Thursday, July 30, 2009

Back from English Camp!

Hello again from the Irkutsk Penguin Hostel, where I am spending a few days relazing before my next project which begins in three short days. I came home early from the Eco-English camp project, located about 9 kilometers north of Listvyanka, because I needed some time to gather my wits before the completion of my time here. And so I am here, in the quiet, quiet hostel, enjoying some privacy and some peace.

I was recently informed that my blog is now linked to the Oberlin blog - so to all you prospective Obies, welcome! I added a link to the much-underused (and long unedited) website for OCREECAS, the fund that provided me with a grant for this summer's work, which you should definitely check out as a huge available resource for you if you are at all interested in travelling, working, and learning more about Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. I'm not a REES major myself, in case you were worried about pressure to major in Russian in order to get funds.

I have no pictures for you as of yet; unfortunately, my camera ran out of batteries early in the trip and I have yet to procure them from shops in town. The region we were living in was one of the most biologically diverse regions that I've ever seen, as well as one of the most beautiful - it was easy to see over 30 species of wildflowers in half a kilometer of trail, or 10 species of butterflies in one place, often landing on your hands or face, on sunny days by the lake. We camped right on the shore, which was a powerful experience, though not quite powerful enough to overcome my sense of disorderly boredom that eventually drove me back to the city. The project was frustratingly run, with little organization and no real role for me as a native speaker of English, and though I had fun teaching lessons about America - more contradancing and singing were involved, as well as a spontaneous rendition of "Cotton Eye Joe" - I found that my experiences this time around weren't expecially rewarding.

In three days I embark on a new journey in the same national park, this time just a few kilometers north of Bolshiye Koty, though the project will have a similar feel to my first project, clearing trails and doing purely physical labor with a mixed group of Russians and foreigners. I think it will be better for me to be in a situation where I am not the only native English speaker, and especially where my ability to speak English isn't the focus of my volunteering. The new friends I made were really great, and I look forward to seeing them here in a few short days... and for now, some rest.

Stay tuned for updates, possibly pictures, and lots of love from Siberia!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pictures! And an update.

In Irkutsk now, spending a night in the Penguin Hostel and enjoying mjy last few moments with my friends from my first project in Tanhoi. My next project is the Eco-English camp, which I thought was a program for children, but as it turns out, I will be helping out with the education of five native Russians in addition to being a loval native expert for sign translation and lesson planning for future projects. I'm fairly disappointed, but hoping that it will be a productive project in which I learn a lot and make good connections for the future.

Here are some pictures from the previous project that I wanted to share with you. The first is of me working on the trail that we built - a full 175 meters of fresh trail through the temperate rainforest along the Southeastern shore of the lake. This is me with a shovel, digging into the light brown earth there.

This is a picture of our river, the Ocanovka, or Aspen, River. It was perfectly clear and absolutely drinkable for Russians and foreigners alike.

Here is a picture taken over the village of Tanhoi, about 9 kilometers' hike from our campsite. This is a sunset over Lake Baikal on our first night out of the woods.

And, of course, here is a picture of our team, bananas in hand as bananaphones on the shoreline on our last day together.

It has been an incredible experience so far, and I'm looking forward to more fun times on the lake in the next ten days. Look forward to more updates, probably at the end oа this project and in the days to follow... missing America lots, and excited to be home soon!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Hello my dearest fans,

I write to you from an Internet Cafe in the city of Ulan-Ude, capital of Buryatia, two days away from the beginning of my SECOND project, which is truly hard to believe. The project I just finished, "In the Jungles of Khamar-Daban" near the village of Tanhoi, was absolutely spectacular. I don't have a cord for my camera, which is sad, because I have lots of incredible photos, but here's some brief highlights to hold you over until I am back in Irkutsk:

  • First day: our "marshrutka" or minibus breaks down on the highway, and we don't make it to our campsite until 10 pm, with no dinner and after 9 kilometers of hiking, and having to set up camp
  • Living and working in temperate rainforest for two weeks, by the cleanest, sweetest, most beautiful river I've ever seen
  • Swimming daily, sunbathing after lunch, and sun almost every day
  • Teaching 9 Russians to contradance on American night
  • Singing "Bananaphone" over and over again to the delight of my campmates, leading to the title "BananaSan"
  • Chopping down 20 trees in a day, and helping clear 175 meters of trail over the course of the project with only shovels and pickaxes for us to use
  • Having a Russian kiss my boot during an awkward ice-breaking game
  • My largest injury: a sliced finger from a rainy-day attempt at a carved spoon (not a recommended activity for the weak of heart)
  • Swimming in Baikal, eating fresh-caught "omul" (the Baikal fish) and sunbathing for our last day together
All in all, it was a life-changing experience. I made incredible friends, did lots of hard work, and simply had an incredible time. Now I have two days with new friends in the city of Ulan-Ude, home of the world's largest head of Lenin in addition to an incredibly interesting community of Russians and Buryats living together in an urban environment. I'm really excited for the adventures ahead, and looking forward to writing more to you from this big, beautiful country!

C liobovio iz Rossia! With love from Russia!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Irkutsk times!

Today is my second full day in the beautiful city of Irkutsk. I really love it here - the city has a character unmatched by the other places in Russia that I have visited. It is a dynamic city with a diverse population of people from all around the world; small enough to be easily travelled by foot, and with a striking architecture and cultural district that reflects a long and intricate history.

Yesterday I walked along the River Angara (accent the final a), which was a stunning sight to behold - as the only river flowing out of Baikal, you can feel its powerful flow as you walk past. I saw a lot of monuments, including the Lenin bridge, technically the largest momument to Lenin in the world! (I have witnessed a great many since my arrival two weeks ago. I'm glad that perhaps with this crowning jewel of Lenin memorials, this trend is over and I can move on to a new theme in monuments.) I also hung out with the 'chairenas,' which I have liberally translated as 'tea gulls,' as the first three letters in their name spell 'chai,' the Russian word for tea.

I've thoroughly enjoyed the multicultural feel of Irkutsk, and today I walked through the Chinese marketplace not two blocks from the hostel. A man sitting in a hat stand asked his coworker in Chinese whether I was a boy or a girl, assuming that I spoke Russian only - it was a funny moment, since if he had asked in Russian, I probably wouldn't have heard him at all. I've found that despite growing out my hair, painting my toenails, making my own jewelry, and routinely wearing what I would call patriarchy-approved feminine clothing, it's still impossible to know how I'll present. Part A, should have known all along, Part B, not really affecting my trip in the foreseeable future.

Here's some more photos from my adventures in Irkutsk:

Here is the sun setting over the city, again taken from the flat in Penguin Hostel - the whole city seemed purple and blue from here.

This is the resident bunny rabbit, aforementioned, in his beauty.

Today my bank card finally worked, so I treated myself to a nice hot lunch! These are "posies," a traditional Siberian steamed dumpling.

Here is some of the typical architecture for the city - wooden buildings with bright, interesting colors and strong geometric designs in the windows and trim. Truly a beautiful and integrated architecture.

Tomorrow is my first day on the trail. We're headed to Tanhoi, a small village on the other shore of the lake that is surrounded by a temperate rainforest. The workers here have said that it's their favorite part of the Baikal region. Wish me luck!

Monday, July 6, 2009

In Irkutsk, finally

Hello, everyone, and my warmest regards from Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia! It has been a long time since I last posted, so I'll try to explain the events of the past five days (really, it's only been five days?) as well as I can at this hour.

I was in Yekaterinburg for three days sort of, two full days in reality, with these two lovely people: Ksenia on the left (my right) and Nastya on the right (the tall one - 6 centimeters taller than me!). This is a picture we took at the train station, right before I stepped on to the worst experience of my whole life - ah, but that comes later.

I stayed at Nastya's house for four nights, where I recieved generosity and hospitality unmatched by anyone I've ever stayed with before. She lives there with her mother, a dog named Daisy (say it with a Russian accent), and a cat named Basia, which makes two animals named Basia that I've met here so far. Nastya was an incredible person, full of energy and good will, and really easy to talk to, despite the language barrier. I felt toally comfortable being her guest, and found that I could understand what she was saying - and respond in a meaningful, comprehensible way - about 85-90% of the time. The gratitude I have for her is beyond explanation. Below is a picture of us on my last night in Yekaterinburg, wearing matching hats. Ksenia had bought one in America and one in Russia, but they really were the same hat. She claims that they were from the same factory in China.

The picture itself was taken at Ksenia's flat, my true host, my Russian TA from Oberlin. It was incredible to be shown around her home town, chatting in Russian and English, and becoming true friends. Below is a picture of me and Quentin, Ksenia's cat, probably the sweetest cat in the entire world.

Ksenia served an incredible dinner the last night I was there, which featured authentic Russian salatiy, an incredible cheese pie, and planbir, the traditional Russian ice cream. We also watched Cheburashka, an old Russian cartoon, in English, which was abolutely hilarious. I had seen them all before in Russian, which was much more comprehensible and cute - the English was truly entertaining, though. It was a fantastic night.

Then came the train ride. I was forced to buy second class cupe tickets after all, because the platscart tickets were all sold out, and I ended up in a four-bunk cabin with three Russians, Vladimir featured above. The knife is mine; he is preparing to cut the block of fat sitting on the table next to him - see it, the one that looks like a loaf of bread? It was probably the worst 53 hours of my life, but they're over.

Now I'm in the Penguin Hostel in Irkutsk, enjoying the company of some very kind volunteers from both Russia and America, and a giant white rabbit named Kroshk. (Picture to come.) Below is a picture of the city that I took at dusk from the balcony of our 10th-story flat near the central market of the city.

Irkutsk is a beautiful and distinctive city, with a lot of old wooden architecture and a complicated sprawl that doesn't resemble the other cities that I've visited. I'm eager to learn more about the city and its history in the next few days. My first project begins on July 9th, in three days, and will feature the temperate rainforest on the other bank of the Lake. I've already met one other member of the team, a professor from New York, and the leader of the project, who seems quite lovely herself. I'm excited to be here and looking forward to visa registration, encephalitis vaccination, and attempting to cash traveller's cheques tomorrow.

All the best from the Wild, Wild East, and happy to finally be on solid ground!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


 I survived the train and now I'm in Ekaterinburg, communicating effectively in Russian, coughing violently, and refusing to sleep.   It's really magical to be able to talk only in a second language (with the help of a dictionary, of course.)  I don't really know if I want to get back on the train in three days, but I guess I'll just have to deal with it.

This is a picture of the train that I took in Perm.  I was on the platskart wagon of a Firmennaya train, meaning that I was on the cheapest nice train there is.  I think it was named "Yamal." I was definitely the only person on the train who spoke a word of English.  When I took this picture, I asked my bunkmate how long we would be here, and he told me about forty minutes.  As it turns out, the train was only in the station for about 10 minutes and almost left without me - I was super embarrassed, and of course scared out of my wits. 

This is the boy who caused all of my trouble, but of course, also all of my joy - a Ukrainian kid named Vasilly.  He was traveling with his mother to Siberia and slept in the bunk underneath me.  He told me, after taking several nonconsensual photographs, that I was the first American he had ever seen.  I gave him an American flag and a whole lot of distance.  He really was a nice kid, although I certainly had trouble understanding his habits - listening to loud Ukrainian rap music set to the theme of the X-files while I tried to sleep, giving me grossly false information about stops at various stations, and of course, wanting only to talk about marijuana, vodka, and whether or not Tchaikovsky was gay.  He also drank at least 6 beers in the course of one day, starting at 9:00 Moscow time this morning.

At the end of the trip, though, as we were pulling into Sverdlovsk, he played really loudly for me a remix of Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend."  This got him a lot of bonus points.

Here's the view out of the window, close to Sverdlovsk.  There were a lot of birch and pine trees, and a lot of villages, filled with brown wooden hutches and birghtly colored summer homes, or "dachas."  I figure if I lived in a country like Russia, I would paint my house bright purple and turquoise, too.  Maybe I would no matter where I lived...

My adopted Ukrainian family - Vasilly's mother was really a good friend to me.  She fed me cheese and sausage while discussing comparative literature through extremely broken Russian.  She painstakingly repeated every phrase about four times until I understood what she was talking about, and when I didn't, I just smiled and said "Da."  You can see what close quarters we were in - my bed was about 5'6" long and had very little headroom.  You sit on the lower berths during the day.

Everyone told me to expect wild parties on the train, but I found people to be relatively boring.  Almost everyone was asleep by 9:00 pm Moscow time - it was just me and my headlamp after that, reading and writing letters.

This is the drunk man from the Ukraine who apparently lived less than 500 kilometers from Chernobyl when it exploded.  That may explain why he talked so slowly and incomprehensibly...

And now I'm in Ekaterinburg, staying at the house of my teacher's best friend from university.  I really love it here, especially the conversation and the sense of adventure.  Or whatever.  I gave her some maple syrup as a gift, and I had a really hard time explaining what it was for in Russian - I'm not sure if she'll ever use it (it's on the bookshelf now) but she did seem pleased when I brought it out to light.  Tomorrow, sightseeing in the town and buying more train tickets.  And right now, I should definitely sleep.

Споконой ночи!  Good night!