Deserved Reputations

Long-time commentator Tatyana asks me a question in the comments of this post:

You see now, how Russians came to have their reputation?

Answer: yes.

I always used to think very positively of Russia, and usually thought the best of Russians.  As it happens, I still do.  I still maintain that you’d be hard pressed to find a bunch of more hospitable, care-free, and genuine people than the Russians, and defy anybody to claim that an evening spent socially in the company of Russians does not rank in the top five of their Most Memorable Nights Ever.

But boy, can Russians be idiots.  As readers of this blog should by now know, this part of Sakhalin Island is dominated by the oil and gas industry.  With the oil and gas industry comes oil and gas facilities, and with oil and gas facilities comes health and safety standards which require a type of behaviour which is often incompatible with the prevailing culture and mentality of the locals.  In short, being three sheets to the wind on an oil and gas facility does not sit well with those who own and operate the facility, nor anyone else whose life depends on the hydrocarbons within not catching fire.

A Russian man was recently discovered completely drunk on an oil and gas facility, the random alcohol test having failed to pick him up.  Fortunately, he was not actually working and his condition did not lead to anyone else getting hurt.  Upon his discovery, he was removed from the facility, taken to a clinic with a calibrated testing machine to confirm his inebriation, taken to his accommodation camp where he collected his belongings, and was taken from there to a cheap hotel by the airport where he awaited the next flight back to his hometown on the mainland.  When his employment began, he was required to read, understand, and sign his acceptance of the company’s alcohol and drugs policy, which was in Russian.  He had undergone the facility induction, also in Russian, where it was explained that there is a zero-tolerance approach to alcohol consumption, the penalty being immediate dismissal.  He had agreed to the accommodation camp rules which stipulate that consumption of alcohol is strictly forbidden in the camp and the night before an individual is due to work.  Still, this chap went out and drunk a bottle of vodka, got caught, and lost his livelihood because of it.

That evening, the rest of the workers in his crew, 20 or so Russian men, were assembled at the accommodation camp where the consequences of the individual’s drinking were pointed out to all by way of his absence and empty room.  They were for the umpteenth time reminded of the company policy, the camp rules, and the facility rules, and warned that the following morning there would be compulsory alcohol testing for everyone and whatever else they choose to do that night, for God’s sake, do not drink.

The next morning, the assembled group was asked if anyone had been drinking the night before, if so step forward now to avoid an awful lot of problems at the alcohol test.  Two hands were raised, and two people booted back into the camp to await disciplinary action.  Any more?  No? Good.  So off everyone goes down to the alcohol test, where no less than five more of the crew are discovered to be drunk.  All five were sent packing to wherever they came from.

In the aftermath of all this, somebody asked what could be done to prevent incidents like this occurring in future.  My suggestion is shooting complete idiots.  Anyone have any better ideas?

Two Days Somewhere Near Nogliki

I’m now back in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, having spent Monday and Tuesday up at the OPF near Nogliki.

The train journey to Nogliki was probably the best I’ve had on a Russian train, almost certainly because I was in the business class carriage.  The differences between business class and ordinary class are as follows:

1.  Two beds per carriage instead of four.

2.  Small TV, albeit not showing anything most of the time.  Just as everyone was going to bed, they put on an Antonio Banderas 4-in-1 special DVD, and they showed us the first 20 minutes of The 13th Warrior before stopping the disc and starting again from the beginning, at which point I switched it off.

3.  Bedding comes as standard, as opposed to being an optional extra.  They also provide a small towel in addition to the standard tea towel.

4.  Food is provided in the form of a packed lunch.  I didn’t realise this, and hence boarded the train in time-honoured tradition with provisions which would have served to feed the city of Troy during its 10-year siege.  Anyway, I got the packed lunch on top, which contained bread, cheese, salami, yoghurt, soup, an apple, chocolate, tea, coffee, sugar, salt, pepper, plastic cutlery, and a bottle of cognac.  The latter would have served well to help passengers get to sleep (or start a fight), but oilfield workers are now usually subject to alcohol tests when they disembark, the oil companies having found most of their workforce turning up completely ratarsed in the days when the Sakhalin projects were in their infancy.  It is forbidden to take alcohol onto the accommodation camps or the offshore platforms, so we all had to leave the bottles unopened on the train.  The return journey was a different matter though…

5.  The interior decor is a bit nicer.  You get a few extra lights and mirrors.

6.  The toilets are cleaner, and they provide you with soap and toilet paper.

7.  You get a little overnight bag containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, shoe horn, comb, etc.

8.  Your carriage companion is an oilfield worker, as opposed to a toothless babushka, drunken soldier, or smelly old man.  On the way up I shared a carriage with a member of a Scottish dredging crew, on the way back with a 25 year old Russian apprentice driller.

Other than that it was all pretty much the same as any other Russian train journey.  The awful music, the lurching and rattling of the train, the inexplicable 20 minute stops in the middle of nowhere, the silly little net curtains which stop you seeing out the window, the strip of linen running the length of the corridor to protect the carpet.  Ah, the memories!

So, after 14 hours and a reasonable night’s sleep, I got to Nogliki.  From there three of us clambered aboard a Toyota Landcruiser and spent the next two and a half hours driving along a dirt road through endless forests and mountains, never once encountering a town or so much as a village.  Eventually we arrived in a mosquito-infested swamp in which somebody had decided to build an Onshore Processing Facility.  I think the nearest sizeable town was Nogliki which we’d left umpteen miles behind.  If this place isn’t a replica of hell, it’s a damned good effort at one.  The people I met there looked at me with hatred in their eyes when I told them I was only there for a two-day visit.  They looked at me as if I’d just run off with their wife.

So I’m back in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk now, and boy am I glad.

Insane Russian Law #725493612

One of my employees is a pleasant, reliable, and sober young man in his 20s, who works for us as a minibus driver.  Finding a pleasant, reliable, and sober young man to work as a driver in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is akin to finding a pleasant, reliable, and sober builder in West Wales.

Unfortunately, it looks as though we’re going to have to get rid of him.  His driving license expires next month, and in order to renew it he needs a permanent local address, where he is registered with the Russian authorities.  In any normal country, a permanent address means anywhere which you are living, including a place you are legitimately renting.  But in Russia, you can only get registration at an address if you own the property, or you were born into that address, i.e. your parents owned it.  Our driver is from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and was registered at his parents’ apartment for most of his life, but they sold the place and moved away, leaving him renting a place here.  When they sold the place, they lost their registration at that address, and the new owners were entitled to register themselves there instead.  My driver then found himself without a registered address in his home town, or indeed anywhere else.

In Russia, those who do not have a registered address are classed as homeless, or bums.  In short, a tramp.  That this chap has a job, a place to eat, and a bed to sleep in matters not to the Russian authorities: if he is not regsitered somewhere, he is homeless.

And if you are homeless, you cannot renew your driving license.  And if he doesn’t have a driving license, he cannot work for me as a driver, and he loses his job.  Insanity.

Summer in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

I apologise for not having updated you all with what has been going on in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and its environs over the last few weeks, but I’ve been flat out at work.

During the winter it is difficult to get construction and maintenance work done on the oil and gas facilities in Russia, so during the summer everybody is running about like mad trying to get everything done before the snow comes.  In addition, last week the first part of the gigantic LNG facility at Prigorodnoye south of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was commissioned, using gas imported from an LNG tanker moored at the offload jetty.  As the project is some way behind schedule, it was deemed a good idea to try to save time by commissioning some of the completed sections of the facility ahead of time.  The pipeline which would supply the gas to the facility is not in place yet, so in order to commission the various parts they needed to import it, which marked the first time ever that Russia has imported LNG, by sending it backwards from the offloading jetty into the storage tanks (which are cooled to -160C under normal operating conditions).  Exciting stuff, eh?  Anyway, this period of LNG import required me to spend a considerable amount of time hanging round the site in case things went wrong.  As it turned out, it went without a hitch, which is a major credit to the engineers in Sakhalin Energy.

The weather has varied from week to week between brilliant sunshine with bright blue skies and dreary low grey cloud.  Temperatures have got up to 32C, and sometime in late May/early June the entire south of the island turned deep green and vegetation, which appeared from nothing in a matter of days, shot up to form an underbrush three feet deep.  Grass on Sakhalin grows in metres per second, but the local authorities have not yet heard of lawnmowers.  Instead vegetation, inlcuding grass, is kept at bay using gangs of men with strimmers.  With the vegetation came the mosquitos, which are horrible massive things which sip on blood like my wife sips on Mai-Thais around swimming pools.  They leave horrible itchy bites which take a few days to go away.  A week or so back I bought myself a mountain bike so I could join a group who regularly ride the excellent trails and tracks around the city.  Unfortunately, along these trails and tracks the mosquitos attacked me with such ferocity it left me wondering what these things eat when I’m not around.

This evening I am taking a 14-hour overnight train to a town called Nogliki, which is halfway up the island.  From there I have a 3-hour trip by 4WD to an Onshore Processing Facility (OPF), which is only the third most remote such facility in the region.  The other two require a plane trip from Nogliki to Chayvo yet further north, or a flight to Khabarovsk and a further 16-hours in a Kamaz truck.  Sounds like I should convince my superiors to invest in a company helicopter.  In any case, people tell me the train trip to Nogliki is entertaining, and judging by my previous adventures on Russian trains they are not making it up.  I’m also expecting a whiff of nostalgia as I make my bed and buy my compulsory tea in a metal-framed glass from the babushka who terrorises the trains’ passengers into behaving.

So for the next few days I’m out of town, and depending on the state of the internet connection at the OPF, I might not be posting until late in the week.  So in the meantime, I’ll leave you with some pictures I’ve taken over the last month or so with my new Canon 30D and EF 24-105 L IS USM lense.  There are a couple of promotional shots I took of the new terrace bar at the Pacific Plaza Hotel, where my wife is the sales and marketing manager.  I’ve included them just for the hell of it.

Children, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Orthodox church, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

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