Oct 25, 2007

Фотки! (Photo collection, Lake Baikal and Buryatia)

It occured to me, that I haven't really told any of you anything about anything here in Russia. I keep getting questions like, "where are you living?" and "are you taking classes?" and "do you speak russian?" So i decided its time to do some catching up. Or rather, decided its time to write the stuff that travel blogs are actually supposed to talk about.

But that's boring. So instead, I'm just gonna write that stuff as fast as possible, and attach lots of pretty pictures.

I live in an apartment with a single, working woman who's proably around 55 years old. I take five classes here, all in Russian with Russian professors, but taught only to stupid foreigners. The classes are Russian Grammar, Russian Speech, Baikal Studies, History of Siberia, and 20th Century Russian History in Film.

I travel to school and around the city on miniature buses that recklessly weave in and out of traffic, although now that there's snow, I opt for the slightly more sane, actual bus. I eat butter all day, and wear a leather jacket so people don't stare at me. I take balalaika lessons but don't understand the teacher, and I think I'm in the local Rotary club, but i don't understand the meetings. I might do some work at an orphanage in the city, but i don't know where it is, and can't communicate with the children.

I also travel around in my free time. To the east, there is a republic called Buryatia. The Buryats are for the most part Tibetan Buddhists, of Mongolian descent, and smile a lot more than your average Russian. Not quite as far to the east is Lake Baikal, the beautiful-est, natural-est, cool-est place on earth. To the south is Mongolia. I'm going there tomorrow, and coming back in two weeks. And to the north is endless, frozen nothingness, probably really scenic, completely inaccessible, and crawling with bears, and I think tigers, too. Straight down is America.

Also, I've been experiencing all sorts of important personal and intellectual growth, but that stuff is private, so mind your own business.

And enjoy these pictures:

This was on our trip around Buryatia, in the capital Ulan-Udey. It's the world's largest iron head, or something like that. Its hard to tell from this picture, but they gave Lenin more asiatic facial features, so the Buryats would identify with him better.

Buddhism is the most colorful religion of all, by far. This is me, and a bunch of other people, outside what i think is called a Datsan. There are tons of them, almost all built in the last 15 years. I guess communists didn't like religion or something.

This is some bridge somewhere. Steppe, too, and mountains. And a river. See the river?

In the hotel in Ulan-Udey, we lived on the 3nd floor.

This is in a village somewhere. I didn't expect to spend so much time in villages, but it seems like I'm always there. Which is really awesome usually. It just occured to me that i might be charged per megabyte here, as well as time... oh god lets hope not.

Baikal. Beach, and taiga, and behind it steppe, and huge mountains with snow, and a gigantic, crystal clear lake that you can safely drink out of. And later you'll see cliffs. My heart still belongs to Lake Michigan, of course, but... these days, its mostly out of pity.

Sea-cows. They don't know how lucky they are...

The name of this tree was the first word i knew in Russian, but not English. Then I looked it up. It's a larch. They're everywhere, and some guy on the street told me its the only tree with needles that come off in the fall. And they turn a golden yellow color, and there are huge stands of them that I didn't photograph 'cause it wasn't sunny, but look really nice anyway. And there's this weird chewable gum-like stuff that comes from them, too. And the old woman who sold it to me on the side of the highway said it was good for my teeth somehow.

Moderately scenic.

I didn't put these photos in any order, but this is a nice conclusion. Just wait for winter, when the lake freezes.

As for me, I'm off to Mongolia for the next 11 days or so. And I'm late for my balalaika lesson. And i really hope these pictures aren't going to cost me my bus fare home.

Oct 12, 2007

Безопасность в России (On Safety in Russia)

Due to a number of complaints/concerns from the reader-base... I decided to write a short entry about my own safety here, so as to calm all the worries.

As you may or may not have heard, in different countries, there are sometimes different laws, social standards and customs than there are in America. Weird but true, I know. And so as a foreigner, life is a terrifying minefield of potential embarassment and trouble, all the time, except maybe when I'm sleeping.

But don't worry! Everything is okay, and today I'm officially promising to be extra super careful from now on. Our program gave us a very good list of places to avoid, comments/conversations not to have, and people not to mingle with. And of course, I always follow those instructions carefully. But I understand why my blog has people worried. I've talked to all the worried parties separately, so i won't get into details, but here's the deal. From now on... if any of you see anything on the blog that concerns you, tell me and I'll delete it right away. But also, I'm going to be even more careful about sarcasm and generalizations, on the blog, and of course in my actual life here.

After all... I'm actually really enjoying my time here... and although i haven't done a proper entry about it yet, I'm pretty sure I'm living in the most culture-rich country in the whole world. I'm trying real hard to take it all in, although of course that isn't quite possible. And I definitely don't want it to seem like I'm just sitting here laughing at everyone and everything around me.

Or rather... I am trying to laugh at everything around me, but in the sense of "laughter is the best medicine, and will keep me from going nuts," not "hahahahaha, why can't these crazy people just be more like americans??"

So that's the deal. I'm sorry to anybody who's been worried, and I hope this'll be the last time it comes up.

And life goes on! So stick around for the next entry, it's going to be more interesting than anything you've ever read in your life. It'll shock you, it'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, and the pictures I post will be on the cover of every photography journal in the hemisphere. The story will twist in and out of several brilliantly intertwined motifs, each infinitely deep and thought-provoking. The reflections will make you not just think about me, but take a look inward, at yourselves, reviving a sense of passion and fascination with your world that you haven't felt since childhood. And the question will keep you up at night, bouncing off the inner walls of your mind, forcing you to question even the most solid foundations of your worldview.

I'd write it now, but I have to go memorize the names of all the different farm animals, and the sounds they make. It's a homework assignment.


Question: Where did pigeons live, before there were cities? And what did they eat, before there was garbage?

Oct 9, 2007

Собачье сало (On the Chinese)

Oh oh, I have another story!

So, I was at the Dacha last weekend, working in the garden.

Actually, let me backtrack. They told us in orientation, that the concept of 'politicaly correct' does not exist here, and to be prepared for comments that we might consider racist or offensive. And man, is it true, every day. I guess it doesn't harm anybody; I can count the number of blacks and hispanics I've seen here on one finger. And he was at the airport in Moscow, maybe he just took the wrong flight or something.

Anyway, I was at the Dacha, working in the garden, and noticed that Ninel was working on one of the fences all day. First, she was shoveling dirt along the bottom of it, and then she started to stack up old wood and sheet metal along it. So I walked over, to ask her what she was up to.

See, a few weeks ago, a new dog wandered into the dacha. We named him Lyova, and we all like him a whole lot, but he's got a habit of running away. So I figured that Ninel was trying to keep the dog from getting out. She told me, that she didn't mind if he ran away, because he always wandered back. But the neighbors on the other side of that particular fence were Chinese, she explained, and she just wanted to make sure Lyova didn't get eaten before he had a chance to come home. True story.


Моя первая двойка (On school and settling in)

Well, I found the answer to my first question, about the Russians going to space before us. Education here... is a real serious matter. While our astronauts were enjoying nap time in kindergarten, the Russians were still awake playing Math-blaster. And when all the kids in my astronomy 101 class last year ditched, 'cause we wanted to play in the snow, I'm sure some young cosmonaut was already putting on his space-helmet. They really, really don't mess around over here.

Example: (and also, our story this week): I'm taking a class on the history of Siberia. We learned last week about Ermak, bold Cossack warrior/Russian folk hero, who was the first to claim land for the Tsar in Siberia. He braved the Urals in the winter, sailed into unknown lands, conquered the savage mongols, etc etc. Yeah, I hadn't heard of him either. The point is, our professor clearly had a special place in her heart for him. But since this is still the 1500's, not much was actually known about his personal life. And we got an assignment, to 'create a biography' for Ermak, to write about his youth and his time in Siberia.

And so I thought to myself, "Отлично! What an opportunity to make a good first impression!" and got to work on my creative writing project. I pored over the dictionary, invented a whole back-story, and even got into his family issues. I also drew a picture, in the style of the ones in our textbook.

My story went like this: Ermak's brother was a fierce warrior, the size of five men, famous throughout the land, etc. And so the Tsar hired him for the job, and he gathered up forty of his most courageous soldiers. But his overbearing mother had a different idea. See, she never let him travel or conquer without his whiny little brother, Ermak. Ermak was weak and lazy, and spent most of his days cleaning around the fort, and reading and writing stories. A thinker, not a do-er. So anyway, they all set off for Siberia, and had all their great battles and adventures, while Ermak sat in the boat, fishing and writing fictional accounts of his own heroism.

Subtitle: "Ermak hides behind a tree." Those are Mongols with the bows and arrows... the Cossaks are on stick-horses.

And when the Siberian winters and natives killed off the last of the Cossack warriors, Ermak's mom came and picked him up. And then back in Moscow, he turned in all his bogus stories to the Tsar, and went home to sleep.

This is me with my paper. In Russian, a big green"2" means "D." And get this... you don't even get bonus points for illustrations. Sure they got into space first... but I'll bet our astronauts have higher self-esteem, and all know that they're special in their own, unique way.
So as it turns out, the culture here is a little bit different than at home. About a week ago, I had a four or five day period of silence, when I felt like I'd never heard the language before in my life. Spent some time lying around the apartment, listening to good old-fashioned American music, and otherwise felt terrible. But nothing serious, it did pass. After that, I had a period of crazy rapid learning, so again... like every week... things are going according to plan.
And I'm starting to get a sense of how culture gets absorbed, one tiny bit at a time. Every day, I see a handful of things that don't happen at home... and they get filed away in my brain. For instance... Russians make use of stuff that we would consider trash. I guess thats the most obvious of cultural realizations... that Americans are kinda a little bit wasteful. But yeah.. I see Ninel dragging stuff around the garden using ragged old tarps, or Viktor fixing his brick oven with some scrap metal and a hammer, etc. And after an entire year... I can see how the things that appeal to me might seep into my brain. And of course, there are the less pretty things. The neighbors have been doing some real serious fighting, very very often, which is pretty tough to listen to through the walls sometimes. Ninel told me her life story, about the 30's, and the war, and the periods of hunger, and so forth. And so I also get that, a million comments and thoughts and stories, that will eventually build into a good picture of why Russia is the way it is.
It's still a long, long way off... but at the moment, it feels like it should all add up to something pretty new and important, if I make it through the year. And the odds in Vegas are better now than ever. Of course, it all looks different every day, depending on how many times i make a fool of myself trying to talk to people. But at the moment, things are good, I'm learning, and today we had our first snowfall. So the show goes on.

Wanna see my impression of a Russian?

This week's question: I don't really like the 'question' part all that much, and don't think it adds anything, so should I stop doing it?