Sakhalin’s Literary History

It is well known that the remarkable author and playwright Anton Chekhov undertook an arduous journey from St. Petersburg to Sakhalin Island in order to study the conditions in the Tsarist penal colony.

What is less well known is that many famous literary works were the product of inspiration drawn from the author’s visit to Sakhalin Island.  I list a few of these below:

1. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – Detective Philip Marlowe takes on a difficult case requiring his attendence in a progress meeting at the offices of a local oil company.

2. The Odyssey by Homer – Odysseus is working a 7/3 rotation on Sakhalin Island and is supposed to go home after each trip to be with his wife Penelope.  This epic poem is an account of the ten-year journey Odysseus undertakes following his first rotation and the dangers he faces, such as the Sirens of Chas’te who help our hero out of his clothes, the cyclops at the immigration counter whom Odysseus outwits by working on a business visa, and the milkman who has won Penelope’s affections whilst he has been away.

3. The Tristan Betrayal by Robert Ludlum – Oxbridge engineer Tristan Corey-Barnett arrives for a management role on Sakhalin Island with an oil and gas service provider, only to find that his salary will not be reviewed in the New Year and promises of a bonus were actually lies.  Tristan is also shocked to discover the existence of an incumbent in the form of a short, fat, unpleasant, incompetent, corrupt local woman of whom he was told nothing prior to coming.

4.  A Time to Kill by John Grisham – Rotating equipment engineer Carl Lee Hailey has been sent to Korea to renew his visa, a trip which involved him racking up several hundred dollars in expenses.  On his arrival back in Sakhalin, he submitted his business expense report as per the correct procedure.  Six months later Hailey has still not been reimbursed and calls up the appropriate department to find out what’s going on. The girl at the end of the phone says it’s nothing to do with her.  Another person says it is to do with him, but he’s off on leave.  A third person says it has been paid.  After making a series of international phone calls to his bank, Hailey confirms it has not been paid.  He calls the department again.  A girl says it is is nothing to do with her. Another person says he thought he’d been paid.  A third person says they have lost his business expense report.  A fourth person is off on leave.  Shortly afterwards, Hailey is on trial for murder.  Will the jury sympathise?

5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Formerly known as “The Belle of 777”, the story of Anna Karenina tells of a simple girl working in the finance department of a foreign company who dreams of meeting a wealthy expat (preferably not much older than her grandfather), weekends in Japan, a child, and – if she’s lucky – an apartment.  Will Anna find a man and get her wishes before his wife finds out?

6. The 39 Steps by John Buchan – In this whirlwind action thriller we follow hero Richard Hannay through his work visa application process.

7. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown – A team of top engineers are tasked with decoding a commissioning procedure written by Julio Da Vinci, an Italian engineer who quit the project six months back without a handover.  This sad tale takes us through a journey of initial optimism which leads to despair, anguish, and ultimately, suicide.  Not for the faint hearted.

8. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare – A play set in the immediate aftermath of somebody having been caught not using a handrail.

9.  Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne – Phileas Fogg lives in London and has just signed up for a job in Sakhalin.  He has planned his route from London to Sakhalin via Moscow to perfection, but his employer has found an alternative route which will save them thirty-five dollars.  Unfortunately, this new route takes Fogg from London to Tirana on Albanian airlines where he must help refuel the aircraft upon arrival, and from there to Ankara by bus.  Leaving early in the morning eight days later, he will travel by taxi (the fare for which must be paid in daughters, sisters, or nieces) to Nagorno-Karabakh where Armenian bandits are enjoying shooting at Azeri soldiers who seem to have forgotten that the war ended 14 years ago.  Having served on an Azeri mortar crew for a period of no less than five weeks, Fogg will be permitted to walk to the coast of the Caspian Sea where, if he is lucky, he can catch a ferry across to Turkmenistan where, if he is lucky, he can avoid catching anything at all.  On the Turkmen-Uzbek border regular camel trains leave for Tashkent, which Fogg should make in about ten days if he avoids becoming somebody’s husband at the two-day stop in Kiva.  Assuming Fogg makes it, we can expect him to be crossing the Pamirs into Tadjikistan and onto China by the seventh week (or ninth if winter has set in) and making his way across the Gobi desert.  On the third day in the barren wilderness, he should turn northwards and into Russia where he will find himself in a barren wildnerness only with bears.  If he doesn’t loaf about he should make it to the Tatar Straits in good shape to strip to his undies, dive in the water, and strike out for the distant shore.  If he takes the recommended rest on Moneron Island, he should hit Kholmsk on the 79th day of his journey.  From there it is a simple day’s walk into Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where he will find that nobody has arranged his accommodation and he has forgotten to bring his diploma.

10. The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas – A short story about a welder working for a local contractor who is forced to make his own PPE by his unscrupulous employers.

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Three Weeks on the Lun-A

It’s now been three weeks since I arrived on the Lun-A gas production platform in the Sea of Okhotsk.  So what has it been like?

In a word: odd.  As I said in my earlier post, all anyone does is eat, sleep, and work.  There are no weekdays on the Lun-A.  There are no Monday mornings, Friday nights, Saturdays, or Sundays.  There are no days off.  All there is is day shift and night shift.  Other than a slight variation in the work, one day is identical to any other.  There is little to mark the passage of time, as going to work one morning doesn’t seem like starting a new day as much as repeating the previous one.  I’m still on night shift, so I don’t even get to notice changes in the weather, although I have noticed that it has been blowing a gale for the past two weeks almost without letup.  And it’s got colder.

People work like this for 28 days before they go on leave for 28 days, then return for 28 days, and so on.  They arrived at this period having found that men on platforms turn into violent beasts capable of murder on the 29th day offshore.  Tales abound of the scaffolder who missed the helicopter off the Brae-A in 1986 and went on to devour one of the drilling crew in a fit of fury over a missing pair of Redwing boots. 

Where was I?  Yes, that’s right.  People adopt personal techniques to manage the effects of 28 days of utter sameness.  Some religiously cross off the date on the calendar.  Others deliberately don’t follow the dates at all.  Looking out for new faces from a crew change, meaning you no longer have the longest to go, is another trick.  Me?  I plodded through the nights for the first two weeks, then this week started counting down the days.  I couldn’t honestly say that it’s boring, because it’s not.  It’s just…the same, every day.  A bit like building a railroad, I imagine.  It’s hard to find a word for it.  Just to get a reference for a single day, I’ve been looking out for something, anything.  Even an albatross, but none has flown by.  Besides, crossbows are banned on the platform.

Anyway, next Wednesday I’ll be frogged off the Astoria – an operation which still takes place in a howling gale – and go back to the island in the boat which made me seasick in calm waters.  Apparently, this boat can clear a reef in 45cm water depth, which tells you all you need to know about its ability to stay level in rough waters.  I’ll be relying on the tablets again.

Did I mention people get 28 days holiday after a month on the platform?  I don’t.  Ordinarily I don’t work offshore, I was seconded here on a one-off assignment, so I’m back to my normal job in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk as soon as I return.  Well, not quite.  First I have to take a 4-hour trip in a Kamaz bus to some lighthouse in the north eastern outreaches of Sakhalin Island to do an inspection of a staircase, a trip which I am told will involve at least two river crossings.  The lighthouse is in an area of the island which is supposed to be stunningly beautiful, a place where scientists gather to watch the whales.  When I was on the boat out to the Lun-A and looking out the door I glimpsed a huge, black dorsal fin emerge twice from the water off the stern.  I’m hoping, once I’ve done the inspection, I’ll be able to spot a whale or two and get some photos.

Then it’ll be back to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, my home, and my wife. I’m looking forward to it.

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The Sakhalin Salmon Run

August and September on Sakhalin Island are known by everyone as the season where the salmon swim from the sea up the thousands of rivers and streams all over the island to lay their eggs.

This is a time when huge nets are slung across river-mouths to be lifted by crane and emptied by the ton into lorries, the operators of such activities having either paid huge sums of money for licenses to do so, or paid huge sums of money in bribes to do so.  The first is more common, the second suspected and almost certain to go on, and it is true that fishing inspectors drive up and down in a fancy new Land Cruisers (lending much weight to suspicions of the second scenario) ensuring that nobody takes a fish out of the river without having first paid for it one way or another. 

For those without cranes, the options are to stand by the river and fish in the traditional fashion or get hold of a small dinghy and row out into the river mouth.  Individuals are supposed to purchase a license for 10 fish from the fishing inspector, but I doubt that many of the several hundred Russians you see down by the river have bothered with this.  Most people are catching fish purely for personal consumption.

You’d be hard-pressed to call it fishing.  Salmon swimming upstream to lay eggs aren’t much interested in biting at a lure, but so dense are the fish in the water, holding their position against the current trying to take them back downstream, that is is simple to throw in a large treble-hook and foul hook a large salmon, or if you don’t mind getting your feet wet, you can simply wade in and grab one.  You can even go fishing with a large rock, caveman style.  But it’s not the stuff you’d find many fly fishermen seeking the thrill of a battle with a Scottish salmon to take much interest in.  That said, casting and spinning on the beach can get you a fish which could make you feel some sense of achievement, more so than whacking one on the head with a club as it idles in the shallow water.  The sheer volume of fish is quite incredible, as the pictures below show.  No stream seems too small to attract thousands of salmon, which seem to almost take up more space than the water itself.

Salmon run, Sakhalin Island

Salmon run, Sakhalin Island

Salmon run, Sakhalin Island

Of course, fishing in local waters being prohibited by any employee of the company I work for, I did not attempt to catch any fish using any method, and nor did the group of people I was with.  The two fish that I cooked along with potatos, carrots, and onion in a large pot, and the fish that was roasted on the fire in foil with added lemon, during the last camping trip were purchased legitimately from a local fisherman only after we had obtained explicit confirmation from the fishing inspector that the fisherman concerned was fully paid up and was an altogether wholesome citizen of the Russian Federation.

Any mighty tasty they were too.  The fish, that is.

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Life on the Lun-A

Well I made it offshore okay, a bit of sea sickness on the boat out aside.  For some reason to do with how they’ve parked the Astoria (the floating hotel) beside the platform, they aren’t helicoptering people in and out this summer, and instead we’ve got to take a 2-hour trip on a supply boat with a load of seats right in the front, beneath the deck, with no proper view outside.  The sea wasn’t rough, but there was a bit of a swell and I think somebody designed our tub to go up and down Bayou Teche not cross the Sea of Okhotsk, because it was pitching far more than was good for my wellbeing.  I am normally okay on boats, I’ve been on loads of ferries and dive boats, but this wasn’t like being on a boat: it was like being in a dark room which is being chucked about.  Standing by the door looking at the horizon helped a bit, and the sea-sickness tablets even more so, purely because (and I believe this is how they are designed) they sent me straight to sleep and I awoke beneath the Lun-A being yelled at by some huge seafaring Russian to get into my survival suit.

Access to the Astoria is via a personnel transfer capsule called a Frog, in which three people sit and get snatched off the deck of the boat by a crane, hoiked in the air, jiggled about a bit for everyone’s amusement, and plonked on the deck of the Astoria having hopefully managed to keep hold of their baggage which was sitting unsecured on the floor beside them perilously close to making a large splash in the waters below.  It’s not half as bad as it sounds, no worse than having to clamber into the rubber survival suit beforehand, and much better than trying to get the damn thing off afterwards.

The Astoria is a semi-submersible vessel, which I think means it is sinking but in a controlled manner, which is operated by a Norwegian outfit and therefore carries an air of being able to remain semi-sunk without danger of becoming completely so.  There are a few salty old Scandanavian sea dogs running the tub, sporting bushy white beards and looking exactly as a ship’s officer should.  I don’t know their names, but I’d bet at least one of them is called Olaf.  It’s not the prettiest of vessels, as can be seen from the picture here, but inside it is spotlessly clean and extremely functional.  I am in a four-man room which comes with a small en-suite shower and toilet, and two sets of bunk beds which are, I was pleased to discover, long enough to sleep people like me.  Laundry is done on a daily basis, just like in a hotel, with ruthless efficiency.  Were the Astoria to run aground, it would probably be the best run hotel in Russia.

The food is magnificent.  We have two soups, a salad bar, a dessert bar, three different kinds of potato, two different kinds of rice, a pasta dish, two different meats, fish, a fridge full of fruit juice, a freezer full of ice cream, cold meats, cheeses, bread, jam, peanut butter, and fresh fruit.  And most of it varies with each meal.  I’ve not seen anything like it in years.  Nor have the Russians.  They are piling their plates as if the siege of Leningrad restarts at midnight.  Self-discipline is required if you want to return to the mainland the same size and shape as you went out.

Access to the Lun-A is via a large and sturdy gangway between it and the Astoria.  I am working the night shift, which has the advantage of me being able to sleep in the room alone, my three roomates working the day shift.  It has the disadvantage of me falling asleep halfway through your first shift.  You also don’t tend to see any sun, so you have to come to terms with the fact that you will soon assume the complexion of pimps and vampires, although there are not too many of either on the Lun-A platform.  On my first day on the rig I was struck down with a terrible piercing headache, unlike one I’ve ever had before.  It came on suddenly almost as soon as I’d crossed the gangway, and it got worse as I walked around.  I wondered whether it was a side-effect of the sea sickness tablets, then wondered whether it was dehydration, then wondered if I should go and see the medic and get some paracetamol, then wondered if this was some weird affliction that offshore workers get, culminating in the pressure in their head becoming so great that their brain explodes all over the galley one breakfast.  Then I thought I’d try loosening my hard-hat, which I’d screwed so damned tight on my head thinking it would blow off on the wind to the Kamchatka Peninsular, and my headache vanished within a minute.

Life on this platform is simple, being reduced to three activities: working, sleeping, and eating.  I have brought books which I haven’t read, there is a TV which I haven’t watched, and there is a helideck which – I don’t like to boast – I have walked around twice.  The view is quite nice, and although it doesn’t consist of much other than sea and the distant coast of Sakhalin Island, the sunsets can be spectacular and the breaking dawn worth stopping and looking at.  The sea sloshing around the huge concrete legs sometimes takes on a lovely deep green colour normally reserved for brochures of the Seychelles, but at night it turns to an inky black moving threateningly a hundred feet below the deck.  It is not a water into which you would want to fall.

So that’s pretty much it.  Other than possibly changing to the day shift at some point, this is how I will be living until 1st October when I will hopefully become a landlubber again.  If anything exciting happens between now and then, such as the mysterious disappearance of one of the concrete legs, a kraken attack, or an impulsive decision to join a band of marauding pirates, I’ll let you know.

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Offshore to the LUN-A

This evening I will be boarding a northbound train on the first part of the journey to what will be my home for the next month:

Lun-A Platform

At the moment the sea isn’t quite as icy as it is in the above picture, and missing from the photo is a large floating hotel anchored alongside which will provide me and a couple of hundred others with our accommodation whilst we are out there.  I will have internet access, but whether I will have time to post anything is another matter entirely.  If so, I will post something.

Lun-A Platform

Some blurb about the platform:

Located 15 km off the north eastern coast of Sakhalin Island, in a water depth of 48 m, LUN-A is a drilling and production platform with minimum processing facilities. Oil/condensate and gas separation including gas treatment for transport to the LNG plant will be done onshore at the onshore processing facility.

—  Four legged concrete gravity base substructure (CGBS) that was engineered and constructed in Vostochniy port by Aker Kvaerner Technology AS and Quattrogemini OY. PA-B CGBS was installed in June 2005.

—  Fully integrated deck construction built separately in South Korea, Samsung Heavy Industries construction yard. The topsides were installed in August 2006 on the pre-installed CGBS by float over technique.

The platform includes drilling and gas/hydrocarbon liquids/water separation facilities, storage for chemicals and a living quarters module. Process, utility equipment and living quarters are separated and located in different areas to maximise safety. The main working areas are enclosed, temperature controlled and ventilated with local winter protection for equipment located in the open. The living quarters have a capacity for 90 permanent and an additional 36 temporary staff.

The LUN-A platform is designed for year-round operation in harsh climatic conditions and is built to withstand rough seas, severe ice and high seismic activity.

Let’s hope that last bit is true.

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UEFA Champions League Final

Manchester United 1 – 1 Chelsea (Man Utd win 6-5 on penalties)

Following Zenit St. Petersburg’s win over Rangers last week, today’s result means that everybody in our household is celebrating European cup glory.

Incidentally, the match kicked off at 5:45am Sakhalin time, so I leaped out of bed at 5:00am with the intention of taking a shower before going over to the nearby hotel where they were showing it (refer to this post to understand why I could not watch it at home).  Unsurprisingly, I found our cold water had been turned off (which seems to be a regular thing between about 1:00am and 7:00am), so I had to go without.  Last Saturday was spent without any cold water as well, making showering a similar experience to that which a lobster endures during its last moments in a posh restaurant.

Anyway, shower or no shower, I am delighted with the result.

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International Womens’ Day

It’s a day late, but congratulations to all my female readers on International Womens’ Day, which means next to nothing to a Brit.

It means plenty to a Russian though.  On Friday and yesterday, every flower shop or kiosk, large or small, was packed with Russian men of every shape, size and form buying flowers of some sort.  Most of them looked more than a little panicked, all of them shook their heads in resignation, either at the queues forming outside the shops or at the price they had to fork out for the flowers.  This husband of a Russian girl was no exception.  A single rose cost $8, and there was no discount for volume, so you ended up paying an odd multiple of $8 for your bouqet (the number of flowers given must always be odd, unless the recipient is dead.  Or you wish them to be.)  Anyway, whoever decided that the day on which flowers will be given en masse across Russia should fall in early March was either a complete idiot or a flower merchant.  Flowers are pretty hard to grow over a Russian winter, so they were all flown in from abroad.  We have had a load of Mitsubishi parts on order from Moscow which were supposed to be delivered this weekend, but the freight handler told us the plane was full of flowers and there was no room.  If the green movement wants us all to stop making unnecessary flights in order to save the planet, they’re first going to have to convince a nation of Russian women to go without flowers on Womens’ Day.  Good luck with that.

Looking at what I paid, I was pretty stupid.  It is quite easy to get flowers for free in Russia.  For example, on the main road between Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Korsakov there is a particularly nasty bend beside a steep embankment where black ice normally forms.  There is a tree nearby which always has a nice bunch of fresh flowers propped against it, with nobody guarding them or anything.  They’re there for the taking.  Next year I’m gonna nab ’em.

I’m romantic, me.

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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.

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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

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