I’d never heard of the town of Korsakov or the island of Sakhalin, but our time there proved to be memorable. The visit to this Russian community in the spring of 2019 was a stop on our Viking Ocean Cruise From the Far East to Alaska.
The trip which began in Hong Kong and ended in Vancouver included numerous major tourist attractions in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Alaska. But the cruise also included visits to less traveled locations in Far East Russia and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. These visits broadened our knowledge and gave us insight into some unfamiliar regions.
The lonely island of Sakhalin, home to to approximately 500,000 residents is only 25 miles north of Japan. The town of Korsakov was originally a Russian penal colony whose unsavory atmosphere was chronicled by the famous Russian novelist Anton Chekhov.
In lectures prior to our visit and during the time we spent there, we learned that the island was sometimes ruled by Russia and other times under the rule of Japan. The Japanese controlled half of the island, including the capitol of Korsakov, from 1905 until 1945 as a result of the 1905 Russian – Japanese War. Russia recaptured it at the end of World War II. The Japanese built the harbor and much of downtown Korsakov.
A visit to this remote island gives one the sense of what isolation is in this cold dreary area. The new housing is generally occupied by residents employed by the area’s gas drilling companies. Visitors are taken to see Victory Square with its classic Russian military statues and a Russian Orthodox Church. Our guide told us why the population we saw there seemed young. The government offers incentives to move there and the area is filled with folks that enjoy the opportunity to participate in the many winter sports.
Our tour included a visit to the regional Sakhalin Museum which was actually constructed by the Japanese in 1937. We saw exhibits related to the history of the region.
After leaving Sakalin Island and spending a full day at sea, the 900 passenger Viking Orion docked at the southern tip of the Kamchtka Peninsula in Far Eastern Russia. This area is reportedly the home of Russia’s Pacific submarine fleet.
Our visit included a day in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. The town is surrounded by spectacular volcanoes which give the city a stark and dramatic beauty and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town was found by the famous Danish explorer Vitus Bering who is honored with a statue and monuments throughout the area,
There is also an impressive monument commemorating the siege of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky during the Crimean War. This is the only battle the Russians won in this war.
We visited the recently completed Trinity Chapel, a classic Russian Orthodox Church with white walls and gold domes on a hill overlooking the city, Local residents told me that it is the go-to-place during the frequent earthquakes as it was designed to withstand the many tremors.
The Military History Museum which we visited was founded in 1959, and is the largest of its kind in northeast Russia. Its exhibits showcase the military history of the area from the founding of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky until the present. The museum was not designed with an eye toward foreign visitors, so the exhibits were presented in Russian. A local guide spoke with us in Russian and our Viking guide translated for us
The town square contains huge statues, one of Lenin, another of three bears. Bears outnumber people in this region.
Dutch Harbor Alaska
After sailing across the Bearing Sea, we docked at Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a small (population 4761) fishing village on tiny Unalaska Island in the Aleutians. The town does not offer the spectacular Alaskan scenery we would see a few days later, but it provides a great sense of life in this remote barren region. We stopped at Alaska Ship Supply, the area’s only general store which sells everything from fishing tackle to washers. Bald eagles perched on the store’s roof and most everywhere else in town.
The Museum of the Aleutians, was fascinating, showcasing the area’s history and the Aleut or native people. We learned that the indigenous population was virtually enslaved by the Russians who arrived in the 1750’s. United States citizenship was conferred on the people when Alaska became part of the United States, but during World War II they were forcefully evacuated and sent to camps in Southeastern Alaska.
At the World War II Museum, we learned that Dutch Harbor became a major military base which was bombed by the Japanese during World War II. The United States expected a major invasion at Dutch Harbor, but it never happened. But Dutch Harbor was the launching point for the recapture of the few Aleutian Islands occupied by the Japanese.
These visits off the beaten path arranged by Viking provided enlightening insights into life in less traveled parts of the world.