Going from Khabarovsk to Hokkaido and back by car
The road from Khabarovsk to Vanino is not bad, if you survived the federal road from Chita, you have no problems with the road to Vanino. The road is rather new, until recently there was only a winter road to Vanino, and the BAM of course. Most of the road is very scenic when folloving the rivers or climbing the Sikhote Alin. There are a lot of people camping and fishing in the area.
Half the way from Khabarovsk to Komsomolsk, close to the village Lidoga, there is a post and a well signed asphalt road heading east to Vanino.
Up to km 65, there is good asphalt, followed by about 230 km gravel road, mostly rather good but some road construction soon after the asphalt stops. Then again some 40km asphalt down to Vanino but some very rough road construction, for about 10km, 30km from Vanino.
At km 115 (from turning into the Vanino road) there are some rough road construction. At km 180 there is a kafé, and probably rooms. At km 300, when the asphalt starts, there is a gas station. No other villages or houses, but some road construction workers camps.
Buying ticket in Vanino
Arriving at Vanino there is a GAI-post, just after there is a bus stop and stairs down to the harbour. Walk the stairs down, crossing the railway tracks, continue straight (a bit to the right), and take the first entrance in to the left. Across a factory yard to the left, some stairs up to the office DALTRANSSERVIS. Here you have to book and pay the ticket for your car (or motorbike i suppose). Our 4.8 metre TLC costed 4230 Rubles (one way). You will get a receipt and they will tell you when to come back. Nobody knows exactly when the next ferry are leaving, so be prepared for some waiting. We tried to call them in advance, but of little use since they can not predict the departure times; the ferries are leaving when they are loaded.
When you come back, you will get a confirmation with the depart date stamped on it, and be told to enter the port. Then you have to pay 238 Rubles port tax at the office next to the entrance to the port area (close to the train station). The officials in Vanino are very paranoid and worried about forigners, so they might ask for special permissions or Sakhalin noted on your visa, but after some phone calls, maybe a visit to the nearby border police station, everything is sorted out. In our case, the police escorded us to the ferry, and a young police took photo copies of our entire passport. After some more waiting, the ferry is unloaded and then the load first train wagons, then trucks and finally it's your turn. When your car is on board, you have to leave the boat again, and climb onboard together with the other passangers.
Your ferrytickets, and cabin, can be bought onboard or at the ferry office in the train station. We bought our tickets onboard. 800 Rubles each person, but the friendly staff gave us a nice cabin. About 15 hous later, arriving in Kholmsk, you first have to unload your car, then follow some of the crew up to a police office upstairs in the terminal bulidning. They will register your passport, it takes an hour or so. Then you need to go to the DALTRANSERVIS office and sign some papers. The office is on the second floor in the buildning next to the gate. Show the signed documents for the guard at the gate and she will bitterly loosen the rope and open the gate.
The general impression is that everyone tried their best to help us, but that the rutines are very unpractical and that they are not used to forigners. It is essential to speak some Russian.
Now you are on Sakhalin. The road for Yuzhno Sakhalinsk is to the left a kilometre, and then right over the railway tracks. In southern Sakhalin the roads outside the cities are OK. To get to the ferry in Korsakov, you have to pass Yuzhno-Sakhalinisk, go thru most of Korsakov and then you have the sea terminal MORVOKSAL on your right. Here you can buy tickets for the ferry to Wakkanai (also sold from Sakhalin Fantastic in Yuzhno, they might even answer e-mails!) but nobody in Korsakov seems to sell tickets for our car. Anyway that shouldn't be a problems because it's allways more cars going from Japan than opposite direction. We paid $280 for our return tickets. Make sure to bring some Yen to pay for the car onboard, we paid 35700 Yen for a return ticket for our car.
Wash your car well before enter Japan, the costums will check for mud and dirt under in these days of epedimic threats.
There is a insurance and shipping company named RUSTIK, that seems to be good at arranging things in Korsakov and they even speak Japanese and English. We didn't hire them and everything is sorted out anyway, but it might be a good idea to contact them, especially if you are going to enter Russia in Korsakov. Send documents to Rustik in advance might help you getting the car thru the customs in one day.
The customs in Korsakov will be your biggest problem on this route. Some of the officers are extremely inefficient and paranoid, not to say stupid, but happy enough there are some more professional among them. It's a good idea to contact the customs a day before. There office is in the third (?) floor in the story buildning, hundres metres after the sea terminal. Be sure to have all your documents in order.
Before departure, you also have to pay port tax of 500 Rubles a person. Keep the receipts.
The procedure of getting you, your car and your bagage on board are very inefficient on the russian side. The ferry agent and maybe custom officers might help you to: unload the car, take the bagage thru the costums, guard your bagage while you go back out and drive your car inside, load everything on the car again, and then follow the bus to the pier where the ferry leaves from.
On board of the ferry you will face a culture chock. The crew is extremely friendly and helpsome, food is served and the sailors even helped me to wash my car on board of the ferry. In Wakkanai, the border formalities takes an hour or two. You have to buy an mandatory insurance (one month about 6000 Yen), and get the Carnet stamped. The JAF authorification of the Carnet might not be needed, but if they ask for it, you have to travel to the nearest JAF-office (Asahiyama?) or get it via a proxy within Japan in advance. It's a good idea to contact JAF (Japan Automibile Federation) in advance for advices. The ferry company also has an agent in the port that is very efficient and speaks good English.
Going back to Russia:
Kaiferries (the company that run the ferries from Wakkanai to Korsakov) are easy to deal with if you speak Japanese, otherwise you might have to push it a bit to get an English speaking person.
Again, the japanese customs are very efficient, but (according to someone working in the port) they need to arrange things to suite the russian border procedure:
Unload your car and leave your car and keys to the loaders. Then take your bagage thru the customs and load it onto a truck. Go thru the passport control and enter the ship.
In Korsakov. A bus will take you to the sea terminal (someone else is taking care of your car), bring your bagage thru the customs, and your self thru the passport control, migration cards and all that russian paper work. Don't worry, they will not let you miss to sign a single document. Then, leave your bagage somewhere, and go to the custom building again (this might take place the day after, to be safe book a night in the only hotel in Korsakov in advance). Answer all there questions, see them running up and down for most of the day until finally one senior says that it's enough. Then someone will follow you to the warehouse to get your car. You will have to pay for unloading, about 320 Rubles, and 710 Rubles for the customs service and parking of the car and 100 Rubles for your russian registration document. Make sure you get all receipts.
Sakhalin is a fantastic place, there is nothing a like.
In Kholmsk, first go to the office on the second floor in the building to the right of the gate (200m after the sea terminal if coming from Youzno), again pay for your vehicle, and they will tell you when to come back for registration, and maybe when the ship is supposed to leave. At time, line up outside the gate with your documents ready. When the trains are loaded, the trucks are alowed to enter the port area, and then, you. Show your confirmation to the lady, and she'll lower the rope for you. The ferry itself is something for Tjechov to write home about, a real russian experience. Bring your own instant coffee, the one onboard is allready mixed with 70% sugar and milk powder. Most passangers don't drink coffee anyway.
In Vanino, unload your car and go to the building mostly to the left (east), next to the ferries. On the secont floor in the DALTRANSSERVIS office, get your papers stamped and pay 500 Rubles in tax or for unloading. Now leave the port, following the railwaytracks. Show the documents at the gate, and leave.
You are now free, and have the Taiga ahead of you. In your mirror, the Pacific ocean.