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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.

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.

Some publicity and other news

2 Aug


Oh, hello front page.

Landing a spot on The Daily Universe’s front page (BYU’s paper), we got ourselves a little bit of publicity to get the week started.  If you are around BYU, go pick one up just about anywhere around campus.  Or, you can pretend to pick one up and get a free PDF of the paper, or just look and read it on-line.

Home page of The Daily Universe, http://newsnet.byu.edu/

 

 

In other news, decisions have been made and revamped for us.

I feel like the last three months have been a whirlwind of emotions, travel, and adventure.  These last 36 hours have been no exception.  Sitting in a cafe in Kazan, we were at a stopping point with no where to go, or, as Tree had put it, everywhere to go.  The decided plan was for me to go to Ukraine, Tree to go to his Ufa.  Train tickets could not be booked on-line for some reason and things were not settling right with my travels.  I went to the bathroom, feeling extremely ill, when I realized that extreme pain I was feeling in my ribs all night and morning had turned into a terrible rash and swelling.  Immediately I rethought my plans, found a cheap flight for Norway and bought the ticket.  Two hours later I was on a train to Moscow, remembering all the signs of breast cancer taught in health class, and realizing I had all of them.  After a sleepless night, I got into Moscow, did more research, and still had all the signs and a plane ticket to Norway in a matter of hours.  After lining up doctors in Norway, I got on a bus to the airport, and a phone call saying that the credit card would not work and so my ticket was cancelled.  Not exactly sure what to do about clearing my visa now, I found the nearest foreign doctors office and got into an appointment.

There are some diseases that have a prime time frame.  If not caught within so many hours, they can be a million times worse than before.  Diseases that had I gone to Ukraine straight away, could have gotten extremely bad.  Had I waited another day until in Norway, could have still been worse.  Shingles is one of them.  Which I believe is what the doctor diagnosed me with.  When I told her I honestly thought I had cancer her response was “Oh, yeah.  I never thought about that, but they do look exactly alike.  I could see where that came from.”   A handful of shots later (all at once too, a skill I believe only Russian women hold) and some prescriptions, and I am ready to go. My only explanation is my young age of chicken pox (2 months old) and recent exposure to someone with them.  Those two are a perfect combination for shingles.  This is, assuming that shingles is what the doctor was trying to have translated to me.

So I am now ready to go.  I even got my credit card company to clear a plane ticket for tomorrow.  So, as long as everything goes as planned, that’s the update!  No cancer, a plane ticket, and a short break to take care of some business in order to finish up the last two weeks with a bang.

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.

Metallurgist Day (День Металлурга)

23 Jul

If I could craft the ideal scene in our film it would involve everybody who we have filmed throughout our time here, all cooking and enjoying a meal. It would be the scene in which everybody and everything comes together. Where they just all sit back and enjoy one anothers company and for those few hours, everything is perfect. Realistically, this could never happen. These handfuls of people live in different parts of the country, few knowing one another, and it would just never happen. If there was a moment, though, where it got close, it was Metallurgy Day in Krasnouralsk.

Crowd members cheering for the musicians on the park stage the night before Metallurgy Day.

 

 

Coming in on an afternoon bus and meeting our lovely translator of the weekend, Svetlana, we began to walk to find some food. As we walked through the seemingly new streets of Krasnouralsk, we noticed not only the new fountain (turned on just days before the big holiday) and the newly painted curbs, but also live music coming from a park. In between two buildings there was a small performance. Walking up, we noticed that it was a band we had filmed our previous time in Kranouralsk). As we stood back up to watch, Vasiliy came up to greet us and the band noticed, then called us towards the humble park stage to announce the arrival of their American friends. From there, looking to the crowd, we saw handfuls of familiar faces singing and dancing along to the local music. It was about as close to my ideal scene as I could ever hope for, and Metallurgy Day hadn’t even begun.

 


We began the holiday early the next morning with Vasiliy taking us mushroom hunting: A Russian goal realized as we tromped through the forest looking for the most delicious, non-poisonous mushrooms we could find. To my surprise, it is a lot more hardcore than I had imagined. You need a knife, an extreme amount of bug spray and protective clothing to fend off mosquitoes. Needless to say, this is a new favorite pastime of mine although I’ve yet to do it since.  I could easily write a whole blog post on just this event, but I feel like that would just be too much excitement, as [ending spoiler!] there are fireworks eventually involved.  So to try to not get you too worked up with excitement, I’ll just post a few pictures and let you imagine how great this was.

 

Tree and Vasiliy picking out the best, non-poisonous mushrooms.

 

Our hardcore National Geographic pictures of us with cameras and knives in the forest. So we were only hunting mushrooms, but it was still a hunt and we still got to carry knives.

Upon our arrival back to Krasnouralsk, the Metallurgy celebrations had truly began.  Brief history lesson: Metallurgy Day started as a Soviet celebration of the metal and rock industry that supports the entire Ural region.  It is a celebration of the work they do, and the biggest holiday of the year.  This year was extra special, as it was simultaneously the 80th anniversary of Krasnouralsk being a town.  Howevver, we are under the impression that every year is this big.

The beginning of the parade, bands and marchers going through the newly painted and washed center of Krasnouralsk. Photo by Tree Gore.

The events kicked off with a parade. Between the bands and people marching in the parade, every person in this town of 30,000 was either involved or spectating. Or the city imported people to participate as the streets were full of people. The parade ended at the stadium, along the way passing the rows of shashleek, cotton candy, and carnival games. The evening progressed into concerts of local bands, pop singers from Moscow, dancers, and ended with, nothing less spectacular fireworks and a laser show. It was the biggest celebration I had ever witnessed and a new favorite. Perhaps it is my new favorite because of how fantastic it was, but I am pretty sure it is more because of the sense of community you could just feel as everybody greeted on another with “Happy Holiday”, “С Праздником.”

 

 

A little girl, dressed up and with a wig to celebrate the holiday.

 

A boy selling balloons among smoke from grills and people waiting in line for carnival games, enjoying one another in the meantime.

 

A handful of old and new friends at the stadium waiting for the evening performances to start.

 

Tree, deciding that it would be great to see how many people we could get to dance with us in front of the camera. This may have lasted a couple of hours.

 

And, of course, it is not a celebration without fireworks.

 

Unfortunatly, we will not be visiting Krasnouralsk anymore on this journey. It has been one of our favorites, with us never grudging to visit it once more. As our project begins to see its end within the next month, we feel like we’re only beginning to see the real Russia. With each person we meet, we begin to realize that we are not having typical Russian tourist experiences, or even adventures many who have lived here their whole lives get to have. Yet we feel too like we are just starting to understand life here, of course as we are forced to plan our departure in the next few weeks. Looks like if we want to understand even more, we’ll just have to move here one day.

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:

 

Tatiyanna

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!