Neither of my planned day-trips from Yuzho-Sakhalinsk came off. But they worked out okay just the same.
The trip to the north to see Russia’s ugliest city and northern Sakhalin was foiled because the bus schedule was created by a peanut. Or perhaps something even stupider. The train arrives at 11:37 (Russian trains are remarkably on time, as a rule). But the bus timetable has the bus north leaving at 11:00.
Now I don’t know. Maybe the bus is full of people going north at 11:00. And maybe it isn’t. But it does seem a little bit silly to have the bus head off a full 37 minutes before a train that could have lots of potential passengers on it arrives.
And, Russia being Russia, it is impossible to find out the bus schedule before you leave on the train. I mean, who would you call? It is not as if there is a tourism bureau. And would they help you at the train station? Not on your nelly.
My alternative means of transport north were the world’s slowest railroad (which several locals didn’t know about when I asked them, and the ones who did said that it had long since ceased to run), and a private minibus (or mikriki – with the demise of public transport, many bus services are run by private individuals in vans from South Korea, many of which still have South Korean painted all over them) was not going that way today (although I was told later than they frequently did).
So I could have spent a night in my little decrepit mining town and waited for the bus. But in the end I decided to race back to Yuzho-Sakhalinsk and head out camping in the south-east of the island. Russia’s ugliest city was not that much of a draw anyway.
Oh happy day, on the train I ended up in a compartment with a guy who lives in the ugliest city in Russia (although I hear there is another contender in the far North-west that I might be able to go see). He works in the vegetable business, but he also moonlights sometimes as a guide.
We talked about many things (we had 14 hours, after all, even if some of them were spent sleeping). Key things were that a cyclone was coming that promised bad weather for the next few days. And that he would be pleased to have me as his guest in Okha any time I liked, where he would delight in having me stay at his house and come out with him on a tramp (they call it trekking) to see the delights of northern Sakhalin.
He said that bears up there are particularly numerous. And deer (which I assume means reindeer – like with antlers and stuff). And fish (of course). I told him I was not into hunting. But looking at bears would be quite cool. He told me that this was certainly possible. And that on one occasion he had gone out for a walk and see no less than six bears in one go. How cool would that be?
We arrive in Yuzho-Sakhalinsk this morning. I whip out my SAS survival guide (which tells me how to use cloud patterns to predict the weather), and it confirms what my guide, and the papers already say. It is going to be wet.
So I am faced with a stark choice. Run off down to the south-east (nice lakes, right beside the sea, amber washed up there, seals (in season)), lie in my tent and listen to the rain falling. Good fishing though, in bad weather.
Or head off back to the ferry terminal, cruise across to the mainland, use the couple of days I thus gain against my plan to good effect, and come back to Sakhalin sometime with more time.
A fairly simple choice.
So now I am sitting(!) in a queue in Kholmsk waiting for a ticket on the ferry. Remember last time I waited for 8 hours? This time does not appear to be any different. Same moronic system. Then once I get the ferry, I will have to queue again at the train station to get a ticket for the train. No wonder Russians are good at waiting for things to happen.
Oh, the reason I am sitting is something I forgot to mention in the post on queues. There is another technique when queues are long and slow – someone pulls out a pen and paper and suggests writing a list. The positions are numbered (from 1 – the person at the front of the queue – to 47 – the person who is unlikely to get served till evening – in our case, although there seemed to be about 20 numbers unused in the middle for some reason), and people write their names against where they are in the queue.
What this means is that everyone can go off and do something else (with the exception of the first few) and not worry about losing their spot. Using the other method (asking the person in front to hold your place for you) is risky if that person goes away somewhere, you see. The list method avoids that problem.
Yuzho-Sakhalinsk is not a bad sort of town. Everyone is very friendly (a bit of a shock after the rest of Russia). There did not seem to be any sort of foreigner pricing on the hotels, and no problem with accepting foreigners either. I even got a smile from the icecream seller just outside the hotel. Unheard of.
Plus it has a few endearing touches of soviet times still. Like great big murals on the sides of apartment buildings with idealised pictures of the happy soviet sailor, soldier and peasant. And old soviet ads (“the harder we work, the better we live”) that seem a little ironic somehow. And I am not sure that I would want to live in an apartment building with the words “Glory to the workers” in big red letters on top. Still, maybe the rent is cheaper.
Yuzho-Sakhalinsk improved immeasurably in my book when I found the internet cafe (even if I had to go back twice to deal with all the email you had all sent me). Now if only it had an English language bookstore.
Speaking of bookstores, one thing you can not do on Sakhalin is buy maps (despite what the guidebook says). At first I thought the woman who told me there were no maps was just being typically obstructive. But after searching high and low, I think she may have been right, so I hearby publicly apologise for criticising her (even if it was only in my head).
A guy I met said it was a big soviet hangover. They were so afraid that spies might somehow get hold of maps that they did not make them. Or at least, did not make them for anyone but the military. Apparently, even if you do find maps, they are often pre-World War II and therefore pretty useless.
Ironically, the people with the best maps of Russia are the United States Department of Defence, who sell them freely to all comers on the Internet. Don’t tell the Russians eh?