Sakhalin is a large Russian island in the North Pacific Ocean, lying between 45°50' and 54°24' N. It is Russia's largest island, and is administered as part of Sakhalin Oblast. Sakhalin, which is about one fifth the size of Japan, is just off the east coast of Russia, and just north of Japan. The indigenous peoples of the island are the Ainu, Oroks and Nivkhs. Formerly under Chinese control in earlier centuries, Sakhalin has been claimed by both Russia and Japan over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. This has led to bitter disputes between the two countries over control of the island. Russia seized the island from the Japanese near the end of World War II. Most Ainu moved to Hokkaidō when the Japanese were displaced from the island in 1949.
Sakhalin is separated from the mainland by the narrow and shallow Strait of Tartary, which often freezes in winter in its narrower part, and from Hokkaidō, (Japan) by the Soya Strait or La Pérouse Strait. Sakhalin is the largest island in Russia, being 948 kilometres long, and 25 to 170 kilometres wide, with an area of 72,492 km2. Nearly two-thirds of Sakhalin is mountainous. Two parallel ranges of mountains traverse it from north to south, reaching 600-1,500 metres. The Western Sakhalin Mountains peak in Mount Ichara, 1,481 metres, while the Eastern Sakhalin Mountains's highest peak, Mount Lopatin 1,609 metres, is also the island's highest mountain. Tym-Poronaiskaya Valley separates the two ranges. Susuanaisky and Tonino-Anivsky ranges traverse the island in the south, while the swampy Northern-Sakhalin plain occupies most of its north.
The Sea of Okhotsk ensures Sakhalin has a cold and humid climate, ranging from humid continental in the south to subarctic in the centre and north. The maritime influence makes summers much cooler than in similar-latitude inland cities such as Harbin or Irkutsk, but makes the winters much more snowy and a few degrees warmer than in interior East Asian cities at the same latitude.
In winter the average temperature ranges from a bearable -6 °C in the south to a bone chilling -24 °C in the north, while temperatures as cold as -54 °C have been reported. In the summer temperature rarely exceeds +19 °C, often much cooler and floating ice can be observed around the island, even in the height of summer.
Precipitation is heavy, owing to the strong onshore winds in summer and the high frequency of North Pacific storms affecting the island in the autumn. It ranges from around 500 millimetres on the northwest coast to over 1,200 millimetres in southern mountainous regions. In contrast to interior east Asia with its pronounced summer maximum, onshore winds ensure Sakhalin has year-round precipitation with a peak in autumn.
The airport in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk has connections not only to major cities in the Russian Far East, but also flights to Japan, South Korea and China several times per week. If you are dubious about flying with a Russian airline, the only other option is the weekly Asiana flight from Seoul, South Korea.
There is a single passenger ferry route connecting the mainland with Sakhalin. There is a daily ferry service between Vanino on the mainland, and Kholmsk on the island's western coast. Vanino is linked with the rest of the Russian railway network by a daily service to Vladivostok, with stops in Komsomolsk and Khabarovsk en route. In the summer months another option is a Japanese operated ferry service linking Korsakov on the shore of Aniva Bay, at the southern tip of the island, with Wakkanai on the northern tip of Hokkaido.
SAT Airlines (Sakhalinskie Aviatrassy), the island's native carrier, operates daily flights between its main hub in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and the oil hub Okha in the northern part of Sakhalin. They also fly to the small town of Shakhtyorsk (3 times a week) located in the middle of the island. Tickets can be booked online.
Services are scattered and infrequent, but a daily train (#001/#002) connecting Nogilky and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk remains the main mode of transport between the south and north part of the island.
Various trains depart daily for Korsakov at 5:30am, 1:45pm and 7:44pm except on public holidays.
Short trips are mainly done by bus. On the southern part of the island road conditions are fairly good, and many destinations can be easily reached from the bus terminal in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, offering departures for the ports of Korsakov and Kholmsk every 30-60 minutes throughout most of the day, Nevel'sk six times daily, Makarov once daily, and several other smaller cities at varying intervals.
The cuisine on Sakhalin is largely influenced by the traditional Russian cuisine, and in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk a wide variety of international restaurants is available. But for some local color in your meal, dive into the seafood! Freshly caught fish from the rivers - especially salmon - are widely available in season, and often dirt cheap. Look for 'Крабы' (Crab), 'Копченый лосось' (Smoked salmon), 'Корюшка жареная' (Fried Smelt) and Красная икра (Red caviar) on the menu to sample some of the islands delicious seafood. Up north, you can try the indigenous cuisine of the Nivkh tribe which also features fish, but in interesting varieties such as dried (madjir-ma/юкола) and iced fish (kyn-cho/строганина), and also seal, reindeer, and bear meat with mushrooms and wild berries like Crowberries (yghygh-alrh/шикша) and Blueberries (Голубика)
Yuzhno-Sakhalin, due to its large population of stranded Sakhalin Koreans, reputedly has very good Korean cuisine.
The Kolos brewery in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk makes some excellent beers, particularly their Bir Rinzo and Pivzavod Sahalinskij, but in the newly acquired Russian tradition, they pump out 10 other brands from their hoses as well, and serve them on their own brewpub on the brewery grounds on Sakhalinskaya Street. Interestingly Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is not the only city with its own beer – almost every major town on the island, despite their modest size, has a local brewery.
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