Wednesday, September 28, 2005

first snow

Saturday, September 24, 2005

who likes short shorts?

In Russia there is a concept known as dyedovshchina. Literally, it means 'rule of the grandfathers'. Dyedovshchina explains why, for example, the youngest army recruits are the ones who empty out the latrines or donate blood (really) to bring in a few more roubles for the regiment.
Until arriving in Irkutsk Kathy and I were unaware that dyedovshchina also applies in the education system. Happily it is a watered down version which doesn't appear to involve sewerage runs or ritual beatings with belt buckles. Even more happily, Kathy and I are 28.
On Thursday night I came home from watching football practice to find Kathy standing in the hallway. She had been trying to work out why our kettle smells funny (because Irkutsk water is 60 percent chlorine - K) when there was a knock on our door.
It was Katya and Tanya, two of our Russian neighbours. Katya and Tanya are 17 and live next to the Vitalys. When Kathy answered the door they were wearing short shorts and carrying a mop (all right, a Russian mop, which is a wooden squeegee with a rag slung over the head). Before Kathy could stop them they had barged in and begun cleaning our apartment.
When I came home Katya was slopping out the spare room while Tanya peeled the gunk from the pipes in our bathroom. It's hard to tell a teenaged girl in short shorts that even though you're pushing 30 you can clean your own floors. And to be honest, I'm not sure why you should.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


We have them. Stories too. Problem is, what we don't have just yet in Irkutsk is regular internet access. Sure, there are net cafes (three - half the number of casinos), but like most things (toilets, radiators and - as of this week - rubbish chutes) they don't always work. Our faculty has promised a computer lab, but it's coming on Monday. Or the end of next week. Or the week after that. Zaftra. It's Russian for manana.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Russian word for the week

v. to be confused.

Hi, is this the chicken grill? Then I'd like some chicken. Ah. You don't have chicken. Or anything grilled. I see, it's just a name. My apologies. Ya pee-ree-POO-tal. I was confused.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

feedback corner

Here's the thing. For months we've been kept from reading this page by China's Great Firewall. Couldn't see the pretty pictures, forgot what the colours were like. Now though, we're back in a land that only censors important things like university feedback. We see all. Including the comments field which, it's pretty clear, has been abandoned by all except the kind man who wants to sell me kitty litter (if you're reading this, I'll take two bags of the Safe 'n' Sound. It clumps properly, yes?)
So. With our new-found access to the back-end pages in English (huzzah!) I've done two things. I've turned off the function which makes you register before you can comment, and I've worked out how to get rid of the comments altogether.

But before flicking the switch, I thought I might put the living, breathing, porn-filled democracy that is the internet to the test. Does anyone want the comments field? Is it the forum you need to discuss Lada models, compare borscht recipes or learn how to restitch the elastic on your favourite vinyl jacket? Or should it go? You know where you can vote.

double your Vitalys

We live on Igorshina street. Number one, block V, hostel 12, just across the road from the driver education centre. Look out for the piles of tyres, the occasional spot fire (don't ask me, I just moved in) and the little box Moskviches kicking up dirt.
We live on the fourth floor in a two-room apartment. It has green walls, a bathroom and a complimentary coat hanger. We've covered up some of the green with a pair of Burmese longyis, a Chinese beer advertisement, two posters donated by a former correspondent for ABC Ballarat, and a cricketing kangaroo flag, circa 1985. The flag carries a certain irony, given that I support England (ashes - yay!) and Kathy thinks of cricket as other people think of giardia. But never let irony stand in the way of card-carrying patriotism, I say.
The fourth floor is where Irkutsk State Technical University cordons off its international students with a handful of surplus Russians. For neighbours we have a Chinese man, two Koreans, an Alaskan, two Vitalys and a German studying Russian traffic patterns ("Find any?" I said. "Not yet", he said).
The two Vitalys are 17, which puts them at least six years younger than anyone else on the floor. They come from Osole (ah-SOL-yeh), an army town a few hundred kilometres away down the Angara river.
Vitaly the taller is six foot four. He has bad teeth and two parents in the army, an institution which, according to an article I read on the train, sustains thousands of deaths each year merely from causes like suicide, drug overdoses, violent rampages or - in the case of wintertime deserters - freezing. Vitaly the taller is proud to have escaped into academia.
Vitaly the shorter likes Linkin Park, System of a Down, Limp Bizkit and Gubernatskaya, a Siberian beer which is 11 percent proof. He is studying psychology, presumably to learn what makes Fred Durst miserable (my money says fallen arches). Already I can tell we're going to get along fine.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

an update from the world of medical surrealism

Today they said, "We think you have pneumonia".
I said, "But I don't have any symptoms".
They said, "Yes, there is that. We'll get back to you."

Monday, September 12, 2005

Russian word for the week

(va-REET) v. to prepare, to cook. Lit: to boil.

"Alyosha Victorevich! Matt and Kathy are coming round. We'll need a meal with plenty of taste, a few delicate flavours."
"Okay, I'll just go and boil something."

a new record

It goes without saying I think that in Russia you have to deal with a bit of red tape. This after all is a country to which you still technically have to be invited. Last year, while dealing with the hoopla that goes with a multiple entry visa, we beheld what we thought was the full glory of Russian bureaucracy. There were missing stamps, there were stamps where there shouldn't have been stamps, there was conflicting information, there were hidden charges, there were changing regulations, there was information designed for foreigners but made available only in Russian; there were eight hour queues. It was a bureaucracy you could pickle and exhibit as an example to all future bureaucracies. You would think this might have prepared us.

On Friday I was hauled out of class at half past 10. Having spent the first four days of the week chasing forms and photographs, giving blood tests, having X-rays and standing and sitting for a doctor's approval (it seems I have knee joints) I had been hoping for a clear day to study. It was not to be.
Tuesday's lung X-ray had picked up some abnormalities. Ah yes, that would be asthma, I said. It's pretty mild. Asthma, they said, nodding. Yes, we know asthma. Still, you'll have to head downtown to the hospital. We're sorry. It's the regulations.
An hour later I'm on a tram into town with Inga, a Buryat administrator with no English and a taste for expensive leather jackets. Once, she tells me, she took advantage of some ambiguous medical test results and skipped work for two weeks. But don't tell.
The hospital is a crumbling concrete cube with whitewashed corridors and health posters featuring bedridden garden gnomes. Twenty minutes passes while Inga explains the situation to a sceptical pensioner at reception. We wait for the doctor, Olga, whose white coat comes down to her knees.
"Your lung X-rays show some abnormalities," Olga says in Russian. Already I'm barely following.
"Yes, that would be asthma," I say.
"Asthma, Olga says. "Yes, I know asthma. Still, we'll have to run some tests. It's the regulations."
I take off my top. Olga pokes, Olga prods. Nothing hurts. I breathe in, I breathe out, I breathe fast, I breathe slow.
"Is it asthma yet?" I ask.
Olga is unsure. A quiz follows in lightning Russian. Am I allergic to foods? Do I get sick in the cold? What happens when I smoke?
I recall the phrase 'Why does this matter?'. This doesn't help. Like Dante at the gates of the inferno, I abandon hope, plus thoughts of a free afternoon.
From the hospital Inga and I are despatched to the polyclinic. Here I am grilled once more by a brand new doctor, Ludmilla.
"Why are we here?" I ask Inga.
"Regulations," says Inga.
"Your lungs are a bit funny," says Ludmilla.
"Yes, that would be asthma," I say.
"Of course, I know asthma. Still, it's best that I run a few tests..."
Here my will to co-operate expires.
"Do you have coughing fits?"
"I don't speak Russian."
"Have you ever been overweight?"
"I don't speak Russian."
"Do you exercise?"
"I don't speak Russian."
And so the afternoon went on. I realise that entire weeks of your life can disappear in this way, but as a tiny form of protest, I have learned that non co-operation can be immensely satisfying. I'm not going to use the word Gandhi, but draw what comparisons you will.
Eventually Ludmilla and I agreed to a scoreless draw and a blood test. Will it be smallpox? Will it be consumption? Could it be asthma? I find out on Tuesday. You'll have to stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

it might be filled with Ladas, but it's home

Irkutsk: land of free speech

This is our university website. Come in, the water's fine. Click on the little union jack, select 'foreign students', then the delicately phrased 'what our students says'. Ignore the first three entries, including Alexander Richardson's first line that I think rings with ambiguity. Read the contribution from Richard Magee (USA).

Before he was yanked from the keyboard, what could Richard have been trying to say? Now that we've been three days in Irkutsk I have a few ideas:

“...novelty techno nightclub drove me to suicide.”
“...number of doormen in army fatigues gave me the willies.”
“ building could have had more columns.”
“...only thing that worked in the dormitories was the rubbish chute.”
“...most memorable part of the experience was milk in a bag.”

But which?

Sunday, September 04, 2005

the 7:40 from Beijing to Irkutsk

Saturday, September 03, 2005


People have said to us, 'Back to back 36-hour train rides, close to three whole days on a train. That must be tough.' And I always reply, 'Yes, yes it is.'
Take our first leg, from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar. The train left at 7am, so for the first four or five hours we caught up on some sleep. Then it was time for lunch. After lunch we read for a few hours, played scrabble (exhausting, if you've never tried the travel version. Not only do you have to make words, you have to remember which side of the letter has the magnet) and kipped for a while.
We crossed the border at night, which meant three hours awake while the train was shunted into a warehouse to have its wheels replaced (not round enough, I suppose).
At 1.30am a Mongolian chap in army uniform tried to get money from us. He wasn't very practised. We deceived him by appearing stupid and sleepy. It's a difficult role but playable if you put your mind to it.
By the time we'd woken it was time to fix brunch. Thus ended leg one.
You don't need a rundown of leg two, except to say there was sleeping, there was eating, there was a 10-hour daytime border crossing and there was an exciting hour during which our Mongolian neighbours tried to hide the sacks of clothing they were sneaking into Russia. I have never before seen a man wearing three pairs of jeans.

When you finally arrive after one of these journeys it feels rather like being ripped from the womb. Even two days on I miss the rocking motion, the drip-feed approach to meals, the irregular sleeping patterns, and I still resent the daylight.

hamster pie

Up until a few years ago, Mongolia's most popular hero was Sukhbaatar, a man whose main contribution to history seems to have been having a name that means 'axe'. Now that the Soviets are 15 years out of the way it seems the country has come to its senses. Ulaan Baatar is Genghis Khan mad (or at least Chinggis Khan mad, Mongolians' historical strong suits being not so much spelling as shooting arrows backwards from horses, tenderising meat by riding on it and putting the fear of God into foreigners). There is Chinggis beer, the Chinggis Hotel, a Chinggis nightclub, the Chinggis Khan bowling alley, and the Chinggis Korean restaurant (appropriate because Koreans like their food in small portions, just as Genghis liked his Koreans in small portions). On our desk I now have this:

Action Genghis reminds me each morning of the important things in life. Advancing to the gates of Vienna, leaving no survivors, being unafraid to fry up a gerbil when times get tough - these sort of things.

theatre ads, Ulaan Baatar

Friday, September 02, 2005

China I

China II

China III

China IV