Shake Zayed Road

Yesterday residents of the UAE we all excited about the occurence of an earthquake in Iran which was felt by those in the northern emirates and part of Dubai.

This is interesting for me, because the company I signed up with before it was bought out by my present company were one of the world leaders in seismic engineering. In the first year in the job, I was building finite element models of nuclear power stations or the equipment inside and subjecting them to seismic accelerations to calculate forces and displacements at various places. As part of my training, I was sent on an earthquake engineering course in Glasgow, one of the lecturers of which was a very interesting and excitable young chap who knew his subject well: designing structuress to withstand earthquakes. I have long since chucked the course notes, but the one thing which stuck in my mind was his tales of how the seismic engineering consultants used to have furious rows with the architects over the design of the buildings.

The reason for this is that in order for buildings to stand a good chance of surviving an earthquake intact, they must have a uniform stiffness throughout their structure. In layman’s terms, this means they must be as boring as the stuff the Soviets used to throw up: regularly shaped, evenly shaped, every floor the same as all the others. So, no fancy flarings on the sides, no 3-storey atriums half way up, no spectacular sculptures on the roof, no bridges linking two otherwise separate towers. Numerous models were shown during the course showing what effect a “soft spot” in a building can have, plus several photos of collapsed buildings whose failure mechanisms were remarkably similar to those flapping about on the computer simulations.

And with the look of some of the buildings going up in Dubai, I wonder if any of the architects have bothered seeing how their piles of glass and cement behave when subjected to multi-directional accelerations from deep within the earth. I doubt it. I’m glad I’ll be living in my nice, square, uniform, 7-storey apartment block with a pool on the roof.

First Impressions of Seoul

I am now in Seoul, capital of the Republic of South Korea, and by some measures the world’s most populous city, bigger even than New York, London, and Moscow with over 10 million people living here. The first thing that would surprise a visitor who has knowledge of this statistic is how quiet the city seems, or at least the centre part beside the Gyeongbukgung Palace. At nightime, albeit Sunday night, there seemed to be few people around and the walk to the office this morning for 9:00am took place in almost empty streets. So where these 10 million people are I don’t know; maybe they’re hidden behind the mountain which I can see from my room.

Seoul

I am staying at the Somerset Palace Hotel Apartments, and for the first time in my life I enter the room to find it exactly like it is in the brochure.

Somerset Palace

The building itself is brand spanking new, but I get the suspicion that this is not the reason everything is spick and span and not a thing is out of place. The interior design is simple but very nice, and everything looks, well, in order. There are plenty of communal places to sit down with a variety of books on the shelves, none of which have ever been opened. (It amused me somewhat to find one on Israel; I must make sure I’m seen reading that at some point whilst I wait for my Arab clients to meet me in the lobby). The seats look as though they’ve never been sat on, and the paintings as if they’ve never been looked at. I feel as though I’m in a show home, yet it is surprisingly natural and pleasant.

There is a Starbucks on the ground floor, which is normally filled with Koreans ranging in age from 15-22 who are almost always studying a textbook or some notes, either alone or in groups. Some are even reading a newspaper. I noticed that Singaporians of similar age do this a lot too. Why they are not like British youth and out smashing windows, taking drugs, drinking Special Brew and sandpapering bus windows I don’t know. The room itself is superb, and the hotel provides white fluffy bathrobes – two of them – thus cementing its position among the truly great hotels of the world. A 100 Mpbs internet connection is provided free of charge. Hotels in Abu Dhabi, take note.

Last night my my Venezuelan colleague Juan and I went out to try to find some food. The first place we stumbled across sold only drinks, which we realised only after we’d sat down. Not wanting to be rude, we polished off a couple of Cass beers for a mere $4 each, or 4,000 Korean Won. For the quality of beer, it was a little pricey. The next place we came across was a brightly lit place which obviously sold food, and as is common in Asia there was a man outside whose job was to drag people into the restaurant and plonk them down at a table whether they wanted to eat or not. So we found ourselves sitting at a table in a large, clean, brightly lit restaurant decorated with wood, being served by a man who knew about three words of English and two women who were less well educated in the field of linguistics. The menu was brought out – all in Korean of course – and we were shown a pile of meat and not much else. So we held up two fingers and ordered that. We also ordered two Cass beers, not knowing any other brand they might have.

Within a minute or so we were surrounded by a dozen dishes containing stuff we did not order and could not identify. I think some of it was salad. The meat arrived, but we were alarmed to find it was raw, but shortly after a steel bucket of glowing charcoal was placed in a hole in the centre of the table, a mesh thrown on the top, and we had ourselves our own private grill. One of the ladies then started throwing the meat on, and cooking it in front of us. As a way of eating a meal, it was pretty good. But not being able to identify the surrounding dishes made it a bit strange, especially as we were prevented from eating some of them. Juan tried a couple of times with one, and each time the lady snatched it away. After the second time she went and had a whispered discussion with one of her colleagues, and when she came back she said just one word: jellyfish. So that cleared everything up. Of course, a photo was mandatory:

Korean Dinner

So that was last night. Today was our first day at the office, just a five minute walk past a huge Bhuddist temple from our hotel. Interestingly, the building we’re in – and I don’t know if this is true for all Seoul office blocks – evacuates in an emergency not outside but to the basement which, I am told, is designed as a bomb shelter. The client company employs 3,000 people all in the same building, and a good portion of these were queuing patiently at the lifts in a long straight line when I walked in through the revolving doors. They want to see my office block in Abu Dhabi, the lobby scene there in the morning resembles a collapsed rugby scrum.

Lunch time was interesting. We were taken down to the basement, where an enormous canteen feeds the entire building in an hour by way of a highly efficient and well respected production line system – the type of which could only ever work in Korea, Japan, Singapore and Germany. Any attempt to operate such a system in Venezuela would, according to Juan, result in a gunfight. The choice of food varied, in a range from chilli salad and rice with a whole grey fish to a chilli salad and rice with a grey fish soup. I chose the soup. The whole fish looked as though it had died of old age and washed up on a beach somewhere. I picked around the food, thinking the salad was like eating poisonous leaves in that they tasted like leaves from a tree and set your mouth on fire, and not particuarly enjoying the spongey fish which formed the basis of the soup. There was not a drink of water in sight, and not until you queued in an orderly fashion to place your dirty tray on a moving conveyor belt did you find a couple of flagons of tepid water and a stack of semi-clean plastic beakers with which to put out the fire in your throat.

Tomorrow we’re ringing for a pizza.

Взвейтесь кострами

Having spent the last week or so in the company of two people from St. Petersburg who are old enough to have been Pioneers, I am now familiar with one or two songs of Soviet youth. Sing along, Comrades!

Взвейтесь кострами,
Синие ночи!
Мы, пионеры, –
Дети рабочих.
Близится эра
Светлых годов.
Клич пионера:
“Всегда будь готов!”

Радостным шагом,
С песней весёлой
Мы выступаем
За Комсомолом.
Близится эра
Светлых годов.
Клич пионера:
“Всегда будь готов!”

Грянем мы дружно
Песнь удалую
За пионеров
Семью мировую.
Будем примером
Борьбы и трудов.
Клич пионера:
“Всегда будь готов!”

Мы поднимает
Алое знамя.
Дети рабочих,
Смело за нами!
Близится эра
Светлых годов.
Клич пионера:
“Всегда будь готов!”

Pure Poetry

The last three paragraphs of Secret Dubai’s latest post are so beautifully written, especially if you are familiar with Dubai, that I feel compelled to give them a wider audience:

Freedom to roam again at last! To ride the wild roads of Sheikh Zayed once more, racing past sluggish white Nissan Sunnies as sheikhmobiles fly up the hard shoulder in a cloud of dust. Being able to snooze peacefully in the late afternoon at the wheel of the Shadow, as it rests in hour-long stationary gridlock.

Driving past the great sights of Dubai: the post-apocalyptic concrete monoliths of Jumeirah Beach Residence with their glittering, clanking cranes; the beautifully landscaped Beach Road with its lovely sandy trenches, lane closures, myriad plastic cones and glorious netting barriers lining each side; the white-trash-christmas flashing neon artificial ski slope at Emirates Mall.

Oh, the joys of driving in Dubai.

Why she’s not working as a journalist I’ll never know.

Thoughts on St. Petersburg and Kazan

As you’ve probably guessed I’m back from Russia, and am getting warm once again. I haven’t written a full account of this trip, but I have taken a lot of very nice photos. There are too many to put in a blog posting, so I’ll put them up on a separate page shortly.

Russia is most certainly an odd place. In no other country could you wake up on a train which has stopped at 2am in some God forsaken village with an outside temperature of -10 to find somebody banging on the carriage window trying to sell you a chandelier. Or a giant vase. In no other country have I seen a bridesmaid wearing leather thigh-boots, and in no other country have I seen a visitor to a monastery on her way to collect holy water wearing white knee boots and a white plastic miniskirt.

But this is Russia, and these things are to be expected. Similarly, it came as little surprise to hear a Tatar taxi driver with Muslim prayer beads hanging from his indicator stalk telling me all about a new nightclub in Kazan where you can watch football with a strip-show at half time, and asking me what I thought the score would be in the late kick-off between Bolton Wanderers and Zenit St. Petersburg because he fancied having a flutter to the tune of 700 roubles. This is my kind of Islam.

As I said in my earlier post, St. Petersburg is an awesome spectacle especially the area within the Fontanka where I spent most of my time. I knew this before I went, but St. Petersburg feels very different from the rest of Russia, and its founder certainly succeeded in creating a European-style city. One thing I noticed was that a lot of the people didn’t look Russian, at least compared to the population of Moscow. I would have to say that St. Petersburg is the only Russian city I would try to persuade foreigners to visit, as it is the only one I think most people would consider to be worth the effort of obtaining a visa and paying astronomical sums of money for a crap hotel with poor service. Much as I love Moscow, I can’t see it being a destination for anyone who does not specifically want to go to see Russia; St. Petersburg, on the other hand, would impress anyone.

I was staying in a suburb of the city called Chornaye Rechka, or Black Stream (it was aptly named) situated north of the river Neva. This was well off the tourist trail, and it served as a useful insight into Russian life in a large city. It wasn’t pretty. The apartment blocks, somewhat unsurprisingly, were not in good shape and even though it was late October many had not had the heating switched on yet. The footpaths and roads were in appalling condition, made worse by the onset of snow which covered everything in a slippery brown sludge several inches deep in places. Flashing neon signs have arrived in Russia with a bang, which has served to make much of the place look incredibly tacky. Chornaye Rechka had several slot-machine halls emblazoned with these flashing neon signs, which did little for the eye and less for the financial position of the residents. A McDonald’s located beside the metro station seemed to do well as a business, as did a 24hr cafe called Prichal. It was in this latter establishment that I spent a fair bit of my time, and figured out that cafes in Russia serve as an important meeting place, a focal point of social lives, and a refuge from the cold. A few roubles for a cup of tea is a small price to pay to escape the wind and snow for 15 minutes. As with all good Russian cafes, they served alcohol to anyone who wanted it, which was pretty much everybody. The food left a lot to be desired, but the waitresses were (unsurprisingly) young and pretty and it was perfectly possible to spend four or five hours of an evening there getting slowly (or quickly) drunk quite cheaply whilst watching the snow falling outside or the couples drinking and arguing inside.

The antics of one couple kept us amused for an hour or two. The man was in his late 40s, the girl maybe 10 years younger. They came in with a younger couple and proceeded to drink some sort of cognac in large quantities for about an hour and a half. The older couple got very drunk, especially the girl who kept spilling her drinks everywhere. Eventually the younger couple got up and left, leaving the older couple scowling at each other. Then the man spotted a couple of middle-aged women on the table behind him and, ignoring the girl completely, proceeded to talk to them at length to the point that he was enthusiastically grasping the waist of the nearest one (the middle-aged women did not seem to be repelled in any way; perhaps it was the white trainers and grandad jumper that won them over?). Meanwhile the girl, not to be outdone, had latched onto a table of four young men and after a short time was sat on one of their laps and rubbing his neck and stroking his face. The situation stayed like this until the middle-aged women got up to leave, and despite the enthusiastic groping on the part of the old man, were clearly leaving without him. Having been so cruelly abandoned, he looked for the girl who he was supposed to be with. Spotting her all over another man, he yelled at her to return to their table. This got the attention of the entire cafe, so everyone heard the bellowed line which followed when she sat down opposite: “Bitch, where were you?!”

For some time I had been toying with the idea of moving to Russia, but this trip served to put those plans firmly in the bin. For a start, even though by Russian standards it was warm, I had forgotten how damned cold the place can be. And as run-down as Chornaye Rechka was, those who lived there were fortunate that they didn’t live further out and rely on a marshrutka for daily transport. At one point we found ourselves in a marshrutka queue for Lysee Nos which was several hundred metres long; it was dark, snowing, and the wind icy. The marshrutkas themselves are noisy, uncomfortable, and poorly maintained, and those living outside the main city must raise themselves at 6:00am in order to get to work and return home – usually after a lengthy wait – by the same method, arriving only late in the evening. The faces of the people on these marshrutkas said it all, and I can think of nothing worse than having to live like this on a daily basis.

It is hardly a secret that I am a fan of Russia’s railway system, and my faith has not been shaken by this trip. The Moscow-St. Petersburg trains run mainly overnight (there are only two or three during the day, and they are very busy) and although advanced booking is recommended, the service is very good and includes a packed evening meal and breakfast. What’s more, the ride is far smoother than on those trains which run to the more far-flung places in Russia. Unfortunately, the train I took arrived into St. Petersburg at 5:30am, which is probably not the best time to arrive in any city. The journey from St. Petersburg to Kazan was 28 hours long, and the train was of the type I am more used to, i.e. a bit more rough and ready. I was sharing a carriage with a middle aged Russian lady who spoke enthusiastically to me in very fast Russian, of which I understood practically nothing, until she got off in Novoshino. It would not have been so bad if she’d stuck to the topic in hand, but having started the conversation talking about photography from a train window, a few sentences later she was on about Roman Abramovich buying Chelsea, which made it awfully difficult to follow. She was highly critical of my choice of food for the journey – a few pot noodles and Snickers bars – telling me there was too much salt in them, and instead offered me what she considered healthy food – an entire roast chicken and boiled eggs. Such is the nature of travelling on Russian trains.

Kazan was a nice city, although obviously nowhere near the size of Moscow or St. Petersburg. I had mistakenly thought it was situated right on the Volga, but in fact it is the Kazanka river which splits the city in half, and joins the Volga a few miles downstream. The city was allegedly 1,000 years old this year – although they had 750 year celebrations in the 1960s, or something (historical accuracy has never taken precedence over grand celebrations in Russia) – and in Russia, every 1,000 years they paint the buildings and fix the roads. The place had undergone, and is still undergoing, a large refurbishment programme similar in nature to that of St. Petersburg in 2003 to honour its tri-centenary. There were the usual pie-in-the-sky pet projects dotted about which inevitably come hand in hand with large cash handouts in Russia, including a rather unconvincing Dutch village complete with windmill and an enormous race course, including an impressive grandstand, which was completely deserted and is likely to remain so until such time that the world’s multi-millionaire horse breeders for some reason decide to include central Russia on their racing calendar.

As I said in my earlier post, I had intended to go down the Volga to Samara, preferably on a boat. However, unsurprisingly they stop running past September so I was unable to do so and, more distressingly, I was unable to find out if they still sell Hungarian Tokai on the boat. However, I did get to see the Volga and walk along what passed for a beach (which I’m told is packed in summer) for quite some way. The river is not particularly wide at that point, and was still very much in liquid form – mainly because Kazan was having one of the mildest autumns which anyone can remember. That said, it was still damned cold as the picture below testifies.

Tim on the Volga

Interestingly, Kazan has an Uzbek restaurant called Dubai, which is pretty much the same inside in terms of decor and food as the Uzbek restaurant in Dubai, called Samarkand. I’m sure there’ll be one in Samarkand called Kazan to complete the circle.

As for the future, I am intending to return to St. Petersburg in June with a native of the city in order to see the White Nights and all the bits I missed out this time. I am unlikely to go back to Kazan, although that of course depends on how long my friends stay there. And I’ll close this post by saying a huge thank you to Allard and Aigul, pictured below, who put up with me in their Kazan apartment and made me feel as welcome and comfortable as I do in my own home.

Allard & Aigul

Where next?

I’m back from Russia, and am in the process of writing a post to that effect. But here’s some food for thought:

I spent last night in the Radisson SAS hotel in Kuwait. Last night terrorists killed 57 people in an attack on three hotels in Jordan, including the Radisson SAS hotel.

Next week I will be staying in the Radisson SAS hotel in Kuwait. I’m hoping the terrorists’ list of target countries is not in alphabetical order.