Back in mid October before the snow had arrived, I took a trip up the east coast of Sakhalin Island heading north from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk along the Sea of Okhotsk. I was accompanied by four Russian friends who had suggested the trip, the purpose of which was to “buy a crab” and, as it turned out, to get completely plastered in the back of my Landcruiser.
There is a town north of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk called Pereval’naya situated at the thinnest part of the island (click for bigger map).
There is almost nothing in this town save a collection of collapsing wooden houses huddled beneath a mountain and the odd belching chimney, but in certain times of year it is possible to buy king crabs from babushkas sitting on stools at the side of the road.
They sell in Pereval’naya for about $12 each; in fancy restaurants in Japan, they sell for over $100. The ones you see in the picture above have been freshly hoiked out of the water and cooked immediately and are on sale ready for eating. They are horrible looking things with evil spikes along their legs which makes them pretty difficult to eat. Perhaps that’s the idea. I wouldn’t fancy encountering one in my bath, but I had been assured that they are very tasty and it was well worth the trip to buy a few. Sakhalin Island may look small on a map against the enormity of Russia, but it’s about 900km top to bottom, and the drive between Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Pereval’naya is along a bumpy single carriage road and takes about 2 hours each way.
So my four friends and I bundled into my Toyota and off we went. Two minutes later we had stopped whilst the Russians ran into a kiosk and came back clutching armfuls of beer bottles and packets of kalmari (dried squid). I was driving so laid off the beer, but the rest were not so restrained and guzzled it back with such enthusiasm that by the time we got to the halfway point at Dolinsk they all piled out into another kiosk and came back with a second load. Unfortunately, this meant there were several toilet stops along the way and by the time we arrived in Pereval’naya it was getting quite boisterous inside the car.
Nevertheless, we arrived in the town and the Russians set about securing the best deal they could get for a couple of king crabs. Once the purchase had been made, we set off up the road to find a quiet spot where we could sit and eat them, and after a couple of miles found a place near some woods which had a little stream running by. The sun was out, but it wasn’t too warm as the picture below shows.
Once we found the place, it was time to eat.
Eating the things wasn’t easy. For starters, the meat in the legs is protected by the very hard and spiky shell whch was hard to get a grip on and dug painfully into your hands in the cold. Watching the others, I learned to bite the shell along its length and suck out the meat, along with a lod of salt water and occasionally sand. Once I got the hang of it, is was pretty good. Very good, in fact. They were right about it being tasty.
On the way back, I stopped to take some photos. These were taken just south of Pereval’naya.
As we drove further south towards Donlinsk, the topography changed and in the light of the sunset could almost have passed for African savanah. It certainly didn’t look like Russia.
Yet further on, the sea started to encroach on the land making a series of wetlands that the road crossed near to the beach.
It was just a bit further south from this point that a militiaman hiding behind a hedge pulled me over for speeding. I was doing 54kph in a 40 zone, just as the limit changed to enter a village. My Ossetian friend was sitting in the front passeneger seat, and said he’d deal with it. Two of the other Russians were laughing in the back seat, clearly drunk. The last one had the seat leant all the way back and was fast asleep. The militiaman came over and I wound down the window, and I noticed the row of gold teeth and unkempt uniform which was missing buttons. He wasn’t alone, he had couple of his mates lying about in a UAZ jeep a bit further back. He asked for my usual documentation, and made a very funny face when he saw my international driving license. Clearly he’d never seen one before, and this caused everyone in the car to start laughing at his confusion. Then he told me I’d been speeding, at which point the Ossetian leaned over and offered him a beer. The policeman found this quite funny, but declined. Then the Ossetian told him his radar gun obviously wasn’t working, and the policeman gave us a little demonstration to show that it was. The Ossetian was grinning from ear to ear, even when I got ordered out of the car and told to accompany the militiaman to the jeep. The Ossetian came with me, as my translator. After a couple of minutes of him talking with the folks in the jeep, then a few whispers with the militiaman who pulled us over, we were on our way again with the Ossetian 200 Roubles lighter (about $7), and that was that.
All in all, it was an enlightening glimpse into several aspects of Russian culture, and I am sure there will be more entertaining trips in the future.