Posts Tagged ‘culture shock’

1st semester: were told our grammar was "dirty." 2nd semester, were offered the "Clean Grammar" text.

In grammar class, we are learning about how using passive voice and impersonal expressions is a good thing. In the Russian language, you are supposed to put the blame on an invisible, mystical (neuter gendered) something. The Star Wars “Force,” if you will. (And no, it’s not God, for God is male in the Russian language).

For example: don’t say, “I’m cold,” but rather, “[Mystical neuter something] is cold to me.” Likewise, not “I didn’t finish my homework,” but “[Mystical neuter something] didn’t let it get done for me to finish the homework.”

(Get more facts–there’s no pun in that–about Russian grammar from a colleague in Yaroslavl on her blog. Otherwise, my life story (of sorts) is continued below.)

This was supposed to be the week that we got settled in to our firmed-up schedules and caught up on work. (But this assumption was wrong. More proof that when you “A S S (of) U (&) M E” in Russia, you just get it handed back to you.) (more…)


To properly describe my experience in the realm of the Russian “holiday season,” if such a concept actually exists as a period defined apart from the general conception of everyday life in this country, then I should go back to my Thanksgiving holiday here.

Walking out of a delightful evening of intercultural dialogue (conversation over wine with Russians) on the last Thursday of November, passing the central market, my cohorts and I noticed that within the past few hours, a gargantuan “Happy New Year’s” light-up sign with accompanying fir garlands had been hung on the face of the main shopping mall. That may have made my Thanksgiving more complete than the sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie had.

I don’t consider myself a total minion of the U.S. of Consumerism Culture that I left behind in order to spend the holidays abroad. But, I won’t lie, the probably coincidental Black Friday start of the Russian end-of-the-year shopping season with the Irkutsk central market’s sign-hanging and Christmas-tree construction really did touch my little heart, somewhere between my conviction that Christmas is the “Season for Giving” and my capacity to get an adrenaline rush when I see big red signs including the symbols “-” and “%.”

Thanks to the Soviet reconstruction of, well, everything, (more…)

I’ll blame my lack of posting on a few things. First, wrapping up finals season always comes with alternating bouts of productivity and extreme laziness, meaning that when I was working, I was burning the midnight oil, and when I wasn’t working, I really wasn’t. Second, Ryan got into Irkutsk two weeks ago, so between showing him Russia, making sure he knew where to go around the city and how to get there, and trying to keep him entertained, that’s occupied me, too. Finally, it’s Christmastime, which I’ve been preparing for with great anticipation (!). Check my next post for that.

But, having Ryan here to show around the streets of Irkutsk (he’s been clinging to my Irkutsk-Detroit analogy as an explanation for many of his discoveries) has been fun to one, see what I’ve learned since I got here almost four months ago equally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and two, to revisit and expand my knowledge about a few aspects of the life and culture I’ve been living.

Russian America. Our Buryatia trip hadn’t completely run down Midd’s budget for excursions for our Irkutsk group, so Elizabeth organized a van tour around Irkutsk two weeks ago after our classes. The theme of the tour was “Russian America and Irkutsk;” to give the appropriate history lesson (parts of which are from our Baikal studies learnings, parts from the tour). . . .


“. . . Thanksgiving, hooray! / We’re going to dinner / at Grandma’s today,” is the little stanza from Jack Prelutsky’s collection of Thanksgiving-related children’s poetry that I end up recalling every year about this time.

Obviously, I’m in Russia, and obviously, in Russia, American national holidays are not observed. So this year was a bit different. At the same time, I feel like the distance made me think about the whole “cultural exchange” idea in a different light, and out of that, I think I have a much deeper understanding of Thanksgiving, home, and similar luxuries.

The first and foremost discovery of Thanksgiving ’09 was how much the holiday is (and probably most holidays, cultural practices, etc., from which I’ve been isolated for the past months, are) based on tradition.

Here are the deviations from tradition, from unforgivable to perhaps pleasant, that helped me discover this.

1. We had school today. Rating of deviation from tradition: mostly unforgivable. I realized I’m now part of a probably small percentage of American citizens who have ever gone to school on Thanksgiving. Snaps for me, except not really.


This country seems to have a perhaps larger-than-average volume of it’s defining idioms, riddles, etc. (note: I base my “average” off of my knowledge of English, French, and Russian).

Accordingly, I’ve concluded that this volume comes from the country’s general quotability.

Accordingly, I’ve decided to share a few instances of the basis of my reasoning in this and future installments of what I’ll call “Quotable.” How have I only now been inspired?

“Quotability?” you ask. I reference the Oxford American Dictionary:

adjective. (of a person or remark) suitable for or worth quoting.

So there you have it. I believe Russia to be worth (perhaps not “suitable,” per se. . .) quoting. And it begins.

Literature class. Olga Vladimirovna supposes:
“If I don’t understand something about a Russian, then I am afraid of him.”
We nod our heads in grave agreement, seated before such prudence.


Day 4-5 (Tues.-Wed., Oct. 27-28): Out on the Mongolian steppe

Nomad hospitality. A mentally tumultuous hour after our arrival in Sansar, Bulgan Province, we were received into our first ger. Climbing out of the jeep with our stuff, the mother and daughter, having come out to greet us, helped us get our stuff inside the ger.

They showed us our seats and put out milk-tea (hot, water-diluted milk steeped in tea leaves with salt added) and the cookie bowl filled with little, thumb-sized fried bread biscuits; a milk product made by scraping the layer off the top of boiling milk and by letting it dry and cool into a white, crumbly, bendable sheet of almost creamy, almost tasteless, well, food; and a mass of a granola-like substance that was also a byproduct of boiled milk that was aged a different way (crunchy and mostly tasteless, if not sour).

We did the “well, here we are” sigh, awkwardly laughed with our hosts, and then remembered we had our phrase lists at hand, so we offered the greetings, “San ban uu” (“How are you?”) and the more traditional Mongolian “Ta saihan zusadzh ban uu?” (“Are you having a good winter?”). We did names, where we were from (Amerik), said we were students in Russia.

The mom went out, so we tried some more phrases on the daughter, probably about 12 years old. Figured out she went to school and liked her teachers. Also happened to have the vocabulary to say “I mom teacher,” which I’m fairly sure was understood. Next, the son came in. He showed us pictures of him at Mongolian-style wrestling matches and the medals he’d won. He also tried out some English on us, which was also neat.

But soon he left and we were left in the ger alone. Romany and I figured out that this family mostly matched the description of the family we should have stayed with the next day: the son “likes to wrestle;” the daughter studies, but in the wrong grade; and the mother, who we’d heard humming, “sings a song.”

Ger life. We exchanged our first excited impressions and identified different parts of the ger we had learned about in the seminar. Gers are built out of 4-12 hatched walls, six feet tall, which form a circle covered in layers of felt (1 or 2 depending on the season). The roof is made out of a shallow, cone-like structure with 86 wooden rods, all beautifully decorated in bright orange, blue, and green paints, coming out of a central wooden ring, which is probably 10-12 feet from the ground over the center of the ger. The top of the cone can be covered or uncovered with felt depending on the weather and how much smoke doesn’t make it through the chimney out of the oven, also located in the center of the ger and run on burning cow-dung. Interesting smell.

If the ger is a clock, the door is located at 6:00, which faces south. The right side (12:00 – 6:00) is the female-household-related side, containing cabinets with kitchen items, food, and linens, and the left side (6:00-12:00), the male-important-things side, where the family saddle, valued items, and guests are located. 12:00 is where the man of the house sits, his family on his left, the guests on his right, and the table between him and the central oven. As a man, I held higher status than Romany for our trip, meaning I had to go in the door first and sit closer to the 12:00 position than she, and I noted I was always served first, be it a meal, tea, or a horse. Beds (wooden benches about 3 feet by 6 feet with maybe a thin pad topped with an oriental rug) are lined up at 12:00, 3:00, and 6:00. At 1:00 is the sacred area, where a Buddha statue, prayer wheel, picture of the Dalai Lama, candles, and other religious items are housed in a glass case.

The gers are brightly colored: the walls are draped with oriental rugs, tapestries, silk, or other material; the wooden parts of the ger (structure, doors, cabinets) are carefully painted; even the linoleum patterns were usually more exciting than a fake tile or stained wood look.

Their functionality is efficient, which is appropriate, given the nature of life involving a transfer of location every 4-6 months: the beds are also sofas, kitchen surfaces, and dining furniture, during the day; the cabinets hold the covers for the night during the day, and alternately the kitchenware and food during the night; the fire, which is sacred, in the oven heats the house and is used for cooking; bowls are basically the only dishware, with the exception of the random silverware or coffee mugs that the host families have accrued for foreigner-use, which, actually, when offered, was a really nice gesture.

So after sitting for a while, taking in our first impressions of the new aspects of the daily life we’d be living on the trip, we didn’t know what to do. So we took a step outside to see where everyone had gone. We could hear the family in the ger a few yards away from the one we had been in, but decided not to intrude. After all, what could we say?

It was hot-ish back in the ger, so we stayed outside, enjoying the brisk wind and observed our surroundings in the Khogno Khaan Natural Reserve Area, as our guidebook told us. Two gers. A droll-looking camel tied to a string draped between two stakes in the ground (the standard method of keeping horses/camels tied up) about 30 yards off. Low mountains on all sides, but really far away, excepting the hills situated behind the dunes to the east. Oh, and the jeep.

And then in between: steppe.

The friendly nomad reappears. Our driver appeared out of the second ger and invited us back in the first ger. We figured out he wanted the money to get our tickets for us, though handing over the combined equivalent of $60 or so for transportation home (to Ulaan Baatar, that is), we still didn’t know how we’d get the tickets, seeing as somehow the cap lady had been reduced to “No,” and we still didn’t know if it was understood that we were on the four-day “Quest for the Last Emperor” itinerary, and at a different ger than we thought we’d be, and what, if any, implications that had for our ticketing needs. Regardless, the $60 were now in the jeep driving away with our friendly nomad.

The tour begins. We were served a huge plate of puzi (Buryatian “buzi,” Russian “pozi,” but in the end, the same food–boiled noodle-like shells filled with meat about half the size of a palm, though the Mongolian version is slightly smaller than the Buryatian variation we’d already tried in September), and it was made clear that we were supposed to eat them all. Fortunately, we were hungry, and they were really good.

Soon, the father pulled up on his sputtering little red motorcycle. After quick introductions and milk-tea, round 2, in the ger, he motioned for us to dress warm, pointed to the phrase in the phrase book meaning “Today is a nice day,” and made a motorcycle gesture.

Conclusion: Today was a nice day, but we needed to dress warm because we were going for a ride on the motorcycle.

I was fine with said conclusion, except I had paid for travel by ox cart to see and/or participate in an ovoo (sacred pile of stones, bones, wood, and silk scarves on top of a mountain) worship ceremony. Though I’m still not sure whether or not I totally got my money’s worth, since motorcycles are common in the rest of the world, whereas Mongolian religious practices are not, instead, Romany and I got a ride on the back of his sputtering little red motorcycle to the top of a hill where a monument stood (we still don’t know what it was, apart from a structure present outside of most Buddhist temples we’d seen–it wasn’t listed in the itinerary).

On the way back, about 25 km round trip (I know, sorry Mom, no helmets, but it wasn’t very fast–Irkutsk traffic probably ends up being more dangerous), we drove past an ovoo. Instead of having a worship ceremony, Mr. Otgonbayar just honked at it. No conclusion.

Warm evening, cold night, colder morning. Romany and I, despite the wooden beds, immediately fell into a deep sleep after returning home and napped until dinner time, just after sunset. We had fresh, homemade noodles in broth with meat. (Most of the meat we had on the trip was beef, though there was another one we think might have been goat.)

We sat and observed the nighttime business of changing the house over, the kids doing some of their homework, and interacting with their parents. I wrote in my journal for part of that, and, I think, remember writing “tender family moments.” But tender family moments they were indeed. Sensing our level of tiredness from a day of generally not knowing what was happening, culture shock to the extreme, they cleared off the beds, added pillows (rather hard, probably full of camel-hair), and let us make our sleeping bags to go to bed.

It was a tough night of sleep since 1) the beds were very hard, 2) the lights stayed on for a while, 3) about an hour after we’d laid down, 5 people came over to talk and have tea, and 4) the fire went out about two-thirds of the way through the night, and there were no matches left. When we finally got out of our beds, frozen to the bone, the family included, I was wearing all the clothes I had brought (minus the extra t-shirt and pair of boxers) and still cold. Romany and I went outside to see if that would be warmer doing jumping jacks:

[Video coming soon.]

It was only partially helpful. Luckily, the daughter had run to the store for matches. Pause. Literally, ran. By foot. Like 2 km each way. Baller. Too bad all we could say was “Thanks” (“Bayarlaa” for those of you working on your Mongolian). So we were happily thawed in front of the oven, sipping milk-tea (suutei tsai) and having a breakfast of larger cookie-biscuits (boortsog) within the hour.

On the move. Sensing we were due for a move, like true nomads, we packed our bags, and were ready to go when they led us outside where four horses had appeared that morning. The father and the son took our large packs on their horses, and we mounted ours.

Now, at the orientation, the agency rep had told us that we needed to tell the family if we weren’t experienced on the horse, and that we needed to have a little practice time. So we used the phrases “I ride a horse bad” and “I have never ridden a horse,” and the gesture of “one,” to indicate that we had each only ridden once. They laughed. And gave the thumbs up. And we were off, trotting across the step.

Basically, I had somehow not arranged my jeans in the correct fashion when I was getting on, because for the next forty or fifty minutes, with every bounce of the horse, well, I’ll say, “I hurt.” There. I’m fairly sure that the entire half hour I was grimacing as you’d see in a cartoon, which I think the prepubescent son, laughing (to my general displeasure), took for my being afraid of being on the horse or for the general pain of the behind against the hard wooden saddle.

We stopped for a bathroom break, and I was able to readjust, but the bulk of the damage had already been done, and the lower half of my body’s bone, muscle, joints, and tissues painfully bumped along for the rest of the 2-3 hours, on our way to ger number two.

Day 4 (Tues., Oct. 27): But. . . there was no lady with a cap. . .

I consider myself someone who’s ok just “going with it,” “easygoing” as it were.

But, when in a country, of which you don’t speak the language, when you find yourself half-stranded at a bus stop in a town of population of 100 (?), and the person described to you as “lady wearing a cap” with a name of a long stream of unfamiliar phonemes isn’t there, things change.

To rewind seven hours or so: Romany and I got up at 6, had breakfast, double checked that we had everything, checked out of the hostel, and walked out the door at 7:00 a.m. to our taxi waiting for us while crossing our fingers we’d be back safe and sound four days later. Our hostel hosts at the Golden Gobi (the best in UB–no joke) let the taxi driver know where we were headed, and sent us off.

A quick note on the Ger-to-Ger program, to clarify: we’re basically on our own until we get to the first family, who takes care of us, takes us to the second, who likewise gets us to the third. Tourists on their programs are supposed to meet the Ger-to-Ger rep (lady in the cap) at the on-location bus station who helps arrange a jeep to the first ger from the bus station, a jeep back to the bus station at the end of the tour, and who gets money from tourists to buy their bus tickets back to Ulaan Baatar. So step one: get to the bus to the village.

We had a map of how to get to the bus stop, albeit made out of poorly-constructed boxes and lines in Microsoft Word, meaning not terribly useful. However, good enough, so that when our taxi driver was getting ready to turn off the main road, I had enough of an intuition to make some general I-don’t-know-Mongolian-but-I-need-to-say-something noises (more of these to come) in the back seat, and withdraw our guidebook with a picture/name of the bus station (“Dragon bus station”) included.

“Ohh,” murmured the taxi driver, maneuvering the car into the other lane. We got there a few minutes later, about 50 minutes before our bus was scheduled to leave.

The bus station was a wide, dirt parking lot in front of a brick building with the label “Auto-Station” illuminated in red lights. It was still dark, but getting lighter. There were small stands of for-the-road goods and snacks. Families of urban-dressed folk were saying their happy goodbyes to those traditionally dressed, getting on the buses, and vise-versa. As with my general Mongolian/non-Russian Asian experience in general, the goodbyes involved more smiles than their Russian counterparts.

Needless to say, stepping out of the cab, Romany and I stood out with our tall, bright red and yellow backpacking packs and with our wide, half-eager, half-scared eyes, looking for the bus labeled Ovörkhangai-Arvaikheer. Irrelevant, but perhaps fun, fact: if we didn’t know Cyrillic, we might have thought we were looking for a bus that sounded like “Obepxahta-backwards-N-Apba-backwards-N-x33p.” We found the bus, handed over our tickets, and took our seats. Part one, done. Whew. Now for the watching for our stop. . . .

Now the lady at the travel agency told us that we should get off the bus at the first stop, at Sansar, which would be five hours after we left. So we stopped for gas, but that obviously wasn’t our stop.

Then we stopped so people could get off the bus and pee on the side of the road (80% of the bus participated), but that definitely wasn’t it.

After that, we stopped on the side of the road again, but it was only so that one guy with some lumber could get off, but since we figured it wasn’t a “‘stop’ stop,” and since even if it was, it looked far too uninhabited (i.e. the side of a country highway in Mongolia–mountains and wild animals the only objects in sight) for our taste, we didn’t want to get off anyways.

Finally we pulled into what looked like a little strip of 10 cafés and grocery shops in a “town.” Only problem: it had only been 4 hours. Since everyone else got off to use the real bathroom (meaning side of the road for men #1, or the outhouse a stone’s throw away for woman and other business), and since the bus driver said enthusiastic- and positive-sounding Mongolian things when we said “Sansar?” and pointed downwards, we figured, why not? Part two, bus ride, done. We think. Whew? Now to find the lady in the cap. . . .

As I’ve already ruined the surprise of that one, yes, no lady in the cap. Romany and I look at each other. Then turn our heads the other way. Assess surroundings. Small town. Then we look behind us. Road, two houses, Mongolian wilderness. Repeat the looking from side to side. Then we kind of take two and a half steps one direction, look the other way, make a quarter of a step to go that way, then kind of turn around to make sure the other one is still there. In the general sense, you can call this “not knowing what to do.”

I had to use the facilities, so I found a nice patch of side-of-the-road. Meanwhile, traditionally-dressed nomad approaches Romany back near the bus doing the “not knowing what to do” dance, albeit a slightly less concerned version of it than mine, and says to her “girtugir.” She figures it out: “Ger to Ger.” I return from the restroom. She updates me on the developments. Cool. But where’s the lady with the cap who we’re supposed to pay for our jeep and tickets back?

No big deal, we say to each other, not really believing it. The guy is showing us to his jeep, knew our agency’s name, but otherwise, really, has no other credentials. Speaking of the agency, my feelings about “Ger to Ger” at this point: LIARS!

So we’re driving down Mongolian highway x, the town gone by as quickly as it came up, thumbing through our 11 pages of Mongolian-English phrases (which, we would soon note, didn’t include rudimentary feelings of desperation like “Why?” “Who?” and “I don’t know”). Doing the “not knowing what to do” drill, sitting in our seats, Romany and I agree that I shall have the wherewithal to initiate communicative exchanges number one through three.

1. “You?” Point to the fuzzy picture. “Ee-cheen-hohr-lu?” (that was the name of cap lady). Friendly nomad replies with a mighty vicious shake of the head, as if “Oh no, no, definitely not.” Right. Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who relates in an affirmably negative way to Ms. Ichinhorloo, Absent Cap Lady, with whom our rendez-vous was planned. Hm. (Incidentally, gestures may have international cognates, but I beg to differ with whomever it was, who said that they mean or connote the same things across languages.)

2. Point to Romany and myself. “Ger?” Point to fuzzy picture of host father number one. “B-yam-bah-tog-oh?” (host father number one’s name). Friendly nomad replies with another shake of the head, but added in the hand motion of “cut it out,” as if “Nahh, not goin’ there.” Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who is in fact, not taking us to our first home stay. Panic level somehow still not activated.

2b. Friendly nomad points to picture of host father number two, Mr. Otgonbayar, and waves down the road. Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who is taking us to our second home stay. Slight relief. However the question arises: does he know that’s wrong/does that matter? Answer still unknown.

3. Look up word for “tickets.” Russian/French cognate, thank God. Look up word for “bus.” Again, score. “Bileti? Avtobus?” Point backwards. “Ulaan Baatar?” Friendly nomad replies with nod of the head, as if,”Oh yeah I gotcha,” then points to himself, and then does the “later, later,” wave of the hand. Conclusion: We’re in the car with man who will take our money later and who knows that we want to buy tickets to Ulaan Baatar, although unfortunately with whom, due to the Great Wall of Language Barrier, it will be impossible to arrange a rendez-vous in order to get these tickets.

If two years of a Russian major and two months in Irkutsk weren’t enough of a practice in dealing with contradictions and irony, I suppose I’d been put in the right situation. Regardless, I’ll spare relating the ensuing stream of consciousness because I don’t remember (or frankly, want to remember) how I managed to convince myself that, well, probably, we’d be, to some degree, at some point in time, “okay.” We had paid a tour agency after all, right?

Insert cliffhanger here.


Day 3 (Mon., Oct. 26): Dollarpower

Dundundundun, dundundundunDUNdun–Downtown. Multiple people had recommended going to the black market in Ulaan Baatar, despite the long walk there and the so-called best pickpockets in the world that hang out waiting for unknowing tourists. Stopping at the post office along the way to pick up postcards with the famous large Mongolian stamps depicting exotic animals (in this case, wild boars), we took our walk down Peace Avenue.

The part-industrial, part-high-rise/new-tech, part-overexcited-advertising aspects of the city more or less made me realize that this was my idea about what an East Asian city à la Beijing would be like, grandiose, snowy mountains looming to the south of the city and all. Granted, in UB, everything was on a slightly downsized level. The pollution wasn’t completely overbearing, glass skyscrapers and new apartment buildings didn’t soar quite as high as other places, the Olympic training center wasn’t a full-scale, made-for-2008 stadium, the face-masked population didn’t exert your typical big-city tension or unfriendliness.

On the note of random communication with strangers on the street, not only did people look at you (perhaps because you’re 1) not Asian and 2) not wearing a face-mask–just asking for the H1N1), but also, for the most part, people were willing and sometimes enthusiastic about helping with directions.

What’s more, to Romany’s and my surprise, Russian actually proved useful in real life. If we had to ask “English? Russki?” to a few people at a bus stop, we usually got about 1 in 4 or 5 who could help with whatever fractured or oftentimes almost-fluent knowledge of either language.

Black Market. After wandering around a few pretty sketchy alleys in the general area of where the market was supposed to be, I finally spotted the entrance. We stuffed our moneys into or socks and gloves, double-checked our pockets for any valuables, paid our 50-cent entrance fee, and went in.

About five people with handheld racks and trays of leather gloves assaulted us right after we got in, shouting their prices in whatever languages they knew. Luckily, gloves weren’t on the shopping list, so we breezed past obstacle number one with no loss of momentum. Then a kind young gentleman dressed in black coming in our direction said rather clearly, “F— you,” while looking me in the eye. Romany and I turned to each other, continuing on, and laughed.

The complex is pretty huge. Two big, blue, plastic-looking, two-story airplane hangar type structures housed the food markets, and the multi-acre property surrounding was home to rows upon rows of leather boots, gloves, wallets; (fake-brand) clothing, jackets, camel-hair socks, purses, luggage; housing goods; Buddhist religious items; antique-looking and Soviet-era items; and more. All for dirt cheap.

We realized we hadn’t brought enough money to satisfy our bargain-getting-value out of Mongolia, namely, from the UB Black Market, but assessed our options as we browsed for an hour or so. My final decisions included: a $25 heavy, Russian-looking, winter jacket with the label “Jack Jones” spelled “Jack Jcnes” (clever, right?), a handful of pins and medals depicting Stalin, Sputnik, the Red Star, and life in the USSR for about 5 bucks, and a pair of (authentic?) camel-hair socks.

Ger-to-Ger. Thinking that the Ger-to-Ger (travel agency) office closed at 2, we speed-walked the 4-5 km back to the center only to find that the office was open until 6. Ger-to-Ger is an eco-tourism project founded within the last decade that lets travelers go from ger (“yurt,” the moveable living structures of Mongolian nomads) to ger, living in “cultural homestays” with the agency’s partner families. The families feed you, give you a bed in their home (ger/yurt), and then take you to the next family via horse, camel, or ox cart. 80% of the company’s revenue goes directly to the families, and since you’re living and traveling with families, the idea is that your Mongolian wilderness expedition will involve minimal ecological damage.

After a chat with the lady working there, we decided on our tour: 4 days, 3 nights on the “Quest for the Last Emperor” trip in the national park 5-hours west of UB. We’d see sand dunes, Swan Lake, a few cultural and religious monuments, and get to travel by all 3 horse, camel, and ox cart. Since we liked the price, and since the only 4-day period before our train on Friday night began the next morning, meaning we had to complete the travel/cultural/language orientation class that afternoon, we ran to the ATM to get our cash our to pay.

Getting back just in time for the class, we sat down with two Australians doing a 4-day, 4-night trip where they’d participate in the nomads’ preparations to move to their winter settlement, and the agency lady led the 2-hour orientation. She explained the day-by-day schedule and logistics, the safety issues, plus the cool new cultural things that we’d have to navigate the next few days including not using your left hand, accepting a tobacco snuff bottle, playing a type of board/dice game with sheep ankle bones, asking for boiled water in Mongolian, only speaking Mongolian, riding animals, and so on.

Basically, we were pretty excited.

Getting ready. Since we had to be out the hostel door at 7:00 the next morning, we needed food and our stuff. We ran across the street to the oh-so-conveniently located State Department Store, grocery store included, to pick up some fresh fruit, cheese and crackers, and peanuts and raisins for trail mix. Coming back to the hostel to pack our food and the bare necessities for the trip, the hostel offered to hold our extra stuff for a few bucks until we got back, which was great.

Everything in order, we sat down to a humble meal at the hostel of cup noodles and snacks we’d found in our food bags from Irkutsk, but then ended the night with a luxurious chaepitie (tea-drinking) with ginger cookies, orange slices, and a chocolate bar.

Speaking English in Russia is weird. I don’t do it often, namely, talking on the phone or Skype with people back home, and writing emails/blog updates. But being in the whole “immersion” experience for so long, when asked/required to switch to English, you’re really pushed off balance. A few places to watch out for. . .

In the taxi. For one, the accent of Russians speaking English sounds just as Russian as Russian itself, since the r’s are still rolled, the th’s are zz’ed, half the consonants are still not aspirated (to make an un-aspirated “k” sound, for instance, say “ka” with your hand in front of your mouth without feeling air come out until the a sounds, while still distinguishing it from “ga”), and any instance of the often nasal American ah (eh?) is replaced with the general ahhh. So the transition from one language to the next is underhanded, even.

This happened in the taxi on the way to the club last week, when the taxi driver randomly busted out the translation of “the highest story of a building” (attic. . . didn’t figure it out til I had my dictionary back at home) in the middle of the conversation of the people I was with. As a result, the different variations on approval/praise in English and in Russian got all mixed up–“molodets”/”good boy” only works in one language, and the general “alright!” also doesn’t translate completely exactly–, and I half regurgitated up a bluhrb of rtbrefaapeiuv.

So now there’s one more taxi driver in Irkutsk who not only thinks I don’t speak Russian, but any language at all. And of course, it’s the taxi driver with an all-for-naught degree in linguistics. Taksist-lingvist (tak-SEEST-leenk-VEEST), as it were.

On the phone. My Russian friend Nelli has also taken to randomly switching to English on the phone sometimes. Sometimes in mid-sentence. She speaks well, don’t get me wrong. Although when it comes to say goodbye, which is often expressed with “davai,” also the word used to express “let’s [go],” “get going,” etc., I ended up mixing that with the general word for goodbye, poka (pahKAH), into an ever-so-eloquent “let’s poka,” which sounded like an invitation to commence Hungarian step-dance. . . or something. . . .

On tours. At mealtimes. On my trip to observe the student presentations at the IGU Lycee (the high school attached to my university), my hostess/English teacher insisted only on English, which was fine, v printsipe (another Russian expression, “in principle” that sounds too bookish in English, but is sometimes as common as the English “well. . .” or “like”). However, as she was telling me about the school, their classes, and so on, I felt linguistically naked (there’s an expression for ya. . .) without the Russian “ponyatno” and “yasno” (lit. “understood,” “clear”), and “okay” seemed too indifferent, and my slurred “arright” too not-understood, and pronouncing “all righT” in a near British accent was too awkward. So, again I went with a lot of mixed-up half expressions in each language. When she got me tea and cookies, again, the vocabulary used while accepting food in Russia doesn’t translate that nicely to English.

In Great Britamerussia. Today, I made my third trip to the Waldorf School of Irkutsk, where I observed a 40-minute English class with a young teacher who also happens to be the chairperson of the Great Baikal Trail organization, one of the meetings of which I went to a month or so ago. Their first activity was reciting the tongue-twister, immediately giving away the fact that British English was the language of instruction, “Make my milk merrily more mild.” Except I’m not coming up with a red-underline (that means spelling mistake, Grandma) when I type “milder.” But since the point of the tongue-twister was to squeeze in as many M’s as possible, and not learning superlatives, I let it slide. The rest of the class was interesting and error free–impressive, as the teacher hadn’t ever been to a English-speaking country.

In your head. In class. So although the cultural significance of language creates a lot of the complications–minor ones, at most–that I’ve encountered with speaking English in Russian, the bigger problems tend to crop up in classes trying to express more complicated ideas through Russian grammar, and oftentimes half-Slavic, half-Latin based vocabulary. During my one-on-one lesson with my Econ prof on Monday, I was again reminded, for instance, that being asked to define or give formulas for “ekonomicheskaya effektivnost'” (economic efficacy, go figure) or other terms perhaps in Russian, but abbreviated with Latin letters from the English term, all isn’t as easy as it seems. Which, I suppose, all goes to show the importance of the whole immersion idea. So snaps for Middlebury. Go brand and market that stuff.

Of course, all of this including the exceptions of trying to help out students, friends, and taxi drivers learn your own language.

Later this week: a show at the Irkutsk Drama Academy Theatre and packing for 10 days in/in-transit-to Mongolia.

Admittedly, I felt the down-points of the “culture shock” wave more than I expected–the frustration of little inconveniences, getting on wrong busses, the language barrier, missing home and Middlebury–, but, I’m still reeling on how great of a week this turned out to be.

Baikal adventure no. 1
Last Saturday, the Midd group, along with our coordinator and four of her friends from GBT (more on that below) met at the Irkutsk dock on the Angara river in the strangely suburbia-looking Solnechni district. After an hour-long boat ride along the Angara to Lake Baikal, with a stop in town of Listviyanka (the Baikal destination for the Russian nouveaux riches), we found ourselves in the isolated village of Bolshie Koty, named after the wooden shoes made in the town for miners on Baikal.

We filled the rest of the day with an easy hike to the top of a small mountain on one side of the village, a chilly plunge into Baikal (40 deg. F), cooking and eating a chicken stew for dinner, our first Russian sauna (banya) complete with veniki (dried birch branches soaked in water that you beat on each other), all wrapped up with tea and word games (all the more fun in Russian…) into the night.

koty hiking baikal1

In contrast to city life in Irkutsk, the peacefulness of the lake struck both the first timers and the natives. The first night, Patrick and I took a walk down to the lake, which by that time had become noisy with the waves from far-off winds crashing into the rocky shore. Apart from the few bright, white street lights in Koty, all you could see was the layers of pure black across the lake.

The next morning, we set off on a 20 km hike back to Listviyanka along the shore trail, and then through the mountains. The weekend reflection time was much appreciated, as was the social time with actually Russian (!) friends (Zhanna, Zhenya, Katya, and Ulyana), especially as us three Americans had been practically quarantined in the same classroom all week, leaving little time to venture out socially.

We had lunch on the shore, sipped out of the world’s largest natural drinkable water source and proceeded to walk through a 30-minute, slightly unnerving storm, traipsing along the cliffs above the lake with our packs. Then we got a little bit lost, but then found. Coming down off the mountain, we had an hour to spare in Listviyanka before the last bus to Irkutsk left.

While wandering around the market and getting pushed around by the small and unexpectedly solid, sturdy babushkas (lit. grandma’s, but really, any elderly and, consequently, very respected woman in Russia), the scent of fresh-caught and cooked omul’ (a fish indigenous to Baikal known for its strong fishy smell) lured Romany and I to split one. A well-spent 50 rubles to end a well-spent day.

boots P1013804_2 P1013810_2

Time to play, finally
Now getting into the swing of what is admittedly a comparatively low-stress academic “regime” at the IGU Mezhfak, we’re able to focus more of our efforts on getting to know people. Tuesday night, we three Americans met up with three of the girls from the hike for a walk across the center and a night hanging out in one of Irkutsk’s many pizza cafes (imagine McDonald’s, minus the American food, plus Russian food, plus pizza, but leaving the all-ages clientele and kid’s playset in place).

Wednesday evening, Romany and I met our friend Nelli from Petersburg and her friend Katya in the center to play “Bolshoi (big) tennis” (to distinguish it from table tennis apparently) on Grand Boulevard Karl Marx. The grandiose verbiage slightly misled me too: though I have yet to find too much more empirical evidence, this result seems typical of Russian labels for events and festivals in general. The courts, rackets, and balls were probably as old as Karly Marx himself, but it was still a good time, if not just a nominal workout.

Thursday, Romany and I again met to go to the GBT (Great Baikal Trail, BBT in Russian) meeting at the Natural Museum of Irkutsk. Elizabeth volunteers with the organization and had turned us on to it: the group organizes summer and winter projects to Baikal where international participants build trails that will eventually circumnavigate the lake’s shores. The goal of their efforts is to attract eco-minded tourism to experience the lake for all it’s natural magnificence, thereby increasing social initiative to preserve it.

After being welcomed in at the meeting as soon as I’d stepped foot in the door with a handshake, a seat, and tea and sweets, it was clear the group, consisting of young, energetic, and fun people, would be a great place to find some good volunteer, outdoorsy, and social opportunities, all in one. We’d planned on helping them clean up a trail just outside the city today, but they’d finished by the time we were getting ready to go this morning. Next time.

Last night, Nelli got together a group of the international students at our faculty to go see Final Destination 4 (all the better dubbed in Russian): her, her Russian friend Ira, Romany, me, an Italian named Fritz, and 8 Germans. Thirteen people total. To see one of the Final Destination series movies (the basic premise/plot: the “hero” sees how everyone is going to die, they die without fail, and every one is dead at the very bloody, Hamletesque end). That should have been our first signal.

The second signal should have been the fact that around 4:30, really strong winds (i.e. bus-overturning winds, as per the local news) and rain and then snow started, and continued all night. But, after obliging the (typically blasé) thriller-turned-comedy, the lively company distracted everyone from keeping an eye on the time.

Then we realized the busses were done (11 p.m.). Then the wait for a cab was more than an hour. Then half of the German delegation wanted to go a club. Then Nelli, our fearless (Russian) leader seemed like she was having a break-down. . . .

Eventually, after 15-20 minutes of walking up and down slush-covered, muddy, unlit, 11:30-at-night streets of Irkutsk in the wind and snow of the season’s first storm (with me dressed in my hood-less jacket and Sperry’s loafers), we found 3 cabs to get us home, and by midnight, were home safe and sound, though slightly moist and cold.

Lessons learned: Wear more clothes. Taxis, shared, are cheap. Autumn may in fact be a phenomenon unique to Vermont. This year will be great.