Perilous life inside the great teetering mirage of the East
Eighteen trillion dollars. Yes, “trillion” dollars. That is the broadly accepted working estimate of the amount needed for vital economic infrastructure such as roads, ports, and rail facilities among Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group partners. And that’s just in the current decade to 2020.
It is a staggering sum even considering the large populations and massive growth often associated with this part of the world. For Australia, such an explosion of capital investment portends great opportunities and suggests that in addition to the mining boom, we are situated precisely where you would want to be as the locus of global power swings decidedly eastward.
For the pan-Eurasian colossus of Russia, this tectonic shift is being adapted to with maximum haste because geographically, if not culturally, the former super-power has a foot in both camps. The Russian capital may be closer to western European centres like Helsinki and Stockholm, but its vast territory extends to a coastline nine flying hours and eight time zones to the east. Which is why its President Vladimir Putin, who returned to the top job earlier this year, is now so eager to stress his country’s Asian links.
Yet the heady promise of future wealth from new markets can tempt policy-makers to spend other people’s money too freely particularly where democratic accountability is more a concept than a reality.
The just concluded APEC summit in the eastern port city of Vladivostok is an expensive reminder to mug taxpayers the world-over of the folly of quick roll-out, politically expedient capital spending.
Putin wanted to use the meeting to showcase Russia’s resource-rich east, to spruik Vladivostok’s future as an alternative freight and energy port, and to inject some desperately needed investment into the area.
The meeting he decreed would be held on Vladivostok’s Russky Island access to which would require two new bridges high enough to allow the biggest of ships - naval and commercial - continued access to the port.
The resultant spans look spectacular as does the summit’s venue on the island, the brand new Far Eastern Federal University campus. But what do the bridges actually link? These huge shining cantilevers of gleaming white concrete and angled cable stays loom over the modest city suggesting a bright and prosperous future. Yet they, like the grandiose campus, are basically absurd.
While there is no evidence the billion dollar structures are poorly built, despite complaints of corruption and feather-bedding, the same cannot be said for the FEFU campus.
Its modernistic design and vast array of multi-story buildings seems futuristic and uber-functional until you have to use it. Its build quality is little short of appalling.
Everywhere one looks, the new buildings which were hastily completed to house delegates and media but whose supposed permanent use is as student accommodation, are falling apart.
The number of lifts is hopelessly inadequate, and they are ludicrously small. Even in the stairwells, the actual steps are sometimes oddly spaced with knee-jarring half-steps inserted suggesting the builders simply didn’t measure the distances between floors and design them equally.
Doors do not shut and locks do not always lock. Presumably to meet fire regulations, virtually all doorways through-out the uni have high steel ridges running across the floor making wheel-chair access literally impossible.
Contractors have clearly made a killing but left Russians with a university in a laughable state.
In building nine for example, one senior correspondent was unable to get to a breakfast meeting with Prime Minister Julia Gillard because despite being ready to go, his dormitory door would not unlock. He had to call down to reception to have the door lock smashed in from the outside. He was an hour late.
Others encountered the opposite problem and found their room keys simply would not let them in on occasions.
It is not just in the execution that the money has been squandered. The architects appear to have been drunk or on acid.
Take the campus centre-piece, the gargantuan eleven-story media centre with its impressive glass and steel facade and spectacular atrium giving brilliant views to Bay Ajax and the bigger of the two bridges. To get from bottom to top, one must use no fewer than two separate sets of stairs in different parts of the building, two escalators, and then resort to the tiny lifts for the final four or five levels.
None of it makes obvious sense. Everywhere one comes upon nooks and crannies and oddly shaped windowless spaces.
Some buildings link to others with unfeasibly steep ramps suggesting the whole thing has been improvised by amateurs.
The bizarrely located Hyundai lifts come with two sets of floor numbers requiring much concentration and leading hapless users to a state of utter confusion. And don’t bother trying to find a toilet in a hurry. One lift-well in the centre reportedly became compromised by the influx of human waste during the summit.
All of this is sheer madness in new purpose-built facilities intended as a functioning internationally attractive university.
Everywhere one looks, the new multi-billion campus is already falling apart with clear subsidence visible in earthworks, chaotic internal architecture, and woefully thought-out logistics.
Speaking of Hyundai, that is also the name of the hotel in central Vladivostok to which Australian media relocated once the summit had concluded. Limited flight availability meant delayed departures for many and all were eager to get away from FEFU on the waterless Russky Island which had quickly become the dysfunctional ghost-town it is destined to remain.
The 12 story Hotel Hyundai was a pleasant reprieve. But in a reminder that things are a bit different in Russia’s wild east, one correspondent narrowly avoided breaking his leg in a completely unmarked half-metre deep pot-hole in the driveway.
And the fire escapes for this building? They are not stairs but an abseiling “saving rope”, conveniently located in a bag on each room’s window sill.
Its economical instructions say: (1) Fix the rope well by putting the ring to the hook (2) Fasten the belt around your chest (3) Throw the reel (of rope) out the window (4) Descend facing the wall.
From my room that’s nine floors straight down. Still it probably works better than the lift.
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