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
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
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
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: