On a drive north of Ternei last October I could not pull my eyes from the autumn colors outside the truck window. Closer to the Sea of Japan, the mountain slopes crowding the road were fiery with senescing oak leaves and further bloodied by the setting sun. Following the contours of these low mountains was like bobbing among waves of frozen crimson. The vegetation changed with elevation; as we ascended the Sobolevka Pass my eyes lingered on slopes adorned with plumes of golden larch interspersed by the lateral strokes of white birch already bare. Two very different sets of autumn colors—both breathtaking.

Administrative authority over Primorye passed from Chinese to Russian hands in 1860, and while the Chinese story of Primorye is one worth telling, the focus here is on another ethnic group, the Koreans.

In 1863, waves of Korean peasants moved north from their homeland into what is now Primorye to escape a prolonged and severe drought. Some settled into lives of hunters, trappers, or fishermen, but most were farmers. They lived in widely-spaced communities surrounded by vast fields of corn, wheat, millet, even poppy. The above photograph, taken by Vladimir Arsenyev at the turn of the 20th century, shows Korean farmers harvesting opium from a poppy field. After only forty years there were more than a hundred Korean settlements in the region with 50,000 inhabitants, and by the mid-1920s that number had bloomed to more than 170,000. But two decades later there were only a handful of Koreans left in Primorye, and a fair number of locals today don’t know the Koreans were ever here, at least not in those numbers.

Where did they go?


2 Yr Old Blakistons Fish Owl Female_JSlaght
I have a soft spot for this particular Blakiston’s fish owl. I first discovered her when she was just a few days old, covered in a bright white down, still blind, and unreservedly helpless. I saw her again the following winter when the vulnerable chick had bloomed into a confident juvenile. She pounced for fish in the shallow water and scraped at the pebbly river bottom hoping to dislodge a hibernating frog. And here she was another year later, at the age of two, still living with her parents.

This unusually long pre-dispersal period—the time between when an owl leaves the nest then strikes out to find its own territory—is a testament to the hard lives these globally-endangered birds eke out in the harsh climate of the Russian Far East. For comparison, young great horned owls in North America leave their parents’ territories just a few months after first fluttering out of the nest.

Fishing for a living isn’t easy, especially if the rivers you rely on are largely frozen for a good portion of the year.

This text originally posted 01 October 2014 at: