Notes from Sakhalin: Wild dogs and caged animals

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The Independent Online
A SORT of pattern is developing in the mornings. I often go to see the bears. After coffee and a few of my precious digestive biscuits, I leave the hotel room, carefully unlocking the door first with the tricky key. While fiddling, I study the blurry diagram attached to it showing the fire-escape route, advising guests how to 'Evacuatich out of room'. Hmmm.

In the foyer, I offer a few 'good mornings'. This is a much easier word in Russian than the long one for 'hello', so I am at my friendliest before midday.

Out in Lenin Street, drainage has yet to come. Dirty old cars plough along, cascading liquid mud against pedestrians. Black plumes of smoke rise and spread from the railway yards and the power station - but you mustn't look up at the smoke too long, because manholes are often left coverless, without warning or fence, and prone ladders, waste metal scraps and heaps of rubble lie elsewhere on the walker's obstacle course. The rattle of old engines and the swish of tyres in deep slush is incessant.

I walk up Communist Prospect, past blocks of governmental-looking buildings, and past the Sakhincenter, the brave new business complex, satellite dish proudly on the roof. Its office suites and communications facilities are to be a magnet for new national and international enterprises. It already looks shabby, and its car park barrier has jammed in the down position; cars can get neither out nor in.

The large gates into the park are at the top of the road. Is it open, and public, this early in the morning? The throngs in the lower streets have thinned to nothing, and it is suddenly silent. The fine needles of larch lie underfoot, a thick layer of ginger sawdust. The larches alternate with green fir, and bare, silvery-white birch.

I'm sure the little zoo is not open yet, but no one takes any notice of me. A few local animals are kept here, in cages and yards, and several girls are tending them. They have an alsatian dog with them, whose job is to collect the empty feed buckets. He nudges up the metal handle with his nose, picks it up in his mouth and returns it to the keeper. Back and forth he goes, to the beaver, the stoat, the fox and the ponies, interestedly accompanying the full buckets, and returning the empties, infused with busyness and happiness.

I commune with the two huge bears in a sadly tiny cage. Their paws and claws are terrifying. My conscience about their confinement is blunted by a degree of fellow feeling, and I think of the 'Evacuatich' sign. Sometimes, I remind them, in low moments that's what we'd all like to do.

I share some chocolate with a black long-haired goat with an elaborate beard and spiralling horns. He has a wild eye, as he munches, and looks like a medieval illustration of the devil. He cheers me up greatly, and I set off again, up a gradual slope beside a brisk stream.

The head of the valley opens into a wonderful saucer of lake and forested mountains. Reflected in the water lie great chevrons of golden larch, green firs and white birches, and mountain ash trees, heavy with berries, make scarlet splashes.

The park is one of only two or three features of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, capital of the island of Sakhalin, which have been allowed to survive from nearly 50 years of Japanese occupation (ended with a Russian invasion just two or three days before Emperor Hirohito's surrender in 1945). The graceful curves of the lake edge, and the mannered, perfect placing of a footbridge, show clearly an aesthetic philosophy now foreign in Sakhalin. It is a world away from the concrete lines and parade-ground squares of the town below.

I wander back, thinking of the agronomist who yesterday walked me round the environs of our future house, discussing the planting of the garden. Mainly fruit trees, he insisted, and I realised that where I was thinking colour and shape, he was thinking food. Tovarishch Valery - as he jovially but passionately suggested I call him - says democracy has been bad for trees. Entrepreneurs pull them down to make space for more concrete. It has also, he says, been bad for security; what about patrol dogs in my garden? He himself has a St Bernard. I seize on the alternative to politics, and soon he shows me a photograph of his St Bernard, large and handsome.

The subject of dogs on Sakhalin has pressed itself on me before. First, there are the roaming packs of assorted sizes, but all reduced to one lowest common denominator dingo-brown colour. They scavenge wasteland and apartment blocks. (Heidi, a brave friend, found a pack rushing her ground-floor door when she opened it one morning. She slammed it shut and faxed her New York head office: 'I will not be at work today - wild dogs have kept me away.') Perhaps more unexpected are the other dogs, people's pets. I have seen collies, poodles (standard and miniature), rottweilers, boxers, other St Bernards, spaniels (tails undocked), bulldogs, afghans, airedales, schnauzers, sealyhams and a Maltese terrier. In a town where I know from personal endeavour that you can't buy shoelaces, soap powder or green vegetables, where do you buy a Maltese terrier? The question occupies me all the way back from the bears to Lenin Street, to the hotel, the tricky key, and the notice about 'Evacuatich'.

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