week in Russia. The Yubileynaya hotel looked to be two blocks away on the map, but these were Soviet-style blocks, and it took twenty minutes to reach from the square.

I'd booked a basic room, but the one they gave me was so big it took me thirty seconds to find the bed. The suite was three rooms wide and included a bar area, two bathrooms, a hot tub, a painting of a piano with a candelabrum and flowers -- did they know me? -- and a sign saying, "Dear Guests! Keeping and eating seafood in the room is prohibited! The fine of 1500 rubles is charged. You may use a guest room in the sauna."

The hotel was on the fringes of Gagarin Park, the home of ice and snow sculptures in these winter months: a locomotive, a series of zodiac symbols, cartoonish children's characters. A baby carriage was parked outside a teal-topped white orthodox church. The park was populated with parents, grandmothers, children, students, young lovers, and dogs. It was expansive and a good part of it was forest. I stopped at one of the indoor kiosks for a hot chocolate.

Across from the park was a takeout beer bar where I tried a local semi-dark ale but, more importantly, the friendly purveyor lamented a chronic shortage of change and was happy to take my 300 Russian coins in exchange for paper money.

On the road to the hotel was a complex housing a Japanese restaurant and a tourist office. Sakhalin has changed hands a few times, and it was jointly owned by Russia and Japan from 1855 to 1875. The southern tip of Sakhalin is only about 25 miles from Hokkaido, and an off-again, on-again ferry service links the two.

I walked into the tourist office, optimistically hoping for a blurry old photocopied map that might contain some outdated hiking routes. So imagine my surprise when they handed me, free of charge, a beautiful 248-page guidebook, "Sakhalin and the Kurils," with color photographs, history, and fun facts. Thanks to a fold-out quiz I discovered the Kurils' most dangerous plant (ipritka, a type of poison sumac) and the maximum weight of a Sakhalin oyster's shell (1.5 kilograms). The book told me which lakes were best for catching different kinds of carp and salmon and how to buy the best fresh caviar (not before June, not if the eggs are wrinkled, and not if it smells like herring or doesn't smell at all). I'd seldom seen a guidebook that was so fun to read and full of the unexpected. It was the second edition of the book, "approved for publication on January 11, 2019" -- less than a month before my arrival.

I had dinner at a Georgian restaurant, Tiflis, one of those dressy places with a violinist who finished her set right on schedule as I walked in. I ordered far too much food, but the names of Georgian dishes always sound so compelling: satsivi (one of my favorite Georgian foods, chicken in a creamy walnut sauce), djondjolly (a kind of pickled flower), chashushuli (veal stew with tomatoes), tkemali (berry sauce), and lobiany (pie with kidney beans). And, of course, khrenovukha, translated in English on the menu as "hooch with horseradish and honey."

The train station in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk had an obnoxious security screening, which was required just to buy tickets or even browse schedules. They were more interested than most airports in the contents of my backpack, especially the several hundred coins I had remaining. Everything had to come out. I left the bulk of my belongings at the left-luggage office in the station and took the train 75 minutes south to Korsakov, the port that sometimes sees boats carrying passengers to Wakkanai in Japan.

Korsakov was having its own celebration of the Children of Asia Games, with costumed performers in vivid blue-green and orange dresses and heavy coats singing modern Russian pop to pre-recorded accompaniment outside in the main square. Parents pulled children on sleds. Others filmed the performances or shuffled along to keep warm. The temperature may have been below zero, but with the sun shining and no wind, and all my layers, Sakhalin was more comfortable than a cold, windy day in New York.

I went inside for a lunch of dumplings and then entered the Alfa hotel in the hopes of staying the night, but it seemed expensive and they didn't seem interested in offering the signed discounted rate if I came back to check in after six that evening. I wandered up the hill overlooking the town, where there's a great viewpoint of aptly named Salmon Bay and the shipping industry. On the way I stumbled upon a hotel that looked to be abandoned but was actually quite open and friendly, so I checked into a room with a single bed bearing sheets with pictures of pit bulls and the words "Be my friend!" in English. There were supposedly the remains of a Japanese shrine nearby, but I couldn't find them and the various people I asked knew nothing of them.

Korsakov was the site of an important battle in the Russo-Japanese War, and the local history museum had an interesting exhibit on the German-built Russian reconnaissance ship Novik, which had been confined by the Japanese to Port Arthur in Manchuria until it broke free and came to Korsakov in August 1904. The ship was damaged beyond repair during the battle, but not before a standoff with the Japanese ship Tsushima. The Japanese later salvaged the Novik and it had a brief stint as a coastal defense ship.

Back in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, I booked one more night at the Yubileynaya, but I didn't receive an upgrade to the opulence I'd enjoyed before. The hotel was well-situated as a base to climb to the ski resort known as Gorny Vozdukh, "mountain air." I hiked up the deceptively long access road for great views of the city and the people skiing, and then I descended with the goal of seeing the opening ceremony of the Children of Asia Games. Alas, the walk was too long, and in any case the event was sold out. It may have been a blessing, as it was outdoors and lasted several hours, and based on what I glimpsed of the seating it would have been difficult to leave in the middle. Instead, I went inside the icon-packed Cathedral of the Nativity, with its lovely blue and gold domes, and then I headed back into town, the festivities of the opening ceremony a faint blur of music and cheers.

I took a bus to Kholmsk with the intent of getting a place on a shipping ferry to Vanino on the mainland. The Sasco company does a fairly good job of updating its Web site, indicating the schedules of each of its three ships, but with sailing times of 13 to 17 hours and unpredictable turnaround times based on the amount of cargo, there's really no way to determine when a ship will leave other than "almost every day."

I'd followed the site closely and guessed that a ship would leave sometime late at night on February 10. I went to Kholmsk around noon, where I immediately headed to the ticket office. That being a Sunday, there was no one there, but a sign indicated that a ship would leave at midnight, with tickets going on sale at 9 p.m. There was a slight chance it could sell out, so I made sure to get there early.

I had the whole afternoon, and there's not much to do in Kholmsk, so I took another bus to Nevelsk. The town is named for the admiral Gennady Nevelskoy, who led the 1848 Amur expedition into eastern Russia and Sakhalin. Today, Nevelsk is known for its large population of sea lions. I walked out to a couple of viewpoints in the hopes of seeing them; it was a frustrating walk along the main road, colder and busier than I wanted it to be, and I was weighed down by my heavy bag -- there was no easy place to leave it in town. Eventually I spotted two children walking out along a long patch of snow. I put my bag down for a bit and followed them as closely I could without seeming creepy. I believe I saw the sea lions in the distance, but I'm not really sure. The guidebook says they're visible from March to June, so I was probably too early in the season.

Nevelsk is also near the site where Korean Air flight 7 was shot down by the Russians in 1983. There's a memorial on a side street, which I missed several times due to the heavy snowbanks; a few houses down was the residence of a vicious dog that was none too happy at my invading its territory. Fortunately it was tied up.

I took the bus back to Kholmsk. Kids were coming home from school, walking down impossibly steep shortcuts in the snow. I watched children go down the slide in the main square next to the Sasco ticket office and then headed to the mall next door. On the second floor was a welcoming cafe, where I sat and looked out at the water, joining the teenagers in their custom of eating pizza.

Apart from a long wait for the office to open, there was no problem buying a ticket for the Vanino-Kholmsk line. I was second in line, and I splurged for a "luxe" cabin, 2887 rubles (about $44) -- not bad for 14 hours' travel, a bed, and a basic lunch. It was well after midnight before we were finally bussed to the ship, and it was around 4 a.m. when we departed.

I opened the door to my cabin and stepped into 1956. There were a sofa with large white-and-black flower patterns, a chest with flowery gold and purple inlay, and a worn mattress topped by pillows with similar designs. One pillow was thoughtfully folded into a tetrahedron. Electronics included a bulbous TV set and a rotary telephone with which I could dial any of the extensions listed on the typewritten directory. I had my own bathroom and shower. There were many cabins, but there seemed to be very few passengers, only fifteen or so.

Before leaving Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk I'd loaded up at its fabulous seafood markets. This cabin had no prohibition against eating seafood, so I broke out salmon caviar, king crab, and scallops and had a snack before bed. I slept fitfully. I continued the repast the next day along with the provided lunch of breaded chicken, grits, and peas.

We crossed the Strait of Tartary, called the Gulf of Tartary until Nevelskoy proved that Sakhalin was an island. The passage was calm. As we approached Vanino, we cruised through a thin layer of ice.

It was some of the prettiest ice I'd ever seen. It seemed to resemble a giant map, with rivulets, tributaries, hills, and highways. It was sectioned off into giant parcels with identifying geometric patterns. It was impeccably clean, and when it broke apart, it looked like fondant, good enough to eat. The sun was setting, and it blued the ice in a melancholy way. I could have watched it for hours.

We arrived too late for me to catch the overnight train to Khabarovsk, so I found a hotel across from the station. There were rooms inside the station, too, but they were smoky and crowded. The hotel was an old Soviet-style institution with an attendant and a giant digital clock on each floor. A few doors down was a restaurant that appeared to be closed, but when I went in, I enjoyed a decent meal while being surprised at the English spoken by the two traveling businessmen at the only other occupied table.

Vanino was a pleasant place to spend a day. It had a cemetery with Japanese graves and a green-topped wooden church that looked more Scandinavian than Russian. I took a bus around the bay to the nearby town of Sovetskaya Gavan. I was hoping for better views of the bay, but I was pleased with Sovetskaya Gavan's little museum, featuring old personal effects and photographs, displays of model ships, and an exhibit on the indigenous Nanai people.

Sovetskaya Gavan is the eastern terminus of the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway, but the station is inconveniently located, so most people board in Vanino. The train to Khabarovsk takes just under 24 hours. I slept well and woke up just before dawn at Komsomolsk-na-Amure. The train had a scheduled hour's halt there, so I stepped off for a while.

The temperature was the lowest I'd seen on the trip and the coldest I'd ever experienced: minus 32 degrees Celsius, or about minus 26 Fahrenheit. Two medium-sized friendly dogs, one black and white, one black and brown, were on the platform. The black-and-white one put its paws on the first step up to the train and waited there patiently, as if to ask, "May I please come with you?"

I spent a night in Khabarovsk partly because it was a natural stop on the mainland on the way to China and partly to visit my friend Dasha, whom I'd met almost three years earlier on a ferry from Korea to Vladivostok. Dasha was then a radio DJ at Europa Plus. Now she lived with her one-year-old son and his father, who had won an award for his work at the nearby hookah bar.

Dasha invited me to spend the night. To reach their apartment I had to buzz in at the door, take the elevator, and then follow what seemed to be a ten-minute route around various passageways and up another staircase. Dasha's DJ personality had influenced her speech in the years since we'd met. Everything she said sounded like an announcement; every sentence had distant reserve and seemed to have the sole purpose of leading to the next one.

Her son, Timur, knew only one word, and it sounded like "Ahkenaten." Clearly he will become not a DJ but an expert in Egyptian history. The living room had been taken over by colorful toys, but they were neat and contained. I was running out of clean clothes, and Dasha generously washed my laundry in their machine; then we peppered the apartment with it to dry. At night I visited the celebrated hookah bar while Dasha and Timur slept, and somehow I found my way back through the hallway labyrinth to the apartment while the boy's father finished his shift.

Khabarovsk is less than 15 miles away from the Chinese border but there's no nearby place to cross. As a symbol of the friendship between the two countries, there's a giant statue of a balalaika and a pipa (Chinese lute) on the median in one of the big boulevards. I walked down the long boulevard to the Amur River and visited the extensive regional museum, with its history of the people and fauna of the area, and then spent some quiet time in the hilly waterside park. Before my train down to Ussuriysk, near the border crossing, I took Dasha and Timur out to Pani-Fazani, a wild country-themed brewpub with a resident pig and upstairs aviary that I'd remembered enjoying during my previous time in Khabarovsk, almost three years before.

The overnight train to Ussuriysk left at 8:45 p.m. I headed to the dining car and settled in for some salmon caviar and a small bottle of vodka, a fitting end to this brief time in Russia. I slept well and would have been happy to keep snoozing when we arrived in Ussuriysk before dawn. Instead, I took a bus to the bus station and waited for the two-hour ride to China.

Go on to part 4: Winter wonderland (China)