My adventure in Siberia started out as a surprise. One day my manager came to me and informed me that there was an opportunity for a 4 months operational exposure and asked me if I would be interested in working in Siberia. Wowza finally!!!! That was the first thought that zoomed through my head as I was looking to broaden my experience. He then went on to mention it was in Salym Russia. I had heard about this operating asset but never knew where it was on the map. So immediately after this discussion I consulted good old google and two things popped.
One was the weather: It ranges from a pleasant 25 deg C in summer to an un-imaginable -50 deg C in winter.
Two the location: It’s in the middle of nowhere.
At first working in Siberia didn’t look rosy to say the least but there was a silver lining. For each month I worked I had a month of holidays and that was the clincher. This weary desk jockey was ready for some adventure at work and a vacation in a different country every month. I decided to take up the challenge.
THE LONGEST JOURNEY OF MY LIFE!
Traveling to the asset was an experience in itself. It took about 42 hours (door to door) and involved three flights, a train journey followed by road journey that felt unending. In these terms the route sounds unnerving but let me elaborate a bit.
Let me start of by saying I am very lucky because the company I work for has a brilliant travel policy. It lets employees travel in business class if the journey is more than 4hrs. So for the Bangalore to Moscow flight you can guess who was sipping champagne in the Emirates A380. The next flight to Surgut was tiring but after being pampered before, I think it’s human nature to complain a bit. So I believe it’s not the journey that gets to you but the layovers. Thankfully, at Surgut I was able to spend 7 hours in a hotel on a real bed.
The next morning was my first experience in Russia. Till here I hadn’t noticed the decrease of the use of English. At the railway station there were no signs in English and for the first time I felt lost. I approached some of the railway employees and security guards. Through a bit of sign language and a lot of google translate I was able to find my way to my train and eventually my seat.
On my first trip I remember packing like I would for a business trip. So needless to say the bag was heavy and it got real when it was time to hop in and out of the Russian trains. This experience enlightened me on the advantages of how to travel light.
FIRST TIME BELOW ZERO
The things we do just for a selfie
My trips in Russia were between the months of July and March. During my first trip the weather was pleasant +25 deg C and the bee sized mosquitoes that plague the area had already decreased. However on my second trip in October winter had arrived. Since I had never witnessed negative temperatures I was extremely excited to see how it feels.
I remember one experience on the open overhead bridge (that crosses from platform 1 to 3) I decided to take a selfie. Ignorant to the fact that it was -35degC, I decided to remove my cap and gloves to smile for the camera. During the 10 seconds it took to get that photograph my fingers and ears started burning. I couldn’t put my phone back in my pocket because somehow my fingers were not as dexterous as expected. Fumbling and grumbling I learnt a valuable lesson that day to respect the cold and always wear my beanie.
Till date the record lowest temperature that I witnessed is -42degC. Some of my Russian colleagues told me that below -20degC would feel the same as -20degC. After this experience I would absolutely disagree. A temperature of -42degC is as bad as it sounds and the frigid Siberian air has a way of getting through all the layers and chilling you to the bone.
THE WORK EXPERIENCE
Always hard at work
My job in India has been predominantly focused in conceptual design and planning. Being on the ground at an activity intensive asset was an exceptional addition to my knowledge base. With every activity I witnessed a lot of my preconceived notions were challenged and doubts were cleared. When you work in design you analyze a problem for weeks if not months.Here I would make a proposal only to realize it has been scheduled for next week and implemented by the end of the month. The feeling of watching your work get executed successfully is extremely gratifying. This only motivates you to work harder and achieve better results.
I have intentionally not dwelled on the technical aspects of my work in this blog. If any of you would like to know more about the work feel free to contact me.
THE RUSSIAN PEOPLE
From what I’ve noticed the Russian culture is conservative and the people take time to open up towards outsiders. Once you get pass the initial barriers the people are extremely warm and welcoming.
For example during my first train journey I sat with a lady who was traveling with her kid (Sasha). Sasha was playing with his toy car and rolling it towards me. I think he was curious. His mom at first was so weary that she scolded the boy and made him sit tight in a corner. But being stuck in the same compartment with them I tried my hand at some rudimentary Russian and a lot of google translate, trying to explain I was from India and I will be working in Siberia, basically the usual pleasantries. At the end of our broken conversation (45 min) the lady too was curious. She asked me about life in India, how old am I? And how many wives I have? Yes you got that right how many wives! I thought this was due to the fact I wear two rings on my ring finger (left Hand). I tried to explain that one ring was loose and the other was just to keep it in place. Somehow from her expression I got the feeling that she didn’t believe me. When I related this story to some of my Russian colleagues they burst out laughing. Apparently in Russia when you are divorced you wear your ring on your left hand and the number of rings indicates how many times you have been divorced.
A truly multinational group (Philippines 🇵🇭 India 🇮🇳 Italy 🇮🇹 Malaysia 🇲🇾 Kazakhstan 🇰🇿)
The Russian colleagues I worked with are a fun lot. From encouraging me to jump in the snow to warning me not to lick metal. You could always count on them to lighten the mood and keep things interesting even when the weather would get me down. In addition to my Russian colleagues there were other graduates from different countries come with the same purpose as me. That just added to the entire experience and broadened my view of the world.
The spectacular Siberian sunrise over the living accomodation
So while I was working in Siberia where did I stay? I didn’t know what to expect but I had imagined bunk beds and hardly any personal space. The accommodation however was very cozy. It was shared by two and had a nice bed, cupboard and desk. More importantly it had a shower with 24×7 hot water. Though I must mention that when I told a friend of mine from India I would be working in Siberia he did ask if I would be staying in an igloo (I still don’t know if he was kidding).
While working in Siberia I spent 5 days in a caravan, this however was another experience. The utilities and restrooms are not connected to the accommodation. So imagine you are sleeping in your warm bed and you feel like taking a piss. You have to get into your winter jacket and get out in -30degC. So not comfortable!
WHAT I LEARNT WORKING IN SIBERIA
I don’t think this is what “stay hungry stay foolish” meant
Your feet are not as firmly planted as you think.
It was my first time walking through snow at the Salym railway station and I was heading to the minivan. I go to the door handle and its one of the doors that slides to open. With my usual footing I give a pull but it’s not the door that gives way but my feet. I slide straight on the ice. Lesson learnt.
Don’t lick metal or ice.
So I’ve heard when its cold kids lick metal and get stuck to it and it’s a painful process to get free. But I didn’t realize it’s the same with ice. Sigh Yes I know and I call myself an engineer SHAME! But after getting free I learnt my lesson for life.
The journey is tiring and fatigue can set in.
During my fourth and last visit I had a 6 hours stop over at an airport. I found my departure gate and decided to have a snooze. I set an alarm for my boarding time and slept in front of the departure gate. When I woke up I noticed there was nobody in the queue. I decided to walk up to the lady managing the gate and asked her about my flight. She informed me that the gate had changed and it’s already closed. Apparently on some Russian airline carriers the boarding time mentioned is not the start of boarding but the end. You would think I would have known this after numerous trips.
THE OVERALL EXPERIENCE
Making snow when the sun shines
Looking back at all the apprehension with which this assignment started, I can now clearly see it was unwarranted. Yes working in Siberia was cold and it was remote, but the experience I get to take home with me far outweighs the hardships.
Though I do regret one thing… I didn’t get to see a bear.