September 10, 2014
To get to see real tundra it turns out you don’t need to go to the Far North (or far south – say, to Tierra del Fuego); for something very similar to tundra conditions can be found in perfectly moderate latitudes. For example, on the Kurils.
Here on the Kurils Mother Nature must have been having an off-day when putting the finishing touches to their climate. On one side of the island there’s the cold Pacific Ocean; on the other – the bitterly freezing Sea of Okhotsk. If the wind blows from the south it can be warm and humid; if from the north – a Siberian chill can take over. So it gets a bit muddled. But generally in winter here it’s always very cold – with snow up to the waist; while in summer it’s just so-so cold – but always humid, plus foggy, plus drizzly, plus rainy.
They say that in recent years the summer sun would appear only five times a year! And you can tell by the vegetation that grows here: moss, grass, in some places dwarf pine, and in swamps – massive pink expanses of carnivorous sundews. Trees grow only on the southern Kurils – on Iturup, Shikotan and Kunashir. They say that trees also grow on Urup island, but I didn’t see them there.
In short, what we got here is a harsh northern climate.
.@e_kaspersky on the severe Kuril climate – same latitude as Milan & SeattleTweet
Wiki says the climate of the Kurils is a ‘far north’ one. But the Kurils sit around 45°-50° north! That’s further south than cities such as Moscow, Berlin and London; and it’s on around the same latitude as cities such as Vienna, Milan, Munich, Paris, Vancouver and Seattle. See, I told you there was a muddle…
“We’ve good weather here, but the climate is harsh,” say the locals.
“You’ll find out the weather for tomorrow the day after tomorrow,” they say too.
More local wisdom:
“Drunkenness – it’s a battle! And before a battle… you need a drink!”
In the travelogue we were keeping of our trip came the following entry: ‘On the seventh day of the expedition we saw a SUNSET’ (in capital letters). Explanation of the capitals:
Sunsets on the Kurils – sublime!Tweet
Over wet grass, through swamps, across dwarf pine in the rain, in fog and often blown about by a strong wind, we slowly moved our way around the islands of Paramushir, Onekotan, Matua, and Rasshua.
Probably most memorable of all was our scaling the volcano Ebeko on Paramushir.
At the top of the volcano it was raining buckets down on us and a hurricane was blowing. (This was the day when we accepted the Ice Bucket Challenge from nature.) All the same the views from there were just awesome. We climbed this volcano on our first day on the Kurils; I think that’s why it stands out so much. It was such a shock to the system: breakfast in Moscow; up a crazy volcano half-way round the world before the next day’s supper :).
In the south of Paramushir there’s a curious disused beacon. The locals complain that the authorities do nothing for its upkeep. But on the other hand the beacons along the coast have long been pensioned off. Long ago all ships started using satellite navigators and autopilot. Alas, the old and sometimes very beautiful beacons serve only as decorations for the undulating landscapes here and attracting tourists or are abandoned and left to rot. Bit sad.
Matua used to be a Japanese military base during the Second World War; then there was a Soviet base in the second half of the 20th century. Now the island is uninhabited, as are the bases, which still stand – as monuments to attempts at colonization of the islands. There are also for some unknown reason loads of steel barrels here – hundreds, just littered about the place. Ugly.
Old military base on Matua island: uglyTweet
A leisurely stroll around two hills – called Hammer and Sickle – was promised one day by our guides. However, it turned out they’d been neither to Hammer nor Sickle themselves. So they weren’t to know that the road there exists only on paper. We thus had to traipse 10km across all sorts of harsh undergrowth, sometimes through grass that grew higher than the tallest of us, up and down gorges, and across rivers and swamps, and all that under constant torrential rain. So that was how our day of taking it easy turned out. Melancholy.
But things did get easier afterwards…
Even the sun started appearing – usually around 2pm, but not for long. Then it returned to murkiness and drizzle again. Sometimes the sun was visible for a third or even half a day. One time we broke through the cloud going up Atsonupuri. There was only one (1!) real fully sunny morning during the whole trip – on Kharimkotan.
But even here on Kharimkotan, after the sunny morning the afternoon was dark and dismal and wet.
While still on Kharimkotan, besides checking out an abandoned village and the surrounding severe beauty, some of the group got down to picking and eating lots of berries (of which there were zillions). Then came the search for old glass Japanese beacon-floats…
…Before the invention of plastic the Japanese used either wood or hollowed glass for floats. And eons later, unlike the wooden ones (which just rotted away) the glass ones are still going strong, bobbing about here and there and periodically getting washed ashore.
It turns out that there are collectors of these floats who buy and sell them, consulting specialist catalogs dedicated to them. And some old-school fishermen, despite their modern-day ineffectiveness, still even use them!
Having heard all about these curious glass objects we went hunting for some along the shores of Kharimkotan. And we did find some – quite a few; sadly, nothing that’d ever find its way into a collectors’ catalog.
All the other mornings were pretty much the same – sullen and foggy. So foggy sometimes we couldn’t see the shore from the ship. Then, all waterproofed-up, we would get into a small motor-dinghy to make our landing ashore. The ship would disappear behind us, all around was an eerie white mist (visibility down to 100-200 meters), with only the sound of the waves and roar of the motor to be heard. Spooky.
After reading the last several paragraphs, I think you can kinda understand why no bugger lives here :).
And talking of inhabitants, rather – the lack of them, turns out the population of all the Kuril islands stands at around 20,000. Many islands are uninhabited: no beaches, no palm trees, no pina coladas. And all on a latitude about the same as sunny Croatia! The populated places are few and far between. Just three, with a stretch of the imagination, have ‘town’ status: Severo-Kurilsk (Paramushir, 2500 folks); Kurilsk (Iturup, 1750 heads); and Yuzhno-Kurilsk (Kunashir, 7000 bodies).
What soon became clear was that the blocks of apartments and civic buildings were all being refurbished and the roads were getting covered with concrete or asphalt – only ever so slowly. So you got the impression that the denizens of the Kurils live pleasantly and optimistically. Others, I’m sure, wouldn’t survive a week here :).
Settlements on the Kuril islands – sleepyTweet
Severo-Kurilsk is regrettably famous for the tsunami that hit it in 1952. A triple wave destroyed the town and more than 2000 died in the disaster (out of a total of 6000 inhabitants). An unknown number of soldiers perished too. The tragedy was kept secret back then (oh those Soviets). Then the town was rebuilt all over again – but at a safer distance from the shore. The old town’s still there, just abandoned and derelict, with waterlogged streets. The port has remained at the original place; yet another dispiriting spectacle :(.
But to finish on a lighter note…
The locals told us we were real lucky with the weather. Things could have been a lot worse. Just the previous month the weather got so bad we’d have been miserable through and through with forever battling the elements. Again, it seems, the gods were smiling upon us :).
The rest of the photos are here.