When I arrived in Japan in January ’08, following the journey through Southeast Asia and China, it felt like a holiday. Everything seemed to function in this orderly and fair, democratic society. Now I awaken to new cultures, face new challenges. The holiday is over.
I spent a few days preparing in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, though I still need to sort through my stuff and do some customisation of my bike in order to carry the extra gear needed for the winter. I found a good map of the island, which was harder than one would imagine, but it was a relief because my contingency plan was to use 65-year-old US military maps of eastern Siberia (compiled from the Japanese Imperial Land Survey of 1928-32). They were the only maps I could find of the region, downloaded from the University of Texas archive.
I stocked up with enough food for a week. My appearance plainly proved that I wasn’t native, though judging the way store security shadowed me, it failed to demonstrate that I wasn’t a petty thief. I found people uncongenial. The hotel staff warned me it was unsafe to go out at night. In the context from where I’d come, the city felt insecure and bleak. I had no idea what I was heading into. I missed Japan, my friends, and wished I could be back, just one more day.
Sakhalin remains an historical sore point for Japan, as its lower portion and the neighbouring Kuril Islands were once Japanese territory, but seized by the Soviet Union at the conclusion of WWII. Despite its close proximity, there seemed to be little interest for Japanese to visit Russian territory.
If Sakhalin remained part of Japan, I would imagine it to be a popular tourist destination. Fishing villages would dot the coast and the seafood would be prized throughout the nation. Families would travel from the south in the new year to bathe in onsens at luxurious Ryokans. The mountainous areas would be designated national park, detailed topographical maps would be available, and ferry loads of outdoor enthusiasts would come to explore the wilderness.
The Sakhalin I now travel is another place. Except for the odd, ramshackle, pre-war structure pocking trough the snow like a shattered tombstone, I fail to see the slightest historical evidence of the 400,000 Japanese that once lived here. Whatever I have ahead of me, it’s not going to be onsens and sashimi.
It took the afternoon to escape the city, skidding and fishtailing over rippled ice and loose snow—a lot of it treacherous and unridable. I felt sick, unconditioned, sweating under my thermal clothing, the pungent stench of burning coal permeating through the city, and vehicles rattling narrowly past in a whirl of snow drift and diesel exhaust.
I headed south-west, far enough away to camp. About an hour out I came to a cross-country ski park. I pushed my bike through the dense snow to a secluded area. As I pulled out my camcorder for the first time, a snowmobile showed up towing a group of rowdy, teenage snowboarders. They crowded around my bike and harassed me for almost an hour. I couldn’t setup camp or change into my snow boots, until they left, because I had my camcorder hidden on top of my gear and, perhaps unfairly, I feared visitors in the night. This lingering inactivity caused superficial frostbite and blistering on one toe. I cursed my foolishness, since taking care of my hands and feet must be my top priority in this punishing environment. The next two days I travelled over the mountains to the west coast and suffered severe exhaustion and nausea from lack of fitness and dehydration. They were tough first days.