Tuesday, January 31, 2006

smoke us a kipper

Winter hols, so no updates for a fortnight or so. We're heading for Ulan Ude, home of the world's biggest Lenin head and, hopefully, the world's biggest Lenin head t-shirt. Then we'll tootle up and down a little according to the goodwill of the weather gods and the marshrootky men. Wouldn't it be cool if they turned out to be the same? "No fare? Ha! Here's a hailstorm!"

torosy and grey

Bolshoye Goloustnoye

lyOT (n. ice)

toROsy (n. pack ice)

Baikal's finally frozen. I'd always expected a process - perhaps slush for a week or two, a crust around the shoreline, your occasional floe. Not how things work, apparently. The weekend before last there was no ice. By Tuesday or Wednesday - ice, locked over the whole lake like a lid on a saucepan.
We'd booked tickets on the 5pm to Bolshoye Goloustnoye, not nearly as neat a transaction as it sounds.
"Family name?" said the bus driver.
"And who will you be seeing in Bolshoye Goloustnoye, Price?"
"Buryat lady. Glasses."
"Ah, Marina. Third stop, by the school. When will you be returning, Price?"
"Sunday afternoon."
"Okay. Sign here for your tickets. Oh, wait. Which seats do you want?"
"Seats? I don't know. These at the front."
"What? No, you don't want those. Too close to the fridge."
"Okay, these ones across the aisle."
"No good either. Right behind the driver. Can't see a thing. What about these, one row back?"
"Okay. Sign for your tickets, please."
"There's a fridge?"
"You weren't told about the fridge?"
The good Marina met us in Bolshoye Goloustnoye, a village of log cottages spread out 80km north of Irkutsk behind the mouth of the river (you'll never pick this) Goloustnoye. In winter the village is majority Buryat. In summer the Russians pour in to make use of their dachas. Marina installed us in her family's second home, with a wood-burning stove, a cellar filled with potatos and cabbages, a cat named Pookha and a second bedroom converted into a fridge by the traditional native Siberian technique of opening the windows.
We slept with the wallpaper spitting and bursting around us. ("Happens every year," said Marina's sister, Turyana. "Perhaps next time, we'll paint.")
In the morning we walked out onto Baikal. The ice was already six inches thick, but cracking and booming like a deep and distant gong. Where the snow had blown clear you could see the moss on the stones on the lake bed. There were air bubbles frozen white, trees caught half in, half out of the water. Once, as K walked, the ice split a half inch in front of her. Near the glassy mouth of the river, two ice shelves had crashed into each other and piled into torosy.
While we thawed at lunchtime Marina filled us with solyanka, salads and lamb shanks. In the afternoon the temperature dropped towards 30, in which - unless you're Russian - you have only an hour or so to walk anything off, then there was steamed fish and mashed potatoes for dinner. With sausages, eggs, bliny and rice kasha next morning, and soup, cutlets and salad for lunch we were, basically,
"Which seats do you have?" said Marina, as we left. Five and six, we said, gesturing with our flippers. "You've done well there," said Marina, hustling us onto the bus. "Two of the best."

Monday, January 30, 2006

VAlenky (n. boots made of thick felt)

The babushki know their stuff. There we were, running round half the winter with cold toes and bewilderment and all the time the answer was padding along beneath a knee-hugging cardigan and a 'Samson & Stone' shopping bag.
So it was that on the weekend, with the temperature predicted to drop into the 40s, we went to the central market to buy valenky.
"They're too big," said K.
"Oh no, they'll shrink," said the valenky lady, a middle-aged Buryat with a sideline in shopping bags ('the co-op; your friendly grocer').
"Really?" said K.
"Oh yes. Walk around in the snow for a couple of days, you'll see. Besides, you want them to be a little oversized. You need an air cushion. It's the bubbles of nothing that make valenky really something."
"Are the grey ones warmer?" we said, having researched valenky pretty thoroughly and heard that the grey ones were warmer.
"Oh, you don't want the grey ones now," said the valenky seller. "It's late in the season and they've gone all pointy on the bottom."
We looked and it was true. The grey ones had gone all pointy on the bottom. We've since also learned that ideally you should keep your valenky inside, next to the stove, assuming you have a stove, and not a shared kitchen filled with Russian teenagers smoking and listening to the Fred Durst song that begins "nobody knows what it's like to be the bad guy" (except other bad guys, right, Fred?). We've found that valenky do indeed shrink after a couple of days in the snow, although after the shrinking is done, it's best to brush the snow from your valenky with a straw broom. And on the weekend we learned that you may find your valenky are too tall, preventing you for example, from squatting over an outside toilet without sticking one of your feet out in the manner of a cossack - and in this case you can simply carve a couple of inches from the top of your valenky with a good knife.

K's are her own. I borrowed mine from a friend, who bought them early in valenky season, before they could go all pointy on the bottom. Behold!

Friday, January 27, 2006

some appendages from Russian history

  • the damned (Svyatopolk, 1015-19)
  • of the large nest (Vsevelod, 1176-1212)
  • the proud (Simeon, 1341-53)
  • the meek (Ivan, 1353-59)
  • the blind (Vasily, 1425-62)
  • the squint-eyed (Vasily)
  • the quietest one (Alexis, 1645-76)
and my favourite, although not really an appendage:
  • False Dmitrii (1605)
who my Russian history book describes as follows:

"no waistline, red hair that habitually stood up, a large wart on his face, a big ugly nose, arms of unequal length, and an expression both unsympathetic and melancholy."

I imagine 'the gimpy' was taken.

Friday, January 20, 2006

kreshchENyeh (n. baptism)

Yesterday was the anniversary of the baptism of Christ (God's own calendar). No doubt you celebrated in your own way. Here in Irkutsk folk celebrated by driving to Baikal and hurling themselves into the icy waters, emerging blue and gasping in a manner rich with spiritual symbolism. Unhappily we were exam-bound in Irkutsk and no one was jumping in the Angara as apparently even the anniversary of Christ's anointing does not warrant liver poisoning.
Late in the afternoon I did pay a visit to the Cathedral of the Apparition of Our Lord, not far from the memorial to the victims of the war against fascism. Figuring that when in Rome you stick close to the Romans and try not to do anything offensive, I doffed my beanie, stamped the snow from my boots and joined a crowd around what turned out to be three giant cauldrons. Priests in white lab coats were ladling out water into the receptacles of the faithful: water bottles, flasks, a jerry can. Presumably, the water was sanctified. Certainly it was cloudy. How cloudy, or how holy, or whether water blessed by the priests of the Cathedral of the Apparition of Our Lord is in fact ammonia, I can't say, as I'd come straight from university and left my hip flask at home.
The crowd kept moving in an incense haze, people coming and going and everyone inside the cathedral moving from one place to another: lighting candles, crossing themselves, filling their water flasks. In an alcove at the back of the cathedral around the leathery relics of a long-dead saint, a group of women - perhaps nuns - were singing in that off-key harmony that is at the same time beautiful and chilling. Near the entranceway the beggars and icon sellers were doing a roaring trade.

Monday, January 16, 2006

maROZnye (a. frosty)

death of an arse sled (came as no surprise)

On Saturday we visited our Alaskan friend in the infectious diseases hospital. It was a cheery outpost on the north-eastern edge of town next to a chemicals factory, giving new irony to the phrase 'take the air'. Joe's hospital window overlooked three enormous smokestacks belching smog. When we made our farewells, leaving Joe in the care of his mostly jaundiced neighbours, we found the temperature outside had fallen. There had been talk of a low from Novosibirsk, but as Siberians usually make things up when it comes to the weather (as in September, when for a month the snows were due tomorrow) we hadn't paid attention.
Now, we waited for a marshrootka helpless in the teeth of a bitter north wind. My beard froze. Our hands began to burn. Breathing became difficult, at least with these lungs, and you could no longer see your breath. (Odd, this last one. The way I see it, this could be the wind or weird science. I'm rooting for weird science but will keep you posted). As our feet thawed in the marshrootka K and I resolved to buy valenki - calf-high boots made entirely of felt which are completely impractical in the wet but good for 5-6 months a year in Siberia.
We walked home from the bus stop along the perilous ice strip that near our student hostel passes for a footpath. A steam cloud had engulfed the Angara and may or may not have been cause or effect of a small Irkutsk housing district losing hot water that afternoon (which isn't as bad as it sounds, except for the unavailablity of all other methods of heating and the possibility of dying. Wait, that is as bad as it sounds.) Extremities already numb, my eyes began to water, and the water froze on my cheekbones. By the hostel door my skin had tightened and all I could manage was a pained and involuntary smile - exactly like botox, I imagine. On the plus side, my crows' feet were gone.
Towards midnight that evening the top-right corner of the television showed 38 below (the local channels here display the temperature at all times - I think to mock us, the viewers. It's as if they're saying, "Sure, we're showing cheap Austrian rescue dramas - but check the temperature. Do you really think you're going outside in this?"). In the spirit of scientific enquiry (see? we suffer for humanity's gain) we hoisted arse sleds and went outside.
Outside the fog was rolling in off the Angara, and it was nippy. Don't forget your woollens when it's minus 38, that's my advice. Of more interest was that after 20 minutes or so outdoors, my arse sled petrified and its beautifully contoured flexiplastic base shattered. It shall be mourned. And replaced.

Friday, January 13, 2006

kley (n. glue)

When K and I first moved in to our two-room, fourth-floor, tastefully pastel student hostel home, I remember the conversation we had about decorations. How, we wondered, should we put up our posters, longyis, giant boxing kangaroo flags and so forth without damaging the walls? In the end we settled for a combination of tacks and carefully double-backed sticky-tape.
A few days before false Christmas, when the temperature dropped, we realised our windows weren't going to do us through winter. We have a double layer of windows through which icy air seeps at the best of times, and at 30 below they were letting in a gale which rendered half our living quarters an unfestive tundra.
As we do at these times, we paid a visit to our hostel kommandant, the good and gold-toothed Elena Viktorovna. We waited until Elena Viktorovna explained to a Russian girl why she couldn't share a room with fewer than three people, then we explained about the windows.
"Have you glued newspaper on them?" said Elena Viktorovna.
We looked stupid and foreign.
"Newspaper," said Elena Viktorovna. "Cut it into strips and glue it over the cracks in your window frames. It's all you'll need. I promise."

"Would sticky tape be okay?" we said, not yet having mastered the word for glue.
Elena Viktorovna deliberated. "Sticky tape should work," she said. "But glue would be better."
K and I demurred for a fortnight, partly because we were distracted by festivities and calendrical quibbles, partly because we needed the TV guide (2.15pm, weekdays, RenTV: Secret Materials (the X-Files)).
But this week the time arrived. We worked through a roll of sticky tape, Wednesday's copy of Irkutsk Zhizn ('Pugacheva is dead to me: (Russian theatre patriarch Josef) Kobzon'; 'Gorbachev's daughter to marry mystery man') and behold! The permafrost has retreated from our windowsill. Also, we're no longer so concerned about putting up posters.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

fight for your right to party (in 14 days, as God intended)

on the eve of true New Year's, Rodina (Motherland), a political party normally devoted to such causes as thinly-disguised racism, has come out swinging for the Julian Calendar.
I particularly enjoyed the news that 80-odd years ago in Constantinople they came up with a second 'fixed' Julian calendar (the cheaters' calendar, I like to think of it), and in trying to impose it nearly caused riots.
Can sense get through the Duma?

paDARki (pl n. presents)

For Christmas Ded Moroz (whose blue-robed Snow Maiden, Snegurochka, is grandaughter, not wife - sorry to anyone whose trivia evenings I ruined) brought me...

...which is wonderful. I don't care that even the good vodka tastes like burning. I don't care that life expectancy here is in the 50s, due partly, no doubt, to the prevalence of same. When the mercury's at the wrong kind of 30 and we want to go ice skating, I want my hip flask, and I want it filled to the brim with the potato plant's finest.


...which I thought at first was fake breasts, but it turns out is an arse sled.
As you might expect in Siberia in January, there is an uncommon volume of snow on the ground, and obviously this invites sliding. However, without the resources or the long-term commitment to invest in a toboggan, you're left with a trip into town for a five-metre ice slide that, although fun, comes with the possibility of long-term tissue damage from your Korean neighbour landing behind you and sticking his knee into your head. No longer! With my arse sled, which I love like a firstborn, I need no more than a bank or an incline and happiness is mine.

It terrifies me to think I lived without these two things.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

c novym godom (happy new year)

a beary Christmas (oh, come on. Got a better bear pun?)

around town

bus window

Baikal 6, Krasnoyarsk 1