Monday, August 15, 2016

Isn’t It Ironic

When I told my family and friends I would be going to Siberia for the summer, they asked, “Is your mother doing this to punish you?” and “Isn’t it, like 40 below there?” and even a couple asked, “Siberia is somewhere in Africa, right?”  After spending five weeks in Barnaul, I have come to view Siberia as an extremely beautiful and sacred place that has grown very close to my heart, nothing like the prison in a snowy tundra that many imagine. It is ironic that for our entire stay, the weather has been in the 90’s and humid, leaving all of us dripping in sweat and wishing we had brought more summer clothes. My whole stay has left me thinking of all the other humorous little ironies and quirks I have come to discover about the real Siberia, good, bad, and mystical.

During my time here many things have left me baffled and confused. I asked and asked for answers and never seemed to get any. Why does everyone wake up early to sweep their front stoops that are only made of dirt? With such bad mosquitoes this particular summer, why hasn’t anyone sprayed for them, or even easier, why doesn’t anyone put any screens in their windows? If the people here are so connected to nature and care about the land and worship the Altai Gods, why do they allow the trains to dump all their human waste straight onto the tracks, toilet paper and feminine products included? Why hasn’t anyone bothered to build more plumbing in public places so there are fewer overflowing, smelly outhouses? How come the Russian standard of a “level” surface for a new sidewalk still has craters as big as a barbecue pit? and why do their women still walk the streets every day in six-inch-heels and summer dresses? (All I know is that the one time I walked on the sidewalks with my two-inch-heels I tripped, my dress flew up, and I gave some nearby onlookers an authentic American show).

As a biology major and a feminist, I love science and I am very passionate about women’s equality. In a country that is partly known for its chivalrous ways, I knew I would be confronted with some ideals different from my own. But what I find the most interesting and confusing is not just the way that men will offer me their seat on a crowded metro or help to carry my fifty-pound suitcase up the stairs of the train station, but the very specific rules there are for women regarding their bodies. Tired and sweaty after standing throughout the entire Orthodox Mass one Sunday, I went outside to cool off. I sat down on the cool stone steps, despite warnings of the Russian babushkas that would scold me for attempting to freeze my uterus, making myself infertile for life. As if on cue, a babushka did eventually run over to me appearing very worried and yelling at me in Russian. Although I understand these women are only trying to protect me and my fragile ovaries, the scientist in me does not understand how anyone could even possibly believe this to be true.  There absolutely no science behind the thought that the temperature of a rock outside in 70degree Fahrenheit weather could travel through my skin, muscle and fat layers to hurt my fertility in any way. Another time, after riding our horses to the top of a mountain towards a sacred lake, we were informed by our guide that men should remove all head-coverings and most clothes but women were all instructed to put on head coverings and wear as much clothing as possible. The reason for this is so men could gain more wisdom from the spirits above with an uncovered head, but women could keep their bodies warm in order to protect their eggs. Whether or not these beliefs are simply rooted in tradition, the lack of scientific evidence frustrated and confused me.

 Ultimately I have decided that Siberia is very different from any other place I have ever experienced, and science did not measure the beauty and kindness I saw. Just because the people here think and do things much differently, these things are not wrong. Siberia has helped me to appreciate different beliefs and traditions, whether rooted in science or not. Because these beliefs are as much a part of Siberia as the snow, the scorching heat and the caring babushkas, I choose to believe that walking around barefoot without any slippers truly does cause colds, and that it’s best for my future children if I cover my head when I’m by a sacred lake.

Chemal and Sacred Karakol

Matthew Ballini, Hobart College '17

While each weekend has been a unique and amazing adventure, this past excursion encompassed both the Russian and Altaian cultures and may have topped them all.

After a long drive to the Chemal region, the trip began with a visit to an apiary. It was here that our group was informed about the beekeeping process, learned about its history, and tasted the different varieties of honey. When we first arrived, everyone in the group was given protective clothing which came in the form of a hooded hat that covered one’s head and neck. Knowing very little about the beekeeping process before the trip, I was surprised to learn about several different uses of honey. In addition to being very tasty and a great complement to tea, honey can also be used for various health benefits. As for the bees themselves, our guide demonstrated how the honeybee’s sting can be used as a form of acupuncture. One of our brave participants on the trip, Janet Murphy, volunteered to experience this by getting stung. Overall, learning about the bees themselves and the honey they produce was really captivating and something I never thought I would enjoy as much as I did.

The next day we visited the Island of Patmos, the home of a small, Russian Orthodox Monastery. This peaceful and simple monastery was moved to the island in 1915 and has a pretty unique story. According to legend, St. John the Evangelist saw two temples floating above the water in a dream. One temple was in the Mediterranean Sea, while the other was located in the distant lands of Altay country. When exploring the Island of Patmos, I took the opportunity to light a candle in prayer and even toss some change into a small pond beneath a religious painting on a rock. Hopefully, my dream to return will come true!


 The entire group greatly enjoyed learning the history of this tranquil and spiritual gem but the real thrill came through crossing a 60-foot wire cable suspension bridge. Not only did the bridge sway but also it crossed over the large and well-known River of Katun. Surrounded by beautiful mountains, tons of small shops and Mother Nature, we continued for a scenic hike along the banks of the river until we reached our bus. This excursion was especially unique because it provided an opportunity to learn about the religious aspect of what the Russian Orthodox Church means to the Russian people. 

Nature Park "Uch-Enmek"   

The last major stop we made during the weekend trip was horse-back riding through the sacred "Uch-Enmek" Park, which is a nature preserve located in the traditional Altaian area. This particular activity may have been the highlight of the entire trip for me. Having forgotten to pack pants, I was fortunate to be given a park ranger uniform to wear for the day! The park rangers were exceptionally kind and thoughtful and I appreciated their help.

The day consisted of riding horses through dense woods and up the steep slopes, lunch on top of a sacred mountain, and incredible views through untouched nature. Riding the horses alone was an incredible experience, but learning about some of the local Altaian ideology and traditions was even more fascinating. For example, when our group reached the sacred lake of Aru-Kem, all of the men were directed to take off their hats so they could gain wisdom. As for the women, they were directed to cover their heads and wear their layers of clothing in order to keep their bodies warm and healthy for future child bearing. Another tradition we learned of occurred when we were about to eat lunch. It is local tradition to toss some of the cooked food into the campfire as a sacrifice to the fire god before eating.

All of these amazing experiences truly set this weekend trip apart from the others. I have come to realize that this mysterious land is a living spirit – not just beautiful mountains, forests, lakes and rivers. I witnessed this spirit in the Altaian people, their culture, and their harmony with nature.  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Katie Allen
Our everyday life during the week consists of a 7:30 breakfast, 9-12 class, 12:30 lunch, some planned activity, and a break before a 6 o'clock dinner.  That schedule has its exceptions, but for the most part it stays the same.  So within that schedule we each have a little wiggle room to personalize it.  Some of the participants wake up early to go on a run or walk around the city, others use their break to go souvenir shopping every time,  I personally wake up 5 minutes before breakfast and then use that hour in between breakfast and class to, most of the time, start/finish my homework due in class at 9.  I am able to do this not only because I have honed this ability to procrastinate and finish my homework in a timely fashion over the years,  but also because we have class every day so our homework doesn't take hours on end anyway.  We mostly have little tasks to do most days just to keep us in practice along with the ever-present homework to memorize as many words from the ever-growing list as possible.
Before I started this trip I barely knew the cyrillic alphabet but now I am quite proficient at it.  I am very proud to say that I can even sound out most words I see and much faster than when I started this trip.  In the short four weeks we had with our teachers they taught us everything from the alphabet, to five of the six cases for adjective endings, to how to writes a paragraph on our daily lives.  Some of the things we learned in four weeks here in Russia took me an entire semester to learn in German back at college,  It amazes me how much we have learned not just with the language but also the culture of Russia, Siberia, and the Altai, but also in ourselves.  
I have learned so much about new foods, new ways of living, and the there is always more.  Everything we do I think we have finished, we have learned everything, we have made it to the top of the mountain, that was the last course of food, or even that I had packed everything.  But there was always more!  That is the main thing I am taking away from this experience.  I know I have learned a lot, but I know I will never have learned everything.  I can pack my bags and feel content in all that has happened, enough to leave the country…but I will always know that I am leaving behind amazing people and places that I will hopefully be able to stay in touch with, and maybe even someday return to and learn more.

Emma Randall

After living in the city of Barnaul for a month, going about every day seems to have grown very normal. Just like at home, I wake up and go to school every morning, however when I walk into class nearly every single word that is spoken to me is in Russian. Though I have taken Russian classes before, the language is still very difficult to grasp for me. With two teachers who speak a very limited amount of English, learning certain concepts and sometimes even directions can be the most complicated parts of the day. Although understanding the grammar can be very confusing at times, my ability to understand the language has improved drastically. The improvement of my language skills has allowed me to understand my surrounding more, while allowing me to explore a completely new culture first hand. An example of this is traveling throughout the city and interacting with different people. Some of the easiest people to talk to in order to practice language skills are shop keepers, waiters/waitresses, the bus drivers, and people we meet on our excursions. When speaking to these people one of the first things said in just about every conversation is, “I don’t speak Russian.” When this is said, the expression of those we are talking to usually changes. Once known that our group does not speak Russian, the people become very patient and helpful, as well as very interesting in who we are, and why we have traveled to Russia. Since the beginning of the trip, those who work in popular stores such as Maria Ra and Noveks have started recognizing us. On our first day in Barnaul, every single person on the trip would nervously walk up to the cash register knowing they were going to have no idea what the cashier was going to say. Today, on our last day, every single one of us knows what to do and what to say. Another place where we have been able to practice our Russian skills on a regular basis is in restaurants. Many of us have grown very comfortable with ordering our choices of food and drink. One major challenge to this which is very hard to avoid in the pronunciations of the food. Every after sounding out the words, ordering the food can still be very difficult. However, most of the restaurants we have gone to have composed menus with pictures of nearly every dish they offer, allowing us to also point to what we want on the menu. I feel much more confident traveling around Barnaul in both groups and on my own now that my language and conversational skills are improving. I will miss having the opportunity to interact with those around me while using a different language like I do here.

Monday, August 8, 2016

From the Other Side

Paul T. Tucci, ESOL Teacher, Florence Brasser Elementary School, Gates Chili Central School District

You know, I used to think that my students back home were the most courageous people I knew. I thought this because they come to school every day to face unimaginable challenges while navigating in a world that doesn't speak their home language. I believed this to be true; now, I KNOW it's so.

I am blessed. I really am. Every day I welcome the world into my classroom. Well, not the entire world, but each of my students brings a piece (sometimes small, sometimes great) of his or her culture with them to school. Language is an integral part of culture and I am fortunate that my students share their cultures with me.

But, this summer I was the one who was bringing another culture (and language) into a classroom; and, it was me who would be bringing some of the culture (and language) of Siberia back to school in September. As a teacher of English as a New Language (ENL/ESL/ESOL), I have been intrigued by languages and studied a number of them, both formally and informally, over the years. As a teacher for almost 20 years (much of it in the primary grades), I've learned a lot of things about language and literacy. Certainly some of this is theory, but much of my experience comes from my work with children learning to read and write in a new language. As much as I try to do the right things based on all that I know, I've never walked in my students' shoes (i.e., learned a new language with a new alphabet in an intense classroom setting); that is, until now. After four weeks of daily Russian classes, I can safely say that I know without a doubt that my students are amazingly brave!

Each day in class, I was overwhelmed with the amount of material we would cover and be expected to learn. And, as with all great teachers, our own instructor had high expectations for each of us. She expected us to learn the material, designed lessons to aid us in learning, and believed that we would come to the next class prepared. Sometimes I felt lost in the midst of lessons or thought that there was no way I could learn the material.

However, I had one great advantage over my own students. I was able to freely communicate with my classmates (and, my instructor, as well) in English – my native language. My students back home can seldom do that. They are left to navigate the world of school on their own. And, as all of us experienced, acting things out only gets you so far. Try buying postage stamps when you can barely say the numbers. Forget about politely requesting a particular ice cream novelty from the vendor on the street. And, don't even think about trying to understand the cashier at the local supermarket who seems to be reciting an epic poem when all you're hoping to hear is a set of numbers that might represent the total of your order.

I often felt like a child who could barely communicate my wants and needs. What were shop assistants thinking? Did I cause them frustration as I struggled to find "simple" Russian words as my anxiety level went through the roof? Did I engender a sense of disgust of foreigners (who weren't able to speak Russian)? Did they become impatient with me as I couldn't even articulate the smallest of needs as the line behind me grew ever longer? In come cases, I'm sure the answer to all those questions was a resounding YES.

But, did this stop me from going out? The answer is a (somewhat) resounding NO. As uncomfortable as it was for me, I kept thinking of my students back home. They have no choice. They can't stay away from school - in the comfort of their own home and communicate in a language that they've heard from birth. They had to leave the security of their home language and face a world with sounds often quite different from their own. And, amazingly, they do it every day...and usually with a smile on their face and determination in their hearts.

So, it was with my brave students in mind that I tried to use my mediocre Russian and asked our dorm matron if she had a family. Well, it was more like stumbling through a series of brief phrases on my part that were met with sympathetic looks and simple answers. (Was it strange for her that this American guy was asking personal questions about her family? Did I use the incorrect grammatical structure and thus insult her? Who knows? I certainly don't.)

On most days, some of my colleagues and I would walk the few blocks to the university building in which our classes were held. We are inundated with Russian words ("environmental print") on the billboards, store fronts, kiosks, cars, trains, trucks, signs, posters, etc. Despite 4 weeks of this exposure and all the studying I did, I would still often pronounce the Russian letter "р" as the English "p" [it's actually "r"] or the Russian "в" as "b" [it's actually "v"]. It was very frustrating.

My most courageous feat to date was travelling to a barbershop – on my own – for a haircut. It was with a bit of trepidation that I stepped into the shop. The owner and the two barbers each spoke a bit of English – far more than my minimal Russian. They were gracious and made me feel completely at ease. My barber, Nazar, seemed almost excited to have me as a customer and he had me teach him some vocabulary relating to his trade. I found out the next day that he had posted a photo of the two of us on the barbershop's Instagram account.

So, what has my brief, yet jam-packed, Siberian experience taught me about language learning? First, I know that no matter how many times I teach my students new material (letters, words, grammar, pronunciation, phonology, etc.), one more time would be great! Secondly, no matter how much we practice even the most simple of phrases, it's scary as hell to go out in the real world and use them. Finally, I think people genuinely wish to make a personal connection with others and this often happens through language. So, when we speak to a new acquaintance in their own tongue, we begin to make a bond that will perhaps lead to a friendship – or, at least, a bit more understanding of those who are different than us. That can only make the world a better place, right?

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Пойдёмте в ресторан!

Janet Murphy, Union Springs School District

Breakfast at the Profilaktory
Every Wednesday night this summer in Barnaul, all of us dressed up and went out to dinner together.  This may not seem like much, but these restaurant excursions were very different that the meals we ate together at the Profilactory and will remain some of my fondest memories of the experience. 
Lunch during a hike -- lunch at the Shinok River waterfalls
Eating in a restaurant in Barnaul is an all night affair.  You don’t just order, eat, and dash as you can in the United States.  In Barnaul, there is a lot of downtime.  In the United States all food is timed to come out together (everyone gets their appetizer, everyone gets their salad, etc.) but things arrive piecemeal in Russia.  As the night progresses and the waitress delivers food, your neighbor could be letting you taste their appetizer while you are sharing a nibble of your dessert.  This pace allowed for a lot of food sharing, conversation, and time to lounge comfortably.  Typically, each Wednesday evening dinner took at least four hours from start to finish.  That’s a lot of downtime to bond and this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  At first we were baffled by the fact that it took four hours to eat a meal together but very soon we loved and appreciated the time to just sit and relax with great food and greater company.   I noticed too that gradually we began to simply choose seats as a group rather than scramble to sit with teachers in one cluster and students in another.    

Enjoying fresh-pressed apple juice (a group favorite)
during a Wednesday dinner
Leadership, Learning and Empathy between cultures are three goals that the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad program fostered this summer in Siberia.  As we went about our days in Barnaul, on weekend excursions in the Altai, taking in cultural experiences everywhere and in our language study classes at the University we strove to build positive bridges between the United States and Russia with every interaction.   I would say that the Wednesday night dinners contributed to building similar bridges amongst our community of travelers.  While each piece of the entire experience was important and we spent a lot of time studying, working, shopping, and riding the bus together, some of my fondest memories (and best candid pictures!) will be from the Wednesday evenings.  Tonight as we head out to our last restaurant evening together I am looking forward to great food, many toasts, and the warm camaraderie of my wonderful traveling companions. 

Приятного аппетита! Priyatnogo appetite!

The Peak of the Trip

By John Kuebler,  Hobart College '16 & Soren Anders-MacLeod, Hobart College '18

After having celebrated the culmination of our language classes with a dinner and a farewell to our Russian teachers the night before, we boarded the bus again on Saturday morning to leave for our final excursion. This weekend’s trip was to the Multinsky lakes region near the border of Kazahkstan and was the farthest that we have been from Barnaul this trip. With a total transport time of thirteen hours, we made a couple of stops along the way.

One of these stops was a tour of a regional botanical garden. The garden had a collection of more than 1200 plants from the Altai region and from the rest of the world. Many of the local plants were ones that we had seen previously on other weekend excursions and we were able to get an overview of some of these plants and their importance to the region and its people.

Particularly interesting to us was hearing about the use of many of these regional plants in medicinal and herbal teas. On our past excursions we have frequently seen different vendors selling assortments of different flowers and leaves for the making of herbal tea. It was fascinating to match this past experience to the guides’ explanation of the many different plants and their uses to the people of this region. We were able to learn more about how this region uses traditional medicine to treat a huge variety of ailments and gained a greater understanding of the importance of natural remedies to this region.

After the botanical gardens we continued our bus ride through the Altaian countryside. The long journey took us through many small farming villages and through some beautiful parts of the region, passing next to the Katun river for much of the trip. After avoiding the obstacles of the herds of cows and the road construction, we were able to make it to our destination where we had a late dinner at our hotel.

The following morning we took an expedition to the Red (Krasnaya) Mountains, a large dormant volcano surrounded by nine lakes fed by the peaks glaciers. The drive was too offroad for us to take the bus, so we were able to take several offroad vans during the three hour drive to the base of the mountain. The drive was long and very bumpy, but it also contained some of best views of the rural countryside and the Altaian mountains that we have seen so far. The route took us through several types of forests and meadows, where we could see eagles as well as hundreds of wild cows and horses.

Upon arrival at the base of the mountain, we set out on foot to see three of the glacial lakes and climb the mountain a little bit. The first lake we could only see from a distance because of a cliff, but the second one we were able to wade in. The view from the edge of the second lake was stunning with several waterfalls and glaciers forming the perfect backdrop to the bright blue water. We spent a little bit of time on the shore of this lake just taking in the scenery and the wild beauty of the mountain. A few of us took the opportunity to go swimming in the frigid water, while the rest of the group was smart enough to stay on the shore of the lake.

After some time at this lake, we continued our hike to an observation point looking over the highest lake on the mountain as well as the entire valley we had driven though on our ride up. This trail followed a stream up the side of the mountain and was a fairly steep path. Though the trail was quite pretty, passing waterfalls and patches of bright purple flowers, it seemed like the whole group was pretty happy when we got to the third lake. While this lake did not have quite as nice of a backdrop, we found an observation point on a cliff where we were able to see all three lakes at the same time looking down the mountain.

After spending some time at the top of the lake admiring the amazing view, we headed back down the mountain and met the buses at the trailhead for a picnic lunch. We had a great lunch in a grove of enormous ancient cedar trees. Some of us hiked down the hill to the first lake to see the view from the shore, while the others opted to enjoy the picnic spot and have some rest time after lunch. Following this, we packed up and got in the vans for the long road back down the mountain.

The following day our excursion was planned for Multinsky lakes, and a short hike with a picnic overlooking a lake. The road for this expedition was even steeper and so we set out in a group of off-road vehicles. The path to get to the lake took us over the top of a mountain, and the road went almost straight up the side. The drive went pretty well at first, and the large off-road truck did fine until we came to one particularly steep section of the trail. There, because of rains the previous several days, the truck kept sliding backwards and losing traction. The driver tried for thirty minutes to go up the same slope but accomplished nothing except for knocking off a mud flap driving over a boulder patch. As it became apparent that the truck was not going to be able to go up the mud on this steep trail, we decided to cut our losses and attempt a different route which went around the back of the mountain. This worked well at first, but approximately 5 minutes down the road the truck got stuck in the mud, which went past the bottom of the driver’s door.

Without the rest of the group, who had made it up the initial hill, we exited the vehicle and began to climb the hill to meet up with the rest of the group. Our excellent guide and translator, Igor, took the lead and brought us up and around the side of the mountain until we had found the main path. Our truck had been carrying the bulk of our picnic lunch, and so the meal was slightly delayed, giving our group the opportunity to play cards and take naps. The food was worth the wait, and our lunch consisted of a beef stew, fish salad sandwiches, tea, and plates of tomatoes and cucumbers. The bounty of the Altai is unbounded, and on our post-luncheon stroll we recognized a number of plants from the botanical gardens, all of which could serve as the basis for an herbal tea, in addition to a small cluster of shamanic mushrooms.

Eventually the very talented drivers were able to extricate our truck from the mud, and we rode in the back of a pickup to the junction where we’d been delayed. We returned that afternoon to the hotel for a brief rest before setting off for the Roerich Museum. While we were replacing our damp socks with dry pairs and our boots for tapachki, all 17 of us were more or less engaged in the same conversation. Namely, we were all remarking on the natural beauty we had borne witness to earlier that day and
comparing the landscape with that of the day before.

Our professor shared with us an interesting etymological point about the Russian words for “red” and “beautiful”. The two words have a similar sounding root, which allows “beautiful” to be corrupted through common usage to “red”. This makes it difficult to determine without research whether a Russian place bearing the name “red” is so named because of an association with the Soviet regime, whether its name comes from a colloquial distortion of the word “beautiful”, or whether some dialectic between these two causes produces the name red. In any event, this linguistic peculiarity leaves the Red Mountains with the potential for a double name, i.e. the Beautiful Mountains. The unanimous consensus among our band of travelers is that all of the peaks we saw this weekend more than live up to such a name.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Good Morning, Barnaul

Liz McCheyne, South Seneca Central School District

The sun rises about 5 here in Barnaul and the cool nights make morning the perfect time for running.
Memorial statue of Victor Tsoi. (1962-1990)
At the front door of the Profilaktory (our dormitory), I take off my tapochki and put on my sneakers then turn in my key and the dezhurnaya unlocks the door.  I head down our small street past other apartment buildings, past a colorful fruit and vegetable stand and turn left at the corner checking to see if anyone has left a tribute of flowers at the statute of Victor Tsoi, the Soviet song writer and pioneer of Russian rock who wrote songs that promoted social and political change.

On the next block you pass Maria Ra, the small grocery store where we go for treats and the ATM. Past Noveks, the five-and-dime that carries everything from flip flops to bug spray.  Past the kvass stand on the sidewalk where you can buy a cup for 15 rubles (about 25 cents).

Few people are out this early, but you can recognize some the same people and their dogs each morning.  The people here don't say good morning or smile when you pass on the street.  Even the dogs have picked up on this cultural phenomenon of ignoring strangers.  They don't bark or even look at you which is odd since dogs are typically curious and friendly.

Despite being a city of 635,000 people, Barnaul has a very small town feel.  The main street of the city is named Lenin Prospect.  It has a broad walkway between the north south traffic and it is a beautiful and interesting place to run. There are always several people along the way dressed in rubber boots, gloves and safety vests preparing the city for the coming day.  They weed the beautiful flower beds and sweep the sidewalks and edges of the street.  They pick up loose trash every day.

Shopkeepers sweep dirt, leaves, puddles and the occasional cigarette butt off the walks in front of their stores. The city is clean. Most of the morning traffic on the street consists of busses. People wait all looking in one direction for their bus.  Most of the women at the bus stops wear pants early in the morning.  Later in the day most of the women wear dresses and heels.  Not all, but most. Walking down the street is like being at a fashion show seeing all the different dress and shoe styles. It makes me want to dress up too.

Continuing down Lenin Prospect, the flowers turn into young birch and cedar trees, each nested in a perfectly round depression in the soil to catch rain.  Nearing the older part of town, the trees are taller and more mature.

The "Open Book" monument, featuring the Armenian and Cyrillic
There are many historical statutes and monuments on Lenin Prospect. You pass beautiful St Nicholas Church. Altai State University, and the Open Book Monument, even The Kilometer Zero of Altai Krai road network. The buildings are a mixture of stores, businesses, churches and offices.

The signs and advertisements are all in Russian.  When we first arrived in Barnaul, looking at the signs and ads i could only identify letters. Now I can read words and phrases as I run back along the same route I came.  The lights at each intersection have countdown timers so you know if you need to pick up the pace.  The Ferris wheel, a local landmark you can see from a distance seems larger as you get closer to the turn back to the dorm.  You can smell the kasha cooking as you pass the kitchen windows coming to the front door. There's just enough time to shower and eat before heading to class. And so each lovely day here begins.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Adventure in the Mountains

Heather Goldberg, South Seneca Central School District

Majestic is the word that came to mind as the Golden Altai mountain range first came into view on our approach to the area from Barnaul. It was the first weekend excursion and we had been travelling for many hours. This view was the payoff.

At first only ridges in shades of blue and green revealed themselves, but soon we were close enough to see the “velvety” surface of these mountains. Within minutes they surrounded us. Looking in any direction one couldn’t help but to be awestruck by this new world of green rolling hills and layers of velvety peaks, one in front of the other, in front of still others.

Our first stop was at an Altai dairy farm, “Farm Three A,” where we tasted fresh made cheeses, milk, honey, visited with the goats, and relished in the beauty of this countryside.

We arrived at our destination for overnight accommodations “Forest Fairytale,” aptly named, nestled in the Altai mountains, surrounded by forest. After a good night’s sleep, shower and breakfast, we loaded into jeep-like vehicles for what would be the off-road adventure of a lifetime! We stopped briefly, early in the journey at a spot where a stream runs through the boundary of the Altai Krai and Altai Republic. The stream marks the “return home” for many traveling Altaians. Here there are totems and a multitude of colorful ribbons tied to branches of the trees near the stream. 

It is an Altai tradition to stop as you travel by to take time to pay tribute to the elements of the natural world. The focus at this sacred spot is to thank God, not to ask for anything. This place of spiritual contemplation is usually found near water and usually at higher elevations. According to Altai tradition, ribbons are tied to birch, cedar, or fir trees. Visiting tourists often tie to any available tree. White ribbons signify clear, clean thoughts and good-natured desires and are a tribute to spirits or gods. This was a beautiful example of the history of the deep connection between the people who inhabited and still inhabit this region of the world, and their natural environment. Several of us washed our faces or hands in the stream, and some drank from the stream before we continued on our way.

Our driver hauled five of us up the mountain through two to three feet of mud in some spots, up a stream-bed (with water flowing!), over, between and around large rocks and boulders, and along a cliff’s edge. We bounced around the vehicle holding onto any available handles, many times in disbelief we’d be able to continue due to recent rain and very rugged terrain. It was just another day on the mountain for our very skilled driver.

When we stopped to allow the other vehicles in our caravan to catch up, we tried in vain to capture the views with our cameras.

We arrived at the trail’s head and began our trek up the River Shinok Gorge. This was no small feat. The path was quite slippery with mud. We had to cross streams several times, sometimes using a rope to steady ourselves! In other spots we used rocks and tree roots as handles to climb the steep incline.
There were ropes tied to trees in some areas to assist us. Each of three waterfalls we encountered made every step worthwhile. Our amazing guides Igor and Elena prepared a delicious picnic lunch for us mid-hike to provide us with energy to complete this journey.

Elena was our “Mary Poppins” on this, and all excursions so far, pulling out a seemingly endless supply of snacks, and drinks among other things, from her bag. None of us can figure out how it all fits in that bag! We enjoyed tea and snacks at the climax of the hike. Even in the wilderness, Igor and Elena show us true Russian hospitality.

In addition to the beauty of the trail and views we took in from it, I was amazed by the number of small children we encountered on the hike. Russians are a hearty bunch! It was as if some of these families were out for the day for a picnic and seemed to have approached this endeavor much more casually than our group. Many folks we saw were hiking in water shoes and every day type clothing, while we were outfitted in outdoor gear and shoes we hoped would give us an edge in this natural environment.

That evening, back at the lodge at “Forest Fairytale,” we ate, showered our exhausted bodies, then gathered in an ail for a campfire and camaraderie.

This first encounter with the Golden Altai has given me a glimpse into the landscape and history of a region that inspired settings for Shukshin’s books, and paintings by artists like Sergei Prokhorov. The beauty and diversity of landscapes we encountered were not at all what I expected from my idea of “Siberia” before coming to Russia. Once these mountains greet your heart and eyes they will always be with you.