May 16, 2008

Кочевая жизнь Джозефа (вторая глава)

The minute I announced that my blog was revived, I started to regret it. I've got way too much digging, sifting, planting and watering to do to write anything decent. Plus, there's a lot of little things i still want to do in Russia. I've haven't even gone shooting with the drunk neighbor at the dacha yet, or translated all the secret family recipes for use in America like my señora, in her insane culinary fantasy-world, thinks i want to.

So these next two entries are really for completists only. This one I wrote in early April, right after I got home from Mongolia, never finished, and never posted. It started with a real killer April Fool's joke, but I think the window for that has already closed. After this, it may just be a bunch of pictures without words. The final one I'll put a little more effort into. Enjoy?


My last post was mostly pictures, because I couldn't summon the creative energy to write a full entry. As I said a few weeks ago, Russia just didn't feel quite as exciting anymore. In one sense, it's a good thing - I've spent enough time here that I can see the country from a more balanced, realistic perspective. On the other hand, it meant I had begun to take for granted this unique experience, and forgot to find joy in the little things, like I used to. That was my thinking at the time.

Soon after that, though, I came to understand the real issue. There was nothing wrong with me, or with Russia - life was good, and I had no right to complain. I was safe, healthy, and learning every day. But safety and health alone aren't the only things man requires in life - we're thinking, feeling beings, and Russia wasn't providing for my deeper, psychological needs anymore.

In other words, in Irkutsk, my dreams were no longer getting happiness. So I packed up and made my return to Mongolia.

New semester, same sign.

The museum was as amazing as the sign itself. And don't immediately laugh this off as just another bad translation - they have their reasons:

Hard to read, but worth the effort.

Today's story will be a change of pace - it's heart-warming, but otherwise won't be of any interest to you. There will be pretty pictures at the end, but not many. See, all the sheep and goats had just had babies, so I blew all of my camera-battery power on baby sheep and goats in the first two days, and then missed 100 opportunities to take great photos. That is not a joke, and I can prove it.


This time around, I'd seen all the sights in the capital (the statue of Genghis Khan and the camel-is-a-living-dinosaur museum), and wanted to get right out into nature again. Right when I arrived, I dropped 240,000 тугриг (PAY-soze) on a five-day excursion into the steppe. That is to say, I blew all of the money I've made all semester teaching English and then some, for five days of walking around in a big field. It was awesome. I wandered with various herds of various animals, and ate various types of disgusting-yet-delicious-by-comparison Mongolian food. I already talked about the sheep-heads last semester, though, so today my story focuses on animals in their fully-assembled form.

I came to like the goats most of all, so I would walk out in front of a herd, in the direction they seemed to be wandering, then sit there for an hour while they all gathered around me and ate grass. Then I'd move wherever they drifted off to. This is what it looked like:

I'm not sure what the evolutionary basis for this is, but as we know, millions of years of natural selection have taught goats to eat clothing, garbage, and whatever else they can fit in their mouths. So every once in a while, a goat would come to taste my jacket. Eventually, one particularly friendly goat approached me and introduced himself. This is what he looked like:
Then I pet him. It looked like this:
He followed me around from that point on, and I tried to take pictures with him, even though he wouldn't life his face from the grass for more than a second, and when he did, he wouldn't look at the camera, only at the grass:

We spent most of the day together, and then another day when I returned to his owner's yurt at the end of the excursion. The only conflict in our relationship came up when some crazy Mongolian kid grabbed him by the horns and rode him around like a horse, yelling and swinging his arms around. The goat just patiently waited for him to stop, though. It looked like this:
The goat wasn't quick to forgive me after that. Just kidding. He's just a stupid goat, he forgave me right away, like it had never happened:

This is me saying good-bye to my goat. It was heart-breaking, especially since that night, and a lot of other nights, all the Mongolians were eating goats. But I checked before I left, he was still around.

In retrospect, I'm pretty sure he wasn't so much 'friendly' as he was 'dumb.' He kinda tended to lose his herd, and wait around outside the yurts for no reason, and eat more glass than the others... but friendship isn't friendship if there are conditions, so I like him all the same.

Basically it was the happiest week of my life. That's all. These are my non-goat pictures:

This statue was in the Russian border-town of Naushki. It's the T1000 from Terminator 2, in the scene where he pretends to be that one dude's wife, but then turns his molten-metal arm into a huge spike and impales the guy with it. I'm not entirely sure what the connection is to the town, but I'm sure the locals get it.

The average Mongolian, as you might imagine, is a thousand times tougher than any person you've ever met. They don't feel temperature, or fatigue, or any emotions, other than hunger, if that counts. If it were for all those guns we invented, they'd probably still be killing us right now. Our driver Bayaraa was no exception. This is him, standing in front of a huge cliff that I photographed last semester.

Mongolians tend to be very straightforward, sometimes even abrasive by our standards. This is Bayaraa, demonstrating not to drag sand into the truck. His English wasn't up to speed, so he just put some sand on his shoe, then kicked it into the truck. Then, he screamed, tore this enormous wooden pillar out of the ground, flew into a rage, and heaved it off the cliff.

How do you think the rest of the joke goes? Leave your ideas in the 'comments' section!

I recommend any of these pictures as a desktop background. At this point, back in April, I stopped writing. And I really don't have any free time now, so I'm out of here. You can keep looking if you want, I'm not gonna stop you.

This one is my favorite.

Apr 7, 2008

Язык мой, враг мой (On Russian language, part 1)

This verb is usually reserved for ax-throwing contests, or really any situation where axes become airborne.

This little oddity makes it very hard to request a single cowberry in a restaurant.

If you're talking about Whitsunday with your boss, or writing about it in a paper, you can't use this word. You may only use this word for Whitsunday when discussing Whitsunday with friends or family.


Now I may not know what a cowberry tastes like, or the difference between Whitsunday and Regularsunday, or why I'm still in Russia, but I'll tell you one thing - the English they speak here is impossible to understand. It's not just accent, like in Ireland or Canada... it's like they use completely difference words, for everything. Some of the letters don't even look the same. You really should hear it for yourself, but I swear... it's like the Russians don't speak English at all. It's awful. Today, I wanted to talk a little about the dialect here, which locals maintain is actually a completely different language - Russian.


Did you know, that in "Russian," you can say

"In a squatting position while dancing, almost with his face touching the ground, the artist drank a cup of tea through a lump of sugar he was holding in his mouth" ...

... in just FIVE words? Check it out:

Five words.

Or here's another - I overheard this conversation in a Crash Taxi this morning, and ran to the dictionary to decipher it. In Russian, as it turns out, you can say

"The green bridge loomed over the cabinetmaker while he worked. Earlier, in his home located at the foot of that bridge, he had caught a chill from sitting in a draft, so he had taken a warm shower, using a piece of bast as a bath sponge" ...

... in 8 words?

I wasn't sure how to express this in American English, but for the record, I used a colloquial form of the verb "to be a cabinetmaker."


Many language experts (especially Russian ones) maintain that language can dictate the character of the nation that speaks it, and even affect its history. It sounds silly, but facts do seem to back it up. Take, for instance, German: word order in German is extremely rigid. I'm no expert, but the first website I found on Google says that words in a sentence must follow this order: subject-verb-object-modifier-'other information'. So expanding this discipline and rigidity to the culture as a whole, this is why Germans are indistinguishable from the precise machines that they build, never make mistakes, and have no feelings.

The Russian word for "German" comes from the root "dumb," as in, "unable to speak." Want to know why? Because Russians hate Germans. But that's not the only reason. Russian is on the opposite end of the language spectrum in its construction. In Russian, word order is extremely lax; you basically spit out the first word that comes to mind first, the second one second, and so forth. At least I do. As you might imagine, this makes Russian a very flexible langauge. Add to that tons of interchangeable prefixes, suffixes, and other tricks to intensify or soften words, and a huge wealth of colloquialisms, the language is basically like building with an endless supply of legos - or for a foreign student, having fistfuls of legos thrown at you for 7 months.

Russian, therefore, has enormous potential for literature and self-expression, nuance, intensity and emotion. As for the national character, this is why Russians scream and cry and laugh and love and dream, and can believe in a perfect utopian future, but can't organize traffic well enough in the present to avoid the pointless, devastating car wrecks that happen almost hourly. The longer I live here, struggling with the language and watching how fluent speakers conduct themselves, the more I believe that language plays a huge role in culture, not just the other way around.

I'm not sure what the supporters of that theory say about English. But the more you think about it, the more believable it becomes. French sounds nasal and haughty, and French people usually treat you like crap. Mongolian sounds harsh, even grating, and Mongolians burn your cities to the ground, and slaughter you and your family like livestock.  Abstract theory aside, though, certain terms and words directly reflect the culture, like in any language. In Russian, for instance, there is no separate word for joy - they just use "vodka." And instead of a unique word for "delicious," the Russians simply say "not poisonous." Had I paid more attention in Russian class back home, I'd have known to bring spices, sauces, and stomach medicine, just from the subtleties of the language alone!

After this year, I really do believe that the only true way to access a foreign culture is through its language. I also believe English is the greatest language of all, and that more people ought to speak it. But I can't seem to convince anybody here.


Today's entry is shorter than most, because I actually intended to write about Mongolia, but changed my mind at the last second. I wrote most of the Mongolia one, and uploaded all the pictures, most of which are of goats (you'll see why), but couldn't organize it so it made sense. For the record, though, I was in Mongolia, it was wonderful, and gave me all the moral support I needed to survive until the end of May.
In general, I'm feeling pretty good, about my life here, about my return home, even, i dare say, about my Russian. Not without excpetions and embarassment, of course. Example: a few weeks ago I was getting a little ahead of myself, and decided I had learned all the Russian I needed. That same week, I had to give an oral report about Perestroika. In the time of Perestroika, it was very fashionable to talk about the NTR - Russian for "Scientific-Technological Revolution." However, I saw on the news not long ago a story about a "NLO"-sighting in the Caucasus - Russian for 'UFO.' NTR, NLO... You can probably guess where this is going. So in my over-confidence, I mentioned UFOs at least 5 times in my analysis of Gorbachev's reforms. So the process continues.
I do have some bad news, though. At least, bad for those of you who read the blog, but don't bother to write me personally. I think the blog is winding down. I'll post about Mongolia, but beyond that, the enormous, final wave of work has started to gather strength these last few days, and looks pretty serious. I need to register for classes, think about an honors project maybe, which requires thinking about a topic, which i gather requires thinking about what sort of work i want to do in the future. Ha. On top of that - several 10-15 page papers, in Russian, which you now understand will be torturous, and then the daily pressures of studying here/constantly dodging death. So write me emails - I'll respond to those.
Also, write comments. I even have a prompt this time, since frankly, you've all been slacking quite a bit on the comment-front.
This is a textbook on Russian culture. Using the hint-words in English on the left, try to guess what the chapter is about! (If you can't read them, the words are "pumpkins of immense proportions," "abandoned gay," "sincere friendliness," and "a feeling of the indissoluble link.")

Mar 10, 2008

Страховка от карманников (Photo collection, Siberia in winter)

Don't get too excited - this doesn't really count as a blog entry. And to make sure you don't get confused, I'm going to make it as dull as possible, and pack it with Russian names and terminology, historical references, personal reflections and philosophy, and other crap you don't care about.

Just kidding. It isn't a real entry, but it also won't contain any information; I'm off to Mongolia in less than four hours, and haven't begun packing. This is just a collection of photographs.

As you might remember, some young Russians accidentally walked off with all of my pictures from last semester. I didn't discuss it in detail at the time, because I was still upset about it, and wanted to move on. But here's the full story - I was in a crash-taxi with a handful of friendly Russians, who just like most strangers on the street here, were warm, curious, and interested in hearing about my experience. They wanted to see my pictures, too, but I guess i didn't understand when they asked - I'd only been here for a few months, and my Russian wasn't up to par. Russians love swapping pictures, and as a guest in any home, seeing all the family photos is pretty much mandatory. So it's a cultural thing.

Anyway, like i said, I didn't realize they wanted to see my pictures, and there was a fair amount of miscommunication. For example, I didn't tell them where the pictures were. Understanding that I was still having trouble with the langauge, they took it upon themselves to find the camera in my pocket, take it, and presumably admire the pictures in the comfort of their own homes. Another miscommunication - I didn't have a chance to give them my address, so they could return the pictures when they were done looking at them. As such, I never did see that camera again. Live and learn.

But in case any more Russian art-lovers get curious, I wanted to post these pictures online, for safe keeping. Enjoy. Don't bother writing comments, though, I'm in Mongolia, where the average yurt doesn't even have a high-speed connection. And if it's as awesome there this time as it was last, I may never come back.


I'm taking a geography class here, so I bought an atlas to learn all the various mountain ranges, rivers, etc. This picture in the introduction struck me. The caption said, "the three races of the world." I'd like to be the guy who represents all white people - I'm definitely just as qualified as the guy with the funny hat. I'm hoping to get the nod for the next edition - I've even prepared a picture, to send to the editor when 2009 rolls around:

This will sound like yet another food-complaint, but I really do look like this after forcing breakfast down my throat every day. So I nailed this facial expression in just one try, this morning before class.

Most of these pictures are on Baikal, around the city of Severo-Baikal'sk, which I briefly wrote about last week, and visited at the end of February. Except this one isn't. This is in Irkutsk, on the river Angara, taken from the gigantic hydro-electric dam. Although it probably goes without saying, this building is obviously haunted with the ghosts of the hundreds who died building the dam.

This is in Severo-Baikal'sk.

The city was built to support the legendary, yet ultimately doomed Baikal-Amur Railroad. Have you all been noticing that as a theme? I think this blog could very well be called "Russia - legendary, but ultimately doomed." I won't bore you with details, but ask me when I come home. The railroad and tourism are the town's only real economic activities, which makes it exceptionally clean, and exceptionally soul-crushing if you aren't a tourist or a railroad worker. Lucky for me, I was a tourist, and it was beautiful.

Like most far-off, idyllic Siberian villages, Severo-Baikal'sk these days is mostly used as a nuclear test-site. The small population is for the most part composed of physicists and weapons experts, and their babushki, who nostalgically recall even the earliest atomic blasts over the lake in the 50's. Back then, they were twice as beautiful, 1000 times as toasty-warm, and nobody made you wear stupid goggles or vests.

This one is just the sun rising.

The lake is frozen until about May, and the ice was at least a meter (foot) thick where we were. But due to mysterious natural forces that no scientist has yet pinned down (I assume), these huge rifts form in the ice, really suddenly and unexpectedly. We were lucky enough to watch this one appear.

After some time, the rifts become huge , winding spines of broken ice that spread randomly all over the lake. And it's not just normal ice, either - it comes in a million different shades of blue and gray. I really failed as a photographer, though - I couldn't figure out how to capture the awesomeness, or the size. I guess a professional would have some sort of object in the frame to offer scale, but I just press the button and trust Canon to do the rest. Take my word for it, though - each of these chunks of ice is the size of a semi-trailer. Or a shoebox. I guess I don't remember. And yeah, it is hard to tell.

I came across this hidden gem in a museum of local art in the city. Of course I should let the piece speak for itself, but in case there's any confusion, its Jesus, wearing a bed sheet, flying out of a magical doorway on Lake Baikal, shooting rainbows out of his hand.

This is a Zimovyo (translation: señora) that we came across in on a hike through the woods. In Siberia they're everywhere. It's basically a tiny wooden room, with a wood-burning furnace for heat. Siberian tradition dictates that there should always be dry wood and dried bread inside for stranded travelers, and after a night in one, it's your duty to replace both for the next person. However, more contemporary, post-Soviet Russian tradition says "screw you, whoever you are - I ate all the bread, burned all the wood, and your life means nothing to me." So they're usually empty.

We ran into these two fisherman on the lake. They had broken a series of 10 or 15 holes in the ice with a sharp stick, and paced back and forth, monitoring them all day. We were lucky enough to see them pull up two decently sized Kharius (translation: they caught some fish). It was kind of funny - when they caught a fish, they admired it for a second, then punched it in the head a few times and then unsentimentally broke it in half, while our vegetarian group-mates looked on in horror. I'd never seen anybody punch a fish before. Anyway what's really important, is that they caught these fish with just some old wire, pieces of already-caught fish, and their hands. It was really amazing.

This is Lenin, with a mohawk made of snow.

Unfortunately, our vacation did have to end some time. This is back in Irkutsk, where life continued as bizarre as usual. This one requires a little Russian to understand: That says "medical supplies." I'm not making that up.

I wasn't actually in the market for medical supplies, but the creepy alley sure was intriguing, so I followed the arrow. I didn't have to go far, though - the medical supplies were behind the rusty, bomb-proof door on the right. I bought a few IV bags, an X-ray machine and a metal hip-bone and went on my way.

Don't think the Russians kids aren't 'with it!'

This picture looked a bit nicer when it was small on my camera screen... but I wanted to highlight this part of Irkutsk. All winter, a weird fog rolled through at night, and in the morning, everything was covered in ice-crystals, and it looked real neat. I recommend this picture for a desktop-background. See, there's a little place in the top right for icons. I also recommend the picture of me after breakfast.

I also made it to the dacha for a really nice birthday/reunion party, and got to see the whole 'four-generations-of-talkative-happy-Russian-family' thing... which of course was great, except for the 'countless-generations-of-secret-disgusting-recipes' thing. So I played with the dog, talked to everyone, and accidentally forgot to eat anything.

This is back in Severo-Baikal'sk. Lake Baikal on the left, isolated village in the valley, pine forest on the right, huge beautiful snowy mountains in the background. So in case there's any confusion, I am pretty happy to be here. And to make the deal sweeter, there were also ancient petrogliphs on the rock faces behind me. I didn't take pictures though, since they're always much cooler in theory than in reality. It's amazing to imagine what possessed ancient people to record their lives, and to guess what the pictures might mean. On the other hand, I can draw stick figures too, and mastered that particular art form when I was four.


I'm off to Mongolia, where as you might remember from last semester, "dreams get happiness." So another update - as of March 21st, no crushing despair. Здорово!