Friday, December 16, 2005

8:40 AM, Ekaterineburg
Sitting in the airport, time on my hands - today's variation, old song. This is a good thing this day. I need a break today. (jingle that one yourself, ok?). Work has been very hard. I frequently feel at odds with Berg. Too much conflict.
So - a break today! I'm going to Cheboksary to visit a new place!
Hats - winter in Russia is when the hats come out. Caps, beanies, and fur hats, and several styles of earflapped hats for men that I've only seen pictures of in history books about earlier days in the US and logging crews in the northern midwest. There is the sharka - usually made of fur - this is like a large round pillbox when all folded up. When in Moscow, it seemed that the locals only wore this style in mink. But in Chelyabinsk I've seen many other furs used - including fox, like mine. I don't feel so all alone any more.
Today in Ekaterineburg I saw a man wearing one with the ear flaps down, made of an even bushier fur than my fox. Very much the mountain man look!
But let's talk about the women's hats for a bit. The church ladies in Memphis would fit right in - except the women's hats here are seriously and universally functional, whereas the church ladies' hats are only for social show. But I see fur hats in swirls, peaks, caps, boxes, snoods; with bobbles, dangles, beads, and stars. Any woman with a little money has a fur hat - there is obviously a certain amount of prestige being sported about here.
However, as I've said about MY hat, the hats here are seriously functional. Ever seen an insulated baseball cap? They are common here! The "driver's" cap associated (by Americans) with the British is popular - in leather or heavy cloth. And they are insulated. Stocking caps, or watch caps or beanies, are triple the thickness of mine.
A word about roads. This is the first time I've been out of Chelyabinsk going towards Ekaterineburg. the roads are much better than the highway out towards the Kurgan Oblast. Kurgan is obviously "out in the sticks".

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Snowmobile traffic

--- A friend wrote:---------------------------------
. . .told me that you will be using a snow mobile to get from point A toZ. I found this interesting. A town full of snow mobile traffic??

I had considered it, and I might still do it, but I've had little time to shop, and this is not a small purchase - they are expensive here. There are not many snowmobiles here yet. I'm not sure that they would use many where I am - they actually don't get much snow here, just cold. So far we really don't have a good snow cover. As for towns full of snowmobiles, go visit Wisconsin, Minnesota or upper Michigan in the winter. They have trails paralleling the road system, tourist travel, etc. Not quite replacing the auto traffic, but it does replace some of it. Pretty amazing actually, and that is what gave me the idea.


Sunday, December 11, 2005

A Saturday train to the city

10/12/05 Sat Cybbota

I go in to work this morning. I make some progress, but I want a break.

I decide I'll take off and see if I can catch the electrichki into Chelybinsk. I call for a van to take me to town. The receptionist at camp gets me a van to go into Shchuch'ye. So far so good. I request a stop at camp to grab a book. Still no problem. Then I tell the receptionist that I'll probably catch the return train at 10:00 (PM), which gets in at midnight!

Now I begin to smell a problem. The head driver is acting a little - hmmmm - perplexed? Maybe agitated? Ah well, this eats up a few minutes and I decide to head out anyway. I'll miss the train if I wait any longer. We'll figure somethin out - or I'll walk. [Ha, right, Mark, now think about that for a second. It's 12 or 13 miles from the voksal to the camp. It takes you an hour and twenty minutes to walk the 5.2 miles from the site. That equates to 3 or 4 hours minimum of walking, maybe more. And, after 5 miles my feet are pretty done in. Huh, you gonna walk that? I think a car is in order. Of course, tho, it is nice to know I could walk if I had to.]

The drivers and staff are always a lot more nervous and agitated when I try to do something that is not on the schedule. I think its BECAUSE it is something that is not on the schedule, and like people everywhere, they have a tendency to overrate the local danger. Not that there isn't any, they just overrate it.

We get to the Shchuch'ye station, and I buy my ticket. The train will be here in about 5 minutes. I get on. As we go, I watch the station names, and the landmarks, writing them down in my notebook.


Once at the voksal, I go to the shopping center that is right there by the voksal. I find a couple of things I've needed - CDs, a teapot. I find two ATM machines, but neither will take my card. I still have a couple of hours until the early electrichki. I call the transport coordinator. She is at the Christmas party, and says there is a bus going back at midnight. That is later than I want to hang around, so I determine to see if I can get things done in time to catch the early electrichki. I cross the street to look for the only major thing I'm missing at this point - an ATM. There is an exchange center inside a building lobby, and an ATM. It doesn't look promising once I get close - a Visa machine, it has no Plus network sign. I try it anyway, and the first two times I try to enter the amount I want - it declines. Not good. The third time I check my balance - it comes up. This is a good sign, 3 times a charm? I try again for a withdrawal - this time with one of the pre-programmed amounts. It works. I do it twice more to get the same amount I had tried to enter by hand. It gives me the cash every time, no problem. Ok, so now I have the cash I need, and I notice a grocery store next door. I step in to check it out. I pick up a couple bottles of vino, and a couple other small items, and head back to the voksal. I try to find a kacca (ticket booth, pronounced like casa) for the electrichki, and they counter people chatter on without me understanding a bit of it, except that they have pointed in a direction and they are telling me somewhere in that direction. At first I think she is saying the ticket booth is farther down the way inside the train station.

After waiting on line in the next line down, I screw up my courage, and attempt to ask a couple of ladies standing in line with me where the electrichki kacca is. One of them gives me some words I understand - something about the ulnitza (street), and I think she uses the word for first - which I could not repeat, but have heard in class. So I head down the station towards the end they all pointed, and eventually discover that there is no exit this way. I ask at the last kacca, which looks different from the rest. Nope again. Once again, I get the pointing directions farther down. I walk back to the entrance area, passing the ladies I talked to and we do sign language for "out first, around, and then down that way", they nod and smile, and we all understand that I need to go out first. Which I do.

At the next building it is quite quiet. I ask the attendant at the kacca for the electrichki to Shchuch'ye. She says yes, but -- and it is a big and long "but", and I don't fathom a single word of it. Something about hours, but I am totally lost. I know she is saying something about an hour and a half or something. At the same time she has asked me for my ticket, and I'm bewildered, because I'm here to buy my ticket, and she has taken my money. She confers with another attendant and issues a little cash register receipt, which is something they always issue with the tickets anyway.

But we get back to the question of the hours. I have an idea that she is saying something about the departure time, because I say "electichki, ahdno minut", and she says nyet. I think the train is leaving in a couple of minutes but she says no. Am I too late? Is the train not on schedule? I don't have the faintest. I get out the Palm, and open up my memo with the schedule, and point to the 1835 departure time. She says da, and something about Moscva, and this is not the first time she has said something about Moscow. She points to a clock on the wall behind me. I look at it, and it says 4:25. Ok, no problem. And then I realize - it's not 4:25, it is 6:25! She has been telling me the electrichki departs on Moscow time! I say I understand - Moscow hours, da? Da. Khorosho (very good). And she tells me my schedule is wrong, the minutes are different from what I show. I still have an hour and a half, or two, to kill.

I call the camp to see if this will present a problem for the drivers - me getting in about 10:30 or 10:40 local time. Ludmilla is on the desk, and she checks. She will call me back, and she does so in about 3 minutes. No drivers, I will have to get a local taxi. The drivers will all be in Chelyabinsk. I ask her to get a telephone of a local taxi for me. She thinks this may be a problem, but agrees, and 10 minutes later I'm set up with a local driver to pick me up and drive back to the camp. There are no regular taxi companies in Shchuch'ye, so we must rely on "private" taxi service. Just some joe who is willing to make an extra buck. Plenty of that. I'm sure it is better to arrange this in advance. I could just take my chances on finding a car when I get in. But this way, at least somebody knows somebody.

I won't tell you how nervous I was about finding the right electrichki. The station has 9 platforms, and I'm supposed to find which one is the electrichki. Right, sure. I go back to the kacca, which now has a long line, and I may be running late, too. I ask the attendant which platform, she says nyet, and just keeps telling me "electrichki". Great. Now my inability to speak is definitely in the way. But I'm not making any progress standing here talking to the attendant, so I am off and back to the pedestrian overpass that feeds the platforms.

In the middle of this pedestrian way, I stop a man and ask him where the electrichki to Shchuch'ye is. He doesn't know, but looks around and finds a staircase down to a train that looks like an electrichki. So I head down, and do what some Russians have done with me - ask me if this is the train/bus/trolley to xxxx. As a matter of fact, it happened today in Shchuch'ye - a man asked me if this was the electrichki to Chelyabinsk. Da, da, I replied. So I'm doing the asking this time, and the guys I ask say da, this is the electrichki to -- and I don't know the town name they say. Later I will discover that this is the name of the town at the end of the line - past Shchuch'ye. At the time I was only slightly less nervous than before. On the one hand they said yes to my question, on the other hand, they were adding stuff that was totally confusing to me. I get on the train and ask a soldier there - mistake. He was playing a game on his phone, and was not happy about being interrupted. Aww, I feel so sorry for the poor boy. He gives me the same routine as the three guys having a cigarette did - says yes and then proceeds to muddy the issue by telling me the other town's name. I wait until he goes outside with his buddy for a cig, then ask the lady sitting across from the seat I have chosen. She also says yes to my question. I'm going to sit here and give it a go, I guess.

I have done worse, you know. One time in Ireland I missed my stop, and got off at the next station, only to discover that no train would be stopped there going back for two days on. It was close to freezing out, I wasn't dressed for the cold, and it was cold and raining. There were no taxis or cars or anything at that station, and I just had to go to the road and start walking to try and get back to where I was staying. Cars only passed me about once every 10 or so minutes. That night I eventually hitched a ride, but they weren't happy about it - they just felt like it was the right thing to do. I did get back, which was a good thing. Quite a few people say it is dangerous around here, in Russia, and I can see a few of those hard glances that indicate some hostility, but I know Ireland at that time was very dangerous in a situation such as I had found myself. I had to avoid religious conversation of any sort, and conversations were often directed to religion by the Irish I met. It would have been easy that night to have gotten into trouble. A mean drunk, or someone in a bad mood. Their economy has improved since then, and I think their temper has improved along with it.

However, if this train did not go to Shchuch'ye, I would be in another situation like that time in Ireland. Once we are finally underway, the conductor announces that Traktorstroy is the next stop, and I am more confident. I was still nervous about it, and continued to be so until we actually arrived in Shchuch'ye. There was a route schema on the wall of the car, and I looked at it and studied it for a bit. That was when I learned that the town name I had heard earlier was the last stop for the train, and thus probably the name of the electrichki route.

When we arrived in Shchuch'ye, there were lots of people and cars. A "taxi for hire" man approached me. I asked his name, but it wasn't the name Ludmilla had given me, so I told him I had a car. At the parking lot I see a white Toyota, which is what I was expecting, and the driver next to it smiles when he sees me as though I have fit a description he has heard. Good. I ask his name, it is the right name. Vamanos, folks, let's go! Home, back to the camp.

We pass a few sentences back and forth. He lives in this apartment building, etc. The Toyota model name (Speedster?), and some other small talk. Very small talk, but it is more than in the past.

It was a wonderful evening. I had a successful shopping trip, and managed to completely escape the camp environment for long enough to accomplish several things on my own. When I wake up the next morning I feel like I have had a weekend already, not like I need 3 more days off. Khorosho.