A Day Somewhere Near Poronaysk

Yesterday I spent the day in a place called Gastello, situated just outside Poronaysk about 280km north of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  I’d travelled up the night before on the same train I took to Nogliki in July, only this time I wasn’t in the business class carriage.  My travel was courtesy of one of the oil companies, who for security reasons reserve an entire carriage at the front of the train and employ a moody security guard with hideous shoes to ensure nobody comes in who isn’t suppposed to. 

The journey to Poronaysk takes 7 hours, at an average speed of 40km per hour, and the train gets in shortly before midnight.  The train back from Poronaysk also leaves at around midnight, thus cleverly ensuring that few outsiders see the place in daytime; I am led to believe that there are few completer shitholes on Sakhalin Island than Poronaysk, which  is nothing more than a small fishing port.  I found myself sharing a compartment with two Russian men, neither of whom could speak English, which was good in a way because I could practice my Russian, something I’ve not done properly for a while.  Sometime before nightfall the guard came around asking if anyone wanted to play him at chess, and I unwisely accepted.  Twenty minutes, two games, and two wins to him later, he picked up his board and pieces and went off in search of some decent opposition.

The drive from Poronaysk to Gastello takes about 20-30 minutes, and drivers have two options: drive along the road and risk destroying your suspension, or drive along the beach which has been washed smooth by the sea.  It says something about the state of Russian roads that people prefer driving along a beach than taking the highway.  At first when our driver whisked us onto the beach, which was bathed in the light of a full moon, we wondered where the hell he was going, but on Sakhalin Island it is wise to not worry about strange behaviour and better to just allow events to unfold.  Needless to say we arrived where we were supposed to.

As our train back was leaving after midnight, we thought it would be a good idea to pop into the local hotel in Poronaysk and have a beer in the small bar located inside.  Unsurprisingly for a Wednesday night in Russia, the place was full of people – almost all in their 20s – drinking heavily.  Equally unsurprisingly, after a few minutes one of the young men, who was completely drunk, wanted me to join him and his mate at the bar.  The invitation came after the following conversation, which took place in Russian:

Him:  Ah, Michael Jordan!

Me: Eh?  WTF? Oh, yeah, Michael Jordan.  Ha ha!

Him:  Something something Michael Jordan.

Me:  Do you know Michael Jordan?

Him:  Yes, I know him very well.

Me:  Oh.  Splendid.

Him:  Something something facists.

Me:  Eh?  WTF?

Him:  Facists!  You know, Hitler!

Me:  Oh, yeah.  Facists.  Yeah, facists.  Yeah.

For reasons which my readers might find strange, I declined his invitation to join him, which led to him twice coming up to me afterwards and, clearly offended, say things to me which made our initial conversation sound like a public reading of Shakespeare.  It was in this bar that I tried to order a vodka and orange, but they had run out of orange juice.  It seems they ran out of change as well, because the woman behind the bar made no attempt to return my 100 Roubles to me in the 15 minutes between me handing her a 500 Rouble note and my leaving to catch the train.

The journey back entailed me having to do one of those things I’d always hoped I’d never have to do: enter a 4-berth Russian railway carriage which has 3 people sleeping in it already, and the spare bed – inevitably a top bunk – is piled high with the others’ luggage, the space between the beds has a suitcase in it, and there is no sign of your own bedding.  At least the oil company’s carriage had people in it more patient and understanding than a carriage full of ordinary Russians trying to sleep off a hangover, so after a fair bit of clambering, heaving, and sweating, I managed to get 3 hours sleep.

Back From Singapore

We’re now back in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk from our holiday in Singapore, which was excellent with the exception of a few days of rain which meant we had to stay under shelter sipping cocktails all day.  We also managed to take a couple of days at a small beach resort on the Indonesian island of Bintan, a 40 minute ferry ride from Singapore.  Much to our surprise, Indonesia issues 7-day visit visas on arrival for Russians (as well as a whole list of other countries, including the UK) for a fee of $10 at certain ports of entry, Bintan being one of them.   Indonesia made a nice change, and chalked up another country on my list of those which I’ve visited, and I got to see a couple of rather frightening looking, metre-long, monitor lizards wandering around our beach chalet, one of which I filmed catching and swallowing a fish.

My wife was understandably very impressed with Singapore over Sakhalin, and is now allegedly on the lookout for a new, or additional, husband who will promise to take her there to live.  I must therefore immediately persuade her as to the benefits of living in Russia (you can’t wear mink coats in Singapore, for example), and in the meantime leave you with a few photos of our trip.

The communal pool at 39 Chancery Lane, Singapore

Singapore's parliament building, looking across from Boat Quay

Palm trees, Sentosa Island, Singapore

Sunset, Bintan Island, Indonesia

Sunset, Bintan Island, Indonesia

Raffles Hotel, Singapore

Enjoying a Singapore Sling, Long Bar, Raffles Hotel

Bye Bye HSBC Bank

My application to open an offshore bank account with HSBC has fallen flat on its face.  In order for somebody resident in Russia to open an account on the Isle of Man, they need to have an opening balance of 60,000 Pounds Sterling, which despite my status as cigar-puffing oilman, I do not have.  The reason why they demand such a high opening balance for Russian residents (the normal requirement is 5,000 Pounds Sterling) is because of the risk of “money laundering”.  And that is about as detailed an explanation as I could get.

What is interesting is that HSBC do not advertise this requirement anywhere, it is simply a decision which gets made at the application stage.  Personally, I think the explanation is bollocks.  Anyone wanting to launder money from Russia is probably not going to be doing so in small amounts, and I can’t see how a 60,000 GBP opening balance is going to do anything to discourage such activities.  If anything, putting a maximum balance on the account would be more of a control on money laundering rather than a minimum balance.

I reckon that certain elements within HSBC have no interest in getting involved in private banking in Russia, and really can’t be bothered having to deal with new customers who have set up there.  On the basis of anecdotal evidence, they appear to have enough trouble providing a decent level of customer service to their existing clients who have moved to Russia, and the last thing they want is to have to deal with new clients there as well.  So they come up with a flimsy excuse of “money laundering”, which always sounds good alongside the word “Russia”, to ensure they don’t need to deal with any of it.  Call me cynical, but I strongly suspect that were I to come up with 60,000 GBP tomorrow there would be another reason trumped up as to why the account couldn’t be opened.

So, HSBC is not going to be getting my custom.  However, their senior management is going to be getting a letter from me detailing my personal circumstances, my desire to move from Barclays, and my disappointment at HSBC not showing any interest in getting me on board as a customer.  I have a suspicion, only a small one, that somebody somewhere down the chain of command has made an arbitrary decision about certain things which the CEO would not want advertised.  The number of expatriates moving to Russia is only going to grow, and if HSBC has made the decision that they don’t want their custom, it’s probably one which won’t sit too well with some of the shareholders.

Bye Bye Barclays Bank

Tomorrow I’m off on holiday to Singapore again, this time for a couple of weeks and taking my wife with me.  We might go up to Malaysia for a few days in the second week to get some snorkelling in, but we’re undecided on that.

One thing I am not undecided on is that when I am in Singapore I will attempt to do what I should have done several years ago: leave that pathetic excuse for a bank called Barclays and join HSBC, whose offshore banking service would have to be pretty damned poor to be worse than Barclays’.  Sometimes I wonder if they’ve staffed their customer service department with Sakhalin Islanders.  Since I emigrated in June 2003 and was able to conduct all my financial affairs through the Isle of Man and out of range of Gordon Brown’s fat, greedy mitts, I have unfortunately been a customer, or dupe, of Barclays Private Clients International.

Since June 2003 up until today, Barclays have done the following, which is not an exhaustive list:

1.  Sent an unsigned debit card addressed in its entirety to: “Timothy Newman, Dubai”.  Like I’m the Sheikh, or something.

2.  Sent several PIN numbers for my online banking service to the Middle East, none of which worked.  It took a couple of months before I could access my account.

3.  Kept an old online banking service account live when it should have been closed.  It was possible to make payments from my current account using the old online account for at least a year.

4.  Sent a debit card to Dubai which was cancelled before it ever arrived.

5.  Operated a helpline dedicated to its international customers around UK office hours.

6.  Charged me $55 per time to transfer $815 from a Barclays USD account on the Isle of Man to a Friends Provident USD account on the Isle of Man.  Barclays considers this an international transaction, and charges accordingly.

7.  Failed to act on an instruction to cancel a standing order for 4 months, helping themselves to over $200 of transaction fees in the process.  After several hours of international calls to Barclays, they agreed to pay this back.  After several more hours of international calls to Barclays, they actually did so.

8.  Blocked an ATM card without warning on numerous occasions after falsely saying they’d tried to call me to ask if the card was being used fraudulently.

9.  Told me that there is nothing they can do to avoid a card being blocked when used abroad, even if I have called them up to tell them I am going to be using the card abroad.

10.  Told me that it is “impossible” for the daily withdrawal limit on my ATM card to be set to exceed £300.

11.  Stated that they would be in breach of the law if they were to fax me copies of my own bank statements.  This is a lie: other banks manage it without being prosecuted.

12.  Chastised me for not warning them that I was using my card in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 8 months after that had been my residential and correspondence address on record with Barclays.

13.  Sent me umpteen computer-generated apology letters encouraging me to give them more feedback without providing an email address or fax number.  The only way to give them feedback is to make a lengthy international phone call which will be dealt with by the very people you are complaining about, or to write a letter and post it across the world.  They end the letter by telling you that if they don’t hear back from you within two months, they will assume you are satisfied.  I’ll try this approach to my clients and see how far it gets me.

14.  Demonstrated that the bank is run for the sake of their employees, not the customers.  Umpteen obstacles have been put in place to prevent the employees having to do anything which might involve thinking, effort, or leaving their computer/phone terminal.  Most requests are met with a whining jobsworth saying “I’m sorry sir, but we can’t do that, our policy doesn’t allow it”, as if the policy is imposed on Barclays by some higher being without their consent.

15.  Failed to call me back on all but one occasion that I asked, a failure rate of about 96%.

16.  Cost me several hundred dollars in international phone calls trying to persuade Barclays’ staff to solve routine problems or getting them to undo major problems of their own making.  Requests to have some of this expenditure refunded were simply ignored.

17.  Set up their telephone banking system such that the account management, debit card management, and credit card management are in three different places managed by three different groups. 

18.  Demonstrated beyond doubt that they are either utterly incapable of running an international banking service, or they simply don’t want to.

ABN AMRO customers are going to be in for a nasty shock if the Barclays takeover goes ahead.  Barclays should prepare itself for a barrage of calls from grumpy Dutchmen. 

I can’t understand Barclays.  I don’t know much about how banks profile their customers, but at a guess I’d say I’m one worth looking after.  I’m working in the oil and gas industry, not known for its meagre salaries, and at age 29 made it to General Manager of the Sakhalin region of a services company.  I don’t have a mortgage yet, but it should be obvious that I will within the next few years, not to mention a requirement for all sorts of other investment vehicles, insurances, and financial products Barclays claim they offer.  And I send a not insignificant amount of cash by way of my salary each month into their vaults, which is looking good to increase handsomely and continue for the next couple of decades.  What’s more, I am surrounded by fairly wealthy expatriates most of whom do their banking offshore, not to mention that I manage a few of these and will likely manage a whole load more in the future and will be in a position to advise on a lot of the financial decisions they make.  In short, if Barclays don’t consider me a customer worth looking after, what type of customer are they after?  I don’t think they have a clue. 

So I’m off to Singapore, the reknowned hot bed of capitalism, to do that most capitalist of things: booting an incompetent supplier off the job for ever.  Now I don’t know if HSBC will be any better, but as I said, I doubt they could be any worse.  We shall see.

Sakhalin’s Governor Resigns

Following the poor response of the local authorities to last week’s earthquake on Sakhalin, the regional governor has been forced to resign:

Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted Tuesday the resignation of Ivan Malakhov as governor of the Sakhalin Region in the country’s Far East following last week’s tragic earthquake.

President Putin appointed Alexander Khoroshavin [the mayor of Okha] acting governor of the region and also nominated him for the post.

After hearing a report from Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu, President Putin criticized the relief operation and efforts by local authorities and, in particularly, the work of former Governor Malakhov.

The president ordered the minister to investigate the poorly organized relief effort, namely, why adults and children were forced to sleep on concrete floors in tents, and why local authorities and the governor failed to visit the city of Nevelsk, which was most affected by the quake.

For those of you who have been dozing at the back, regional governors in Russia are not elected: they are appointed by the president. 

Of course, this wouldn’t be Russia without volumes of intrigue and speculation surrounding the resignation:

Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst and one-time Kremlin insider, said Malakhov fell out of favor with Rosneft, the company Belkovsky said helped the governor take the helm of the region.

“Malakhov wasn’t persistent enough in the battle against foreigners,” said Belkovsky, citing what he said were well-connected sources.

Malakhov forged ties with the foreign companies operating on the island instead of lobbying for Rosneft’s interests, he said, adding that any new candidate will be Rosneft friendly.

Gazeta.ru reported that a battle between Gazprom and Rosneft over Sakhalin oil and gas riches was the real cause of Malakhov’s departure.

Khoroshavin, the new acting governor is close to Rosneft, and he and Rosneft head Sergei Bogdanchikov have known each other for a long time, Gazeta.ru reported. They worked together at the Okhanneftegazdobycha oil company in early 1980s, it said.

Khoroshavin is the mayor of Okha, a town of 30,000 on Sakhalin Island, which is also home to a major Rosneft office.

“You could say that Rosneft won a tactical victory over Gazrpom in Sakhalin,” political analyst Rostislav Turovsky was quoted by the news portal as saying. “Now it will have an advantage in the dispute over Sakhalin-3 and Sakhalin-4 deposits.”

Whatever is going on here, it is one hell of a way to run a country.

The Russian Flag at the North Pole

Having spoken to a few Russians around the place about the flag that the Russian expedition has plonked beneath the North Pole, it is safe to say that almost all Russians are as proud as punch.  And well they might be, given that it represents an impressive technological achievement.  Presumably they consider this money well spent, and as far as I am concerned the Russians have the right to spend their collective money on whatever they wish.  After all, it is nothing to do with me.

But the sympathy I have for those who complain about the terrible state of the infrastructure in Russia, those who worry how their parents will survive on meagre state pensions, and those who complain that the money from Sakhalin’s oil projects will bypass the island and end up in Moscow, is fast eroding.  I’m sure there must have been a British visitor in Russia at the time of the Sputnik launch who found his sympathy with those queuing up for bread diminish a notch as he watched the crowds cheering at Russia’s triumph over the west.

Governments usually get priorities wrong.  But it is less usual for entire populations to do so as well, and so consistently.

An Earthquake Hits Sakhalin Island

An earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale has hit Sakhalin Island near the town of Kholmsk, no doubt causing several thousand dollars worth of improvements.  More seriously, one woman was killed in the nearby town of Nevel’sk when a roof collapsed.  I wrote about my visit to both of these towns last October here.

There is mild confusion in the town of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  The oil companies, always with one eye on a potential lawsuit, sent all their employees home before the quake had completed a single oscillatory cycle.  By contrast, the oilfield service providers refused to unlock their workers from their chains, cracked the whip harder, and laughed louder.  On the way home I noticed a lot of Russians stood around outside their workplaces doing nothing and looking gormless.  This marks a change from business as usual only by way of their physical location.

My mother-in-law has been watching the news from St. Petersburg, and has rung up to inquire as to our safety.  So far, the wallpaper is doing a good job of holding our apartment together and continues to look strong.

I wrote about Sakhalin’s earthquakes in a less glib fashion here.

USSR in 100 Photos

My wife sent me a link to this webpage, which contains 100 photos from the Soviet Union, many of which speak volumes about the life and times in the USSR.

Funnily enough, in many ways life in the USSR didn’t look much different from life in West Wales in the early 80s.  In fact, I think the Soviet clothes were more fashionable than what my mother used to make me wear.