Driving on a muddy, rain-soaked backroad three hours from the last signpost of Russian civilization, I'm not sure which is more distracting: The dash-deep mud-water sinkholes swallowing my truck every few yards, or the unnervingly close gunshots ringing out from an unseen rifle every few minutes. My self-appointed guide Yura senses my unease. "It is nothing," he assures me in his thick Russian accent.
It's too late to stop and there's no turning around, so I slow down and let the front end of the Isuzu Bighorn (aka Trooper) lurch into the next mud pit. It's deeper than the last, and the hood almost disappears under the brown surface.
Steam bubbles out from under the truck and fogs the windows, dirty water oozes in through the front speakers and soaks our feet, and the truck lurches from side to side as the tires try to bite into something solid. Then another shot rings out, much closer than the last.
On instinct, I put the pedal to the muddy metal because I don't know what else to do-what else can I do? The 2.8L diesel engine thunders, mud and muck spray up past the windows, and the whole truck shudders-but the mud-terrain tires do their thing, clawing, grabbing, and pulling us up onto dry ground. I'm completely lost so I just keep driving, but my guide claims to know exactly where we are. "I take you to most beautiful lake on Sakhalin Island," he assures me, "if we not get shot!"
It is mountaineers, I believe, who claim to climb such heights simply because such heights are there to be climbed. In a way, four-wheelers are kindred spirits, exploring trails, forests, mountains, and canyons because they too are there to be explored. But while it's true the journey itself is often the destination, a unique destination-more than just another mountaintop-can make a journey that much better.
With this in mind, I set out from Japan for a five-day off-pavement adventure on Sakhalin Island, one of the most remote and rugged areas in Russia's far east. It was both proximity and remoteness that drew me to Sakhalin: The island is only a five-hour ferry ride from northern Japan, where I live, but the culture, language, and people are worlds apart. The plan-which now includes avoiding future gunshots-was simple: get to Sakhalin Island, explore as much as possible in five days, and get back to Japan in one piece.
It was Ivan, the cherub-faced civil servant at the Russian Consulate in Sapporo, who told me to "expect the unexpected" in Russia. He was right, and thanks to Yura, it doesn't get much more unexpected than this. But this is why I came to Sakhalin: in search of four-wheel-drive adventure in its least predictable form.
Sakhalin Island has no shortage of trails or destinations. The island covers more than 30,000 square miles, stretches almost 600 miles from top to bottom, and is 105 miles across at its widest. Over 80 percent of the land is covered with taiga forests, and two mountain ranges dominate the southern landscape. Sakhalin's 1,600 freshwater lakes, of which Tunaycha Lake is the largest, are fed by more than 60,000 rivers and streams. For those who like exploring the great outdoors, Sakhalin has a lot to offer.
In addition to natural splendor, Sakhalin also has an abundance of history. A former Czarist penal colony, the southern half of the island was Japanese territory until Soviet troops invaded in 1945, and remnants of that history can still be found today. Japanese bunkers, untouched since the day they were abandoned, lie half-buried along remote beaches, Japanese buildings still stand in the capital city, and rumors of a long-lost Japanese POW camp which once held American prisoners deep in the Sakhalin forests persist.
Exploring Sakhalin's nature and history can be a challenge. Outside the towns, few roads are paved, and those that are can be just as bad as those that aren't. In rural areas, four-wheel drive is more of a necessity than an option, but sometimes it's not even enough. In winter most roads are buried under deep snow and ice, and in late summer, typhoons bring heavy rains that flood the streets and turn backroads into impassible mud bogs.
Getting stuck is no big deal back home, but on Sakhalin it could mean the difference between a great adventure and a prison term. The ferry between Japan and Sakhalin only runs in the summer months as ice fills Soya Strait each winter, and as luck would have it (or a lack of planning), my return voyage would be the last run of the season. Should I miss the ferry, I could be stuck in Sakhalin for six months with a visa that expires in two weeks. Overstaying a visa is a criminal offense in Russia and can result in fines and, in some cases, imprisonment.
To reduce this unpleasant possibility, the old Isuzu received a set of new Rancho 5000 shocks, a 2-inch suspension lift, and four new 31-inch Toyo mud-terrains before leaving Japan. With its turbodiesel Engine and factory limited-slip, the old 'Zu is no slouch in the rough stuff, but a little extra insurance never hurts. I also brought along my usual boonie kit, which includes a hand winch, a rope, a shovel, extra tools, and a few essentials (Led Zeppelin CDs and portable in-car coffee maker).
To save a few bucks and experience Russian culture beyond the fake smiles of hotel lobbies and restaurants, I opted to home-stay in the capital city Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. For the past few years, Sakhalin has been experiencing an oil industry boom, and hotels are often booked well in advance and can cost hundreds per night. By comparison, my home-stay-complete with a private room and all the delicious Russian home-cooking I could eat-cost just $45 per night.
On first impression, Yuzhno is a surprisingly funky town, a kind of city-in-progress where people seem to be having more fun than they should be. Close to half a million people live in Sakhalin's 19 towns, but some 200,000 are concentrated in Yuzhno. Summers are short on Sakhalin, so open-air markets bustle with activity late into the night, music and laughter pour onto the streets from small bars and restaurants, and late-night flower shops do a booming business selling to Russian men with love in their hearts and vodka in their veins.
Car theft is a major issue in many Russian cities, and Yuhzno is no exception, so every night Yura insisted I park in a nearby secure parking lot-which turned out to be a gravel yard patrolled by a few sleepy dogs and disinterested boys. He also made sure I used my car alarm, escorted me to the parking lot each night, and negotiated the price, otherwise I would have paid much more than the 175 rubles (about $6) charged locals.
The day after our unforgettable shotgun tour of Tunaycha Lake, he also insisted on taking me for a quick run up Bolshevik Mountain, home to Yuzhno's only ski hill. Although there's no snow on the hill this time of year, the mountain towers over the capital city and is an imposing sight. Even more imposing is the muddy, rutted road that passes the ski area and leads up to the peak.
When we arrive at the entrance, we find a gate manned by four off-duty soldiers drinking beer and playing cards. One of the men walks over and speaks to Yura, who somehow convinces them to open the gate and let us pass. Fifteen minutes later, when it's too late to turn around, I find out why. "We must return in one hour, or they arrest you for trespass," he tells me. "Foreigners should not go here." I try to force the thoughts of an abandoned truck and prison term out of my mind long enough to enjoy the drive.
Thanks to the challenging trail, steep incline, and amazing views, it almost works-but I keep one very attentive eye on the clock. My guide, of course, is unconcerned. "Too much worry," he says when I insist on heading back as soon as we reach the peak. When we arrive at the gate half an hour late and covered in mud, it's wide open and the soldiers, concentrating on their card game, ignore us as we drive past.
During the next few days, I explore much of the southern part of the island on my own, heading out from Yuzhno each morning at first light with no specific destination in mind. I make the most of my short time, visiting remote fishing villages, driving along pristine beaches, and exploring challenging 4x4 trails that seem to go on forever. Several years ago, government permits were needed to explore Sakhalin's wilderness areas, but today most of the island is accessible and gates are rare.
But on the main roads, military and police checkpoints are common, and vehicles with foreign license plates are stopped every time. Most of the soldiers I encountered were friendly and professional, but a few did their job with Stalinesque thoroughness, lecturing me in Russian and insisting on some document I always seemed to be missing. But since my passport, car insurance, and international driver's license were all "in order," I was usually on my way within minutes.
With rules of the road that can seem Darwinian (survival of the biggest) and few on-road amenities, driving in Sakhalin isn't for everyone. Neither is four-wheeling, as there are no rules, no amenities, and often no roads. But despite the risks-which are manageable-Sakhalin Island is a unique travel destination that makes for an unforgettable four-wheel-drive adventure.