Holidays

Apologies for the lack of posts on here lately, work has picked up and I’ve been rather busy.  Besides, it’s been a quiet couple of weeks anyway with not much happening which has been worthy of note.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, we will leave Russia for the first time since our arrival some four and a half months ago (it will be only my second time off the island).  We are going to Pattaya in Thailand with a Russian couple from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to lie on the beach, do some snorkelling, and generally take it easy.

I will be back in Sakhalin on 9th February with a suntan, lots of photos, and a ladyboy or two.

UPDATE

Moderately heavy snow in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk has delayed our departure by 24 hours.  The namby-pamby Koreans of Asiana Airlines wouldn’t land their plane in the snow, the same plane we were supposed to catch out of here on its return leg.  Meanwhile, the rough-and-ready Russians, smoking cigars whilst poking their heads out the windows of their rickety old Antonovs and WWII bombers, have been taking off all morning.  The good news is we should be able to extend our holiday until the 12th.

Vladivostok: Two Perspectives

When you live in a place as remote as Sakhalin Island, it is interesting to watch how the rather remote viewpoint causes your perspective on the world to change.

To a lot of Europeans, the city of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East represents the most far-flung, isolated, and distant destination imagineable.  As this post by Snowsquare informs us, Vladivostok lies 6 days, 9259km, 2 continents, 14 oblasts and 8 time zones away from Moscow at the very end of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  Every Muscovite would surely know the final destination of the train, but I wonder how many actually braved the journey to Russia’s wild eastern provinces without having the feeling they are descending into the unknown.   Vladivostok sometimes gets used in English in the same way as Timbuktu, to mean somewhere so distant and remote it might as well be on another planet.  Certainly, for most European Russians and Europeans in general, Vladivostok must represent the ends of the earth.

Not so when you live on Sakhalin Island.  Rather than being a remote town off in the distant east, it becomes a rather important city not far off in the west.  Vladivostok is a much larger town than Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk or indeed Khabarovsk, the nearest sizeable city to Sakhalin.  Many materials, items of equipment, and certain services like consular support are only available from Vladivostok, and requent trips must be made to the city when running a large operation in Sakhalin.  When my company required two buses for the transportation of labourers and we couldn’t find any on Sakhalin, somebody went to Vladivostok and purchased a couple of secondhand Korean vehicles.  Any Sakhalin islander who wants a UK visa must apply through the visa application facility in Vladivostok.  In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Vladivostok is spoken of in the same way that somebody from Pembrokeshire speaks of Cardiff, or someone from Kuwait speaks of Dubai: a big place where you must go if what you are after is not available locally.

That Vladivostok should serve this purpose to Sakhalin islanders when it is considered to be the ends of the earth by most of Europe serves well to demonstrate just how remote we are living on this rock.

What’s Left of the Pioneers at Vostok Camp

Today I had occasion, not for the first time, to go to the childrens’ summer camp just south of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk called Vostok (East) camp.  In the winter, the place is used by companies as accommodation for some of the thousands of third country nationals who are working on the Sakhalin II LNG facility at Prigorodnoye.  Hopefully these companies will all have their men out by the summer when the children arrive, unlike last summer when a hundred construction workers were found to be living amongst three hundred kids.

Nowadays the camp is decorated with lots of brightly coloured cartoon drawings of very uncontroversial scenes as would be found in any childrens’ centre worldwide, but there are still one or two of the murals dating from the Soviet times when this would have been a Pioneer camp.

Soviet Mural, Vostok Camp, Sakhalin Island

The words beneath Lenin’s profile are Vsegda Gotov! (Always Ready!) which was the motto of the Young Pioneers, who can be seen on the left giving their salute and on the right doing, erm, something with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Soviet Mural, Vostok Camp, Sakhalin Island

This one, badly in need of refurbishment, depicts Pioneers sat around a large campfire, which relates to the Pioneer song Vzveites’ Kostrami, which I wrote about hereVzveites’ Kostrami roughly translates to “Higher Rise Our Campfire”, and was one of the most popular Pioneer songs of the Soviet times (it can be heard being sung here).

Sakhalin Island On Shaky Ground

This morning our neighbouring Kuril Islands were thumped by a massive earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale.  Sitting in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk I felt nothing, but the news reports say the Kuril Islands have been partially evacuated following fears of a tsunami.

It is well known that Japan lies in an active earthquake zone, and so too does Sakhalin.  Indeed, of the 12 most powerful earthquakes recorded since 1900, one of them occurred off the Kuril Islands and a further two off Kamchatka.  In 1995, 2,000 people were killed in the town of Neftegorsk in the north of Sakhalin Island when an earthquake (.pdf, see page 13) of magnitude 7.6 struck the town, causing the total collapse of all seventeen large-block buildings in the town.  The earthquake struck at night, when most of their inhabitants were at home.  An earthquake of magnitude 6 struck Sakhalin Island in 2000, but thankfully the ground has been mainly steady since then.  This is just as well, because the Neftegorsk earthquake demonstrated all too well the poor performance of Soviet era housing – which constitutes almost all the accommodation in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, including my own apartment – during a seismic event.  Concerns over the ability of the structures and pipelines of the Sakhalin II project to withstand an earthquake have formed the basis of much of the opposition to the project from environmental groups, fears the project’s owners say are unfounded.

That you live in an earthquake zone and are a potential target for a building collapse or a tsunami are easy things to forget for a Brit, but in any case there is precious little any of us can do about it.  All I can do is hope that the ground will be nice and steady during my stay on the island.

Of Nuclear Submarines and Dentistry

Isn’t life full of the unexpected?  Five years ago I’d never have believed I’d be living in Russia in five years time, especially not in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  Last week I’d never have believed I would find myself on Saturday evening celebrating Old New Year sitting in the apartment of a chap who used to be the captain of a nuclear submarine based out of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky during the final years of the Cold War.  Our host had spent 15 years in the Soviet navy, most of them on Typhoon Class submarines which held around 150 men and were at sea for 78 days at a time, with each person having a shower and change of clothes every 10 days.  His job was to patrol the seas looking for evil Yanks and Brits to blow out of the water, or more probably just listen to.  He finished his service with a dozen medals on his chest, some of which he showed me with a promise that he’d dig the rest out later.  He also showed me his service pictures, when he was a submarine captain at 35 years of age.  Nowadays he works as one of the top lawyers for the Russian security and police services in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  Needless to say, he doesn’t get too much hassle from the road police, and nor I suspect from anybody else.

My wife had met him and his wife when she found herself stranded by snow at Khabarovsk airport on the way back from St. Petersburg last month.  They have two daughters, one studying in Moscow the other in St. Petersburg, and they were on their way back from visting the latter when they met my wife.  Needless to say, in typically superb Russian tradition, they invited us to their place for dinner where they served enough food for the husband’s entire former fleet, tipped buckets of alcohol down our necks, and were very disappointed that at 1am we had to leave so early, seven hours after arriving.  I think they miss their children and are searching for a replacement.

On a completely unrelated note, I feel I must dispel a certain myth about Russia, or at least Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, concerning the standard of dentistry available.  Having had a complete check-up, cleaning, and three fillings performed only last May when I was still in Dubai I thought I’d be okay for a while, but the other day I found that when I drank cold or hot stuff I got a sharp pain in an upper molar (one that had been repaired in May).  It didn’t help that the last few mornings have been below minus twenty.  Being a fan of getting these sort of problems solved here and now rather than putting them off for six years and digging out blind at the pain, I got my local sidekick to sort me out with an appointment at the dentist.  Perhaps not surprisingly given the Russians’ ability to move swiftly and efficiently when there is a possibility of being paid, I got an appointment immediately. 

I was extremely relieved to find myself in a practice as modern and well equipped as any I have found in the West, or in Dubai for that matter.  I will refrain from commenting on the appearance of the (female) dentist, because the enormous bollocking I got from my wife when I broached the subject during the description of my wisdom teeth removal is still fresh in my memory, and it was more painful than any tooth extraction.  But let’s just say that the dentist was not an ex-miner called Boris and the drill had not been borrowed from Comrade Nikolai who fixes roads for a living.  It was all very civilised, very pain free, and above all, pretty cheap at $62 for a drill and fill (about half what it cost in Dubai).  They didn’t speak any English though, but having metal instruments in my mouth can hardly make my Russian accent any worse.

Believe it or not, many Brits leave the country to have dentistry work carried out, or wait until they’re back home.  Yet judging by my experience today and from what I hear about the current state of dentistry in Britain, I’m surprised they’re not flocking in the other direction.

Bad Idea Recycled

According to most of the major news sources, North Korea is considering breeding giant rabbits from Germany to help feed its starving population:

A German pensioner who won a prize and worldwide fame for breeding his country’s largest rabbit — Robert, a 10.5kg (23lb) bruiser the size of a dog — has been offered an unusual opportunity to exploit his talents overseas.

Karl Szmolinsky has been given a contract by North Korea to supply giant rabbits to help to boost meat production in the reclusive Communist country, which is suffering severe food shortages.

Kim Jong Il is not the first despotic communist leader to have the idea of breeding rabbits to stave off the starvation which communism inevitably brings.  In 1932 Nikita Khrushchev found himself as deputy to Mikhail Kaganovich and effectively running Moscow.  As William Taubman explains in his book Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (page 90):

Moscow’s working class, allegedly the apple of Stalin’s eye, was going hungry in 1932, and with his legendary concern for their welfare, the great man “suggested the idea of raising rabbits for food”.  Naturally Khrushchev was all for this plan and worked zealously to carry out his instructions.  Almost every factory, plant and workshop started raising rabbits to help stock its own kitchen.

Needless to say, the idea was a flop, although I doubt Khrushchev put it to his boss quite like that.  I have also no doubt that the latest North Korean attempt is being touted in the DPRK as the brainwave of Kim Jong Il and not the 75 year old idea of his father’s mentor.

As an aside, another of Stalin’s brilliant ideas for alleviating food shortages in the Soviet Union was to introduce the Pacific giant crab to European waters, specifically the Barents Sea.  Whilst these spiky crustaceans did little to silence the rumbling of Soviet bellies, they did adapt remarkably well to Europe and they now number more than 10 million and are slowly marching their way down Norway’s coast destroying all manner of marine life in their path.  Rumours that I have relocated to Sakhalin to collaborate with their leadership in their imminent invasion of the United Kingdom are completely unfounded.

The Hounds of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time observing the goings on in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk would after a while notice the incredible number of dogs that are in the town.  Everywhere you go outside, there are dogs, lots of them.  Generally, there are three types of dog in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

The first kind is what you’d expect to see in any normal country, and that is a dog being taken for a walk by its owner, or the dog taking its owner for a walk as is often the case.  These come in all different shapes and sizes, but for some reason they are often either so small you think somebody is taking a rat for a walk, or it is some enormous hairy beast half the size of a horse which looks as though it could swat you out of its way with one paw.  I’m not too clued up on the different breeds of dogs, but there are a lot of mongrels scattered amongst the more recognisable breeds.  Dog ownership is very popular in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and dog walking is a popular pastime, even amongst the kids (one of whom recently almost disappeared under the wheels of my Landcruiser when her dog, six times bigger than her, shot into the road with her in tow).

The second kind is the yard dog, which are always mongrels.  Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is an industrial town, hence there are dozens and dozens of warehouses and goods yards all over the place.  Almost every one of these has a dog or several hanging about, whose job seems to be as much about keeping the security guard company as providing any security himself.  We have premises at the rougher end of town opposite the power station, and the security hut there always has a three or four dogs loafing about outside, usually sleeping in the snow.  When we first set up our equipment yard at the LNG site in Prigorodnoye the yard manager found a small puppy sniffing around and adopted it.  Two years later, it charges at anyone not wearing a company boiler suit.  The secure parking areas where residents of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk keep their vehicles at night usually have a few dogs snoozing on the steps of the security hut, and my parking area is no exception.  Even our main office has a dog chained up outside, and I have no idea who it belongs to.  These dogs don’t seem to bother the Russians one bit, they seem to be accepted as much as the snow and the bad roads, and I have never heard anybody suggest that they shouldn’t be there.

The third kind is the stray dog, and these hang about in packs in any spare patch of land they happen upon.  There is a pack of six or eight of them living just behind our apartment, I think underneath some shed or other (see picture below).

Stray dogs, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

On the other side of our apartment another pack lives on a large piece of wasteland, and chase each other around it for hours.  In fact, nearly every open area you go to has a pack of stray dogs occupying it, and often you see these trying to cross the roads, risking their lives to do so.  I even saw a family of dogs living in an underground burrow in the grounds of the regional hospital.  These packs of dogs sleep all day, as the picture shows, but at night they start running around and fighting other dogs and it creates one hell of a racket.  In my last apartment, at 4:00am every morning without fail this damned stray dog would start yelping and running around like it was possessed by demons.  Things are slightly better in this apartment but not by much.  Apparently in the larger Russian cities the authorities round up and destroy the stray dogs, but in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk they are free to roam, breed, fight, and make a racket whenever and wherever they please, and indeed they do.  How they survive the cold, and what they eat, is anyone’s guess.

Monoglot Britain

Sometimes I love The Economist:

The advantages of being able to speak more than one tongue are so obvious that they scarcely need spelling out. Despite globalisation, not everyone everywhere yet speaks English, so fluency in a second language would enable monoglot Britons to talk to many more people than they can at present. They could conduct business with fewer misunderstandings. They would have fewer surprises in restaurants when they discovered they had inadvertently ordered brains in black butter or a portion of potted intestine.

… 

The possibilities are limitless. Vacant negotiators would at last be privy to the meaning of the overheard asides uttered by their foreign counterparts before deals or treaties were closed. British footballers who play for foreign teams might, if they were not completely inarticulate in any language, be able to give interviews in the local tongue after the match. Journalists covering atrocities in darkest Africa and seeking the quotes so prized by editors back home might not have to ask, “Anyone here been raped and speak English?”