Posts Tagged ‘food’

Commemorative monument to Chita's founding in 1653 (other pictures at end of post).

If they made shirts that said “I <3 Chita,” I would buy one and wear it all the time.

‘NICE’ & ‘TRAIN’. Two words that up to now I hadn’t considered being utterable in the same sentence. Nevertheless. The train was nice (that is, from Ulan-Ude to Chita). Relatively speaking, of course.

Yes, the Russian men still smelled, and the beds were still 6 inches too short for my legs, which, hanging out into the aisle, no matter, people walked through as if they weren’t there at all. But, the windows were able to be opened, and the wagon was clearly not of Soviet production (a personal first). We took off from our UU hotel at 4 a.m. (in an 80 ruble taxi!), slept ’til midday, ate, and began to see the outskirts of Chita a few hours later, around 5 p.m. local time.

Coming in from the west on the south side of the Chita River, you see the city stretches along the north bank, as if back into time: (more…)

The somatic triggers of late-winter rain’s smell and the gymnastics of skipping over the slush-puddles of Prague got spring on my mind a few weeks ago.

The disappointing irony of the fact is that I’ve returned to the hard freeze of winter in Irkutsk. Night temps are comfortably below -30 deg. C. and not going anywhere.

By chance, my host mom, perhaps also suffering the same mid-winter lassitude as I, has been bringing home the taste of the tropics lately: hard-to-peel oranges and green bananas fill our evening table most nights now.

Ah, yes. Green bananas.

The back story: during the Soviet union, the central committee was hardly concerned with managing the import of bananas from good-willed buddy nation Cuba. As a rule, the Committee had bigger problems on their plate.

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Moskva. Bottom line: my feet hurt. Yes, great metro and bus system, but stepping out of every metro station and glancing around would hardly give a traveller the right idea of the city. Thus, walking can’t be done without, and so, walk I did.

Jan 1. And the decade begins. Streets quiet (except for the left-over fireworks and blank gunshots that continued until the day I left) and littered with empty bottles of Russian champagne ($2.99/bottle), Ryan and I got up early to get him to Sheremetyevo airport for his noon flight. Buying our train tickets to the airport just in time from the electric walk-up vendor (“3 minutes until next train”), only afterwards did the conductor decide to tell us that the first train wasn’t for another hour.

When I asked, “Because of the new year?” I noticed that it was a bit ominous to already be combining “new year” with “iz-za,” the participle used for negative reasons. No other bad omens have popped up since. (more…)

“. . . 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.

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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 2 (Sun., Oct. 25): 22 steps to a [pick-your-adjective] day in UB City

1. Know that UB City is the somewhat gangsta’ name for Ulaan Baator so that you can feel hip and cool in conversations about the capital of Mongolia. Facts: 1.5 million people of Mongolia’s 2.5 million population live in UB. UB is less polluted, but just as face-mask filled as Beijing. The face-masks of UB are, however, due to the threat of the H1N1 flu, which the government figures could wipe out a good 20-30% of the country’s population if it got to epidemic status in the capital.

2. Get your train times right to avoid rude, early-morning awakenings. Not really rude, just unexpected. Our train tickets from Russia said that arrival time was at 5:50 a.m. Which meant that you add the 5 hours to that, because all Russian train tickets are printed in Moscow time, to get 10:50 a.m., another morning of sleeping in, right? Wrong. Moscow-time rule only applies with arrival times to arrivals to Russian cities. Not confusing at all. So we got up at 4:50, the hour out of Ulaan Baatar, 30 minutes out of when they lock the bathrooms for the sanitary zone around the city. But we didn’t want the extra 5 hours of sleep anyways, did we. . . .

3. Find nice Mongolian lady from your hostel who will lead you past the mob of “taxi” drivers to the van she has arranged for you and included in the $6/night rate of the hostel.

4. While Mongolian lady leaves you at van to go advertise some more for her family’s hostel at the platform, try to learn first Mongolian phrases from van driver and reading random signs.

5. Learn quickly that Mongolian is an Asian (from the Altai group, related to both Korean and Finnish) language, printed in Cyrillic (thank you USSR influence), which means that you know absolutely nothing. Accept equally quickly that on a vacation from a year-long language-learning program, your motivation to start a new language = 0, and that you will probably leave with fewer than 20 phrases under your belt. Check.

6. Enjoy comfort of free bread-and-coffee breakfast in nice lounge room surrounded by fellow travelers, mostly from the U.K.

7. Enjoy the accents, mostly from the U.K.

8. After you gather your things for a day on the town, remember advice from Professor 1, Program Coordinator, Professors 2-4, and Babushkas 1-3, and avoid the possibly rabid dog standing directly outside hostel door.

9. Decide that the loud gun shots you heard just down the block while crossing the street at 9 in the morning were prooobably just from an air-gun.

10. Cross your fingers that your parents told the bank you’d be in Mongolia for the next week so that the bank doesn’t shut down your debit card when you try to withdraw tugrugs (1400T to a USD, which means that if you think 1000 to a dollar, it’s actually less!) from the ATM at the main department store complex (the State Department Store–not store of the State Department, as I was figuring, but Department Store of the state).

11. Speed-walk to the Buddhist Gandantegchenling Monastery a few kilometers away to catch the sunday morning services, realizing that a Catholic church isn’t going to pop up along the way. Note the beautiful chanting, the slightly more relaxed atmosphere (compared with the Buryatian datsans), the decidedly older and more beautifully time-worn feel of the temples.

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12. Snap pictures of pigeons flocking back and forth between the rice spread on the ground and the temple roofs. Snap pictures of the old and young monastery inhabitants.

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13. Look confident when walking into the gers (yurts) and buildings of the Mongolian Buddhist University, which you’re not sure whether or not you have permission to enter. Strangely, no one bothers you. Realize, this isn’t Russia. Browse pamphlet. Consider, but then decide against transferring from Middlebury to get a bachelor’s degree in Buddhist Chanting there.

14. Leave monastery, stop in at gift shop, take some time to notice the generally happier, smiling, and easier-to-approach (Asian) (mask-covered) faces of the streets of UB. Realize again, this really isn’t Russia.

15. Drop in at the store labeled “Made in Mongolia” and agree that that’s a good name for it. Camel-hair products and pointy Mongolian hats abound.

16. Get to train station to buy tickets back to Russia (for a week later. . . figure that the time away from Siberia could be therapeutic. Step 35,470,907 from Day 3 or 4: think again about the therapeutic part). Find out that ticket office is located across the street, which is huge, traffic-filled, and the scene of a just-happened accident. Get to ticket building, and read sign in funny English with complicated directions saying ticket counter has moved down the street behind the third building. Walk down street, past 3 buildings, get to ticket building. Find out nearest ATM to get cash (tugrugs) is back at train station. Retrace steps both ways. Return to ticket building 15 minutes later. Buy overpriced foreigner tickets to Irkutsk for Saturday evening. Hope you don’t want to leave Mongolia earlier than that.

17. Eat last food from Russia picnic-style outside of ticket station on nice yellow benches. Enjoy international meal of imported-to-Siberia-from-abroad oranges, Finnish yogurt-covered cashews, and cookies from Naushki.

18. Browse names of shops along UB’s main drag, Peace Street (the USSR’s preferred Lenin Street didn’t stick), which include The British Store, Scottish Pub, Books in English, Texas Restaurant, American Technology Pizza Shop, and get hungry for world-cuisine imitation restaurants, despite filling picnic lunch.

19. Take a walk through the Natural History Museum of Ulaan Baatar and see dinosaur bones, gear from the first Mongolian ascents to Everest and outer space, and lots and lots of taxonomy work, all for 2,500 tugrug (meaning $2.50, but less!)

20. While crossing the main square with the large government building and its huge Lincoln-like statue of Chinggis Khan, find out and briefly express disappointment that tonight’s showing of Die Fliedermaus at the Mongolian National Opera, in fact, costs closer to $20 instead of $7, like the sign said, and decide that $20 could buy that many more souvenirs, and that German opera is probably best seen when a) not fatigued from a day of walking around the city and b) when not in Mongolia. But we wished the artists well.

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21. Grab a nap back at the hostel before dinner at American Technology Pizza Shop. Enjoy almost American pizza and almost American Coca Cola, along with great conversation with co-traveller. Be impressed at your waitress’ English, and, as a matter of fact, most people’s English in UB, if they know any.

22. Finish day with hot shower and watching the Liverpool/Manchester United soccer game with a group of young English mates. Try not to attach too much significance to the fact that they used “you yanks” once when referring to Americans.

The saga of my trip with Romany to not-Russia, almost-Far-East Asia begins. To sum it up, and in honor of Asia, I’ll even compose a little haiku (with full knowledge that the haiku is, in fact, not a Mongolian poetry form).

Train across the steppe.
UB. Camels. Really far.
Russia seems better.

Publishable almost, right?
. . .

Day 1 (Sat., Oct. 24): Getting abroad from abroad

Packing and leaving. Around noon on Friday a week and a half ago (Oct. 23), I realized the train left about 2 hours before I originally thought, meaning I needed to be at the train station around 9 p.m. So packing and getting ready was slightly more rushed than I had planned. But manageable, seeing how I packed for my whole year in Siberia within the 24 hours before my plane’s departure for Russia.

For a week in Mongolia, a really warm set of clothes, and a few spare pairs of boxers, socks, and t-shirts were basically it. Plus a small stack of books that were barely opened. But who didn’t see that one coming. After getting back from the central Irkutsk market where I got a pair of cotton Nike-knock-off gloves for the trip, I got everything packed in my backpacking pack, which I’ve found to have been a great choice over a suitcase.

Evgenii Evgenievich (who’s taken over the household duties in my host mom’s absence visiting family across the country) boiled some eggs for me and packed some bread and cheese and fruit, plus the tea with candy. He insisted I take the same 6-fl.-oz.-ish container of sugar that he had taken on his train trip. I told him that I don’t have sugar with my tea and couldn’t think of any reason why I’d need a cup of sugar in Mongolia. He nodded his head in acknowledgment, walked out of the room, and then returned with the container refilled in his outstretched hand with an incomprehensible smile on his face.

I took the sugar with me, but that doesn’t mean he was right. When I returned this morning, it was completely full, minus the spoonful Romany used last night on the train. I guess I took his sugar cup sightseeing.

The taxi to the train station cost 30 rubles less than the taxi I took there on the way to Buryatia. I was intentionally trying to be less tourist/American and more brash/Russian than the last time, and I think it paid off. A whole $1.10. But considering that’s about a 15% over-charge/savings due to my Americanness/Russianness, I’m still pretty happy about it.

The Foreigner Car. Train tickets for foreigners in Russia cost significantly more than tickets for citizens. Bureaucratic markup, I supposed. But. When we got onto our train car with plush seats (i.e. smelly and seedy old train mattress pads not necessary to add beneath complimentary sheet set) and a flat-screen TV (granted, only with 3 channels of static and 1 channel of blue screen), we were less upset about the markup.

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What’s more, we didn’t hear much Russian at all on the car, since as they had put all the over-charged foreigners into the nice car: some English, a Scot, some Chinese. Plus us 2 Americans.

Our compartment-mates were two Canadians from British Columbia, grade-school best buds Kyle and Kelly, who were traveling from Sweden, through Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet, and India on their way to Thailand. Conversation over tea introducing ourselves and comparing our two-month impressions of Russia with their two-day impressions went on until about midnight, and then went to bed, rocked to sleep by the motion of the Ulan-Ude-bound train.

Day on/off the train. We, the four young 20-somethings with nothing to do on a train for another 24 hours, slept in until about 11:00. After waking up, we discovered we were the caboose of a five-car train, consisting of the over-priced foreigner kupe (4-person compartment) car, and four packed-to-the-brim-with-Russians platskart (6-people to an open, nook-like area) cars. The landscape was great, especially passing Goose Lake.

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After another few hours of eating and talking, we pulled in to Naushki, the town on the Russian side of the border. The first great anomaly of the trip was the fact that the train was stopped there, not doing very much for 6 hours. They rearranged the cars, added some, etc. But other than that, we never figured out the reason for the extremely long stop.

So we got off the train to explore Naushki. Pretty dull, but we managed to fill a few of the hours at least. Walk through the park. See the small WWII monument. See the crumbling moose/horse statues. Climb to top of town hill. Stand at top of (windy) town hill for 20 minutes, wondering where Mongolia starts and taking pictures. . . .

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Descend town hill. Walk down typical Russian village street. Take pictures of typical, but pretty painted Russian doors and windows. Realize village street is typical, thus a dead end. Go down another street. Find a pack of staring, growling dogs. Avoid said pack of dogs. Walk past closed stores. Go into market. Buy last Russian cookies. Leave market. Pay 8 rubles to use surprisingly clean station toilets. Get back on train because you’ve “done Naushki.”

We filled out our border-crossing paperwork as we started up, and then went at a stop-and-go pace from about 7 to 9 as different passport and customs officials of both Russia and Mongolia got on and off the train, muttering requests in half-English, half-native language. Then the money changers/hawkers got on the train to rip us off and scare us that we wouldn’t be able to change money easily in Mongolia. So we changed a little bit, just to be sure. Again, another made-for-foreigner rip-off.

After the border madness, we settled down for an evening of word games (in English–woo!) with the Canadians. Then a little Mongolian girl came in and entertained us with her drawings and pointing at the silly foreigners who had no idea what she was saying. She got a real big kick out of the last part. Her mother took her away for bedtime when she saw her daughter dragging a bemused and only half willing American (me) down the car. Bedtime for us wasn’t too far away, either.

350.org October 24 happened to be the International Day of Action against global climate change. Basically, people around the world did crazy things involving the number 350, which is the number of parts-per-million of CO2 that has been exceeded and is contributing to global warming. It’s a grass-roots awareness type of thing, so what we ended up doing was at least in the spirit, if not as over-the-top as other actions.

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Romany and I had created an account on the site to say we’d participate by doing an action at the border. We didn’t have any ideas that we were really psyched to carry out, so we ended up talking with the occupants of The Foreigner Car about it, making a few signs, trying to convince a few Russians to pose with the signs, 100% predictably failing to do so (but hey, had to try for the record), and then just taking pictures of ourselves (Canadian compartment-mates included) holding the signs around various not-automobile modes of transportation for the rest of the trip.

Lessons learned on Day 1:

  1. Canadians are great.
  2. Don’t plan to stay in Naushki for more than 2 hours.
  3. Don’t plan to stay in Naushki for less than 6 hours if traveling across the border by train.
  4. Win the provodnitsa (train-car manager woman) over early by getting tea and using your endearing Russian grammar of a 5 year old as much as possible.
  5. Once you cross the border into Mongolia, you realize: you’re in Mongolia, as in, “Mongolia.”

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.

Wow. On my quick run to a kiosk for a notebook, I purchased, for the great price of 10 rubles (33 cents), about an 8 oz. cup made out of ice cream cone stuff, filled with the best tasting cookies and cream ice cream I’ve ever had. Maybe not ever. But wow. Amazing stuff.

Unfortunately (for my trim figure), these little stands with a big blue sign reading “Мороженое” (ma-RO-zhen-a-ye) and a huge window filled with all sorts of processed and pre-wrapped frozen dairy goods are strategically located throughout the city, at about every bus stop and every 10 meters in between.

I kept hearing that Siberia had “the best ice cream in Russia,” but now I believe it. Today: success.