Posts Tagged ‘train’

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…)

"Art belongs to the people," says Lenin. On the UU Opera House

Russians have a word (“trevoga”) for the spiritual qualms that you experience before traveling until you’re safely seated on your train/plane seat. I call it stress. Whatever it is, I feel it.

The day of our departure, I went straight from classes to my internship, and then straight to choir rehearsal, leaving early around 8 p.m. to inhale my dinner, grab my things (packed the day before), and run to meet Ryan at the station to catch our 9:40 overnight train to Ulan-Ude. The guidebook says it’s nickname is “UU,” but I’ve never heard that in real life. (Prophesy from the future: more “the guidebook was wrong” moments to come).

Regardless, we got in at 6 a.m. and bought the last of our train tickets (the ticket lady in Irkutsk had advised us to hold off on getting a few of them, since better seats opened up in the end).

MISTAKE ONE: Not booking the hotel. (more…)

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.”

350.org is an organization, which has declared October 24, 2009 an International Day of Climate Action. Since my co-traveler to Mongolia, Romany Redman, and I are interested parties, and fall into the category of “international,” we’re planning on participating en route to Mongolia.

But we need ideas for our “climate action”! Other climate actions include rallies, demonstrations, art pieces going up, and other interesting, creative things. And they all feature the number 350 in some way, representing the highest possible, known-to-be safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Learn more at 350.org.

We have a few ideas, but would like to hear yours. The only criteria are 1) must include the number 350 and something relating to the environment, and 2) can’t upset the Russians and Mongols on the train, but hopefully will involve them somehow.

Leave a comment now!

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.)

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. . . .