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Russia’s Far East opens up to visitors

(CNN) — The long, dark sand beach stretches as far as the eye can see, toward a horizon of snow-capped beaches. At first, the huge wave breaking over the ice patches that dot the waterline is hardly noticeable — until the icy brine crashes at our feet before withdrawing into the waters of the North…

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Russia’s Far East opens up to visitors

(CNN) — The long, dark sand beach stretches as far as the eye can see, toward a horizon of snow-capped beaches.

At first, the huge wave breaking over the ice patches that dot the waterline is hardly noticeable — until the icy brine crashes at our feet before withdrawing into the waters of the North Pacific Ocean.

But this isn’t the only surprise this deserted beach has in store.

“Look!” shouts the local guide before producing a tiny, yellowish, translucent cube on the palm of her hand: natural amber washed onto shore.

Welcome to Sakhalin, Russia’s largest island: a narrow, 1,000-kilometer long strip of land, sandwiched between the Sea of Okhotsk to the east and the Sea of Japan to the west.

Where tourists rarely tread

Never a tourist hotspot, Sakhalin is, even within the context of the Russian Far East, overshadowed by better-known destinations such as Kamchatka, with its spectacular volcanoes, or Vladivostok, the eastern terminus of the famous trans-Siberian railway.

Although the island’s seen an increase in visitors in recent years, this has been mostly connected to the development and exploitation of its offshore oil and gas fields and tourists are scarce on the ground.

But with the recent introduction of new, simplified visas, this could be set to change.

Sakhalin has in store a range of truly unique experiences, from its exuberant nature, to the amber-strewn shores of the beaches around Starodubskoye, and the charms of its capital city. It’s unlikely to disappoint travelers looking for a truly unconventional getaway.

A day in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Sakhalin, Russia. Images to accompany Miquel Ros' story on

Victory Square: The military museum is on the left and the cathedral is on the right.

Miquel Ros

For most, a journey to Sakhalin would start in its capital city, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

It’s here that most of the tourist infrastructure is located, including the island’s only international airport, with daily connections to Moscow, Tokyo, Seoul and Sapporo, as well as several other regional outposts.

Even if few travel to Sakhalin for an urban vacation, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is well worth a stopover.

At first glance it looks like many other Russian provincial cities, with its nondescript Soviet-style concrete buildings, but there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

The city’s modest dimensions and broad avenues laid out in a grid make for a surprisingly pleasant stroll between the town’s most remarkable sights.

Among them is Victory Square, where the Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity with its gleaming golden onion-shaped domes stands next to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Military Museum, which focuses on World War II.

Japanese rule

As in the rest of Russia, World War II (or the Great Patriotic War as it is known to Russians) is remembered here with special devotion.

However, for Sakhalin it has an added significance. In 1945, the city became Russian again after four decades of Japanese rule, when the southern half of the island was known as Karafuto and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk as Toyohara.

This historical episode is very present on the streets of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, with several war memorials dotted around the city.

Today Sakhalin is Russian through and through and only the right-side steering wheel on most second-hand imported cars reminds the visitor that we’re barely 45 kilometers from Japan’s northern tip.

Sakhalin, Russia. Images to accompany Miquel Ros' story on

War memorials are dotted around the streets of the capital.

Miquel Ros

Epic rail journey

For those interested in exploring the island’s history, a visit to the modest but informative Sakhalin Regional Museum is recommended. Here you’ll also find reference to the fascinating Ainu and other indigenous peoples who have called Sakhalin their home since prehistoric times.

The museum, built in traditional Japanese style, is also one of the few physical vestiges of the Karafuto period, as is the narrow-gauge railway that links Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to Nogliki, on the north of the island.

The overnight 12-hour train ride is a kind of umbilical cord linking the south of the island, where most of the population live, to the remote, resource-rich settlements of the north.

Not to be overlooked, next to the railway station, a small museum displays several historical locomotives that serviced this line.

But if there’s one thing that really puts Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in a class of its own, it’s the local ski resort, Gorny Vozdukh (“Mountain Air”), that can be accessed on foot from right next to Victory Square.

The 600-meter altitude of Mount Bolshevik, the resort’s highest point, may not be comparable to the top resorts of the Alps or the Rockies, but here snow is plentiful in winter and its location, right next to the city center, makes for amazing city views during the descent.

Untamed nature

Although urban skiing is pretty cool, those looking for the great outdoors don’t need to venture far from the city limits. Most of Sakhalin is, in fact, an uninterrupted stretch of unspoilt nature.

The island is fairly mountainous at its center: a heavily wooded wilderness which in winter becomes a proper wonderland covered with knee-deep cotton-like snow. (But beware! This is also bear country.)

Sakhalin, Russia. Images for Miquel Ros' story:

The giant red king crab is the star of Sakhalin’s seafood scene.

Miquel Ros

However, you’re never far from the sea in Sakhalin — the island is just 25 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

This is evident in the local gastronomy, which leans heavily on prime quality seafood and fish. There’s nowhere better to understand it than Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk’s Uspekh market.

Here you can find Sakhalin seafood in all its glory.

The star here is the giant red king crab, a monstrous-looking creature which lives in the waters of the Northern Pacific and is exported the world over.

But there’s ample choice of scallops, shrimps, fresh and frozen fish. Sakhalin’s more than 65,000 rivers and streams also make it a salmon and red caviar powerhouse.

Exploring the coastline

If you prefer to get your own catch, there’s ample opportunity on Sakhalin, as pretty much all local tour agencies organize fishing tours.

No need to get your fishing gear ready to enjoy the island’s long coastline, though. The monumental rock formations of Cape Giant, the sea lion rookeries at Nevelsk or even Moneron Island, an uninhabited nature reserve a few miles off the coast and famous for its diving spots, are all within easy reach of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

Another magical spot is Bukhta Tikhaya, 140 kilometers up the east coast from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. This secluded spot, with a name meaning “Quiet Bay” in Russian, is a place of tranquility and beauty, particularly in winter. In its sheltered icy confines, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to Antarctica.

Sakhalin, Russia. Images for Miquel Ros' story:

Bukhta Tikhaya is known for its tranquility — especially in winter.

Miquel Ros

Opening up

For all the charms of solitude, Sakhalin may be about to become a busier place, and that’s even without having to wait for the construction of a bridge to the mainland (now reported to be under evaluation), or the more unlikely tunnel to Hokkaido.

Citizens of 18 countries, most of them in Asia and the Middle East, can now take part in the e-visa scheme for the Far Eastern regions of Russia. Although the scheme is limited in scope so far, it’s been reported that new countries may soon be added.

Visitors arriving at the airports of Vladivostok, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Blagoveshchensk, Khabarovsk, Anadyr and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk will be able to get free e-visas on arrival, doing away with the lengthier and costlier regular visa procedure.

The new simplified visas must be requested no later than four days before the date of arrival and are valid for up to eight days within a 30-day period of their issuance.

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November 26 Omicron variant news

Travelers carry luggage as they arrive at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport November 23, in Arlington, Virginia. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)The new travel restrictions announced by President Biden today will buy the US federal government more time to investigate the new Omicron variant that has emerged in South Africa, officials say. But not much.Earlier today, the…

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November 26 Omicron variant news
Travelers carry luggage as they arrive at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport November 23, in Arlington, Virginia.
Travelers carry luggage as they arrive at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport November 23, in Arlington, Virginia. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The new travel restrictions announced by President Biden today will buy the US federal government more time to investigate the new Omicron variant that has emerged in South Africa, officials say. But not much.

Earlier today, the Biden administration announced it will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, starting Monday. The administration stressed it was acting on advice from Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after the World Health Organization labeled the newly discovered strain as a “variant of concern.”

Inside the government, it is seen as inevitable that the new variant will appear in the US at some point, but the new restrictions should give federal health agencies and their global counterparts more time to learn about the variant, including the severity of the disease it causes. Officials do not believe, based on current thinking, that the variant is in the US yet. 

Officials acted quickly to implement the new restrictions. While the emergency of the variant had been flagged in the last several weeks, it was only in recent days that they learned how serious it was. 

US officials are expected to speak to scientists in South Africa again potentially on Sunday. 

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3 burned bodies found in Solomon Islands’ Chinatown following days of violent protests

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3 burned bodies found in Solomon Islands’ Chinatown following days of violent protests
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Vibrant skin patterns and colored feathers: Stunning paleoart shows what dinosaurs really looked like

Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNNKeeping you in the know, Culture Queue is an ongoing series of recommendations for timely books to read, films to watch and podcasts and music to listen to.Crystal Palace Park, in south London, still hosts the world’s first dinosaur sculptures. They were created in the 1850s based on what were, at…

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Vibrant skin patterns and colored feathers: Stunning paleoart shows what dinosaurs really looked like

Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNN

Keeping you in the know, Culture Queue is an ongoing series of recommendations for timely books to read, films to watch and podcasts and music to listen to.
Crystal Palace Park, in south London, still hosts the world’s first dinosaur sculptures. They were created in the 1850s based on what were, at the time, very recent scientific discoveries: fossils, unearthed in England just decades earlier.

Scientists struggled to make sense of the creatures, and the sculptures were the first attempt to visualize them in true-to-life size. They were depicted like giant, mammal-like beasts, heavy set and four-legged — an already revolutionary idea compared to earlier ones that imagined dinosaurs essentially as huge lizards. But it was just as wrong.

View of the Crystal Palace exhibition with Richard Owen's fantastical dinosaur reconstructions in the foreground, by the London printer George Baxter.

View of the Crystal Palace exhibition with Richard Owen’s fantastical dinosaur reconstructions in the foreground, by the London printer George Baxter. Credit: Wellcome Collection

We know today that dinosaurs did not look at all like the scaly versions at Crystal Palace. For decades, however, the sculptures, as well as many other subsequent depictions, inaccurately influenced the public’s view of these extinct giants. Renowned paleontologist Michael Benton’s new book, “Dinosaurs: New Visions of a Lost World,” however, offers the latest interpretation.

“It’s the first dinosaur book where the dinosaurs actually look like what they looked like,” claims the author, who worked with paleoartist Bob Nicholls to bring the creatures to life. “Every detail, as far as possible, is justified by evidence. We tried to pick species that are quite well documented, so that in the text, I can indicate what we know and why we know it.”

Paleoartist Bob Nicholls brought the creatures in Benton's book to life, including on the cover shown here.

Paleoartist Bob Nicholls brought the creatures in Benton’s book to life, including on the cover shown here. Credit: Thames & Hudson

Much of the evidence comes from the most recent fossil discoveries from China, which starting in the 1990s, changed the way we interpret the appearance of dinosaurs. The 1996 discovery in the country’s Liaoning province of a feathered fossil, for example, created a direct connection between dinosaurs and birds.

“I think we can say that feathers originated way earlier than we had thought, at least 100 million years earlier, so right at the root of dinosaurs,” Benton said.

A skeletal restoration of Hadrosaurus foulkii based on the original in the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the first ever museum mount of a dinosaur that was also, correctly, upright.

A skeletal restoration of Hadrosaurus foulkii based on the original in the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the first ever museum mount of a dinosaur that was also, correctly, upright. Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

The idea that dinosaurs had feathers hasn’t appealed to everyone. Famously, the “Jurassic Park” franchise — which debuted in 1993 before feathery dinosaurs fossils were first discovered — has steadfastly refused to include them in its most recent films.

“They characterize that by saying they don’t want T-Rex to look like a giant chicken. But it’s a pity,” Benton said.

Even more recently, Benton and his team at the University of Bristol in the UK have pioneered a way, by finding pigment structures embedded deep within the fossilized feathers, to identify the color patterns of a dinosaur from fossils. “We were the first to apply this method in 2010, so the book is documenting mainly studies from the last 10 years that looked at the skin, the scales and the feathers in fossils — to get the color.”

That result is shown through illustrations of 15 creatures featured in the book — not just of dinosaurs but also prehistoric birds, mammals and reptiles — adorned with vibrant skin patterns, an abundance of multicolored feathers and some with striking iridescent heads.

Looking at these creatures shows just how much our knowledge of dinosaurs has improved, and how much it can improve still. “A few years ago, I thought we would have never known about the color of a dinosaur, but now we do,” Benton said.

“Don’t draw boundaries, because sooner or later, a smart young person is going to say, ‘Hey, you guys, we can actually solve this one.'”

“Dinosaurs: New Visions of a Lost World” is published by Thames & Hudson.

Add to queue: Dino-mania

If you want to know the entire history of the dinosaurs, look no further than this “dinosaur biography” by one of the world’s leading paleontologists, Steve Brusatte. The book chronicles the 200 million-year history of the dinosaurs, from the Triassic, through the Jurassic and into the Cretaceous, when their rule ended via a mass extinction caused by a comet or asteroid. Narrated like an epic saga that illustrates the modern workings of paleontology, it draws on very recent research.

This classic documentary series, produced by the venerable BBC Natural History Unit and aired by Discovery in the US, had the distinction of being the most expensive documentary ever made when it launched in 1999. It won three Emmys, spawned two sequels and portrayed dinosaurs in their natural habitats — in true documentary style — using a mix of computer graphics and animatronics. It was cutting edge for its time and still holds plenty of entertainment and educational value, although some of the science is now outdated.

This mix between palaeontology and political drama is woven throughout the story of Sue, the largest and most complete T. rex skeleton ever found. After being unearthed in South Dakota in 1990, the fossil became the center of a years-long legal battle over its ownership, illustrating the rifts that can arise between palaeontologists, fossil collectors and governments that own the land on which the fossils are found. Spoiler alert: Sue is now on display at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.

The go-to podcast for dinosaur lovers, “I Know Dino” is run by Garret Kruger and Sabrina Ricci, a husband-and-wife team of dino enthusiasts. Each hour-long episode focuses on one species, which is discussed and explored in detail with the help of guests. The podcast, which began in 2016, is now approaching 400 episodes.

This Steven Spielberg classic is still the popular culture reference point for dinosaurs. It was the first film to portray them as smart, dynamic and fast-moving creatures. (Who could forget the famous scene with T. rex fighting Velociraptors?) Though it was made nearly 30 years ago, the film’s CGI still holds up to scrutiny. Scientific accuracy has waned over the years, but it’s still an entertaining film to watch, with milestone performances from Laura Dern, Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum.

Top Image: Reconstruction of a Psittacosaurus, an illustration that appears in the book “Dinosaurs: New Visions of a Lost World.” One fossil find for this creature contained preserved soft tissue, including skin and an array of reed-like feathers on top of the tail.

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