Simon Weston recently travelled to Russia from China and back again and has quite a tale to tell.
Date line:17:00hrs Wednesday 1 July, 1998.
Place: Komsomolsk-Upon-Amur, Russia on a train to Visigorgony.
They say that sometimes loss adjusting is a stressful occupation, but try this one for size.
I flew into Harbin, North China, on Sunday evening 28 June, 1998, to ensure I would be in good time to make a connecting flight to Khabarovsk, Russia, which was scheduled to leave at 11:00hrs on Monday 29 June, 1998. The importance of arriving in Russia in good time on Monday 29 June, 1998 was simple. The insured (quite independently of my visit) had lined up a helicopter to travel from Khabarovsk to Siziman, my eventual destination, and making the connection would save me nearly three days of overland travel by train and by truck.
Even the attempt to obtain my visa had been stressful; only receiving the final visa stamp on Friday afternoon 27 June, 1998.
So I arrived at Harbin airport at 09:00hrs on Monday 29 June, 1998, the first time in ages I can remember not racing to an airport to catch a flight "just in time". An auspicious start to my Russian adventure, which of course should have given me due warning of the events to follow.
The check-in counter was closed and there were no details of when the flight would go. Enquiries in "pidgin Chinese" (my local staff's visas were not granted with mine and so I had no one to help me), suggested the plane might not leave until 18:00hrs, that same day. Should I stay at the airport or venture to the airport hotel 800 metres away where I could get a room and do some work? I opted for the hotel. Big mistake.
I checked frequently with the airport through the hotel and also through my own staff phoning from Shanghai. At about 16:00hrs, I received a call from my office in Shanghai telling me the plane was "en route" Russia to China and would arrive at Harbin at about 16:30hrs for a 17:50hrs turn around.
Being only 800 metres away from the airport, I thought there was no problem and I arrived at the airport at 16:45 hours, with no check-in luggage, just myself, my passport, my visa and my hand luggage. Problem. Gate closed. Panic.
"Sorry, sir, two hour check-in required. We left a message at your hotel. Didn't anybody tell you?"
No they bloody well didn't!
Well, yours truly prides himself on normally being able to extricate himself from such situations but this time there was an immovable force, i.e., the Chinese customs officers had left for the day. The plane was there, I was there, the Russian customs staff were there, but there was nobody to stamp me out on the Chinese side.
I made panic enquiries as to when the next flight could leave (08:20hrs Tuesday 30 June, 1998), and I phoned Russia to enquire whether they could meet me off the new flight tomorrow and would the helicopter still be there to take me to the site? "Yes" and "yes". Phew, breathe a sigh of relief.
Go to the airline to endorse my Aeroflot ticket to the Chinese airline.
"Sorry, sir, you have to do this at the issuing office in Shanghai."
Fine, so I have no option but to buy a new ticket.
Q: Credit card?
A: No, cash only.
I hand over $155 of my precious cash supply and go to the hotel for an overnight rest. I put the staff in the hotel on "pain of death" to give me a wakeup call at 05:00hrs so that I can get to the airport in good time for a two hour check-in for the 08:20hrs flight.
Tuesday 30 June, 1998
Uneventful check-in and flight and a relaxed adjuster arrived in Khabarovsk. The insured's English speaking guide is there to greet me and at last I think things are beginning to go OK. I am on my way to the helicopter and no harm has been done (or so I thought).
"Sorry, sir, the helicopter had to leave two hours ago."
Oops, that sinking feeling again.
There followed a long story, but the result was that there was no possibility for me to charter a helicopter and the only option was for me to stay overnight in Khabarovsk then to catch a 20 hour train from Khabarovsk to Visigorgony. This was to be followed by a 5-hour truck journey to site. Well, if that is how it has to be, then that is how it has to be. Anyway, no doubt, I could use the time to prepare for my visit and also to write reports and other long overdue documents. I casually asked whether my guide would be joining me or whether anybody else from their company would be accompanying me on the train.
"Sorry, sir, but we have nobody to go with you. We can put you on the train and arrange to have you met off the train. Is that OK?"
Well, I am no shrinking violet, but the thought of a journey like this without a local guide did not inspire me with hope and optimism for a safe and incident-free journey.
Q: Could not we try again to check
the helicopter option?
A: Sorry, no possibility.
So I had no option but to face the prospect of a stay in Khabarovsk and this lengthy journey unaccompanied.
Resigning myself to the reality of the situation, I had a peaceful interlude with the afternoon free in Khabarovsk and strangely I was perfectly relaxed. Blue skies, a warm Mediterranean feel, beautiful ladies, a lovely sandy beach close by the river and an (almost) blissful feeling of calm and relaxation. The only "fly in the ointment" were two disturbing thoughts ricocheting around my head. The first was my heartfelt wish that my wife and son were with me to share the moment and the second was a vague feeling of, "this is the calm before the storm".
Anyway, for the moment the world seemed a better place and I could not help but feel this was a far superior way to spend the afternoon than in Shanghai.
I had forgotten the tribulations before and those to come and enjoyed the tranquil moment. However, as they say, nothing good lasts for ever and my reverie was interrupted by the insured informing me that they had changed my schedule. If I could travel tonight at 23:00hrs (Tuesday 30 June, 1998) I could catch an overnight train to Komsomolsk accompanied by one of their staff and could use the opportunity to visit their main administrative office in Komsomolsk. There I could meet senior management and obtain relevant claim information before travelling on again in the afternoon of Wednesday 1 July, 1998 to Visigorgony.
So I was introduced to the insured's administration manager who was to accompany me on the train. She spoke no English and I no Russian, but truth to tell it was a comfort for me to have company. We took dinner, caught our train and I slept like a log (excuse the pun - see later in this article) waking up at 07:00hrs on Wednesday 1 July, 1998. It was then that I received the calamitous news, obtained through gesticulation and hand-signals from a Russian taxi driver obviously impressed that I was English, that England had lost to Argentina in the World Cup.
Shit! What the hell am I doing here, when I could have been home cheering England to victory instead. The company owes me one!
I am taken to an apartment where I am able to shower and clean up and am told that I will be collected at 09:00hrs when we can then head to the insured's office for breakfast.
I spent the day with the members of senior management of the insured and obtained much valuable claim information. A productive, if fortuitous, outcome of my diversion to Komsomolsk.
After intensive "racing against the clock" to get finished I was put on to a train to Visigorgony with maybe 20 to 30 of the insured's staff who were on a shift change and also "en route" to the insured's logging area at Siziman Bay.
The train we are now on will take 9 hours and after arrival in Visigorgony at about 01:00hrs on Thursday 2 July, 1998, there is another 200 kilometres to travel by "off-road" vehicle on a corduroy and dirt-track road to our eventual destination.
And so here I am at 17:00hrs on Wednesday 1 July, 1998 on a train in the middle of Russia, on a glorious sunny afternoon. The trouble is that the train last night was air-conditioned and relatively comfortable, but unfortunately this train is not. It is hot and sticky and this promises to be a rather unpleasant 9 hours.
Well, they say you have to be adaptable to be a loss adjuster.
Date line:15:00hrs Saturday 4 July, 1998.
Place: Harbin, China on a flight to Shanghai
Well, if I am not tempting fate, it looks like I have made it. Is this week really over? I think I am too tired to know.
The train to Visigorgony arrived on schedule, at 01:00hrs on Thursday 2 July, 1998 and I was then put into the front cabin of a beast of a truck forming the vanguard of 4 such Behemoths in convoy for the last leg of the trek to the insured's logging camp. The road we are on, of approximately 200 kilometres length, has been cut through native forest, hill, valleys and rivers and we passed through two "pee stops" along the way i.e. Tumin and Chichimar.
The stop at Chichimar at about 04:00hrs on Thursday 2 July, 1998 was spectacular. A black, cloudless, moonless night but with stars so close they seem to wrap you in their brilliantine embrace. Cold and stark, but somehow warming inside despite the shivering outside. You could not help but feel yourself drawn into an almost mystical communion with nature and the world around you. We were stood on a timber bridge over a wide bubbling river and there was a pristine silence - soon to be shattered by the beasts' engines bursting into life.
We arrived at the insured's logging camp at Siziman Bay at about 05:00hrs and I was too tired to sleep. Also, I wanted to get started and make the most of the time ahead.
The insured's director from Boston, USA, was already on site and awake and we blearily shared a coffee and fenced around each other a little before getting down to the business at hand. He was a big bear of a man, with a no-nonsense attitude and I immediately sensed he was the key to whether this survey would prove to be productive and successful, or an expensive waste of time. He was impressively knowledgeable about his trade and I formed the opinion he did not tolerate fools gladly.
At this unearthly hour, I also met with the camp director, another very experienced and knowledgeable expatriate, but one permanently based on site. "Between them, these two can make mincemeat of me", I thought, but holding down a rising sense of panic, I went about my business informing them why I was there, what I needed and how I would like to go about my task.
I teased information out of them and bit-by-bit the atmosphere softened and concurrent with the rising of the sun, the camp kicked itself to life. I found myself rejuvenated in spirit, if not in body, and from somewhere I dredged up the energy to keep going. That whole day went like a blur. I inspected the camp, the jetty, the log storage yard, and the fuel dump, and we took a jeep deep into the forest. In a 70 kilometre round trip we ventured into the burned forestry looking for "hotspot" areas and inspecting decks of harvested trees which had been damaged to varying degrees. We witnessed ongoing logging operations and I obtained a crash course in practical forestry and commercial timber logging.
It was at this point that I congratulated myself on my foresight in the advance preparations I had made for this survey. Before setting out, I had obtained information from the internet and other sources on commercial forestry logging and the types of equipment and techniques employed. Also, and "don't laugh", I had found time to skim-read a second level university book on "Forestry Economics". I did not want to look a fool in front of these experts and without doubt this semblance of knowledge on my part stood me in good stead with the insured's site experts. They treated me with courtesy, authority and respect.
We covered a tremendous amount of ground, both literally and figuratively, and 15 hours later at about 20:00hrs on Thursday 2 July, 1998, I found myself tracking out of the camp and heading back to Visigorgony on the five hour truck ride for the return trip to Komsomolsk and then on to Khabarovsk. I still had to meet with the insured's financial controller in Komsomolsk and also the insured's general director in Khabarovsk, but I was exhilarated to realise I could justifiably leave the site after just one day (albeit a 15 hours one) as I had geared myself to face maybe 2 or 3 days on site.
We arrived at Visigorgony station at 00:30hrs on Friday 3 July, 1998 and had a two hour wait until 03:00hrs for our train connection to Komsomolsk.
At Visigorgony station, a little miracle occurred and I was reunited with two open university textbooks and a leather portfolio containing an open university assignment (as well as a draft of part I of this article) which I had inadvertently left on the train the night before. So Mr Bill Pope, if you get to read this article, please pass on my thanks to Ludmilla and Lidia for their efforts in retrieving these items. I never thought I would see them again.
We waited. The train came and we arrived at Komsomolsk station at about 09:00hrs on Friday 3 July, 1998.
The insured's USA director and I went to their Komsomolsk office where in meeting with the insured's expatriate, but locally based financial controller, and one of their financial supervisors from head office in the USA, we agreed a detailed plan of action and provisional timetable for the handling of this claim until its final resolution. Outstanding documents were collected and by about 1pm that day, the task was complete.
This time, instead of waiting for the overnight train we travelled by car to Khabarovsk where we arrived at 17:00hrs on Friday 3 July, 1998.
A quick dash around town to the colour copier centre, run off copies of maps and photographs etc, and back to the hotel. Shower. Off to the local travel agent to book onward travel tickets to China, a brief dinner and finally the chance to stop and rest.
It was now 22:00hrs on Friday 3 July, 1998 and since leaving my bed at 05:00hrs on Tuesday 30 June, 1998 (some 89 hours earlier) I had garnered a grand total of 14 hours intermittent sleep, spent on 2 overnight trains. Time for bed!
So to bring this story to a close. Saturday morning arrived and I met with the insured's general director at 09:00hrs and we concluded our business at 11:00hrs. I dashed to the airport, got my ticket, and made my flight out just in time. Phew! If I had missed this flight, there were no more flights out until Monday morning 6 July, 1998 and I wanted to go home!
I landed at Harbin airport, China at 13:15hrs local time and was impatient to find out the time of my return flight to Shanghai. Damn. 14:30hrs. Quick. I have got to get through. I was delayed at customs and dashed to the ticket counter.
Q: Am I in time for the 14:30hrs flight to Shanghai?
Q: When is the next flight?
A: None today, only tomorrow.
Q: Please can you find a way to get me on this afternoon's flight to Shanghai?
A: Sorry, the gate is closed.
However, this time, lady luck and persuasion smiled on me and I was permitted to purchase a ticket, get a boarding pass, and make the Shanghai connection and here I am one hour away from landing back home in Shanghai. It is a nice feeling to be back.
I set down one final moral to this tale, a semi-serious point to consider for those who adjust claims for their profession. The traditional boy scout motto is "be prepared" and this claim illustrated this requirement better than many.
The claim involved a forestry fire affecting harvested logs deep in a Russian native forest. Like many qualified adjusters, I consider myself experienced, capable and adaptable, but we cannot be all things to all men and certainly I am no specialist in forestry matters. When I accepted this assignment, I did so in the full knowledge of my limitations and was painfully aware I could fall flat on my face before the insured, insurers, their brokers and reinsurers.
I believe that without advance preparation, I would have failed in this survey and would not have earned the insured's respect and trust. However, the preparation enabled me to come away from this assignment with everything I set out to achieve before I left. I obtained the information and documents I needed, I reached a basis of trust with the insured and felt we achieved a "meeting of minds" to help to bring this matter to a mutually acceptable conclusion. Final settlement will not be easy because the claim is complicated and of high value, but we have laid the basis for settlement and I have no doubt we will get there, although I did doubt I would ever get back!
Simon Weston is technical director of the loss adjusting division, SGS-CSTC Standards Technical Services Ltd. Mr Weston stresses that this is a personal article. He can be contacted at: 10F, 3rd Building, No. 889 Yishan Road, Shanghai 20023, China. Tel: (86-21) 6495 1616 ext. 600. Fax: (86-21) 6495 5985.