October 26, 2005

Train trip across Sakhalin shows changes

By Andrew Hurst

YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK, Russia (Reuters) - For generations there
have been few better ways to get to know Russia than by
traveling across it by train.

The trans-Siberian railway, which was the only reliable
means of land transport linking the country's European and
Asian halves, has drawn many foreigners on a five-day trip
across Russia's bleak and breathtaking steppe.

What is less well known is that Sakhalin, an island off
Russia's Far East coast, has its own railway and you can spend
a whole night journeying more than 500 miles across this
sparsely populated land of lakes and forests.

The trip gives a vivid glimpse of the changes taking hold
here as international oil companies like Exxon Mobil and Royal
Dutch Shell pour billions of dollars into Sakhalin to develop
its vast oil and gas potential.

Russia has always had a grim fascination with steel wheels.

Anna Karenina, heroine of Leo Tolstoy's literary
masterpiece, met Count Vronsky, her future lover, in a railway
station. In the novel's dramatic climax, with her life by now
in ruins, Anna throws herself under a moving train.

Trains are associated with some of the most tumultuous
moments in the country's history.

Vladimir Lenin returned by train to Russia in April 1917 to
start the Russian revolution and a celebrated joke about the
evolution of the Soviet leadership takes place on a train.


Josef Stalin and two of his successors, Nikita Krushchev
and Leonid Brezhnev, are sitting together in a compartment when
their train grinds to a halt.

In a vain attempt to get things moving, Stalin marches to
the head of the train and shoots the driver. Krushchev then
declares that the hapless man has been rehabilitated, but the
train still fails to budge.

Finally, Brezhnev draws the curtains of the compartment,
turns to his fellow travelers and says: "Comrades, let's just
pretend we are moving."

The joke was a metaphor for the stagnation of communist
Russia under Brezhnev in the 1970s, now light years away as
hard-edged capitalism transforms the country.

But not everything has changed in today's Russia and trains
-- slow, uncomfortable, but seemingly indestructible -- remain
a constant.

You do not have to pull shut the curtains of the Sakhalin
train in order to conjure up a sense of movement, but it helps.

The train moves in fits and starts across the long, thin
island in a journey that can take up to 17 hours, with lengthy
stops at remote railway stations.

The track runs along the shoreline for some miles after
leaving Sakhalin's capital of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk before heading
inland past woods turned rusty brown as the leaves fade in the
autumn sun.

Two hours outside the capital, the landscape is scarred by
the huge hulks of abandoned paper mills built by the Japanese,
a reminder of one of the cornerstones of the island's economy.

The most striking changes are on view in Nogliki, the train
journey's northern destination, where on the approach to the
station hundreds of neatly stacked pipes lie alongside the
railway track, ready for shipment up to the oilfields.


The island may have changed, but the train is still widely
used for the journey between its northern and southern ends
because fog and winter storms can make flying hazardous.

The railway was originally designed to serve a now vanished
timber and paper pulp industry. It was built to a narrow gauge
in the 1920s by the Japanese, who occupied the southern portion
of Sakhalin for 40 years until the end of World War Two in

In the 1950s, Russian engineers extended the line north of
the 50th parallel, which divided the Russian and Japanese parts
of the island.

Each night a small drama is played out as uniformed women
who guard each railway car fight a losing battle against the
gently anarchic instincts of many travelers who drink
themselves slowly into a state of inebriation.

But the guards never fail in their task of gruffly
shepherding their charges back on to the train at each stop
when scores descend onto the platform to smoke, converse with
fellow travelers and stock up at local shops with beer and

Travelers delight in complaining loudly about the rudeness
of the guards who then get their revenge, locking the
lavatories for half an hour after the train leaves each

As dawn approaches and the train finally reaches its
destination, order is slowly restored, bed-linen cleared away
and steaming cups of tea served to bleary eyed passengers.