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A few more words on Baikalsk, after the fact [Байкальск]

21 Jul

Baikalsk at night

Oh Baikalsk. Where do I even begin to write about you? Some adventures are not within the scope of my writing abilities to share, nor should they be on this blog if I were able. Such is the case with our misadventures in Baikalsk. For anyone interested in those stories, we will regale you in person and to whatever scale is appropriate in the film. The bland summary is available in the post about our teaser video on Kickstarter.

Despite the positive outcome, I will say that our experiences there left us in a slump. I noticed in the following days that we were slower to reach for our cameras, slower to look through the lens, and slower to release the shutter. All experiences have their lessons, but I am not sure exactly what this one is. I only have speculations. Whatever the case it is a fortunate plot that our arrival in Yekaterinburg was already planned to dump us directly into Krasnouralsk, our familiar cove, for Metallurgy Day. I am getting ahead of myself, or rather blog.

Our train ride back from Irkutsk to Yekaterinburg was a quiet one, and I am grateful for that. I watched in reversal the transformation of landscape and tried to keep my mouth closed and my mind active. We accomplished a good amount in Baikalsk that shouldn’t be overshadowed. So, back to that beginning:



Not 10 minutes after stepping out of the brutal marshruta-bus that brought us to Baikalsk, our trio met a friendly former-journalist named Tatiyana while purchasing a late lunch. She was now working as an administrator at the local community college in addition to a tourism management position. I don’t think anyone in Baikalsk supports themselves with a single job.


Interview with Tatiyanna. Photo by Christine Armbruster.

Besides giving us a detailed and fantastic history-to-present synopsis of the city, she gave us her number and offered to arrange a meeting with her artist friends in the symbiotic town of Utulik (Oo-too-leek).


In terms of history, Utulik is significantly the elder settlement. Baikalsk was only recently formed in the 1960’s around the ground-breaking of the paper mill, whereas Utulik has been a village about as long as anyone has lived on the south end of Lake Baikal, we were told. Those living there explained to us that adjoining areas have come to depend on each other; Utulik provides the culture, heritage, and artistic liveliness that keeps moral up by holding festivals and decorating the city, and Baikalsk provides the tangible work, wages, college education, and industrial core.


Christine and Valeriy on a bench that he carved

The chainsaw used with delicate precision. Photo by Christine Armbruster.

Valeriy spent his career in Baikalsk working as a firefighter, and is now a pensioner who decorates the city with his chainsaw sculptures. He lives in Utulik and spends his time roaming the nearby forests, collecting massive tree trunks and pretty bits of wood which he then carves primarily with a chain saw. He was gracious enough to give us a live demonstration of his art after we were taken to a few of the many locations where his work is situated.


He too explained to us the near worthlessness of most people’s pensions. For those who already spent most of their lives barely keeping their financial heads above water, a retiree is fortunate to get even close to a monthly US$200. Luckily, he said, no one has any illusions about their pensions in Russia and it teaches people to be self-reliant.


Anatoli, electrician turned painter. Photo by Christine Armbruster.

Lake Tahoe, Russia. Photo by Christine Armbruster.

Anatoli, another Utulik resident, worked as an electrician at the paper mill, where his wife still works as a shift manager. Since retirement he took up painting, landscaping his yard, and collecting animals for his many aquariums. In his yard he has a pond-replica of nearby Lake Baikal as well as another replica of Lake Tahoe.




Anatoli's house

Both Valeriy and Anatoli spent their lives building the houses they live in.


Valeriy in front of his hand-built home. Photo by Christine Armbruster.












Back in Baikalsk-proper the following day, Christine Dimitriy and I were walking around trying to find the motivation to strike up conversations and fend off the slump caused the night before. A few times we walked by a long, wooden street market area, empty save for one lady and her daughter selling fish. Stopping to talk to her was one of our better project decisions. Her name was also Tatiyana, and she worked at the paper mill.


Prior to 2009, management of the mill began to warn employees of the looming possibility that the operation would shut down. Many people did not believe, but she, her husband, and her daughter packed up and moved to Novosibirsk to take advantages of better wages and more stability. The new life did not last long, however. Their grandmother became dangerously ill, and not long after leaving the family returned to their old town and jobs to take care of their own. It was then that long standing fears came true, and the paper mill closed its doors.


There were no jobs, and no one had any means to leave. They sold their car, family heirlooms, furniture, and anything of else of value just to put food on the table. Tatiyana told us that the city worked to provide menial jobs and pay, but there were just too many people without employment and without the mill the city didn’t have money either.


One year later, operations at the mill started again. Most former employees were able to return to work, but the city is still very much recovering and the future is anything but certain. Could the mill close again? Yes. What will people do? No one can even think about it. The first time, they had items to sell. Now, everything has already been sold.


Even with her and her husband both working again, the wages are not enough. And so she sells fish, and works half a dozen other side jobs to bring in whatever extra money they can. Her daughter will be old enough to enroll in a university soon. Their only focus now is to make enough money to send her through a good program where she can become a pilot or train-engineer and land a stable, well paying job.

A sobering reality.


A mixed and muddy departure. Photo by Christine Armbruster


And so we left Baikalsk, with hopes of a future return. But not without enjoying the Banya with Dimitriy!


All bloated and pink from the Banya, with cool hats. Hot!



Our Teaser Video Kickstarter!

16 Jul

Life is full of many adventures if you are willing to seek them out. Here, in Russia we have been trying to investigate life, unfiltered and genuine in all its ugliness and beauty. In Siberia we spent some time in Baikalsk. Our time there ended in a rather educational misadventure: Christine, Dimitry and I were arrested while trying to obtain some needed footage of the paper mill there. It was our mistake: UNESCO was to arrive the next day to investigate pollution of Lake Baikal by the mill, and everyone was on a heightened watch for ‘eco terrorists and eco terrorist journalists.’ Woops. Given the 40 year history of environmental protests to close the mill, it is no surprise that everyone was on edge. Before you ask, don’t worry. We are fine! We had to give up all our footage, but despite the worrisome start the experience ended on a positive note. We made friends in the local police department and in the factory management. There is even hope that we will be able to return for an inside tour.

For today, Christine and I are back in Krasnouralsk to visit Vasiliy again with our friend Sveta to help us out. Today is Metallurgy Day, one of the biggest holidays in the Ural region because of the dependence on metal related industries. It is commonly celebrated by all mining and smelting towns around here and is quite a big deal. Parades, bands, parties, and games. Oh, and don’t worry, we also went mushroom hunting this morning. More on all of this later.

At this moment I would like to announce that we have launched our Kickstarter campaign and released the first of a few teaser videos. Please read the information on the kickstarter page for the what and why.

Links to our teaser video on Kickstarter

Christine and I really can’t express enough gratitude to everyone who has helped us with the project up to this point. With all that has already been given to help tell this story, it would be a shame to let it go to waste. So please, tell everyone you know about what we are doing! Every word passed on to new ears helps. Also, look forward to some posts elaborating on the killer items we will be making for you! It is borderline immature how excited we are about them. Maybe that just means we are crazy, but it could also mean they are as great as we think they are!

Lake Baikal

13 Jul

As a child, a revered adult once told me that what I was seeing across the San Francisco Bay was China. I believed it for many years and even have memories of defending my firm belief that had been so sure in my mind to all my well oriented friends. Their claim was that it was San Francisco, mine was China. Currently, while writing this and looking across Lake Baikal, I am the closest to China that I have ever been. The distanced mountains are still not China, but maybe this time China would not be too much of a stretch.


Tree and our translator/guide/friend from Irkutsk walking towards Lake Baikal.


We made it out to Baikalsk, unfortunately for this trip, what has become our furthest point east..  132 km from Irkutsk and 785 from China. I had anticipated this town to be the worst off of the ones we have visited.  The only stories I had heard of the town were of pollution and a factory that had closed and reopened multiple times within the last twenty years.  But that is just from the one sided, and unfortunately most publicized point of view.


There is an on-going battle here in Baikalsk. The paper mill is the main industry, argued to be a major pollutant of the lake and surrounding environment. The battle has been between the factory and environmentalists for more than 40 years. On one side a protection of the lake is demanded, and on the other jobs to support families are demanded. Some scientists say that the lake, being the biggest (and oldest) in the world, can clean up the pollution itself and is not damaged by the factory at all. However, others are saying that the jobs at the factory are the worst paying and most dangerous in the area.  Only those who do not know any better or do not have any other option work there. However, those are jobs for an entire community.  As a supplemental industry, tourism is currently in the process of being developed.  Ski resorts have opened and promotions of the lake are made to help bring in some extra money.  Nearly everyone we met tried to help us with accommodation or various other aspects of tourism.  One of which ended up being on of the most important and dearest friends we have made this trip.  

Our first night in Baikalsk, we went on a little adventure to see the lake.  We ran into a group of children playing a game involving a cart, a giant mud puddle, and some bottles.  The task was to fill the bottles, make it across the imagined lake, and then pour water from the muddy pit to create a waterfall and fill a hole about 15 meters away.  We played with them for a bit, photographing them as they completed their mission.


The big crossing. Kids near the lake trying to get across a much smaller and muddier lake on a cart.


Rough waters. Sometimes it is hard to get across a big mud pit, especially when you have precious, water-filled containers.


Victory. A boy shortly after accomplishing the task of dumping water into a pit for another victory in their neighborhood game.


After playing for a while, the kids packed up to go home, this boy in particular kept showing off how he could skid on his bike. Photo by Tree Gore.

Later in the evening we ran into another group of kids.  We were at a kiosk looking for a map of the small town, to the amusement of the giggly woman working.  The kids approached us, having seen foreigners with cameras.  They insisted on photographs being made and teaching us how to play hand games such as rock/paper/scissors.  The great thing about small towns is, well, how small they are.  Meeting these kids on the street, we became friends with them not just for the 10 minutes we talked to them, but each time we ran into them for the rest of trip.  Many times they would stop us to say hello or shout our names and wave from bicycles across the street.  That is one reason why I think small towns are quite wonderful.  It is easy to get to know everyone there, and once you do make friend with them, you actually see them again.  It makes maintaining friendships a lot easier.


Neighborhood friends hanging out around a kiosk one evening in Baikalsk. We ended up being good friends with the one on the left, as we seemed to see him everywhere while there. Photo by Tree Gore.


Trying to show us how to play various hand games such as a version of rock/paper/scissors. Photo by Tree Gore.


Later on, one of us will write something of a bit more substance regarding the handful of interviews and events that took place in Baikalsk.  In the meantime, I’m going to end here, leaving you to think that all we did in Baikalsk was play with kids in the streets.