A few more tales from Ukrainsky

1 May 2008 at 09:25

Firstly the price of alcohol. Ridiculously cheap. Its no wonder this country has a reputation for consuming vast quantities of Vodka when you can pick up a litre of the good stuff for around $5. And when your average store devotes half its shelf space to that and other types of alcohol you know you have a problem. I’ve never really been a Vodka person, I mean its just so bloody tasteless, you only really know when you have a bad one. While you can sip on a scotch and talk about the flavour, Vodka serves one solitary purpose – to get you legless in a hurry. Its one brutally functional drink. Just like most things Russian, lacking a little in the elegance, but definitely not be taken lightly.
I was catching the taxi to work the other morning and had to wait for the taxi driver to finish his shotty of Vodka. He explained that it was just to warm him up a bit…

I have finally gotten bored of having nothing to watch on TV. 100 stations in either Ukrainian or Russian can get pretty frustrating, the best one was the discovery channel – I flicked it on one night and the ads were in English. There is a god! I thought, but alas as soon as the ads were over the program was overdubbed in Russian. That was a cruel trick. Anyway I have splashed out and bought an AppleTV. Those guys at Apple are bloody clever. I now have 100 movies to pick from. In English!

Now the weather. Its shit. And that’s about all I have to say on that one.

The roads are about as good as the weather. They are shit too. There’s not many cops around because even on the main highways there are so many potholes you’ll just wreck your suspension if you tried fanging it. I went out to the car markets at Gorlovka (some little town 50km north of Donetsk) a couple of weeks ago with Andrey, the senior Kyivstar engineer. He wanted an early start so he picked me up at 5am and we were off. Andrey was with a couple of friends, who just happened to be bodyguards. Big mean Russian beefcakes. Except they were hilarious. Andrey was busy accusing one of them of not really knowing his sexual orientation, was giving this poor guy heaps, and he just rolled over and took it. Good fun if they’re on your side, I would imagine not so much fun if they weren’t… These guys could cause serious amounts of damage when they are not busy being cream puffs.

The work has kindof dropped off. I really think everyone has lost interest a bit. Kyivstar is busy hassling everyone to do a good job and then I find out that they are not paying certain people – they say that if they do a good job on this part of the project then they will strike it rich later on. I think you can tell where that will probably end up. So when ever I get on the phone to the subcontractors (the guys who aren’t being paid) to shake them up a bit (they are pretty slack, for obvious reasons) I am met with a disinterested “we’re doing all we can” I’m sure they are… Another trick Kyivstar has pulled on us is giving all of our (“our” being Ericsson, the company I am working for) technical surveys to our competitor Huawei to check. This has made life difficult for us as we are now not allowed to make any mistakes. Any you can bet those sneaky Chinese are picking every hole they can in our work, because they want our jobs. This has slowed everything right down as we have to double check everything. And then check it once more just to be sure.

1 month to go here and I am off. What a crazy place this is.

P.S. Russian Caviar… I can see what all the fuss is about. I just got the cheap stuff. If someone said “Beluga” I would say no. No conundrums about sustainability.

A few tales from the Ukraine

A few tales from the Ukraine

2 April 2008 at 15:24

Just a few tales and stories from my time here in Donetsk. I recall arriving here in february, just over 2 month ago to be precise. I caught the overnight train from Kiev, and hadn’t really gotten to see too much of the countryside as I was staying right in the middle of Kiev and hadn’t really had the chance to look around too much. Internal connections in the Ukraine are by train, apparently take the plane has yet to catch on here – It’s deadly expensive. The train ride was a good 600 miles and took 11 hours, that’s 7pm till 6 am. This was after finishing work the day before, and the guys here wanting me to start on time the next morning, so sleep on the train was top priority. (more on that later) I was in a 4 bed cabin with 2 dudes I had never met before, and Evgeniy, who I had met 2 days previously. You’ve heard of places not big enough to swing cats? You’d wouldn’t have swung a field mouse in this cabin. Small is being very generous. The bit that got me was the total indifference that they all treated it with. No one complained about anything and before we knew it the two strangers were drinking with us for the next 4 hours. We arrived in Donetsk, had a couple of hours to check into the hotel, clean up and then get to work. The building I work in is a real horror of Soviet architecture (or lack of). Grey, drab, half falling apart, I remember saying to Evgeniy “this just cant be it… check the address again” sure enough this was it. You can imagine my surprise then when we get inside the Kyivstar office and find that we’re in the lap of luxury. The outside may be enough to give an architect a nervous breakdown, but the inside was quite a different story. Well impressed I was.

Russians are notorious for being hard bastards.. There’s more than a thread of truth to the rumour too – they are deadly hard bastards. In a very strange sort of way my trip to back Kiev the other day (by the way we had 24 hours notice that we had to be in Kiev for a meeting, and the deal is that you finish work, catch the night train, arrive in Kiev, do a full days work, catch the night train back and be back at work at 9am two days later. If you cant sleep on trains, now’s a good time to learn), anyway my trip to Kiev was the highlight of the stay so far. Zurab, the other Ericsson engineer and myself happened to be sharing a cabin with a former member of the Russian special forces. This guy was in the Afghan war. Now I may never know for sure whether he was spinning a good tale or not, but just his general demeanor suggested that he was most likely legit. And when he started telling me about how the Americans used to teach the Afghans how to beat the Russian’s tactics, that pretty much left me in no doubt. We spoke for hours and the guy was truly fascinating. He said the Russians always knew what was going on, but the Yanks always seemed to have a few tricks they weren’t ready for. And not to believe everything you read in the news – the Yanks as well as the Afghans copped an absolute battering there. If there was any fighting on the open battlefield the Russians would pretty much destroy everything, it was just they would run out of food beacuse the afghans had managed to find the supply convoy and blow it up. He said that was the way it always seemed to go. I don’t even remember the guy’s name. Hows that for bad…

Another big thing here is bananas. Everyone here loves bananas. I asked why and was told that during communism, there Russians didn’t really deal with too many banana producing countries, and bananas are a bit of a novelty item. So while Russia might have propped up a few banana republics in its time, those banana republics didn’t really produce any bananas for Russia. Now that it’s the 21st century and the iron curtain is a distant memory, everywhere has bananas. Bananas are in. Same for Pineapples.

There’s another stereotype that is pretty much bang on – Russians and Vodka. They drink it like water. Its actually more alcohol in general, the don’t stop at vodka… I was working last weekend when one of the subcontractors bought us lunch. There was the usual bread and cheese and slabs of meat, and lurking down the bottom of the bag was a bottle of Cognac. I thought to myself “surely this isn’t part of lunch?” and surely enough I was wrong! Once we’d gotten the sammys out of the way it was time to start on the main course. Andrey and Denis (the two other engineers I work with) put on a fairly brave show of enjoying the sandwiches, but they pointed out that this was good cognac and we need to eat quickly as there was no time to waste! Roger that. The sandwiches disappeared with alarming speed and it was onto the cognac! 5 minutes later there was no more cognac either. I remember thinking to myself after the second glass of cognac “what the fuck! These guys are fucking lunatics!” I did however match them drink for drink and we forgot about work shortly after and sat around and yakked for the rest of the day. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday.

That’s about it for now. I leave here in a few weeks, I am visiting Chernobyl before I go, my one and only chance, so I’ve got to go! Hopefully I wont be glowing in the dark when I get back.

Audi R8 v10. Review.

My Audi R8 V10

I always thought the letter R and the number 8 went together well. When you add “v10” to it it then starts to sound a little bit silly. But there is a massive difference 2 cylinders (and 1l of engine capacity) can make. I have driven the V8 before and it looked good, sounded good, but it didn’t have the one thing you want – balls to the wall speed. It was fast in a “well I am racing a merc here” sort of a way, but to take on a real challenger and qualify for supercar status, something more was needed.

Some clever wig at Audi suggested bolting on a Lamborghini Gallardo engine, management said sure, give it a try, and the R8 V10 was born. Be in no doubt then, while its pedigree is Audi, who is known for good construction and a slight boringness, its heart is that of the raging bull – the 5.2l Gallardo engine is anything but timid. take 35hp off the stock Gallardo engine and you are still left with something near the performance of a nuclear ramjet. (Yeah ok, I know that engine is taken from the S8. Or something. Dont wreck my story)

First drive. Boring. Given that I had already bought the car my heart sunk. Blew cash for what – an ultimately unimpressive ride that looked good. I bought the car for the experience, and that experience sucked. At low speeds you felt like you were driving a battle tank. Difficult to turn, so bad even that the universal joints popped out at full lock and I was busy revving the car with no movement back or forward. Absolute dissapointment, but too late, it was mine, and I had to put on a brave face and show mum and dad the lemon that was mine.

Wait. One. Second. The speedo clicked over 50km. The transformation from “Heavy handed unwieldy battle tank” to “5.2 liters worth of pure fun” was pretty quick. Now. Drive from Auckland to Tauranga. Take the back roads where you know there are:

A) No cops

B) No one else

C) Tight roads

D) Speed

I was grinning like a schoolkid. And fuck was I moving. Getting over 200 without even pushing it. I hit 230 and was still accelerating fast.

The car was suddenly transformed from a deadweight (last car was an AMG Merc which was as easy to park as a mini. This was like parking a oil freighter) into the most sure footed, heart racing, electrifying supercar I have ever driven. Jeremy Clarkson has been quoted as saying that “this is the best car I have ever driven” I have never driven another supercar. I doubt very much I will. You point and it shoots. Some of the shit that I got up to was solely as a result of the car teaching me to drive it – shooting gaps I would never have thought possible otherwise. Taking corners marked 35 at 100, simply because you knew you could without any trouble. I dont know what to compare this thing to, because as I say I will probably never have the chance to buy another supercar. This is it. The only one I will ever own. But I could have done way worse. Everything about this car says that it was designed and built by people who knew exactly what they were doing. Except for making the car not feel like an embarassement at low speed. Maybe they did that on purpose to make you go faster. Works for me. I have given a couple of my better friends a drive and the results were unanimous. Big smiles. If anything I feel relieved that I have taken some of my money out of the sharemarket and turned it into something have enjoyable. There is no joy in stocks, but there sure as hell is in possibly one of the most well engineered machines invented.

Bottom line is you only live once. Plan for the future – but if time permits, live for today.


Footnote – for any law enforcement official who happens to read this – I was of course lying about my speed. It was sub-100 all the way.


The chronicles of Kohoku.

To start with, if someone could find a worse part of Tokyo to live in, point me in the right direction and I’ll check it out and get back to you. The first time I lived here I was in Takanawa. Just south of the heart of Tokyo, and whilst it felt pretty cramped (yeah, you try 20sqm, including balcony and see how you like it), it felt like you were in a party of town that said “Money”. Everyone had a Gucci bag and was getting around in the latest fashion. Oh, wait, that’s everywhere in Tokyo, Japanese simply hate to be seen with last years designs on. But anyway, it was nice. In a concrete jungle nice sort of a way. Now head 20km south, and a couple of km left and you end up in this dusty little spot called shin-yokohama. From my 7th floor window, I can see nothing but monotonous soul less office blocks. And Love Hotels. Yes, as bad luck would have it, my employer was kind enough to put me up smack in the middle of dodgy love-land. Cos I just love getting up at 3am when I cant sleep and watching the siftiest of shit taking place right outside my window. The other night (I’ll keep this breif) whilst insomnia was attacking from all angles, I thought I’d sit on the balcony and see if there was anything worth watching. I should have brought a deck chair and a cigar. I will, at this point, inform you this was a Tuesday night, and it was 3am. Insomnia never waits for the weekend. Neither, it seems, does Mr Salaryman and his couterie of mistresses. There were cars circling the block. People running in and out trying hard not to be noticed, gangster style black SUV’s with some seriously good looking girls of eastern european origin parked up, waiting for I don’t know what. This is one seriously weird part of town. If the whole idea of love hotels you find kinda repulsive, then this is not your place. And I fall squarely into that category. Given that its Japan, discretion and cleanliness is assured, but well, nah fuck that. 3am’s have never been quite so interesting however. The first time I brought my Fiancee (yay!!) back here, I think I was getting the long sideways glance from her. She’s not a love hotel fancier any more than me.

I was talking with a mate the other day about what constitues a wealthy “look” amongst various different nations. The Japanese have a very subtle way of doing it. China, on the other hand has this gaudy “flaunt it like you got it” approach, where it doesn’t matter how bad the clash is, as long as there are nasty looking stone dragons and everything is draped in gold and red, and maybe with a tiger penis or two or a bit of ground up rhino horn as a pick-me-up, then everyone will be seriously impressed. The middle eastern sheiks just go for the most expensive of absoolutely everything they can get their hands on. One trip the burj-al-arab convinces you of this. And again, if it clashes, well, that’s just too bad. Japan on the other hand is a little bit the opposite. Minimalistic everything. They love to strip things down to the basics, and get the combination of “this goes well with that” spot on. And they do a great job of it. Except for the seats with no legs. Whoever thought that wild idea up should have been disembowled. They are the most uncomfortable things ever. I think the story behind them dates from Shogun days where the Shogun’s seats *did* have legs, and no one else was ever allowed to have his (or her) head above the Shoguns at any time. That made life pretty tough for the servants bring the food in, who were basically forced to shuffle around kackhandedly serving food, all the while ensuring that the head *never* went above the Shogun’s, or else they would have said head lopped off for their insolence. And ruin dinner in the process. So yes, minimalism that looks good and works well is the key around these parts. With a touch of batshit insane thrown in for good measure. Japan is to crazy as oceans are to marine life, it’s their home environment. Its adorable however. Except for those damn seats. And Bic Camera, where every TV is playing something different, and the stereos play music fueled by chipmunks on speed. If you were ever going to have your first panic attack, just head there.

One thing that Japan is not the future on is paperwork. Sure, when they want to be futuristic, and minimal, they excel at it (nearly every other nation have 5 different bank notes, generally there is 5, 10, 20, 50 and one hundred of your flavour of currency) here you have 3. 1000, 5000 and 10000. Try going to a hospital, you get a magenetic card which all your details are kept. Diagnoses, what tests you have had done, and of course how much you owe them. All pretty efficient. To get that card however, you have to fill out reams of paperwork. To register at the ward office, another ream of paperwork. (and don’t EVER be late in registering there. I was 2 days late and they were gonna sting me 200000 yen for it. That’s $3000. The nice lady just winked at me and said “please change the date you moved into your apartment”) I understood instantly, and so with 2 days less in my apartment, a nasty fine suddenly dissapeared. But, it can go either way, so stick on the side of the rule book that is guaranteed not to cause trouble. Outside of Tokyo, things can start getting very backwards however, like ATMs that only work with that prefectures bank (and there are no other branches outside that prefecture, so if you want to come to Tokyo for the weekend, you bring a pile of cash along with you), and 90% of the time, its cash only. Restaurants  – cash. Supermarkets – cash. Taxi’s – cash. Cards not welcomed. I doubt the visa company is particularly amused. But mr Visa can take a hike if he thinks that Japan is gonna change their rules to suit him. One of the headaches of Japan is “that’s just the way it is” with a lot of things, and don’t try and change it. That’s just gonna cause trouble. And it wont change. One classic example of this is the idea of “Key Money”, which, when you want to rent an apartment, is basically a bribe. A bald faced no-fucking-around bribe. Usually about 1-2 months worth of rent, which is already enough to leave you gasping for air. But it gets worse. Oh yes. When you sign up for a contract, say 1 year (or two if you are lucky) then, you can pull out any time you like, but upon completion of the contract, then you have to pay ANOTHER bribe, equal to the first bribe, on top of your rent, just to stay where you are. In $US, just to get in through the front door, I was looking upwards of $10k. No furnishings, that was just the bribe, (to call it by its proper name…), 1 months rent, guarantors fee, agency fee, deposit and something else that I couldn’t decipher. You can guess where that ended up. Nice house however.

And finally, I’m engaged. Yay!!.

But that’s another story…