Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Out in the country - Walking and stargazing

Walked into Chumlyak tonight. stopped at the store(s). Stopped at the first store for the first time in a while. One of the attendants recognized me, and I her. We swapped hellos, and how are yous. I asked for my beer, bread and pelmeni in Russian, then bought a glass bowl just pointing and saying "this", and a brush for my shoes in the same way. They have no dry red wine, so I visit the "new" store. Svetlana, one of the attendants, is there. We say hello and exchange greetings. My slightly expanded Russian is going over well. Here I get pelmini - the old store didn't have any, and dry red wine.
The walk is a good one, and helps to keep me in some fitness. The stars tonight are very bright - as the moon is rising late. They were magnificent last night too. I have picked out more than a few constellations. After I get back I have dinner, and then head back out onto the lake to identify as many constellations as I can. I can see Orion low in the south - I haven't seen him since I got here. In the opposite direction I see the swan, and Vega is bright. There is some fog, and a enough light pollution that I cannot see the constellation that Vega is in. I can find the Pleiades, and the V of Taurus with Aldebaran. If I'm looking at the chart, I can find Perseus, and the Charioteer, but I can't find them without the chart. It is an excellent night for stargazing. It is interesting though, which stars are clearly visible here, and others which are not. At home it seems like I can usually find the bull, but finding Pegasus and the Great Square is a real chore. Finding the swan is usually hard, but not here and not tonight.
I am out on the lake, and the night noises are spooky, and frightening. There is an occasional groan - sounding like a big seal, but there are no seals here. A coughing sound - like a large cat - but there are not supposed to be large cats around here. Although it is pitch dark because there is no moon, the latent libido from the snow still allows me to see, and the lake presents a clear view into a little ways off. After a while of finding constellations, I head back to camp. An excellent night to find the stars and constellations, but it is getting colder, and the noises are spooky.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Ekaterineburg first impressions

Ekaterineburg is a very pretty city, much more attractive than Chelyabinsk. Lots of churches, pretty buildings, new shops. I find it very attractive, and very unlike Chelyabinsk. Chelyabinsk is just an ugly city. Just can't seem to get around that.

One man, when I told him this impression, asked if it was because Chelyabinsk was more "Soviet" style. Nope, not that at all. All the cities over here are remarkably similar architecturally. Chelyabinsk is just an uglier version of an old Pittsburgh or Cincinnatti. It is dirty and ugly in an industrial way. Too many Soviet era apartment blocks, fewer Stalin-era older stuff, very dirty air.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

On board, Kazan to Ekaterineburg

12:12 Moscow time.
I am on board train 328, Kazan to Ekaterineburg (Sverdlosk). This was a major solo effort, but all went smoothly, and Tatiana's help lingered on. In Cheboksary, waiting for the bus, she asked a young man, a fellow passenger, to help me in Kazan. He was not only gracious enough to help me find the voksal, he tried to find the platform number. We chased to 3 locations to get that, only to discover they wouldn't post the platform until the train arrived. He refused payment. This was just graciousness to a stranger.
I go by myself to the kacca to upgrade my ticket from "platzkart" - or "the back of the bus, son". The transaction actually manages to flow. I ask to confirm that this ticket is platzkart and the attendant confirms. I ask to upgrade - and here it gets confusing. The attendant rattles out a few sentences - which mostly slip past me. I think there may have been something about 400 something but it could have been 400 thousand, or 400 nothing. She didn't say nyet, or ni, so bull forward with a simple "Da".
I guess folks don't upgrade often. She isn't sure if it can be done - she fetches a supervisor. The supervisor calmy looks and must be saying "Ah, yes, of course we can do this - just fill out this form for the gentleman's ticket, and make sure you make the correct entry over there." Some things are truly universal. The attendant has to stamp the old ticket - but her ink has gone dry. Guess she doesn't use it much. Now she has to go and fetch a fresh pad.
She also needs a new form, and retrieves a handful of forms, as well. She has to fill one out by hand, as her computer system will not handle the upgrade. This takes, o, about a quarter of an hour or so. Glad I'm not in a hurry. But we get it done, and now it is almost time for my train's arrival.
I return to the waiting area. The young gentleman who helped me from the gazelle bus asked
one of the waiting room attendants to help me find the right platform. When she sees me return from the ticket kacca, she stands, and comes out from her booth. Guiding me outside, she points, with a few words, to the open stairway system that accesses the platforms. Then she delivers a short speech - out of which I get "3", and I think "third". I'm betting on "three", because the train arrival/departure board said 3 next to my train number.
Up the stairs, down the stairs for platform 3. Aha! Platform attendants! What luck! As quickly as I can say the words, which amounts to a very slow deliberative delivery, I ask in Russian if this is the train from Kazan to Ekaterineburg. "Da" is the answer. Then I go for confirmation by starting to ask if this is train "328". One of the attendants is less patient, and hurries things along by blurting out the train number, which just happens to be 328. Khorosho, very good. Then I play the same game with the car number to find my car, and once again I am successful.
I find my car and present my ticket to the attendant, but she is not at all sure about the manual ticket. It is as though this is a mysterious new thing that is incomprehensible. I try to explain that I had platzkart, but wanted kupe. I think she understands, but at least she waves me on board. On the way to my compartment she sells me some bed linens, and points out the location of the toilet. Very nice, and I'm grateful to find that I have the compartment to myself. I have successfully upgraded to kupe, or 2nd class, with 4 berths to a compartment. Halellujah, and I make myself at home.
3:23 PM - Moscow time
Dusk has been overtaking day for some time now. The woods have the chiarrusco beauty of all northern woods at this point of daylight - enough dim light to see the woods and the trees, contrasted and sharpened by the starkness of the white snow.
It has been snowing off and on for much of the day - small amounts really. As the dark takes over, I believe I see it snowing again. This is a huge country of plains and very low, rolling hills. Elevation changes of a few hundred feet are an extreme. Still, if is beautiful. Around Kazan the architecture varied from other places I've seen yet. A little more originality - patterns in the brickwork, etc. than other places. Perhaps what I'm seeing is post-soviet era. Kazan has a huge, ancient fortress that I glimpse as we drive by. It looks like it would be very interesting to visit.
I see a great deal of Middle Eastern and Arabic influence here. Cheboksary and the Chuvash Republic had more Mongol influence in their history. All of this is reflected in the facial features as I travel. The book store at the voksal has the Koran, whereas in Cheboksary and other locations, I've seen the Orthodox icons and the like.
Somewhere between Cheboksary and Kazan we pass through a small city that has the normal Stalin and Soviet era block buildings, and something more. The something more is two story, log construction, block apartment buildings. I will guess that they contain between 8 and sixteen units in the typical Russian style apartment architecture - multiple entrances, etc. They are huge for log construction, small for apartment complexes here. Just as blocky as the rest, just smaller. I imagine they are quite old. It looks like heating was from fireplaces originally, as some have multiple chimneys. Many appear to be still possibly occupied, although it is hard to tell. Only a few look abandoned. I imagine with some work they could become very nice duplex or 4-plex units. It would probably have to be careful, caring construction, though, and it probably wouldn't be worth the expense. Who knows?
6:00PM Moscow time
We stop somewhere with a hyphenated name. I get out for a breath of air, and a loaf of bread. Another passenger boards to share my compartment. Younger than me, probably in her 30's, a Russian. She seems, not quiet, but not wishing to be talkative. Ok with me. She is clean and well-groomed, attractive. So sharing is no skin off my nose.
I bought the loaf of bread in a magazine at this small voksal. I thought it was white, so I asked for temnui (dark), but she said this was all she had. Later, when I cut it - I was pleasantly surprised. It was a light wheat - not a white - bread, and it was very fresh. I used it and the smoked venison from last night's dinner to make a sandwich.
At one of the stops a young man comes in to panhandle - a sob story, although it sounds like a sob and honor story (I spent 10 years in the service, I was in Afghanistan, whatever, you get the idea). I don't understand a word, and I don't think I have to. He is persistent even though I tell him I don't speak Russian. The other passenger says "English", and otherwise ignores him. Eventually the conductor comes by. She speaks to him and he wastes no time in clearing out.
Things are quiet as we get under weigh. We sleep. There are a couple of stops in the night. My compartment companion gets off an hour or so out of Sverdlosk. If you haven't guessed by now, I've figured out that the trains are still calling Ekaterineburg "Sverdlosk". It is Sverdlosk on the ticket, and on exiting the voksal, it is Sverdlosk Voksal in 10 foot tall letters. This might have more than a little to do with why I couldn't find trains on the RZD.ru site into or out of Ekaterineburg. I needed to use Sverdlosk.