Posts Tagged ‘host fam’

SURPRISE #1. Since I was unopposed, I have won my election and am excited to have been named president of Sputnik for the 2010-2011 year. Hooray! Thanks for your support (?). Note: No bribes were involved in this. I swear.

"Party of the people." Photo AP.

Photo AP.

SURPRISE #2. Since Irkutskites, so they say, are heirs of the revolutionary spirit of their Decembrist predecessors, Moscow-administration chosen candidate Sergei Serebryannikov did NOT win the Irkutsk mayoral elections yesterday, and the other (independently, self-nominated) United Russia/KDFR candidate (Kondrashov) will take his seat as mayor soon.

Yevgenii Yevgenievich shared this news with me yesterday with a great deal of excitement. He didn’t know the name of “other candidate”, but just knew he wasn’t the guy that Moscow wanted.

On the other hand, Tatyana Eduardovna was disappointed with the results, as she and her boss (city duma deputy) were pulling for Serebryannikov. She was all aflutter last night, (more…)


At the gate to my flight from Berlin to Moscow, again surrounded by the fur-donning crowd of Russland, I’ll admit, there was slight dread of going back. That was the closest to home I’d be for another five months. Landing in Moscow and re-arriving in Irkutsk four days after that, though, were happy enough meetings of Russia, that old friend, that one….

Russian birch on a pathI remembered the Irkutsk bus numbers and all the useful parts of life, but apparently had forgotten declension endings. That’s the revenge of the language pledge after two weeks of breaking it, I suppose. It was vacation.

Romany and I spent a good deal of time together the first half-week/weekend after my Wednesday arrival. One day, we traipsed around Irkutsk in the falling snow (meaning slightly warmer-feeling temperatures). I totally spaced on bringing my camera, and I want to revisit a lot of these places, too, so pictures of these places will come eventually.

First we hit the Officers’ House (Dom ofitserov), rumored to be a cool building with schizophrenically interesting and/or open exhibits through its halls of random offices and businesses. (more…)

Day 6-7 (Wed.-Thurs., Oct. 29-30): Getting out of dodge

Family life. Our third family consisted of the mom and dad, an older son or two who weren’t around most of the time, assumably tending the livestock, a five-year-old son, a nineteen-year-old son, and an older daughter.

The mom was really nice and friendly, and insisted on serving us only western-style tea with tea bags in Christmas-print mugs. She cooked good food, which included the noodles and meat, but with fried potato slivers and cabbage. Her sweater-vest reminded us of the uniforms that Michael’s Craft Store employees wear.

The dad was in the middle of making a bunch of rope out of dried leather hides. It was neat to watch the two-day-long process of making several meters of rope, which were tied between the rods of the ger structure to straighten them out. He was quiet otherwise, and usually made himself invisible in the family’s other ger.


The five-year-old was a cutie, but there are only so many games of sword fights, gun fights, ninja fights, sword-and-gun fights, and sword-and-ninja fights that can keep two twenty-year-olds entertained in the Mongolian steppe. Some other gracious tourist had apparently equipped the rascal with basic English vocabulary including, “You! Me! Come here! No!” which he would cleverly link with gestured explanations of how we were to die at his all-powerful hands.


Romany and I eventually had to add some subtitling to our games: a WWII-type guerrilla scene turned into a strange mix of jedi fights with some Gandalf and “Wingardium levioooosa” exclamations thrown in there. When I became a horse, with galloping sound effects to boot, the kid’s version of a Little Red Riding-hood reenactment degenerated into a very amusing (for us two Americans, that is) Monty-Python-esque escape from the French. . . “Run awayyy. . . .” Ohh, good times.

The daughter generally busied herself with making noodles and pozi and expressing amusement at what her youngest brother had suckered the two Americans into doing, whether it be us losing, “Agaaain?!” to him in Connect Four, tic-tac-toe, or a rules-rewritten game of checkers.

The nineteen-year-old, Saanjan, turned out to be really cool, not that we had any reason to doubt that. He knew some English, showed us his favorite shows, wrestlers, and music videos (Kelly Clarkson and P. Diddy!) on TV, got out his high school yearbook and pictures from last June and told us a bit about his school life, and showed us a much more fun and skill-involved game with the ankle bones akin to jacks.


Camelback. Since we had declined the horse ride of the day, we had extra time to kill on day 3 of the tour, so it was good that we had the younger family members to entertain us/babysit.

In the afternoon after lunch, though, we took our ride on the camels with Saanjan, who accompanied us on horseback. We were supposed to make it to the Khadagt Khoshuu holy place, but it was 10 km away, according to our guidebook, and the weather had gotten a lot colder, and the wind was wicked, which long underwear and two pairs of jeans didn’t help stop from freezing my knees. So, instead, we made it to the top of a nearby mountain, got some photos, and then headed back.


Riding on the camels was really great. They bob their heads a lot when they walk (or run, which is also funny) and have a sort of glide to their motion. Mariana, the Scot we’d met on the train and stayed with in the same hostel, had said (in her great accent), “I hear i’s a lot like shagging. I mean, what, when else do you really ‘ave to use those muscles?” Good point, I suppose.

Saanjan, as promised in the guidebook, liked to sing, and he sang a traditional Mongolian Long Song as we went for part of the way, which was really neat.

[Video coming soon.]

Part of the deal with singing is that if someone sings a song, it’s obligatory for everyone else in the company to sing one, which for Mongolians, isn’t a problem, because the best nomadic singers know upwards of 200-300 unique verses to traditional tunes. So the only thing that Romany and I had up our sleeves was the Peter, Paul and Mary version of “If I Had a Hammer,” which turned out alright. No video for that one.


We got back soon enough to our hot tea and the oven with time to settle in for a night of continued playing with the young’uns. Finally somewhat used to the pace of life and general practice of living in a ger, we went to bed on our last night slightly bummed that we were leaving already the next day, but also more than ready to get back to not-wooden beds.

Leaving. So the problem, or rather anomaly, of the fact that we had not at all followed the itenerary of going from family 1, to 2, to 3, but instead, went 2, to 3, to 1. This generally wasn’t an issue, apart from the fact that we had to guess what we were seeing, who we were with, and worst of all, how/if we were going to have a ride back to the bus station, where we might have tickets waiting for us to get back to UB.

These questions still hanging over our heads, we got our stuff ready late in the morning on day 4, thinking our jeep would arrive between 2 and 3 in order to get us to the bus station (we had no idea how far away we were from Sansar, the bus stop). The lady had said our time of departure would be 4:00 p.m. So we were ready at 2:00. Then it was 3:00. Then it was 3:15. We asked how long it would take to get there, and we got a 30-minutes guess. Ok. No sweat yet. Then it was 3:30. Then it was kind of panic time.

I, of course, realized that there was really only so much we could do. At the same time, I was a bit more adamant than Romany about the fact that we could do at least try to do something to make sure that we could be back in Ulaan Baatar by the end of the night. I finally found the tour agency number hidden on our little “I’m-on-this-tour” ID Card which we never used, but apparently the mom didn’t get cell phone reception except on the tops of mountains. So I kind of resumed the “I don’t know what to do” pacing/dance.




Then there was a sound of a motor in the distance. Jeep! There is a God! Not that I was seriously doubting or anything. It was just more clear we weren’t completely on his bad side that day.

The driver relayed the news that our bus wasn’t until 4:40, and we pulled into Sansar at 4:15, at which point my blood pressure slowly began its climb back down to human levels. Going along some back street, we slowed down for some reason, and a lady got in the car. She was smiley and said cheerily “Helloo!!” We were confused.

She bought us tea in the cafe, where we sat and waited the 15 minutes for the bus to arrive. We asked, “Bileti?” (“Tickets?”) a few times, but she gave us the “just wait” wave of the hand. Blood pressure resumed to climb, but wasn’t totally out of hand, only because I had the sense that all the random arrivals, pickups, waiting had to be planned, meaning that there indeed was a plan, meaning that at some point, we’d be ok.

And ok we were. The lady, who we eventually figured out hadn’t brought her cap uniform that day (I mean, what’s it to her? Just a cap. . .), talked to the bus driver, and we got on, no problems, and breathed our final sigh of relief once we were comfortably sitting in our two seats in the back row.

Friday night party-bus to UB. Not really. Instead, try amazingly awesome put-together state-run bus to UB. So we were in the back row, which was a row of five seats, slightly elevated above the rest of the seats. A drunk guy, who somehow the driver didn’t kick off, got on, and lay down across the boxes at the feet of our neighboring back-row passengers. Funny, and didn’t bother anyone, so no harm, no foul, I suppose.

Romany and I got out our hard-boiled eggs, cheese and crackers, peanuts, and chocolates that we hadn’t touched the whole trip, and had a nice dinner as it started getting dark around 6:30. And then the most amazing thing in the world happened.

The bus lit up with multi-colored, flashing disco lights. I kid you not. The comedy programming on the HD flatscreen changed to music videos (see Mongolian music videos, exhibit A and exhibit B for an idea of the awesomeness that this involved). The rest of the back-row burst into murmured song, going along with the generally jovial atmosphere.


We exchanged some thumbs up and chuckles with our back-row collective, which, as a matter of fact, contained the only passengers making any noise whatsoever. The drunk guy’s merriment, though he was sleeping, was apparently contagious.

Around two hours later, the pitch-black surroundings of the steppe changed back into the city lights, and we rolled into Dragon Auto Station in Ulaan Baatar Sweet Ulaan Baatar, and couldn’t be happier or more fatigued.

So close. . . . We’d promised ourselves a celebratory dinner out at one of the great, low-priced imitation restaurants of UB as soon as we got back, but we were way too tired to enjoy it. So we decided to get the city bus back to the hostel.

However, when we inquired at the ticket counter (Russian language–so handy) whether or not the 23 and 36 numbers could get us to where we needed to go, we were told that one of those bus numbers didn’t exist, and that the other one was already closed, seeing as it was 9:00 at night already. The impression of Ger-to-Ger/the rep there, unchanging ’til the end: LIARS!

So we wandered to the nearest city bus stop, asked a few people but to no avail. So we just started walking towards the next stop/the hostel. After all it was only 6 km, and we only had like $5 on us total to be ripped off if someone wanted to mug us. That end of “Peace Avenue” was dark and had the bad urban feel, most definitely. We ran into two girls who were students who had studied English, and who walked with us to the stop. They told us which busses would work, and got on theirs. But that’s when all the busses started driving by with their lights off.

Bad situation. We asked another lady, who chased down a few busses pulling out of the stop to try to see if they would get us to our side of town. She finally expressed, in Russian luckily, that we were probably out of luck, and asked if we wanted help getting a cab. We agreed, and when she got there, she asked if she could ride along to her stop, on the way. Again, we agreed, realizing it was the least we could do, and plus, would probably not get overcharged as foreigners if we had a Mongolian with us.

Great success. We stumbled into the hostel, exasperated, around 10:15 p.m., sent our “I’m alive” emails and tweets, and drifted into a deep, deep sleep in mattress’ed (!!) beds.



Another 350 plug!

Day 5-6 (Wed.-Thurs., Oct. 28-29): Wandering and wondering

Last place. On our horse-ride from ger one to two, my horse turned out to be the stubborn one. I’m blaming it on the fact that the father (who was leading Romany’s horse next to his the whole way) and son both had leather whips and the Mongolian accent of how to say giddy-up (“Chshuuu”), whereas I had a rope and no practice time and no Mongolian accent. So anyways, I straggled in a minute after the rest of the company arrived at ger two, we tied the horses, and went inside to begin the process again.

Unfamiliar faces and familiar places. The ger was occupied by a really old grandma with a spine that ended up being higher than her head and a large protruding lower tooth, her son (the father) and his wife, their two daughters (about 3 and 16), their younger son (14), their older son (maybe a few years older than Romany and I) and his wife, and two guests. Plus us four, just arrived. Could have filmed the Mongolian version of the sitcom “Full Ger” on location.

After a quick, second round of get-to-know-you across languages with milk-tea and cookies, and just as we were starting to realize how much our bodies were enjoying the relaxation of being off the horses, we were summoned outside again. When Romany and I shot each other horrified glances when we realized we were getting back on the horses, they laughed. We did too, but really behind gritted teeth.


If the physical difficulty of being bounced along like a rag doll on a wooden saddle wasn’t enough, then going back exactly where we came from definitely did the trick of wearing us out. But, as this was our holiday, we made the most of it, and got to see the land we had just crossed in a few different lights.

The path we had made from ger one to two consisted of us crossing to the other side of a long, narrow strip of sand dunes and continuing north along the eastern side of them to Swan Lake, surrounded by horses and then turning westward and crossing the length of a long and wide valley, with high and rocky mountains on the northern side, in which ger two was nestled at the valley’s eastern end, and with gradually rising hills and mountains to the south, to which we’d travel to ger three the next day.

Tracing our horseshoe-steps, father and son number one herded a herd of horses from the field adjoining ger two, while father two led Romany and I across some hills as a shortcut back to Swan Lake. Father and son one left the horses they’d just herded at the lake, we said our farewells, and then they rode off home. Father number two gathered another group of 25-30 horses, which we helped herd back in the direction of his ger (number two, that is, on the far eastern side of the valley).

About a third of the way there, though, he dropped us off at the gers of one of his other sons, where Romany and I had tea, talked (the wife knew some English and spent most of her time in Ulaan Baatar working), and bought two handmade, silk bags for about four dollars each. We would have got some more, but we hadn’t brought enough money with us.


Final tour. The father returned, and the horses were gone, meaning we assumed he brought them back to his field himself, since he could do it easier without having to worry about his two tourist-guests. When we stepped back outside, the sun had seemingly fallen considerably lower in the sky, and the late afternoon light played beautifully on the mountains and dunes. Unfortunately, my battery on the one camera I had with me was running low.

Instead of going in the homeward direction, we went back to Swan Lake, where the father enthusiastically took our pictures with the dunes and the setting sun in the background.


We finally began our journey back home, with only the moon in the still-light sky.

But, though we were full-on galloping, the half-darkness made it seem the ground went by slower beneath the horses’ hooves, since night was quickly falling. Nevertheless, we stopped at the monument to the wise Mongolian Queen Manduhai atop a hill/mountain, as promised.

The last hour of our total 6 hours of horseback riding on our first full day in the wilderness (wolves are not uncommon) was by far the hardest. Not only did every bone and muscle of my body already hurt from the first five hours, from fingers and toes to tailbone and back, but we were galloping for the whole last hour, and since Romany’s horse was still being led side-by-side, and I was on my own, that meant that I was stuck doing all the whipping, coaxing, and, obviously, riding myself. Which made it all the more authentic, I suppose. But I hurt.

Still, galloping across a valley with silhouetted mountains against the black-blue sky with the moon standing out against it, in Mongolia of all places, is categorically a great experience, and as much of a toll it took on my body, being alone out in the open, slightly behind the father and Romany up ahead, is probably as “alone,” population density wise, as I’ll ever be, which was a totally unique feeling.

Staying for a night, off in the morn’. In near darkness, we crawled back into the ger and plopped down on our little wooden stools. Somehow, we managed after another delicious meal of noodle-and-meat soup to keep up social interaction with the family and especially the kids, with whom we played the traditional ankle bone game (if rolled like a die, an ankle bone can land on one of four of its sides, which each represent a different animal–sheep, goat, camel, horse–and accordingly different moves across a board, also constructed of the ankle bones, for instance, in the shape of a horse race trail), thumb wrestled, and watched Mongolian TV. Our energy level was probably related to the two huge bowls of the best tasting (again, homemade) yogurt I’ve ever had, which we each had.

Soon, we piled our stuff in the family’s car and drove up the side of the mountain to the family’s second ger, where despite my physical exhaustion, I was never able to get much more than an hour of uninterrupted sleep. Part of the problem was the fact that adjusting positions on the bed out of discomfort was made much more difficult by my out-of-commission abs and legs.

Regardless, we got up to a bright, sunny morning considerably warmer than 24 hours earlier. The younger son had driven up the hill to get our bags, since we were taking the horses back down, much to our dismay. Since my butt bones hadn’t developed calluses yet, it was a rather unpleasant wake-up call, but the warm breakfast and yogurt from the mom somewhat made up for it back in the ger.


The family, seeing us in our obvious soreness, hobbling around and bent over ourselves almost as much as the grandma, bless their hearts (in all seriousness), offered us a ride in the car since they were bringing the kids to school. Romany and I looked at each other and agreed in a second.

Thirty minutes later, we pulled into the, well, “front yard” of the final ger of our adventure, still sore, but much less so, had we declined the carpool and gone with the horses.


Tatyana Eduardovna, perhaps my only hope for survival in this country, sadly, has left on the train for a few weeks to help their daughter care for her new son/their grandson. Like I told my parents, she promised that she’d be back in 2-3 weeks, “soon enough,” and that I’d be fine under the care of Evgenii (her husband) and Masha.

But the last time that happened, i.e. when Evgenii left on his mid-autumn train trip, promising to be back in 2-3 weeks, he didn’t come back until 4.5 weeks later. That is, this morning at 6:30 a.m. That is, as Tatyana Eduardovna was walking out the door.

Not sure if that was the plan or not, but it worked out fine. For them–I was still trying to sleep.

Though, admittedly, less than a day after his arrival, I’m already saying it’s nice to have Evgenii around again, awkward small talk and forced 4-5 meals a day and all.

When we were eating last (this was meal number 4 of 5–I’m positive there’s another one in store for tonight), he showed me pictures on his phone of black-and-white photographs of his distant family, circa Revolution of 1917. Despite the howling wind and snow and the electricity going out three times, from what I could gather (he mumbles, like all Russian men, but I’m probably at an 80-90% understanding rate with him now–he’s really good about knowing when he’s using esoteric vocabulary and stops to explain). . .

  1. He was proud of their involvement in WWII–and rightly so. An insane amount of valiant soldiers and civilians died (26 million) for their Russian homeland, and being related to a fallen soldier (which I think, on average, everyone here is) is a matter of great pride.
  2. He didn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that the Bolsheviks took away his great-grandma’s family’s factory after the Revolution, what, with the fact that it went towards national industrial production and all. And it’s still pumping out widgets today in Moscow. Different owners, though, I guess, but Evgenii’s not suing.
  3. He was apparently still rather agitated over the overpriced food goods available on the train. He told me about this three times in the 20 minutes we were sitting and talking. The first time they were twice as expensive as regular stores. Then they were 2-3 times as expensive. Then 3-4. But since he was also proud of the fact he outsmarted the train company by bringing his own food, meaning he didn’t have to pay such outrageous prices, and given the insistence of his dissatisfaction, I’m assuming the natural conclusion to this train of thought is, “Well, it wouldn’t have been like this back in the Soviet day.” Which, don’t freak out, is not an uncommon conclusion at all among this generation.

I also got an update on a Russian idiom I’d learned this summer: Literally, “Scholarship is light. Not-scholarship is darkness,” basically, “Without the light of knowledge, life is in darkness,” or something along those lines. His version, though, “Учеба – свет, неучеба – чуть-чуть свет, и на работу” (“Scholarship is light; Not-scholarship is a little bit of light, and then just go work.”) Hm. The humor isn’t translating. Go figure. It’s funny in Russian, I promise.

He also played baseball at his second cousin’s house in Novosibirsk. The cousin has a baseball field. Uh huh. But I don’t care about the fact that they probably didn’t play the game right–I’m still just basking in my successful explanation of tee-ball. Good thing that they didn’t call it Я-ball or Q-ball or after some other non-mutually included letter of the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets.

Also now just realizing that the way I explained it as the “tee” being constructed of an upside-down T shaped thingy [hand motions here], from which, of course, the game derives its name, was completely wrong. Darn.

And the successes in Russia continue. . . .

(Post-script: The Oxford English Dictionary has “T-ball” listed as an alternate spelling. So I’m not totally wrong. See! Always room for compromise, even in Russia.)

First sight of Siberia, a few minutes before landing in Irkutsk.

First sight of Siberia, a few minutes before landing in Irkutsk.

Moscow seems completely manageable compared to a week in Irkutsk. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great little spot on the map, which, needless to say, I never would have found or wanted to visit if it weren’t for this program. Not that there’s any American comparison, but still–think: a nice downtown with the character of a skyscraper-less Boston, add in some Easter pastel-colored paint and the advertising flare of Tokyo, the traffic of Manhattan (times five), and the outskirts of any typically creepy-after-dark of any urban area (thus the Detroit comparison), and you’ve got Irkutsk.

But all that was pretty darn well kept a secret until we (I speak of my two Middlebury comrades Romany and Patrick) got in over our heads here. We flew in last Saturday morning, met three smiling women at the gates that would be our host moms, better described by “khozyaika” (a landlady, house manager, etc. …who does amazing cooking and generally makes everything okay at the end of the day), and set off for what would be home for 10 months. I live on Kostycheva Street on the side of the river opposite the center, just a 10 minute ride from the International Department (the Mezhfak) of IGU.

After our on-site orientation at Elizabeth’s apartment just off the main pedestrian walkway, which they actually built to house the administrators of the KGB back in the day, we set off on a week of confused bus rides, awkward conversations asking directions, missed meetings, and a slew of other new “experiences,” I’ll say, too many to enumerate. Of course, mixed in there were also some making friends, learning new things, and, not to forget, realizing that summer was officially over 1) with two days of overcast weather and rain, and 2) with the start of the new school year.

Right now, we’re each taking the same 5 classes with each other, that is, it’s only us 3 Americans in the same 5 classes at the Mezhfak. We have “Practical” Grammar, Speaking and Writing Practice, Russian Literature, Post-Soviet History, and Baikal-o-studies (had to do the literal translation of the word on the last one; to clarify, that’s the study of Lake Baikal just upstream). All of the classes, as any, have their ups and downs, and after just a week, I’d say we’re all pretty comfortable with the lectures and homework. Discussion we’re working on, obviously.

When they say the city is a history museum, after only being here a week with limited time for random wandering about, they really have a point. The city stems off of the water of the Angara River with little wooden houses with the most beautiful woodwork and multi-colored paints that are scattered throughout the modernized areas. Then there is the actual downtown on the north/east bank, which also includes some pretty old buildings, a lot of which definitely cropped up in the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th century along with the Trans-Siberian Railroad’s opening. All of the high-rise apartment buildings that make up the western side of the Angara’s skyline are the still very alive and working remnants of Soviet-built concrete housing. There are cranes scattered everywhere, building new and modern apartment buildings, working on the bridges and dam, being used in the industrial work of the city, and so on.

Looking ahead… Tomorrow we leave for an overnight trip to Baikal, which includes a 20 km hike on day 2. Next week we’ll be starting to visit mainstream courses in different departments, since we’ll each be dropping one of the 5 classes to semi-participate in a real Russian university class for Midd credit. I’m still working on getting a wireless Internet connection at home. And lastly, I’ll eventually get the guts to take the huge clunkin’ camera out for a day to get some pics of the place—but don’t count on too many of those great National Geographic photos with an old person longingly looking into the camera. If I ever came by one, I’d be lucky to escape without being scolded, though maybe not very loudly, with all the Russian severity you could stand, if not without a broken camera, too.