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Part 1: A quick glance at success- Pervouralsk [Первоуральск]

20 Jun

 

Pervouralsk as I remember it, trying to hitchhike out

 

Life, in Russia, moves with a dizzying shift of pace. A traveler, visitor, or local alike must be in the same moment ready to wait patiently for weeks or embark immediately and without notice to take advantage of an opportunity. To not be able to cope with either polar scenario is to not be able to survive here.

Christine and I left Kazan, without any tangible success after what felt like so much investment in planning and networking, because there was an inhibiting holiday. We left for Yekaterinburg instead of Ufa because of an inside contact with a company helping to restructure parts of an industry in Pervouralsk. When, due to legitimate circumstances outside of all our control, the opportunity vanished, I began to feel as if we would never make any progress. In one swift moment, an explosion reacted into our journey another dead-end to a path. However, all adventurers must quickly learn to shoot off in another direction without dwelling on the failure of one.

A view from our bus to Pervouralsk

Our new direction came from our dear friends Daria and Anya. Daria took us to meet a family living in Pervouralsk for a personal tour of the city as well as interviews. Rustam Madisovich Ishanov and Rimma Mikolaevna Ishanov, along with their daughter Julie, graciously invited us into their home for delicious food and conversation. Both parents worked for most of their lives in the police force, eventually retiring from that service. Now, Rustam Madisovich is a detective for a local factory and Rimma Mikolaevna works with delinquent youth. They are good people and were friendly in sharing their opinions, thoughts, and local history.

Rustam Madisovich Ishanov and Rimma Mikolaevna Ishanov - photo by Christine Armbruster

 

The Ishanov family and us after our discussion

The city is possibly one of the purest examples anyone could find of a successful monogorod. We were told that through a strong community and responsible local government, Pervouralsk has been unusually stable. The city is known for high-grade metal piping, an industry that goes back to the original village settlement in the 1700’s, and was given city status in the 1930’s.

The mayor, we were told, has been a consistent advocate of encouraging outside investment from strong companies both from elsewhere in Russia and abroad. This has resulted in an unusually low unemployment rate just over 1% and a steady economy, which incidentally means the crime rate is also quite low.

 

Smoke stacks from one of the pipe plants

Walking around the city on our own seemed to confirm most of this information. The problems here seemed just the same as anywhere else, and not especially those of a struggling monogorod. Of course there was crime, alcohol, drugs, layoffs, and poverty, but not enough to grab undue attention. Pervouralsk, as a community, has really done well for itself.

 

 

 

Pervouralsk's central rec park - family

Families were out everywhere, enjoying the central park and going for walks. I sat near the park fountain and just watched for a while. The scene was quite wholesome: Children running around;teenagers skateboarding, BMX biking and rollerblading; parents enjoying a moment to sit.

 

 

 

Pervouralsk's central park - very curious child

In fact, it all seemed very much like an overly surreal scene from a disaster movie where the director is trying to show an innocent, beautiful, happy community just before it is torn apart by aliens. Or something along those lines. I couldn’t find a drunkard to taint the mood within a few thousand feet and, I’ll be honest, it made me feel a little on edge.

 

 

Two men working on a Lada.

On our way out of the city, we met the owner of a small shashlik café, who invited us in and treated us to some barbecue. He also liked his city, but his place was rowdy with loud music about gulags and plenty of inebriated dancing to balance out the rest of downtown. Even cake needs salt.

 

 

 

As if to throw in one closing sales pitch of its pleasant nature, Pervouralsk even threw in a classy, not overstated sunset as we waited for someone who would pick up three odd, Yekaterinburg bound hitchhikers. It was a nice town and a good start for gaining perspective, but after two days it was time to move on.

Pervouralsk - Bus at sunset

Look for part 2, coming soon (24 hours?), on Krasnouralsk: the town that welcomed us, and then quickly wanted us gone (officially, anyhow).

 

That first step Eastward

9 Jun

 

Kazan Kremlin and Mosque

Tuesday, Christine and I made it to Kazan. Though a small step in the scope of this entire project, I feel that this was an encouraging accomplishment. I was able to purchase, all in Russian and with no assistance, train tickets from Moscow to here. I know that to many this probably does not sound like much, but Russian ticket queues and acquisition are actually quite intimidating. The lines are long and close without warning no matter how long you have waited in them. This happened at least five times and was reason for us missing the train we actually intended to take. Beyond that, the women working each ticket station are generally not of a jovial disposition and willing to slow down their speech for a clumsy foreigner. Luckily, the woman at the end of our final line had not been on her shift long and was very polite, despite speaking quickly and wanting to hurry us along. We should have taken a picture of my accomplished grin when those tickets were finally in my hand after nearly 3 hours.

 

And so, we rode a train through the night and out of Moscow. The city lights faded from the windows until all I could see was blackness behind my reflection. I was hoping for a more daytime ride so that people would be awake to meet and enjoy and the scenery would be visible as we rumbled passed. However, the quiet night was good for collecting my thoughts and projecting on the days to come.

 

Kazan Kremlin

Kazan is much smaller than Moscow, and for that I am excited. Often if I am not familiar with an area, I feel overly solitary in places where many millions reside. The people are too accustomed to people being everywhere. I do not yet know this place and it is not a small city, by any means, but it was a move in the comfortable direction.

 

Anyhow, we arrived to good and partially bad news. We discovered an unexpected and pleasant place to stay in the form of a couple, Aidan from Glasgow and Marina from Moscow, with a spare bedroom in their new flat. Further, their friend Maria is intrigued by the project and is willing to accompany us to Kamskiye Polyany (Камские Поляны) for adventure and help in translation. Win! However, this coming weekend is a Tatar holiday where the celebrations apparently get quite wild and rough. We were advised by Maria that, if we like out teeth and cameras, this is not the time to go. For about two weeks.

 

 

Aidan, Jhenya, Luke, Christine, and Maria (top row, L to R, Bottom L to R)

So we will move on to Yekaterinburg where we have an exciting contact in a nearby steel town, and visit Kamskiye Polyany on our way back to Moscow. Maria, the wonderful person that she is, has agreed to help us when we return. I am very much looking forward to that. From what I have read, it should be a fascinating town.

With our unexpected free time, Christine and I met up with a fellow traveler named Luke from Britain. The three of us explored the city and met some interesting people. Most memorable was a retired accordion professor who we found fishing in the Kazanka and Volga confluence. I will let Christine write on that, so keep an eye out for her upcoming pictures and post.

 

I am anxious to get to our first project town and hope that we will have some material of substance very soon. For now, enjoy a few photos.

Our goodbye to Lilya and Siarhei before leaving Moscow

 

Teeth this way!

Kazan Mosque

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quarter of a Century in Russia

3 Jun

 

 

Metro Bunny

So here I am, finally in Russia. I have now been ‘on the road’ for an entire month, yet am just now into the first leg of my summer a half day around from all the things I know well.

 

Christine and I are currently staying with a wonderful young couple, Lilya and Serhei. They live about an hour train commute (which includes various transfers) from city center in a relatively secluded, beautiful area of Moscow proper. Their house is completely surrounded by a wild garden of flowers, trees, and everything green.

 

 

 

Lilya and Serhei's kitchen

First Breakfast in Lilya and Serhei's kitchen

My first morning started with this. You know life is really hard when you wake up to a delicious breakfast of cereal and fruit accompanied by this kitchen and view. I love my life. Thanks, Lilya and Serhei for being such great hosts.

This morning, as Christine, Lilya and I sat talking in the kitchen a May Beetle (looks like what I’ve always known as a June Bug) flew in the window and came to rest on my hand. When I approached the window and put my hand outside, the little shiny creature walked to the tip of my finger, opened its shell to reveal its wings in a very matter of fact way, and flew off in the other direction. That is a fairly pointless story other than being a reminder of how everything is different and yet the same here.

 

 

Ykhtomskaya Train Stop

photo by Christine Armbruster

Cowboy Tree - photo by Christine

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of my existence. Existence outside the womb anyhow. We spent the day running around downtown Moscow working on any shots we might need of the big city for the project. Later we met with our new friend Vladimir, whom we first met under a bridge by the Moscow river walk. He took us to his flat where we were treated with home-made pizza and beer.

Redemption Songs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent a good portion of the night playing each other songs on a simple guitar that was impossible to tune correctly for more than a single chord. Yet, coupled with a confident voice everything fell into place. Vladimir pulled out a book and played us countless, sometimes stuttering renditions of popular Russian classics. Most of the lyrics were lost on me, but the melodies were catchy and the feelings beyond any language barrier. It was the most genuine introduction to cultural music I think I will ever encounter.

 

Vladimir

Vladimir currently lives in a smaller district just outside of Moscow called Lubitsa. His mother passed away from liver cancer a few years ago and he has no contact with his father. He loves his home town and his country despite the many problems he told us about. Because of this love, he wants change and says that he will be a part of bringing that change about. Honesty and optimism make a powerful combination, I think. Thank you, Vladimir. You really are a wonderful person.

 

Soon we will be heading to Kazan, and from there to Kamskiya Polyany. This will be the first monogorod of the trip.

Tonight, we are going to see what Moscow is like between 10pm and 8am.

 

Tree

Salt Lake to San Antone

7 May

Written Thursday May 5, 2011

Just 60 miles outside of San Antonio, Christine and I are nearing the close of our third day of travel. Tuesday saw us an appropriately awkward farewell from Provo. We were delayed by unforeseen bureaucracy from Christine’s university, which elongated our goodbyes. Goodbyes, in my opinion, are typically unpleasant by nature and therefore not something I care endure any longer than necessary. Prior to that my alarm came, of course, too soon into a morning after a night of expected anxious restlessness. Though intellectually I knew that I needed a good night’s rest over packing and re-packing my bag, preoccupation is a complex issue. And so I spent the night debating the vitality of each item to make its way into my bag of treasures again and again. Every time the size and weight seemed too much and the contents too few.

 

Equipment: 1 Video Camera, 1 Shotgun mic, 1 Lavalier mic, 1 Audio recorder, 1 Digital SLR with a 16-35mm lens, 1 35mm Film SLR with 2 lenses, 1 tripod, 1 home-built steady-cam, 25+ various batteries,  Too many chargers and cables, but each with a frustratingly unique purpose, A tiny photo/video editing computer, 2 portable hard drives, and a bundle of memory cards.

Personal Items: 1 bag of toiletries, 1 pair of shorts, 5 pairs of underwear, 7 pairs of socks, 4 shirts, 1 swimsuit, 1 small towel snatched from a ubiquitous cheap motel swimming pool, a sleeping bag, 3 books (one, a dictionary), and 1 map of Russia

On top of that I have the pair of pants, underwear, shirt, hoodie, and flip-flops I wore out the door.

 

Calling it a bag at this point seems to undermine the true function of this particular bag at this particular time. After all, given the full scope of contents and role, it feels more correct to call it my home; The only consistency until I step, timidly I imagine, back to the familiar soil, grass, carpet, and embraces of what I’ve left behind. My shelter. My space. My hope. All contained in this bag of a home…and I love it.

Wednesday was spent in the collage-cities of the Phoenix valley. It was encouraging to see that many of the half-built shopping centers, apartment buildings, and houses of 2007 are now newly finished or at least nearly so. Not so encouraging was the unusually high number of houses for sale, foreclosed, or abandoned per block just in driving around. In parallel, as one might expect, nearby shopping centers were similarly barren.

I was shocked to find that the very shopping center mentioned as the “usual collection” where the northern intersection of the Loop-101 and the I-17 occurs to be one of these stricken former shop locals. The movie theater and a pair of restaurants made up the majority of still open businesses where once at least two dozen had been.

 

By recommendation, we also ventured out to some of the outskirt towns that had been hit particularly hard. One particularly bad vantage point contained an unobstructed view of at least 5 abandoned homes within a 360 degree view. Video of that later.

 

 

 

One shopping center we found was entirely devoid of businesses. It was in a good location right across the street from a reasonably sized neighborhood on the east side, some gas stations and a Lockheed aircraft facility of some sort across from the Goodyear Airport to the south. I’m curious about it’s utterly vacant state.

 

 

Anyhow. I am finishing this post a day and a half late for which I apologize. It is also late at night now and we have an early start tomorrow to procure a few last-minute items (such as a pair of shoes and a compression sack for my sleeping back because I ripped the last one). So I bid you all good night.

 

Tree

Remembering the Beginning

26 Apr

Late 2007 I remember making an isolated drive from Utah’s Salt Lake valley to the rapidly creeping mega-suburbia of the Phoenix-conglomerate in Arizona. My mother had moved to Glendale during the housing and job boom of just a few years earlier and every time I had returned to the collage cities of Glendale, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Peoria, Mesa, Tempe, and more it had expanded impossibly.

When I first visited Arizona family in the early 1990’s I witnessed orange orchards across the street from their 55th and Cactus house. A decade later they were gone. The line I recalled from my later teenage years as where the houses and shopping centers came to a halt and the free desert opened was so quickly being shoved away from the city center that I doubted my memories.

It used to be that when my friends and I would make the journey to our secluded retreats out past Lake Pleasant park grounds, riding north on the I-17 was a definitive escape from the city. Where the northernmost intersection of the Loop-101 and I-17 happens there was the usual collection of a movie theater, some restaurants, shops and a few nearby neighborhoods. At night, the thick light density would steadily taper off into an easy unending black broken only by the slow but constant trickle of cars heading back south into the city. After a time, a lonely convenience plaza was reached right when a departure from the interstate was made for the west bound Carefree Highway. From there you could access what was, for us, the closest expanse of empty wilderness we had; No lights save for the few wandering late night travelers if you stuck to the highway and the lonesome regional park something or other light if you struck out for the marina.

Since then, every time I re-entered the Phoenix valley from the high and winding path out of Flagstaff the scenery had changed. The marching line of lights had surged onward from ending somewhere near Deer Valley Rd to pressing so desperately up against the mountains at Anthem that I wondered sometimes if the rocky barrier between there and Flagstaff stood a chance.

2007 was different. That oceanic force of a booming economy had crashed and receded. Making the spectator drive of American progress, this time I saw not bustling construction sites with ceaseless movement of machines and men. Nor did I see shopping centers replete with “NOW OPEN” signs so new they smelt of drying paint and freshly laid asphalt from the invading roads. I saw nearly finished apartment buildings, neighborhoods, and centers abandoned mid-project by construction workers and investors alike with “LOT FOR SALE” signs hanging from the partial structures and “FOR RENT” where “NOW OPEN” had just hung. What had happened?

Economists and fifth grade teachers alike had lied. Infinite growth is not possible, and yet somehow we defied our own logic and believed. I write this from the sobering perspective that last Friday, April 15, 2011 my own dear mother walked away from her foreclosed home. Like so many thousands of other mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and grown children, she walked away from her house and all the dreams that were represented by its solid foundation, warm walls, and protective roof. Крыша (Kreesha), the Russians say. Shelter. Hope. Protection.

Shaksha

The closed factory next to resulting houses

Nine months previous I was standing in a patch of dusty balding grass, slowly turning to absorb the absurd panorama surrounding me. The absurdity came in the form of a large, closed factory standing so shamelessly proud against the contrast of dis-guarded-hodgepodge homes. Small shelters of collected wood, wire, and sheet metal huddling not a thousand feet from a nostalgic, Soviet-era concrete apartment building. At one point this town had been new. The buildings had been livable shelters before it had been necessary to scavenge for junk material that could be used to build a safer home in the form of a shanty. This was Шакша (Shaksha). How many mothers and fathers there had watched the only factory in town close its gates decisively on their hopes? Around 10,000.

And these towns are everywhere.


 

Tree Gore

Originally written and posted April 22, 2011