A Week in Sakhalin

So, we’ve been here just over a week and are beginning to get a feel for what the place will be like to live in.  Summed up in one word: grim. 

We have managed to find a very nice apartment to rent for three months until we find somewhere permanent, which is costing my employers a mere $2,700 a month.  Yes, you read that right.  In a country where the average wage is around $300 a month, residents of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk can rent out an unrefurbished dump of an apartment for $1,000 per month, a refurbished apartment for $2000-$3000, and a new apartment for $3000-$5000.  Nice money if you can get it.  The problem is a shortage of decent housing coupled with an influx of expats who are having the housing paid for by the employers, and Russian employees who are earning higher than average wages.  We looked at one place for $1,100 a month which you wouldn’t have put a dog to live in, and another place of $1,800 which somebody did put a dog to live in, and as far as we could tell the owner would not be moving him out if we moved in.

The owners of our apartment are a young couple who managed to save enough money from the husband working as a commercial diver to refurbish the apartment completely.  They did what is the only sensible thing to do when refurbishing a Soviet era apartment: rip out all the internal walls and replan from scratch.  Soviet apartments are notoriously poorly planned for space, and appear much smaller than they need to in the original configuration.  The couple want to start their own business but now have no money left, so they are moving into somewhere cheaper and will use the rental income to start their business.  I am fast getting the impression that young Russian men fall into two categories: those who are smart and prepared to work hard, and drunken wasters who are going nowhere.  Time will tell which group will prevail into the majority.

The first night in our new apartment was a nightmare.  The people in the flat above decided to throw a party and play loud music until 5am.  And when I say loud, I mean effing loud, nightclub loud, so that it was as if the speakers were in the next room with the door open.  Drunken shouting was also heard in intervals above the racket.  I was livid.  But there isn’t much you can do, short of going round there with a gang of meatheads and breaking their legs, and I didn’t have such a gang on me at the time.  Theoretically you can call the militia, but even if they bothered to come round and haul themselves up three flights of stairs (a very big if), they’d probably give me a hard time for not being registered, and it is quite possible that they’d simply accept a few hundred roubles from the guys upstairs to bugger off and leave them alone.  Plus, this would open myself and Yulia up to reprisals of some sort, and this would also be the case if I went to complain in person.  As it happened, Yulia overheard the other neighbours complaining to them the next morning, and they got told to eff off pretty quickly.  Russia seems to have its fair share of selfish wankers same like everywhere else.  Fortunately, the following nights were peaceful.

We have been in the apartment four nights and have had two powercuts already.  They appear to be affecting only our floor of our block.  I went outside to have a look at the fuse box, and found several dodgy looking circuit breakers in the correct position, and a foot-wide bird’s nest of wires surrounding them.  There was no way I was sticking my hand in there by the light of a mobile phone.  What was more worrying was the wires were extraordinarily thin, the type you’d wire up a 12v circuit with.  It’s a fire waiting to happen.  The outages last about 2 hours between 9 and 11, and as I have not got round to buying a torch and candles yet, there is nothing to do except watch films on my laptop.  But these are running out, so I hope these cuts are not a regular thing.

Which they will be, of course.  If the power cuts are not a local problem, they are a city-wide problem.  Most residents find they have shortages of hot water, cold water, or electricity at some point.  Sometimes the entire town goes black, streetlights and all.  Must be fun for those on life-support.  The weather is getting steadily colder (it was 4 degrees Celcius at 7:45am today) and it is surprising how much the temperature drops each night.  The apartment is getting a bit cold, yet the heating does not come on until October 14th. 

We’ve also discovered that fesh meat and fresh vegetables are hard to come by in Yuzhnii (note: this is the correct abbreviation of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk).  The supermarkets only sell frozen meat whose type is questionable, never mind its origin and quality.  Fresh meat can be bought from the Chinese market for about $9 per kilo, or a bit cheaper from blokes who drive about flogging it from their cars.  A handful of cucumbers, a lettuce, and a few onions bought yesterday came to about $5.  I can afford this stuff, but I pity the poor Russian residents who cannot.  I’m not shopping in expat places here, this was my wife buying stuff from women at stalls set up on the pavement without an English speaker in sight.  I can only guess that all fresh produce must be imported, and this puts most of it beyond the budget of a local on an average salary.  Presumably they eat mainly seafood, which is cheap and in abundance provided you buy it from the right place, and stuff like pelmenii and varenikii which can be bought cheaply or made at home almost for nothing.  In keeping with a Russian stereotype which is still alive and well, potatoes and cabbage are available cheaply and plentifully, and while we’re talking stereotypes I might as well say that the selection of vodkas on display in supermarkets is impressive and takes up about four times as much shelving as that devoted to vegetables.  Little wonder the health of Russians is deteriorating so quickly and their life expectancy is plummeting.

The driving, as you’d expect, is devoid of all concepts of the rule of the road.  In the Middle East, the driving was dangerous thanks to a combination of arrogance, high  speed, recklessness, and impatience with a strong dash of utter incompetence thrown in for good measure.  But in general, the cars and roads were in good condition.  In Russia, it is a bit different.  The drivers are competent enough and although you do see some drive at recklessly high speeds, this is not the case with everybody.  But the roads are in such awful condition that people must take extraordinary measures to navigate them, such as pulling into oncoming traffic to avoid a pothole which could swallow a hippo, and the road markings are usually non-existent.  Traffic lights are hard to see, and in some cases seem to be for information only.  Junctions are a calamity of nobody knowing who has the right of way but everyone claiming it.  Everyone is attempting to fit their cars in the smallest gap or get as many cars abreast in a single lane as possible.  The cars are often in appalling condition with deflated tires, poor brakes, and a large locknut in place of an airbag.  Yuzhnii is probably unique in that Russian cars are relatively rare, at least in comparison to other Russian cities where they make up almost all traffic.  Imported Japanese models make up the majority of vehicles here, and what is gained in build quality and maintainability from a safety point of view is quickly undermined by the fact that they all have the steering wheel on the right.  Anyone wishing to overtake must swing his entire vehicle out into the oncoming traffic in order for the driver to get a peek at the road ahead.  I’m still betting that the roads are safer here than in the Middle East as high-speed crashes, although common, are not hourly occurrences; but the chances of being in a shunt at a junction will approach 1 after not more than a year here.

The people are as you’d expect in any Russian city, with the obvious difference being the significant number of ethnic Koreans.  I haven’t spoken with too many locals yet, by I can’t see them being much different from elsewhere in Russia.  Dog ownership seems to be common here, and the dogs often very hairy and the size of horses.  Perhaps this explains the lack of fresh meat on the island.  The shopping facilties are very poor indeed and the showpiece is a Mexx and Bennetton’s which are so small that if you try on a jumper carelessly you’re in danger of clouting somebody in the next shop.  Yulia has found this to be most depressing.  There isn’t even a McDonalds here, and I had until now failed to find a town in Russia which is enough of dump that it didn’t sport a set of golden arches.  Even Nizhnekamsk had a McDonalds.  I can only assume this is down to some wrangling with the local mafia stroke government, as the market is there for one.  Surely it will only be a matter of time?

So where does all this leave us?  For me, it’s not so bad, and only a bit worse than what I expected.  The job looks as though it will be good fun and I’ll be more than occupied during the day.  But my poor wife has found the place to be a lot worse than she expected (she is not as familiar with awful Russian towns as I am), and is getting a bit depressed by the whole thing.  She is going back to St. Petersburg for three weeks and if she returns when she returns I’m going to have to work pretty hard on the domestic front, something I’ve never really had to do before (or rather, never bothered to do before).  The chances of her finding a job are very high, and the chances of her finding a job worth doing for the pittance it will pay very low.  Nevertheless, there is some hope.  Having originally been told that many Russians here speak fluent English, we have since discovered that some people’s ideas of what constitutes fluent English differ somewhat from mine; and Yulia’s English is outstanding in both speaking and writing.  So my task for the next couple of years is to make Yulia happy enough for her to stay with me in the ends of the earth: not for nothing were her friends in St. Petersburg calling her a Decembrist Wife.

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12 Responses to A Week in Sakhalin

  1. Tatyana says:

    Yeah, but where are the seals? The whales? The sea monsters? Where are the overnight camping trips to the sopkas? Where are the tales of the natives (preferably hairy savages) seating around the fire and singing ancient epics, accompanying themselves by weird instruments constructed from pieces of shipwreck timber and 2 strings built of sea creature intestines? Where, I ask you?

    Tim, you should read more of Russian history; Decembrists’ wives went to Siberia to brighten the life of their husbands; not the other way around. Forget the 3-week trips back to the capital, too.

    As to work…it worth it even if it doesn’t pay; everything is better than to bounce off the walls in a rented apartment and brood.

  2. IR says:

    I hope you are getting paid well. Sounds dreary.

  3. W. Shedd says:

    All in all, it sounds like Vermont!

    Not the touristy ski-village Vermont of Stowe and Killington mind you … real Vermont.

  4. Tatyana says:

    …except for $3000 a month you can rent a house in Vermont. And no water/gas/electricity shortages.

  5. Tim Newman says:

    Actually, now you mention Vermont, there are a few places around here which remind me of Camp Meade!

  6. Tim Newman says:

    Where are the tales of the natives (preferably hairy savages) seating around the fire and singing ancient epics, accompanying themselves by weird instruments…

    Oh, them! They were at the dacha we had a barbecue at on Sunday. I can tell you’ve been to these Russian barbecues before…your description of them isspot on!

  7. Tatyana says:

    Ab-so-lu-ti-ssi-mo.
    Indeed I have.
    But I wanted your take on things, it’s always entertaining anf fresh.

  8. W. Shedd says:

    Camp Meade isn’t far from where my family is from (I’m an Army Brat, so not truly a native Vermonter). My ex-wife actually grew up in Middlesex right near this place.

    I was only half kidding, Katja and I went for a drive through very poor rural areas of Vermont, and we were joking about how much it looked like Russia. We would look at these old falling down wooden houses, with cows wandering around a field – and I would say in my best slavic accent “Com buy dees be-ewtifol Verrmont ghouse.” I think it made her feel at home that parts of the rural US can also be sort of lovely and decrepit at the same time.

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  10. Natasha Fissiak says:

    Hello,
    We live in Houston right now. My husband works for Shell and he is thinking… about going to Sahkalin. So how was your 1st year? Was it as dreadful as in the beginning?
    E-mail me!
    Natasha

  11. Maggie says:

    I’m considering an assignment in Nizhnekamsk. I would need to take my elementary age son with me. What can you tell me about the schools, living conditions, etc. there? Is is safe for a single mom and her son? Are there plenty of expats to network with in the community?

  12. Christine says:

    My husband has recently taken up a job in the catering industry & is based in the north very close to the sea. Is it dangerous living & working so near the sea & what about tsunami or earth quakes? Do these things happen regularly?

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