Monday, September 25, 2006

The chamber pot is your friend (you'll see what I mean in a minute)

As good as last weekend was, this weekend was FAR superior. The weather only half-cooperated, but I think even with a Saturday of rain and cold, we had an awesome time.

I wasn’t exactly sure where we were heading – the Polish girls (Ashia, Isa, and Eva) and Alexandr (aka Steven, from Belgium) were the brains of the operation. All four of them speak Russian pretty much fluently, and while I can usually follow the conversations, it’s difficult for me to pipe-in at times, and even more difficult for me to be in charge of details such as accommodations and transportation. ANYWAY, we actually were heading away from Baikal this weekend – to the mountains near the Mongolian border, in the Buryati Republic (the neighboring region/state/oblast/thingy) and a little village called Arshan. I didn’t really know what to expect from the town, other than smallness and some good scenery, but I ended having one the greatest weekends I’ve had in a long time. I also learned a lot about life in rural Russia and in Russia in general. All in all, a good experience.

Now, I must warn that some of the things I am about to mention might not sound so nice, or may even seem like flat-out bad ideas. Therefore, I would like to say beforehand, that everything that transpired this weekend ended being completely worthwhile, even down to the whole outhouse situation. But that will come later…

First things first – let me start with the ride there. The best way to get to Arshan is to take a marshrutka (mini-bus) from the bus station in Irkutsk. It’s about four hours on winding, often poorly maintained, roads. When we left, the morning fog was just starting to lift. It had been really cold in Irkutsk for the previous 48 hours, and we were a bit nervous about going to a higher elevation with no idea where we would be staying. But we had already paid a whopping 220 rubles for our tickets (about $8.50), so we felt obliged (and really wanted to get out of town and into the country). Karin was supposed to go as well, but was feeling a bit sick and didn’t really think being out in the cold and rain was a good idea. Who knows – maybe she was right (I’ll talk about that some more in a bit). But I’m sure she wishes she had been with us.

I didn’t have any problem with the marshrutka ride. I’m pretty used to the way the drivers operate here by now. The others (except Ashia) got violently ill. I’m not sure if it was the turbulence of the ride or Cindy’s going away party from the night before coming back to haunt them. I just sat back and enjoyed the scenery, distracting myself from the sight and smells that might have made me sick too.

One our fellow passengers on the marshrutka was this little old lady from Arshan. As she tried to comfort my car-sick fellow travelers, we got to know her a bit, and found that she had a summer house sitting empty, with plenty of room for all five of us. And so it was that we found a place to stay with even more ease than we had anticipated. Our plan (well, their plan – like I said, I wasn’t in on the planning part of the trip), was to find someone to stay with when we got there. This is one of those places where little old (and not-so-old) ladies stand around the bus stop (or train station, if the town is big enough) with ЖИЛЬЁ (ROOM FOR RENT) signs and you pick the least shady-looking one and bargain for a good price. For the less than our bus tickets, we paid the lady for two nights’ stay and the use of her banya.

Our hostess led us through town to her place on the other side of the stream. Only in Siberia will you see an open-air market full of vendors on a rainy day with the temperature about 5˚C. The cows roaming freely is common a few more countries, but equally strange for a little city girl like me. She insisted on tea and grandma-goodies, and then sent us on our way for the day. The sun had finally decided to come out for a bit so we decided to take advantage of the sudden warmth and go for a hike. I’m not sure what the name of the little national park that we were in was called. All I know is that it was really pretty. We walked around for about 3 or 4 hours, going up and down different paths … and into pathless areas. :-D. We met and chatted with a few of the Russians that were out for the weekend (from Arshan and from other places nearby). One lady walked with us for quite awhile, and invited us to go on an excursion the next day. We said we would if the weather was good (which it wasn’t), then went back to the dacha (Russian summer house) for dinner. Nothing special – just some sandwiches and tea. We were pretty tired from our travels, so we went to bed a bit early. The banya wasn’t ready yet, so that had to wait til Saturday.

Now a couple of side notes. I can now appreciate how much work goes into getting a banya ready, especially with no running water. You have the fire to build, the water to haul and heat, the birch branches to gather – so much to do. And then there’s all the maintenance once it’s up and running. Wow. I think it makes it that much more special when someone sets one up for you. And it’s soooooo relaxing – even the whole birch branch thing. Yes, it is traditional to use birch branches to hit each other with in the sauna. I think it’s supposed to exfoliate or something. It stings a bit but my skin felt so good afterwards. More on the banya in a bit.

Back to no running water for a moment. While Arshan is a great place to visit (so long as you know what to expect), I wouldn’t want to live there permanently. The only source of water in the house was the radiator, the source for which I never discovered. I like running water – and my toilet. I’m so much of an outhouse fan. But now that I’ve experienced a few days of using an outhouse in Siberia, I finally understand how chamber pots could have been an important household item in the past. Trying to get to outhouse in the dark and cold and rain (and not fall in the hole once you get there) is quite an adventure. The best way I can think of to describe life in Arshan is by comparing it to the American West about a century ago. I imagine that Gunnison (the town in Colorado that my grandparents call home in the summertime) was probably a lot like this at the turn of the 20th century (minus the electricity and electric teapot). Lots of cows, and cold, and fun times outside. I love it, but like I said, not my first choice for permanent residence.

When we got up on Saturday morning, it was raining a bit more steadily than the day before, and there didn’t seem to be much hope of the sun coming out anytime soon. So we scrubbed our plan to visit Peak Lyubvi, and instead hopped on another marshrutka to visit the hot springs at Shemchug (I think that’s how it’s spelled). The only flaw in this plan was that we were misinformed regarding the proximity of the busstop to the springs – we ended having to walk five kilometers down a muddy dirt road in the rain to get to the springs from the main road. It wasn’t too bad. In fact, I think it made the hot springs that much better – we were so cold that it was well worth the fancy price of 30 rubles (a little over a dollar) to stand in front of the streaming hot water. We ended up splurging a little afterwards too – we spent another 15 rubles for the use of a hairdryer and a cup of tea – both of which also helped keep us warm. After about an hour and a half, we decided to head back to the bus stop. We thought we were going to have to walk all the way back, but finally managed to flag down another marshrutka about a kilometer into the walk. That was an interesting ride – the marshrutka was already full when all five of us piled in. The locals were really nice about it though – they didn’t want to leave us trudging through the rain. After was spent the hour-long ride back to Arshan crammed together (with one really … friendly old man constantly making sexual jokes while Isa was on his lap), we got to know them pretty well. Some of them operated a night club, and invited us to come for free. We decided to decline since we had already told our host we wanted the banya and she was getting it ready for us, but thanked them and headed back to the dacha.

When we finally got back, we found that we were no longer alone in the dacha. Some family friends had shown up – three couples from Irkutsk and their kids (altogether, 4 kids ranging from about 6 to 12 years old). At first things seemed to be a bit awkward, but once dinner was over and the kids had been sent to entertain themselves, the adults invited us to join them and we had a grand time. We got to know one another pretty well (ended up hanging out for the next 24 hours). Three of them (Vova, Natasha, and Zhenya) were linguistics (specializing in German, English, and Chinese respectively) – so we had a lot to talk about as far as language learning and stuff. The women insisted on feeding us, and the men insisted that we try all their alcohol. I think all five of us fell in love with one of their drinks. It was this locally-made liquor called Balzam. I don’t really know how to describe it. It was about 90 proof though – you only needed a little bit at a time. Sasha kept on giving it to us – especially to Ashia (who had a cold), saying it would refresh us. I’ll say it did. Between the balzam and the banya, we were feeling pretty good by the time it was time to go to bed. With our new Russian friends (who also live in Irkutsk, it turns out) ready to guide us the next day, we went to sleep glad that we had decided to brave the possibly bad weather and come out to this little piece of heaven.

After breakfast, we packed a picnic and took off into the woods. We walked to Datsan (the Buddhist temple), then found a good little clearing and made ourselves a little fire. I’ve always been amazed at the ability of Russians to make something out of nothing – the same goes for their skills in the country. The men built a fire with wet wood and wet leaves, and we roasted hot dogs and warmed bread and drank some more balzam. All in all, it was a wonderful way to end the weekend – just hanging out, continuing to get to know our new friends.

Eventually we had to head back. We packed up our things, thanked our hosts for their help and hospitality, and headed to the bus stop. Unfortunately, we had made a slight mistake in the timetable, and ended up having to wait for another three hours for our marshrutka back to Irkutsk. We were lucky though – the sun decided to come out, and we lounged around and did a little walking around in the market while we waited for the marshrutka. We just barely made it back to the dorms before they closed. We had to call Lies and get here to tell the babushka downstairs to keep the door unlocked for an extra fifteen minutes for us – which she did, a bit grudgingly.

I can’t imagine how this weekend could have been better. It was just plain awesome. I don’t know what’s on the books for next weekend, but hopefully it will be something equally cool.

I'll try an have the pictures from the trip loaded in the next couple of days. Right now I have a whole lot of homework to catch up on.

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