Monday, September 26, 2011

From Bashkortostan with ҡымыҙ


The most important thing to know about this AMAZING weekend is: Bashkortostan is not a country. It is an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, just like Adygeya, Chuvashia, Chechnya(well not really), Yakutia, Tatarstan and so on... it has nothing to do with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and so on...

I decided to take the weekend to visit Catherine (Katya), another Fulbright ETA. Ufa is only 5 hours by car from Chelyabinsk, but the car ride didn't work out, so I took the train instead. Technically, we cross into a different continent (back into Europe), but it's still in the same time zone.
The fun started on the train. I spoke Russian well enough to not immediately be spotted as a foreigner (!!) but admitting that I was always makes for good conversation. I ended up having one of the funniest "neighbors" I've ever had on a Russian train... a Tatar guy about my age named Timur. He didn't allow any of us to sleep much that night, and every time I tried to, I could sense that he was still making silly faces at me, and I'd open my eyes... surely enough...

As soon as I got there, Catherine picked me up, and we walked to her Saturday class. It was just an introduction class where she met two of her 17 groups of students (poor thing! Bednyashka!) We had a blast doing it... drawing a terrible map of the United States and explaining about how I am from Massachusetts and she is from California, and we both went to school in Ohio...and subsequently, explaining the words "like", "hella", and "wicked."

After that, we took a walking tour of the city (of course, I was wearing heels... eek.) around beautiful roads with both European-looking architecture and very picturesque Russian provincial/Bashkir residences.

We ended up at this place. The park and monument of Salavat Yulaev, the Bashkir national hero. "You haven't heard of Salavat Yulaev? WHAAAAT?!" The park had a beautiful of the river and the hills, and on the otherside there were cafes and souvenir shops that looked like yurts. Funny though, how in a completely tourist/family setting, they decide as background music that they should play a techno song that repeats the words "WHAT THE F***". Ohhh Russia.

After a long and painful high-heeled walk to search for a good Bashkir cafe, we rested at the apartment, and then out to a club with some recent acquaintances-turned-close-friends. We went to meet Vadim, a seriously completely-recent acquaintance of Catherine's, at an upscale club for his friend's birthday. By upscale club, they weren't kidding. High heels were a REQUIREMENT for women. It was pretty surreal... we felt like New Russians . The family of Vadim was a Tatar family (New Tatars? Or just a special occasion?) with yet another display of hospitality. I had only known them for those four hours, and may never know them again, but they provided us with a dinner, several drinks, hookah, and entrance to the dance floor without letting us spend a ruble.

All of us.
Ruslan, probably the funniest character of the night.

The night ended at 4am. One of the conversations we had was the difference between American and Russian (or Tatar) mentality, in which in America, productivity and punctuality and success come first, while here... not so much... I responded, that I actually preferred it this way, that quality of life and relationships with others should be primary... to which they answer... добро пожаловать!

The next day, we slept pretty late (understandably), and then took another journey to the other side of the river, where people reside in their dachas (weekend cabins). To get there, you take a bus (on which I made the decision that Bashkir men are probably the most attractive in most of Russia) to a park, follow down some dirt paths (accompanied by Catherine's friend Kadriya, a local), take a ski-lift-type-thing down to the river bank, take a boat across the river, and then follow some more paths. By fate, we chose one path that led us down a row of dachas were one woman was garden and curious about Catherine's photography (she wants to make 5-minute films once a month about life in Bashkortostan). We introduced ourselves, and she let us into her cabin for tea. Her name was Albina, and she had the most beautiful garden with delicious vegetables! Unfortunately, we could not stay long, because Cathernine needed to hurry back to teach her Zumba class... also a blast.

Albina's garden

Finally, that evening after the Zumba Fitness class, we all went to our long-awaited Bashkir feast at a traditional restaurant (well, not really, it was kind of a generic 'Eastern' restaurant, but whatever). We were joined by a friend named Bulat, a Bashkir who speaks the language and plays the kurai, a traditional flute-like instrument (but not very well, he says) and his friend, a girl from Finland, and two other friends. Between the seven of us, we only had to pay 500 rubles each for this feast about $15, which in some other cities (ahem... MOSCOW) is unheard of.

Now... ҡымыҙ.... кумыс... kumys... what is that? It iiiiis

Fermented horse milk! It's delicious! and very good for you!

More pictures from Izyum, the Bashkir(ish) restaurant

 Irik, Bulat, me, Catherine, Petra
 Horse meat! Eat with your hands!
 Denis, Irik, Bulat, me, Catherine, Petra... almost all of us
Salavat Yulaev, looking especially majestic at night.

How lucky am I to have a September birthday

First thing, never have I ever had such a cold birthday before. On September 22, I turned 23, and it was 43 degrees outside. Ohhhh Russia.

This seriously was the most Russian birthday I ever had. It was awesome. It wasn't easy, spending most of the day cleaning and cooking and trying to find the right wine to buy (after my tutoring session with Yury Vladimirovitch, who gave me chocolates!!!) I invited over everyone I knew who was around my age plus Svetlana. It was a great excuse to invite over random people, and resulted in getting to know them better and probably having a new group of close friends.

Our beautiful dinner:

In the picture: Yuliya, Volodya, Svetlana, Sasha and Dasha (twins), me
Not in the picture: Zhenya (a former Fulbright from Chelyabinsk to America, she was taking the picture), Katya (she was late)

Most people spoke English to a degree but this night was Russian Russian Russian.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ooh, so suddenly I'm really busy, actually.

Teaching has officially started.
Last week, I only taught the younger group, the ACCESS English club, which consists of mainly 15-year-old students. Most are really shy, but their English I feel will catch on. Today I began with one of the "regular" classes, a group of 5th-year students who are in real need of conversational practice. The Russian education system is mainly lecture-based and not so much participation-oriented, but for this class, participation will be absolutely mandatory. Shy students will have to break out of their shell...  because really, the problem seems to be mainly getting the courage to speak up. Once they do, their grammar isn't all that bad, it's just a matter of practice, as in not hesitating after every word because they are not sure if it is right or not.

With Yury Vladimirovitch (the vice-governor whom I tutor English) is always charmingly enthusiastic. Our classes are always quite random (I remember actually explaining to him the word "random" and how we use it in conversation... best translated as случайно or беспорядочный) and topics are sort of digressions upon digressions... but hey, whatever works. He appears to be making progress!

Anyway, I have just received my full schedule. It looks pretty loaded. I'm kind of split around all different institutions... at the Pedagogical University, the Cultural Institute, Yury Vladimirovitch, and it looks like I will be teaching a class at YOGURT. Basically, it looks like I am taking a bunch of classes off the hands of the other CHELTA (Chelyabinsk English Teachers Association) teachers' hands. Sounds good enough. I like changes of scenery.

I am SO going to accidentally refer to YuUrGU as YOGURT out loud.

So... I am no longer "lonely" here. I have several acquaintance now, and there is definitely always something or someone to be occupied with. Last week, I finally met in person Zhenya (Evgeniya) a former Fulbrighter to America who is from Chelyabinsk, to whom Oberlin's Fulbright Anna introduced me. With her friends, we went to an all-night short film festival on Saturday night into Sunday morning... and we ALMOST made it to the end. As funny as some of short films were, it gets increasingly hard to keep your eyes open as the hours turn from 3am to 4am.

Annoying things of the past week:
A) Hot water outage. Apparently, this happens sporadically in Russia. The building WAS actually notified, discreetly by a white piece of paper hung among other unimportant white pieces of paper, and the reason was that "ремонт идет". "Repairs are happening." What kind of repairs, what broke and why... who knows. All I see is a pit outside with a pipe exposed (see: "What's a Chelyaba?") and a bunch of people in construction uniform smoking cigarettes and talking about it.
B) Random power outage. At least it was only three hours.
C) My internet decided that it didn't recognize my password anymore (even though I had it autosaved?) and I had to reconfigure everything.
D) Chelyabinsk doesn't have a logical timetable or route map of its buses, you just kind of have to learn by experience. I'm always afraid of taking a bus that I think will lead somewhere and end up in the Metallurgical district. But then again, maybe that would be an adventure too..
E) Most banks won't let me take more than 5000 rubles out at a time (about $160). Which means I have to pay a $9 commission for EVERY $160.

Non-annoying things this week:
A) The dollar versus the ruble keeps going up and up. When I got here, it was only 27 rubles to a dollar, now it is 31. Good for me, not so good for the locals unfortunately.
B) Did I mention things are 4x cheaper than in Moscow?
C) Every single person I have met is amazingly nice.
D) After not having any showers at home and then having only cold showers here for a while, I will NEVER AGAIN take for granted a hot shower. Or better yet, a bath.
E) Running is absolutely NOT out of the question like I thought it was going to be.

Some pretty awesome news...
I get FIVE weeks off during winter. Not saying that I don't like what I'm doing so far, I'm saying that it is good because I have the flexibility to realize the Epic Central Asia Journey with fellow Oberlin grad Joseph Campbell. I hope you are reading this, Professor Dumančić. Svetlana says that holiday break is from December 25th through January 8th, then exams, and then there is another break somewhere in there after exams... and that I might as well take the whole month off because there won't be any real classes.
Potential destinations for this time period:
long long train ride perhaps through Astrakhan
Somewhere else (possibly Altai Republic? Not that it's exactly on the way or anything.)
Probably coming back through Ekaterinburg.

LOL... one of the many, many, MANY obstacles of planning this epic journey is... can I go from Adygeya to Azerbaijan by train without crossing into any restricted and/or disputed territories? Because flying could get VERY expensive... because Krasnodar probably won't fly me to Baku, they'd probably reroute me all the way back to Moscow or something.
I know it's early, but a trip this *epic*  WILL take months to work out.

As for this week, I have my birthday celebration and Bashkortostan to look forward to! 

Monday, September 12, 2011

What's a Chelyaba anyway?

It's a Bashkir word meaning "pit". I didn't even have to walk far to find one.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

And now suddenly, everyone is... gone:((

Well then. Natalia and her daughter have moved to Moscow, and I have my very own apartment! Yayy!!
Except, it's more like this:
I had to say goodbye to Natalia who has been incredibly sweet to me and hospitable, and had introduced me to new people every day, and now suddenly everyone is gone and I'm living alone. I'm not used to this at all. Especially because everyone I had met happened to be "busy" this weekend. This better not be a regular thing... I am a social person. I do like my own space, but I cannot go an entire weekend without any interaction with people.

In order to break up the lonely weekend, I set out to find a place to run, other than the track nearby (which is in rather poor shape). I managed to find the park where Katya took me last week, and indeed, there was a forest with miles of trails to get lost in, and a pond clean enough to fish in... a place where you forget you're in the middle of a big industrial city. But then you get to the other side of it and you get to the lake, and on the other side of the lake, the familiar Soviet factories greet you once again.
I imagine I shall run here many weekends.

I'm still waiting for my actual classes to start...I have become introduced to them (maybe that's why this weekend felt so awkwardly quiet.. I had been running around meeting new people all week and suddenly there wasn't a constant flow of introductions) Today is only the private tutoring session with Yury Vladimirovitch, the vice-governor.
My favorite English sentence of his: "Chelyabinsk-region, ecological, not good."
Nah, his English is fine for someone who has only learned it less than a year, it is actually really impressive how he constructs sentences and recalls particular's just the humility and honesty sincere effort of this sentence that kind of brought tears to my eyes... anyway...what he says is true, but really, it is not as bad as some people say .

Yes, Chelyabinsk has Internet Meme status. In Russian, of course. Any search for "суровый город" (literally, "severe city", could also mean closer to "tough city" or maybe "badass city") The tease on the city's dirty industrial (and formerly, nuclear) reputation has given its residents Chuck Norris qualities.
They usually begin with something like, "Челябинцы настолько суровы..." (Chelyabinsk residents are so severe that...)
One example of a Chelyabinsk "fact":
Челябинская водка настолько сурова, что ее запретили в 190 странах мира как ядерное оружие.
Chelyabinsk vodka is so severe that it is forbidden in 190 countries like nuclear weapons.
Oh, and I found another fact:
Chelyabinsk muzhiki (guys, blokes) are so severe (tough) that Chuck Norris considers himself a Chelyabinsk muzhik.

Well, obviously... Chuck Norris doesn't live in my neighborhood. This part of the city is perfectly normal.

Katya, by the way, is an acquaintance I made through Natalia. She drove me around different parts of the city... we both speak each other's languages equally, I'd say, and she has an overall great personality. I hope we can meet up again, it is good to know someone close to my own age. She goes to the same school Olga went to (the one near the park where I went running) called YuUrGU: Yuzhno-Uralsky Gosudarstveny Universitet. South Ural State University.
I'm sorry, but that school will ALWAYS be thought of by me as YOGURT.

Today, I'm going out. I refuse to do any work at home, I need to be in a public setting. I need to at least... TALK to people, even if it's asking for a coffee or the time of day. Yeesh. I hope I don't have to live alone forever, it's depressing to think that there are many people who do. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Chilling in Chelyabinsk.

I was almost going to title my blog this... but decided against it (Thank God.)

I must say, after the first push through the 72 hours without actually sleeping, I have probably had the smoothest transition out of the Fulbrighters here in Russia. My living situation is ideal: I get my own apartment, walking distance from the university, and it's a really nice place. Plus, for this first week, I am living with Natalia Kommissarova, a colleague of my host Svetlana. She speaks English (although we usually speak Russian) and has helped me settle in and has introduced me to people and places around the city.

I also get a whole week to adjust before I start any regular classes. I'm not exactly clear on what I am doing... but my main classes will be at the State Pedagogical University, in addition to assisting other classes at the Music School and the Institute of Culture... AND three times a week, assisting the governor with his English before his trip to Chicago this month...???? It seems like I will be pretty busy. I better continue all this week with my nine-hours-a-night sleeping pattern...

Every person I have met has been BEYOND hospitable. Natalia insists on making me dinner every night she is here, and other colleagues of Svetlana spent the last two days showing me around and putting up with my mundane concerns such as cell phones and sim cards and registration and documents... I only hope they realize how much I appreciate all this. Sometimes I am afraid I may seem unappreciative because of my overall fatigue. There are times when I have been unresponsive and energy-lacking,,,, but it's not because I am not enjoying myself and don't appreciate their help... it's because immense jetlag + not being able to speak my native language ALL DAY wears me out pretty quickly. I hope this will change soon.

Did I mention... my apartment has A WASHING MACHINE? Yayyy, no need to go to and pay for a laundromat!!! AND it's got a really snazzy shower with a million buttons and functions in it, including a radio. It took me a while to figure out how to set the right temperature.

Now. About the city.
Chelyabinsk is known as the "capital of the South Urals region". It wants to be known as "the Switzerland of the Urals." To be brutally honest, it's got a long way to go before that can be true.
The city was founded 275 years ago this week, named after the fortress Chelyaba. (Yes, I arrive just in time for the City Day celebration! More about that later) I am still not entirely sure why its coat of arms features a camel. During Soviet times, it was the main industrial center for metallurgy and T-34 tanks, and earned the name "Tankograd."
Before I arrived here, one of my concerns was the radioactivity in the region. About fifty years ago, Chelyabinsk Oblast (the region) was the site for a lot of top-secret nuclear research, one of which went terribly wrong. The areas around Lake Karachay and the Techa River were very contaminated and known to be dumping grounds for nuclear waste.... eeek...
....but they are located far, far, away from the city and any place I might go, and are completely filled in with cement.
One would hope.
Until 15 years ago, the Oblast was a closed-off region... NOT necessarily because of radioactivity, but because of the military production bases. There are still some cities that are closed off because they are mainly artillery production centers.

This all being said... most of what I have seen of Chelyabinsk Oblast is absolutely beautiful. The region has thousands of lakes, and a few hours drive takes you to the Ural Mountains (more about this later).

Anyways, the first night I arrived was the beginning of what appears to be a week long celebration of the City Day, or the city's anniversary celebration.

Here are a few pictures from the parade the next day:

                                            In historical costume

I tried to get a picture of this guy but kept missing. The creature-looking thing in the middle, in the blue with the gray hair, is a mascot of some metal company. These people are really proud of their metal companies. All  workers can march in this parade to represent their industries... you have to love this Soviet legacy.
                                    Cossack kids!!!!

And now more pictures from City Day:

                                         Please!! You have to take a picture with our visitor from America!!!
                                            With the handsome Bashkir
                                                         With my own Ural Cossack knight

Anyways. Aside from the holiday celebrations, let's keep it real. Chelyabinsk is... well.. not known to be the most beautiful city in the world. Many people used to Western European cities or Moscow and St. Petersburg would find this place very ugly. There are some parts of it that are indeed very ugly. The outskirts of the city are mainly factories, and not "green" factories in the slightest. Apartment buildings do look very Soviet.
Entering the city:

It really is the epitome of "it's what's on the inside that counts." The city looks dirty, but the people are wonderful and the center is just like any normal city. The buildings sometimes look depressed from the outside, but the insides are clean and colorful and nicer than any other apartment or dorm I've lived in. The "Soviet" look is something you just kind of get used to, and even has its charm in a weird way. Another thing worth mentioning is how all around the Oblast (and maybe in others?) there was this tendency to construct the  gas pipes ABOVE the ground... so you see them everywhere... and it looks kind of weird/ugly/interesting.

I'm still not done yet...

Yesterday, Natalia's neighbor, a tech person at the university named Olga (it's been less than a week and I already know three Olgas) (oh yeah, and how convenient is that, a computer/technology person nearby to help me set up my internet??) drove me and two friends of hers to Taganai National Park to climb Bely Klyuch (white spring), a mountain in the Urals... it is about 1000 meters... higher in elevation than most of the New Hampshire mountains I've seen but not exactly the Caucasus. The Urals are interesting not because of their height but because they divide Europe and Asia. It's fun not knowing exactly what continent you are on!
Olga is awesome. I can't believe how nice she was and generous with her time, she even offered me to drive me to Bashkortostan to celebrate my birthday weekend! I only felt awkward, because again, the language plus fatigue is just very taxing. She and her friends only spoke Russian, and along the way we picked up two other Russians, and there was just SO MUCH RUSSIAN. I understood everything, or maybe 90% of the words (the other Russians spoke pretty fast) but I sometimes just didn't have anything to add, or did not quite process everything fast enough to respond... so I was just pretty quiet for the most part, and I hope I didn't come off as unfriendly or unappreciative. Olga was very understanding though. But I just felt my brain exploading and my language getting progressively worse.

Last few pictures for the day:

                                            I'm so hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh I can see Bashkortostan!

                                                   Valentin and Marina, Russian friends

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A day that has no end...

OF COURSE, my journey to the "Switzerland of the Urals" has had an awesomely eventful start. I will begin with re-posting my facebook status:
 "I have not slept in two days, I have carried 42 kg of luggage plus a purse and a 15 kg backpack around in heels, I had to pay a huge baggage fine, I argued with the cab driver about the price, and I'm about to fly into a city that has just spilled a toxic chemical that reduces one's sex drive. Oh and I have to do it all in Russian. Sooo why am I in such a good mood? :) "

Yes, this is pretty much my last day... or two days? Oh wait... it's Friday? Going East is weird. On the plane, the sunset seems to come minutes before sunrise, and suddenly a day that is cut several hours short just runs into one looong neverending day. Add to this a morning flight the next day, and it's like one never-ending day that is actually three days. If reading the last two sentences was exhausting, that's how I feel!
This isn't to say I am not personally responsible for this sleep deprivation.
I decided to buy my round-trip tickets to Moscow instead of Chelyabinsk, because I plan to travel at the end of my grant period, and will most likely not leave from the same city. Because of this, I ended up buying a separate flight from Moskva to Chelyabinsk (and unfortunately, paying a separate baggage fee) and spending the night in Moscow with a friend named Olga who I met in Washington last summer.

A normal person would spend the afternoon resting and go to bed early to rest up for the 8 am flight to Tankograd... but maybe a young person in Moscow for less than 24 hours does not count as a "normal person"... so yes, we went out on the town and I did not sleep at all. There are no regrets, however. Olga and I met up with three Brazilian friends of hers who were new to the city and some Russian friends, and the night included a strange game of a Russian variant of jump rope, a random Russian on the street insisting that we all (particularly the Brazilians) took a drink of vodka with him and his giving them a souvenir (vile and very cheap) bottle of his favorite vodka, Olga's attempt at introducing the American sense of humor to an angry Armenian grocery store owner, a Russian hipster bar with its own variant of "face control", a cab ride with a Tajik who gave me a discount for saying some things in his language, a 2-hour transportation delay and complication all in the effort to save 300 rubles (about 10 dollars) and a 3am bowl of shrimp.

Moscow itself.... although I was only there for a total of 20 hours.... I can say that, the spirit of the city is exactly as I fondly remember. I returned to familiar cityscapes, metro rides, smells... even the sounds of people walking through the perexod underneath the main roads, were they sell baked goods and cigarettes and christmas trees and hookahs and you name it... it did sort feel like coming "home" in a weird way. This place was my home for a good four months.

Another interesting repeated theme is that of what people make of my nationality. The Tajik cab driver insisted several times that I was German (he would say, in Russian, "you would know, because in Germany..." "you Germans do this..." etc) and when I mentioned that I was American, he expressed both curiosity and criticism.... he expressed views of American politics similar to my own. Then he forgot again and said I was from Germany.

In response to my Russian language... well, it is most certainly, absolutely better than it was last time I was in Russia. Hands down. That said, it's never what it should be. When I talk to people I don't know, I still stumble over my words out of nervousness, and fatigue of course also doesn't help.
It has gotten to the point, however, that I don't necessarily seem like an outright foreigner, but rather "someone from a nearby former Soviet state like Latvia or something" or "an expat or a child of expats" or "a Russian with a speech impediment."
Got to love the last one.

I am now using (awesome surprise!) FREE WIFI IN SHEREMETYEVO. No. Way. My flight to Chelyabinsk leaves in one hour exactly. I know I should (and probably will) sleep on the plane, but I really want to watch the descent into the city and hopefully see the Ural mountains from above.
Eeek my laptop is running out of battery, so I will close out this first blog from Russia with a recent surprise news article from Chelyabinsk:

All the details can be found in the URL. Yes, a chemical was spilled in Chelyabinsk, a toxic one that depletes one's sex drive. Ohhhhh man....