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About 17 hours after we leave Japan, Orion II was tying up at the small Russian port of Korsakov on the island of Sakhalin. Despite girls in traditional dress waiting at the bottom of the gangway with bread and vodka it looks too much like a Soviet village that hasn’t seen a paintbrush since the Wall came down two decades ago.

Fortunately, we aren’t staying in Korsakov at all as there are buses to take us to the much more vibrant city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. There we visit a museum with an interesting display of stuffed animals we are likely to see along the voyage – and an indecipherable display to early Soviet cosmonauts.  The local bears are huge, like grizzlies, and are daunting, even when stuffed. We learn that they are a threat in winter and up to 15 people were killed by them in the winter before last.

Sakhalin is in the middle of an oil boom and it shows in the style of cars on the streets and the new shopping malls. At Gagarin Park (what’s with the cosmonaut theme?) we observe a folk dancing display. The tour is made delightful by the candid and often funny commentary by Valeria, our local guide. It’s touching that she loves her island so much that, one time when she was moving away, she simply turned back at the airport and returned home.

Of course there’s the chance to buy vodka and caviar and, just as inevitably, there are stern immigration officers who check, double check and triple check our passports and visas on and off the ship.

By 8pm we’re ready to sail. While the day in town is just like any summer day in any Siberian town, it’ll be good to reach the spectacular wilderness that lies ahead of us.

Words by: David McGonigal

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