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

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.