Best of the Russian Far East
Published on Thursday, October 03, 2013
Thursday, July 25, 2013 - Anchorage, Alaska / Nome /Embark Caledonian Sky: We converged on the far-away outpost of Nome to embark on an expedition to experience the culture, wildlife, and landscapes of the Russian Far East. Our first stop was at Old St. Joe’s, a former Catholic church and now community center, in Anvil City Square for an informal lunch. The grassy ‘square’ was lined with dredge buckets from the mining days, and had a display of two umiaks, traditional walrus skin boats used by native Alaskans to hunt marine mammals.
Afterwards, we met the charismatic and theatrical Richard, who enthusiastically taught us how to pan for gold. The ‘sourdoughs’ among us managed to gently shuffle sediments in the water and found some minute gold flakes, the same type that launched the great Alaska Gold Rush.
Meanwhile, the birdwatchers headed south along the coast and stopped at a large lagoon. Groups of common eiders loafed on the sand, while red-throated loons flew back and forth overhead, returning from the sea with fish in their beaks to feed their chicks back in their inland nesting pond.
Late in the afternoon, we arrived at the dock and were warmly greeted aboard the Caledonian Sky by the ship’s crew. We got ourselves settled in onboard, before gathering for a safety briefing. Expedition Leader Mike Messick introduced us to the staff, Cruise Director Lynne Greig gave us an overview of the ship, and Stuart Burmeister briefed us on Zodiac operations.
Following dinner, some of us gathered for a cocktail, while others headed off to bed for a good night’s sleep. The sea remained remarkably calm as the coast of Alaska disappeared into the fog.
Friday & Saturday, July 26 & 27 - Cross International Date Line / At Sea / Provideniya, Russia: We awoke to calm seas and the Bering Sea fog, and soon joined historian Tim Baughman for his lecture entitled, The First Iditarod. In his usual entertaining fashion, Tim took us through the incredible story of the 1925 serum run to Nome, which inspired what is now the Iditarod sled dog race.
Mid-morning, we spent some time out on deck, scanning the sea for wildlife. An occasional seal or sea lion gave us a curious glance as we steamed past, and flocks of puffins and murres sat on the calm sea in all directions. Along current lines, huge rafts of phalaropes sat spinning on the water, generating small whirlpools that bring plankton up to the surface for them to feed upon.
Before lunch, we gathered with ornithologist Mark Brazil for his talk, Crossing Continents: The East Asian Flyway. Compared to early theories, like those which predicted that barnacle geese actually trans-mutated from seaside barnacles, we now know that many bird species actually undergo extensive seasonal migrations.
Over lunch, we dropped anchor off of Provideniya and came ashore by Zodiac, setting off to explore the town. After meandering through an excellent museum, we watched a fabulous performance of song and dance, representing the diversity of cultures found in this area, such as Chukchi and Yupik. The performers put on a beautiful show in their varied costumes and synchronized moves.
Back on board, we gathered for Captain Peter Fielding’s welcome aboard cocktail party, where we mingled over champagne and were introduced to some of the ship’s officers. This was followed by a festive dinner and perhaps a nightcap in the bar.
Sunday & Monday, July 28 & 29 - At Sea / Dezneva Bay / Anastasiya Bay: After breakfast, we joined Peter Harrison for an introduction to some of the avian wildlife we hoped to encounter. Naturalist Kevin Clement followed with his presentation discussing the challenges that flowering plants face in high latitudes, such as cool summer temperatures and high winds. Later, geologist John Buchanan continued the day’s lecture series with his talk on the concept of plate tectonics. Marine biologist Rich Pagen followed, telling the story of Steller’s scientific discoveries in the region as the naturalist and doctor on Vitus Bering’s second Kamchatka Expedition.
The next day, Mike Messick announced that a number of brown bears had been spotted along the shoreline. We quickly hopped in Zodiacs for a ride ashore to get a closer look. We landed in a small cove, where we could stay out of sight (and scent) of these bears, then climbed quietly to the top for a look down the other side. After watching them for a few minutes, the wind carried our scent in the direction of the bears, most of which quickly moved out of the area.
During lunch, Captain Fielding took the ship into Anastasiya Bay, where we found large groups of walrus hauled out on small beaches beneath spectacular mountains. From Zodiacs, we watched these enormous pinnipeds both loafing on the shore and curiously checking us out from the water. The highlight may have been the incredible sounds they were making.
We ate an early dinner in the hopes of finding reindeer herders coming down to the coast. Via Zodiac, we cruised up river to a camp used by the scouting party for the herders. From there we climbed atop a low ridge and watched as the massive herd of more than 2,000 reindeer approached and eventually gathered just beneath us on the coastal plain. Soon the herders had the reindeer swirling in circles around them and, using rope to lasso the antlers, captured and killed a large male and began dressing it. It was an incredible sight, and many of us celebrated this incredible day with lively singing and dancing in the bar.
Tuesday, July 30 - Natalia Bay / Bogoslova Island: With low, misty clouds hanging overhead, the Caledonian Sky plied the calm waters of Natalia Bay. Over breakfast, we spotted several brown bears feeding along a small stream, and numerous slaty-backed gulls picking among rocks. Once on the tundra, some of us hiked up the green hills behind the landing, admiring the striking wildflowers along the way. Others spent time along a small stream that was absolutely packed with pink salmon. The birdwatchers spotted a peregrine falcon perched on a rock near a colony of Arctic ground squirrels.
Some of us walked along the beach, coming across fresh bear tracks in the sand, as well as a group of reindeer herders camped out. We walked down toward their camp, crossed the stream, and climbed up on the bank to greet them. With interpretation from two of our Russian guides, we asked them questions and learned about their livelihood; an incredibly special experience!
After lunch, we boarded Zodiacs to tour around the seabird cliffs of Bogoslova Island, an amazing sight. Witnessing the steep peaks blanketed in misty clouds was just the beginning; a number of species were nesting on different parts of the cliff—tufted and horned puffins sat outside crevices in the rock, inside which they constructed their nests and laid their single egg, and common and thick-billed murres nested on ledges so close to one another that they were actually touching. Due to their dark-colored plumage, pelagic cormorants were slightly harder to spot, despite their large size. Their nests were already filled with two or three chicks, each of which was constantly begging for a regurgitated meal from their attentive parents.
Back onboard, Tim gave a stirring lecture on the rise of Joseph Stalin. This was followed by a recap and briefing, where Rich gave us background on the enormous sleeper shark we found washed up in a cove near the bird cliffs, and Sergey talked about the importance of walrus and reindeer to the local cultures here in Kamchatka.
Wednesday, July 31 - Tintikun Lagoon / Glybokaya Bay: With a light rain falling, we dropped the anchor just off Tintikun Lagoon, a large, shallow body of water with a narrow entrance between a rocky headland and a long vegetated sand spit.
The birders had a great morning, getting excellent looks at numerous species of passerine songbirds, including a pine grosbeak and several types of warblers. The long walkers and medium walkers explored opposite sides of the lagoon, while the leisurely walkers explored the ruins of an old fish processing operation from the 1930s and 1940s.
The calm surface of the lagoon was constantly disturbed by salmon, which would break the surface or launch themselves clear out of the water. The beachcombing was excellent, and the observant among us discovered spider crab legs, limpet snail shells and even marine sponges washed up along the high tide line.
Back on the ship, distant bears were spotted on the hillsides as we approached, and the rain had mostly let up before we descended to the Zodiacs for our ride ashore. A spectacular glacial valley lay behind the landing beach, with the ruins of the housing for the fish processing operations that used to go on in this area. Cooking pots, a wooden manual winch, and flimsy power poles were among the many artifacts we came across in this fascinating place. Some of us went on a long walk, which included crossing a small stream and arriving at a small lake. Others sat along a small stream sheltered by alder bushes, discussing what life must have been like for those who lived and worked here. The birdwatchers came across some pikas calling from a rock scree slope, and got great looks at long-toed stints and a spotted nutcracker.
Back on the ship, we gathered for cocktails and recap, during which Kevin answered questions about brown bears, and Sergey gave background on the village we were hoping to visit tomorrow.
Thursday, August 1 - Tymlat Village, Verkhoturova Island: After a relaxing breakfast, we came ashore to the small island of Verkhoturova to explore the beaches and tundra, and came across the skull of a large male walrus with tusks intact. We also had great views of spotted seals loafing on the rocks just off the landing. A short climb from the landing brought us onto a spectacular plateau of tundra, with low mountain peaks rising several hundred feet above. Monkshood and larkspur, both showing their lovely purple flowers, were patchily distributed in the gully as well as up on top of the plateau. Signs of foxes included tunnels dug beneath an old dilapidated shack perched up above a steep ravine.
Some of us hiked nearly to the highpoint of the island, before descending to the remains of an old lighthouse. Others climbed to a point next to the bird cliffs, where we looked out at tufted puffins, kittiwakes, and cormorants perched on ledges high above the sea. The birdwatchers spotted a rough-legged hawk perched on a highpoint, which was no doubt looking out across the island for unsuspecting voles.
Back on the ship, Mark spoke about feathers, types of flight, and the importance of feather care and grooming. Over lunch, the Caledonian Sky repositioned to the village of Tymlat, which was located at a river mouth with a long sand spit. We came ashore and met the locals, who put on a beautiful cultural performance, with spectacular costumes and energetic dances. Following the performance, we went inside to sample some fish soup and local pastries.
The birdwatchers roamed the outskirts of the village, watching common terns and black-headed gulls feeding in the backwaters. Some of us wandered the streets of the village, stopping in small shops selling canned goods, where we took full advantage of the cooler stocked with ice cream.
Back onboard, we chatted over dinner, and some of us headed up to the Panorama Lounge afterwards for of singing and dancing.
Friday, August 2 - At Sea / Bering Island, Commander Islands: We awoke to open ocean in all directions, some of us taking advantage of our time at sea to sleep in a bit. Peter kicked off the lectures for the day with, Puffins and Their Allies, introducing us to the alcid family, which are similar in many ways to the penguins of the Southern Hemisphere, but are actually only distantly related. John followed with, Earthquakes and Tsunamis in the Pacific, speaking about some of the largest and most destructive tsunamis ever recorded. Following lunch, we spent time out on deck scanning for wildlife before joining Rich’s lecture, Poised to Profit from Pelagic Productivity: Whales of the North Pacific. It was fascinating to learn the closest living relatives of whales are actually hippos, and that some bowhead whales may live to be more than 200 years old!
After Rich’s lecture, we went out on the back deck while Mark chummed the water in an attempt to attract seabirds. Hundreds of fulmars gathered at the stern, and a Laysan albatross made a close pass of the ship to investigate what was going on.
After an early dinner, we maneuvered into a bay that was the site where Vitus Bering’s ship, the St. Peter, wrecked on their way back from landing in what is now Alaska. We landed on a flat beach right next to a salmon stream that was absolutely swollen with fish making their way up. We climbed above the beach to the memorials of Vitus Bering and six other men whose remains were found here. We wandered freely around the valley, some of us spending time watching salmon while others climbed up on a ridge watching two Arctic foxes play-fighting across a gully.
As we returned to the landing, the sun began shining brilliantly on the green mountainsides. It was a spectacular evening, and a great start to our time here on Bering Island.
Saturday, August 3 - Bering Island / Ariy Kamen / Nikolskoye: Early this morning, we sped by Zodiac across calm seas and landed in a bay with a coastline of rocky outcroppings of columnar basalt. We walked along a flat 4WD track past some old wooden huts, including one occupied by a Russian biologist named Victor who was present to conduct surveys of the island’s wildlife.
We dropped into a gully and soon arrived at a blind overlooking a wide beach covered with northern fur seals. Tiny black pups, which were probably only a few weeks old, were lounging amidst their parents. Meanwhile, smaller numbers of Steller’s sea lions were piled up along the shoreline, their large size and blonde color a stark contrast to the fur seals. A family of Arctic foxes also made the beach their home, enthusiastically playing with one another and, on occasion, getting disapproving looks from nearby fur seals.
We went back to the ship for an early lunch before re-boarding Zodiacs for a tour around a small guano-stained island, absolutely covered with seabirds. Rocky ledges were decorated with the grassy nests of both red-legged and black-legged kittiwakes, and tufted puffins were perched up high. We circumnavigated the entire small island, enjoying excellent looks at staggering numbers of seabirds.
Later in the afternoon, we repositioned just off the village of Nikolskoye. Our first stop was the local museum, which held history, artwork, and natural history displays, including a full skeleton of the now extinct Steller’s sea cow. We then wandered the dirt streets, trying to get a feel for this remote settlement on Bering Island.
Later, we gathered in the old school for a cultural performance, consisting of traditional song and dance, as well as a very modern dance performance put on by several teenage boys. Following the performance, we wandered past a memorial to Vitus Bering, and walked up to the Russian Orthodox Church. A church service was taking place, and we were invited to come in and participate.
Sunday, August 4 - Kronotskiy State Biosphere Preserve: This morning we arrived at the mouth of Chazma River, the northern edge of the Switzerland-sized Kronotskiy State Biosphere Preserve. This nature reserve hosts wild landscapes, bears, and salmon streams and we landed on a black sand beach to head off to explore the area.
The birdwatchers headed out into the lush vegetation and were rewarded with views of Eurasian oystercatchers, willow ptarmigans, and the critically endangered yellow-breasted bunting. The other walks headed along the beach with bear signs everywhere, including tracks that clearly showed the especially long claws on the front paws. Flocks of gulls loafed along sandbars, while red-throated loons called while flying overhead. Most of the walks terminated at the ranger station, which was also the site of hot springs. A primitive hut housed a couple of indoor tubs, but most popular was the outside pool nestled among the tundra vegetation.
Following lunch, we came ashore at a protected corner of Kamenistaya Bay, backed by a spectacular waterfall and steep cliffs that hosted a colony of nesting Pacific swifts. The highlight for the birdwatchers was witnessing an Oriental cuckoo chick being fed by an eastern yellow wagtail.
We hiked along the beach past tiny jumping beach fleas and beautiful green rocks to a river that was braided with gravel bars. Some of us walked upstream a few hundred meters, searching for Steller’s sea eagle nests in the emergent trees on the opposite side of the river. Others went further by following well-used bear trails that dissected the dense alder thickets.
Back on the ship, Mark gave a presentation called, Beyond Blakiston’s Line—the Nature of Northeast Asia. This was followed by a recap during which Rich spoke about fox scent-marking, and Peter spoke about cuckoos. Dinner this evening was topped with an absolutely gorgeous sunset.
Monday, August 5 - Petropavlovsk: Today we arrived in Petropavlovsk, the administrative center of the Kamchatka region and home to about 200,000 people. Pulling up alongside the pier in the harbor was quite a contrast to the previous day’s beach landings in remote bays; trucks drove past along a busy road, and box-like apartment buildings were visible perched on the mountainsides. We drove through the city center, and out into the countryside, soon arriving at the Siberian Husky K9 Lodge. We were greeted with birch-infused vodka and salmon roe snacks, and mingled with the dogs. After a brief tour of the facility, we lined a forested track and watched the excited dogs put on a show as they pulled a wheeled sled up and down the track. Meanwhile, the birdwatchers roamed the trails on the property in search of birch forest birds, and had great looks at Eurasian nuthatch, among others.
We watched a folklore performance presented by a very professional group of Koryak dancers, whose dances told obvious stories about love, jealousy, and the animals of the region. While the performers danced, we ate soup and fresh salmon under the Kamchatka sun. Following lunch, we headed back into town and made a stop at an excellent museum, which housed a large taxidermy collection of animals from the region. Steller’s sea eagles, lynx, and wolverines were among the many creatures represented.
We stopped in at a golden-domed Russian Orthodox cathedral, followed by some free time roaming around a central market surrounded by shops of all kinds. We tasted salmon roe, fresh grapes, and some of us even found a shop specializing in vodka where we bought a couple bottles to bring home. Local children approached us to practice their English and, in the distance, the clouds lifted enough to reveal several spectacular volcanoes, situated just behind the city.
Back at the ship, we lined the railings as the ship pulled away from the pier. A glorious sunset followed while we ate dinner out in the balmy sea air.
Tuesday, August 6 - Shumshu and Atlasova, Kuril Islands: Under cover of dense fog, we landed on a volcanic sand beach on the northwest coast of Shumshu, the northernmost of the Kuril Islands. This low-lying island reaches only 620 feet in height, most of its area occupied by marshes, lakes, and lush maritime tundra vegetation. Once ashore we broke up into various groups to explore the island.
Some of us walked down to the old dam, while others looked around an old hut, which had a separate sauna house perched over a river where Arctic char lurked in the shadows. The sun came out as we made our way back down to the landing, and remained out for much of lunch back on the ship.
After lunch, we arrived at Atlasova, an island dominated by the 7,600 foot peak of the Alaid volcano. Often described as being more exquisitely shaped even than Mount Fuji, we watched as the spectacular mountaintop came in and out of the clouds during the afternoon. The sun was definitely winning the battle with the fog today, and the dark lava rock and sand absorbed and radiated the sun’s warmth.
Some of us hiked out to an old shipwreck, getting great looks at a red fox along the way. Others combed the flats above the beach for glass fishing floats and other finds. John led a very popular geology walk, focusing on the heavily eroded cinder cone towering over the peninsula. Bits of ash and sand careened down constantly in deep gullies in the rock, while rafts of sea otters slept on their backs out in the offshore kelp forest.
Once back on board, we gathered for cocktails, where Peter and Mike Messick told stories of the early days after founding Zegrahm Expeditions.
Wednesday, August 7 - Onekotan and Lovuhski: After fueling up with a hot breakfast, we headed out to a small sandy bay on the island of Onekotan in the Kurils. Onekotan is actually made up of two large strato-volcanoes connected by a relatively flat isthmus, with the island’s highest point reaching over 1,300 meters above the sea. Fog dominated the scene, adding to the eerie other-worldly feel of the place.
The highlight for the birdwatchers was a white-tailed eagle perched upon some drift wood tree trunks just up river. The long and medium walkers climbed on top of a grassy plateau, admiring flowers and the lush vegetation along the way, and the leisurely walkers explored the beach.
Back onboard, we warmed up with a cup of coffee before joining Tim for his presentation, Russia After Stalin, during which he gave an excellent overview of Russian life and politics leading up to the present day. After lunch Rich gave his lecture, Marine Mammals, Local and Global: A Look at Conservation Issues and Solutions. He spoke about ship traffic, underwater noise, and some of the other challenges marine mammals face in the modern world.
After an early dinner, we boarded Zodiacs to explore some low rocks called the Lovuhski Islands. Almost immediately we were surrounded by dozens of northern fur seals, which porpoised alongside us, and spyhopped to get a better look at what these strange rubber boats were doing. The roars of Steller’s sea lions reverberated off the steep rocky shoreline, which was literally covered with the two species of pinnipeds. We maneuvered in and out of open channels in the otherwise dense kelp that was growing prolifically around the islands, as a constant stream of tufted puffins flew past overhead, and dense flocks of whiskered auklets flew past low over the water. It was a spectacular outing, and the bar was alive with storytelling over drinks when we returned.
Thursday, August 8 - Matua and Yankicha Islands: We landed on a boulder beach and set out to explore Matua Island. The birders roamed the edges of the alder thickets, where bullfinches could occasionally be seen, and scoped gray-tailed tattlers and other waders along the seashore. The leisurely walkers watched harbor seals out on the offshore rocks, and speculated the intended purpose of some of the World War II debris scattered about the foreshore. The long and medium walkers headed out to explore some of the remains, including a cluster of buildings with dilapidated trucks and tractors parked in a nearby field chock full of wild strawberries. Some of us hiked all the way to the old runway, and stopped at a small Russian church newly completed along the shoreline.
The sun came out during lunch, and many of us enjoyed our lunch on deck with fulmars and gulls following along behind us. By the time mid-afternoon had rolled around, the ubiquitous fog was back, and we cautiously made our way through the narrow entrance and into the flooded volcanic caldera of Yankicha. Once we hiked over a low rise, the smell of sulfur became apparent and we soon arrived at an area of fumaroles and steam vents. John explained some of the important volcanic features of Yankicha, and we went off to explore the area further.
The long walkers climbed a steep, grassy track up to a high point, which dropped off sharply on the backside. Roars of laughter could be heard from afar, as one long walker after another slid or rolled back down in the soft, fluffy grass. Some of us took a Zodiac cruise of the bay, encountering a very curious family of foxes on a small island, as well as countless auklets flying about overhead.
A barbeque awaited us when we returned back to the ship, which was followed by a festive party of song and dance outside on deck.
Friday, August 9 - Chirpoy Island: We enjoyed a leisurely morning before our Zodiac cruise around Chirpoy Island, though fog, even thicker than that we’ve seen previously, completely enveloped the islands. We maneuvered through breaks in the kelp to get up against the bird cliffs. Small groups of Snow’s guillemots sat on the water just inside the kelp forest edge. This subspecies of pigeon guillemot is unique in that the birds lack the white wing patch, and they will most certainly be given full species status in the near future.
The cut between two islands was particularly productive, as currents were moving quickly through the area bringing up nutrients from the deep water. Enormous groups of northern fulmars picked at plankton on the sea surface, and were nesting by the thousands in the nearby cliffs.
Once back on the ship, we headed across the Sea of Okhotsk towards Tyuleniy Island. The fog lifted at a particularly productive patch of ocean, where fork-tailed storm petrels flitted past and a couple distant whale blows were spotted. Then, mixed in with several Laysan albatross, a short-tailed albatross flew past the ship and sat on the water not far off. This rare seabird was presumed extinct in the late 1940s, but the population is now over 2,000 birds with nearly all nesting on only two islands. We considered ourselves very lucky to have come across this spectacular seabird.
During the afternoon, we joined Peter for his presentation, A Rare Event, in which he told us the gripping story of his involvement in discovering a new species of storm petrel in Chile. This was followed by Kevin's fascinating talk, Animal Dreams: Pleistocene Giants of Beringia, about mammoths and the dire wolves and giant ground sloths that inhabited the Bering Sea region over 10,000 years ago.
Saturday, August 10 - Tyuleniy Island: During the early morning hours, we arrived at Tyuleniy Island, off the east coast of Sakhalin Island. Roars of Steller’s sea lions, the high-pitched calls of common guillemot chicks, and the pungent aroma from the waste products of millions and millions of animals were abundant.
As our Zodiacs slowly approached the shore, we were immediately surrounded by groups of curious fur seals ushering us along to the beach. We moved slowly to a long, decrepit two-story building, which was built by the Soviet government as a hotel in 1981. Based on the crested auklets nesting in the building and the common guillemots nesting on the roof, the endeavor of turning Tyuleniy into a resort destination didn’t quite pan out. We walked past ledges completely packed with guillemots, often nesting so close together that they were actually touching. Eggs that were either unviable or which had fallen from the ledges littered the ground. Small chicks, which left the nest ledge at only three weeks old, were wandering around on the beach, and sometimes even gathering with other chicks in crèches.
From a high viewpoint, we looked out across the beach at the over 150,000 northern fur seals that haul out and breed here at Tyuleniy, which actually translates as “seal” in the Russian language. Huge male Steller’s sea lions frolicked in the shallows, one with its nose pointed skyward and an expression on its face reminiscent of a very content cat. The sheer numbers of animals packed into this tiny place was incredible. As we made our way back to the ship for lunch, the aromas dissipated, as did our entourage of seals and sea lions, but not our memories of this amazing place.
We relaxed over a leisurely lunch, before joining Shirley Metz for her presentation, which took us through the events leading up to her being the first woman to ski to the South Pole. Following a recap and dinner, the bar was alive with stories from the day.
Sunday, August 11 - Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin Island: A military style marching band greeted us on the pier in the port city of Korsakov, and we were welcomed ashore with a taste of bread, salt, and vodka. From there, we drove to the city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the administrative center of Sakhalin Island. The birders continued out of the city for a diverse full day exploring wetlands and woodlands. Many new birds were sighted for their trip list, including Japanese pygmy woodpeckers, long-tailed rosefinches, and Far Eastern curlews.
The first stop on the general tour was a Russian Orthodox church, white with beautiful gold domes. From there we stopped in a central square where a running ski-skate race was underway. The next stop was the Regional Museum, which houses over 80,000 original artifacts from the region. Forty million year old amber replete with entrapped insects, taxidermy brown bears, and a Steller’s sea eagle were some of the highlights.
After lunch, complete with borscht soup and a local Cossack song and dance performance, we visited the central shopping district and wandered past sidewalk stands selling gooseberries and a Russian drink made from bread called kvass. Inside the market, bright red-orange salmon decorated display coolers everywhere, as did several different types of salmon roe. From there we headed to a shop selling local handicrafts.
Back onboard, we gathered for our final recap, during which the expedition staff gave some of their highlights from the amazing trip we’ve shared together.
In the evening, we donned our finest attire to join Captain Fielding at the farewell cocktail party. We mingled over champagne and shared stories of our time in the Russian Far East, before heading downstairs for a superb dinner. This was followed by a wonderful retrospective slideshow of our trip, compiled by Mike Moore. The photos were amazing, and our experiences on this trip seemed both years ago and yesterday at the same time.
Monday, August 12 - Otaru / Japan: We awoke to calm seas and gray skies as we made our way to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. With a morning at sea in front of us, many of us took the opportunity to sleep in a bit before Tim’s final lecture, Russia and Japan, War and Revolution. In his usual riveting style, Tim summarized the complex relations between these vastly different countries.
After lunch on board, we headed out to see the sights of Otaru, starting with a visit to a sake brewery where we had the opportunity to sample five different types of sake. We then visited a stunning traditional Japanese villa, with low ceilings, tatami mat floors, and a beautiful dry landscape garden. We headed back into the center of town, where we wandered the bustling streets past seafood restaurants specializing in crabs and prawns. Used kimono shops were particularly popular, as were the countless glass shops and cafes selling green tea ice cream. Meanwhile, the birdwatchers explored the woodlands in Naibo Park for the afternoon, turning up such birds as varied as tits, white-bellied green pigeons, and hawfinches.
In the evening, some of us ate dinner off the ship at one of the many excellent restaurants within walking distance.
Tuesday, August 13 - Otaru / Disembark / Sapporo: This morning we disembarked the Caledonian Sky, the ship that had been our home for the past several weeks. We reached the end of our exploration of the Russian Far East. The final days of this trip were dominated by reflection on all we have seen and experienced, and celebration of the friends, both new and old, with whom we have shared this journey.