Avacha, The Friendly Volcano

Remember this photo?

A few friends and I hiked to the top of that volcano – the Avacha Volcano. 

We wanted to do the more bad-ass one to the left, but we would have needed to overnight on the mountain because the hike takes over a day. So we didn’t hike it because 1) I had to leave the next day, 2) we didn’t have tents, and 3) oh yeah, it’s for hot-shot alpinists who actually know what they’re doing. 

We assembled a hodgepodge team of Skilled Mountaineers: my friend Viktor, who is extremely fit and specializes in running fast up steep things, a punk-y, sporty, all-around cool chick who strolls up cliff sides as if she were just too good for gravity, two lassies whose cozy winter pastimes feature climbing up mountains and snowboarding down them, and three Average Joes. I should expand on that: two Average Kamchatka Ivans and one American Average Joe (me), who, it could be said, may have had one too many pelmenys(meat dumplings) and whose body was beginning to take on the shape of one. And so it began.

We rented a marshrutka (mini van) with driver for the day for a fare that was way more fair than I had anticipated. The ride was hilariously rough. The journey, which took about 2 hours, was more comparable to a boat on choppy waters than a van on a road. We lurched left and right, banged our heads against the frosty windows, and intrusively bounced into each others’ personal spaces. It was a great ice-breaking activity; I highly recommend it for corporate events.

We landed and changed for the hike. There were a variety of outfits, ranging from bikini and surf shorts to winter jacket and hat. Throughout the hike, I was in awe of the number of sporty costume changes, and also of how much they all fit into their backpacks. The weather was gorgeous and the volcano steaming and gurgling like a happy baby.


There were so many beautiful, delicate mountain flowers. Mountain flowers are really special – they seem tiny, frail, and subdued, but when you realize they are constantly exposed to cold, sharp wind, grow on rocks with little fertile soil, and still manage to be brightly-colored and beautiful, you can’t help but admire them.  





An hour into the hike and I was feeling great. We were hustling up that mountain! We inadvertently split up into groups, and I was with the two snowboarders. They were awesome- risk-takers, thrill-seekers, adventure girls. One was from St. Petersburg and had moved out to Kamchatka to do more outdoorsy things. I don’t remember what the other girl’s story was, but it was something along those lines. It was really refreshing to talk to them, because it’s easy to see many beautiful Russian women that are preoccupied with fashion, makeup, and appearance and think that’s what they’re all like. These girls were a fantastic reminder that in every country, every type of person exists. It’s all too easy to generalize based on a small group of people – those who you see most often – and believe that’s how it is for everyone everywhere in Russia. I really enjoyed talking to these girls.


The closer we got, the more the mountain looked like a volcano. It was really smoking!


We had been hiking steadily for about 2 hours and decided to take a well deserved water/rest break. There were a few too many clouds on the nearby volcano (the one we didn’t hike), so I needed to blow them away.Image

As the volcano started getting steeper, the hike became more breathtaking. We had to stop and take pictures, but also to take our breath back. 



But then, suddenly and bizarrely, the weather changed dramatically. It was as if we crossed over into another biome – the mountain was completely covered in snow, the sky was gray, and to call it foggy would have been like calling borshch a pink-ish colored soup. 


After we traversed the arctic biome, we entered into an entirely different planet!! You can see the line where the soil turns from a rocky, gravely mix into powdery, burnt red Mars dirt. Image

Also, did you see those dark little figures in the fog? Yup, those are people.


I was endlessly fascinated with the new Mars biome. I half expected gravity to get all wonky here on up, but alas, it didn’t. It was steep, and I have to admit it – quite challenging. At that point, it was very cold, furiously windy, and hyper-steep. We were already a bit worn from our great speed earlier, and the hike went from challenging but fun to uhhh… kinda sucky, hah. It felt endless – we could see the summit, but it didn’t feel like we were getting any closer. There was no longer any clear trail, either – just mounds of red dirt and red rubble and the occasional patch of snow, as if to remind you this actually wasn’t Mars. One benefit of the hyper-steep mountain was that you didn’t have to bend down to collect Mars rock samples – the mountain was angled such that just by sticking out your hands you could grab fistfulls of evidence of space travel. 



The last haul was so steep you needed a rope. I grabbed onto the rope, which was frozen from the moisture from the fog plus the cold mountain wind. At that moment, I really wished I had taken gloves. Or had IronMan hands. Either/or. 

After a grueling while of pulling myself up what had to have been an 89 degree angle slope via an ice rope, I made it to the top! Hurray!


A victorious pose behind glamor-shot-style thick fog. 


Up top was crazy. It was almost always covered so thickly in fog I didn’t know what was out there! I really didn’t know if there was a giant volcano pit with all kinds of crazy lava 3 feet in front of me or not, so I didn’t veer off by myself!Image

Following closely behind my friends that had hiked Avacha before, we did a bit of exploring. Soooo… here I am touching some old and hardened lava….(!!!!!!!!!!!!GAAHHH!!!!!!!!!)Image

Here I am clutching part of my sandwich and rushing to take a picture because this is a rare instance where the fog has cleared up. The rope on the left is the frozen monstrosity we used to heave ourselves up the 89.9999999 degree slope. Please notice, ladies and gentlemen, that this photo is taken above cloud level.Image

Ahahahahaha, so little do I know that to my left is a photoshoot of epic proportions! Remember those costume changes I was telling you about?? This one was most impressive. Even included are pineapples. I guess she was going for the classic “Little House on the Prairie on a Volcano In the Russian Far East Plus Pineapples” look. Image

Here’s some dried up sulfer residue. 

Then we decided to walk around the rim of the volcano to get closer to get to where all the gasses come out. I knew on one side of me is a very steep mountain edge, but because of the fog, I have no idea what was on the other side. 


The landscape became progressively more alien when on the ground appeared patches of chartreuse and mini gas-vents. 




Then my friend Viktor decided to do a few merry mountain-goat-like hops to celebrate how cool everything was. I had to close my eyes I was so scared he was going to fall off the face of the earth. Image

And then… the fog passed by for a moment and we saw it. 


Smoking like an underage dragon in a high school bathroom, and stinking of an underage dragon that just smoked a ton and then tried to bathe himself in rotten eggs to cover the stench, was the volcanic pit. It was loud and hot and wet and stinky and THRILLING. Here’s a video. 

After a while, after lunch, after thorough exploration, and after my backpack was heavy with Mars rocks and chartreuse sulfur rocks and dried lava chunks, we eventually made our way back down. It was almost a completely different mountain yet again! The way down the steepest parts was, for me, was just as difficult because I was afraid of slipping and losing control completely. But after that bit, it was pure FUN. 




We experimented with a number of different options, but in the end, the quickest way down the snowy parts was foot skiing. Plant your feet deep into the snow, throw caution into the wind, and ski off!


Admittedly, foot skiing became a lot of butt skiing 🙂Image

The start of the sunset was so brilliant. The landscape was so smooth- light was just dripped onto the canvas like a pristinely surreal CGI landscape. Image



After completing the trip and feeling like a complete and maximum boss, I learned some stunning things:

1. Average-Joe Kamchatka-ites climb this volcano every year. Grandmas included. Children included. (!!!!!!!) 
2. My very svelte runner friend, the one guy in the pictures, ran up the mountain. 

I’d like to note that these additions do not take away from our bad-ass-ness. It does, however, add to the endless extreme factor of Kamchatka and its residents.  Suburban towns I’ve lived in had Charter Days with fried dough and maybe some pony rides. Kamchatka residents have climb-the-volcano day. No comparison.

Next day, early in the morning, I got on a plane and left Russia. As I looked out the window and saw the volcano we had been at the top of maybe 15 hours before, I just had this dizzying recap of 10 months in Siberia – the stark beauty of winter at its purest, the loving souls who showed me things I hadn’t even thought to ask about, the uncomfortable instability of a fresh city that doesn’t yet know where it’s going but drives ahead anyway. It was a year of enormous ups and downs, but it ended with a 2,741 meter “up” that ensured and proved that the trip had been a year of brilliant discoveries. 


I realized I had been living in Candyland, Siberia

when I arrived on Kamchatka. A Russian friend had mentioned that a trip to Kamchatka is a trip to ten years ago, so, being that my three most recent fascinations were(are) Slaughterhouse Five, Back to the Future, and vintage Soviet postcards, I was lapping it all up.

 The airport was a vision in cement and military, cloaked in volcano.

Ok, let’s start from the beginning.

As I peeled away the eyecrust that had accumulated from the long and sleepy flight, these volcanos came into sight: sharp, pointy rock monsters that ripped their way up through the sky.

I was staying with Martha Madsen, an (the?) American woman living on Kamchatka. She’s been married to a Russian man for over a decade now, running a bed and breakfast amongst endless other projects. She’s worked with BBC, National Geographic, and even some handsome surfer dudes on various Kamchatka documentaries. She’s also very close friends with Laura Williams, author of The Stork’s Nest(trailer, of sorts, here), who came to speak with our Russian House my freshman year about environmental conservation on Kamchatka. Julia Phillips, Fulbright researcher to Kamchatka and human-du-jours, also happened to have Thanksgiving with Martha. I had found Martha on the Wwoofing website. So, through a beautiful web of connections, we got in touch and I was able to stay at her home for two weeks in exchange for garden- and housework. You can and should read Julia’s beyond perfect Kamchatka blog on the Moscow Times here.

 The theme of my three Kamchatskyian weeks was immediately revealed to me: экстрим! For all you laymen out there, that’s “extreme.” Say it with a chunky Russian “r” for the full effect. This theme manifested itself in various ways and to varying degrees, but at all times I was aware of the #ekstreem nature of Kamchatka.

Martha and I started off with a little trip to the fish market to pick up some dinner. #Ekstreemly fresh, #ekstreemly delicious, and also involved one fish shamelessly gargling another. Also, the smeared scales and assorted guts charmed me to pieces. This was obviously going to be where I would get all my fish from now on.

Every morning at 7am we would walk the dogs. All things considered, this wasn’t that #ekstreem, but the dogs did get muddier than one could possibly imagine dogs getting, so there was that.

Also, there were some cats on the way.

#Ekstreem cats.

#Ekstreem exercise. Er…

There are nice views, and then there are #ekstreemly nice views.

Sunset from my window

There are bridges, and then there are #ekstreem bridges.

There’s McDonald’s, then there’s #ekstreem McDonald’s, i.e. Shawerma.

And this is just #ekstreemly hilarious: carving out the foam of the bus seat in front of you to make a trash receptacle for your семочки (any kind of seeds, here we see sunflower seeds) shells.

There was another girl who also worked in Martha’s garden and greenhouse, Nina. We chatted pleasantly while furiously ripping weeds out of their earthy sockets. One afternoon, she invited me to an event called Опэн Аэр, i.e. “Open Air” said with an #ekstreem Russian pronunciation. Committed to making up for my inactivity of the last two months in Khanty, I signed up for anything and everything with a near psychotic zeal, so naturally, I blew her ear out on the phone with my emphatic ДА. (Da = yes).

We drove in a friendly but busted up Lada with a plastic,-tar,-and-watermelon-scented air freshener dangling from the mirror. My new friends didn’t believe I was American at first – it was easier for them to think I was faking my accent than to believe that I was actually from that way over there place. But eventually my questionable use of grammar assured them that no real Russian would ever in their right minds talk as bizarrely as I did, so thus, they met their first American.

As with any other welcoming rite, I was asked what curse words I knew.

I railed them off with glee, spitting out expletives like a mad sprinkler. They hooped with laughter, eyes watering, mouths unabashedly stretched wide. (Excellent dental work all around, I might add.) More curses were contributed. Creative curse phrases, unique Kamchatka curses, curses roughly based on anatomy, curses so naughty that the girls were forced to scold the boys and tell me that if I ever wanted to get married, I was never to utter those words.

Ladas bring out the best in people!

We arrived at night to a forest speckled with bald patches, each crammed with Toyotas, Hondas, and Nissans, and the occasional Lada. Kamchatka is so close to Japan that everyone imports Japanese cars with lefthand steering wheels.

There was a whole DJ table set up- speakers bigger than tree trunks, lights brighter than stars, and a DJ larger than life. Just a few steps away from the music and dance setup was a great caldron hanging over an open fire, steaming and crackling as any proper witches’ brew should. Inside sloshing around excitedly was уха (ukha), classic Kamchatka fish soup, enough to feed a whole fleet of godly DJs and their obedient dancing followers. So here we have it: underground techno hotspot and centuries of tradition just meters away from each other, coexisting without question.

A few days later I had my first full day free. It was spent manically running from thing to thing, crazed and squirrely, driven to do it all!

Scrambling across town into suburb into town into village into plot of land, lied about my experience with horses because tired of being babied, threw my leg over the saddle and willed myself up, fled the earth in a dusty fury, biomes fly by farm birchforest plains swamp river, galloping hard enough to turn back clocks, whipped by branches and horsehair, splattered with earth’s muddy vengeance, grinning wildly revealing gritty mud-flecked teeth.

Return. Boiling tea, photo after photo of beautiful wife and beautiful horses and beautiful mountains, must leave (“already late!”) but must have one more cup of tea and one more photo album and tour of humble and beloved home and meet the dog and the son and the daughter. A blurry swipe of gratitude and amazement and love and respect for people who have carved out of steel a most splendid life.

Board this bus switch to that bus squeeze into this car pack into that van. We could have walked here, says Nina, but last week pedestrians got attacked by bears so her mom wasn’t crazy about the idea so we all bought booze and cigarettes and batted our eyelashes so Vanya/Sasha/Misha/Pasha would drive us out to the Pacific. Parked, stripped, ran. Black sand, lingering chunks of snow, brainfreeze water. All reservations thrown into the wind weeks ago. I dropped mine out the plane window, and I think they were just born without ’em.

(Snow nestled in the sand)

Now for tea. We build a fire and out comes an artillery of picnic foods. Fluffy bread, slabs of salty meat and rubbery cheese, glistening red-orange fish eggs, slimy pickled mushrooms, plasticky pink sausages, matte tan eggs, pale green cucumbers and pink tomatoes, aromatic black tea. A veritable feast reduced to a deceptively innocuous term; “tea drinking.”

What’s that? Over there in the distance, smoking! Is it a volcano?! Are we witnessing a volcanic eruption?!?! Lava? Ash? Pumice?! AAHH DANTE’S PEAK RELIVED!!!!??????

What are you going on about?


Oh, THAT?! You mean the burning pile of TRASH?

……………   .

Scurry off to the last event. Band practice. Walk through dank, moist basement room with scrappy punk splashing against the walls, another room with screechy metal, a third with serrated rap. My friend pulls out his base, his friends take pulls on a bottle in a paper bag. Drums are smashed on triumphantly, guitar chords strum heroically, fingers crawl masterfully up and down the neck of the base. Just some dudes, any dudes, in some room, any room, playing some music, any music. Same dingy basement smell as in Collegetown USA basements across the globe. Same finger blisters, same big egos and tension between them. Same reasons for playing.


Back to work, but now Julia Phillips (read her blog have you not done that yet?! http://www.themoscowtimes.com/blogs/447156.html) is back in town! She had been in the Valley of the Geysers, but now returned.

Parking lot disco under the approving(oh yeah?) eyes of heavily cloaked Lenin.

Russia begins right here. Right in this very spot. Legendary. Ringing in the start with kvas’ (bread soda), a BB gun, and a wilted cigarette.

Also, FYI:

State-funded statue bears (har har) striking resemblance to a particular state-favored party.

Also, quick side note, I don’t have any good pictures from this, but Martha participated in a dog show during my stay. It was pretty small and low-key, mainly proud dog owners displaying their obedient and well-groomed best friends. A nice, pleasant afternoon.

Sponsored by… Purina? No. Friskies? No. United Russia? Yes.

-Video perhaps coming soon-

Anyway, for Julia’s last night, she had a nice grill get-together, too. Lots of pleasant socializing, just people recounting average-joe stories of pulling their jeeps out of flooded rivers, climbing volcanoes after work, volunteering at the local geyser park. #ekstreem.

Once the sun set and the kids made their way home, we became the kids and decided to jump over the fire. For some reason in these pictures, the fire looked way less #ekstreem when we used a flash, so you’ll just have to believe that we were indeed doing something cool.

Without the flash the photo looks a little crazy…

But with the flash it looks completely normal.

The walk home at dawn. The clouds were congregating around Mt. Vilyuchensky, making it look like it was erupting baby blue cotton candy into the pale morning sky.

Massive lumpy summary of the last few months in KhM

The 2011-2012 academic year swelled and heaved like the belly of a wooly babushka: sometimes full, jolly, and content, other times deflated, empty, and sagging. The end was more on the droopy side. I started staying home and complaining about the internet more (always a bad move, I know) and just feeling uninspired. It was one of those nasty cycles, whereby winter-induced laziness only worsened my lack of inspiration. It wasn’t quite “тоска,” (toska) this quintessentially Russian concept of a sort of empty longing for something intangible, a heavy, sticky, swampy boredom of the soul, but it felt close. The snow, which usually reflects the sun and flicks glitters of inspiration into your heart every morning, chose to reflect our soggy spirits:

We were all thoroughly grayed out. 150 shades of grey. Greyscale. Stuck in the grey zone of mediocrity that smells like moldy towels. Cheap cigarette ash -grey. Canadian and Britishly spelled gray. Earl Grey. Peter the Grey -t.

There were nuggets of great times in between, though!

Olga Anatolevna, my host and boss and the most extraordinary human in Khanty-Mansiysk, as well as two students and I all went to Yaroslavl’ to attend a conference for English teachers and translators. That was invigorating. I felt like this:


There were countless presentations, and the vast majority were really interesting and bursting with enthusiasm and potential. One woman spoke of methods to teach English and ASL (American Sign Language) to deaf students. Because the Russian sign language is different, her work was helping her students (from children to adults) to connect with new communities and lifestyles around the world. (Life for a disabled Russian is incredibly difficult. There are an alarmingly few number of resources for physically handicapped Russians – apartments and buildings often lack elevators (even those that have them often have only steps to get into the first floor), generally no ramps for boarding public transportation. For learning or developmental disabilities, the schools that do exist are few and far apart, and typically there is a cost burden as well.) There was a brilliant translator who spoke of her 10+ years translating novels. She was sharply charismatic, sported short, pumpkin pie colored hair, and a long nose that had a bump for every obstacle she’s had to overcome. She was funny and loved the expression, “it’s not his cup of tea,” using it about as many times in her hour-long presentation as I would drink cups of tea in a day. Thomas Santos, such a vivacious, theatrical speaker, could talk about the nuances of toothpick manufacturing for two hours and would end up with an Oscar, two marriage proposals, and a gilded subway stop in his honor by the end of it. Olga Anatolevna and I did a nice little presentation on the importance of film title translations. I did a lot of talking for it, but you can at least check out the bare slides here.

Basically, the titles were often purposely mistranslated, we found more often than not for marketing purposes. We liked some of the titles, which were adjusted to keep puns or proverbs and the like, but many others were just absurd. (Bridesmaids was “translated” to Bachelorette Party in Vegas and a movie about a bunch of greedy real estate agents, Glengarry Glen Harris, was “translated” to Americans, to name just two.) One fascinating presentation by a Russian professor of English/ educational administrator looked at the controversial new Russian college-level standardized state examinations, the госы. They are based on a western model of testing that has not been matching up with Russian educational culture at all, effectively deepening the rift in Russia’s ongoing Europe or Asia? identity crisis. I think her slides were fascinating. Overgeneralized for sure, but show a sharp contrast in views. If you can’t read the slides in the small picture, click to enlarge.

And oh, the certificates that were handed out! Certificates of participation, certificates validating that you gave a presentation, certificates proving that you shared the same air as the near godly Thomas Santos, certificates confirming that you are indeed a human being, certificates confirming that the certificate before it was legitimate. Notarized and stamped, often a gold seal was involved.

As for the city itself, Yaroslavl was bursting at the seams with those springtime feelings. Yaroslavl’ day was sunshiny and proud, fresh grads, dressed in their preschool uniforms (a definitive Lolita feel), promenades with preposterously tall fountains and heroic classical music.

“The little squirrel” vodka.

Yaroslavl Day. Bright and friendly!

We were kings of the castle for a bit

Very holy saints indeed

$$$$$$$$$$$$$ The monument featured on the Russian 1,000 ruble note $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

#####BRIDEPARTY ‘012#####

Another great moment was a night fishing trip back in Khanty. It hadn’t quite become White Nights yet, but it was close; the sky wouldn’t darken, it just vacillated between varying shades of pink and purple like an etherial lava lamp. We drank and laughed in cameo gear and caught some fish and slept in bug spray clouds.

Toured a few schools in the area – a charter elementary school and the Center for Gifted Children of the North. They were fantastic! The two schools were beautiful – modern, clean, spacious, full of plants, classrooms were nice. Given, I only toured the schools they wanted me to tour, and while I’m sure there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes (like there is all over the world), what I did see of them made an excellent impression. There are a lot of townsfolk that don’t care about, or don’t even like, Khanty-Mansiysk, but the generation that is being raised under new circumstances and in these new facilities has a very different opinion, and understandably so! There were a lot of numbers being thrown about – # students won awards, # teachers per student, # hours of ###% quality education per week. I was able to see these places thanks to Rafel, an American fellow working for the State Department (in Education) who came by to check out KhM. The attention was comically over the top – itineraries with gold embossed stamps, giant vases of glossy flowers hectically brought out, classrooms and students alike fine-tuned, buffed, and sculpted. All for the show, taken down upon his departure.

We also had a closing photoshoot with the mammoths and other prehistoric rulers of the Khanties.

A stranger wanted to get in on the fun. He asked what we were doing, and we told him we were part of the circus, traveling and performing at cities near the Trans-Siberian railroad. He dug it.

Also, a quick nod to the city planner / architect of Khanty-Mansiysk. Practicality and accessibility are not always the number one concerns.

The year tapered off anti-climactically with reduced attendance and reduced enthusiasm (both on my part and my students’). The second to last day, I had a going-away barbecue, where I gathered my students and friends for one mass goodbye fest. We were all having a jolly time, until one particularly sardonic friend brought me a sneakily delicious cranberry самагонь (moonshine, basically) after which I proceeded to remember nothing of the rest of the night. Allegedly, there was a period of incurable sobbing on my part, which, after first being embarrassed hearing about it the next day, was actually a relief: despite the grayness of the ending, I thankfully still had the capacity for human emotions! That was reassuring. The next morning was this: a stringy hangover, a blurry packing rush, a disastrous attempt to mail 20 lbs of aging Soviet books home (and, guess what!!! two months later, they arrived on my porch!!), a stream of guests and tea. By the end of the day, my shoulders hung as worn out and indifferently as the yellowing fire escape map on the door. I crunched in handful of hours of sleep and, in an indifferent daze, indifferently boarded the plane.


Fell asleep for long enough for my unbrushed teeth to grow a five o’clock fuzz, and woke up on the cement-and-volcano-cloaked peninsula of Kamchatka.

Victory Day (День Победы)

Victory Day is celebrated on May 9th in Russia, not May 8th. The reason, they say, is simple – the news of the victory arrived late at night, and due to the time zone differences, most didn’t find out until the next day. This means that on both Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, people are celebrating the holiday.

A small group of mostly students and professors collected on Tuesday morning at 4:45 am to usher in the victory’s first sunlight. It had snowed a bit the night before, and the temperature was hovering just below freezing.

We walked to the Victory Park to recite poetry, sing songs, and lay carnations down. We all showed our patriotism with our winter-white Siberian skin, red noses, and blue lips! Ha. In any case, the procession was taken very seriously, and despite icy fingers, the boys kept strumming away endlessly on their guitars, and despite frozen cheeks, we all did our best to sing along.

The next day was the town-wide celebration: a parade and show in the center square and later a formal laying-of-flowers in the park. My friend Alexei invited me to join his co-workers in their section of the march, which was great.

Someone in the group had made a copy of the April 30th Victory Flag (“The attack flag of the 150th Order of Kutuzov” “штурмовой флаг 150-й ордена Кутузова”), which was very cool.

After we placed the flowers on the memorial, we sat down for a picnic of smoked fish, homemade bread, and anise-and-herb-based moonshine, fondly nicknamed, “The Little Green One.” Steady nips at this, appropriately disguised in a “Lipton Green Tea” bottle, made the day that much merrier and warmer!

Then came time for the obligatory “stand next to things/people and take pictures” segment.

Here is my contribution:

After an exhausting amount of photos and The Little Green One, we went and made pelmeny. Perfect conclusion.

The celebration was overall great – a both cheerful and proud atmosphere. Kids were excited to perform the various dances and songs they had prepared, adults were grateful for a day off work, and veterans shined with honor and achievement. It’s a very respectful holiday, and people, as far as I saw, really poured their hearts into it.

Sweet reminiscences about Pochta Rossii (Russian Postal System)

An old entry written way back in February.

Kirsti v. Pochta Rossii (Russian postal system) remains 1 – 8. (It would still have been 0 – 8, but I awarded myself a condolence point for endurance.)  A few days ago, the rug was brutally ripped out from under my tapochkeed (slippered) feet when I innocently tried to mail a package to friends back home. Well!  Little did yours truly know about the War and Peace of a regulations manual of mailing things to the US!

We got off on the wrong foot right away. First, under no circumstances are you allowed to mail fish from Russia to the US. That was unfortunate, because that’s the first item she pulled out of my bag of lucky charms to be mailed. Absolutely no fish. Even if they’re in a plastic bag?  No!  Even if they’re as a souvenir?   No!!  Even if… NO.

Next item of dispute was a lovely gift bag featuring a streamlined, elegant, sensual bottle of Stolichnaya Vodka against a background of glitter, fireworks, Christmas tree tinsel, and diamonds. That gift bag is guaranteed fancier than anything I could think up to put in it; I couldn’t resist getting it for a friend of mine. That’s when rule #2 made itself known: no mailing things that advertise Russian products on them. But it’s not an advertisement!, I stutter, as my jaw freezes up from anger. She glares at me with that lingering, fire-and-ice glare that all Pochta Rossii agents have mastered. My eyelids lower to an equally cruel half-mast, both of us having a power stare-down. It’s a gift bag. I bought it in a gift store, I growl. She purses her lips and flips through the 30-lb manual. She skims with the concentration and patience of an ancient chess champion. It’s all very ritualistic, this procedure. Ten grueling minutes pass. Others in line are frighteningly impatient, pushing and stabbing at whatever lies ahead of them. She makes an obvious move to put the bag aside… for now.

Next, she pulls out a little military pin – some shameless copy of what people once had to earn and would wear with pride. She looks at me with disgust. No souvenirs, she says. I imagine her spitting a wad of chewing tobacco into a tin spittoon to emphasize her point. A postal service cowboy, of sorts. I didn’t know how to argue that one, so I silently let it pass.

Then she manhandles my tiny gem-encrusted plastic turtle. EY, SASH, WHADDYA THINK, IS THIS A SOUVENIR OR WHAT?  Sasha shrugs with indifference. My woman paws through the manual futilely. At this point, I think the manual plays the same role of intimidation as Doberman pinchers guarding a front door. Sasha reenters the dispute, Naah, that’s not a souvenir, there’s nothing Russian on it. Ok, my woman concedes, unexpectedly easily.

The rest, little notebooks with silly images and goofy translations, are allowed. Now comes the breakdown: the gift bag. To permit would mean to suffer defeat, to acquiesce to this foreigner’s requests. However, after ten minutes of scouring through the manual, there was no mention of gift bags. Apparently, her desire to make my mailing experience miserable was no match to her compulsive need to follow the rules!  It’s a bingo!!!!

Yet, despite that sweet victory, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth, as 2/3 of the things I had intended to send were forbidden.

Hats (Shapki) off to Shapsha

Now onto Shapsha, a small village that contains a scientific research facility owned and maintained by Yugra State University. May 1st, 2012

The research center. (Techy-looking, right??)

Inside. Hana (Czech Republic), Julia (Germany) and I talk to Ilya, from Khanty-Mansiysk, who both lives and works at the facility.

Now for the village.

More or less the town’s 7-11. (In)conveniently named Alcatraz.

The bridge that was never meant to be?

Rather gloomy conditions for champagne, don’t you think? Eah, at least someone has something to celebrate…!?

The gaudy fake flowers, candy wrappers, vodka bottles and shot glasses made for a very unusual cemetery mood.

There is a zoo in Shapsha complete with 3 bears in cages the size of clown cars. There are also some ponies with gnarled manes and crusty fur and pigs who wish they could just be bacon already. I believe this bear was the jolliest living thing there.

Hana, Julia and I all went to Shapsha, a very small village about 45 minutes outside of Khanty-Mansiysk where Yugra State University has an ecological research complex, for the day. We drank endless tea and enjoyed some tasty baked goods at the research center. Ilya, one of the scientists/researchers living out there, enlightened us about everything – from clearing up the mystery behind all the lemmings (they aren’t lemmings, but rather water rats, and their presence is not the sign of an apocalyptic flood, as predicted by the “local shaman,” but rather the opposite, a three-year long dry spell that has allowed them to reproduce faster and with fewer losses) to discussing why our two rivers, the Ob’ and Irtysh, are different colors (the Irysh is clearer while the Ob’, as it runs through swamplands, is darker). We also discussed the academic and research community, both specifically in the Khanty-Mansiysk territory as well as in all of Russia. This community, he says, is having trouble lately. The earlier generation of academicians, who had pushed scientific boundaries in their time, is now too old to keep up with quickly changing research and information sharing practices. Current students are distracted and uninspired. Middle-aged scientists are losing steam waiting years for their research to be published in journals that suffer from miniscule readership, their frustration mounting. Additionally, the community suffers from a lack of funding. At Yugra State, teachers are not paid to do research, only to teach, and even that salary is minimal; thus, they have to spend most of their time teaching to earn money. Yet, despite all this, Ilya is still hopeful. He notes that these days, teachers’ salaries are substantially higher than they used to be, and there are a lot of initiatives popping up to collect data and do research on one’s own, in small groups not connected with any state projects. He says those are bringing people’s hopes up and enthusiasm for their work back.

We walked around the village, near the river, which was thinner than usual for this time of year, they said. It snowed a bit. We walked across what we assumed was the foundation to a bridge, but had been abandoned either out of funds or just interest a while back. Across the metal bridge skeleton was a hypnotic graveyard, full of florescent, hyper-optimistic plastic flowers juxtaposed onto cold, marble gravestones, so characteristic of Russian graveyards. It’s certainly a jarring contrast at the start, but there’s a sweet sincerity emanating from each waxy petal. We were caught off guard by the number of scattered vodka bottles and toppled glasses and empty candy wrappers. “Who has a party in a graveyard?!” Hana puzzled. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that they were offerings to the deceased; just as you never come empty-handed to a friend’s house, you don’t come empty-handed to visit your deceased loved ones. Whether this stems from a superstition, tradition, or true belief in an afterlife, we were uncertain. Our suspicions were confirmed when we returned to Ilya for a second round of tea and baked goods. He elaborated not only on this tradition, but also on Tatar, Gypsy, Kazakh, and Khanty burial procedures. (Tatar – not a cross before the grave, but a tall wooden post, Gypsy – a large, rectangular construction, Kazakh – perhaps a pyramid or other shape, Khanty – their dead are buried in a box, a sort of container, above ground, and often separate from the village).

Here are three overhead views of the Yugra territory.

In this shot, indigo blue is water, light blue is swamp area, and I think pink/orange is taiga region. Khanty-Mansiysk is nestled in one of those little hump-sized river pockets from that central river.

Dark brown is water, tan is swamp, aqua is forest?

A further-away view. Here, I think dark brown is burnt forest, orange is forest, and blue is water.

On the way back, Hana reminded us of two of Valera’s beloved jokes:

1) Who does a bad Russian become when he is reborn in the afterlife?


A Russian.
2)  “Один – сломал, второй – потерял.”  Three men are captured by a very cruel bunch of cannibals: a German, a Frenchman, and a Russian. The cannibals are brutal, but they could use some entertainment. They give the captives two iron balls and explain that if the prisoners can succeed in entertaining their captors, they will be released. The German does some sort of juggling act, the Frenchman does a magic trick, but when the captors arrive to the Russian’s cell, the balls are no where to be seen. “Well?  Where are the balls? What are you going to perform for us?”

The Russian just shrugs indifferently. «Ну, один сломался, второй потерялся.» “Well, one broke, and the other got lost.”

Catching Up pt 1: Gettin’ Curly in Perm

Let’s backtrack a few months and get this blog caught up!

We were in Perm from March 30th until April 3rd. I went with Julia, our German friend doing research on waste management in Khanty-Mansiysk, who was there visiting Natasha at an ecological conference.

I had a gut feeling that Perm was An Awesome City for two reasons: Реальные пацаны and Соль, a TV-show and magazine respectively. The show, “Real Guys,” is a divine, loving mockery of the Russian “guy/dude,” one social step up from гопники, my friend explains. Some really don’t like the show at all, but Hana and I can’t get enough. The series cashes in on all the subtleties and specificities of the Russian пацан. Even the way the actors talk is spot-on. The three main characters are loveable, typically pretty hopeless, and always get themselves in too deep coming up with gloriously idiotic schemes to get girls and cars.  The two policemen are hilariously inneffective and while trying so hard to prove otherwise. Here are some screenshots.

I actually met the actors in Moscow by chance! I was at some cafe in the airport and they sat at the table across from me, continuously bothered by giddy girls asking to фоткаться (take their picture) with them. Eventually I went up and gracefully asked, «are you guys some celebrities or something?» and that sparked a fun chat. I hadn’t heard of the show at that point, but promised to watch it!

Next is the magazine Соль (Salt), which I had randomly picked up a copy of in Moscow because the latest print had a beautiful ballerina on the cover. Turns out it’s a fantastic indie-style art-and-culture magazine based in Perm (and only later did I notice that one of the cover articles was in fact, «Реальные пацаны – наконей сериал, который непротивно смотреть» (Real Guys – At last a TV show that’s not appauling to watch)! Fate. Always русская судьба.)  So that was another harbinger of good things to come!

The city struck me as a little grungy and cool. Fresh out of the wannabe snowglobe-perfect Khanty-Mansiysk, the unkept construction sites and derelict factories were actually well-appreciated. What was most unique, however, is how the city dealt with these eyesores: last year, the Perm Museum of Modern Art invited artists from all over the world to paint murals all over the ugly things, effectively turning the whole city into a museum playground.

That was the first impression. Secondly, the city was speckled with interesting monuments – crazy designs that you’d expect to see lurking deep in the private folds of a quirky artist’s mind rather than in the central square.

(For those who didn’t notice it in the picture above this, we’re trying (hoplessly) to form the P and E of Perm’!)

A dung beetle loving up on some dung!!!! In the city central square!! (Also, made out of recycled tires!) Perfect.

Happiness is just around the corner! (Literally: “Happiness is not behind the mountains”)

“Permyak – Salty Ears”

Next, I met up with the friend of one of my close friends from St. Petersburg who was going to school in Perm. She took me to this perfectly obscure restaurant-cafe tucked away in «some allyway off some street» and we had the most incredible meal I’d had all year. The cafe is named after a novel, which just so happens to be one of her favorites, Arbuznij Sakhar (named after Richard Brautigan’s book, In Watermelon Sugar) It was such a little indie paradise – girly flowery pillows and doilies, lovely white wrought-iron furnature, delicate teacups and saucers.  The tea we drank was from herbs from the chef’s garden, the bread was baked right there, and the pork was hypnotically delicious. The chef was also our waitress and cashier, and the kitchen was entirely open right in front of us. Not for any showy, entertainment purposes, mind you; it was just because the space was small(read: cozy) and that design just made more sense. It was the first time in a while I’d seen girls wearing something a little wacky, girls with edgy haircuts and makeupless faces. It made me miss Burlington more than I realized, actually.

We also went to a gallery/youth center/art class place, where they were showing some nice sci-fi ish spray paint graphics by a talented local Perm artist.

(art art art)

Julia, Natasha and I took a day to visit the small town of Kungur about an hour outside of Perm.

We enjoyed wandering around the city, but the best part was the cave. Here are some extraordinarily average photos of things that were in fact extraordinarily beautiful.

This beer bar features fire-holographic babes on their “Accessible Wednesdays” RUSSIAN-POP, EVRO-POP, and DISCO-HOUSE nights

Then we celebrated Natasha’s birthday!! We rang in the morning with champagne and cake for breakfast.

Then grilled shashlyks (kebabs) and played games. One of Natasha’s friend read off this interactive story thing, that involved us waving tissues at regular intervals and wearing hats and things to play certain characters.

Enjoyed some very avant-gardy cake.

Natasha and Julia were pretty busy with the conference, which left me lots of time for just wandering around and getting a feel for the city. Found a used bookstore, even, where I snatched up a beautiful book of the art of Russian theater during the silver age as well as a pack of vintagey Perm postcards. Ah, and also this gloriously impractical postcard with rocks glued on.

I had some fun getting faux-artsy with photo effects – you can see the album on facebook by clicking either of the two photos below.

They have a highly-developed and profitable fish telephone industry in Perm.