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Kamskiye Polyany [Камские Поляны]: the full story

6 Aug

Sometimes it takes a little while to get our thoughts together on some of these towns we have visited.  This can be because of the events that happened, what we saw, or even just the whirlwind state that we experienced everything.  I feel that if any of these towns we have been to that were whirlwind trips, Kamskiye Polyany was one for sure.  I think we did more in the three days we spent there than the whole trip combined.  So, sometimes I exaggerate, but between bee keepers, an amusement park, a zoo, abandoned casinos, a night club, banyas, and an abandoned nuclear reactor, with 10 minute swim trips sprinkled in between each event, it adds up to be a lot really fast.  A lot to experience, a lot to need a breather after, and a lot to sort through and decide which are the best details to blog about.  So, nearly two weeks later: Kamskiye Polyany.

Visiting beehives at dusk just outside of Kamskiye Polyany.

As previously mentioned, we rolled into Kamskiye Polyany by bus one hot afternoon to find a city without an industry.  When asking for a cafe to grab a bit to eat and find someone to interview, a man from the region insisted on showing us where center was and we could find a cafe, resulting in a grim tour of the town.  We walked for a while, asking everybody where we could find a place to eat, only getting laughs and leads to cafes that used to be open, but since have been shut down.  The whole feeling of the area was heavy, heightened by the heat, our heavy bags, and the sound of fighting in nearby apartments.  Eventually we gave up our search and found an indoor market where we bought a few items to make sandwiches and sat at a booth in the nearly empty, open air market.  It seemed as if it would be the most difficult of all towns after that first hour there.  While packing up our lunch and setting off to find a vendor to talk to us, a friendly, open woman by the name of Zofia approached us, willing to interview.  Talking to us for a while she introduced us to others who worked with her, extended family that eventually became the people we stayed with for two nights and the bee keeper that we filmed.  The lovely Tatar family that let us into their homes and showed us Tatar culture, food, and even taught us a few words in Tatar.

 

A man we had met, playing the garmonica for us to record for some possible soundtrack music outside of his home. The garmonica is a classic Tatar instrument which he plays traditional songs at weddings in addition to his construction work.

Side note: Tatar is an entirely different culture within Russia.  Turkic by descent, and numbering about 5 1/2 million in Russia.  They have their own culture, a language, religion, and identify themselves separately.  The majority live in Tatarstan, the region in which Kazan, and Kamskiye Polyany, lies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On top of the nuclear reactor, midday.

Kamskiye Polyany is a very interesting story.  Originally built up from a small settlement to be a sister city of Chernobyl, Russia built this town for 140,000 in the 80s.  It looks as if it were built to be a prize city, with the nice buildings and the big parks.  Made to be a nice, beautiful city around a nuclear reactor.  And then the meltdown at Chernobyl happened.  Eventually halting the building of the reactor, leaving roughly 35,000 without jobs and a skeleton of a nuclear reactor.  Many left, some traded apartments with their grandparents who were just living off pensions and got jobs where their grandparents lived.  However, roughly 15,000 stayed whether by their own choices or lack of options.  Trying to come up with a new economy, casinos were built a few years ago, only to be shut down by the government.  Now, still no economy exists, although there is talk of a tourist site to be built on the Kama River.

Our first night, we were set to sleep in an abandoned casino.  We scoped out the casinos, only to find that they were much heavily guarded than we had been told, making access not an option.  We stumbled across a new handful of friends around one of the casinos turned night club, thanks to the young business man, Slavik.  He has the only night club in the area, often bringing people in from the entire region for some of the events he holds.  Besides his club, he showed us to the local amusement park, complete with a small zoo.  That night we joined him at his club and he allowed us to sleep there, not quite as intense as running around old slot machines all night and crashing in an old hotel room, but close enough to count.

 

The following days were spent conducting interviews, meeting people Zofia and her family set us up with, and swimming to combat the heat, and exploring the empty nuclear reactor.

 

Slavik and some of his friends at the local river beach on a hot afternoon.

 

Tree running into a secret swimming spot after a car tour of views of the city and the Kama river in the summer's heat.

Yanina learning how to cut grass by Nicholi out in the field to feed his rabbits.

 

Christine in the middle of a skeleton of a nuclear reactor, taken by Tree while climbing the cement framing.

Being in a town with more buildings than people is an interesting phenomenon.  The monitoring of large buildings is nonexistent, as the owners of the buildings are no longer around (if there are even owners).  Allowing us to wander for hours without being bothered or even seen by anyone.  Walking through streets, we were told of buildings that only had four apartments occupied.  It’s a strange feeling.  We spent most of our time, however, “outside of town”, in the homes that are across the main road from center.  These were all full.  Large gardens bursting with summer harvest and friendly people willing to let you into their lives and tell you everything they know.  Starting off as a rather depressing experience, by the end of our time there we had seen such a positive side that it was almost as if we had been to two completely different towns.  Despite some of the hardest times we have seen yet, the people still managed to be positive and have hope for the future.  Something we had been looking to capture.  Naturally you can’t ignore all the bad and only show the good, but if you only want to see only bad, you might as well watch the evening news.  And that’s why we wanted to focus on not just economy and crisis, but lives and people.  Because, on the surface things can seem really bad, but once you get into it, you realize that things are still good.  Or maybe I’m just a humanist.

Searching for Inspiration

30 Jul

Kazan at sunset, looking towards our campsite from the other side of the river.

I think all journeys somehow naturally contain a difficult lull that always seems to come at a crossroad. It is that mythical moment when two travelers, dehydrated weary and worn from months of moving their feet, arrive at a dusty intersection with three signs: Backwards, Nowhere, and Nowhere. All that can be done is the setting-down of each heavy pack to gaze, but nothing in sight gives a ready indication of which ‘Nowhere’ could lead to somewhere. Maybe both eventually will, but there is no telling. The combination of low spirits and a severe lack of clear strong choices is a potent poison. In rock climbing it is called the crux: a move or section of a climb, often coming well into a route when one’s muscles are already fatigued, that is particularly difficult. Every movement is more precarious and each decision is harder to make. Sometimes the crux is only difficult because of its timing.

 

Kazan has been strange to us. We came here over one month ago and found our journey’s internal forces impatiently hurrying us along with nagging shoves. And so we moved. We returned here with the same purpose, and this time successfully made our way to Kamskiye Polyany (which I still have yet to write about, I know).

We left there, though we enjoyed our time and felt we could have done more work, because we did not wish to strain the generosity and over stay the welcome of so many wonderful people who opened their homes for us to eat elaborate home-made food, bathe, and lay down our heads for a moment. Russians are generous and loving people to their guests, which makes for a difficult debt for low-budget travelers with which to keep up. We must be careful not to abuse or forget it.

Back in Kazan we have run into a few problems. We don’t know where to go, and we don’t know where to stay. 1) We now have less than three weeks before we hurdle ourselves back across the Atlantic and onto our native soil, and the pressure to return with a beautiful documentary. 2) As of yet, we have not heard back from our busy friends in Baikalsk about a private factory tour. 3) Christine still needs to leave the country for one week in order to meet her visa requirements upon our departure. 4) We have one more specific town of interest to visit, but it is back on the other side of Moscow making it best left to be done once we are already in that area. Logistically, we also can’t spent two weeks there. 5) Here and now is a saturated travel time in Kazan, and we cannot find consistently reliable accommodations within our budget. Finding a bed to sleep in has become so difficult and time consuming that before we’ve realized, an entire day has been spent finding a place for just one night. The next day, this cycle repeats and we’ve had little chance to plan our next move.

Further, I have my own illogical and distracting reason for wishing to stay here in Kazan for two more days, however unrealistic and impractical doing so may be.

 

Backed into this strange corner of simultaneously having not enough and far too much time, we have taken up living in a tent. It was cheaper than spending a night in a hotel and promises future use, though it does mean getting rid of more personal items and gifts to make room in our backpacks. We found a little paradisiacal and secluded spot of beach with a beautiful view of the Kazan Kremlin and Mosque, where the sand is soft and the shade is cool. It should be a good place to think and write.

 

Our stable roof {Крыша!} and fortress against the incredible might of Russian mosquitoes , with the Kazan Kremlin behind it.

 

Our options, as we have recently discussed them, amount to this:

-We hitchhike down to a city in the Samara region south of us called Smyshlyaevka [Смышляевка] which is sort of a monogorod of 7,300 and contains a very large aircraft graveyard. The settlement is based around a large airport that, through various years, was used for passenger airline access to nearby Samara and later military activities. I can’t seem to find what it is used for now other than the graveyard and an aircraft club. From there I could head to Ufa and visit my friends while Christine clears her visa in Ukraine, then we would head to Moscow and Pikalevo, and home;

-We stay here, trapped forever in limbo;

-We start making our way to the Black Sea and attempt to pass through as many monogorod as possible along the way, spending only a few hours in each to take some pictures and video for a montage sequence. Christine’s visa requirements are taken care of by being in Ukraine. I think this option has been removed due to impracticality and time limits;

-We head west of Moscow and up north to the Murmansk region, and do a montage there. Christine could clear her visa in Finland, then we could visit Pikalevo on the way back to Moscow.

 

For whatever reason, none of these options rings a bell of confidence. Backwards, Nowhere, and Nowhere. Soon the moment will come, though, when we must re-don our packs and head towards that mysterious, unknown somewhere. Perhaps all we need do is catch up on writing a few postcards, and then take that proverbial first step for the great winds of life to carry us away and give us direction again.

To Kazan For Free, Please

27 Jul

Our signs "To Kazan for free, please"

 

Just in case you were curious, this is sometimes how we travel and how we got to Kazan from Kamskiye Polyany yesterday.

Standing in center of town, we made signs and waited for someone who was willing to give us a free ride back to Kazan.  We got many honks and waves from people we had met as well as new humored friends.  We even had someone pull over with a trunk full of half horse heads and say if he didn’t have to go feed some lions he would help us.  After about thirty minutes, we had a nice man pull over in his Lada and offer us a ride, as he was going to Kazan himself.   He drove for a while, telling us about the various rivers we passed and trucks that he worked with, when the heat of the car and the blueness of the rivers became unbearable.  Pulling off the road he found a sandy bank and drove up, stripping down to his underwear and heading towards the water and ordering us to follow suit.  Sometimes we are lucky, other times we are really lucky, but more often than not, you just really need to pull over and go for a quick swim.

Kamskiye Polyany [Камские Поляны]: A place of beautiful fields and people that was very nearly a city

26 Jul

For the last three days, Christine and I have been adventuring around Kamskiye Polyany with our dear new friend, the beautiful Yanina. She is a journalist from Novosibirsk, recently working and living in Kazan. The collision of our paths at a friendly gathering in Kazan was yet another inexpressibly fortunate event following our change in plans mentioned early. I keep thinking that one day all this consistent luck must eventually run out, but it hasn’t yet and we are making the very best of it that we can.

Yanina

Our days here in Kamskiye Polyany have been long, beautiful, and rich. Now it is growing late (after 1am) on our last night here, and we have some traveling to do tomorrow so I will keep this short and suspenseful. You will just have to come back for more, because the whole story is one you won’t want to miss. I will, however, let it slip that this story involves abandoned casinos, an unfinished nuclear reactor, secret swimming spots, and all the great people we can’t wait to tell you about.

 

Here are a few teaser pictures.

 

Nikolai, 'our' neighbor

 

 

Dacha party

 

 

Also, if you haven’t watched our promo video on kickstarter, get on it. And if you haven’t made all of your friends watch it, get on that too. Remember that telling all of your friends is a wonderful form of supporting us. Thanks again to all of the people who have been supporting us in every way possible.