Once I got over some of the initial culture shock of moving to Russia, it became time to explore my new home! I started by walking around the neighbourhood quite a bit. Even though I haven’t learned any Russian yet, it turned out to be a huge help that I can read Cyrillic. There are actually quite a few English cognates, I learned as I walked around and saw signs saying things like салон (salon), ресторан (restaurant), or супермаркет (supermarket). I went to the supermarket by myself and bought several things which I then had to go back and ask my flatmate what I had bought. For the most part, I got it all right, except I apparently bought “sugar for women” instead of regular sugar. What is “sugar for women”? Who knows?
I also found a nearby café where I could get wifi while I was waiting for the wifi in my flat to be set up. I spent a lot of time there my first week and started to get to know the barista, who, as luck would have it, speaks English! She saved me from having to stumble through an order in a mix of very mispronounced Russian and confusing hand gestures which I was very grateful for.
Another day, I walked down to Gagarin Park which is sort of the “Central Park” of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. It’s a really beautiful area with plenty of walking trails and a beautiful pond in the middle. There’s lots of things to do in the park such as a ferris wheel and work out equipment and those little swan boats things. While the weather’s still nice, I imagine I might spend quite a bit of time here 🙂Gagarin Park
The day after that, Olga invited me to go sightseeing with her. Since she was leaving soon, she had to pack in everything she wanted to see in Sakhalin. We walked through the city together and bought some ice cream to enjoy, then headed up the road at the eastern edge of the city. There’s a new cathedral that was still being built there but it’s quite impressive.
According to Olga, the dome is solid gold, but I’m not sure I believe that. Next to the church was some sort of museum, so we decided to check it out. It turned out that this was a museum about the Soviet-Japanese part of WW2 and it was opening for the first time that day. Only the ground floor was open so it was a free guided tour that was supposed to last 5 to 10 minutes. Our guide apparently took a shine to us though because I think our tour was at least 45 minutes long. It was really fascinating, especially because that part of the war isn’t mentioned much. Seeing wartime pictures of Sakhalin was interesting too. Part of the exhibit was artefacts and the other part was recreation of the Battle of Shumshu, which took place on one of the nearby Kuril Islands. It’s very well done and it’s incredibly unsettling to be staring down the barrel of a rifle or just feel a part of the battle scene. It’s good at showing the horrors of war.
Recreation of Soviet soldiers landing on the beach of Shumshu under Japanese fire
Following that, Olga and I made our way through Gagarin Park to the zoo on the North side of it. We got into the zoo for the equivalent of about $5 US. I was surprised by the number of animals there, including a lion and a tiger and many others. Overall, I do have to say it was a bit sad and the incredibly small cages for some of the animals was heartbreaking. But I must admit that it was better than I expected of a $5 zoo in Russia.
A bear lazing about at the zoo
On Friday night, I was lying in bed at 9:30 (I had nothing better to do, okay?) when I was suddenly startled by a loud pop. I thought it must be a car backfiring, but then there was another one and another and more and more and I sat cowering, thinking that some sort of gang warfare must have just erupted in my neighbourhood. It kept going, so I thought there’s no way it’s gunfire unless I’m in a literal warzone, so I very timidly crept to the window and saw bright flashes across the sky. I was so confused until I suddenly remembered that it was September 2, the anniversary of the end of the Soviet-Japanese War and when Sakhalin was returned to Russia. They were just fireworks.
Olga moved out that Friday and I started teaching my classes. On Sunday, being by myself, I decided to hike up the nearby ski mountain, Gorny Vozdukh. Now normally when I choose to go on a hike, I look up different trails and reviews and try to figure out which way I want to go, but I had decided that it was probably all in Russian anyway, so I didn’t bother. Instead I looked up on Google Maps the route to the top. Now normally the good thing about Google Maps is that it takes you on the most direct route to your destination. However, that’s not always a good thing when hiking. I was surprised to see it was only 2.5 miles (4 km) from my front door so I thought it would just be an easy hike, no big deal. So I walked the first 1.5 mi to the base of the mountain and then started climbing. I didn’t realise this at the time, but Gorny Vozdukh is almost 2,000 ft tall (601 m), so in that last 1 mile I was going straight up. And oh man did it hurt. As I neared the top, my straight up route crossed the route that actually had switchbacks so I gratefully took that for the last sixteenth mile. Now when I set out to climb this mountain, one of the main reasons I did so was to get a great view of the city and a great picture for Facebook.
Unfortunately by the time I got up, the whole mountaintop was covered in clouds. Instead I relaxed at the top, which was surprisingly crowded. Everyone else, being smarter than I, had simply taken a cable car up. There’s a nice cafe at the top so I ordered a latte and something I randomly pointed to on the menu. It ended up being plov, a rice dish that’s like our pilaf. It was a good meal.
I set back out down the mountain so that I could get my picture just below the clouds. Now because I am not a smart man who learns his lesson easily, I decided to go back down exactly the way I came up, even though I know going down a steep area is often worse than going up. I did manage to get some pictures, but by the time I got home, my legs truly hated me.
On my way to the mountain, I passed by the cathedral again and there were tons of people there and screens broadcasting the inside. It turned out that this was the day it was opening so there was a big ceremony and the head of the Russian Orthodox church was there to bless it and the governor of our oblast was in attendance with some other important people. It was really interesting, even though I couldn’t understand it. On my way back when I was passing, I guess the ceremony had just ended because policemen stopped me from crossing the road next to it as a large motorcade left the church and drove away.
On Wednesday night, my friend from the cafe invited me out with her friends. She had rounded up several people she knew who spoke English. I agreed to go with them at 10pm even though I didn’t really want to go since it was late for a old timer like me and it was a pretty cold day that day. Since I still haven’t really acclimatized back from Texas summer, I put on my thermal underwear to brave the 12°C/53°F weather. I met up with my friend and one of her friends who had actually lived in Kamloops, BC, for a bit and we walked to another friend’s house, who didn’t actually speak English. And then continued and picked up a last friend, who teaches English. Together the five of us made our way through the city, stopping at a convenience store for some snacks, and then we walked part way up Gorny Vozdukh (from a much more forgiving path) and sat on top of an old bridge to watch the abundant stars, though hidden by some clouds, and the twinkling city lights. They had brought hot tea which we shared along with cookies and chocolate. It was a lot of fun actually.
And then around 1am, a bright light caught my eye. The green flash of a meteor suddenly appeared over the city. It burned bright for a few seconds as it moved through the sky and then flashed and disappeared. It was the most magical thing I’ve ever seen. I wished I had pulled out my phone to take a picture to show everyone, but its fleetingness somehow made it more beautiful, like it was something special meant only for us that chilly Summer night.