Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Daddy, why are there so many people and cars?

Well, we're back from a taste of the big city. Not too long, but long enough to get some work done. OK, fine - we did have a bit of a break there too!

One of the things we needed to take care of was to get the boys new passports, as theirs are about to expire. Fortunately, the US embassy is located near the new Wendy's, so we stopped by for a taste of the US of A.

I took a picture of the cashiers' line to post, as it has to be the only Wendy's in the world with beer on tap, but it didn't turn out so you get this one instead. Swanky, no?

Unfortunately, we ran out of "family" tasks pretty early and then it was all language consulting for yours truly. The lovely Bobbie didn't have to do that, so she spent her days taking the boys out to play on all the wonderful non-glass-covered playgrounds! It did rain quite a bit while we were there so Matthew had to learn how to use an umbrella.

Our anniversary (yeah for 9 wonderful years!) is actually today, but we celebrated while we were there. And don't let anyone ever tell you that my wife is not a cheap date (Burger King was closed so we settled for Mickey D's).

Actually, we had babysitters for the evening, so for our date we went shopping. There are lots of things that are simply unavailable in T-land, so we stocked up. Honestly, we probably could get some of this here, but for more than double what we paid in Moscow, so it was worth doing it there and bringing it back. Check it out - Worcestershire sauce, saran wrap, curry, couch pillows: quite a haul!

Bobbie was lucky enough to get to hang out with friends quite a bit. I did see them in meetings and in between them, but it was hit and miss for me. Woe is me, in other words.

Actually, we did have quite a good time getting to catch up with a lot of our old friends from when we lived there. Steven loved our friends' guinea pig!

And it was another friend's birthday, so Bobbie went crazy and baked a cake with mint chocolate and coffee icing woven together.

Yet another picture of some of our friends getting together at the guest apartment we stayed in.

Alas, all good things must come to an end and eventually it was time to go home.

We opted for the train as 1) we were overweight for a flight and 2) it was less than half price and we were running out of cash.
Here we are getting ready to board the train.

The way to save money is to ride 2nd class, called "platscart" in Russian. That means we didn't get a private room (called "coupe"), but instead each had bunks along an open corridor.

At first it was lots of fun, and the boys were SO excited (they love trains).

Around day 2 it started to get tedious, and the reality of being cooped up in a small space (with one chance per day to get out at a stop and run for 5 minutes before going back in) started to sink in.

By the last day they were running out of ways to entertain themselves and started to try Mommy and Daddy's way.

Finally, after 4 nights and 3 days, we made it. Well, we made it to a nearby city, anyway, and then we just had the taxi ride home:

We did get home in the end (and it's as beautiful here as ever, as you can see above). We're very grateful for His provision for our trip, and that we got here safely. I'm not feeling great, but we have a busy week this week (trying to resubmit some documentation for our organization, getting the boys' visas put in their new passports, and the boys are also starting kindergarten).

We'd like to thank you all for thinking of us while we were traveling, and to ask for you to continue as we get back to work!
Thanks for stopping by, and we'll see you again next week (we have a couple of posts saved up from before our trip, so we definitely have things to post - perhaps you'll get to see the T method of slaughtering goats?).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


So, this is just a brief post to say that we're about to get on one of these:

For a trip along part of this route:

And at some point, after 4 nights of travel, we get to the end of the line. From there we get to take a 5-hour drive home. And THEN we'll update the blog.


Friday, August 5, 2011

Milk Lake

So, last week we had a whole-family adventure to one lake to tell you about, and then this week I've been up to a lake with a bunch of T guys on a combination fishing-hunting adventure. I know that our lives must seem a lot more exciting in the summers than the winters, and that's because they are - the winters are so long and so harsh that when the weather gets nice people make up for it with a frenzy of work and activity!

But without further ado, because this is going to be a long post anyway, let's get into exactly what went down, mostly through the medium of pictures:

We left early one morning, after having postponed our trip a couple of times for various reasons (flexibility is absolutely key for people in our line of work). Anyway, we eventually did get on the road, and started immediately learning about T culture. The mountain above is apparently white because it was cursed a long time ago. It seems that a shaman had a spiritual duel with the spirit of the mountain (rough translation, but that's the general concept) and lost, and subsequently died. His mother put a curse on the mountains in revenge, and they've been the only white rocks around ever since.

A bit further down the road we stopped at a Buddhist holy place, where our friends will typically add a few rocks to the cairn. They are usually decorated with prayer flags of many colors (which color you put up for yourself is determined by a lama according to the astrological calendar of your birthday).

Here's something I need more information on, though - my friend got out a small container of powder and lit it on fire and walked the smoke around the car. I asked about it and was told it was for "protection," though I'm not sure of much else beyond that. These trips are great chances to get into the culture and really see so much of the things that the people believe but just don't think to tell you about unless you ask.

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful, and we arrived at the town where my buddy's uncle and aunt live. Along the way they pointed out a familiar (well, not to me personally, but some of you in the US can probably identify it) weed growing wild along the roadside. Of course, this was just for photographic purposes and I threw it away immediately thereafter - honest, officer!

Eventually, we got to the jumping off point for our hike. Now, I didn't mention it, but Milk Lake is quite remote. In fact, it might be one of the most remote places in the world. It's hard enough to get to our town, but to get to the lake you need another several hours in a 4-wheel drive vehicle and then a lengthy and difficult hike.

Here we're looking up at the imposing mountains. My friends with a sense of anticipation, me, the overweight foreigner, with a sense of increasing dread. I was only later to discover that the mountains here were just the foothills; we had to get past them to see the real mountains, which were perhaps twice as high. And we had to climb over them to get to the lake.

Anyway, my friend's ever-reliable Lada broke down for the trillionth time, leaving us without a starter for the remainder of the trip. Which was no big deal on that day, as we were going to walk anyway. On the way back it meant every time we stopped for gas or food we had to push start the lousy thing.

They loaded up most of the gear onto a pack pony and then busted out the vodka and cigarettes (clearly, you don't want to be hiking into the mountains without being mildly drunk and wheezing from lung damage).

At the beginning it was rather nice. It was a beautiful day, and I had no idea how far we were going, so it was just a pleasant walk.

The trail gradually grew steeper, and much more difficult. This is me about a quarter of the way up the hill, already drenched in sweat.

We wound our way along this ridge for quite a while, before finally leaving the river to climb straight up to the top.

This is looking back down the way we came; at this point we were probably a third of the way up the mountain, which is behind us and is considerably higher than those in the picture.

After that the pictures are few - I was too tired to get the camera out. At one point, on the point of total exhaustion, my legs were wobbling even when I was sitting down and I was beginning to feel like that triathlete that started to wobble and collapsed a few meters short of the finish. I literally wasn't sure I could go another 100 meters, and I sat down and told the guys that. For the 5th time, they said we were "almost there," and so I made up my mind to go another 100 paces. Fortunately, the cabin we spent the night in was only 103 away (it was right over the rise).

Once there we collapsed and dragged out some bread and sardines for a delicious supper. I reckon we walked 8-9 hours, entirely uphill that day.

The next morning we got up for the short downhill walk to the lake. We came up on the other three guys who were meeting us there (they had ridden in on horseback) waiting at the cabin:

That started off the really enjoyable part of the trip - 3 days just hanging out at the lake, hunting, fishing, eating, just generally enjoying the company of the guys.

This is how T people set up the food part at the campsite; it's rather ingenious, but it means that all they're going to cook is soup. For breakfast, lunch, and supper.

So, if you come for a visit, I hope you like this, because you're not getting anything else:

I will admit that I got a bit crafty after getting utterly sick and tired of overcooked (to my sensibilities; obviously every culture is different in its tastes) noodles and boiled mutton after three days. I volunteered to make the soup so the guys could go hunting, and cut myself off a couple of chunks of goat to roast over the fire. It needed a bit of salt, but after everything else, it tasted totally delicious!

Most of the meat supplementing our diet of noodle soup, however, came from fish. Before leaving we bought a couple of 40-meter nets and one 80-meter one, which were a headache to set up.

Eventually we got them out, tied to floating bottles, and in the right place. After a day of practice/learning where the best spots were, we were hauling in loads every morning. The fish just swim up and get stuck in the nets, so there's no involvement from the fishermen other than knowing where to put it.

We caught stacks like this every morning. After a while, we started salting them to keep for later, because we couldn't eat them all. The name of the fish is "Belyat," and if you know Russian you can probably recognize that it sounds quite similar to a common oath if pronounced a certain way. Well, that joke became the running gag for the whole time we were there; there was rarely a mention of fish without someone coming up with some obscene reference, followed by a lot of giggling.

I know you'll think this one looks delicious - fish intestines and roe, fried up with a few bits of onion. I can take most anything, but I only managed to swallow a small spoon of this and then pretended I wasn't hungry.

The other major food was pine nuts, though not so much for its sustenance as for the fact that it gave us something to do with our downtime, which, this being a vacation, was extensive. Here we're coming back from a hunt in the woods for pinecones. These are not the kind you see lying on the ground in the forest in the US; by the time they fall from the tree naturally they are long past having any nuts left. You have to find them much earlier in the year, when they're still attached to the tree, and shake them down.

As these two fine gentlemen demonstrate, the next step is to put them onto the fire (this toasts the nuts and also cooks out the sap; you can eat them raw but it's a very sticky operation). You can also start up a nice bowl of tea to drink with the nuts if you like.

Eventually you end up with the thing at the top of my hand. You can pull out the seeds, which look like the thing on the lower left. You crack that open to get the actual edible nut, as shown at lower right. Obviously, this is waaaay more labor than the tiny bit of food is actually worth, but it's quite a good flavor, and, as I said, gives you something to do.

The T drink a particular kind of strong tea, called simply "black tea," when out in the woods. To make it, take a bowl and put about 2 cups of loose tea leaves in. They should almost fill the bowl. Then, pour boiling water in, about 2 cups worth, and let it steep for 5 minutes. Then pour it back and forth from a cup a few times, then strain and drink.

You can only drink about two sips, it's so strong, so they make one cup for the whole camp. Everyone takes a sip or two, then passes it along. It's very bitter, but has loads of caffeine and will wake you up and give you lots of energy to get your morning started when it's cold.

Of course, when you're in the woods you can't forget "sat" (pronounced "saht"), which is just sap that is from one of the species of pine. You chew it - it's actually quite good, but don't forget to spit it out when the sun goes down or you will cause your mother to have liver problems.

That's about it for food. Not too varied, really. Mostly we sat around and debated whether or not to go hunting, or where to go, etc. There were two other people on the lake, a couple of guys who had managed to get their Jeep to the far side of the lake where there was a semi-road, and they were fishing in an inflatable raft.

They came over to our camp for a visit, and the guy on the left totally discouraged me with my progress in the language. He asked me several things, which I didn't understand and had to have him repeat, finally getting disgusted and saying "You don't speak T at all! I'm not even going to bother." Which was not what I was hoping for. I guess I need to learn to shrug things like that off, but it really did get me down a bit.

That was about it, really. The rest of the time was just spent sitting around chatting, eating pine nuts. I went on a brief foray around to get some pictures, but nothing too exciting happened then either.

One of the guys, drunk during the early days when the supply of vodka hadn't run dry yet, told me that "we can stay up here for 5 days or so, what do you think?" Which had me worried, as I had been drinking dodgy water and hoping that giardia wouldn't hit and that I wouldn't run out of my meager toilet paper supply.

But I needn't have worried. Cigarettes proved to be the limiting factor. Everyone smoked, and I even caught them all catching one last smoke before bed one night:

Sure enough, three days in, the last cigarette was gone. And, just like that, we had to leave. This man even went around the final morning, finding old cigarette butts and cutting them open for their meager supplies. One of the nearby abandoned cabins had an old notebook, which gave him something to wrap it in, and he made a large homemade cigarette for them all to get that last bit of nicotine before we set off.

Eventually we packed up and hit the trail. I was a bit worried about the way down, not quite so much as I had been coming up but it was still a long hike.

Remember those "imposing" mountains at the beginning of our hike up? That's them way down below us.

I threw this picture in just so my horse-riding friends Martha and Rachael can imagine riding their horses down this slope through the boulders. Very tricky footing, this, as under the grass the rock is very uneven. and you can't see it.

Eventually we got nearer the base of the mountains, and emerged onto the plain. I don't know if you can see it, but almost directly in the middle of this picture, way in the distance, is the town we need to walk to. At this point we're still a good two hour walk away, but you can see for a long ways.

One of the best moments of the trip was this river. It stands just outside the town where we were headed, and I wondered why we didn't call someone to come get us and our stuff and ferry us upstream to the bridge a few miles away.

Instead, they opted to take our pants and shoes off and put everything on our heads and just walk it across. It ended up being fantastic; after 8 hours hiking in the hot sun, I put my stuff on the far bank and went back in for a swim. A and A-K here joined me and it was fantastic - the cool water on our aching, hot feet felt unbelievable!

Eventually, triumphant, we walked into town.

And normally you'd think that's where the adventure ended. So did I, really, when, the next day, we got within two hour's drive of our home city. But then this happened:

This, for those of you not familiar with Russian cars, is the axle. And no, it's not supposed to be in two pieces.

Obviously time to call a tow truck, I thought. No, as it turns out, it's time to see who your real friends are. We did have one bar of signal, so we called all of A's friends to see who could go, buy us the part we need, and then come get it to us so we could fix the car.

None came, so I called my trusty coworker David and his Beast, which won't go into 4th gear, and he made the slow trip out. Now, I want you to imagine for a moment that you break down in the desert. Not just break down, but have your axle somehow break in half. Would you consider an axle replacement job along the side of the road?

Of course not! You'd have to have your head examined! But that's exactly what we did. It took several hours, but a lot of whacking and pinched fingers and tired muscles and sunburns (well, just me for that one) later, we were back on the road (again, after a push start, because the starter still didn't work).

Finally got home that night at 9-ish, I think, and I've never been so happy to see my family, or a shower, in all my life.

I took more pictures of the scenery, so I think I'll do like we did last time and just put up a separate post here on that. Enjoy, and thanks for visiting. See you again next week-ish, by which time we should have another post up.