Youths of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Pay Respects On Army Day

Friday, February 23rd was Defenders of the Motherland Day (also known as Army Day, or Men’s Day).  It is a national holiday across the whole of Russia, and should be a welcome breather for the Russian Army which, if President Putin’s recent speech in Munich is to be believed, should be preparing to defend their country against an imminent American invasion.

Anyway, as the brave soldiers of Russia were doubtlessly digging trenches around Volgagrad and St. Petersburgians were hoarding food, what were the youth of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk up to on this day of army celebration?  Why, they were robbing the military hospital which sits behind my apartment of its fire extinguishers by climbing through a hole in the roof!

Thieving bastards, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk

That’ll help the war effort!


A Reason Why Russians Hate President Bush

Do Russians hate Americans?  It’s a good question, one that I can’t answer, and I expect nor can anyone else.  Verbally, they certainly dislike America and, like the denizens of the Middle East, register their displeasure by grabbing any opportunity to visit, study in, or emigrate to the USA with both hands.  So it’s hard to know.

That said, one thing is for sure: they all hate George Bush.  Why?  Many reasons apparently, but here’s one.  Under Clinton, the dollar was stronger against the rouble than it is now.  Almost nine years after the rouble collapsed in 1998, wiping out savings and businesses overnight, Russians still do not have confidence in their own currency and hence insist their salary is paid in dollar equivalent.

And under Bush, the dollar has fallen against the rouble, hence Russians get paid less than they did before.  Bush is president, so the reasoning goes, and therefore he is solely responsible for the weakening dollar, which is making Russians poorer.  So they hate him.

Is it only Russians who fail to see the irony here?


Weird Weather

The weather in this place is seriously weird. Three days ago snow was falling by the ton. Two days ago the temperatures stayed at -11C and everything and everyone was frozen solid. Yesterday afternoon the residents of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk looked out their windows to find the temperature several degrees above zero and a steady drizzle coming down, and today it’s still raining. It’s like being back in the UK.

All the snow is melting and turning to slush underfoot, and the steady drip-drip-drip of meltwater onto window ledges sounds like machinegun fire. Spring has arrived, at least temporarily, four months too early. No doubt the temperature will plunge below freezing again in the next few days, causing the whole town to be covered in sheet ice which is like walking on soapy glass, and sending any foolish bear who’s woken from his hibernation straight back to his sleeping bag.


Just as I was finishing writing this, it started snowing heavily with big, fat, old fashioned snowflakes. Normal service is resumed.


The view from my back window now looks like this.

Snow storm, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk


Winter in South Sakhalin

The south of Sakhalin Island has been hit by a several snowstorms over the past week or so, and after a period of less than normal snow coverage, this corner of Russia is finally starting to look like it’s supposed to.

Heavy snows, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk 

Cars got stuck…

Heavy snows, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk 

…and everyone had to help with the digging.

Ice fishermen, Sea of Okhotsk, Sakhalin Island 

The sea at Okhotskoe is now frozen, and ice fishermen flock down there by the dozen.  A couple of weeks ago part of the ice floe broke off taking a large number of fishermen with it, who subsequently had to be rescued:

A total of 442 fishermen, many of them drunk, were rescued on February 3 from ice floes off the Mordvinova Bay in the south-eastern coast of Sakhalin after a massive ice sheet broke from the shore, officials said.

“The last people, who had refused to leave their equipment and catch behind, were persuaded … they were taken away in special baskets fixed to a helicopter,” an official from the Emergencies Ministry said. Around 70 fishermen had refused to be rescued without their equipment.  Interfax cited a ministry official as saying that many of the fishermen rescued from the ice floes were in a state of “heavy alcoholic intoxication.”

Despite repeated warnings from the authorities about the risks involved, particularly during this year’s unusually mild winter, fishing through holes drilled in the ice remains a time-honoured tradition. Practitioners, often fortified with a supply of strong alcohol and armed with heavy gear, including drills, rods and nets, can stray far from the shore in search of favourable fishing grounds.  Fishermen regularly have to be rescued from ice floes in Sakhalin and are often reluctant to part with the heavy drills they use to bore through the ice, which can cost hundreds of dollars.

Around a third of the population of Sakhalin is estimated to survive on fishing. On February 3, around 3,000 people came out to fish on the ice sheet along Sakhalin’s south-eastern shore in defiance of specific warnings from the emergencies ministry.  Strong winds then prised off a section of the ice measuring around 25 square kilometres, which then broke up into smaller ice floes that drifted some 2 kilometres from the shore.  Because of mild conditions, the ice around Sakhalin is currently only about 10 centimetres thick, compared to a normal winter thickness of at least 50 centimetres.  A total of 90 personnel, three helicopters and 20 boats were mobilised for the rescue operation, ferrying fishermen from the ice floes to the shore over several hours.

Sea of Okhotsk, Sakhalin Island  

A view of the shore, taken standing on the sea.

Sea of Okhotsk, Sakhalin Island  

Huge chunks of blueish ice had been broken off and pushed upwards by the sea.

Sea of Okhotsk, Sakhalin Island  

Compare the above picture with the one I took of the same headland in late September.



I’m back from Thailand, and am now at home in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk where we are in the middle of a fierce snowstorm.

Thailand was fun.  The weather was great, warm enough to stroll about in shorts and t-shirt but not swelteringly hot like Dubai in summer.  We spent almost all of our time lying by the pool or lying on a beach, reading books and drinking cocktails.  Having spent most of my previous holidays charging around visiting friends and relatives or climbing on and off Russian trains, it was nice to have a holiday where I did almost nothing.  Perhaps not coincidentally, this was my first holiday as a married man, and my wife was of course with me.  Maybe I’m getting middle aged.

Island offshore Pattaya, Thailand

Pattaya, Thailand

Continue reading


A review of 24: Season 1

Seeing that I am sitting about for 24 hours, and being decidedly grumpy about the whole thing now that the snow has stopped, the sun is shining, and there are still 2 hours to go before I was supposed to take off, I’ve decided to write a bad-tempered post.

Living as I do on Sakhalin Island, the choice of viewing on TV is pretty damned poor.  For a start, unless you fork out for cable and get 30 channels all in Russian, there are only 8 channels available – all in Russian.  Watching Russian shows are not so bad from a language perspective, but the quality of programming is awful.  With a typical evening being dominated by stuff like Dom 2 (a version of Big Brother which holds the dubious distinction of being the longest continually running reality show ever, something like 2 years and counting) and Klub Bivshikh Zhon (Ex-Wives Club: a group of dolled-up women take a recently divorced, depressed woman and make her feel better…for one episode at least) the Russian channels are best avoided.  There are a handful of good western programmes and films on the TV here, but the appalling dubbing whereby a flat-voiced Russian speaks two seconds after the actor has started with the sound all intermixed with the not-quite-intelligible English original makes them unwatchable.  So as in many an oilfield town, the sharing of TV series on DVD is a popular pastime here in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  So far we have bought or borrowed all existing seasons and episodes of Lost, Desperate Housewives, and The 4400.  And they’ve been pretty good, although nothing has yet come even close to matching The Shield, which I ploughed through almost non-stop in Dubai, loving every minute.

So having finished watching those three, we got around to borrowing 24 which I had been told was brilliant, and would keep you on the edge of your seat and force you to keep watching.  24 has a rating on IMBD, a reasonably useful indicator of how good a TV series is, of 9.2 out of 10.  After watching the first season in its entirety over the last week, I’m wondering if they’re referring to something else.  I thought it was crap, so boring and predicatable that I found myself stopping to ring people up for idle conversation halfway through an episode.  For me, it failed on so many levels: implausable plot (which I can normally forgive), awful script, terrible acting, and uninteresting or weak characters.  A few examples (beware, huge spoilers follow):

1.  In the first two minutes of the very first episode we have a couple undergoing marriage problems and a moody teenage daughter who doesn’t get on with the mother, blames her for the marriage falling apart, and refuses to speak to her.  How original!  What better way to kick off a series involving thrilling attempts to thwart a terrorist plot than marriage problems and a disfunctional family.  I almost pressed the eject button right there and then.

2.  Within the first half hour or so we realise that Jack Bauer, the one having marriage problems and father of the moody teenager, was busy shagging his subordinate in the local Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) when he was apart from his wife, which leads us to believe already that he and the unit, which he commands, are rather unprofessional.  It also leads us to believe we are about to watch 24 hours of Eastenders, only with guns.

3.  Before the first episode is out, we learn that Nina, the frumpy woman who Jack was shagging in the CTU, has a subordinate called Tony who is a young, handsome, Latino and – you’ve guessed it – has the hots for Nina and is jealous of Jack.   Aside from the fact that Tony would probably be hanging out with rather attractive young Latinos rather than pining after the middle-aged office bike, the viewer is left staring at the DVD jacket making sure this is about terrorist plots and he hasn’t picked up some love-triangle “thriller” starring Julia Roberts.

4.  The topics of conversation between Jack, Tony, Nina, and a few other characters revolve around the fact that one or other was either shagging or wants to shag another, the type of conversations I used to hear amongst the checkout girls on a slow morning when I worked part-time in Toys R Us.

5.  Now we get onto some action.  A black fella, Palmer, is running for president, and some people want him dead.  In order to do this, they want to impersonate a photographer who is due to take his picture the next day, and to this end they have put some poor bloke under plastic surgery to make him look like the photographer.  So far so good.  Problem is, they need the photographer’s security pass and he is in Europe and due to fly to LA where he will meet with Palmer.  Rather than whacking him on the head, pinching his pass, and keeping him tied up in a basement, they decide the best method will be for a girl to sit next to him on the plane, chat him up, and shag him in the toilet, nicking his pass in the process.  This she does, before donning a load of parachute equipment, leaping out of the aircraft and leaving a bomb on board which explodes, killing all on board.  A good spectacle no doubt, but not too convincing a storyline.

6.  CTU hear of the plane crash, and get hold of the passenger list.  They notice an extra person is on the plane who shouldnt be there, presumably the girl who escaped.  They decide to link this incident with a suspected hit on Palmer, but never seem to wonder why a photographer who died in the plane crash turns up to Palmer’s event the next morning as planned.  I guess they were all too busy shagging each other.

7.  Not content with enough relationship problems in Jack Bauer’s family, the producers thought they’d add a load to Palmer’s family as well.  Whereas Palmer comes across as articulate and well-educated, his son Keith comes across as the illegitimate son of a gangsta rapper.  He would be better off portrayed by a cartoon.  He has a chip on his shoulder the size of Kansas, is permanently angry at his father because “jew wasn’t der when ah needed jew”, and looks about as much like his father as I do.  When Palmer later asks his wife about a few secrets in the family’s history, he’d have done better to ask who the hell fathered her son.  Anyway, they also have a daughter whose role in the season consists in its entirety of being raped seven years ago (an event of which we see nothing) and fainting once when the family has an argument at the dinner table.  The audition for that part must have been tricky.  The chap who raped the daughter was thought to have committed suicide, but it turns out that Keith killed him instead.  Accidentally, of course.  Everyone in the family, and it seems Palmer’s entire campaign team, knew the truth years ago – except Palmer himself.  When he finds out, he gets all upset that everyone’s been deceiving him, and Keith gets even angrier saying “jew wasn’t der when ah needed jew”.  Again.  Palmer wants to cover it all up, then he wants to come clean, then he doesn’t know what he wants.  Meanwhile Keith rather improbably wants to go to the police and is ready to do hard time for killing a white boy.  Palmer’s wife is the only line of sense running through the family and she thinks everyone should just shut the fuck up and keep covering it up.  Perhaps she’d make a better president.  Palmer, who changes his mind three times per episode, is kept out of the loop by his managers and personal friends, can’t make a decision, and clearly can’t run a family let alone a country is possibly the most unsuitable presidential candidate ever seen on TV.

8.  Having been kidnapped and rescued, Jack’s wife and kid are moved to a safe house where they are then debriefed.  The one agent charged with debriefing Jack’s wife just so happens to be Nina, the woman who Jack was shagging when he left his wife.  Very suitable, doncha think?  Obviously they were short staffed that day.  Sure enough, Jack’s wife figures out that Nina was shagging her husband and some dialogue is passed which I think was written by a highschool student on their first attempt.  It is woeful.  Snore.

9.  Various Serbs turn up in the series, they being the arch criminals Jack is trying to defeat.  They speak perfect English with an American accent, until they are revealed to be Serbs, at which point they switch to perfect English with a very badly performed Slavic accent.  This would be a bit like me going undercover around Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk speaking perfect Russian to the point that everyone thought I was Russian, then when it is revealed I am in fact a Brit I revert to being completely unable to pronounce my “r”s properly and speaking like a rural Georgian.

10.  An arch criminal, badly played by Dennis Hopper, is being held in a top-secret underground detention facility with no perimiter fence on some waste ground, rather like the kind of place you walk your dog.  So secret is this facility, operated by the Department of Defence, that it doesn’t officially exist, and so secret is Dennis Hopper that he doesn’t exist either.  In fact, he’s supposed to be dead.  Anyway, this top-secret prison is guarded by about four men and a couple of janitors, so it is of little surprise that a gaggle of Serbs who spend most of their time threatening one another with knives before the assault are able to break in and get Dennis Hopper out without too much trouble.  Oddly, when our hero Jack realises an assault is imminent and tells the chap in charge, they agree to call…the Counter Terrorism Unit, who take ages to arrive and allow the terrorists to escape with Dennis Hopper.  Why they never called the Department of Defense, who own and run the facility, to come in with helicopters and tanks and a few platoons of leathernecks is anyone’s guess.  Maybe this was supposed to keep the viewer’s mind occupied, and keep him from asking why it was possible for the gang of Serbs to escape directly from the prison to the outside world via a large sewer pipe.  Somewhat of a design flaw in the prison, that.

11.  The safe house in which Jack’s wife and kid are supposedly being kept safe is compromised.  Despite two of the best CTU agents being in command of the security, a single bloke armed with a pistol is able to silently kill fours agents who are all in constant visual and radio contact with each other. We are never shown how this chap manages to kill one bloke up in the basket of a cherry-picker without the driver noticing, which is a shame because it would have been a feat worth watching.  We’re also not sure why two of the best agents in town don’t notice that the undercover agent mowing the lawn outside has left his mower abandoned in the middle of the garden for the past half an hour, and when one of them finally opens his eyes and the penny drops he gets in touch with his partner by…yelling very loudly.  To no avail.  He’s dead, along with all the other agents.  Later, the CTU realise nobody is answering from the safe house and send another agent along, utterly alone, to check it out.  We see him on his radio telling CTU that he is approaching the perimeter of the house, but after that the chaps on the other end lose interest and go for lunch so when he is killed and dumped in some bushes nobody back at base realises for an hour or so.

12.  When somebody tries to call CTU from outside, they don’t call a switchboard as you would expect.  It just goes through to some random desk where they simply ask the person answering if they can connect them to the person they actually want to speak to.  So you see Jack’s wife ringing CTU asking for Jack, but getting Tony’s phone and he is only too happy to connect her call.  For a counter terrorist unit, security seems awfully lax and phone security non-existent, not to mention the employees awfully gracious about playing telephone receptionist every five minutes.

13.  A top-secret agent is in New Orleans talking on the phone with Jack about a top-secret government mission and working on his laptop with top-secret information.  He does all this in a crowded bar, and winds up dead.  Moral of the story: if you are a top-secret agent wishing to keep your identity secret, work from home or rent an office.  Don’t conduct your business in a bar.

14.  Nina turns out to be a mole working inside CTU for the Serbian villains.  So not only does this counter terrorist unit not see anything wrong with staff shagging each other and discussing it in the middle of an important job, they don’t carry out even cursory background security checks on their employees.

You might think I’m being fussy, and I probably am.  Plot holes I can cope with, but plot holes you can drive a truck through annoy me, especially when supported by an appalling script and even worse characters.  Quite why this series is hyped so much is beyond me.  I’d have scrapped it after the first season.  But all that said, there isn’t much to do on Sakhalin and we are already about to borrow the second season.  Let’s hope it improves as it goes along.