Now I’ve been here a while…

12 ways to tell you live in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk:

1)  You call an 8-minute drive to work a commute.

2)  Everyone you know works for one of six companies.  Everyone’s salary is ultimately paid by one of two.

3)  You find yourself describing the previous winter to newcomers.  You find yourself exaggerating the depth of snow, the temperature, and practically everything else.

4)  You find yourself asking such questions as “Can you buy a bike here?” or “Where can I buy a light bulb?”

5)  You watch all your sports on TV after midnight.

6)  You watch the latest blockbuster films 3 weeks before their release in the US.  You are almost used to them having been recorded in a Malaysian cinema with a video camera.

7)  You doubt anyone at home will believe you when you describe the Russian women.

8)  If you are stationary at a junction for more than 90 seconds, you start complaining about the traffic.

9)  Items on sale in the supermarket become topics of conversation.

10)  Drinking in a nightclub until 7am is, for the first time since college, socially acceptable.

11)  You have three dates permanently etched in your mind: next leave, date you leave for good, estimated date when Gazprom boots all the expats out.

12)  Wars rage, governments fall, stock markets crash, trophies are won, kings are born, cities are destroyed…and you know nothing about any of it.


And a further 15, promoted from a comment courtesy of “BearBait”, who I was reliably told was supposed to be working today:

13) You think nothing of paying USD3000 for an apartment refurbished with leopard skin touches, a dodgy boiler, pneumatic door bolts and an alcoholic living in the stairwell.

14) You start to eat mayonnaise with everything.

15) You dont blink at paying USD10 for 4 dubious looking tomatoes in winter.

16) The smell of apartment stairwells is compellingly comforting.

17) Its suddenly completely normal to go camping in the middle of nowhere and meet 30 men in camo who want you to drink vodka shots, eat boiled eggs and salted tomatoes (grown in their dachas).

18) You describe the death toll in terms of construction accidents, road fatalities, icicle impalings and bear munchings.

19) You are no longer phased by swarthy men drinking their 2nd Baltika at 8am on your way to work.

20) If a Bubushka approaches when you are a queue you give her wide berth. You’ve been here too long when you shove back.

21) You always keep spare change for the incredibly jolly legless man at Dom Trgovli Rynok.

22) You plan your vacations around the melt season in April/May.

23) During home leaves you become overwhelmed in Tescos, then you see they sell Baltika and you buy it for nostalgia.

24) The first time you forgot to deactivate your apartments alarm 5 men in black armed with Kalashnikovs burst into your foyer.

25) You can discuss the finer points of the latest Uaz Patriot.

26) You walk carefully like a penguin all winter in Northfaces finest ice boots being overtaken by impossibly glamorous Russian ladies in skyscraper high heels.

27) You find a copy of your companies HSE safety measures from your induction and realise that you socialise in all the black zones.

Another Training Course

Today I went on another training course, the subject of which was Fire Safety, or Firefighting, or something like that.  Again, it was a Russian Federation requirement that I attend.

Those who work in an ordinary office environment are not required by law to attend this course, but for those people who will be working on a live oil and gas facility – as the LNG plant at Prigorodnoye is about to become in the next week or so – attendence is compulsory.  So a load of us had to go on this fire safety course.

Unfortunately, the course did not address firefighting in oil and gas facilities.  Instead we were told a lot about fire safety, firefighting, and evacuation plans in an office environment, which left us all wondering why the course is compulsory for oil and gas workers but not office workers.  Anyway, we now all have our little red books which certify us to put out a major blaze on an LNG storage tank with the little powder fire extinguisher which you have in your kitchen.  Or maybe it doesn’t.

Like my last training course, this one consisted mainly of somebody reading out the relevant Russian law line by line as somebody else translated.  Only the translator was late, so the first few minutes of translation was done by me, who is perfectly able to stand around a billiard table or barbecue pit ordering large vodkas and orange juice whilst making idle conversation with the locals, but is far from competent to translate such lines as “this fire extinguisher features an internal gas canister under pressure which propels the powder down the nozzle.”  Fortunately, the translator turned up before I told the class that the instructor was encouraging us to play with fire extinguishers for fun.  One interesting thing I learned was that any classroom with more than 20 people in must have two exits.  Our class of over 20 people were taught this in a room with just one exit.

Lastly, we all went outside to a patch of grass where a metal tray had been laid down into which a lady wearing a polyester office suit and high heels poured some flammable liquid.  Then a bloke dressed head to toe in combat fatigues and sporting a big Cossack moustache lit the stuff and the trainees had to don a child-size rubber coat, a giant-size helmet, and put the fire out using a half-empty fire extinguisher which Noah had tried fitting on the Ark but had been told that second-hand fire extinguishers which had gone rusty did not conform to the relevant Heavenly standards of Ark construction and operation.

All in all, a productive morning.

A Day of Surprises

That went well.  Getting my visa took a mere 30 minutes, 20 minutes of which was queueing and the rest waiting for it to be processed.  Everything is possible in Russia provided you pay, in this case the charge being $160.  But it’s better than hanging around for several days.

I was surprised in another sense too.  Just when you have gotten used to Russian officials grunting at you from behind desks and security glass, scowling at you as you pass them your documents, and behaving as though they are carved from cold, wet, granite, the young chap in the embassy today brightly asked what football team I supported and proudly told me he’d recently seen an English film about football hooligans.  And with lots of goodbyes and good lucks, he waved me off from the counter.

That said, the above episode was only the second biggest surprise I got today, the first being the discovery of tuna porridge on the breakfast menu this morning.  It looked to be nothing more than a pot of porridge with lumps of tuna thrown in.  Needless to say, I avoided it and helped myself to the more traditional breakfast items, which were excellent.

Back in Seoul

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Seoul, where I’ve found myself for a couple of days for a visa run.

I flew out of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk this morning on that well-known international airline, SAT Airways.  Our aircraft was a Boeing, albeit one from the seventies, and a tiny one at that, which got thrown all over the skies whenever it hit turbulence, and the seatbelt signs came on to warn passengers that they might at any moment be used to strap a wing back on.  But thankfully it got me here in one piece.

While we’re on the subject of Russian airlines, let me just kill one myth dead here and now: that which says that the service on Russian airlines is appallingly bad.  Truth is, it isn’t.  Having flown Aeroflot, Transaero, and now SAT Airways, I have found the service and quality of food on Russian airlines to be no worse than it usually is on Emirates, KLM, or Continental, and infinitely better than on Lufthansa, which I have vowed never to fly again.  Okay, the Germans’ planes are less likely to make an unscheduled descent into the Sea of Japan, but at least when you’re hurtling to your death you’ll find a Russian steward doling out bottles of vodka for the occasion, as opposed to some sour-faced, union-protected, harpy sneering down her nose at the passengers because after paying a long-haul price for a short-haul flight they – God forbid – expect some level of service.  Having made several trips to Germany over the last 15 years, I have noted before that their previously high standards of, well, everything have slipped considerably in recent years.  When Germans find themselves outclassed by Russians in a field of service provision, you know something has gone badly wrong.  Ground-based Russian service is, however, still appallingly bad.

Anyway, I arrived in Incheon airport and after some humming and hawing about whether to take the high-speed railway which turned out not to exist, I jumped in a taxi to take me to my hotel in the centre of Seoul.  My taxi driver, as all airport taxi drivers are wont to do, would not stop rabbitting away in poor English for the whole of the hour-long drive.  He was making a valiant effort at learning English using CDs, he told me, but most of his English was a running commentary on what his phone-based SatNav system was saying to him in Korean.  First time I went to Korea I was impressed with their phones, specifically their ability to sit on the metro and watch TV.  Now they seem to have come up with a system of typing in a phone number, of a hotel for example, and the phone turns into a SatNav which guides you there.  It seemed impressive, until the little lady doing the talking satellite navigated us right into the middle of the biggest traffic jam I’d seen since I was last in Moscow, and then its impressiveness diminished.  Soon it was taking us through narrow streets where we narrowly avoided a head-on collision with a car which had the cheek to be driving down his own side of the street, before it spat us out on a main road right where we needed to be.  Both the driver and I were impressed once more.  I’d have been more impressed if he’d bought a large-screen version so he didn’t need to keep peering at it with a Sherlock Holmes-style magnifying glass and ignoring road conditions such as walls and large bridges over the Han River.

When I booked the hotel, I couldn’t see whether it had internet connections in the rooms or not.  It mentioned kettles, ironing boards, and hairdryers, but no internet connection.  So I called them up, and I was told they had one in every room.  I seem to remember when I last stayed in Seoul they didn’t advertise the internet connections in the rooms, and this place seems to be no different.  Clearly internet connections in Korean hotel rooms are as standard as doors, windows, and beds.  Sure enough, this place, like my last hotel, has a 100Mbps connection which costs absolutely nothing and works as soon as you hook the cable up to your computer.  No ringing the front desk for usernames, no messing about with passwords, simply plug in and off you go.  Hotels in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk which provide internet services for $10 per hour, please take note.

Tomorrow I must go to the Russian embassy and apply for whatever visa allows me to apply for a work permit once I’ve rentered Russia.  Apparently I can go there first thing in the morning and pick up my passport in the afternoon, although I am a little nervous.  The words “Russian embassy” and “same day” belong together about as well as “Russian customs” and “same day”.

Anyway, we’ll see how I get on.  I’ve got a camera with me, so maybe I’ll take some pictures.

Thank Goodness for Supermarkets

I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject for a while now, but I was prompted to do so today after I read some of the other blogs named by The Times on their 50 Best Business Blogs.

One of the blogs named under the Retail section of the list is Tescopoly, which is:

An alliance of organisations concerned with the negative impact of supermarket power.

There is little doubt that many people will feel a negative impact of Tesco’s astonishing success: competitors, for example.  But I am in serious doubt as to whether the consuming public, more commonly known as ‘customers’, share this view.  Judging by Tesco’s sales figures, probably not, and Tescopoly implicitly acknowledge this with the statement:

Growing evidence indicates that Tesco’s success is partly based on trading practices that are having serious consequences for suppliers, farmers and workers worldwide, local shops and the environment.

which makes no reference to customers. 

But this post is not about whether or not Tesco’s success at giving customers what they want comes at the expense, unacceptable or otherwise, of local shops, farmers, suppliers, etc.  It is about living in a place without a decent supermarket, and on this point I have quite some experience. Continue reading

A Deafening Silence on Sakhalin Island

When Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko made this comment on 31st May, I wonder if he realised the truth of his words would be put to the test within a week:

Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko went on the defensive today, saying that Russia does not discriminate against foreign explorers, in a bid to quell concern over a series of high level disputes with foreign companies.

“Our approach to foreign and domestic investors is exactly the same,” Viktor Khristenko told Reuters at an energy conference.

Really?  Consider this oil spill on Sakhalin Island, which occurred on Monday night:

A major oil spill in the north of Sakhalin Island has contaminated a river used by endangered fish species to spawn, a spokesman for a regional environmental group said Tuesday.

“Local residents discovered the spill,” the spokesman said. “They saw an open valve at the base of a well spewing oil, which was flowing into the river Piltun. After blocking off the flow, they called the local Rosneft subsidiary, Okhaneftegaz, as well as the police.”

An inspection team found large pools of oil at the site, and estimated the spill at no less than 700 cubic meters (2,100 cubic feet). An area of no less than two hectares (4.9 acres) has been contaminated.

The head of the local emergencies service said the well has now been sealed off and the oil flow stopped.

An environmental spokesman said the river Pultin is used by several endangered fish species to spawn.

He said that an official notice of the spill, consisting of written and photographic documentation, has been sent to the Sakhalin prosecutor’s office, the local government administration, the environmental protection agency and the Sakhalinmorneftegaz oil and gas company.

So a Russian oil company leaves a valve from a well spewing oil into an ecologically significant river on Sakhalin Island, and the story merits a 187-word article buried far from the front page, and no comment is made by any government official or major environmental body? 

Can you imagine what the response would have been had a Shell or Exxon managed consortium been responsible for the spill?  It was the routing of a pipeline across such a river that was the primary reason cited for threatening to withdraw Sakhalin Energy’s license, just before Gazprom helped itself to a majority stake (at which point all environmental concerns were miraculously assuaged).  Note that the pipeline in question did not leak and spill any oil, nor did the pipeline contain any oil: the routing of the pipeline was enough, so the Russian environmental regulators reasoned, to revoke the operating license.  Had Sakhalin Energy caused such a spill as the one which occurred in the Piltun river on Tuesday, we would have had TV crews on the scene, the very top of the government tree denouncing the foreign energy companies for desecrating the Russian nature, and fresh calls for the expulsion of those same companies from operating in Russia.  Directors would have been lucky to avoid a night in jail.

Sadly, it is almost inevitable that another oil spill will occur in Sakhalin Island at some point in the future, despite all precautions being taken to prevent such an incident.  Should a foreign oil company be held responsible, it will be interesting to contrast the subsequent media and governmental response to the deafening silence we are witnessing this week.

Summer Showers in Sakhalin

We are enjoying a fine spell of weather here in the south of Sakhalin Island, with temperatures getting up to 23-24 degrees Celcius during the day and the sun shining most of the time.

As such, the city administration yesterday decided to switch off the town heating system, which hitherto had been pumping superheated steam around each and every apartment, including my own, turning the place into a furnace.  Welcome though the switching off of the heat is, not so welcome is the switching off of the hot water supply in the process: I now have no hot water whatsoever (cold water comes out of both taps).

We have a boiler rigged up in the apartment linked to the shower and bathroom sink, but after meddling with it last night all we got this morning was a minute of hot water before it turned icy cold.  I’ve meddled some more this morning, opening and closing various valves and taps I found hiding in a recess behind the bathroom tiles, and I hope by this evening we will have enough hot water for a decent shower.  If not, we’ll be in for some harsh summer mornings.

Also unfortunately, the boiler does not supply hot water to the kitchen sink, meaning I either have to wash up with cold water or boil kettles and pour them into the washing up bowl.  Bear in mind that we (or rather, my employers) are paying $2,700 per month for this place, plus the electricity bill. 

The apartment I saw in Singapore which used fingerprint recognition technology in place of a door key now seems as though I witnessed it in a dream taking place on Mars.


Yay!  I’ve managed to get the boiler working, and we can now have hot showers.  I knew that mechanical engineering degree would come in handy some day.