22 June 2007

A pocket full of mumbles - such are promises

Didn't I promise I would write? And post pictures?

Well... oops! I'm really busy here in Ulan Ude, and since being here only three weeks feels kind of like a vacation, I haven't been inclined to spend much of my free time working at my computer. (In fact, we went to Baikal almost a week ago and I still haven't even managed to upload my pictures from my camera!) I apologize to anyone who feels they've been left hanging (probably only my mom and dad), but I swear that I'll make the effort to update at least once before I leave (in a week). I can't promise pictures, because unless the internet feels like being fast, uploading to photobucket and then from there to blogger is actually a huge pain. But I'll try.

This place is really, really amazing. Baikal was awesome. Ulan Ude is awesome. Our hosts at Buryat State University are awesome. When I write my real update, I'll try to think of more descriptive adjectives than "awesome," but for now at least you can get an idea of how happy I am to be here. :)

12 June 2007

Trans-Siberian adventures

Hello all! By the time this is posted, I will have arrived safely in Ulan Ude, but for now I am somewhere in southeastern Siberia between Khabarovsk and Chita. It is Hour #46 of our train ride.

(Note: I am indeed in Ulan Ude now, and having just found a computer with a USB port, I am posting this and am getting excited about showing you pictures sometime in the near future!)

The first 23 hours and 23 minutes of the train ride were spent in very loud, drunk company, as the other two people in Judith's and my four-person compartment were railway workers traveling from Vladivostok to Belogorsk on a work trip. Two guys in the next compartment were doing the same, and the two women they shared the compartment with were apparently not that hospitable to drunk middle-aged men, because they (the men, not the women) spent most of the ride in our compartment. I would like to say it was enjoyable, but it really wasn't, after the first night. The first night was enjoyable because, even though six people is definitely two people too many for a compartment on a Russian train, they had brought a lot of food, vodka, and самогон/samogon (which one of them kept calling "HOME VISKEY," combining – in a very loud, drunk voice – two of the few English words he knew), which they shared with us. We were, naturally, very interesting to them, I more than Judith because her Russian is limited to basic words and phrases, and by 10 o’clock the next morning it was apparent that the only polite way to escape long, slow-moving conversations with them was to sleep. This became even truer throughout the day as they became drunker and drunker. They were nice enough guys, but about the fifth time Gena asked me where we were traveling to and informed me that he has acquaintances in Ulan Ude but they'll be no use to me because they're in prison, I gave up and rudely holed up in my corner of the compartment with my book of Chekhov stories. Which they then teased me about because the volume is called "О любви" – "On Love."

But anyway, enough about that. The burning question I’m sure you all have on your minds is “What's Siberia like?” Well, Judith says it reminds her of Idaho, which makes sense to me because to me it looks like a set from Brokeback Mountain. I had in my head the idea of "vast stretches of trackless taiga," but I found that, while they probably exist somewhere, that somewhere is not here in southern Siberia. There's a lot of forest (not all coniferous, like I thought it would be), but also a lot of plains, and rolling hills and rivers. It's very green and vastly empty, although if you look carefully you can start to see signs of life even in the empty parts – a kettle hanging from a branch, a bunch of empty water bottles piled up by the side of the tracks, a clean-cut tree stump. The roads, when there are roads, are all dirt, and we often ride for hours without seeing any villages.

The villages that we stop in are really interesting. Early in our trip, Judith mournfully intoned (she can be a little dramatic sometimes), "Without the railroad these places wouldn't survive," to which I countered that without the railroad, these places wouldn't exist. They're small, a cluster of fifty or so wooden huts and a few bigger brick or concrete buildings – inhabited mostly with railway workers, one would assume – and in each one, a line of babushki wait for us as we roll in, each manning a card table piled with the fruits of her labor – homemade pickles, boiled eggs from her hens, beet and cabbage salads, dried fish, and homemade pelmeni, vareniki (both types of Russian dumplings), pirozhki (sweet and savory pastries), and pryanniki (spice cookies). I usually can't resist buying something. By the time we roll back out after a half-hour stop, they're already folding up the tables and hauling back whatever they didn't sell. Do they do this every day? How many times? How often do trains come through? Is this their entire livelihood?

06 June 2007

Goodbye, but not farewell!

(I've had more than one Russian speaker of English say "Goodbye, but not farewell!" to me, apparently believing that "farewell" is more permanent than "goodbye." Any thoughts?)

So, I'm leaving Vladivostok tomorrow, and I'm probably not coming back for a very long time.

Here I run up against the fundamental problem of blogging from experience, which is that when you're having experiences that are exciting enough to blog about, you're either too busy or too tired to actually blog about them. (I'm sure I'm not the first person to notice this.) Life has been very interesting and blog-worthy lately, but I am both too tired and too swamped with departure preparations to tell you about it in detail.

In not-detail, I've spent the last week having many little parties with different groups of people, including the best weekend ever – I went to three different dachas, slept at two of them, ate enough grilled meat and smoked fish to completely negate my three months of pseudo-vegetarian asceticism, drank enough vodka to... well, never mind, and best of all, went to the banya! (A dacha is a Russian summer cottage. A banya is a Russian sauna; they beat you with birch branches. It is really something wonderful.) Yesterday was the official dean's office party, at which I was presented with (among many other things – apparently the Institute of Foreign Languages was concerned that my suitcases might make it under the 35 kg limit) a framed Letter of Gratitude (capitalized because of course a Letter of Gratitude is an official document in Russia) from Vladimir Kurilov himself, the president of DVGU! I'm told this is a very big deal. Unfortunately, it's also a very big frame, so it's getting left here (just the frame – the letter itself is coming with me). Today is the unofficial going-away party, at which I hopefully won't be given any more presents. Although to be honest, I wouldn't say no to a Letter of Gratitude from Vladimir Putin. Especially if it were unframed.

All this partying and very little work has made me extremely sad to be leaving Vladivostok and not coming back. Many promises have been made on my part about coming to visit, which will hopefully be fulfilled next summer. Much doubt has been expressed on my colleagues' and students' parts that Taganrog could be anywhere near as awesome as Vladivostok, which will hopefully not turn out to be the case. At any rate, it's hard to leave the people and it's hard to leave the city, especially right at the beginning of summer and the four-month mark (four months since returning with the mended leg, that is) – the mythical point at which you're supposed to start feeling like you're actually living in a city and not just visiting it. I don't know how generalizable that is, but it seems true enough for me.

Well, I've written a substantial entry, I guess, although nothing like the eloquent farewell to Vladivostok I meant to write before I realized how much energy it takes to leave a place. Maybe in a few weeks I'll be able to write that, or after I get home. Anyway, start looking for updates from sunny Ulan Ude in the next week or so!