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A departure summary, of sorts

18 Aug

As I am finally sitting down to write this post, the sun is setting on my final day here in this massive country; A country I once knew only by the name Russia. Now I cannot say what it is that I really know about Russia other than the individual faces along the way. And how well do I really know them? Learning more always has that perpetually disorienting result of realizing how little is actually known. For some time now, I have been suffering from a case of the cliché. I think that maybe writers block is less often caused by having no words as it is by having far too many, and simply not knowing where to begin. The latter has been my plague, thoroughly mixed with the fear that putting this end to words would add to its inevitability. The result of all this mixing and confusion congealed to a hard wall sealing off any outlet to my streaming thoughts.

A little moment in Bashkortostan

Today, my undeniable recognition has come. Tomorrow I leave. Writing out this conclusion will not change anything, and there are no more hours left to procrastinate. So what have I been up to? That is the simplest question with which to start, and the most complex to finish.

 

A view of the last morning on my spot of beach

Christine left Kazan for Norway. That story and all the extra worries that were contemporary to it have been told. I stayed in Kazan, walking its streets and sleeping on its beach.

 

One morning, I was wandering restless from the night before. I felt the need to walk, but my weight-aching shoulders got the best of me and I decided it was time to hitchhike back to my spot of beach and take a nap. There were no cars in sight, but I held out my hand hopefully and continued to walk. A few minutes later I met Nurbek when he stopped to offer a ride. He is a dancer who specializes in traditional Tatar ballet. By the time he dropped me off, we had agreed to meet again and take some photos. A summer sunrise this far north happens somewhere not long after 3:45am, but happens a bit more slowly. To take advantage of the light, we ventured to the Kremlin at 4:30am.

 

Nurbek

 

Nurbek outside the Kremlin wall

It was a good time, but I was haunted with the already ignored knowledge that it was also time to move on. I had stayed in Kazan with a purpose, and that purpose had long departed. The advantage to living from backpack that is always worn is that one can leave without much forethought. Or possibly in more correct terms, when the subconscious reaches the point of impulse. Nurbek again gave me ride, but this time to the bus station. There I met a man behind the station with an extra seat on his unscheduled bus and ended up filling the space to Ufa.

 

The Mountain, Shuhkan - Шухан

The hard way up

 

I stayed with my friend from last year’s visit, Jhenya. We collected a crew of his friends and ventured off to what might be one of the only mountain-like hills in Bashkortostan to climb.

 

Ancient Life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was minute compared to the Wasatch range always towering over my roof in Utah, but we took a ‘wrong’ turn towards a ‘wrong’ way up and the climb became an adventure just the same. I even got a bit of free rock-climbing in and found some fossils along the way.

 

 

The Victorious Summit

 

A Post climb summer treat

From there, I hopped over to Moscow and met Christine. Here we have been keeping busy, though as per usual not in the ways we would have originally predicted. We enrolled in Russian language classes to help solidify the bits we had been picking up along the way, and made plans to visit Pikalevo. Due to some frustrating combinations of train schedules, bus schedules, and money limiting the practical choices within these, we figured that getting there and back in time to catch our flight would only give us 24 hours there and cost far too much to be justified by the minimal time. Instead, we combed the streets of Moscow in search of additions to our soundtrack. We found many gracious musicians willing to be recorded and used in our film in exchange for the clips we filmed of them.

 

Classy Musicians

This particular trio was brilliant. Their drummer is 84 years old, by the way, and all of them held their own as both classy and classic performers. I would like to thank them for “one more happy song,” as they put it.

 

Some strange workers housing in downtown Moscow. Not sure how this works, exactly.

As this is the final piece of piece of writing that I will be posting from atop the native soil and among the very people inspiring this work, I felt a heavy pressure to pour out collecting words of inspiration that would somehow tie together the messy loose ends of this broad adventure. In this, I am afraid to admit that I find myself wholly inadequate for the moment.

 

However, the nature of a journey is not limited to confines of distance from the familiar. This particular journey, for instance, began long before I ever set foot in Moscow or even booked the flight from New York City. In just the same way, I think this journey will continue long after my return. Perhaps it will continue until some time after much sifting and sorting and reflecting has slowed and a conclusion emerges.

 

As for now, all I can do is objectively speculate of the future that tomorrow I will be back in the United States. Walking on American ground. Breathing American air.

A week apart and a week to go

12 Aug

Children capturing jellyfish in a fjord just outside of Stavanger, Norway on what was said to probably be the hottest day they will have all year.

 

Summer always seems to slip past much faster than you can ever plan for.  There is always the relaxing beginning, gradually building up while simultaneously slowing down as the summer progresses on to the dog days.  The hot days filled with nothing.  No plans, no hope for the summer to ever end.  The days where you just wander to kill the time.  They always come close to the end, only to be shaken out of you by a whirlwind of final camping trips and last-minute road trips.  Making up for the things you didn’t do earlier like you said you had wanted to.  The big cramming of everything into the last few weeks of summer.  And then, before you know it, summer has once again slipped past you.  Both inching on and flying past with that magic that only time can seem to master.

 

 

A sailboat slipping into dock past the streets in Old Stavanger.

 

Somehow we only have one week left.  Six days to be exact.  Somehow my three-month mark was yesterday and time once again slipped me by, leaving me on the down slide to going back to the States.

The last week was where the dog days ended and the final push to the end began.  Hoping on a plane to Norway for a week and Tree going to Ufa, we reconvened in Moscow to take a full speed, four hours a day, Russian course starting the morning we flew in.  Since then we have spent our days learning Russian grammar and spending more hours than we had ever wanted commuting from one side of Moscow to the other, relearning the metro routes.

 

 

 

The time I spent in Stavanger was filled with hiking through Baltic mountains, riding bikes from one island to another, and cooking elaborate meals based on whatever the fish market was selling that day.  All leading to a beautiful, yet short trip, with a few days of running off docks into fresh fjord water to heal my shingles.  (Which, for all of you whom I scared, I am all better, so no need to worry about me anymore.)  Spending a few days with an old roommate and her husband, it was that end of summer cram of squeezing in each hike and adventure that was missed.  It was glorious and refreshing, preparing me for the real final cram.  The last week and a half of the project.

Chelsea, trail blazing up a mountain in our vain attempt to the top. Which we didn't realize ended in the sheer cliffs that we couldn't climb to finish our adventure.

View of a fjord from nearly the top of Preikestolen.

Shelling shrimp for dinner.

 

Stavanger is not a small town.  It does not have one industry.  And is not in Russia.  However, due to the stress of leaving and the major part it played in this last months decision, I’m going to post photos anyways.  And Tree will post about his week of roaming around Bashkortostan and the various adventures he had there and all along the way back up to Moscow.  We will soon take off for St. Petersburg region for one last final adventure before buckling down and starting the post-production of our project and our last semester of college.  Six days to complete all those plans we had made at the beginning of the summer, lost in those dog days.

Christine, by a favorite piece of graffiti in the industrial district of Stavanger.

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.

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