Things are simpler on the other side of the world: “It,” means “big,” and “urup” means “salmon.” At least, that’s one of the competing theories for how the island got its name. The other is that it’s derived from the word “etorop,” or “jellyfish.” Either way, these words come from the Ainu language group, spoken by the ancient peoples who once inhabited Kamchatka, Sakhalin and the Kuril island, now part of the Russian Federation.
Iturup is one of the most densely populated islands of the Kuril ridge, with a population of no less than 6,387 (based on data from 2007). As a comparison, the daily passenger volume of the Vykhino Moscow Metro station is 22 times this size, which should help give an approximate idea of exactly how isolated the area truly is. People who make the conscious decision to move here in fact do so exactly because of this “perk.” As an added plus, of course, to the higher northern wages and better retirement plans.
Iturup welcomes around several hundred tourists every year, typically in groups, as it’s easier that way to organize tours and excursions. Although while the boosted wage rate here might be appealing to the local population, visitors fly in for a whole different slew of reasons.
In the past, the school stadium in Kurislk would flood up to the knees once every two years, and the kids could wade around in it playing “salmon soccer.” Thankfully, the school has since been moved to higher ground, away from the rising water and the grizzly bear stalkers it brings along with it. This time of year they roam into town like characters out of an Arkady and Boris Strugatsky novel, except here they’re looking for food scraps and fresh fish.
Kurilsk is the capital of Iturup, and has all the modern amenities people are used to like stores, hotels, a city administration and, of course, its own Lenin statue. Although we must admit, there isn’t much unique about it. Visitors interested in a less-than-typical representation of the 20th century revolutionary are welcome to visit Reydovo village 12 km outside of Kurislk to catch a glimpse of him wearing a winter hat.
Life on the island is markedly different than on the mainland. Stores here have no problem offering customers expired goods, but not because the owners are swindlers. Indeed, food is only shipped in twice a month, and in the winter when winds kick up from the icy north, sometimes it doesn’t even come at all. The local population has experienced this more than once. At one point, the Semen Dezhnev motor vessel just barely broke through the winter ice, and had to sail immediately to South Korea for repairs. Another time, goods could only be imported by Mi-26 helicopter, and the price of tomatoes shot up to RUB 580/kg.
Situations in Iturup where something might happen, or might not, are a part of everyday life. Schroedinger would have felt right at home here. When it comes time to catch a plane back to the mainland, you might either leave that day, or not. It all depends on the fog and wind speed. If there’s a thick fog and no wind, you’re staying put. But if first there’s fog, and then a good wind sets in, then welcome aboard! Your life hits the pause button when you’re on the island, and you’re no longer your own master. The almighty Big Salmon decides what you do on any given day, which in reality isn’t such a bad thing. Some people come here just to feel that “pause.” But of course, the wild nature of the Pacific islands plays a role too.
If you listen closely to how the local people speak Russian, you’ll notice their particular fondness for diminutives, like little plates (tarelochki), little Nikita (Nikitika), and the local volcanic thermal-water resort Vannochki (-chki is a common diminutive form in Russian). But they have a different attitude towards the area’s volcanoes, which they respect for their unpredictability and harsh temperament. The island has a total of nine active volcanoes, including Ivan Grozny, Bogdan Khmelnitsy, Baransky, and the more exotic Atsonupury and Berutarube. However, some of them still have that diminutive feeling to them: Kudryavy (“curly-haired”) and Menshoy Brat (“younger brother”).
The best time of year for trips to the volcanoes is at the end of winter and beginning of spring, when there’s a thick crust of snow on the ground that makes for an unforgettable snowmobile track. If you’re looking for a warmer time to plan your ascent, it’s best to stick to August or the beginning of September.
The perfect place to see stunning views of the island’s volcanoes is the Yankito volcanic plateau. This natural area features cliffs formed from hardened lava flows. Over the years, winds from the Sea of Okhotsk formed this volcanic building material into whimsical shapes. Iturut also has other cliffs, but they can only be reached after trekking through bamboo thickets.
The Golden Bay Arches
For residents of mainland Russia, Iturup’s natural beauty is something entirely new. As it turns out, there’s stone birch here and leaves that look like a doubled-over Russian letter “Г” (which is how the plant has adapted to the wind). Plus, visitors are surprised to learn that Russia also has its own regions covered in bamboo fields.
In fact, to make it to the Golden Bay arches, hikers much first make their way through wild bamboo forests, or Kurilsky “sazy,” a type of annual flowering plant belonging to the grass family. After a light trek through these bamboo wilds, magnificent views of the coastal cliffs open up for the excited adventurer. Throw in the chance to perhaps see a bear in its natural habitat, and it’s not hard to understand the true meaning of “at one with nature.” Urban life takes a back seat here, handing the wheel over to the free world of sight and touch.
Closer to the coast and the surrounding cliffs, visitors are free to cook fish on the rocks just like the locals do, and get a look at what the sea brought in that day. Typically, after a storm hikers can find whale bones and various refuse washed in from Japan. Thirty or so years ago, local kids used to scour the shores for parts of Japanese lighters. If they managed to make 20 complete lighters, they could trade them for a shoe. And who knows, maybe on that very shore they could find a second one. But when it comes to the coast, that’s far from the end of its inherent attraction for visitors.
Iturup is also home to the Cherrny (“black”) cliffs, which are dark, tube-shaped basalt cliffs towering above a tar-black sand beach. This deep color comes from volcanic sand possessing magnetic properties thanks to its high titanium levels. At one point, there were plans to mine this resource on an industrial level to extract the titanium, but the project was scrapped because of potential damage to the natural environment. Beaches with unique properties like this are vital for the navigation of local bird and fish populations, and their destruction would lead to serious consequences.
Despite their intimidating name, the Cherny cliffs aren’t an oppressive force for curious visitors. Here the only thing people feel is the pulse of wild nature in its natural rhythms. Waves crash against the tall rocks; fog weaves its intricate white dragon-like formations on the black sand, and the stones stand as a frozen reminder of ancient idols. The latter appear almost as if they’re hiding something deep within that awakens an archetype in all of us: either a collector, spurring you on to find some pretty pebble as a souvenir, or an explorer who stares deep into the sea and the fog, gazing outwards where you exist only in your mind, leaving your body behind.
Not far from the Cherny cliffs stand their antipode: the Bely (“white”) cliffs. This area is a must-visit for any adventurer who makes it as far as Iturup.
The Bely Cliffs
The Bely (“white”) cliffs are as picturesque as they are fragile. They’re formed from pumice that turns to sand at the first touch, washes out to sea by the waves and gets carried away by gusts of wind. When you finally make it here, the area is completely unique to how you see it that day. Just a year later, the relief is bound to be different. In this sense, the area is reminiscent of the disintegrating arch of the Azure Window in Malta. Don’t waste your chance to see some of nature’s most beautiful gifts to the world before they’re gone!
The Bely cliffs are accessible either by sea or by vehicle, ending with a hike across a long beach. If you make a whole trip out of it, the trek feels something like a journey across the planet before man came along to tame it. Strewn all across the sand visitors can find driftwood and animal bones, and the waves leave behind their other-worldly designs in the sand. Here the sand has both a high concentration of quartz, as well as magnetic titanium. The waves whip and stir up small white specks from the cliffs, and stretch them into ornate patterns along the dark surface of the sand. Sniff the air, and there is the undeniably sweet scent of either pumice, or the fields flowering above. What the area does not have is people, the need to hurry, or even a concept of the passage of time.
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Iturup isn’t a vacation destination for people looking for a lazy, all-inclusive experience. The island just isn’t like that. In fact, there’s nothing else like it in the world. It’s the Big Salmon, a beast that might whip up such a thick fog that you have to stay with it for the extra hours or days it demands. It’s a Jellyfish that can only find its way with the help of the magnetic sand leading up to the Cherny cliffs, and the trees pressed close to the ground. It’s a land of volcanoes, grizzly bears and “little Vannyas.” You might find yourself here one day, or you might not. But if you’re one of the lucky ones who make it, you’ll leave a changed person, and will surely want to come back for more.