Tuesday, July 3, 2012


As most already know, I am already back in the United States.
The trip was long but... surprisingly... easy. Two days on a train, one day in Moscow with a night in a hostel (also met up with fellow Fulbrighter, Brian) the next day a flight into Washington and then Boston and then home. Absolutely nothing went wrong.
The only remotely interesting things that happened on this trip were:
- A Ukrainian woman in the hostel heard my accent and thought I was from Dagestan. Another person said I sounded South Ossetian.... but then a different person said I still sounded just American.
-A Tajik in the hostel told me I was fat and most likely out of shape. (Anyone who knows me knows this is pretty far from the truth)
-When I got to the Passport Control just about to officially leave the Russian Federation, I gathered all my documents... my passport, visa, migration card, and my precious REGISTRATION- that document that I went through so much to legitimize, paid a fine, risked deportation, encountered the Ugly Sweater Lady and the Bashkir Hotel that still thinks I should be deported.... I had every past registration ready in a bag in my hand, but still hoping that my current registration was enough and nobody would ask any more questions.... I hand the registration over... and then.... "What is this? We don't need this."
-I almost missed my connection flight home, as I was given only an hour to go through customs, find my bags and re-check them, and find the next terminal which was located as far away as one could possibly place it in the same airport... so, just like a scene from a movie, I ran through the entire Washington Dulles airport, screaming, EXCUSE ME, COMING THROUGH, ИЗВИНИТЕ!! in frantic, exhausted half English/half residual Russian, in five-inch heels.
Everyone was making fun of me for wearing the heels. What, was I supposed to dig through my bags and find another pair of shoes for the occasion? Or go barefoot?

So now that I'm home and *almost* over my jetlag, it's time to review the things I'll miss and not miss about Chelyabinsk, the Urals, and I guess Russia even though I'll be back before too long.

-Bureaucracy and Bureaucrats, particularly Ugly Sweater Lady (the woman who said I should be deported)
-Constant subzero temperatures in the winter
-The dry climate in the spring that makes me thirsty all the time
-The air pollution.
-Young women who make a point of not eating anything.
-Heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking, bulge-eyed, barrel-chested, Severe Chelyabinsk Men (Суровые Челябинские Мужики, this really doesn't translate well). Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of handsome Russian gentlemen, even in Chelyabinsk, but the stereotypical image of this kind of Russian man is not attractive to me. At all.
-Couples that comprise of the aforementioned Chelyabinsk Man with a beautiful woman, who engage in public displays of affection... especially in places where there is nowhere to escape, like Platzcart Trains.
-Students who give every excuse to not come to class.
-"Passport chasers." People who are interested in you only because of your nationality or citizenship, be it American or any other. This works both ways.
-Chelyabinsk drivers. (Although where I live now is not known for the best road etiquette, and most certainly not where I am going for the next year!)
-KEFIR. Can't say I'll ever learn to like that stuff.
-Being told I am not dressed warm enough, or that something cold is going to make me sick.

-My friends, my students (well, most of them) and my Chelyabinsk colleagues who have become like family this year.
-My awesome apartment.
-The Ural Mountains.
-Going to the Ural Mountains to camp out in a cabin when it was 20 below.
-Going tubing in the Ural Mountains when it was almost 30 below.
-Shashlik, kumyz, vareniki, adzhika, Abkhaz wine, oliv'ye, solyanka, ukha, vostochnaya khukhnya, lagman, bulochki.
-Marriage proposals from various Central Asians.
-Gagarin Park.
-The train ride from Ufa to Chelyabinsk.
-Bargaining at markets.
-Bargaining with taxi drivers.
-Meeting people and allowing them to mistakenly guess where I am from.
-Walking back home from class in heels.
-Bashkir ice cream.
-Getting lost in South Ural State University.
-The sun rising at 4am and setting at 23.30.
-Just being able to walk everywhere (almost) on foot.
-Walking along the river bank, along the Miass.
-The Communist Babushkas who used to give me pamphlets around election time.
-The guy dressed up as an eyeball who stood outside on Lenin Avenue a few times every week.
-Blinni stands.
-Kriov street.
-Very beautiful and very inexpensive clothing (in Kyrgyzstan).
-Understanding jokes in Russian, even having dreams in Russian.
-Teaching grammar with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Barenaked Ladies.
-Oh heck, even the Soviet track I used to run around, I will kind of miss it...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

ACCESSing Bashkortostan

A bit about my work in the ACCESS camp in Salavat, Bashkortostan...

Last week, I took my final trip on that familiar Chelyabinsk-Ufa train route to go to work at the summer camp in the nearby city of Salavat. A friend, Bulat, met me in Ufa and his friends drove me there, free of charge.
Salavat is a city named after the Bashkir hero, Salavat Yulaev. He had fought in the Pugachev rebellions when he was younger than I am. Some years ago, the city of Salavat had not much there to speak of, in terms of money or attractions (this was what I was told). Then, GAZPROM came. Now everything is state-of-the-art... all the schools, athletic centers, you name it, it has been repaired and/or rebuilt or completely created from scratched, and GAZPROMized with new generous investments from the company into the Bashkir Republic.... whether you like this company or not, the city does look pretty awesome.

More awesome than the city itself was the hospitality of the people I met there. The head teacher and leader of the ACCESS program, Guliya Shaykhutdinova, took me with her family around town and out to eat in a nearby city, and basically took me under her wing for the whole week with making things as smooth and easy for me as possible. The day after we arrived, we met with all her students and attended the Bashkir festival of Sabantui... a large gathering with singing, dancing, wooden pole climbing, horse riding, and kumyz drinking (see first Bashkortostan post about kumyz)

Oh... what is ACCESS? It's an advanced English program for underprivileged high school students. I regularly work with the ACCESS groups in Chelyabinsk... the main one is the group I have had since September. This camp, with all due respect to the Chelyabinsk program... was a lot more well organized with regular attendance. The students were attentive, enthusiastic, and very sweet. Each day we had our lesson and our meals, and then in the evenings we would take a walk around the city and just share each others' experience and learn from each other about inter-cultural connections and differences.... but it would be mostly in Russian. (Fine with me, I wouldn't forget the language, and the children would understand more).

On the weekend before my departure, I went out to a club with a friend of Guliya's named Olesya, who was obsessed with the color green. She happened to have not only green eyes, but green sandals, a green car, green fingernails, a green handbag, green sunglasses... and I forgot what else. We met with some of her friends for chocolate and champagne (which, unfortunately, did not really agree with my stomach).
Bashkir night clubs play the best music of anywhere I have been.

The ACCESS week in Salavat unfortunately ended as fast as it began, and I took the very last beautiful Ufa-Chelyabinsk train ride (shared in a compartment with five Kazakh soldiers. Interesting time that was.) to return to our own (rather inconsistent) ACCESS camp schedule... and preparation for the Great Journey Home. More about that later.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Many Victories

I usually start out with a complaint about the weather. For the past two months, I really can't do that. April had been, on record, the warmest and driest the South Urals region has experienced... and the good fortune has continued into May. Even so, many Russians warn me about how it can still snow in June, and that I should STILL dress warm, because in the morning it can be colder, and if the wind blows, I may catch a cold.

Even so, Chelyabinsk has come alive for me in the spring. Not that this city has ever lacked life... it is that I am more enthusiastic to go for long walks around the city when the sun is out and I don't need a coat... it is not the same repetition of home-class-meetings-home. I walk around different roads home every day, sure to see the most in my last month here. For a city with a "severe" reputation, the center roads are certainly magnificent... especially at night, when everything lights up, with the decorated trees and fountains.
One of the reasons for this decoration was that Chelyabinsk just hosted the All-European Judo Championship, and of course, hosted a LOT of foreigners. Some of my students had the opportunity to volunteer at the hotels where the athletes were staying, and I heard many stories about how good looking they were.
From what I hear, both Russia and Georgia performed well in the matches.

Another reason, was that last week, May 9th, was one of the most important Russian holidays- Victory Day. This day honors those who fought in World War II (The Great Patriotic War), on the day recognized as the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. In theory, that Wednesday was supposed to be the only day free from work, but many classes that whole week were canceled as some people like to take trips with family out of town.
I was in town, even though most of my friends had left. I spent the holiday rather low-key, but was sure to attend the parade and the concert on Revolution Square.
Never in my life have I ever seen so many PEOPLE just walking around. (And smiling! In Russia!)  It was also, again, unusually warm, about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (Nevertheless, I saw a Russian girl in a pukhovik and another wearing tights under her jeans. *head shake in disapproval*)
In the evening, I watched the fireworks display from the banks of the Miass, joined by a random Tajik with (surprise) another marriage proposal.
Just another day in Chelyabinsk.

The rest of the week, however, became rather irritating. My students had all caught a severe case of Spring Fever, and absolutely NOBODY was in the mood to work. My lesson plans were just not catching on. This past week things turned around a bit, but I still get the sense that everyone is just tired of school.

Last Saturday, in another effort to "see as many of my favorite places in the city before I suddenly have to pack up and leave it" I took a walk with my students and friends from the Music Institute, just to take pictures. (And in Russian, "сфотографироваться", to take pictures, usually requires a minimum of about 300)
As I said before, when I talked about the marshrutka mixup,  I am finally beginning to get a better layout of the city. I recently took a few trips to the dreaded, infamous "Leninsky district", where everyone says to avoid. As it turns out, in the daytime, most of Leninsky is fine... the bad reputation is simply because it is a residential district for the working class, and is home to a few ugly looking factories. I took a run around the bank of a big lake there (it wasn't as pleasant as I had hoped though... the running path did not go very long and I ran into more than a couple naked old men) I also visited a truly state-of-the-art health clinic there. I help a woman, Natalya Borisovna, with her English sometimes on the weekends, and she happens to be the boss of the clinic. Because it is against the Fulbright contract to receive extra money, she decided that as a "gift" I could get a free doctor's checkup at her clinic. It sounded good to me (and they check things that I usually don't get examined at home... like the weird gooey stomach roller thing and back roller thing and different kinds of cardiograms etc) The only thing is, I'll have to translate the documents once I get the results.

To add yet another "win"... I expanded my passport and now have room for another visa, and it only took one more 6:30 am bus ride to Ekaterinburg, a hundred dollars, four traffic jams, and one marriage proposal from an Uzbek.
That day though, happened to be National Museum Day, so I took advantage of it and went to an art museum in Ekaterinburg after my consulate appointment.

Finally... last night, was truly one of the most fun nights I've had this spring. One teacher I work with, Anna Spiridonova, invited me to go with her to a concert called Student Spring. We had VIP seats right on the floor of the arena, because her husband was the sound technician.
Student Spring (Студенческая Весна) is a nationwide contest that begins within universities, then expands to cities, federal districts (Russian republics, oblasts, krais, etc etc etc) and then ends with one final competition. It just so happens that this year's contest is hosted in Chelyabinsk, and I got to go.
The winner of the competition was Tyumen Oblast (they had several acts in the finals), followed by Kemerovo and Novosibirsk.
Some other acts worth mentioning:
Rock&Roll Yakut throat singing
Chuvash robot techno I'm-not-really-sure-what-that-was (dance? mime? some kind of skit, set to techno and robot costumes?)
Kalmyk Buddhist folk music and dance
a Cossack band from Stavropol performing Lady Gaga and the infamous song "La gente esta muy loca ALL DAY, ALL NIGHT, WHAT THE F..." (a techno song that has seriously PLAGUED all of Europe in the past year) on accordions and balalaikas
and a dance performance of four different nationalities (Russian, Kalmyk, Bashkir, and Dagestani) integrated, to a medley of songs.

There was so much positive energy, that after this concert, I arrived home and had nothing left to say except: Я ЛЮБЛЮ РОССИЮ! 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bashkirs, Marshrutkas, and other things

Yesterday's bureaucratic nightmare kind of overshadowed the events of the previous week, so let's back up in time to something more interesting...starting with last Friday.

For the most part, even though I have lived in Chelyabinsk for seven months, I rarely see outside of the Center or Soviet regions... which is where I work and where I live, respectively. Chelyabinsk is a huge city, but area-wise, I really only see a small fraction of it. For those who know the city, I live close to the train station, so you can generally only find me from the train station to Park Gagarin to sometimes just past bank of the Miass. Outside of this district, I hardly ever go...and most people have told me that I don't need to.
My friend Zhenya lives a few bus stops beyond the Miass river, but it's still basically the city center.
Anyways, with this kind of limitation, it is easy to get into a "comfort zone" with transportation. I almost always take either the Bus #64, or the Trolley-bus #1. They are sometimes slow, but safe, reliable, and predictable nevertheless. Occasionally I will take Bus #18 or Marshrutka #64.

Маршрутки are a purely Russian... transportation experience that I know I will start to miss once I get back to the US. A marshrutka, or marshrutnoye taksi, is translated as "route taxi." When talking about them in English, I prefer to just use the Russian word because to Americans, "route taxi" doesn't really make sense, because we don't have them. Basically, a marshrutka is like a carpool bus/van. The main difference between a marshrutka and a bus is that it only stops when someone flags it down, or when someone asks for it to stop. They are smaller, usually yellow, and full of people you have to climb over to pay your fifteen rubles and exit on time. You also have to make sure to yell loud enough to stop on time, that is, if you can see out the window and know when is your stop. This is also assuming the driver speaks intelligible Russian.
Sometimes, marshrutkas changes routes without warning. So you always have to ask the driver if they are actually going to the place where the outside of the van says they are going.
This all being said, marshrutkas are generally the fastest way of getting around.

Anyways, last Friday, I finally got to see other parts of the city. A friend named Dasha invited me as a guest to her place, and told me which marshrutka to take to her place, but this marshrutka would be if I was coming from home. I was not, so I asked people I work with how to get there. They told me to take Marshrutka #4... but this marshrutka decided to go in a completely different direction... not to my friend's place, but to the Metal District!
NOW I have seen "Суровый Челябинск". We've got factories, all right. From there I took two different marshrutkas and finally reached my friend.
After a good dinner and martinis and card games, we decided to take a ride around town, including past the stadium where our first-place hockey team TRAKTOR competes.

The one region where I have never ended up is Leninsky. It is actually not that far in distance from where I live. It is on the other side of the train station, over a bridge of some kind. Apparently, it is a different world. I am always told to avoid Leninsky region, that it is where the hooligans lurk. I'm curious, but I know I probably shouldn't.

Now about even before that... a recap of our amazing Bashkir weekend!
The main purpose of the return to Ufa was for the conference, which took place on Friday. About sixteen of us reached Cathy at Bashkir State Pedagogical University and gave a speech about some topic related to America... mine was about health and fitness (thus, disproving the stereotype that all Americans are fat).
We were all accommodated by volunteer host families. My host was a Bashkir woman named Aliya, who was (as to be expected) wonderfully hospitable. She was unfortunately feeling down with a cold, and I felt kind of guilty at times, for example, when she woke up extra early to fix me breakfast. I had hoped to sneak out and not disturb her. It was wonderful talking with her though, and she really wanted to practice some of her English with me.
The person who originally wanted to host me was a Bashkir character named Salavat. He was a funny kid... that's all I can say.

At one of the events, I met an Iranian girl named Zahra who was studying art. This was one of those chance meetings, where I wasn't sure whether I should bother to make a fool of myself and say something to her in broken Farsi, but in the end, she was very impressed, and we continued to hang out. Hopefully she can visit sometime.

Yet another new friend from this trip was Valeria, from Almetyevsk. I thought she was just Russian, but she is originally from Central Asia. Her English was impressive, and it was great to have her along with us. If she wants to, we think she could definitely have a good chance to study in the US.

The best part about the Bashkir Bash, was the overnight weekend in the domik. I had kind of assumed that this "cottage" would be like the one I went to in Taganai, with an outhouse and a wood stove we heat ourselves (in other words, freezing cold). On the contrary, this was one high-class domik. Two floors, many rooms, a refrigerator, two bathrooms, hot water, the works.. and even a cellar that apparently has no dead body in it (inside joke). Our night was full of laughter, massages, songs, various languages, beer, and shashliks. Everything but sleep, obviously.

Probably the second best part was the Bashkir-language play we watched the next day back in Ufa. I find it cliche and low-brow to use the word "adorable" to describe something that is foreign to you... but in all seriousness, it was. We had the option to listen to a Russian translation headset, but it kind of distracted from the actual play. It was so lively and upbeat, and from what I gather, had a very feel-good ending. Bashkir music is also such. The story line was something along the lines of a young girl from the village is the object of affection of a rich, out-of-place man from the city, she doesn't really like him at first, she would rather stay in the village and gaze at the stars... in the end he builds an airplane for the girl and her father so they can go up into the sky and be closer to the sky. I believe they marry in the end. Cute))) And in Bashkir, of course.

Anyways, that's all for now. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How to handle Russian Bureaucracy with poise sand success

1. Dress nicely.
Seriously, it will put you in the mindset that you are going to conquer all, handle any curveballs, take on the world.
2. Never ever ever ever go to any "migration services" (unless it's a neatly organized International Department in a university) alone. Always go with someone you feel comfortable with and trust.
3. Do everything and say everything the person you most trust tells you to.
4. Be competent in the language, but not over-confident. Leave room for a "margin of error", and don't feel like you can argue and/or talk-back to people in Russian. Leave that for the person who accompanies you to handle.
5. Bring cash.
6. Be extra polite to everything. Act as if formulating your documents is the most wonderful thing anyone has ever done for you.
7. When asking questions, make sure you ask the RIGHT questions. Meaning, make sure that everything is 100% clear. Never ask questions about unnecessary information (not related to what bureaucrats are asking for). If you do this, you might dig yourself into a bigger hole, i.e, if you uncover an issue, a bureaucrat might ask more questions about it.
8. Keep in mind, these people most likely have boring, tedious lives. It's better to be hassled by a bureaucrat than actually BE a bureaucrat.
9. NEVER assume any bureaucratic process to be based on logic or common sense.
10. It's always good to have friends. Even friends of friends of friends in higher places.
11. Read up on the laws, requirements, and processes, so you can know if such a cost or document is actually necessary or not. Realize, that sometimes people say things to scare you. Their work is BORING. Some people will scare you because it makes their work more interesting. But then, you come across the rare bureaucrat that actually realizes that helping someone out of a difficult situation is more fulfilling than scaring them :) 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring.... (eventually)

March has never been my favorite month of the year, but this year it hasn't been so bad.
It is finally consistently above zero Celsius (even though it snows practically every night). SPRING is coming.

Along with spring came quite a lot of good news.
First, I will be working at an ACCESS (American English language camp with high-school-aged children) camp in June. The camp in Chelyabinsk, unfortunately, is in July, so I would not be able to make it, so I will instead be going to nearby Bashkiria to a smaller city called Salavat. Everything is all worked out, I am in contact with the director there and might even be able to stay with a host family. This will only be for a week, I know that Svetlana will need my help during this month as with any time.

Also... BIG news... I am officially hired to work at Adyghe State University next year! My friend will be preparing the documents this summer. It is exciting, I will get to live in the North Caucasus and teach both English and Spanish! It is also just good to know that I have something in line for next year, and not have to worry about the "parents' basement" unsuccessful-job-search possibility.

As for life in Chelyabinsk, classes are going smoothly for the most part. As you may know, I do teach at three different institutions, which does get confusing (sometimes schedules don't really coincide, and it is really nobody's fault). The only really difficult classes I have are when I occasionally cover Svetlana's classes with the Sports Faculty. These students, as athletes, have a lot of energy, and have a very low level of English, and most of them would rather just pal around with me in Russian, and I need to set some sort of authority. It can get pretty exhausting.

Most students, however, are consistently very enthusiastic. There are two particular students in the ACCESS group (the younger students who will go to the summer camp) that have really impressed me. One of them wrote me a terrific essay about Michigan (long story about how we got to this topic) and another student has never failed to turn in her homework and always seems to be eager to be on task. Believe me, in Russia, this is very refreshing to see.

Because of the more consistent schedule, I have been able to put together a new batch of lesson plans, which were for the most part both useful and unorthodox (in a good way) for the students.... including a talk about the Boston Irish and St. Patrick's Day (including the Boston Celtics and the Dropkick Murphys), debates for the YURGU students about internet piracy and social networks, a discussion about the "real world" American workplace featuring clips from "Office Space", and an analysis of Red Hot Chili Peppers lyrics. "Californication" certainly surprised people, when they found out the real meaning of the text... I myself was pretty surprised when I found out for the first time that it was not some happy song about California... and "Especially in Michigan" produced some rather strange imagery. Most students DO agree that Michigan looks like a mitten.

Also... this weekend I probably made the best contribution to the side project of mine, and got to professionally record some Russian folk songs. It so happens that one of the teachers I work with has a husband who works as a sound technician in a theater... the only theater in Chelyabinsk with an full-professional recording studio.
Here are the Dropbox links to the songs:
Tonight, I'm leaving for a conference in Ufa (Bashkortostan, the place where I visited Cathy in the summer). Cathy Trainor, the Fulbright ETA there, has organized the whole thing, молодец! I'll be giving a lecture on "Health and Fitness in the USA" and signing some of my "Songs from the Urals" (that part will only be for the ETA circle, as I didn't see much point in presenting that for some people who already live in the region) Oksana will be there, as well as the new American Consul from Ekaterinburg!

So much to prepare for...

Sunday, March 11, 2012


...Absolutely guilty of blog neglect for the past month. If I said it was because I was too busy, this is only half true. Yes, I do have a fuller schedule this time around, but I have had plenty of time in front of my computer to blog... I just didn't do it. I was never really inspired. After a month of traveling and telling all those stories, regular routine has not seemed interesting enough in comparison... but this doesn't mean it has been boring!
The thing is, there just isn't any news. Well, not really.

Since the last blog (about Kyrgyzstan), there haven't really been adventures, just... good times, for the most part. Right after Kyrgyzstan I flew into Moscow, got a miserable cold (thankfully, the only one so far, knock on wood) then left to go to Kazan with some other ETAs. Kazan is just another awesome city. I was glad to have gone. Altogether it was a good time, with Tatar food, beautiful buildings, kol'yan, banya, and a friendly, clean hostel.

Oh wait... something weird DID happen between Moscow and Kazan. Word of advice: When someone asks to help you with your bags, beware. Sometimes they'll ask you for money right after.... and sometimes, they'll ask you for marriage. This happened at the vokzal in Moscow... a seemingly friendly Tajik helped me with my bags. I offered him 100 rubles (he did carry them a long way) but he wouldn't accept it, instead, he followed me around for the rest of the day, which ended with a marriage proposal.
I declined.

After returning from Kazan, I was so tired of traveling, that when I finally reached my apartment, I did not go out for three days. Running in the park, yes, but in no way did I want to ехать anywhere.

Of course, there were interesting activities since then, mostly surrounding cold weather.  Here is a picture of what you need to wear when you go running at -34 C:

Without a doubt, that was the coldest temperature I have ever felt. I decided to run, just so I could say I did it. It was cold.

The next weekend's cold-weather activity was "Ural Tubing". It's what it sounds like: sliding on a tube in the Ural Mountains. It took place in the city of Zlatoust (another big city in Chelyabinsk Oblast) with Volodya.
Oh yes, here is news, SAD news. Volodya moved to St. Petersburg!! Well, it's good news, he loves his new job, but it sure is not as much fun without him here. I've still got Zhenya though as a close friend here... but I really miss Volodya.

More recently, I took a trip to Taganai (remember, the mountain I climbed back in September?) with another friend named Olga and several of her friends. We stayed overnight in a log cabin in the middle of the mountain trail, and then hiked up further on a different fact. It was breathtaking, but COLD!!

The scenery does outweigh the cold, though.

Yesterday, these same rebyata all came over to my place to sing songs. I hope to record them and add to my collection.

Anyway, I will try to update the blog more. This was just a recap; more teaching-related or life-related, deeper thoughts require more time to write about.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Kyrgyzstan (Epic Travel Blog Par II)


One year ago, during my final semester at Oberlin College, I took a class called "History of Central Asia" with two of my good friends, Michael Long and Joseph Campbell.
In this class, the professor would be sure to ask the above question "Is this ______ Orientalist?" about any reading selection, picture, video clip, or basically any tool or piece of information. Basically, everything was analyzed against Eduard Said and his critics.
This Orientalism meme inspired Joseph Campbell and I to take a journey to Central Asia together... considering we would be both (relatively) close.
Chelyabinsk, as I have mentioned, is very close to the border of Kazakhstan. The original plan was to visit Kazakhstan; it seemed like the most obvious choice. Unfortunately, there is no Kazakh consulate nearby to get a visa.
Joseph, who lives and works in Beijing, has the advantage of living in a capital city with access to every consulate. I would have had to make special trips to Moscow for an Uzbek, Kazakh, or Tajik visa (Turkmenistan is bureaucratically out of a the question), but lucky enough, a Kyrgyz consulate is conveniently located in nearby Ekaterinburg.

So we made our journey to Kyrgyzstan.

I hate to use such a superficial, candy-coated touristy adjective, but Kyrgyzstan is in very many ways, adorable. This adorable-ness began on the plane to Bishkek.
This picture is blurry and does not really capture the moment... but... I witnessed two tiny Kyrgyz children fall in love with each other. I sat on the plane next to a young mother with a daughter about a year and a half old, and in front of me sat a little boy, about two years old. The mother and daughter grew up in Moscow and spoke mainly Russian (well, the little girl couldn't really speak yet) and the little boy understood pretty much just Kyrgyz. The boy would walk up to the little girl, smile and giggle... the little girl would be shy and hide her face and then smile and giggle as well. They were clearly infatuated with each other. Then the boy offered her a cookie. All in baby-talk Kyrgyz.

Our general plans and marshrut were very laid-back and low key. We spent three days in Bishkek, then three days in Osh (on a half-hour, forty-dollar flight on the infamous Kyrgyz Airlines) then the final day in Bishkek.

Oh wait...sorry... This is Kyrgyzstan:

Bishkek, in the north, is the capital. Osh is toward the south, right on the border with Uzbekistan. The whole puzzle-looking region where Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan come together in an awkward swirl is called the Fergana Valley. This region has been a hot commodity since the Silk Road days, and as you can imagine, the boundaries of where the Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tajiks live have not exactly been clean and consistent.
Two years ago, there were riots in Osh as part of the revolution to overthrow the Bakiev government. This is not to be confused with the Tulip Revolution, where President Akayev was overthrown.
The Kyrgyz tend to kick out who they don't like rather quickly.
In Osh, we passed be some buildings that were completely burnt out from the inside, with bullet holes and clear remnants from the 2010 riots.

Now... back to why Kyrgyzstan is "adorable":
EVERYONE in Kyrgyzstan wears beautiful fur hats of various designs and colors. EVERYONE. Not just for special occasions, not just as part of traditional wear... no, everyday wear consists of an elaborate fur hat and a coat to match.
This includes Kyrgyz children. Every round-faced Kyrgyz child was bundled up from head to toe in puffy winter clothes and of course, a beautiful furry hat. Even Joseph Campbell couldn't resist to point out "Adorable furry little kids!!!" I kind of wanted to take one home with me.
On the other end of the hat spectrum was..... what we like to call... Epic Hat Man.

Epic Hat Man earned his hat. He didn't just go and buy it. We figured he was a tribal elder or something, or at least had some kind of status. He sat on the flight from Osh to Bishkek, and the entire time did not take off his enormous hat. The top was a black velvet-like Islamic cap, and underneath it about a foot length of some kind of fur, with longer hairs sticking out around it in all directions. Some people take off their hats on the plane, but he did not. He actually didn't budge. His body and facial expression matched his hat.
Unfortunately, there was no way we could take a picture without being unforgivably awkward. I did manage to touch it, though. I pretended to have to go to the bathroom and lose my balance due to turbulance, and "accidentally" touch his hat.
When we arrived in Bishkek, we went to get our baggage.. but Epic Hat Man did not have any baggage. We figured, he put whatever he brought with him in his hat. He then walks alone toward a mysterious door in the back, opens it, changes his mind, walks back, and then decides to weigh himself. He weighs 110 kilograms. I image 10 might be from the hat... but he was actually quite large (although not as large as the Chechen on the table from the week before).

Kyrgyz people, in general, are very beautiful and very elegant. They are clearly Asian looking, except much bigger and taller.

That was another thing that charmed us about Kyrgyzstan... the people, and their general attitude...comparatively much more laid-back.We stayed in hostels run by people about our age, who were very laid back and trusting when it came to payment, documents, times, whatever. People tended to just go with the flow. There was one time where we were asked for our documents by a police in a bazaar in Bishkek,  but it seemed as if he was just bored and though "OOOHHH COOL! FOREIGNERS! I wanna look at their passports!"

Bazaars. Yes. Yet another great thing about Kyrgyzstan. Everything is so CHEAP. Granted, there is generally much lower infrastructure and as a destination it is not for you if you always expect Western comfort... but everything from accommodation to food to souvenirs is very inexpensive. The Kyrgyz som is worth less than a ruble (a Russian ruble is about 30 or 31 to a dollar, the Kyrgyz som is 46 to a dollar). The hostel cost 250 som per night, a good meal costs 80 som, a taxi ride to the airport costs 400 som, and a beautiful dress I bought cost 500 som. You do the math.
In the bazaars, you may barter (in fact, you are expected to). Joseph is much more relentless than I am. I often think "oh, it's so cheap anyway, and they need the money, so I won't argue", while Joseph would say "No, 200 som for that hat is too expensive, I will buy it for 120 and no more!"
I bought four Kyrgyz hats. Joseph bought fourteen.

One problem we had: language. In Bishkek it was not so much of a problem because everyone there spoke Russian pretty well. I could translate for Joseph and/or do most of the talking, but he understands a great deal of Russian (in addition to Chinese and Japanese and every East Asian language he knows). In Osh, however, a lot of people didn't speak Russian very well, or spoke with an unintelligible accent.
In the hostel in Osh, we shared a room with a Japanese backpacker named Ska (and yes, she does like that kind of music). She was 27 years old and was working toward a PhD in Central Asian studies. She spoke decent Russian, and she had just come by herself from Uzbekistan. She did not speak English very well, so we kind of had a three-way language situation: Joseph and I spoke English to each other, Joseph and Ska spoke Japanese, and Ska and I spoke Russian.
Eventually Russian became our main language. Joseph could manage enough of it.
From Bishkek, we took a marshrutka to Sukuluk and Alexandrovka, a nearby city that Joseph wanted to visit, because of the local Chinese Muslim (Dungan) population. Surely enough, we found some people that spoke Chinese, and Joseph impressed them as an American is Kyrgyzstan who spoke not just Mandarin but their own dialect.

The only negative part of this whole trip were the roads in Osh. I didn't want to check any baggage from Bishkek, so I just brought a backpack and could not bring any extra shoes. Unfortunately, I chose leather boots with heels. The roads in Osh are the most God-awful terrain you can imagine... uneven, muddy, and slushy. I ended up buying a cheap pair of boots just to use for the days there, and they broke after one day.

I didn't plan it this way... but the whole month trip turned out to be a tour of Post-Soviet Islam. From the North Caucasus to Central Asia to Tatarstan (that will be Part III), I certainly noticed a lot of difference in how religion is practiced in the different regions. In Kyrgyzstan, Osh was definitely the more religious and conservative of the two cities we saw. We spent one morning climbing Solomon's Mountain, a small mountain in the center of the city right behind the main mosque. Inside the mountain there was a museum of traditional clothing and jewelry, and then we climbed upward to the summit. It was actually difficult, because everything was so icy and slippery. Many of the locals believe that the Prophet Muhammad had once prayed there (I didn't think that historically, Muhammad had ever made it as far east as Kyrgyzstan...? Even so, this place has obvious significance). On the top, we wanted to have our picture taken, but the only other person was a peaceful looking Uzbek man walking around and praying, and we decided not to disturb him.
Most people did not eat pork, but they certainly drink alcohol. Joseph was poured a shot of vodka by a woman in hejab. I bought for myself and my Fulbright comrades a bottle of  "Kyrgyzstan Cognac"... a hard liquor from an Islamic country. I was only hesitant to try it because it was so cheap (about 3 US Dollars... usually you don't want to mess with alcohol that cheap) but when we tried it, it was actually kind of good... strong, but with an aftertaste of cinnamon.

Joseph and I ended up having a great time, although I left a day before he did and was coming down with a cold on my flight to Moscow. The next day, he set off for Uzbekistan. I can't wait to hear about his adventures in Tashkent and Khiva... jealous.
Back in Russia, I am certainly missing the chaikhanas (tea houses) of Osh, where you can get a full breakfast for about a dollar.

Kyrgyzstan is certainly the most "exotic" and non-Western place I have been to. To really appreciate the time there, you have to have the right mentality, and not expect high infrastructure and not let Soviet legacies faze you. I think I have long since gotten to that point. It may be difficult to see everything and get to every place you want to go, but since we were in for a low-key week of going with the flow (but still in for adventure), it was definitely an Epic Win. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The North Caucasus (Epic Travel Blog Part One)

As the legend goes, in ancient times, before the Nart heroes dwelled in Greater Circassia, there stood one giant mountain named Otshelnik. One day, the Devil decided to pay him a visit, and Otshelnik became worried and asked God to help him. Together, they did something very painful to the Devil's nose, and he was so tortured that he tore his own bones out and threw them from (what eventually became) Anapa to Baku. And so became the Caucasus Mountains.

Fast forward to 2012, and the place is still a painful mess.

So, what was I doing here?

A long story short... three years ago, an English teacher named Madina from Adyghe State University came to Oberlin to give a presentation about her home, Adyghe Republic... basically explaining, that even though it's in the North Caucasus, it is completely safe... and beautiful. Two years ago, when I was studying abroad in Moscow, I decided to visit. Madina and her family showed me hospitality I would never forget, and her students became lasting friends.
...And from then on, Lezginka music has blasted relentlessly out of my iPod, laptop, car windows, etc...and I became increasingly fascinated with the region.
Good thing, because considering that I double-majored in Russian/East European Studies and Politics, focusing on the Post-Soviet era, my undergraduate life sometimes played out like a game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, except only with 3 degrees, and Kevin Bacon is Dzhokhar Dudayev.

The friends I had made at Adyghe State University were in my same graduating class and had now become English teachers (with the exception of Ruzana, a Kabardian Bollywood enthusiast who now works as a chef in a Korean restaurant), making us colleagues. So of course, I went to visit for New Years!

The adventure begins actually on the train from Chelyabinsk to Krasnodar, a two-and-a-half day trip that I shared with an Armenian jokester and a religious Babushka. The Babushka read her Bible every night before going to sleep and would complain about how today's youth is losing their Orthodox faith. Goga, the Armenian, got the phone number of every girl on that wagon (he's happily married) and consumed nothing but beer and copious cigarettes. By the end of the trip we were all as good as friends. The running joke was the story (repeated 100 times) by Goga about how my friend was going to take me up to the mountains, where I would be bridenapped like Kavkazskaya Plennitsa (Prisoner of the Caucasus.... there are two movies with this title, both worth watching).

I arrived in Krasnodar and stayed for a few nights with my friend Igor, who also went to Adyghe State and is now a professional weightlifter. On the third night in Krasnodar, another Fulbrighter, Alex, joined me on the trip. (We had met at the October orientation, where he expressed interest in going to the Caucasus and I invited him along). Two others were going to join us, but didn't for various reasons.

We took the bus the next morning to Maykop, the capital of Adyghe Republic. The bus ride isn't very interesting, but it was quite nostalgic. Upon arrival to Maykop, we settled into the daily-rental apartment. That night, we met up with a local friend named Idris "Eddie" Khwazhev.
Eddie is Adyghe, 23, born in Syria, grew up and went to school in New Jersey, and now lives in Adygeya and owns a car wash. He is an unforgettable character.... he has a habit of speaking in a succession of contradictory sentences, his best friend is a gay Chechen rapper named Maga, he has apparently lived in five different countries and out of the blue wants to move to China, he has friends who live in Nalchik (Kabardino-Balkaria) from Ohio. He also says he hates Kabardians for no apparent reason.
His Russian isn't very good, he speaks English and Arabic and Adyghe... including Adyghe swear words, which are apparently strongly offensive.
That night, we went to Idris/Eddie's house for kalyan, and his Adyghe/Syrian roommate drove us all back late at night (Everyone knows that I love Adygeya and would never speak bad about anyone there... but to be completely honest, I HAVE NEVER SEEN WORSE DRIVERS IN MY LIFE. If there is a mountain and ice on the road, the logical thing to do is drive slowly. Why do Adyghe drivers feel that these are the best conditions to race each other on the road??) This car ride also stopped spontaneously to blast the music louder and dance Lezginka on the street.
The next day, Alex and I get lost in an aul near Xadzhox Gorge, eat bananas on a random hill, and get driven around by the apartment owner's hyper-caffeinated friend.

The day after that was New Years Eve. We all reunited first in Ruzana's cafe, then went to celebrate at Ruzana's apartment with an elaborate feast, champagne, and Azamat Bishtov (very famous/overplayed Adyghe singer). Outside, 2012 was met with a magnificent fireworks displayed (people like to set fireworks randomly in the streets, even in the daytime, which Alex originally thought were North Caucasus-terrorist bomb explosions).

The New Years Eve Soundtrack:

New Years Day 2012 was spent wandering around town with Idris, with random Lezginka on the street (regardless of whether we were allowed to use the stage on the main square), annoying the grocery store owner, and other sorts of mischief. That day it was 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the next day was a snowstorm. Because of the snowstorm, Katya' (another Adyghe State friend)s friend could not drive us to Lagonaki, so we went to Gwamka instead.
Gwamka is a river/gorge in between mountains in the south of Adygeya/Krasnodar. After the snow the scenery was especially breathtaking, I will post pictures later.

For some reason, the Caucasus Mountains always have techno music blasting somewhere at random. Following this trip was another epic car ride down the mountain, through a village that happened to be called Grozny (which prompted an unfairly terrifying text message to my parents) and over to Katya's house for more hospitality, and rather stimulated Russian political discussion.

The next day, Alex and I set off on the bus to Pyatigorsk. This bus ride was surprisingly uninteresting, the route entirely skipped over the republic of Karachai-Cherkessia.
We were originally going to rent another daily apartment in Pyatigorsk, but when I called the xozyaika, she said that the current occupants had decided to stay longer and it wouldn't be available.
In the end, after a series of messy phone calls, we ended up forking over the 1600 rubles a night to stay at a tourist hotel. It was actually quite a nice hotel, we got our money's worth.

Pyatigorsk was a surprising gem of a city. I had not known much about it before. Located in the south of Stavropol Krai, Pyatigorsk is the (politically safe) center to stay for those who plan to visit Karachai or Kabarda. Unlike the bizarre nearby city of Mineralnye Vody (literally, Mineral Water... although from the looks of it, it is the last place I would want to drink the water from), Pyatigorsk is gorgeous, with both scenery and architecture. The city has a curious mix of European, South European/Mediterranean, Caucasian, and Russian style. It is full of beautiful views and mountainside Orthodox churches.... the name "Pyatigorsk" literally means "Five Mountains"... I am not really sure which five they were referring to when they named the city. There are two very big mountains and then a lot of smaller ones.
That evening, I climbed Mount Moshuk while Alex went back to the bus station in futile attempt to retrieve his new boots which he left on the bus. They ended up in Nalchik.
I definitely took the hardest path up the mountain. At the top was a beautiful view of the sunset over the city, but I had then realized that it was soon going to be dark and I sort of forgot where the path I came up started.  On the way down I wiped out several times because of the dangerous mistake of thinking that under a pile of leaves is just solid ground and not a slippery rock. I still have one of my bruises, almost a month later.

The next morning we left for an excursion to Chegem Waterfalls in Kabardino-Balkaria. (Kabardino-Balkaria is another North Caucasian ethnic republic.... there are seven republics in the North Caucasus, from West to East...Adygeya, Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Dagestan).  That bus ride was also interesting, because
a) We passed what I decided was The Sketchiest Car Ever. A beat-up white Lada with opaque blacked out windows, with barbed wire across the back windshield, and a Chechen license plate (Region 95).
b) We also passed through a closed village... meaning, normal cars (our tour bus had privileges) can not enter it. It is the only village where Kabardins and Balkars live together. (Kabardino-Balkaria is a Republic named for the Kabardin people, who are related to the Adyghe, and the Balkar people, who are Turkic and just the same as Karachai.... and they hate each other. Nice job, Stalin.) The entrance to such towns is guarded by militisya-i-mean-politsiya, who look heavily armed but heavily bored.

Chegem's waterfalls were frozen solid, and absolutely gorgeous. The whole excursion seemed very touristy, like we were almost hand-held by the guide-Babushka, as to protect us from the truly Wild Caucasus... but then again, we probably couldn't have made it that far without the tour bus anyways.
As part of the tour we ate traditional Shashlik at a restaurant (this is real shashlik, not the gross meat you get on street corners in other cities) Alex at this time was worried about returning to the bus on time, but I was distracted.... they were playing Chechen music (calm down, we were still just in Kabardino-Balkaria, nowhere near Chechnya), not just playing it, BLASTING it.

The Chechens are in general a very attractive, well-built people.... with two notable exceptions. One of them was dancing lezginka on a table near us in the shashlik restaurant. This 400-pound Chechen actually had impressive dance moves for his size, but he apparently has had one too many glasses of wine (or something) or about 100 too many shashliki.
I didn't make it back onto the bus before a loud group of Kabardians blasted more Circassian music from their car and broke out into another spontaneous Lezginka, which I was promptly invited to join.
Incidentally, the next day, we ate at a Chechen restaurant (in Pyatigorsk) called Cafe Bezam. I knew immediately it was Chechen, because bezam means "love", and is a required word in any of Makka Sagaipova's songs. And now I know what nourishes the people of the mountains during hard times... Fried lamb fat soaked in butter... and some other thing that looked like pel'meni except much heavier.

Finally, the day after that... the Queen of Mountains, the highest mountain of all Europe (yes, pretty much pwning Mount Blanc).... Mount Elbrus.
First of all, there is a clear view of Mt. Elbrus all the way from Pyatigorsk. If you look at a map, Pyatigorsk is pretty far away, and Mt. Elbrus is almost on the border with Georgia. You can see the part of the Main Caucasus Range that is close to Pyatigorsk, then a wide space, and the Mt. Elbrus standing alone. It's that big.

On the way, we passed through another bizarre closed city called Tyrnyauz. It used to be a prosperous city due to some mineral mining, but after the mineral was depleted, half of the people deserted the city making it look like a complete ghost town, and the other half lives in multicolored high-rise buildings on Elbrus Avenue.

Mount Elbrus is... tall. It is an epic giant. Even so, you cannot see very far from the top as you would think, because the other mountains around it are also giants...all around 5000 meters. Yes, we actually went to the top. Not climbing, obviously, but on a very terrifying, sketchy, Soviet chairlift. It was seriously just a wooden plank hanging from a pole by a chain with one thin rope to guard your life. It's basically just that wooden plank between you and oblivion...the tortured Devil's bones.
Surprisingly enough, I never felt any of the high-altitude weirdness about which the tour-guide-Babushkas warned us constantly.
A Balkar Babushka on the ground also coaxed us into paying 250 rubles for a pair of sunglasses "because the glare of the sun on the snow will make your eyes bleed."
Also impressive were the skiiers we saw down the mighty Mountain's treacherous slopes... although we did see someone wipe out quite dramatically.

Anyways, the rest of this trip cannot be described in words, only pictures... which will come soon, really.

The next day Alex flew back to Petersburg (out of the bizarre Mineral Water City Airport) and I went by bus back to Adygeya and stayed in the same low-budget hotel I stayed in on my first visit two years ago (hello nostalgia!) It had been impressively remodeled, however.
I decided to go back to Xadzhox during the following day, now that I knew my way around. I had not planned on climbing another mountain, but spontaneously decided to, even though I was wearing heels. I got kind of lost, but didn't care. Nobody was around, so I didn't need to resist the temptation to sing Tamara Nekhai songs at the top of my lungs and pretend I was in an Adyghe music video.
My high-heel boots were in pretty rough shape by the end of the day.
At the base of the mountain, there was a small grocery store where I bought some bread, and then I stopped by a stand to buy some honey for the bread from the Babushkas. These Babushkas also insisted I taste some of their wine... so one Babushka gave me about a shotglass worth of wine, which was quite delicious... then another Babushka gave me a similar glass of the kind of wine she was selling and asked me compare the two. I preferred the second, but then a third Babushka said "If you like that one, then you will like mine EVEN BETTER!" By the time I left, the three Adyghe Babushkas had taken enough turns giving me tastes of their wines that I may have felt slightly tipsy. I would have bought at least one, but I didn't bring enough money with me.

My last night in the Caucasus was very.... Caucasian. I had decided to meet my friend Nafset for dinner (she was sick during New Years so I didn't see much of her). She took me, of course, to an Adyghe restaurant, called Ta Tyi which I think means "our home." She ordered me schips, a dish of soup with a soft bread in it. She then called Idris and another friend of hers named Aidamir to join us.
Aidamir insisted on buying us all cake, then insisted that we all go to another restaurant with live music located just outside of town. Thankfully, Nafset drove; I had my fill of Adyghe men and their driving abilities or lack thereof.
I had intended to just have a glass of wine or something as I was not hungry... but Adyghe hospitality will just not accept this. Aidamir bought us all salads, more shashlik, and vodka.
I blame him for my hangover the next day... I normally know my drinking limits, but when someone makes toasts to "за адыгейский народ" and "за Северный Кавказ".... you can't refuse.
The "live music" was not so impressive, until they played lezginka music. Needless to say, Idris and I stole the floor =)

And so... there it was. The North Caucasus, and I, reunited again. The following day, I departed for Part Two of the Epic Travel Adventure: Kyrgyzstan. (This blog will come later).

Anyways... what is this place? With such a reputation that made my friends and family worry so much about my travels here, and with two conflicting images.... one of war and hopeless instability and imminent danger, the other, a fairy-tale land of handsome dzhigity who dance lezginka and cook shashlik and play on accordions riding on horseback through snow-capped mountains. It's hard to say... it can be one, it can be both, it's usually neither.
There's no denying the danger and lawlessness in some regions, or the fact that one should never consider traveling here alone and clueless of the surrounding culture and political situation. That said, the Caucasus is also a place of adventure, beauty, inspiration, and even romance.