30 July 2009

Reshiri Island, Japan

We arrived in Wakkanai at the northern tip of Hokkaido on the 28th July. Wakkanai is a small town, there's not really much to do except very practical things for us: laundry and going to the post office. So the next day we took another ferry which took us to the island of Reshiri within less than 2 hours. The weather was nice and the temperature around 20 degrees which made the humidity easy to stand. We found a nice small, brand new hotel, with a young english speaking owner who knew all about hiking on the island. He also lent us a bike and we rented another one, and went cycling on the island's cycling path, which was perfectly asphalted, with signs telling you when it was going up and down and where to be careful about crossing cars and pedestrians. Just Miguel's bike was a bit small for him...

We also had the chance to observe several families drying seaweed by the shore, and tying them in neat packages:

The next day we went for a hike up a hill and on to a small artificial lake. The Japanese are great hikers, and even this small trail had its difficulties, being quite steep in certain places. As we hadn't done much hiking for quite some time this 3-hour walk was pretty tiring!
On the way back we took part of the cycling route to get back to the harbour. There were even bridges built only for bikes!

As a reward, we found a "foot onsen" (sort of a hot spring bath for feet) on our way back to relax our feet a bit before going to take the ferry back to Wakkanai.

28 July 2009

Boat stories

In order to continue travelling on the surface of the earth, we have had to take a few ferries, one in Russia, one in Japan and one between the two countries. The experiences couldn't have been more different....
First of all, we had to get from mainland Russia to the island Sakhalin. We had done quite a lot of research on the internet which revealed that getting tickets for the ferry to Sakhalin was close to a nightmare, especially for foreigners, involving up to 12 hours of queuing and ferries leaving at 2 am. We didn't feel like experiencing all this, but we really wanted to get to Sakhalin and from there to Japan... so, we found a travel agent who organised the tickets for us.
I won't go into all the details, just the result: It was very expensive; we were picked up at the train station from our night train by a travel agent; 5 minutes later we met a Russian backpacker who told us he had only just bought his ticket and that there was no queue at all. But there's no point in regretting when you can't go back, so we just put up with it.
Then it all went the Russian way, but we already expected it:
- Waiting for about 2 hours for the bus to take us to the port
- Boarding a pretty rusty ferry (but everything seemed to work more or less, there were even life vests)
- Waiting until the ferry left (earlier than we thought), queuing for lunch (included in the price), communicating with our (non english speaking) room neighbours
- Watching some ferry employees scratching away the rust on the ship and painting over it (at least this one had a helmet...):
- Spending the night in a cabin as hot as a sauna (we had to open the door in the middle of the night in order to get some fresh air), having an improvised breakfast on deck in the fresh air, watching the green hills of Sakhalin approaching.
A journey of about 20 hours, the Russian way. Fortunately the sea was very calm and the weather always nice.

After a couple of days in Sakhalin, we got up early one morning to take the ferry to Japan. It was raining heavily and we were afraid of a typhoon arriving and the ferry not being able to leave, but the weather improved and we left on time. Arriving to the port was still the Russian way, with a very slow bus (we almost had to get out and push so it would go uphill), followed by a local bus and (fortunately) a local guy showing us the port.
The ferry was Japanese (and the ticket price as well). Meaning: Super clean, nicely repainted, the ship workers were wearing helmets and appropriate clothing, it left exactly on time, the crew was very friendly and smiley and happy to help, there were 4 rolls of toilet paper in every toilet which also had a heated seat. Next to the stairs there were even signs reminding people to hold on to the hand rails (in this lovely Japanese English...):

In economy class, seating was on tatami floors, and a boxed breakfast was served to all the passengers.
The trip took 5 hours and 30 minutes, the sea was calm.
Going out of the port in Wakkanai, the streets were perfect, no holes, perfect white middle lines, the drivers polite. The landlady at the hotel bowing and saying thank you all the time.

In brief: Some kind of a culture shock.
It took us some time to recover from it...

27 July 2009

Last day in Russia

And at the same time probably the most Eastern point of our trip. We are in Sakhalin island and tomorrow we will head South to Japan. We are in deep need of some civilization. We are dreaming of Japanese onsens (hot baths) for couple days now. The main thing I've learnt from this two months trip in Russia is that, next time I will travel here I should learn more Russian before hand.
While one can get along the trip and go everywhere knowing just the basic travel Russian (buy train tickets, check-in at hotel, understand the restaurant menu) you cannot really enjoy the country if you do not speak the language. People are eager to talk to you but there is a barrier, museums are just in Russian, books in shops which could give you ideas where to go are just in Russian.

But I've enjoyed a lot, even if I've dozens of complaints. I found great the Buryatia School and the chance given by Aiuna to us to be the first foreigners to visit those two small villages near the Mongolian border. I found wonderful to travel day and night in the on-time Russian trains, in the open platskarty compartiments full of people, full of smells, full of live. Was magic to visit and sleep at local people houses, see their habits, understand their difficulties and hear to their dreams. An important Russian word I discovered here was "Remont" (repair). I hope much of it gets fixed before my next visit. I definitely want to redo this whole trip in some years from now (even if some places I would like to re-visit soon).

More posts about Russia will come later. Now is time for quick re-look into Japan (we were already there two weeks in 2007).

24 July 2009

Russia impressions during a morning before going out of the hotel

1) At the end of the breakfast we leave the bill with the payment over the table and leave. A waiter comes behind asking if we did not forgot to take the receipt with us. Ok, this could be the case. Anyway, we took 3 times the breakfast there,the waiter that takes the orders never could get it completely right (once gives tea with lemon instead of milk, other time a different type of kasha, today only one tvorak instead of the two we asked).

2) We meet the guy from travel agency who is selling us the tickets for tomorrow's boat to Sakhalin. First time we use a travel agency for something, but we do not want to make 10-hour queue not speaking russian that every travel blog talks about for those who tried. He wants to know the wagon of the train where we will arrive to Vanino. Eva says she will pick up from the room. He says he will come with us. Ok. Arriving to the room, Eva opens the door and immediatly he gets into the room as if it was his also. Lack of private space is common everywhere in Russia.

3) After doing the check-out from the room - which in Russia includes to ask the lady from the floor to check that we did not broke or steal anything -, we ask in the reception where we can leave the luggage. "What?, leave luggage?,  maybe the security guy knows...". The security guy seemed a bit more used to this practise which I tought it was universal. Except here.


We are in Komsomolsk, in very eastern Siberia. It's a so-called "BAM-town". The BAM is the "Baikal-Amur-Mainline", a railway line that goes further north than the transsiberian, built during soviet times, mostly by Gulag workers doing very hard work. Before this, there was not much here, so all the towns along the line have been founded in the 1930s, and most of them are correspondingly ugly and uninteresting. Komsomolsk was founded by the Komsomol, the Soviet youth organisation (you can see that Russia is still clinging to its Soviet past - not only Lenin statues, but also town names have not changed since). It's a surprisingly nice town, with wide streets, a not-so-ugly city center and a riverside with a few terraces where we've been sitting and eating shashlik and drinking beer. There's a tram going from our hotel to the river, although waiting for the tram at the stops is putting our lives in danger, as one has to wait in the middle of the road between the cars (see photo).

We also visited its municipal museum, which tells the history of the town from its previous inhabitants (the original people here are asian, Evenki and Nanai and many more... but nowhere in the museum do they tell what actually happened to them....) to the modern town. Well, as already said, nothing seems to have changed much since the fall of the Soviet Republic. We still pay 3 times more than Russians for our ticket. The workers who built the BAM and the town are glorified, but it's never mentioned that many of them were forced labourers from Gulag camps. When talking about war, the language goes pretty much like "the horrible Japanese tried to invade us but we went there and defeated them" and so on (by the way, this reminds me of a young Russian woman we met some time ago who told us that at school they still learn that Russia was "THE winner" of the Second World War and that the USA were the losers).

Well, the museum still showed some interesting photographs but not much explanation even in russian. At the end, there was a room with stuffed animals from this region, including a beautiful Amur Tiger (I think they are close to being extinct now).

Close to the museum we found our favourite cafe (which was unfortunately closed the day after, for "technical reasons") where they served a big and cheap lunch meal, the waitress actually smiled to us and said words like "please" and "thank you". After 2 months in Russia, we are happy with very simple things! :-)

Last night the food situation was more difficult, some cafes were closed which gave us the choice of a fast food (where we had already been the day before and eaten cold hamburgers), an expensive Japanese cafe with sushi (which we will hopefully eat next week in Japan so no need to go there) and the cafe of our hotel. We decided for the latter one but when we arrived there it was quite full and only one person taking orders and serving. I started to queue at the counter (that's usually how you order here) while Miguel kept a table, but there were other people in front of me and things were incredibly slow. After 20 minutes or so of waiting, we decided to leave and went to the supermarket instead to buy fish and vegetable dumplings, salads and drinks, which was just as good as the cafe.

Tonight we will take the night train (our last train in Russia!) to Vanino where we will (hopefully) be met by a travel agent called Nataly, who (hopefully) will have tickets for us for the ferry leaving (hopefully) sometime during the day for the island of Sakhalin. Whereas taking a train in Russia is usually straightforward (the train network is the biggest in the world, and it's about the only thing in this country that seems to work most of the time... we never had a major delay), taking a russian ferry seems to be another kind of adventure, with long queues, delays, cancellations, blond manicured ladies sitting behind counters and refusing to sell tickets and nobody knowing what's going on. So we decided to so this via a travel agency, which was not cheap at all but we hope that we will be spared the stress and hassle. So, if everything goes right, we should be in Sakhalin on Sunday, and go to Japan from there.

21 July 2009

Itchy, itchy, itchy....

Since our 4 nights spent in Dora's apartment in Severobaikalsk (see previous post), I have maybe 20 or 30 little red spots on my legs, itching like hell. Most of them are in lines of 3 or 4, making it easy to identify.... BEDBUGS. I have been scratching my legs ever since (which means for 4 days now), applying Fenistil gel and finally taking Zyrtec. This is typically one of the "diseases" you never learn about as a doctor unless you specifically do some reading, so I tried the internet to know more. And I got answers very quickly on http://www.bedbugsguide.com/what-are-bed-bugs.htm
So, tonight I will empty and clean every corner of my backpack and inspect my night clothes. And as one can read on the website, the reaction can continue for as long as weeks (!!!) so I guess I will continue with Zyrtec for a while.
AHHH as I write this my ankles start itching again.....
Hm, the pleasures of travelling.

20 July 2009

Siberian Food

Typical Siberian (or rather, Buryat) food: Pozy (kind of stewed meat ravioli) and beer.

18 July 2009

Channels availableon our black-and-white TV of the Tynda hotel room

1 - Russian Channel 1 - they are making fun of someone
2 - Channel Russia - series
3 - REN
4 - NTV - "crime"/"police" type program
5 - Sport - Ragueby (today was synchronized swimming)
6 - DTV - russian movie
7 - TNT - "crime" type program
8 - Sport "flash back" - old american sports channel (from the 70s?) dubbed in Russian
9 - MTV dubbed in Russian
10 - Cultura - travels program from BBC dubbed in Russian
11 - Explorer - american dubbed in Russian
12 - Russian Cinema channel
13 - Children channel
14 - Cartoons channel
15 - Drive channel - some car series dubbed in Russian
16 - Hunt and Fishing channel
17 - there were adversisements
18 - Retro channel - old russian movie
19 - National Geographic - dubbed from the american
20 - Train TV - only about the Russian trains!!
21 - Illusion channel - some movie
22 - Computer games channel
23 - Cartoons channel
24 - Style TV - copy of the Fashion TV in Russian

16 July 2009

At the northern tip of Lake Baikal

After our 36-hour train trip making a big loop from Irkutsk to the northern end of Lake Baikal, here we are in Severobaikalsk. A small, quite uninteresting place, apart from it's nice lakeshore with a small beach (although we saw nicer beaches on the Eastern shore).

When we arrived at the train station 3 days ago, a lady with a single golden tooth started talking to us in French. It was Dora, originally from Moldavia but has been living here for 25 years, struggling to make ends meet (as a lot of people here) and renting out a room in her apartment. As she's the only French-speaking person in town (probably in the whole region), she also tries to take care of all the French and Swiss tourists that get lost in this little part of the world. She had just been hosting 2 young students from Fribourg and offered her room to us. Well, it's no luxury... the beds could be more comfortable, the bathroom is simple (but there is hot water), and her son smokes in the toilet, but we accepted anyway. Yesterday she bought the first washing machine in her life (for our standards, a really bad quality one, not much better than handwashing, we had to wash our underwear twice...) and she was so scared to use it. After we had assured that we had used about 30 different washing machines in our lifes and always managed to make them work, she accepted that we use it and show her how it works.

Two days ago we visited a small hot springs village, 45 minutes from here on a bumpy, non asphalted road (but the driver was driving almost normally). The so-called "spa" was actually just a small wooden house (as you can see on the picture) with 2 changing rooms and a terrace with two small hot-water pools, and a lot of mosquitoes. One of the pools was so hot I only managed to go in until my knees, although Miguel managed to go in all the way. The other one must have been around 40 degrees. Russians love this kind of thing, believing strongly in the healing power of such places.

This reminds me of one of the village schools in Buryatia, where one of the teachers proudly told me that they now had a "health education programme" in the school. Oh, how interesting, I thought, what's that all about? Well, actually it was just about taking the kids to the hot springs nearby....

Anyway, after soaking in hot water for an hour or so, being eaten by mosquitoes and having some surprisingly nice food in a cafe nearby, we came back to Severobaikalsk in the same minibus, which was over-full this time. Miguel had about 3 cm on a bench next to a fattish lady, I was sitting on the floor. But it was the last bus for the day, so no choice.

Yesterday has been rather lazy, sitting by the beach, swimming a bit (Lake Baikal is pretty cold), taking care of our suntan, and later on sitting on a terrace eating grilled meat next to a group of middle-aged ladies, celebrating something and all being completely drunk on vodka. Unfortunately this is a very common picture in Russia, with usually a couple of kids completing the picture (they are the only ones that are not drunk...). I'm getting tired of it, really.

Tomorrow we will continue our trip on the so-called BAM, the Baikal-Amur-Mainline, a train line further north than the "classic" Trans-Siberian, built mainly by Stalin (and a lot of Gulag workers). The nature is supposed to be beautiful, lots of mountains.

13 July 2009

36-hour train to Severobaikalsk

Thirty-six hours, the longest so far. It was two-nights on a train with only two or three stops worthing to strech the legs outside. Buying same day ticket meant to go on kupe, 2nd class, which means closed compartiments of 4 berths. Beds are larger, softer and long enought for being stretched. In 3rd class, when doing it, people passing in the corridor would hit my feet.

We embark at 22:45, leaving at 23:00. From the beginning a young women, probably on the 30's, shares the compartiment. Her quite open t-shirt shows permanently her bra and soon after she puts on half transparent tights, with which she walks around in the train and its stops, showing all the drawings of the underware (not tanga, tough). The high-heeled shoes complete the description.

One hour later a mid-age women joins. I was already half asleep. This women talks more and next morning she tried some conversation to which I replied in my minimalist russian - where we are from, our strip so far and short terms plans. 

This trains takes us into the BAM line, paraller to the Trans-siberian, but North of the lake Baikal. This line was mostly built by Soviet prisioners working in concentration camps (gulags). The line was open only in 1991, same year as the Soviet dream come down.

Otheradvantages of kupe is that there are less people competing for the two toilets of the wagon and the provodnitsa are nicer, they even offered me a coffee in the morning, while I was in the corridor waiting my compartiment companions to wake up. 

About one hour away from the next big stop (+15min) the provodnitsa warns the toilet will be closed for 1h30. It's from 30 minutes before to 30 minutes after the stop, the so called hygienic zone. Eva was sleeping but our companions tell me that I should tell her. At same time one the mid-aged women starts to repaint her lips and eyes. For some Russian women seems important to be beautiful (in their way) for the duration of the stop, when everyone goes out of the train, who knows you will meet the person of your dreams (hopefully not buying beer or vodka).

As there is no restaurant wagon I bought a small dinner of smashed potatoes in the shop inside the station and bread from a women in the platform. The next long stop would be only in 12h, at 21:00.

During the dinner our companions also bought some dry noodles package and the middle aged person seems not to know how they work. Also next morning, 10minutes after the carriage attendant comes to announce the soon arrival - at 6:40am for arriving at 8:20 - and which I tryed to ignore, our companion (the other had left during the night) wakes me up saying that the toilets will close soon. But I knew they would not close before 7:50. We have been doing many more train rides in the past weeks than any average Russian person. But well, I got up and so I decided to have the brakfast still in the train.

11 July 2009

Around Lake Baikal

There's only time for a short post between trains for now. We've just spent 2 days on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, staying in an old-fashioned "sanatorium" hotel, enjoying lazy time by the beautiful beach (as shown on the photo) and watching a wonderful sunset. We got back to Ulan-Ude in a minibus on a horrible road, then got on a night train to Irkutsk where we just spent a day which was rich in positive shopping experiences (I finally found a Salewa travel pant to replace my old pant which is completely torn at the legs, as well as 2 english books for travel literature). In 2 hours we will board a train which will take us to the northern tip of Lake Baikal - in 36 hours. It's long because there's no direct connection along the shores of the lake, so the train has to go in a huge loop. Hopefully this will give us some time to relax, sleep and read (especially in our 2nd class compartments - 3rd class was sold out).
More news - and photos - in a few days, hopefully.

10 July 2009

Cantina do Sanatorio

Na cantina do sanatorio os nossos colegas de mesa nao fogem a regra. No pequeno almoco de salsicha com massa so comem a salsicham, bebem um pouco de cha e partem. Nao tocam no pao nem na manteiga mas levam a fruta que houver na mesa. O frasco do molho vazio que ontem tinha deitado sobre o meio da mesa continuava la, de pe. Esta vazio ha quatro refeicoes. 

Na mesa ao lado o ritual repete-se. A senhora vem com tupperwares e guarda tudo enquanto os filhos comem uma so garfada do prato.

Os pratos, quentes e frios ja estao colocados na mesa quando chegamos. Imensa comida parece desperdicada. E a logica russa, uma vez mais.

O sanatorio em sim parece-me o Inatel ha uns 25 anos, das primeiras vezes que la fui com a minha avo ou os meus pais. Refeicoes a horas fixas, varios edificios um mais velho que o outro, tudo muito simples e burocratico.

Disse burocratico? Nos tivemos a felicidade de uma senhora, ao ver-nos de mochila, nos acompanhou ao registo de visitantes, fez questao de arranjar alguem ao telefone que falasse ingles e depois com o nosso pedido registado foi connosco as financas onde imprimiram o recibo que levamos em conjunto a contabilidade para pagar. Finalmente com gestos e um pouco de russo explicou onde ficava a cantina, as horas das refeicoes e levou-nos ao nosso quarto, de primeira categoria classe A (renovados). Tudo bonito, apenas faltava pressao na agua quente (que tinha efeito duplo de ser pouca agua muito quente e impossivel de misturar) e o punho (handle) da porta estava arranjado (remont em russo) com uma placa de madeira e 4 parafusos extra grandes para o local, mas deviam ser os 'unicos disponiveis na loja.

09 July 2009

East Baikal - Goriashinks and a sanatorium - trip and first impressions

The idea was to go to Ust-Barguzin but there were no more tickets for the only daily scheduled bus. The hostel owners tried to convince us to go by minibus at 6am with an extra fee from him taking us to the station for 100R (public transport would cost 20R). I did not like the idea and after discussing with Eva we decided to go only to Goriashinks, a 3-hour away village from Ulan-Ude in the same direction, instead of 5-hour bus. Without ticket we would try our luck at the bus station at 8am.

At 6am there was already noise of people arriving to the hostel. At 8am we were at the bus station, a minibus was about to leave to Goriashinks. The driver was nice enough to still go with us to the ticket booth but there were only places for the 11 o'clock scheduled bus. Outside the station I see two minibuses going to Barguzin who could leave us on our village. While calling for Eva one of them leaves. The other agrees to take us for 500R each. We knew it was expensive but we did not want to wait 3 hours.

At 8:40 he leaves, half-full. It goes until the train station. Almost no-one seems interested on going to East Baikal. At 9:45 the driver says me something '30 minutes'. With the time passing I thought it would be at 10:30 that we would leave. Nothing happens. There were, meanwhile, people to almost fill-up the 15 places of the 'Hyace' which in my childhood was known to have only 9 or maximum 12 places. The remaining passengers chat or smoke or go to the toilet during all this time. No one asks the driver when he intends to leave, no one seems annoyed to be waiting.

At 11:00 there was order to sit down but, for other 10 minutes, already with the engine on, the driver does nothing. Our backpacks are on the roof, attached by ropes.

The trip begins, he creates a central lane in the city traffic. As soon as the bumps of the road start we feel the need of going to the toilet.

We stand for 2 hours until we stopped at a small restaurant to eat. Stree toilet, a hole-kind one as usual. We eat 'buuzi' and goulash in 5 minutes not to take more time than the others.

The minibus leave us at the crossing to Goriashinks. We walk and ask the way to the sanatorium. As soon we get in a lady - Tatiana I think beeing her name - says 'parlez-vous francais?' when she hear us. We answer that also english and german. She takes us to the reception and we see she want to help us. She asks to call to someone who would speak english. I speak with someone, I say we want 2 nights with breakfast and dinner. And shower. "Supper also?", asks the person after exchanging the phone 2 times with Tatiana. We say yes and we see she understood 'dinner' as lunch. Our dictionary confirms - the translation for dinner is the same that for lunch: обед. Tatiana tells the receptionist our desires and her fills several papers.

With one of the papers and Tatiana we go to the finance department, a room at the end of the corrider where, with the price list and a calculator, they fill another form and prints out a receipt in the computer. We go now to the cash booth and exchange papers and money. It was 5600R, 60E/night full-board. We return to the reception to show that we paid and receive another paper and the room key. Tatiana follow us. She tells us in Russia where the restaurant is, times for the meals. We say our nationalities, jobs, trip. She asks our age and kids. Патом... She leaves us at the renovated room with bad quality furniture. The taps bad attached (if I had pliers...) worked badly.

We walked in the surrounding forest, we found a marked trail which finished abruptly. We like to be surrounded by forest.

For dinner in the disorganized canteen we had a small meal. The russians eat in 10 minutes and we are the last to leave. We go to walk until the lake, impressing. Sandy beach and also river stones. Trails of jeeps which pass time to time. We see the sunset behind the mountaints the other side of the lake and we throw stones to the water.
When we return there is music in the 'club'. The social place of the sanatorium where you can rent everything from balls, bycicles, DVD reader, iron, etc. In one room people dance at 70s music. The dance very bad (like me) and there are no drinks. Before sleep we still go to the bar, the other side of the reserve, drink a bad Bulgarian wine. The price is per 100ml but the glass is 200ml. Russian logic.

P.S. from Eva: I just added the photo of "Bathhouse 2".

07 July 2009


We are back from our Summer School in Buryatia experience. There are a lot of things to tell, so many new things, a very special experience. We will write posts about it when we have time, and also some individual emails.
Here's the link to my flickr photo page with some pictures:

Three months - equipement review

Lost items:
- Baltic states Guidebook in Kaunas. Replaced by new one in Kaunas.
- Travel towel from Eva in Moscow. Not replaced.
- One sock from Eva. Other one will be used for the mobile phone

Not used items (ready to give away):
- Black cycling polar vest from Miguel
- Jumping rope
- Plug converter (maybe useful in China or Korea)
- vodka shot metal glasses (everyone that gave vodka has glasses)

Given items:
- several reading books
- Poland and Baltic states guidebook

Items replaced:
- couple of Eva's slips

Items to be replaced soon:
- Eva's hiking trousers
- Miguel's orange t-shirt

Items bought (apart of perishable items and books):
- long sleeve t-shirt for Eva
- memory card for Miguel camera's
- USB pen drive for backup of pictures

05 July 2009

Buryatia School - Engorboy

Engorboy was only 800 inhabitants, there were no asphalted roads. The village size was more of less the same as Mikhaylovka. Besides the many cows there were also some pigs and horses in the streets. Finally there I had my long running question answered. We were at 1200m above sea level. At our presentation outside the school building with several of the teachers and students, some teachers knew the answer. The sun strikes strong that high and we felt it during those 10 days.

Engorboy had a small centre where the shop, post office, club, library and school were seated around. The shop had few less items than in Mikhaylvoka but more drunk people at the door hoping for bottles of vodka to fall down from the sky. The club and library were in the same style but smaller.

The school, quite old, all wood, was divided in three buildings. It was being fully repainted - chairs, tables, walls, cupboards, floors - as full maintenance of the ensemble. It remembered me of the lighthouses in Portugal. Again it was a school for 6 to 18, where table sizes had to fit all and seemed a bit small for an adult. They had, like in Mikhaylovka, computer and two projectors - one they asked me to diagnose why it did not work. They also had a gym with some basketball baskets and gymnastics material.

The houses were pretty much the same but the gardens were bigger and on each one there was a water pump making less but more frequent the work of getting the water (smaller buckets used).

We were this time living with Ayuna and her grand-mother in a single room, only with small hide-outs around the winter stove. The toilet in this house was further away and the grand-mother as well as the grand-sons living there were peeing just in the garden, not to walk all the way to the hole.

Engorboy was a fully Buryatia people village and people would speak Buryatia language (similar to Mongol) among them. Kids were learning Russian only at school. Ayuna grand-mother was not speaking Russian at all making communication even more difficult.

The mean of transport to go to surrounding fields was horse. There was also a river where I swim once but the water seemed colder than in the other village.

No particular differences in the Sur-Harban festival, just added a disorganized 100 meter race where I participated and was 6 or 7th among 30 (I was representing "my" street).

Because of the school painting and no help of the local administration the first day of school was held half inside half outside (aerobics). We presented ourselves with some history background, then Kate gave an English class and I gave a internet/email class. No kid had email neither notion of the usefullness of internet except that they could chat and play games. The internet was painfully slow (satellite+modem I think), the room was hot and the kids less interested to learn than touching a computer. The class was quite bad. On the second day it was raining and it was after the drunks at night story, so environment was not good. We met few kids at entrance of a school building and Ayuna wanted to give class there, on the edge of the rain. Kids found that we could go to the canteen that they were going to paint. Small english and other languanges classes with not so much attentive kids before that the smell of painting was too strong. We had no place to go, no alternative was proposed but Ayuna wanted to continue. I was tired and out of the game. We get to agree for the library to be open for us the next day (again, help of the kids) and we went all, kids and us, to Ayuna's grand-mother house. She knew it was necessary to discuss among us but she wanted the kids to have more school. We set 20:30 as limit to end the school that day. After we discussed and was clear we had to finish the school earlier, there were no conditions (logistical and mental) to continue. Next day we still had classes in the library - english with drawing; health for alcohol prevention but kids were to young to understand; aerobics/judo and journalist where the kids where completely uninterested to learn. The weather was perfect and we still went by the river.

The day after at 6am we were leaving Engorboy in direction of Ulan-Ude with the local "Schumacher", a crazy driver, for 7hours.

04 July 2009

Buryatia Experience Part 2: Teaching the children

The aim of the volunteering project was to teach something to the children in the 2 villages. We were free to choose our subject and teaching method, and once we were there, we soon realized that we had to be VERY flexible. Due to numerous festivals and other activities, the days of actual teaching were numbered, but even outside school we had the chance to be in contact with the kids (swimming in the river for example) so I guess this also counted a bit as "teaching", as most of these children never had been in contact with foreigners.
Our subjects were: English (Kate), Judo (Juergen), Journalism (Ayuna), Children's rights (Miguel), Health (me). The "improvised" subjects were: aerobics (Miguel), games (everybody...).
Ok, there were not as many children as I somehow expected. But those who were there were very motivated. I rarely saw children as open and curious as them. Of course it was easy to spot the brighter ones.... some were able to speak some simple english, or at least to communicate with non-verbal means. They were eager to participate in the painting (for the English class and my health class). On our last day in Mihailovka we organised a treasure hunt, which was very successful. Afterwards, we had a big autograph session, as all the kids wanted our signatures and e-mail addresses.
In the second village, Yengorboy, the children seemed a bit younger and less concentrated for sit-down activities, but it was still fun and we just did a bit more games with them.
I think just the fact that they saw some foreigners for the first time in their life made some of them realize the importance of learning english and going to school and on to higher education, and that other countries exist not only on the world map but also in reality.
We also learned a lot, about their everyday life and culture, and also that there are still very motivated children in the world who are not spoiled by computer games and TV.

03 July 2009

One of the strangest nights of my life - Comedy/Terror real story

(translated from Portuguese without much thinking)

With Ayuna the relations continue very tense. Yesterday night she went for a walk telling us "help yourself" at her grandmother place. It was 20:30. At 21:45 I went to uncle's house where only her uncle smoking and Sasha (the oldest -5years- grand-daughter) were present. There were no signs of dinner. At 22:45 Ayuna returns saying that we could cook the rice that was standing there. There was no light in the kitchen and she goes away again. An uncle of hers comes over, a bit drunk and showing us that there is also meat. We say we go to sleep. Five minutes later he returns saying that we can go and eat at the other house (uncle's house) but we refused. It was 23:00.

We fall asleep.

At middle of the night some people start knocking hard at the door and screaming. Ayuna and the grand-mother (we are living/sleeping all in same room) wake up. Ayuna starts crying and the grand-mother to scream to the 2/3 men in the street who try to open the door and knocking also on the windows. There were 5 or 10 minutes of this. When the men leave the grand-mother pees in the bucket she has by her bed.

After a while - 1 or 2 hours, I don't know - another person comes to knock the door and windows, trying to open the door. He calls for the grand-mother in Buryat language. Ayuna does not make noise and the grand-mother gets-up and pees in her bucket. The person gives up quickly. There are lightnings and thunders at 15 and 30 seconds away. Starts to rain. Eva holds me and we can't sleep for a long while.

At 6:30 - I can now see the time - someone knocks the door and screams. The grand-mother in underware get up and opens the door. They speak and the person goes to sleep with the grand-mother. It is a women.

At 9:30 continues to rain, is the time we had set to leave home but every one sleeps. Eva and then me got up to go to the toilet and start the day. At some point Ayuna's aunt appear and then the oncle saying to cook the rice. We try to do it. There is very little electricity and the oncle goes to cut wood and start the wood oven. The grand-mother wakes up and join us, washing the dishes and taking the breakfast with us. Everyone then disappears to the uncle's house.

It's 11:30 and Ayuna gets up and, knowing the time, asks me why I did not wake her up. I think I'm not an alarm clock without being asked but I only say that I thought with the rain we would not go to the "arshan". I ask what happened during the night. She will say after she comes from the toilet, Ayuna says. One hour has passed, it still rains. There is another person in the grand-mother's bed and we don't understand anything what is going on. I ask my self about Jurgen and Kate. It is now 12:30.
Later we left to Jurgen and Kate place to tell our adventure. In the evening finally we know from Ayuna that the drunk people wanted "just" to talk with us. She did not listen the second person and we did not ask about the women (her cousin). Both Ayuna and us were scared and did not know what would have happen if they would open the door. Fortunately the event did not repeat and it was, mostly for sure, a side effect of the general drunkness that day after the summer party of the village (sur-harban).

01 July 2009

The story of the sheep's head

Those of you who have been on my flickr homepage and seen the photos from our Buryat Summer School experience are probably impatient to hear the story of the sheep's head... :-) so here you go.

Part of our extensive "social program" during the Summer School was to visit some buddhist celebrations called "Surcharban". One of them was quite big, involving several villages. Each village mounted a yurt that was decorated inside, and there was a contest for the most beautiful yurt. Some of them were richly decorated with carpets and had tables almost breaking under a huge quantity of food, others were simpler, showing traditional farming equipment and some simple homemade food.

As foreigners, we were the super special VIP guests there. May sound nice, and IS nice, but also very very tiring, and unusual for all of us, as we really consider ourselves as just ordinary people.

Anyway, one of our "activities" consisted in visiting the other villages yurts, which involved each time sitting down at the table (women on one side, men on the other), being offered food and, of course, vodka (which was ok not to drink, it's mainly a sign of hospitality but a lot of vodka is acually thrown away). In one yurt there was a lot of meat on bones but also soup and bread, in a second yurt the food was very simple (cheese, bread, butter, milk vodka), but in the third yurt we had a special experience. There was no food on the table, but the traditionally dressed up "chief" asked us to sit down at the table. We then learned that we would be offered the highest present that could be offered to guests: a sheep's head. Oh-oh....

So, who is the oldest man among the group? It was Juergen, our austrian friend. He had the honour of receiving the head and then cutting around it in the traditional way. Only the knive didn't cut.... When the "chief" had shown him a few times how to do it but the knive still didn't cut, he went on to the next stage: turning the head around and putting a small spoon into the region of the brain (with a througly disgusting squelching sound). We were then supposed to eat a tiny bit of it (or at least pretend to eat). Juergen pretended, Kate (sitting next to me) was very strong and tasted a bit, but before I could witness this I felt I was going to throw up right there and just went out of the yurt (which caused a bit of confusion with certain people, later I apologized about it but really I'm not used to this kind of thing...) so I didn't see the end of it. I then went for a short walk in the woods and missed the fourth yurt where the rest of the group had to spend about 40 minutes... Finally I wasn't so sad about it, being able to see the end of the horse race and part of the beauty contest.

Buryatian dictionary

Aimed to portuguese readers, some of the words we learnt during the school:
Good night - Han Untugti
Thank you - Han daa
I'm portuguese - Be Portugalia'ha
Good morning - dobro utra (as russia)
I'm full - Sadap
Water - Uhan
Hot tea - Alunze
Grand-mother - Tovi
Hello - San bene
See you - Baierte
Bread - Talhan