Petra's homepage


Experiences of a Dutch Journalist





Looking beyond the drawing table

POGIBY, June 2002 -The planned construction of hundreds of kilometres of pipeline, production and storage facilities etc. for the Sakhalin oil and gas projects has resulted in a new type of sightseeing that is probably best described as ‘pipeline route tourism’. On the drawing table a pipeline is a straight line on a flat surface. Reality is rather different, as they have to run underneath numerous rivers and through mountainous areas. Therefore, some companies check out the sites where the work has to be carried out. The following is a report of one of these site visits.

  “You can’t carry out a project from the drawing table,” says Willem Scholte from the Dutch dredging company Ballast Ham. Scholte hopes to win some of the Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 contracts involving dredging, (beach) landings and trenching; work that has to be carried out at remote locations such as DeKastri on the mainland, Chayvo bay in the northeast of Sakhalin and south of the river Uangi in the northwest of Sakhalin. Scholte visited these sites in the beginning of June to check out the existing infrastructure.

“In a way it is easier if there is no infrastructure at all. For example in Bangladesh supply is via helicopters by the lack of infrastructure. On Sakhalin, we first want to look at the opportunities. It often requires to be creative in finding solutions,” Scholte says. It shows already on arrival in starting point Nogliki: the military personnel carrier with caterpillar tracks hired for transportation to Pogiby is broken down and repair is expected to take up to three days.

The search for another vehicle starts, which requires visits to villages around Nogliki because telephone lines are often down. The lost time is used to explore Chayvo bay. As the fishing season hasn’t started yet, most fishermen had their boats still at home. In Val, a fisherman offers to bring Scholte to Chayvo bay at 3pm when the tide is high. He says it is impossible to go earlier because of the ebb tide.

With five hours to wait, Scholte decides to try driving to Chayvo bay, as his motto is “you shouldn’t give up too easy”. He runs into the petrol guy in the neighbourhood, who is filling up the tank of a helicopter. Scholte knows him from a previous winter trip, when he rented out snowmobiles. Scholte checks with him if there is a possibility to use the helicopter to fly to Pogiby later that day or the next day. Bookings have to be made through an office north of Nogliki, but the pilot indicates that chances are limited as he has a busy flight schedule.

The petrol guy also has a boat and is willing to bring Scholte to the lighthouse at 1:30pm, when the tide is still low, but high enough for a small boat to pass. Scholte takes the offer, but at the same time he tries to reach the bay by car to find out if there are any other boats available and to check the condition of the road.

The road is blocked by two cars and a few guys claiming to protect the ‘Sakhalin Taimen’, a type of fish mentioned in the ‘Russian Red Book of Endangered Species’ and popular with poachers. They don’t have a problem with foreign visitors and even offer their boat – without motor – to go to the lighthouse. In this area, the famous Nivkh writer Sangi has his summer residence. We are told he is not there at the moment. The fishermen invite us for food and more, but when Scholte sees guns in the back of the guys’ car, he kindly declines the offer for a peddled boat trip to Chayvo lighthouse.

The petrol guy appears to be a reliable person, as he arrives at the agreed place only half an hour late. He says it is difficult to get to the lighthouse at this time, but agrees to go anyhow. After a 10-minute boat tour through a winding river a sandbank blocks the way from the side river to the main river. Our skipper - wearing waders - pulls the boat over the sandbank and we continue down the main river. We get stuck many times.

As we are getting closer to the sea entrance of the bay, we see ice floes in almost artistic shapes. We come on shore at a few hundred metres from the lighthouse. For 17 years, a Russian family has been living next to the lighthouse. In summer, researchers and scientists visit the area. Up in the lighthouse, thick clouds limit the view over the bay. We learn from the lighthouse lady that the tide in the bay is very unpredictable. She only has a schedule of the incoming and outgoing tide at sea; but the situation in the bay is rather different. After a cup of tea, we go back again.

When we are in the middle of the bay, something hits the propeller and damages it, reducing the speed to less than 10 kilometres an hour. As we didn’t bring any paddles, it takes a long time before we get to the main river again. Attempts to repair the propeller fail so slowly we float forward. When we reach the riverside, we decide to walk back as we believe this is quicker. Before dark we are back at our starting point, where Scholte’s driver has prepared an excellent stew of potatoes, meat and vegetables for dinner.

Scholte’s colleague manages to find transport for the trip to Pogiby in the evening; the helicopter is booked. The driver of he former army vehicle says it is better not to drive on an ordinary road. He says it has to be transported on a trailer truck to the starting point in Dagi, which takes more than four hours. At 1:30pm, we finally begin our 120-kilometre journey to Pogiby. A forester comes along to show the way. He says the condition of the track is bad today and predicts it will take us ten hours to get to the other side of the island.

Through the small windows of the military personnel carrier, little can be seen from the surroundings. Therefore, some of us decide to sit on top of the vehicle, firmly holding the ropes of the fuel barrel tied on top. The first 15 kilometres of the track along a pipeline leads through a hilly area of burned down forest. Every kilometre of the pipeline is marked with a sign, so we know exactly where we are. Bear tracks are everywhere, but we don’t get to see an actual bear because the tank makes an awful lot of noise.

Then it gets muddier and steeper. Erosion has caused some poles of the electricity grid along the route to fall down like matchsticks; the wire has been plundered. Our driver is young but experienced; he manages to manoeuvre around the poles. Obviously, this is not the first time he has driven this type of vehicle.

The forester says he is actually a hunter; he is working for a privatised sable kolkhoz. He says that last year, he hunted in the area for two months in a row, loosing 17 kilograms of bodyweight. He says the kolkhoz set the price for sable at 350 roubles per animal. “That’s nothing, just ten pairs of socks,” he complains. On the black market, he explains, the same sable is traded for one thousand roubles, implying this is the way some hunters make extra money. Another way to increase their salary is to turn a blind eye to other hunters on the kolkhoz’s grounds for a fee, he says. As we speak, we meet a military vehicle with three gunned men. “Don’t take any close pictures, they don’t like it,” he says.

The last 40 kilometres of the track are flat and straight, which allows the tank to speed up. After eight hours we reach Pogiby, just in time to witness a very colourful sunset so beautiful it is worth the trip in itself. A ship from Lazarev on the mainland comes our way and stops a few hundred metres from the coast to let people off. A lady from the village walks our way and says she had hoped for her husband to be on the ship but doesn’t see him. She offers us to stay at her house for the night, as she has a guesthouse with four extra bedrooms with a kitchen. We accept the offer, preferring it to camping – the only other option in the village of 14 inhabitants.

Later, she says that her husband had come home after all; friends had dragged him home from the beach, as he was too drunk to walk. “In all the 28 years I’ve known him I’ve never seen him as drunk as today,” she says. But when we are invited for having potatoes, vegetables and two bottles of vodka for breakfast the next day, this seems at least a bit unlikely. The husband explains that he goes to Lazarev regularly to get the basic needs – petrol, cigarettes and vodka.

The village doesn’t seem to lack anything else. Apparently the inhabitants grow their own vegetables, there are chickens and, off course, fish. A fisherman proudly shows three huge ‘Kaluga’ he has caught, a type of sturgeon mentioned in the ‘Red Book of Endangered Species’ carrying around 10 kilograms of black caviar each. The villagers just use the fish for food; they even offer it to us for lunch. The fisherman says they can be sold on the black market for 300 to 400 dollars, but claims he doesn’t do it because “the police might catch the buyers on the road”.

Scholte explores the area south of Pogiby, the location where the pipeline of the Sakhalin-1 project will cross Tartar Strait to DeKastri on the mainland. The beach on the way there is littered with piles of rusty oil equipment.

By 1.30pm we are ready for the return trip. It’s raining and cold today. We all sit inside the armoured personnel carrier, because the weight of people sitting on top on the way there had caused the roof frame to sag. The relatively dry road on the way there has changed to a mud track. The driver wants us to walk down the steepest slope, fearing we might slip, which happened to a bigger army vehicle at this spot last year.

The caterpillar track comes off when we are half way. It takes the driver and forester 15 minutes to solve the problem. We have to make a stop when the exhaust comes loose and another stop when the armoured personnel carrier’s backdoor falls off. Now we understand why this type of vehicle is more in the garage than on the road.

After the 9-hour journey over the mud track we are all frozen, but we are not there yet as our car is parked at a hot spring complex north of Nogliki at half an hour from the dirt road. This time, our driver doesn’t care about driving on the ordinary road. From the hot spring he will call the trailer truck. We warm up in the hot springs and evaluate the trip. “It was very useful, I’ve learned a lot in these three days,” Scholte says.

This article was published in the Sakhalin Times.

Do you want to see pictures of this trip? Then follow this link: