Friday, March 24, 2006

smokers' corner

At the classy end of your Russian cigarette market are foreign brands (Marlboro), quasi-foreign brands (More) and cigarettes named after Peter the Great. The most expensive packet of 20 Parliaments sets you back 48 rubles (A$2.30), the same price as a street-side serve of bliny. Guess they gave up regulating tobacco after Gorbachev's efforts with alcohol. At the other end of the scale are these four brands:


The cheapest in the land at less than 4 rubles (A$0.15) per pack of 25. Technically not cigarettes but papirosi, a Russian word describing a tube of cardboard with rough tobacco packed into one end. The brand means 'White Sea Canal', which history buffs might recognise as the Gulag-era project that worked uncounted millions to death. Tasteless? Hey, it's not like they're nice cigarettes.

prima nostalgia

A few extra kopecks buys you cigarettes sans cardboard tube, but no filter. Each smoke recalls fondly a man whose seven years in power left the country recovering from one major famine, on the brink of a second and with a secret police moulded into a hugely effective killing machine. Also available (really): Stalin brand. Now that you think about it, weren't things nicer in the old days?


Another couple of roubles and suddenly you're smoking actual, honest-to-Moses filtered cigarettes, christened in honour of Andrei Nikolayevich Tupelov, the man who invented Aeroflot's finest and the TU-134 of Soviet aviation and now cigarette packet fame.


Well into the middle range at eight rubles (A$0.30). Not as popular as the other three, but we've always found it hard to say no to a lithograph. Named after the river in St Petersburg, the consumption of which I imagine would be equally bad for your health.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

an un-marxist thaw

Spring, he is come, at least to judge by the near constant sunshine and the rivers of melting snow. Of course, this isn't the case for everyone.
If, like ourselves, you're facing south, the sun and the swampy expanses are yours, plus iceless walkways and last year's rubbish, seeping out of the snow like pus from a pimple. It's the most beautiful season, I promise you.
But if you face north, you're still in the season of ice, and you'll probably curse those south-facers, like us, as you skate involuntarily from your doorway into a snowbank, perhaps wounding yourself on a newly revealed car part. But you'd be wrong to curse, because we south-facers aren't bad people, just privileged, and we always welcome you to visit.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

KOSHka (n. female cat)

Yesterday on the fourth floor of our architecturally frightening student hostel there appeared a cat. It was a nice cat, blue eyes, the siamese kind. We let it wander around our apartment, then when it weed behind our bath we threw it into the corridor. Such is our way with visitors.
Still unclaimed by evening, the cat was taken in by two of our Korean neighbours who, I will add, are sunshine in my life, from the girl who thinks I'm heavy to our middle-aged male classmate who grunts through tae-kwon-do in breaks and brings chocolate for our lactose-intolerant teacher.
This morning I walked with our neighbours to class.
"How is the cat?" I said.
"It's okay," said Anneh. "I gave it some sausage and washed it."
"You washed it?" I said.
"Yes, I'd given it sausage and I didn't know what else to do. I thought that's what you did with cats."
"Not so much, I think. You might be thinking of cars, or cutlery. What did it do when you washed it?"
"Oh, it didn't like it. And this morning, there was a terrible smell from under our bath."
"Yes, there's something you might want to know about cats," I said.
After class this morning I stopped to fill in our kommandant, Natalya Viktorovna, about the cat situation. She asked me to describe the cat.
"It's small and makes a mewing sound," I said. "Looks a bit like Yuri Andropov."
"Oh," she said. "That's not the one I've lost."
This will sound petulant, but sometimes I think people in this building deserve their cats to be washed.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Sunday morning in the garden of nerpa

Sunday was the last day of the hockey season, or to be literal in translation of these things, the hockey-with-a-ball season (catchy, no?). Essentially, we're talking football in terms of game time, pitch size and number of players; hockey in all other respects; and my very favourite part, a giant nerpa mascot that reminds me of the characters they used to have on Weetabix boxes in England.
We'd been to a game earlier in the season, when the games were at night in bone bursting temperatures, and you sat, getting by necessity drunker, on whatever insulation you had remembered to bring with you (us: plastic bag, copy of Irkutsk Zhizn - "Satan captured on video in Irkutsk church!") on top of compacted snow.
By Sunday, we were saddened to learn that Baikal Energiya's winning ways had deserted them, although the sexually suggestive dances of the nerpa remained inventive. They played at 11am, a return leg playoff for seventh place against Vodnik Arkhangelsk (just the five time zones away north of St Petersburg). They'd lost the away leg 9-7.
By the time we arrived, 10 minutes before puck-off (is there a term for that in hockey?), the three men behind us had reached that level of inebriation where you loudly answer stadium announcements, your two mates laugh and everybody else notices your three-quarters-empty bottle of cognac. The match began. Baikal fell two goals behind, forgetting to defend, which - forgiveable, I thought, as one of the men sitting behind us had forgotten to stay awake.
We joined in the crowd chants, which are perfect for foreigners because they are repetitive and no one minds your pronunciation. The commonest in hockey-with-a-ball are 'nada nada nada, gol gol gol' ('we need a goal'), 'shaibo' (puck), and molotsi (plural of 'molodyets', which my dictionary says is 'fine fellow', and which for me is proof you should never use dictionaries to translate.) We shouted 'nada, gol' for a bit, because we really needed a goal, but then there were goals and things settled.
At half time we bought some of the cheapest vodka I have had the mispleasure to drink before noon. After the break we shouted 'shaibo', really wanting to encourage the puck (okay, ball) and thank it for its part in the season. Then, in the very last minute, Baikal scored twice, won 7-5 and on aggregate because of the away-goals rule, and we shouted 'molotsi' until we were hoarse and the blood had begun to recirculate in our limbs.
As we walked from the stadium to the market, the man beside us was on the phone shouting, "We got seventh!" Another man with golden eye teeth pumped our hands and congratulated us on the end of the season. It was the happiest I have seen anyone in Irkutsk in public.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

out behind the bus station, Irkutsk

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

ChebooRASHka (n. strange tumbling thing)

It's not often that K and the Russian Winter Olympic team are as one, other than, obviously, their ability to ski many miles through the forest, stop, shoot at things, then ski on. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed among the hooting of Russian lugists and figure skaters last month, the Russian team mascot, here:
K received her version from an anonymous well-wisher for one of the two women-centred festivals of the last few weeks (day of all lovers - Feb 14; International Women's Day - Mar 8). It's brown and, when you push on its belly, emits a scratchy, quasi-musical shrieking that I personally find delightful.
Cheburashka, as it turns out, is a cartoon character with whom pretty much all Russian kids grew up. He's of no fixed species, his best friend is a crocodile, and his nemesis is a wicked old woman in a frock coat. Except for the woman, he's essentially Steve Irwin.
As Cheburashka speaks in a sing-song, simplified Russian, which is much, much easier than trying to work out what real people are saying, and also sings, which we like, K and I have been getting acquainted with him. He's cheery, fond of a venture and - tropical, having (much like ourselves) found himself in Russia after falling asleep in a crate of oranges. So you can see why they thought he was perfect for Torino.

Find out more! (third link on the left is for pictures, sixth on the left for music)

Saturday, March 11, 2006



Siberia as a rule gets a pitiful trickle of tourists. The figures I heard recently were three million per year for the whole of Russia (heaven knows what puts the others off - it's not like there's a byzantine visa process, tight government control or regular racist attacks. Oh, wait). Of these, 90 per cent don't leave Moscow and St Petersburg, and 90 per cent of the remainder don't cross the Urals. If my maths are right, this leaves Siberia with fewer tourists per year than you could fit, with sufficient prodding, in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And, if highly unscientific observations are anything to go by (and I think we all agree they are), all but eight of these people are German.
Why this should be the case, I'm not entirely sure. The old Russian word for foreigner is 'NYEmets', originally meaning 'mute', which I like ("they're not talking in a language at all - just babble. Why don't they use words?"), but which has since come to specifically mean 'German', which might be some indication of the proportion of foreigners that Germans here make up. Baikal has always been popular with the Nyemtsi, and Olkhon island became a hot spot a few years back when the top German TV station filmed a reality show in Khuzhir. A family got to live in a log cottage sans electricity or running water 'kak Sibiryachki', as they say - like Siberians, although unlike Siberians, German TV viewers weren't allowed to see the satellite on the roof of the house across the street, the internet access therein and the fortress-like tourist complex spreading a hundred metres away on the crest of a hill.

The last time K and I visited Olkhon, you'll remember that we crossed the water in a floating, diesel-powered contraption and that we stayed in a pleasant, near-empty hotel run by Tanya, a woman who may or may not have been sleeping with our bus driver. This time, with some German friends (yes, Germany. It's just next to Poland), we crossed the water, which at some time during the winter had hardened and lost its wetness, in a weary old Lada, and we stayed in the Nikita homestead, above-mentioned fortress where a friend of ours was working.
At Nikita's, which, I will say, was efficient and welcoming, there was a frenzy of construction, expanding the dining hall/ping-pong room/three banyas/endless guesthouses arrangement in time for the summer rush. Out the back, they were building a pool. Inside the dining hall were a handful of holidaying Russians, the local Orthodox priest, the local militsia, some labourers from Central Asia and 30 school students from eastern Germany. We listened to their wordless babble and then chatted in English about Rammstein.
On the Friday the school group left and we went for a walk on Baikal. How nice it will be to have some quiet tonight, we thought, listening to the air bubbles bursting beneath us against the ice.
That evening a four-wheel drive pulled up outside Nikita's. During dinner three more arrived, then six and then eight. Men arrived and began nailing posters to the outside of the dining hall. Flags went up near the entrance. TV crews starting setting up beneath them. By the time we'd finished our omul, played travel scrabble (remember: magnet-side down), drunk coffee, almost expired in a banya and recovered with a strange hibiscus tea, a
120-man car rally had pulled in on its way from Murmansk to Vladivostok. They must have seen the light on.
In the morning, 40 teams of hugely wealthy racers (entry fees just the $80,000; grand rally prize: 10 kg of gold) swung their hugely expensive four-wheel drives in doughnuts around the ice. I walked around trying not to receive hugely painful injuries. The cars, they were loud.
To celebrate some prazdnik or other (beginning of Lent, perhaps? There were pancakes in Irkutsk and lots of people burning effigies. Is Lent usually effigies?), organisers had set up a row of gas-fuelled barbecue grills on the ice. In alarming syncronicity with my own vow for Lent this year, which is to give up eating things longer than the width of a swimming pool, when they were done driving their cars around they cooked a 25-metre sausage. On seeing how many hands went into its making, I left the sampling to the bevehicled rich. Walking back across the ice I got chatting to a chap. It turned out he was from Munich.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Ulan Ude

3 lies about the Siberian winter

Lie #1: minus 30 is the same as -5
I remember more than a few conversations with seasoned winter folk (hello, Canadians) about Siberia and its relative liveability. "Of course," they'd say, tipping their touk to a knowing angle, "once you're a few degrees below zero most temperatures are alike. Whether it's -5 or -35, you're looking at the same level of discomfort. So long as you have decent clothes you'll be fine." Rubbish, Canadians. In -5 you can get by without gloves. In -15 you need gloves and a fat coat, but your beard doesn't freeze. In -20 you might on occasion skewer your loved one with the icicles hanging from your nostrils, but your face won't hurt. In -30 you'll have the hurting, the dangling and a flattering tightening of the skin I believe I've previously described, but at least you'll be able to spend more than a few minutes away from your Ulan Ude hotel, which you checked into at the beginning of the world's most ill-fated holiday, on the day the temperature hit -42, without your lungs constricting, eyes burning, and nipples - I swear - turning inwards. Lie!

Lie #2: your breath freezes and drops to the ground
Swirls around your head making photography difficult, yes. Freezes and tinkles prettily to the ground, not so much, even in Ulan Ude, where the involuntary streaming from your eye ducts obscures the world's largest Lenin head.
(I read recently that the freezing and the dropping does in fact occur in the Siberian Arctic - and, presumably, other bits of the Arctic - making a sound sweetly referred to as the whispering of stars, but only where the temperature drops to -60 and below. But then for all I know there's a reader in the Arctic watching his breath float off in the distance and tipping his touk to a knowing angle. Probably also searching for his nipples.)

Lie #3: no getting sick
This is the great thing about a proper winter, they said, their touks getting so low as to muffle the sound. Germs don't survive. How could they? It's -30. Those little green fellers would never get by without scarves.
The morning of day three of the world's most ill-fated holiday, with the mercury at -32 and a bitter wind whipping in from the Selenga, we set off on our brittle limbs, dashing around Ulan Ude from hotel to nature museum, nature museum to fast food restaurant Happy Land, Happy Land to the cinema, where we saw the Russian film Svolochi, about war (I know! Imagine!). Towards lunchtime we found a number of things shutting down, including our sinuses and the puppet show, on account of conditions so extreme that the schools had closed. The afternoon we spent coughing up green.
Then, on limping weakly back to Irkutsk, writing off the holiday as a folly on par with a four-storey head of a man who despised personality cults, we found everyone else stricken with gripp (flu), all the ads on telly for gripp remedies and cough syrups and good-bacteria yoghurts, and ourselves with a head cold that took more than a fortnight to shake. They lied. Damn them.