A Return to Sakhalin

I am now back in Lagos having recently returned from a two-week holiday in Sakhalin.  Given I had the option of going back to my wife and my her apartment in Phuket, this may seem a strange choice of destination.  But there are reasons for it.  September was a rough month for me in Lagos, for various reasons.  One of them was that I was feeling a bit isolated and needed not only to get out of Nigeria for a bit, but also to get some friends around me.  (And no, I don’t need more suggestions from Nigerians in the comments that I pick up a hooker in one of the local bars to keep me company, as I received last time I expressed slight unhappiness at being here.)  I’d spent two weeks, mostly drunk, in Phuket back in August and I plan to go again in late November, and with my friends there being absent I didn’t fancy a week of sitting about on my own, attention from my wife notwithstanding.  I briefly considered doing a tour of the Baltic states but realised that this would involve lots of time sitting about in a hotel or wandering about on my own, something I would be quite happy with under the right circumstances, but these were not.  So I decided to head off to Sakhalin on the grounds that I have friends there, it’s familiar territory, and my wife could easily fly up to meet me from Thailand.

So, first the visa.  This was easy, thanks to my having two passports (both British: we can do this).  The staff at Real Russia in London squared this away in about a week, with the minimum of fuss.  I’ve used them twice now and each time they’ve done a splendid job, and I can highly recommend them.  This is a lot easier than fucking about in a Russian embassy yourself, something I’ve done enough times to know you’re better off using an agent.  (I still can’t believe I managed to get my first ever Russian visa by going to the embassy in Kuwait and handing them a pile of papers.  I still recall the look on the face of the consul when he handed my passport back to me, visa within.  I think he thought any Brit fuckwitted enough to come into the Russian embassy in Kuwait in person to get a tourist visa must be genuine, and didn’t have the heart to give me the usual nyet.)

But I wasn’t going straight from Nigeria to Russia, it was first to Paris for a week of training.  Paris is nice, especially as I get to stay in a decent hotel and eat Parisian cuisine on expenses.  The downside is it is situated in the La Defense business district which is full of action by day but alas dead at night and on weekends.  The other downside is that of the two friends I usually hang out with in Paris, one was on holiday and the other (a Kazakh engineer) now has her family in tow and is either unable or unwilling to come out to play.  So I was largely on my own, which wasn’t too bad because the training course was quite intense (by French standards, anyway: 9pm-5pm, an hour and a half for lunch) and in the evening I went to the gym or wandered up to Les Quatre Temps shopping centre to buy presents for folk in Russia.  But otherwise, I got a good rest, something I needed after a couple of months in Nigeria, and something I would need before two weeks in Russia.  It is impossible to relax in Russia.  You spend the time either completely drunk or dealing with the place sober, neither of which would be recommended in a book of Zen meditation.

I caught a crappy Air France plane from Charles de Gaulle airport to Moscow Sheremetovo on the Saturday morning, and arrived four or five hours later.  That’s when I got my first surprise.  Sheremetovo has undergone a transformation from the most idiotically designed passenger handling facility in the world to decent airport.  It’s like the Mexican TA suddenly squared their shit away and became the Household Cavalry.  I was amazed.  It took 3 minutes to clear immigration, 5 minutes to get my bag, 10 minutes to transfer to the domestic terminal, and 5 minutes to check in for my next flight, all of which took place under the same roof and along wide, spacious corridors.  Where were the flights of concrete steps which you have to lug your bags up and down?  Where were the 2-foot wide doors which open against the flow of passengers?  Where was the rugby scrum around the two immigration counters which were open?  Even the criminal taxi drivers wore badges.  Maybe they’d even taken the spare tyre off the back passenger seat and replaced the cracked windscreen?  I didn’t find out, but the new Sheremetovo is shit-hot.  They even had free wi-fi, something you’ll not find in Charles de Gaulle and a whole load of other major airports.

This was my first time in Russia since August 2010.  I drew some roubles out from the ATM, and was surprised to see a 5,000 note emerge from the rollers.  When I lived in Russia, nobody would even accept them.  I went to the cafe and got stuck into some Russian food, the type of which I’d not eaten in a long time, and my first thought was…fucking dill.  When I first went to Russia I was so obssessed with all things Russian that had I been served a Cossack’s turd I’d have eaten it and been chuffed.  After almost four years of living there I guess I got used to the food.  Now having spent six months in Thailand, and quite a number of weeks in Paris over the past year, it finally hit me that Russian food is shite.  Largely tasteless, covered in dill, and made in a manner not to be found elsewhere (“French-style cutlet” is badly named), most of it was like eating Ghandi’s sandal.  True the soups are still good, but the main course – consisting often of  a piece of poor-quality meat with a side of boiled or mashed potatoes (covered in dill) – isn’t worth eating.  And it wasn’t exactly cheap.  I spent the best part of $30 feeding my wife and I in a bog-standard stolovaya, my dish consisting of a giant chicken that had been squashed with a steam-driven machine press and deep fried, slapped on a plate beside a spoonful of mashed spud.  Now I’m aware that Sakhalin is probably not the gastronimical capital of Russia, or anywhere else for that matter, but it was poor by any standards. Thankfully, the Korean restaurants still churn out good bi bim bap on the cheap, and that provided for at least three meals.

Anyway, we all piled onto an Aeroflot Boeing in preparation for the 9 hour flight to Sakhalin.  I was sat at a bulkhead, which I usually don’t bother doing because where you win on the leg-room, you lose on the howling infant sat in the bassinet beside you.  This time proved no exception.  Next to me was a young mother, and beside her a young Russian man who was her husband.  Bouncing around between the two of them was an 18-month old boy, who to be fair was pretty well behaved all things considered.  The mother spent the whole flight battling the boy, feeding him, picking up his toys, changing his clothes, entertaining him, etc.  Her husband sat watching TV with his headphones on showing no interest and offering no help whatsoever.  I often get the impression Russian men breed out of pure ego, to show they can.  Like a lion who impregnates the lioness and spends the rest of his life doing fuck all to help, they seem to be obeying some primal instinct to reproduce rather than actually wanting a kid.  I spent a good portion of the flight picking up toys and other artefacts that were tossed on the floor, and making room on my side for the kid’s feet to overhang while he got his head down, something he was able to do because I kindly provided my pillow.  Pretty pathetic, actually.  What’s the betting Papa is shagging somebody from work in 6 months time, assuming he’s not already, and Mama will be moving in with Baba to raise the kid alone for the next 20 years?

The flight wasn’t too bad thanks to my newly-bought Kindle and my laptop having enough charge to last five episodes of Entourage.  Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk airport hadn’t changed much, although nowadays they bus you the 50m to the terminal building and they’ve tacked a cafe of sorts onto the side.  But the uncivilised mosh-pit of the baggage hall was exactly the same, as were the gaggle of dickheads blocking the narrow exit door so keen are they to glimpse their red-eyed relatives looking hopefully for their oversized luggage containing bedclothes and garden furniture.  The other difference is that the car park is no longer clogged with traffic thanks to a 15 minute free period after which you have to pay 100 roubles, which nobody in Sakhalin would ever do.  My friend Nick picked me up, 30 minutes late, and took me to his home in the Zima Highlands, the oil company compound featuring American-style houses in which I never lived.  It would be my home for the next two weeks, though.  Nick lives with his girlfriend Anne and their 18 month old daughter Charlie, who as far as I am concerned is a blood relative.  I hadn’t spent time in a family home with an infant since Christmas 1999.  This became apparent later.

Once I’d got showered (I honked) and chucked my bag down in the dungeon which would serve as my quarters, we all headed down to a kids’ birthday party in the compound bar, a place where I’d spent many an evening getting hammered and acting idiotically.  Unfortunately, kids’ birthday parties are not the place to behave in such a manner, unless you are a kid in which case idiotic is the order of the day (although even Russian kids don’t get hammered).  So I hung about watching middle-aged couples have fun with their whelps and talking to people who thought they’d seen the last of me years ago (or at least hoped as much).  The weather was nice, warm and sunny, and it felt strange to be back in Sakhalin, partly because it was a place I knew so well and partly because everything seemed so very different.  Thereafter followed an easy evening in which silence was maintained after 8pm as Charlie was knocking out the zeds (or supposed to be), and I crashed out in an attempt to cheat the jetlag.  It didn’t work.

The next day I took off in Nick’s Toyota to meet my buddy Andrei, a Russian who was my right hand man and best friend the whole time I was on the island.  We gave each other big bear hugs, which it is possible to do in Russia without being called gay, and went into town.  Some things had changed.  There were some new shops, and a few fancy new buildings.  The roads were a bit better, and some buildings had been scrubbed up a bit.  And thanks to a surplus in the city budget which the authorities deemed should not be spent on improving essential infrastructure, a monument had appeared on a roundabout in the form of a giant concrete phallus.  Money well spent, it was.  We went to a cafe where I spent too much money on a bowl of water with an egg floating in it and a pizza which had until that morning been a blind flange on some pipework.  But it was nice to be back in Russia all the same, and it was good to see Andrei.  By this time the weather was getting cold, which set the pattern of the entire trip.  I experienced freezing rain, warm sunshine, cold air with clear skies, strong winds, and low cloud all within two days of being there, and thus it continued.  English weather, I believe, is the term.

In the afternoon I drove to the airport, having by this time remembered how to operate a motor vehicle properly.  The morning was a little hairy, having not got behind a wheel in over a year and being witness only to Nigerian driving since.  The idea was to meet my wife who was flying up from Thailand for a week, but only a week.  Having not been to Russian in over 2 years, she wasn’t overly keen on coming back, especially not to Sakhalin.  But my faithful wife followed me to Sakhalin once before, that time for 3 years, and so agreed to do so again, albeit for 7 days.  Whilst waiting for her in arrivals I bumped into one chap I intended to meet later, and another who I worked with when I was on the Lun-A back in 2008.   Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is still a small town.  Finally Yulia came dancing through from the customs checkpoint, looking like a 12 year old who has been allowed to travel alone for the first time.

She wasn’t happy to be back at all.  I had vastly underestimated how much she hated living in Sakhalin for the 3 years she put up with it.  Whereas for me it was an adventure, somewhere different and exotic, for her it was just a backward shithole.  Never impressed with Russia since she was a teenager, she’d left as soon as she could and spent considerable efforts to ensure she stayed out.  Then muggins here brought her back, and to Sakhalin no less.  It’s like somebody from London being unimpressed with the UK, going off to live in the USA, Korea, and Dubai for ten years and then being moved to the Shetland Islands for 3 years.  Oh, but you’re back home!  No, I’m not.  She struggled on Sakhalin a lot more than I appreciated, and her being back didn’t cheer her up at all.  Less than half a kilometre outside the airport she started sniffling about how she isn’t really Russian any more and has nothing in common with this place, so doesn’t want to be back.  Cigarettes, apparently, is what would cheer her up so I was instructed to pull over to the first shop we came across, which was your typical small Russian shop which sells a bit of everything.  Yulia came out 10 minutes later with cigarettes, a jar of pickles, a hunk of cheese, some dried kalmari, and a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka.  Isn’t really Russian any more?  Hmmm…

We spent the first few days catching up with friends we’d not seen for a long time, mainly Russians.  On the Wednesday night we went to the apartment of one of Yulia’s friends and proceeded to drink rather heavily, just the three of us.  I can’t remember what the girls were drinking – some cocktail or other – but I managed to finish three quarters of a bottle of Stolichnaya on my own with the result that I was pretty hammered by the time we walked home.  There is something uniquely Russian about the practice of two or more people sitting around a kitchen table (always around a table, never lolling on a sofa) and drinking spirits in such quantities for several hours whilst talking about stuff.  The British will go to a pub and drink overpriced beer and talk shite to one another, the French will sit outside drinking wine and complain philosophise, the Germans hang around in cellars drinking enormous glasses of beer planning world domination, but only the Russians have a habit of sitting at home drinking for hours.

Not that I think this is a bad thing, this is one of the things I liked most about Russia, right from the beginning.  Sitting around a table in somebody’s apartment eating cheese, salami, pickles, and bread whilst necking vodkas and talking about anything at all (no subject is taboo in such a situation) is as sociable as it can get, and this is where the Russian dry humour really comes out.  If you want to learn Russian properly, this is where it must be done.  Here you’ll learn the slang, the anecdotes, and the timing of certain expressions which you’ll never get from a teacher or – dare I say it? – your pretty young Russian girlfriend who works as an admin. girl in the local oil company and speaks such good English and helpfully translates the menu for you in restaurants.  Ain’t gonna happen.

Anyway, where was I?  That’s right, we got hammered and came home.  We spent the Thursday recovering and playing with Charlie, something Yulia took to like a duck to water.  Far from displaying maternal instincts around an infant, Yulia took the opportunity to revert to being a toddler herself and spent several hours in conversation (until this point, everyone – including her parents – were unaware she could have a conversation), during which Charlie learned that she is not supposed to make the call on her Fisher Price phone (as a girl she must wait for the call) and other such essential life lessons.  For my part, I was somewhat pleased to discover that Charlie is alone in the world in that she likes to listen to me play the guitar.  Some pictures.

On Friday night we had planned a big night out, and so it was.  I went to the Moosehead pub where I knew several former colleagues would be hanging out after work, with the intention Yulia would join me later.  Thus I spent a few hours drinking there, and then moved onto the Kona Bar, which was once upon a time packed to the rafters with oilmen on a Friday evening but was now practically empty, and then went back to the Moosehead (I’m not sure why).  And it was here I decided to take care of a something which had been bothering me.  First, some background.

Back in 2008 I befriended a Korean Russian girl, who shall remain nameless.  To cut a long story short, for 3 years I put in considerable efforts preventing her from drowning in a well of despair and loneliness, mainly by talking to her and listening to her, in hindsight to a far greater degree than was healthy for me.  Then in mid-September, after years of desperately trying, she finally landed herself an expatriate boyfriend (she wouldn’t even look at Russians).  Perhaps unsurprisingly, she did what so many Russian women do when they hook up with an expat: turn into a jumped-up little princess with an extraordinary but entirely misplaced sense of superiority.  I called her, as I usually do, a week after she’d met him to find myself subject to a barrage of abuse. Where this came from is anyone’s guess, but those who can guess better than others think she harbours a deep anger towards me because I didn’t divorce my wife and marry her instead, or something.

Now common sense would have told me to fuck her off right there and then.  But those who know me are all too aware that if I think something is worth saving I won’t accept it is dead until the tombstone is laid, the grass has grown back, and the yew tree planted during the funeral is 20ft high.  I can put anything down to a flash of anger, mainly because I am prone to making stupid and rash statements in such circumstances myself.  So I gave her a week or so and called her back.  She was pleasant enough, but made no attempt at an apology.  I know her: as far as she concerns herself, she is as pure as the driven snow.

So this was pretty much the situation when I arrived in Sakhalin, and it was in the Moosehead pub at 11pm, half-cut on whisky, that I decided this was the perfect time to go around her apartment and tell her exactly what I thought of her.  Anybody with half a brain could have told me this was a monumentally bad idea, but I’ve often found in hindsight that saying something when you don’t give a shit is sometimes the best thing to do in the long run.  In vino veritas, and all that.  So sure enough I turned up on her doorstep, startled the new boyfriend (I knew him slightly, by all accounts he’s a good bloke) and told her in plain English, stripped down especially for the Russian ear, that she was fucking out of order and I had expected an apology by now.  Her response was a mixture of lies, denial, accusation, and protestation, but of an apology there was not a whiff.  I gave it up as a bad job after 20 minutes, or about the time the whisky was wearing off and I needed another drink.  So I stomped off to meet up with my wife and friends with the parting shot that if she could not bring herself to say sorry then the friendship meant fuck all from the outset.  I can’t say the whole episode helped things very much – not if I wanted to stay friends with her anyway – but it did get filed in the “Things Which Needed To Be Said” cabinet.

And it was off to Barrel Cafe for me, and that’s when the serious drinking started: until then I was just warming up.  I’m not sure how long we were there, but we were drunk enough to start taking photos, some of which are shown below.

We were a mixed bunch.  Andrei my Russian buddy was there, and Yulia had two of her friends along, and some photos show other people who I didn’t know, and my friend Will was along for a while.  He is an Australian born to Russian parents, so is bilingual and a handy chap to have on a construction site when some halfwitted former conscript is telling you through a mouthful of sunflower seeds that there’s nothing wrong with installing identical wire for live, earth, and neutral because that’s what he’s always done. But he couldn’t stay long because he has a Russian girlfriend who bends his ear every time he’s out, especially if she knows he is out with an idiot like me.  On receipt of the thirty-fifth text message calling him a cheating prick, he went home to his beloved.

It all started to go a bit hazy after that.  We ended up in Holiday Palace – a club which is very much unlike a resort and far from palatial – and then somehow I got separated from Yulia and her friends and next thing I knew I was with Andrei in Continental club talking to an enormous Russian bloke who, according to Andrei, was spetsnaz.  He was at least a regiment.  I can’t remember what we were talking to him about, but whatever it was thankfully did not induce any red mists of Chechnya or any other such psychotic flashbacks.  Then we were on our way home, sort of.  We first stopped by Yulia’s friend’s apartment, the scene of Wednesday night’s frolicking, where we perhaps unsurprisingly found Yulia and her friend.  Whether we drunk any more there or not I don’t know, and nor do I remember walking home, but what I do remember all too well is the almighty bollocking I got from Anne when I came crashing in through the front door at 4:30 or 5.00am and decided this was the perfect time to make a loud and emotional phone call to a friend of mine who was on a camp up in the north of the island.  The way I was bellowing, my friend probably heard me before she answered the phone, and needless to say I woke the entire house up, toddler and all.  I slunk down to my room in the basement feeling like an idiot teenager whose parents have mistakenly allowed them out for the first time, and not a little sheepish.  Personally, I blame my wife who chose to stay at her friend’s apartment and was thus not on hand to prevent her husband behaving like an oaf.

The next morning I sobered up in the shower, swallowed enough Toilet Duck to erase most of the alcohol from my breath, pried my eyes open, and snurgled upstairs to apologise.  A short bout of grovelling later and we were onto breakfast and a day of doing not very much.  I had decided I wasn’t going to drink that evening so planned to take the car to the Moosehead to watch the Wales vs France RWC semi-final, but that plan was swiftly abandoned when a mate turned up on the doorstep bearing news of a pissup starting in the Zima 3 bar where the rugby will kick-off in about half an hour.  The car keys got thrown on the mantlepiece, a gin and tonic got thrown down my neck, and we were off again.  The less said about the rugby match the better, but it wasn’t long after the final whistle that we were off to a fake German beer hall down at the industrial end of town.  I was in the company of a few of the new generation of Shell youngsters who had been dispatched to Sakhalin, arriving after I had left.  Also in tow was the indefatigable Osama the Egyptian, who is somewhat of a legend in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for his ability to not only party harder than anyone else, but to put up with being surrounded by drunken idiots whilst himself remaining stone cold sober (he doesn’t drink).  I drank only one beer, but it was the size of a naval shell from the battle of Leyte Gulf, and was hence plenty.  I’m rubbish on beer.  We sat there for a while and debated which club we’d all go to later, then Osama went off for his usual 10pm nap (he gets up again at 1am) and dropped me at the Pacific Plaza Hotel where some Russian friends were waiting for me.

You remember my story about playing billiards with the Ossetian?  And subsequently getting mighty pissed?  Well, I was off to do much the same thing, minus the billiards.  Both he and his cousin – who also featured large in drinking binges in my early days on Sakhalin – were in the Lounge 8 bar waiting for me, along with a chap called Dima and a Korean girl whose name I forget.  The Ossetian doesn’t speak English, so this stage of the night – in which I was explaining to my friends all about Nigeria and who knows what else – took place all in Russian.  I needed the practice.  I’d not forgotten much, but I did find myself earlier telling a shopkeeper that Wednesday was not necessary instead of keep the change (sreda vs sdacha).  It was good to see these guys, they were always good friends the whole time I was in Sakhalin and they always made a big effort to come out and see me each time I was back.  They were full of questions about what I was doing in Sakhalin (fuck knows), what Nigeria is like (erm, fabulous) and would I like the same again (yes!)?  I was pouring rum and coke into me at a steady rate, the after effects of last night’s session already battered into submission, and aside from the fact that Lounge 8 has turned from a somewhat classy venue into a hangout for drunken men with an appalling taste in shoes and women with an equally appalling taste in nylon dresses, we were xorosho sidim.  In my opinion the bar started going downhill when Yulia quit as the joint’s sales manager, and speaking of my wife, she waltzed in on us all of a sudden wearing somebody else’s clothes.

When the place closed we decamped to an establishment called First Nightclub, which when I lived in Sakhalin was called Dive and was chock-full of skinny, prepubescent Korean girls being chased by barely pubescent Korean youths with basin haircuts and nobody wearing anything that wasn’t black.  With the change of name came a change of clientele, or at least a reduction in the Koreans and an increase in Russians.  Here we met the expat lads I’d been with in the German beer hall, and the whole load of us had a merry time standing around drinking heavily until the expats decided there wasn’t enough pussy in this place (their words) and headed to Holiday Palace, leaving me with the Russians.  A small rum and coke was somewhere around $12, each one lasting no more than 5 minutes, so it turned into an expensive night.  Not that I minded, I was having fun.  Unlike Holiday, this was a proper Russian club with all the unintentional amusements which that brings.

At some point, well closer to dawn than midnight, we flagged down a cab and went to a 24 hour bar/club/restaurant in the Panorama Hotel, where we were shown to a table a couple of minutes after being told it was all full up.  We ordered a bottle of vodka and a jug of tomato juice, but fortunately either through divine intervention or a good old fashioned Russian fuckup, we only got the jug of tomato juice.  We ordered food, but alas there was no quick Korean stuff, just what passes for fancy food in Russia which inexplicably takes longer to prepare than roast beef.  I think mine was a piece of meat covered in onion and cheese (no, it wasn’t a cheeseburger), but I couldn’t be sure.  By that point I was drinking tomato juice, which I hate, so I must have been pretty far gone.  Eventually Yulia and I said goodbye to the boys (the Korean girl had sensibly gone home long ago) and piled into a taxi which took us back to Zima.

Sunday passed without incident, which means I probably slept all day and was still drunk when I woke up.  Industrial earplugs swiped from an offshore oil facility ensured Charlie’s first efforts at demolition didn’t disturb my slumber.

Monday came, and sadly it was time to say goodbye to Yulia.  She was delighted, not so much by leaving me, but by getting the hell out of Russia and back to Thailand.  This left me on my own without much to do, so after going to a friend’s new dacha and drinking a cup of tea in a place which could easily have been midway between Noril’sk and Krasnoyarsk, I decided to hammer a few more nails into the coffin containing the friendship with the Korean girl I mentioned earlier.  God knows that wasn’t my intention, but that was the effect.  Looking back, the whole sorry episode was as predetermined as a cricket match featuring Pakistan, but nobody can say I didn’t try.  It’s a shame, she was a good girl for a time, and her recent behaviour was wholly unnecessary.

I didn’t do a lot the rest of the week save for get my arse handed to me in an afternoon of billiards with my good friend Valeriy (who I also mention in this account), and midway through I wished I’d jumped on a plane back to Thailand with Yulia.  Then on Thursday I had a stroke of luck: my good friend Natalie, the Korean who I’d called too late and too loudly on the previous Saturday night, had broken a filling eating gravel-filled slop on the Chayvo construction camp up north and had to return to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk to get it fixed.  The author of this blog, I’d been friends with her for several years and, having last seen her in March 2010, I was looking destined to miss her on this trip.  But thanks to the road construction crew in Chayvo doubling as cooks and not washing their overalls when they switch jobs, Nat got the night train down and turned up in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk early on the Friday morning.  I picked her up sometime before lunch and we hauled off to City Mall – Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk’s newest and biggest and best shopping centre – to do a spot of shopping and get some bi bim bap inside of us.  Then at 3pm I took her to the dentist where she made me stay for moral support, but I’m afraid to say I fell asleep in the waiting room chair and didn’t hear the drill or any screams she might have let out.  The tooth filled, and me shaken awake, I dropped her home and went back to Zima.

At 6pm or so I found myself in the Moosehead propping up the bar with several of my former colleagues, drinking whisky and coke.  The intention tonight was that Nat and I would go out and get hammered and wind up in Bravo club, which I had heard – albeit from a pretty unreliable source – wasn’t bad.  Having already sunk a few talking bollocks with half the bar, I was already half cut when Nat arrived at 8pm.  And I was starving, having forgotten to eat.  Nat, who had been on a dry camp for the past 10 weeks, didn’t hang about and got stuck into the whisky and cokes (we always drink that when we’re together) whilst I sent abusive messages to her Australian boyfriend, currently sitting somewhere Down Under, because his team was beating mine in the RWC 3rd-place play-off.  We ordered, and subsequently demolished, a pizza which had negligible effect thanks to the sheer volume of drink we were putting down.  We tired of the Moosehead and jumped in a taxi to Lounge 8 where we put away another few glasses.  I can’t remember too much, but it was great to see her and we had a good time catching up.  I know we ended up in Barrel Cafe where Nat ordered a shisha pipe and we sat there smoking that and drinking whisky until Nat started shaking and feeling quite ill.  According to her it was the shisha pipe, but I’ve spent time in Kuwait and not noticed many Arabs shaking like a leaf so am more convinced it was the bucket-load of whisky consumed after two and a half months of cold turkey.  We got in a taxi with the intention of going to Bravo, but as we pulled up outside Nat bailed on me and went home.  To be fair, she was hammered.

I was still curious to see inside this club, so I went in Han Solo.  It cost me 1,000 roubles just to get in, which I thought was a bit steep considering two years back it was a casino which featured a 24 hour kitchen downstairs where you could get Korean food at 7am after spilling out of the now-closed Chaste club.  I didn’t stay long.  The person who told me it was good was either a middle-aged woman with a bad taste in clothes or was looking for one.  It reminded me of the bar in Star Wars.  The music, despite there being a live band, was dire.  Russian bands can’t do Queen.  Apparently the place gets better after 3am, but I didn’t stick around to find out.  I got a taxi outside and went back to Zima and got my head down.

Saturday dawned bright an early, which I’d rather have not seen but Charlie was impersonating a herd of hippos chasing an entourage of elephants right above my room so I didn’t have much choice.  It was pouring with rain and Charlie was showing signs of cabin fever so we went on a nice family trip to City Mall, where I mooched about in the supermarket trying to control my excitement.  I felt a bit better once I’d got some grub inside me.  In the afternoon I met up with Nat for a coffee in the Pacific Plaza Hotel, before driving her around various decrepit shopping centres looking for something or other.  She was on the 8pm train that evening, so I dropped her off and said goodbye.  It was good to see her, she’s a good girl is Nat.  I have no idea when I’ll see her again, but whenever or wherever it is, you can be sure we’ll be pissed on whisky.

That evening Nick, Anne, and I met up with our friend Mel for some dinner in the restaurant of the new(ish) Mira Hotel.  Mel is a Canadian who had just come back from holiday in central Europe, so sadly missed seeing Yulia.  Sometime last year Mel had come to Phuket and she and I, with some help from Yulia at one stage, had seen off four jugs of frozen margharita before realising we had forgotten to eat and stood at the counter of MacDonald’s at midnight, utterly shiters, trying to get fed.  This time things were a bit more civilised.  We enjoyed a reasonable meal in a restaurant with as much atmosphere as an empty warehouse, but the wine was good and the company excellent.  At the end of the meal Nick and Anne, being responsible, middle-aged parents left for home whilst Mel and I – being irresponsible and childless – headed for Freestyle, which back in the day used to be a pick-up joint for dodgy Korean women but had recently been refurbished.

Freestyle is a classic Russian-style club situated in a basement and featuring lots of tables loaded with fruit platters and bottles swiped from a chemisty set filled with large volumes of vodka and cognac.  If you’re lucky, there are soft drink chasers.  Valeriy (he of billiard-playing fame) had booked a table with two Russian friends, who were reasonably sober, and a Korean friend, who was fucking plastered.  Mel and I tucked ourselves behind the table and whilst she entertained herself practising her Russian on the menfolk at our table, I amused myself by watching the scenes in front of me.  Like I say, Freestyle is your typical Russian club.  It was patronised by groups of married men who have left their wives at home and tables of married women whose husbands are probably in a similar club less than half a mile away.  Most of the men were pissed and were trying their luck at the tables full of women, and – somehow – were actually making some headway.  The drunk Korean at our table lurched over to a table at which three attractive women sat (all wearing wedding rings), barely making it.  Reaching the safety of a chair, he plonked himself down and with his opening gambit – whatever it was, I didn’t hear it – had one of the girls laughing affectionately, which was, under the circumstances, an invitation to park himself there for the next half hour.  Either he sobered up on the way over or the girl had the Elephant Man for a husband, because when he was talking to me he couldn’t do much more than tell me over and over that he’d seen me in City Mall that morning.  To my left was a mixed table and a large flabby chap was trying to get into the knickers of a reasonably attractive middle aged woman who seemingly chose what dress to wear before seeing what kind of club Freestyle was.  His efforts were great, but were not being rewarded, so he offered to massage her shoulders.  Maybe he’d have done a reasonable job had he not been shitfaced, but as things stood he succeeded in crushing her collar bones and lower neck which made her wince in agony in my direction rather than strip off her dress and run in his.  I got distracted by something – probably the arrival of my fifth gin and tonic, or possibly a neat vodka thrust into my hand for a toast – but when I looked back the woman had shot to her feet, grabbed her bag, and was heading to the door as if he’d just gone for broke and shoved his hand up her dress.  Which he probably had.  He took off after her, but I never saw either of them again.  Meanwhile, one of the Russian guys on our table had sauntered up to an attractive Russian woman two feet taller than him and asked her to dance, which she accepted without batting an eyelid.  The two of them joined two dozen other couples swaying in time to a live band which was ten times better than that which occupied the stage at Bravo.  Just as I was beginning to think this was not really a proper Russian club, sure enough a fight broke out on the dancefloor.  There was pushing and shoving and lots of women getting involved, and people pushing others back, but everyone was too pissed to land any serious rounds on target.  It did go on for a while though, and eventually the band stopped which seemed to have the effect of calming things down a bit, or at least getting enough non-combatants in between the warring sides.  Just as the band started back up again two members of a private security firm dressed head to toe in urban camouflage and sporting AK-47s crashed onto the dancefloor and set about getting themselves involved.  Eventually they realised the place was full of pissheads and, being sober, they just didn’t belong and so left, and things went back to what passes for normal in a Russian club.

At some point we’d decided it was time to move onto somewhere else, so went outside where we found the security guards still milling about, ostensibly keeping the peace between a few Korean chaps and an entourage of women and what appeared to be fresh air.  I suspect the security guards were paid by the hour.  Mel and I were joined by our friend Chris, and we headed for Lounge 8.  Here I bumped into Osama and the same group of young expats I’d been out with the week before, plus a few others that I knew.  Some things never change in Sakhalin, and one was that the gnome-like director of the company that fired me was still trying it on with one of Yulia’s mates, a full three years after he should have realised he was never going to get anywhere.  Too old and too gnome-like, I believe the verdict was.  Besides, I still haven’t forgotten the occasion when my wife and I bumped into him in Phuket in the company of a very gay German, so perhaps it’s all just for show?  Anyway, Andrei joined us and we downed a few rum and cokes before deciding Holiday Palace was the place to go, and off we went: Mel and Chris in a large 4×4 provided by ExxonMobil, Andrei and I in some wanked-out Toyota we’d flagged down in the road.  Needless to say, we got there first.

We didn’t stay long in Holiday, and the rest of the night – indeed, the rest of the trip – isn’t worth writing about.

The flight from Sakhalin to Moscow was on a crappy old Ilyushin something or other.  A Skyteam gold card, courtesy of plenty of flights on Air France, got me a seat at a bulkhead and surprisingly the flight went quickly, but nevertheless the 9 hours gave me plenty of time for reflection.  As soon as I arrived in Sakhalin I wasn’t sure why I’d done so, and once Yulia had left I was regretting coming.  The ending of the friendship with the Korean girl gave the whole trip a pretty unpleasant taste, and I realised that there really is not much to do in Sakhalin.  I spent the trip wondering whether it was the degree to which Sakhalin had changed, or how the people had changed, which made everything feel so strange, but on reflection it was probably me that had changed.  My wife advised me recently (it might even have been on this trip) that I need to let Sakhalin go.  She was right.  I need to stop looking back to times that were (and in some cases weren’t), and look to the future.  For better or worse, my immediate future is in Nigeria and my longer term future can be almost anywhere.  I’d like to do my next assignment in Moscow as I do miss Russia, but there’s no way I’m coming back to Sakhalin again.  It was great to see all the people I mentioned in this account, but most of them I will see again elsewhere, most likely in Thailand or Moscow.  They say you should never say never, but I am fairly confident I will never return to Sakhalin again.  The place just isn’t what it was for me any more.  Time to live my life elsewhere.

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7 Responses to A Return to Sakhalin

  1. dearieme says:

    North Dakota. Why don’t you and your lass saddle up and head off out west, pardner?

  2. Tim Newman says:

    Gotta finish my sentence in Nigeria, mate. Them’s the rules.

  3. Alisa says:

    So, done any good drinking on your holiday?

  4. Tatyana says:

    Glad you are in the south of the country…and hopefully, safe.
    Are you?

  5. Tim Newman says:

    As houses. :) Thanks.

  6. David Moore says:

    Interesting tail mate. I have had similar feelings returning to places where I’ve done longer term contracts and then left, feeling quite out of time and place.

    I have to disagree about the Russian embassy in London though, they sorted me a visa within a couple of days and had my passport on an express courier with Saturday delivery, just in time for me to fly on the Monday. Perhaps they just took pity on a Kiwi who messed all the paperwork up!

  7. Koen says:


    Back in Yuzhno now actually…you should have come in the winter and done some snowboarding :) But u r right, most things change…BUT NOT ALL! :))

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