A Trip to Siberia

I am now back in Sakhalin after my trip to Siberia, which was pretty good fun.

The best way to get to Irkutsk from Sakhalin is through the city of Khabarovsk, situated on the Amur river less than 30km from the Chinese border, a 1 hour flight from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  Khabarovsk is somewhat of a regional hub, slightly smaller than Vladivostok, and the nearest decent sized city to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  From here you can fly straight to almost every other major Russian city, and a few foreign ones as well.  The airline Dal’Avia is probably the best option to take for this trip, it being based out of Khabarovsk.  But being the best option in this area of Russia is really not saying very much.

Our aircraft was an ancient old Tu-134 (last one built: 1984), the interior of which was decorated in similar fashion to kitchens you see in old 1960s American films.  Leg room was non-existent, the seats didn’t recline, but inexplicably flopped completely forward instead (assuming there was nobody occupying it of course).  Onboard entertainment consisted of listening to strange engine noises and the clunking and whining of hydraulics.  That said, the service was good, and umpteen times better than the ignorant old hags I encountered when I last flew Lufthansa.  Yes, I’ve mentioned this before, and the more times the better as far as I am concerned.  Anyway, the description of the aircraft was the same for all four legs of my journey there and back.

We had a couple of hours to kill in Khabarovsk, so we took the trolleybus down to the Amur river to take a photo just as the sun had set.

The Amur River at Khabarovsk

It was severly cold when we stopped to take that picture, with a vicious wind coming off the river.  I took my gloves off for no more than two minutes before my hands ached with the cold.  Khabarovsk itself was a lot smarter than I expected, but it had been a while since I had been to a provincial city on mainland Russia.  The city boasted lots of smart, either new or refurbished buildings, and clearly a lot of money had been spent and was still being spent.  The outskirts towards the airport were as decrepit and tatty as one would expect anywhere in Russia, but much of the city clearly reflected Russia’s newfound wealth.

Getting back to the airport, which wasn’t a bad place by Russian standards, my young colleague Andrei and I thought we had plenty of time for a drink.  No sooner had we ordered a couple of vodkas when we were told to board the bus which takes you across the apron to the plane, so like a pair of alcoholics we had to down them in one go and run for the door.  More amusingly, a chap who we’d seen getting pulled at airport security in Sakhalin for having 3 bottles of cognac in his hand luggage showed up at the bar in Khabarovsk airport and was completely drunk.  Perhaps he’d drunk his cognac rather than handed it to airport security.  He asked the barmaid if they’d serve him hard alcohol, and they said they would, but he probably wouldn’t be allowed on the plane.  So he ordered a beer instead.  A soft drink, in Russia.

The flight from Khabarovsk to Irkutsk was 3 hours and 10 minutes of knee crushing misery which made me appreciate what I had previously considered to be poor leg room on Boeings and Airbuses.  Lufthansa are still crap though.  Did I mention that?  Anyway, we landed in Irkutsk which is probably the crappest airport in Russia, and got ourselves a taxi to the Evropa Hotel, which according to the list we got from the travel agent, was the best in town.  As it turned out, it wasn’t bad at all.  The rooms were of a western standard, although too small to properly accommodate the large, double (or rather, twins pushed together) bed; you had to step over the corner to get around it.  But there was plenty of running water, both hot and cold, and the TV worked and the curtains fit the windows.  Shame you can’t get a hotel in Moscow which does that for the same price of $200 a night, breakfast included.

The next day was free, as the flights could only get us in with a day spare either side of the day on which we had our meeting in Angarsk arranged.  First thing in the morning we had the bright idea of walking a couple of kilometres to the centre of town to try to find an internet cafe.  It was -32C.  As we walked, not daring to stop in case we froze to death, I noticed sparkles in the air in front of me the whole time.  Fearing I was turning into some sort of hairy Tinkerbell or my breakfast had been laced with LSD, I realised it was my breath forming into ice crystals.  I’d never seen that before.  By the time we reached the centre of town, I’d seen enough to realise it wasn’t half as smart as I’d been led to believe, and was not as well maintained or refurbished as Khabarovsk.  My face had also frozen.  We’d not found the internet cafe, and the gormless people we stopped and asked hadn’t a clue where one might be, so we gave up.  Actually, I should quit with the insults: why I didn’t use the internet in the hotel business centre is anyone’s guess.  So we did the only sensible thing and jump in a taxi to go to the excellent bar we’d found the night before, an underground joint on Karl Marx street themed around a German beer hall, complete with sausages on the menu, huge beer steins, and waitresses dressed as Heidi.  It was warm inside.

Later on, much later on, we decided to head out to a nightclub somebody or other had told us about.  It was across the Angar river, then left a bit, then right a bit, and went by the name of Cherdak, meaning ‘attic’.  It was larger, smarter, and a lot cheaper but otherwise identical to the 777 club in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  And there were no hookers in Cherdak.  We had a whale of a time in there.  We got friends with a young local man who got hopelessly drunk and introduced us to the DJ, who also got hopelessly drunk.  And we joined them in also getting hopelessly drunk.  My wife tells me she won’t read this blog post, but on the offchance she does, I will say at this point that there were no girls in this club whatsoever.  Yeah, it must have been Siberia’s only gay club.  All men.  Anyway, it was a lot of fun, especially as the place didn’t see many foreigners or even many outsiders, and Andrei and I were somewhat of a novelty.  Nobody spoke any English, except a handful of younger gir men who had learned a bit at school and tried their best to remember it and talk to me.  I was busy babbling Russian for all I was worth.  It seems Siberians like foreigners who can speak Russian.  It also seems Siberians like Brits who can’t dance.

Next day our client had rung us early in the morning to say they couldn’t make the meeting, and postponed it until the next day, which gave us another day to kill.  By this time we’d befriended an Armenian taxi driver who was full of funny stories and drove a lot better than most of Russia’s taxi drivers (we only had one near head-on collision with him in 3 days).  We called him up and he took us the 70km down to Listvyanka, a small village on the shores of Lake Baikal.  I had made it a priority to see Lake Baikal during our visit to Irkutsk, as it is one of those places in Russia which I’d heard was well worth an effort to visit at least once.  When we got there, it was clearly impressive.  Unfortunately, winter is probably not the best time to visit, as most of it it was frozen solid and the tour operators were not working.  There were a handful of Buryat and Russian traders flogging overpriced souvenirs such as objects carved from Baikal jade (such objects included minature and not-so-mintature male genitalia) and furry shaman somethings or other.  And there was a stall selling dried and frozen omul, a fish found only in Lake Baikal.  One burly female Buryat collared Andrei and refused to let him go until he’d bought a promotional CD of a place that I’m not even sure was anywhere near Lake Baikal. 

Here are some pictures.

Lake Baikal at Listvyanka

Lake Baikal at Listvyanka

Lake Baikal at Listvyanka

Andrei Milovanov and me, Lake Baikal

Obviously, twenty minutes and a few snaps is not nearly sufficient for a visit to such an interesting and impressive place as Lake Baikal.  But we were out of season and we didn’t have much time, and nevertheless I’m glad I have seen it and would love to go back for a few days in summer, when I was told it is horrendously expensive.

The next day we called our Armenian driver and headed out to Angarsk, an industrial town about an hour’s drive up the Angar river from Irkutsk, to meet our potential client.  Angarsk was born in 1948 for the sole purpose of serving the enormous petrochemical complex built there in the early 1950s.  The complex is one of Russia’s largest, and the biggest in Asia, at least according to Wikipedia.  I can well believe it.  From end to end, it measured 20km.  One of the people we met at the main offices showed us the huge, 2m long plans of the place and told us of how they’d asked a European company to provide some sort of heat tracing component on their pipework.  The company had asked them to send a plan of the facilities so they could get an idea of the workscope, which they did.  A day or so later the people at Angarsk got a call from the European company thanking them for sending the plan of the city, but could they point out which building was their facility?

Our meetings concluded, it was time to head back to the hotel, and then start the journey back to Sakhalin.  Some bright spark had decided that 4:25am was a good time to have our plane leaving, so we stayed up until 2am when we arrived at the airport looking forward to getting some sleep on the plane.  Only when we got there we found the inbound flight from Krasnodar was delayed until 7am, then 8am, and finally 9:40am.  As I said, Irkutsk is probably Russia’s crappest airport, and we had an 8 hour wait to look forward to.

First thing we found was the cafe-stroke-bar, and the first thing we found in there was a an officer in the militia in full uniform, unconcious in his chair beside a half-empty bottle of vodka.  Fortunately, somebody had been smart enough not to give him is gun for the evening.  The cafe in Irkustk airport, no larger than a squash court, sold 27 different kinds of beer and not much else.  Andrei bought a bottle for 50 Roubles.  I bought a coffee in a small plastic cup for 150 Roubles.  Mineral water was 80 Roubles.  Russia’s drinking problem goes deep indeed.  Eventually two scruffy militiamen turned up to wake up the sleeping officer, which after a lot of shaking and jostling they managed to do.  The officer took a few minutes to remember who he was and where he was, then shooed away the militiamen and staggered to the counter where he harangued the sales girl for ten minutes.  Then he stumbled back to his table and persuaded two young Russian construction workers to join him in finishing his vodka with him.  Just as Andrei and I had had enough and were leaving, the officer was generously offering his new companions to drive them around the city all night in his car, which was parked just outside.  Sensibly, they declined.

A lengthy, overnight wait in Irkutsk airport is boring indeed.  There was nothing to do, and sleep was impossible without being completely drunk, and we’d both had quite enough of drinking for the past few days.  One amusing moment came when the offices started to open and a blonde woman in a uniform came about asking to see the tickets of anyone who looked like he wasn’t a genuine traveller.  She siezed upon one scruffy young man with a big blue bag between his legs and his head on his chest.  He looked dead.  Failing to get any response from the man, she lifted his head up only for it to fall back down again.  Eventually he stirred enough to attempt to get his hand inside his jacket to produce his ticket, a task which he failed miserably, so the woman charitably got it out for him and looked at it.  It appears that he was so drunk he’d missed his flight.  Not by an hour or two, but a whole day.  The woman rushed off to fetch the militiaman, who was one of the duo who had tried to wake the officer earlier.  The woman made a big deal of explaining the situation to him, while he stared at the ceiling with a look on his face as if she was telling him her dreams.  Halfway through her explanation, he simply walked off.  The drunk bloke sat there with his head on his chest for another two hours, then finally woke up and wobbled off somewhere.

Finally we got on board our aircraft and endured an agonising three hours to Khabarovsk.  We had missed our connection to Sakhalin by a few hours, but Dal’Avia had kindly rebooked us on that well known airline, Air Union, based out of Kranoyarsk.  I think they buy their planes second hand from Dal’Avia.  We had a couple of hours to kill in Khabarovsk airport, so we went back to the bar where we’d downed the vodka four days before.  Amusingly, the woman behind the counter recognised us, probably hoping for more speedy business.  Once again, Andrei bought a beer for 45 Roubles, and I bought a small cup of coffee for 160 Roubles.  Sitting beside us was a group of seven or eight Russian men who had stank of booze and were drinking even more.  Andrei and I were minding our own business, talking to each other in English (his English is better than my Russian, and I’m bone idle), when one of the Russians commented that I was English.  His next comment concluded we were both English.  After a few minutes, he turned round and swore at us in Russian, something to do with foreigners being in Russia, to which Andrei swore back.  This surprised him more than a bit, and he asked Andrei if he spoke Russian.  Andrei swore at him a bit more, built into an admission that he was Russian.  I then cheerfully told the man, in Russian, that I was a Brit who spoke Russian and could understand everything he’d been saying.  This was a bit of a lie, but it served its purpose of making him look like a complete twit.  Funnily, he and all his mates suddenly got very friendly, and even more so once I’d told them I lived in Russia.  They apologised profusely, asked me lots of questions, and got me half-drunk by breathing on me.  Then they sent their boss over, who told me they were all drill operators from Okha working for Rosneft.  The boss knew three words of English, but more significant was his missing index finger on his right hand.  I’d be willing to bet a few quid this was pinched off by a spinning drill pipe, and a few more quid that he was drunk at the time.  He told me the work for Rosneft was extremely hard and paid awful money.  If he and his crew will be extracting the oil for the company which will be providing the western world with its energy for the next fifty years, we’re all in trouble.

Finally we boarded our plane back to Sakhalin, and I was too tired to even care when the pilot slurred and stumbled his way though the pre-flight announcement.  Or maybe I’d simply grown immune to drunken behaviour over the past few days.

This Winter

This winter has been noticeably colder than last winter.  A typical winter’s day last year saw temperatures of -12C in the morning, creeping slowly up to -2C during the day.  This year, and particularly last week, we saw temperatures of -27C in the mornings creeping up to -13C during the day.  Trying to fire your car up when the engine is at -22C is not much fun.

But this is nothing compared to Siberia, where the temperature in Angarsk last Tuesday was -55C.  We have seen things warming up a little over the weekend, and for that I am grateful.  Tomorrow I am going to Angarsk.

I’ll be back on Friday, assuming I survive the cold and the internal Russian airlines.

Russian Scaffolding

The company I work for provides specialist scaffolding services to the oil and gas industry.  One of the specialities of our scaffolding service is ensuring the scaffolding stays up, so I can safely say that the scaffolding in the pictures below does not belong to us. 

Russian scaffolding, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Russian scaffolding, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Back in Business

Many, many apologies to all those who have wondered where the hell I’ve been.  After days of trying everything I could think of to no avail, my technical problems suddenly resolved themselves and everything is now back to normal.  I still have no idea what happened.

So, what have I had to say for myself during the outage?  Firstly, I never got round to posting this picture of a section of the market opposite my apartment burning fiercly one night late in December.

Fire at Dom Torgovli Market, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

This must have been pretty harsh on the stall owners who would have lost their livelihoods so close to New Year.  Sadly it isn’t very surprising either.  I went into that building a week or so before and, like in most of these types of markets, I saw heaters, freezers, fridges, and other electrical equipment plugged into overloaded multi-sockets which were probably made in China and don’t conform to any kind of standard.  Last year we had a major fire in a similarly arranged marketplace, which turned out to be electrical.  Perhaps the Russian government would be better directing its inspectors’ attention towards genuine electrical and fire hazards rather than forcing only western companies to make sure all employees undergo electrical training in order to operate a kettle or laptop, and sending them on useless “fire safety” courses.

So, 2007 came to an end with a roaring blaze, I bought a seven-foot tree to furnish our living room, and I had some time to reflect on the year gone by.  I feel a little bad about saying this, partly because others’ found the last 12 months rough going and partly because I don’t want to tempt fate, but 2007 was probably the best year of my life.  Everything seemed to go well.  My job and career took off in this wild corner of Russia, and I developed the essential contacts for the future which had escaped me completely in the middle east, not to mention gain an awful lot of experience.  My marriage to Yulia turned out to be lots of fun, both our social lives took on the characteristics of a student freshers’ week, and we managed to get three tropical holidays in the sunshine plus one or two trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg thrown in.  I found that I have some excellent friends in Sakhalin, many of whom I will surely stay in touch with long after they or I have left, and they have made my time here such enormous fun.  I’ve rarely been bored, having found myself joining in on mountain bike rides, hill-walks, snowmobile trips, and – more usually – marathon drinking sessions ending in daylight at 7am.  In summary, if 2008 and every subsequent year can be as good as 2007, I will happily die at 50.  Actually, better make that 60.  Or 70.  Anyway, I feel extremely lucky.  Unfortunately with my not going back to the UK last year I didn’t get to see some exceptionally good friends of mine, plus I haven’t seen any of my family since our wedding day, but this was a price I always knew I’d have to pay.

Anyway, enough of that: here are some pictures taken over the New Year holidays.

New Year Ice Sculptures, Victory Square, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

New Year Ice Sculptures, Victory Square, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Victory Square at New Year, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Ice slide, New Year, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Skiers, New Year, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

LNG Export Jetty, Prigorodnoye, Sakhalin Island

Mountains, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

Mountains, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

My latest toy: Arctic Cat ZR 600 EFI. Great fun!!

Mountains, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

An extreme sportsman, getting ready for the rush.

View of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk from the ski-slope at Gornii Vozdukh.  Our apartment is indicated by the yellow arrow.

2008 is already shaping up to start with a bang.  Next week I am due to go to Angarsk, Siberia to look at a pipeline, where yesterday’s temperature was -55C.  Now that should be fun.  I will be spending a day in Irkutsk though, which I’m looking forward to.  The first two weeks of February we are going on holiday to Vietnam, which I’ve heard is warmer than Angarsk.  After that, I am hoping to go to Kazan’ on business, probably spending a few days in Moscow on the way through.  In early March there is a good chance I will have to go to Kazakhstan for a week, then late March is likely to feature a trip to Houston.

As usual, I’ll take my camera along with me and keep you all posted.  Oh, I amost forgot!  There is one more photo which was taken over the holidays, filed under “Don’t Ask”. Continue reading

Technical Problems

Apologies for not posting anything over the New Year, I am having trouble accessing certain websites from my home internet connection, one of which is rather annoyingly this blog.

I’ve got a few bits and pieces to write, hopefully I’ll sort the problem out in the next couple of days.  In the meantime, Happy New Year to everyone.