Above: The Road to Kharkhorin
Taken while traveling in Mongolia. October 2010.

Friday, November 26, 2010

С Днём благодарения...

So I can no longer say I'm thankful for having a roof over my head...

But it’s fine, I mean it’s not like I live in a climate where roofs are essential or anything. OH WAIT I’M IN SIBERIA. Snow is beginning to fall pretty heavily, and the temperature outside right now is –19 C (- 4 F), and it’s only gonna get colder from here…

I bought my ticket out of Irkutsk today. On January 9th I leave Irkutsk for Krasnoyarsk, meaning I have a little less than a month and a half left here, which is hardly conceivable, seeing as I literally just got here… right?

Here are some pictures from today, a typical day which included going to Czech class, buying my ticket out of Irkutsk, going to Literature class, going to concert band rehearsal, eating blinis, going to host dad’s folk choir concert…

Walking home across the bridge after Czech (my building is the yellow
 one in the center-leftish part of the picture, right under the crane)

On my way to the train station to buy my ticket to Krasnoyarsk

ul. Profsoyuznaya, 3
some houses in my barrio

our driveway

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Won't you take me tooooo, Chinggis Towwwwwn!

Pictures HERE

The overnight train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude was of course fine, except for the minimal amount of sleep, which was to be expected. Things started to look down when we arrived in Ulan-Ude and went to Hotel Baikal Plaza, where we thought we’d reserved 2 bus tickets to Ulaanbaatar the week before…

Basically, the receptionist simply didn’t have the tickets we’d reserved and just shrugged her shoulders when we asked if there were any free seats on the bus. So we tried to buy the tickets from the driver, but, as is common in Russia, it didn’t work out. Helena and I were already beginning to think we’d be spending our fall break in Ulan-Ude, when a nice Korean man gave us a new alternative: Ulaanbaatar on microbus and taxis! And that’s what we did. The best part is, it only ended up being ~100r (3.33 USD) more expensive!

It took a while, but after a microbus, a 10-minute taxi ride from the border town to the actual border, another taxi that took us through the border, 5 hours at the border, and one last taxi from the other side of the border to Ulaanbaatar, we finally made it to our hostel in Ulaanbaatar on Saturday night (23 October).

I really enjoyed the fact that, from the border to Ulaanbaatar, the five people in the taxi represented 5 different countries: Russia (the Buryat lady who was the only able to communicate with the taxi driver), Mongolia (the taxi driver), Korea (the rando who saved our butts), Germany (Helena), and the US (Me!). Somehow we were all able to communicate and have a good time on the ride down to UB (cool-kid talk for "Ulaanbaatar").

View of Ulaanbaatar from Zaisan Memorial

Our three-day Central Mongolia tour started on Monday. After a day of blue skies, seemingly endless, cattle-blocked roads, incredible landscapes, packs of camels, and riding on camels, we settled into our ger camp, where we had dinner and Mongolian beer with our hosts and went to bed pretty soon after sunset.

Our host at the ger camp

You get the picture

The next day we arrived in the Erdene Zuu Monastery at Kharkhorin, ancient capital of the Mongol and Hun Empires. We had a late lunch at a ger camp, and at around 4pm our driver came into the ger and introduced his good friend (about his same width and half his height) to us and told us we’d be staying there overnight, which wasn’t part of the plan. We asked him why we couldn’t stay the night at the Hustai National Park (another 4.5 hours’ drive), or at least drive to the monastery that was 60 km south of Kharkhorin (probably at least an hour and a half drive due to the quality of the roads). We realized what was really up when his friend pulled out a half-empty bottle of Mongolian vodka, and our guide Tashuk told us that his friend really wanted him to stay in Kharkhorin, and that either way he was too drunk to drive us anywhere too far (seeing as they’d already drunk half the bottle between the two of them). So we all had a taste of Erool vodka, and Tashuk took us to a couple of monuments (including “Phallic Rock”), the brand-spankin new Kharkhorin museum (when they said we’d be the very first visitors, we didn’t realize it was because the museum was still completely empty…), and we overnighted in the ger.

Erdene Zuu in Kharkhorin

We spent the next day in Hustai National Park observing the Takhi wild horses, and the rest of the week couchsurfing in Ulaanbaatar and experiencing the city’s enormous and incredible market, museums, and, to my surprise, the Ulaanbaatar Opera where we watched Verdi’s “La Traviata”. Who would have though I’d one day be seeing an Italian opera in UB sung (in Italian) by Mongolians with Mongolian subtitles on two screens on either side of the stage. The trip definitely exceeded my expectations, mostly because I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Republic of Buryatia

(Friday, 22 October 2010)

I just got back from downtown, where we (Irkutsk State University Choir) performed at ВТБ Bank’s 20th birthday party bash. Our choir director nearly killed me when she saw that, seeing as I have no dress shoes, I arrived in my bright red keds. In my defense, I had a 20kg limit on my luggage for a year and a half (my French horn replaced one carry-on), and I wasn't about to waste a bunch of space and weight on dress shoes. Despite the apparently extremely distracting shoes, it was an alright performance.

Everything seems to have calmed down. Every day I feel less like a foreigner and more like a normal student in Irkutsk, especially after seeing German tourists walking down Karl Marx Street (main street), or better yet when I find myself able to give them directions to the Philharmonic.

A while back, at the beginning of October, the Middlebury crew went on a week-long trip in the Buryat Republic, which neighbors the Irkutsk region. I didn’t really know such places existed in Russia before coming here. There were times I didn’t know whether I was in Russia, Tibet, or the Alps. Here are some pictures to give you an idea:

More pictures HERE

The largest Lenin head on the planet

Snow on Baikal!
Baikal's backside (eastern side)
A typical Buryat village
River Selenga

Playing dress-up in a yurt
Playing Buryat Warrior outside the yurt

Trying to construct a yurt

A datsan

typical looking house in Buryatia

Friday, September 17, 2010

Wooden Shoes for State Convicts?

The past two weeks flew by like a babushka running after a gopnik who stole her pirozhki. With each coming day in Irkutsk, a city far bigger than I imagined it back in the US, I begin to see reason in everything (well, maybe not everything) that at first seemed disorganized, illogical, and impractical to me. Why should the marshrutka stop at every stop (which aren’t really stops, but rather crowds of people on the sidewalk pouring into the street, which don’t seem to have separate lanes in Russia) if none of the passengers show that they truly want to stop by yelling “next stop, please!” loud enough for the driver to hear? I was almost in shock (people here like to be in shock about not very shocking things, and I think it’s rubbing off on me) when a couple of days ago the driver of the marshrutka, who was watching a mostly-static TV-show and talking on his state-of-the-art cell phone while driving a vehicle packed with approximately 14 people, actually asked at every stop if there was anyone who needed to get off. All of that said, I think some things here (i.e. the Eastern Siberian fashion sense) will always remain a mystery to me. I came close to said fashion the other day, when the lady giving me a haircut gave me a curly mullet, apparently so popular here she didn't even think to ask me if I wanted one. Luckily I noticed when I happened to look at the mirror while I was getting up (after she was done giving me the haircut).

Classes at the MezhFak (Mezhdunarodniy Fakultet – International Faculty) have been getting better and better; I’ve been getting used to the Russian way of teaching (a method much less forgiving than back in the good ol’ US of A), which got easier after I ceased to notice the continuous tapping of 3-inch + heels rushing up and down the corridors. Later today I’m sitting in on Old Church Slavonic, one of the mainstream classes I might take with Russian students.

Although this is my “study-abroad”, my academic studies have only been a small part of my experience in Irkutsk so far. In addition to the full immersion in the culture and language here, I’ve also had a chance to discover some of the natural beauty of the region. The main natural wonder here is of course the astonishing Lake Baikal, the deepest, purest lake on the planet, which we saw in its entire splendor last weekend. We—the Middlebury group, our resident coordinator Riley, and our guide Nadya—got to Bolshie Koty (which apparently does not mean “big cats” but rather “big wooden shoes”, which used to be made for state convicts?) on a boat that went up the Angara River into Baikal and past Listvyanka, one of the main tourist towns on the coast of Baikal. After arriving to Bolshie Koty and dropping off our stuff in our cabin-hostel we hiked up to the peak of a small mountain, allowing us to see the whole town of Bolshie Koty and a huge chunk of Baikal, which seemed more like an infinite ocean rather than a lake. Looking past Baikal it was interesting to think that past the other coast of this gigantic body of water was the rest of Eastern Siberia, all of the Far East, followed by the largest ocean in the world, followed by California, where my parents were most likely sleeping since it was probably really late at night, the previous day. I think that’s when I realized just how far away from home I am.

We got back from our exploring and made some dinner (pasta accompanied by a tasty meat sauce made by our favorite German Helena), and after dinner finally experienced the Russian Banya! It took Ethan and me a while to figure out how the whole process with the birch leaves was supposed to be carried out (all of this in almost 200° F). The evening ended with us gazing at the most stars I’ve ever seen in my life in the clear midnight sky of Bolshie Koty, peaceful night to precede the rigorous 7-hour hike to Listvyanka that was to come the next day.

It’s also been great getting to know my host-parents (host-older-siblings?) Sasha and Vitya, as well as their cat Persik (a cat that doesn’t hate me?), who’s become one of my best Russian friends. Sasha even advertised for me a bit online and I’ve been teaching English to two of her friends since last week! A wise man once said, “**** ******, get money”.

Going to class now. Plans for tonight: 2 hours of English with Anya and Sasha (also a guy’s name in Russia, short for Aleksandr), read Gogol’s "The Portrait", and prepare for a camping trip with Nastya and Misha (her boyfriend) and co.

The crew


 Pizza with Sasha


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sixteen time zones away from home...

So I’ve been in Irkutsk (the “Paris of Eastern Siberia”) for about a week now, but it feels as though I’ve been here for a month. I arrived last Friday, after about three weeks of traveling that took me from Middlebury to New York, Vienna, Bratislava, Brno, Prague, Nuremberg, Munich, Garmisch-Patenkirchen, back to Vienna, and then to Moscow, before finally arriving in Irkutsk, the land of high heels and fishnet stockings, fashion mullet/rat-tail type things, extra seams and pockets on pants, and all things sparkly.

I slept off most of the jetlag on Friday after meeting my 27-year-old “host-mom” Sasha, and things have been going great so far. I’ve stopped stepping on and/or falling on people in the Marshrutkas (a Russian van transport system), the city’s been pretty easy to get around in so far, and I’ve already noticed a significant deterioration in my English (sorry to any of my former English teachers who might be reading this). Everything’s pretty disorganized, and school is no exception. Classes started on Tuesday after hours of testing on Monday, and it looks like the Middlebury classes are going to be pretty good (grammar, speech practice, Russian lit, Soviet history, and Baikal studies).

So far no culture shock, and adaptation has been pretty easy, especially since my good friend Nastya’s over here (an Irkutsk native who was the Russian TA at Midd last year and who I lived with in the Russian House). She's even introduced me to the Siberian version of Tex-Mex, which I must say is quite tasty.

More on Irkutsk later, hopefully with some pictures. Gotta go watch some Siberians dance Salsa on the bank of the Angara River.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Дорогие друзья,

I'll keep this post short, since technically I'm not allowed to speak/read/write in English until 13 August.

The plan:
  • Get through the next 5 weeks of Russian School
  • Spend the two weeks between Russian School and orientation in Moscow in Austria visiting a friend
  • Fall 2010 in Irkutsk
  • Spring 2011 in Moscow
  • Summer 2011 in France visiting friends and host families [whom I will not have seen in 4 (four) years (YEARS)]
  • Fall 2011 in Berlin
  • Spring 2012 on campus finishing COLLEGE
  • Summer 2012 HOME (after being away for 2 years)
Let's hope everything goes according to plan! Давай давай давай!