Friday, December 23, 2005

Happy (false) Christmas!

Say what you will about Pope Gregory XVIII, the man knew how to mess up the holidays. There we were some time in the 16th century with a perfectly functional calendar losing at most, 11 or 12 minutes a year - and he had to go and build a new one that works.
Happily here they've hung on to their senses and the old calendar. It's drifted just the fortnight since the time of Christ, which I can't see makes all that much of a difference to anyone's shopping schedule.
The upshot is we have three Christmases this year. Ours, naturally; then Russian Christmas as God and Caesar intended it on January 7, plus, one day before ours, German Christmas. I don't know what's going on with the Germans.
No Santa Claus in Irkutsk either, or only a bit, in the worst of the shopfronts. Instead we have Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), who comes, rings in the season then fights with Batman; his wife Snegurochka (Snow Maiden), and their tiny dog - all of whom figure in ice statues on Kirov Square.
There's a metre of snow on the ground despite some unseasonal warmth, mull wine on the stove, and the icicles hanging from our window are something to behold.
Happy Christmas, Gregorians! Sit tight, Julians!

(Sadly, the Russians have given ground on New Year, which I was disappointed to learn is celebrated according to Gregory's calendar and only by a few true believers on its proper date of January 14. I keep telling people this kind of thing is only the beginning. Before you know it there'll be leap years.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

it all makes work for the working man to do

There are some Russian institutions I won't hear a word against. If I had a parcel of great importance and a month or two up my sleeve, I would gladly entrust it to Russia Post. Almost always the public transport here is regular, cheap and reliable, and its employees are saints among men, except for the ticket-sellers, who are bastards. The ice cream and chocolate industries are testament to centuries of human and bovine toil. Then there are Russian workmen. I give you:

On Friday our taps stopped working, as they do from time to time. We mentioned this to our kommandant (hostel supervisor), who sent in a man with a spanner and a look of weariness. He took off the taps and held a saucepan over the spout.
"This will catch the spray," he said, wrongly. Black water spattered into our walls.
For some time he played with the taps, taking them apart, putting them back together, trying the water. The wall grew blacker. Eventually, as he stabbed with a screwdriver at the inside of the taps, a hunk of lead solder shot out and splintered in our bath.
"This must have happened when they replaced your pipes," he said. "I imagine they had the taps off and dropped a lump of lead down the spout. Shoddy workmanship, really."
That afternoon K and I went out and bought a water filter and a book called 'Living with Leukemia'. When we returned and tried the taps at the sink, water started coming out of the shower.

-28 overnight, and the wind came whistling through our windowframes. I dropped in to see the kommandant.
"None of our windows close properly," I said.
"Have you tried gluing paper over all the cracks?" she said.
"Well, no," I said, thinking back to the naivety with which K and I once discussed whether it was okay to put pictures up with sticky tape.
"Try that," she said. "But in the meantime I'll send in a man."
The man arrived clutching a hammer. He went straight to the windows.
"Ah yes. When they renovated in the summer they painted over the locks and latches," he said. "Poor, really."
For a few minutes he smashed away at our painted-shut bolts. The rattle of the windows sounded like someone wailing 'You'll sleep behind cardboard! Behind cardboard!' It was really strange. But the glass held, and the man freed, or almost freed, all of our bolts so that although they now don't work in a strictly practical sense, they're not technically stuck.
"Anything else?" he said.
"When we turn the sink taps on water comes out of our shower head." I said.
"Sorry, I don't do taps," he said. "Taps are someone else."
"So you... just do banging?"
"Yep," he said, replacing his hammer in a toolbox that I noticed contained several more hammers. "Just banging."

...and Tuesday
on Tuesday some men came with buckets of sand and grit.
"Hello, men," we said.
"We'll be needing the bathroom," said the men.
We went to class, and while we were out the men filled in the hole in our ceiling that other men made two months ago. So our ceiling's fixed. At least, most of it. They haven't yet plastered over the spot where the hole was, so there is still peeling paint and plaster from a previous job ("don't know what that last lot were doing," said the new men. "Shoddy, really."), and the floor of our bathroom is once again caked in plasterdust and silt.
"Will you also be painting the hot-water pipes?" said K. "The ones that rusted outside before they were installed so that now, every time we brush against them we collect burnt orange streaks across our clothing?"
"Oh no," said the men. "We don't do painting. Painting is someone else."

Sunday, December 18, 2005

chuDOvishy (n. monster)

Tanya, the girl-limpet who has drifted from our English friend Steve onto K and I, invited us this week to a railway jaunt around Baikal. We agreed, as: 1. we like Baikal, and 2. a jaunt lessens the chance that Tanya will spend the weekend stinking out our bedroom. I don’t care how ungracious this sounds: the girl needs anti-perspirant.
We met on a street corner on the city side of the Angara, which incidentally is all out of whack just now. It doesn’t usually freeze, apparently, although there’s already a crust of ice around its banks. But for weeks now it’s been sliding blackly out of Baikal beneath strange and slightly cheesy wisps of steam. Is it a river or a David Copperfield set? The Angara will let you know.
We dawdled for an hour near the bridge in sub-Arctic temperatures. A dozen Russians joined us, then a woman who got her fur coat caught in a departing marshrootky (fixed-route minibus: a bus, for all intents and purposes, but, well, mini). She bumped along for a few metres without breaking a heel. Lesson: if you’re looking for sturdy stilettos, you could do worse than Irkutsk.
Eventually somebody arrived clutching a loudspeaker. We were called ‘respected passengers’, then herded into a bus and off down the highway to Listvyanka. The Irkutsk-Listvyanka road is one of the best in the country and in a neat coincidence serves dozens of government dachas.
At Listvyanka we piled onto a ferry named Babushkin. Baikal won’t freeze until January but it is already covered with pads of ice and at the rivermouth the Angara’s mist has piled into banks of freezing fog.
A pair of elderly sisters were along for the ride.
“Throw kopeks in the water,” they said. “It will bring you good luck and wealth.”
“Won’t that actually make me less wealthy?” I said, quickly doing the maths. They were having none of it.
Across the rivermouth we left the Babushkin for the round-Baikal train – a single carriage that runs on a single line through century-old tunnels and embankments blasted out of the cliff face. It runs from Port Baikal to Slyudanka (railway station picture below), on Baikal’s southern shore, then inland back to Irkutsk.
The old ladies were up for a chat. So too was a Buryat lady who teaches English in primary schools around the region and whose 10-year-old's birthday necessitated the singing of not one but two birthday songs. Half Baikal's tunnels were behind us before I found myself chatting to Tanya.
“Is there a monster in Baikal?” I said. I like monsters, especially sea monsters, and have always found it unlikely that there's no monster in Baikal - a lake so deep it has spineless tadpole creatures with transluscent skin and headlamp eyes. Recently I was excited to learn the Russian word for monster, which saves me introducing the topic by saying ‘enormous fantasy animal’.
“Oh yes,” said Tanya. "Of course there's a monster."
“What kind of monster?”
“It’s a mighty serpent.”
“Does it eat people?” I said.
“No,” said Tanya. “But it swims around a lot”
“Does it have a name?” I said.
“Not really,” said Tanya. “Perhaps ‘Serpent’”
After this conversation, I asked several others on the train about the Baikal serpent. No one had heard of it. Not the sisters, not the Buryat lady, Maria, not the charming tour leader Marina, and neither has anyone I've spoken to since.
While pondering this, I remembered an incident from a few weeks ago when a bus exploded in front of our university building. Coming home from classes we saw ambulances and a pair of fire engines swarming around the blackened husk.
We were having a cup of tea with Steve when Tanya popped in that evening. As you do when a bus has exploded, we raised the topic.
“Ah yes,” she said. “It wasn’t a big deal. Nobody was hurt. The driver actually drove the bus away.”
“Really?” we said.
“Oh yes,” said Tanya.
"What about the ambulances?"
"Oh, there weren't any ambulances," said Tanya. "Everything was fine." And nothing would shake her. Not witness accounts, not arguments over the likelihood of the driver of a charred skeleton bus still finding first gear and a petrol tank. I am concerned about the implications of this for my serpent.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

some news this week

  • in Kirov Square, the town centrepiece that is huge, purposeless and not a square (Kirov Horseshoe, anyone?), they're building things out of ice. There's a kind of fort, a gate and what appears to be a giant slide. It's not yet finished and already it's three metres high. I may not know much about ice sculpture, but I know what I like.

  • there's snow on almost everything, including my beard, our thermometer, the market camel and the statues. Lenin's little snow cap makes him look like the Pope.

  • our Russian teacher, who turned 60 in September, has confided she owns a nine-kilogram cat. It's named Dodi, after al-Fayed.

  • we're being ever-so-slightly stalked by a Russian girl who was ever-so-slightly stalking our English friend. He has flown heartlessly home for the holidays, leaving us a tub of margarine, a television and a nightly visit from Tanya who chats to me, chats to K, then just freaking lingers.

  • Kazakhstan has shut down Borat's site. Which can't possibly backfire - can it?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005




Friday, December 09, 2005

get your pomegranates

Some weeks ago we asked our friend Rita about the outdoor fruit and veg market in town.
"Will it still be there when the weather turns?" we said.
"Of course," said Rita, as if the thought of -30 temperatures forcing people indoors would occur only to our sweet and foreign minds. "It's there right through the winter."
As it turns out, we didn't ask quite the right question.
The right question would have been, "Will there be frozen fish and cartons and cartons of tomatoes and pomegranates, each more blistered and putrid than the last?"


There have been elections in Kazakhstan this week, contentious* on account of the usual vote-fiddling and corruption, and tense because of the revolutions that have been rattling around Central Asia of late.
Of course, everyone knows that in Kazakhstan the real issue is

The story goes like this:

Early in November, Sacha Baron Cohen - who is Ali G, Borat, and, if I'm not mistaken, shagging Isla Fisher - hosted the MTV Europe Music Awards as Borat. He arrived in an Air Kazakh plane piloted by a one-eyed man with a vodka bottle. The Kazakh foreign ministry, which likes to know what the kids are into, got wind of this. They weren't happy.
"We do not rule out that Mr. Cohen is serving someone’s political order... to present Kazakhstan and its people in a derogatory way," they said.
"I innocent," said Borat, on his website.
The foreign ministry said they might sue. Tensions dragged on.
Then last week, on the eve of the election, there was an about face from the Kazakh embassy in London. Officials said they now realised Borat was harmless. Not only that, he was doing wonders for tourism.
"More people are applying for visas to Kazakhstan than ever," they said. "Many are intrigued by [Borat] and he’s introduced them to the country."

It seems to me this story isn't over. What will a Borat boom mean for Kazakhstan? What will happen when backpackers begin hitting the grasslands expecting cheap suits and campness? What will the foreign ministry think when the Borat movie comes out, as apparently, it will next year? What will the OSCE have to say about all this?

*Not in my favourite tabloid newspaper Irkutsk Zhizn, where they're more concerned about the car crash that is singer Alla Pugacheva's fourth marriage and how starlet Tatiana Bulanova wants to have the St Petersburg Zenit captain's baby.

Monday, December 05, 2005

PRAZ-dnik (n.) festival, feast

Yesterday was the start of something, so there was a festival. The festival was in another part of town, near where the Angara is dammed and where there are wooden houses which seem constantly without electricity, or at least lightbulbs. Far enough from our hostel, in any case, for us to be lost for more than an hour in the dark, during which time I learned that beards can freeze. Winter can't be fun for the Orthodox clergy.
The festival itself was 25 folk music enthusiasts and a garmoshka (accordian). There was singing. There was dancing, much of it the kind where you have to not only track what you are doing, but anticipate what other people will be doing. There were a number of casualties. On the two oldest, roundest women in the group, there were costumes. There was an odd little pantomime that involved sitting on each others' laps.
After the dancing the vodka came out and there was singing again. The singing is difficult to describe, except to say that it wasn't what I had expected, which I think on reflection was table-thumping and songs about bears. It was the kind of singing where the component parts seem slightly off-key until they come together, and then when they do they send chills down your spine. This time the Neighbours theme stayed in the bag.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

how to hunt bear

A Lithuanian chap downstairs has just returned from the taiga north of Baikal, where he’s been living for 15 months with Khanti herders and hunters.
Further north, he said, the Khanti have herds big enough to enable them to subsist entirely on their reindeers. The groups he spent time with tended to hunt for their food and for trade.
“How do you catch a bear?” I said.
“First, take your world war two rifle,” he said. “Set out at dusk, when your bear’s going to be settling in for the night. If you can find where he’s sleeping, you’ll be able to get a clean shot in. Course, this isn’t easy.”
“No. The bear is clever. He spends a lot of time before he goes to bed disguising his trail. He’ll walk back on his tracks, carve big circles through the snow, make you think he’s off in one direction then scamper over rocks or something else where he won’t leave a footprint.”
“So how do you find him?”
“You look for big circles in the snow. Then look near them.”
“That’s it?”
“Yep. Sometimes you find he’s heard you coming and already slipped off to the mountains. Those can be long nights. Gets cold in the taiga.”

Here, pooh...

Saturday, December 03, 2005

this is a low

A few days ago the air was mild. Balmy, even. In the afternoon, with the sun on our window thermometer, the mercury crept into plus. Global warming, the women on door duty said. It weren't like that when we were young. Then there were rumours from Moscow of a low.
On Thursday, the first day of December, the temperature dropped. A frost sealed everything but the manholes in white. This morning on the thermometer there's empty glass between 0 and minus 26. Here's what happens when you walk to the shop and it's 26 below:
  • the sweat on your gloves begins to harden
  • the snow freezes and grinds beneath your feet
  • the air rakes up the inside of your nose
  • you become conscious of your sinuses, how unprotected they feel and how near they are to your brain. You reassure yourself that if Russians suffered brain ice, perhaps causing them to mislay their shopping lists or forget where they lived, you'd know. Surely.
  • as you crunch along between shop and home, you lose feeling in your nose. You wonder if there are nose cosies. Has anyone invented these? Can they be stupider than pointy shoes?
  • you consider again the possibility of brain ice.

Friday, December 02, 2005

between bird flu and a toxic place

Seems we made the right call when picking Siberian universities. Third in line was Novosibirsk, which has spent the autumn cleaning up bird flu outbreaks. And anytime now in Khabarovsk, (fourth pick, two days east) 80 miles of poisonous benzene will begin to flow into town. Our second choice was Vladivostok, which so far seems disaster free, but there's time.
There's been quite a kerfuffle in the local press over the Khabarovsk crisis, most notably about the news that it was two days after the blast in one of their factories before the Chinese mentioned a gazillion litres of people-killer being on the way.
It did occur to me that there might be shades of pots and kettles here. If there was footage of Russia's relationship with the enviroment it would feature slide whistles and be presented by Toni Pearen. They trashed the Urals. They scorched the taiga. In Kazakhstan, in the Soviet era, they went close to actually losing a sea (it's true this could be carelessness). And then there's the openness - 'glasnost', in case you're collecting words that only came into vogue in the eighties - with which they went about these things. Even Gorbachev only admitted Chernobyl when the Scandinavians noticed radioactivity scorching their forests and rang to ask what was going on.
Of course, I don't mean to downplay what is happening in Khabarovsk. All the hypocrisy in the world won't sift the benzene out of your tea. I'm just saying.