Posts Tagged ‘rest’

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.”
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And the saga continues (from Part 1). It might not be your ever-encapsulating expedition through Paris or African safari, but I can’t imagine you’ve read too many blog posts about this place.

Monday, Sep 28: Through the Barguzin Valley

Orientation: To give you a visual, think of Lake Baikal as being shaped like a crescent moon like a right parenthesis, as such: ). But tilt it about 30 degrees clockwise so that the right bank is more or less perpendicular to the equator. Then put Ulan-Ude off to the right (east) a bit, about a 1/3 of the way to the north from the southern-most point of Baikal. Then Ust’-Barguzin (where we stayed Sunday night) goes about 1/2 the way up, right on the border. Or just search these places on Google Maps.

Anyways, the Barguzinskii Valley, through which runs the Barguzin River (the fourth largest tributary of Baikal), stretches out from the mouth on Lake Baikal at about a 45 degree angle to the northeast for about 200 km. We set out on the road running along the foot of the gigantic, sharp and rocky, snow-capped–majestic, in a word–mountains of the northwest side of the valley, and made a few stops along the way.

Ferry across the river Barguzin: Romany and I pretended to take pictures of the coast to get a shot of a nice old lady with a bike who talked to us through the rolled-down window of the van about what we were doing there.

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Cemetery in the town, Barguzin: Walked around a cemetery that had a few graves of Decembrists, who were exiled to the area around the town. But get this. In the language school play this summer, Pushkinogopolis (a grotesque about the relationship Pushkin and Gogol never, historically, had), when I was playing the character of an Italian in a Siberian camp, I played opposite someone playing the Decembrist, M.K. Kukhelbaker (1798-1858), whose grave I was standing there photographing. What’s more, the first lines to the poem Pushkin wrote (“In the depths of the Siberian mineshafts. . .” –again, sounds better in Russian) to the Decembrists in exile, which we had just learned a week beforehand in our Russian Lit class, were engraved over this grave. Go figure. Small world (which I think means more coming from Siberia).

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Photo-op in the valley, Barguzin (Note: all these “Barguzin’s” are very spread out across the map, despite their similarities in spelling): More random datsans included.

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P9284494Buryat holy place at Kurumkan: We got out of the car and Misha led us through a peaceful wood with all the signs of a datsan nearby: the prayer banners and other pieces of cloth tied to tree trunks and branches, coins and unused cigarettes tossed about the ground and placed on rocks and tree stumps, little stone pillars stacked up everywhere, the domestic dogs running around. And then the prayer banners started getting thicker, and thicker, and then they were literally everywhere.

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Finally, almost a kilometer in, we got to our destination. It was a little glass-encased Buddhist-style pavilion housing a big rock. Apparently, the rock had an imprint on it of the goddess who dwells on the mountain top towards which we had been climbing, and if you can make out the imprint, that means she’s appearing to you and you’re going to have a fertile womb. None of the guys saw it. But Romany did. Mazel tov.

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Alla (“. . .back girl, ain’t no ‘alla back. . .”): A little town situated almost at the northeastern-most point of the valley, Alla (not related to the Muslim Allah, population 8,000. . . so like the Siberian, Buryat/Russian version of Middlebury minus the university and mostly everything else) was our next overnight rest spot. But, by that point unsurprisingly, this rest spot was located somewhere at the base of a mountain, to which we could only get by turning off onto a dirt road that cut through open plain, half-forest/half-plain, full forest and almost bog. With all his typical coolness, though, Misha navigated the bumpy, boulder-filled dirt paths through said terrain, and got us to our “kurort” (the Russian word for resort that includes any sort of warm-, water-, or beach-related vacation/rest spot).

P9284607After dropping our things off in the domik we stayed in that night, we took a hike along a stream to a beautiful, at least 75-foot tall series of waterfalls that ran off another Buryat holy mountain (all of which are illegal to summit without permission from the religious administration of the given area). On the way back, we stopped and got a beautiful of the valley of this particular tributary-to-the-Barguzin. The dark gray mountains running on both sides of the bright sand-white river basin, dotted with the deep green or alternate bright yellow of the autumn trees, gave way in the far distance to the blue-white of again snow-capped mountains. Julie Andrews singing the reprise of “Climb Every Mountain” at the end of the Sound of Music popped into my head.

Hot springs and a hot dinner: We got back as the sun was getting ready to go down and took our dip in the hot springs along the river basin. After our hike, it was the perfect end to the day to sit for the recommended 15 minutes in the naturally heated water in the dark and tellingly rotten-egg, sulfurous smelling wooden shack. Afterwards, Misha showed us the other sources of different mineral waters in the general vicinity, each marked with painted signs reading “for the eyes,” “for joints,” etc. indicating which part of the body the given chemicals would help.

As we were finishing our dinner later, we were joined by two Petersburgers, Vika and her friend Paulina, two normal looking Russians who were taking a long vacation. Romany and I got to talking with them, mostly Vika, who took an instant liking to us and complimented us on our Russian. She also gave us the name and number of her friend who’s a doctor in Irkutsk (who’s also a Ukrainian, a fact that she shared with us with the typical Russian giggle about the Ukrainian accent, a giggle which I’m finding is basically a rule of Russian conversation about the Ukraine). She was a funny little lady, with short, white, kind of spiky hair, a painter by profession, who was more than happy to share with us her philosophy on the balance that people should try to observe between nature and man-made stuff. She and her friend were also Buddhist. Accordingly, they had their night prayers to chant and beat a drum and tambourine to, but enchanted with our random but quickly endeared new friend, we went to sleep listening to their foreign prayers in the room next door.

Tuesday, Sep 29: Leaving the Barguzin Valley

Museum and Cultural Center in Alla: First thing in the morning, we left the hot springs resort for the museum, housed in a traditional Russian house in Alla. A nice lady showed us around their room of traditional garb, nick-knaks, and photo-history books, and then told us about the cultural activities and classes that they conduct for the Buryat and endemic Evenkiiski peoples who live in the area.

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Where in time is Carmen Sandiego? I got to thinking that it’s pretty amazing that such vastly different cultures and religious- and lifestyle-traditions (Russian/Orthodoxy, Buryat/Buddhism, Evenkiiski/Shamanism) could exist so strongly and independently of one another in such a small and isolated microcosm of a place, yet, as we were told, each have evolved into a modernized-enough lifestyle where members of each group think of themselves as typical Russians. That was also the case with the Semeiski people we talked with, that is, that they thought of themselves as everyday folk.

As much as it’s a step forward in time, preserving such old cultures in such vibrant and very much alive ways to the present day, still, for me, learning about a lot of these cultures was also very much a step back in time, as I was living in little houses heated by wood ovens, sleeping on matress-less, wooden beds with hand-made covers and real down bedding, seeing people dressed in hand-made garments passed down through generations, and so on.

Such thoughts were occurring to me as we began to cut across the vast and sometimes swampy plains of the valley, finally being able to get a good view of the gigantic mountains to the geologically newer West (closer to the Baikal rift, the source of the area’s seismic activity) and the slightly more rolling mountains to the East. We crossed the Barguzin and soon found ourselves in a rock garden, used by Buddhist believers of old. I didn’t really get why they call it a “garden,” because seeds, soil, sunlight, sweat, patience, and a green thumb had no part in the rocks getting there. Probably a “Garden of the gods” or “of earth’s erosion patterns” or something.

To take me back even further on my H.G. Wells trip, when Misha pulled the car over along yet another random dirt road (mind you, we usually just got places, and then found out what they were) and told us that there were paintings from the Bronze Age (3000 BCE), my jaw kinda dropped. But yeah. There, just a few yards up from the ground level, you could make out the red outlines of the paint (made from blood and a ground up pigment) depicting a shaman with a few regular Buryat’s just hangin’ out. From 5000 years ago. CRAZY!

“And that ain’t no bull:” We also saw the “Bull rock” (also a Buryat holy place speckled with the colorful prayer banners and a black dog running around), which is a rock that according to legend used to be a cow that wandered too far from his keeper, and too close to the god that lived on the mountain he got too close to. We had a lunch on the side of a low mountain with some cool rock formations at the top, which we climbed to. As we got to the top and got the view over the valley from the east, again, roll the Julie Andrews. . . . Elizabeth told us that there are a lot of nameless peaks on the west side of the valley that haven’t been summitted and officially registered yet, which means that, in all seriousness, if I got bored in the spring and wanted to come back, even as a foreigner, I could find one of such mountaintops on a map, fill out the paperwork, climb it, plant the flag, and have a Mount Mahoney overlooking Baikal. To assess the probability of this happening, I reference my post on the Russian bureaucracy.

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Weather spoiler: So far on the trip, we’d had a mix of overcast with a splash of sunlight here and there, at which time we’d flip on our cameras to get as many shots in the good light as possible. Unfortunately, the one night we were sleeping in a tent on the coast of Baikal in preparation for our hiking a daunting, 1877-meter, straight-upwards trail to the top of the Svyatoi Nos peninsula, the weather turned, canceling any hope of our Everest hike. But we did the tent anyways.

Misha and Elizabeth sent us three out to find firewood while they set up the tent. It occurred to us later that they probably didn’t care about the firewood, they just wanted to quickly set up the tent on their own without us before it got completely dark, seeing as the rain was steady and we had a gas stove anyways. Good thing, because we didn’t find any dry wood. Duh. As the rain picked up and the wind (and like strong, big, gale-strength Baikal wind, called a “burya”) howled outside the well-constructed and comfortably spacious tent, we crouched around the little camp table preparing dinner. I had two revelations. The first, the Russian word for raisin is fun to say (izyum). And the second, that I had been peeling potatoes incorrectly for my whole life. Which really doesn’t mean anything, since the night before that was the first time in my life that I had ever peeled potatoes.

But with full stomachs and warm sleeping bags, we drifted to sleep listening to the storm and the huge waves crashing onto the sandy beach of Baikal a stone’s throw away.

Next time on “Update Buryatia”. . . Pollution clean-up efforts and an ugly case of food poisoning by the Chinese (. . . restaurant named Omon). There aren’t any pictures, don’t worry. ‘Til then.

My task here is to shrink down the 18 handwritten pages of everything I saw, experienced, etc. over the course of the past week into an equally exciting (well. . .), yet decidedly less lengthy update. So ready, set, read!

Friday, Sep 25: Train Station

I met my two Middlebury cohorts and our coordinator, Elizabeth, at the Irkutsk Vokzal at a quarter past 9 p.m., and also randomly ran into Ira, one of my friends from the MezhFak. Despite the late hour, the station was as bustling as ever with people spilling both out of and into the platform entrances. We walked through the high-vaulted hall of the station with the train times ticking away on the big boards overhead.

They print all the railroad station clocks and train ticket times in Russia only in the Moscow time zone. I suppose you could think it’s cool, but only until you end up somewhere where you don’t know how many time zones away you are. Or get too drunk, as Russians in transit not infrequently do, to understand how the sun is rising at, say, 5 p.m. in Vladivostok.

Setting off on my first train journey in Russia from the Irkutsk railroad station at night felt legendary almost. Mixing with the scent of fresh-cut lumber from Baikail in transport to the West, steam billowed off of the tall and grand train wagons, spilling into the light of the platforms and casting a fog over the hushed crowds of people, saying their last goodbyes. It would have also been at this same train station along the same rail lines that the Decembrists (not the rock band “The Decemberists”, but the anti-tsarist, intellectual court members that attempted a coup in 1825) arrived in the city to be taken to their exile across Lake Bai. . . well, on second thought, no, they didn’t have the Trans-Siberian in 1825. Right. They came by horse and foot. Well, I’m sure someone famous passed through at some point. Anyways. Train station in Siberia at night. Cool feeling.

We had tea and cookies, and then off to bed in our 4-person, too-hot and opening-windowless kupe.

Saturday, Sep 26: Religious Centers

“Good morning, let’s get up!” were the words with which the provodnik (the guy, usually a woman, who is in charge of each car) woke us up on our first morning. Since they lock the bathrooms 30 minutes outside of bigger cities so as to not dump waste in the middle of towns, you’re usually woken up an hour before big stops, or in our case our destination, Ulan-Ude (pronounced oo-lan’-oo-day’). Ulan-Ude, meaning “City on the River” in both the Mongolian and Buryatian languages, pop. 500,000, is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, one of the subjects of Russia, running along the south and eastern parts of Baikal and spreading out to the East. Our guide for the week, Misha, a friend of Elizabeth’s and a professor of outdoors sport and ecology in Ulan-Ude, met us at the station, and brought us to the Hotel Barguzin in his van, where we’d be spending a lot of time for the next week.

The Semeiskii (Семейские): After breakfast in the hotel cafe, we set off southbound (passing through the city named “Siberia”. . . we all made good on the puns from that one) to Tarbagatai, the city with the greatest population of Semeiskii people, a group of Old Believers (people who rejected the reforms of Orthodox Patriarch Nikon in the 00 century). After we were shown the icons of the church below (some more than 350 years old), and shown the Semeiskii Museum by their bishop, we thought that we’d had our full Semeiskii experience.

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But then Misha drove us to the village of Desyatnikovo, where four sweet, half-in-character women, all dressed in their traditional celebratory costume, showed us a preserved traditional Semeiskii house and fed us lunch. The surprises kept coming when they whipped out the samogon (home-made vodka, which we’re advised not to try out of a fresh bottle, because that means that it hasn’t been tested for being the messed-up kind that can paralyze your legs for life), and then proceeded to dress up and wed Romany and Patrick. I got some great pictures and audio, so hopefully I’ll be able to make a cool audio slideshow soon.

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(My pictures here are all turning out duller than they actually are. Check on the Flickr feed by the end of the week for better quality pictures.)

The Ivolginskii Datsan (Иволгинский дацан): Since we had extra time, we decided to make a pit stop on the way back to Ulan-Ude at the Ivolginskii Datsan, or temple. It’s the main Tibetan Buddhist (that’s the strain of Buddhism most Buryats follow) temple of Buryatia. We had our first interactions with Buddhist datsan practice, which would come in handy the next few days: the necessary clockwise motion around datsans, temples, etc. that’s a part of the idea of harmony with the rising and setting of the sun; spinning prayer wheels (see below) with prayers written on them, which are offered every time they make a full spin around; walking backwards on the right-hand side of the interior of the temples to not turn your back towards the Buddha statue. One of the temples also houses, Misha told us, the perfectly preserved body of their Dalai Lama who, after he predicted the persecution that the Soviet period would bring upon the Buddhists of Buryatia back in the 1910s, drifted off into an “eternal meditative state” of sorts, and still sits there today, visible on feast days and other occasions.

The datsan also functions as a university where students take philosophy, languages, and art. We walked into a classroom occupied only by a single student drawing mathematically perfect and in-harmony fire swirls. He was Russian (not Buryat) and told us how he ended up wanting to study there to become a monk. The monks of the Tibetan Buddhist brand are much less secluded monks associated with the Buddhism of China, but more “in-the-world” (think Franciscans or Sisters of Charity, or even just your parish priest or minister) holy people that can still own business, live outside the datsan, etc.

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We stopped on a mountain top as the sun was setting across the beautiful landscape of taiga rolling into the more southern steppe, and got some pictures. After dinner back in Ulan-Ude at a Buryat restaurant, we settled in for a solid night of sleep in our hotel.

Sunday, Sep 27: No-orthern bound, I wish I wa-a-as…

Different Sunday morning: Our second full day began with a quick run to the bank to change some dollars and another Buddhist encounter. We stopped in at an ongoing Sunday service at a more modern, in-town datsan, where normal worshippers sometimes visit. The service involved beautifully mantric Tibetan chants read out of these horizontally-aligned booklets the participating monks use, horns blowing, this huge drum being beat, incense, rice throwing, sweets and vodka offerings, big hats with feather things that give the Knights of Columbus a run for their money, and a list of other things completely different from any other religion I have had encounters with. A cool new experience, to say the least.

The Museum of the Peoples and Cultures of Zabaikalia: We spent a few hours on the outskirts of Ulan-Ude at a huge complex, a village with houses and land-plots preserved for hundreds of years. We saw the houses and little farms and living styles of the Semeiskii, traditional Russian, Westernized Russian, Kazakh Russian, Buryat, Pribaikalskii (west of Baikal) Buryat, and a few other indigenous peoples whose names were too complicated to remember. All of which, more or less, shared a few unifying features: warm housing, warm clothing, and means of sustenance. One happy human (Siberian) family, right?

But not to leave out the animal kingdom, albeit that they kept them in abusively small cages, they also had a small zoo area (the Russian word is great: zoopark), complete with native-to-the area camels, wolves, mountain lions, tigers, and bears (I’ll spare the Oz reference). Birds, too. Educational moment: I have a strange aversion to learning animal names in foreign languages. I’ll survive.

Sunday morning in a Christian church: That morning, we had received word that the third member of the Middlebury Class of 2011, Ben Wieler (my heart stopped when Elizabeth, while giving us the news, paused mid-word to remember what came after the “Wee” sound–one of my very closest friends’ name is Ben Weir), had passed away. So, a few hours after leaving the museum, we came to a women’s monastery (Russian Orthodox) situated in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, and being it was one of the rare Sundays that a Roman Catholic church was nowhere within a hundred miles or so, I was at peace when I was able to light a candle in the church and have my Sunday prayers. The attendant showed us the staircase up to the top of the bell tower, where we 5 stood in silence, with the exception of our cameras occasionally snapping.

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And then it was back on the road. A few notes about the roads in between tiny villages in East Siberia: Rather rocky. Sometimes smooth and paved where you can speed up to 60 mph, only to have to slow back down to 5-40 to navigate frequent detour (“obezd,” or “drive around”) signs, even more frequent potholes, or pull over to let an oncoming vehicle use the narrow through way. But we had a great and expert driver in Misha.

Arrival, 120 miles, 6-7 hours of driving later: We got our first views of Baikal from the other side as the sun was getting ready to go down as we stopped in the little town of Goryachinsk for a snack. Beautiful and breathtaking, again. Just as the sun was going down, we made it to Misha’s hometown of Ust’-Barguzin (ust’ is the Russian word for the mouth of a river, and Barguzin is the river), where Misha had arranged a homestay for us 4 at some friends of his, who regularly take in visitors to Baikal from abroad.

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Aleksandr, a park ranger in the neighboring Zabaikalskii (east of Baikal) National Park, set up the banya (sauna) for us, and Galina, a schoolteacher, set out a delicious meal of the omul’ fish, that’s native to Baikal, and about 6 or 7 other dishes. They had a beautiful, spacious home that was the most Western-looking and feeling I’ve been in here, along with the, from what I could tell, forward-thinking inhabitants to go along with it. At the same time, the good-sized vegetable garden, the two little cottages (domiki heated by wood stoves, where Patrick and I slept), and the two banya’s on their property made it just as authentically Russian as anything.

Stay tuned for the next 4 days and nights. . . .

 I’d had two weeks of classes to figure out the work ethic, attention, layout of the building, teachers’ names and patronymics, and so on, here at the university; two weeks to make some friends; two weeks to start missing home and to get a steady Internet connection to stay on top of the news, social life, and goings on of home, Midd, and my friends now scattered around the world. Along with all of that comes a lot of work (and stress), so I was more than happy to hang around home for my three day weekend and catch up on sleep.

The variations among the “service” sector/bureaucracy of the place is shocking.

Example 1. BaikalWestCom is wonderful. Pristine, heated, spacious, and helpful—aspects of buildings and establishments which I appreciate more and more each day—I’ve had to go to their store in the city center twice now to figure out my Internet modem settings on my computer. But, regardless of the fact my modem isn’t perfect, or the fact it makes for about a 45-60 minute round-trip commute and 20-24 rubles to do so (i.e. about 3 quarters), I really don’t mind it. They even made an exception to their rules and violated the privacy (but not really—I’m just allowed to see my account balance online now) of David Parker, who graciously left behind his modem in dear Irkutsk for generations of starving travelers to come (also quoted as rating BWC employees “the most helpful service people in the city”). They’re helpful, there’s not a wait or paperwork, and it’s free tech support. Beautiful.

Example 2. On my recent trip to the post office, I needed to approach the counter to ask for postage for postcards to the U.S. Upon saying so (I think it was the “S.Sh.A,” meaning U.S.A. that set it off. . . the accent too, obviously), the woman behind the desk thought it would be necessary to speak about 50 decibels higher than normal. I mean, there wasn’t anyone else around really, so I didn’t mind, and it was better than the usual mumble behind the glass screen that stands between any inquirer and the Russian bureaucracy. And I got the things sent. So, normal’no (the always usable Russian equivalent of “all right,” “normal,” “fine”).

Example 3. To swim in pools in Russia, 95% of the time, you’ll need a doctor’s note saying you’re healthy enough to be in collective water. But “doctor’s note” is a bit of an understatement. First, Elizabeth and I had an unsuccessful try at the Central Diagnostic Center of Irkutsk early yesterday morning, where they charge double for foreigners—literally, it’s a multiplied by two charge, not because of any visible tacked on charges for analyzing foreign blood, just doubled. I don’t have the budget for that. So today, we tried at the less high-tech looking clinic across the street from the MezhFak. After we were spun around the office to four different desks with four different lines and four different women with typically stern faces, I ended up in the doctor’s office with the proper paper with the proper stamp saying I had paid my 200 rubles (not even $10). She asked to see my hands. Then told me to turn them over. She asked if they itched. I said no. She asked if I was healthy. I said yes. Then she handed me the final piece of paper needed, which we took to receive 3 more stamps, and I received my spravka (the doctor’s note), no needles, x-rays, or exorbitant medical costs. Three cheers for good ol’ bureaucratic dishonesty.

So Mom and Dad, you can take back the money you put in my account if you’d like. Or not. They say bribing happens here, too, sometimes. But for now, I’m putting on my happy face about Russian papers, stamps, and angry women behind the glass window.

In other news, the dollar is falling. C’mon US economy—do it for your kids abroad!