Thursday, November 09, 2006


I feel like a cow sometimes. I'm not talking about my size or eating habits (though the whole blini situation IS getting a little out of control). What I am refering to is the transportation system in the great city of Irkutsk. The marshrutkas are alright - since they only let as many people on as there are seats. The only problem is, I can't always get one - in the mornings as I stand freezing in the dark at the busstop, pretty much every marshrutka that drives by is full. If they do happen to stop with a free seat, there is an instant mob of people at the door, pushing and shoving to get on board. I think I finally understand the whole mob mentality thing. In this country, being first in line is a very big deal - cause there might not be anything left if you're not at the head of the line. This of course leads to so pretty animalistic scenes. For example, I nearly lost a finger the other day when the bus driver decided he was ready to leave before I was completely on the bus. Gotta watch out for those automatic doors.
Buses, tramways, and trolly-buses usually operate on the principle that there is always room for one more person. I mean, the more people they have riding at once, the more money they get (even if it's only 5 rubles per person). There is rarely a trip I take on the trolleybus during which I can actually sit down. More likely I find myself sandwiched in with all the other commuters. Yesterday was the worst it's ever been. I think it had to do with the temperature - it was -6 FAHRENHEIT outside (that's -20 Celsius - here's a little converter for future reference), the coldest I've seen the temperature to date. There were so many people on the trolleybus that I had both arms straight down at my side and could not move in any direction. It's a good thing my wallet and passport were beneath three layers of clothing. Otherwise, I might have felt vulnerable (the same situation led to Aaron loosing his passport - for the second time).
Anyway, I just make do with the situation as best as I can. I miss Frodo, the brave little Neon. But I would much rather ride everyday on a crowded trolleybus than try to drive myself through Irkutsk. I'm not sure how driving schools work here, but I think they need to work on quality control.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


So the weekend trip to Ulan-Ude was quite a success. Though absolutely freezing, I had a good time. We took the night train on Friday, arriving at sunrise on Saturday morning. It was almost like Santa Fe in a strange way (except for the whole communist-style blocks of housing) - a little capital city nestled in between the mountains. The sunrise was absolutely beautiful.
Renee had set us up with a guide for the weekend - a local lady named Svetlana. Interestingly enough, Sveta has travelled all over Texas. It made for very interesting conversations. We were styaing with her neighbor - a buryati babushka named Lara, her daughter and grandson. Oh my god, the FOOD! Sooooo tasty! Especially the biscuits she made. It was like being back in the south (minus the gravy).
We started the day with a tour of the city, starting with Soviet Square, which is dominated by the world's largest "head of Lenin". No joke. Check out my pictures.
Later that day, we headed out to Ivolginsky datsan, the main center for buddhism in Russia. It was absolutely beautiful. And there are some interesting historical stories (read about it here).
On Sunday, we were supposed to go out to the Old Believers Village, but when we got there, the guy who was supposed to me us and open the museum didn't show. Shot down once again. But no matter - we had a good time just wandering around the little town, eating lots of good food.
Monday was spent at the Ethnographic museum. It was a lot like Pioneer Farms (for all you Austin folks) - a big park with lots of examples of native life in past centuries. And they had a little zoo. It was a really nice day (though still cold).
That night we went to a show at the State Buryati Academic Theatre of Drama. What a great building. Lots of beautiful carvings and murals. It was so soviet - very impressive. The main mural reminded me a lot of Diego Rivera's stuff in Mexico City (though with a slightly different set of references).
I was absolutely exhausted by the time we boarded our train to go back to Irkutsk. I slept soundly until about 1.30 in the morning, when a women boarded the train with her small son, who insisted on screaming (not crying) for hours on end. What a nightmare. But I can put up with a lot these days.
We got back to town at about 7 in the morning. While I technically could have made it to my 8 oclock class, I went home and took a shower and a nap instead. Then I showed up for my literature lesson with Olga Lopsonovna. I had managed to actually read all of Crime and Punishment in about 5 days, and I didn't want to have gone to that much trouble for nothing. It was worth it - one of those rare classes that just seems to fly by.
I’ve come to a conclusion in the past few days – a realization that is difficult for a photographer like me to accept. There are some things in this country (and this world) which simply cannot be translated to a photograph. What is hardest about this fact is that so many of my favorite moments on this trip cannot be preserved other than in my memory and in an occasional blog entry. For example, on the train home from Ulan Ude I was suddenly and for no particular reason awoken. I looked out the window (possible at this point only because all the lights in the cabin were off) and saw something quite miraculous – a full moon gave me a wonderful view of the snow-topped mountains surrounding Lake Baikal, while in the sky, framed perfectly in my window, was the constellation Orion. It was one of those “right-place-at-the-right-time” kind of moments, and one that I will probably never experience again. But I think I will always remember lying there, as the train slowly chugged along the lakeshore, staring in wonder at all the natural beauty that was passing by my window. While my studies are interesting and I’m learning a lot about Russian language and culture, I count these moments as the ones that make my trip halfway around the globe the most worthwhile – the moments for which it is worth it to put up with the -10˚C (and lower, as I suspect the temperature will yet drop before I return to the sunny Lone Star State).