Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Khosheutovsky Khurul

Flags on the windows of Khosheutovsky Khurul, our main destination on this day

Our second day in Astrakhan began with a 5 A.M. wake-up call for an early morning departure. Luckily, sunrise is around 4:30 a.m. here in Kalmykia where there is no Daylight Savings Time, so it was actually pretty easy to get up at that early hour. Saying our goodbyes to Arslan's mother, we picked up Valeriy and were on the road by quarter to six.

We drove south into Astrakhan oblast and through fields where watermelons were being grown. Arslan and Valeriy frequently pointed out villages that used to be inhabited by Kalmyks; this area was part of Kalmykia before the 1943 deportation.

We had heard conflicting reports about whether the ferry across the Volga was running due to the high spring water level. If we had traveled a month earlier, in April, there would have been no problem taking the ferry across the river and back at any number of places, cutting the travel time substantially. As it was, about an hour south of Tsagan-Aman we turned off the road at the village of Zamyany and found the ferry to be operating. We took our place at the head of the line and waited for the scheduled departure at 8 A.M.

The trip across the river was uneventful but fun--there's nothing I like more than a good ferry trip (seriously, we took five on our honeymoon through Atlantic Canada). On the eastern shore of the river we drove over rutted roads and through a still-functioning collective farm to the village of Rechnoe to see Khosheutovsky Khurul [ho-SHOOT-uv-ski hoo-rool]

Khosheutovsky Khurul is the only pre-Soviet khurul still standing in Russia (as a reminder, khurul is the Kalmyk word for temple). It was started in 1814 to honor the Kalmyks who fought and died in the 1812 war against Napoleon. The khurul was designed to bring together elements of east and west; an image of the temple in the 19th century is linked here. During the Soviet period, the temple was partially destroyed; only the main building still stands.

We walked around the outside of the temple, admiring the extensive restoration that has been undertaken in the past decade. We also conducted a Buddhist offertory ritual on the banks of the Volga, burning a fire of apple wood and offering food and drink--all of which was white--to the gods. The white symbolizes purity - rice, milk, vodka...

Smoke from the fire blew uphill toward the khurul, visible in the distance.

Arslan drove us all across Kalmykia, northern Astrakhan oblast, and the city of Volgograd.

We had hoped to go inside the temple and before arriving in Rechnoe it seemed promising. However, upon arriving we were told that the guard who has the key had left town (it was a holiday weekend). So, instead of going inside I had a good, long look through the windows. The decoration is simple, with a statue of the Buddha, rows of benches, a wood floor, and walls painted light blue.

Valeriy left some colored ribbons sent along by his mother.

Flags near the temple, and a resident's painted garage

After the letdown of not going inside the khurul, we decided to press on to other sites in Astrakhan oblast. Like Kalmykia, the land here is dry steppe, but not so flat as most of the Kalmyk region. We were close to the border between Russia and Kazakhstan here.

About an hour from Khosheutovsky Khurul we stopped at Batu Saray, a reconstruction of the seat of Batu Khan made for the film The Horde (Russia, 2012). This is what I would call a Russian tourist trap. There were multiple vendors selling kitschy things at the entrance to the reconstruction. We took a few photos, but not having seen the movie the site had little meaning. I was partially ensnared in the trap, though, opting for a quick camel ride above the river. This was something that Mackenzie had done earlier in the trip.

As you look at the photos below, keep in mind that this is all a movie set! None of this is original, and we're not even sure if it accurately reflects what might have been here at one time.

After a short walk around the complex, we continued on to Volgograd--formerly Stalingrad--the site of most important battle on the eastern front in World War II. I had been here before, in March 2010, and visited the famous Motherland is Calling statue and memorial complex on Mamaev Kurgan. The 2018 soccer World Cup will be held in Russia, and Volgograd is one of the cities where the games will be played. They are building a brand new soccer stadium on the banks of the river just down the hill from the statue. It was a park when I was here in 2010.

A little difficult to get a photo from the car, here's the Motherland statue watching over the construction of the new soccer stadium.

We topped the day off with a visit to Russian McDonald's. No frorks in sight! But they do have delicious milkshakes and french fries.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Tsagan-Aman and the Volga River

Since returning from Dagestan, I have been working on conducting interviews and gathering information on Buddhism in the Soviet period from the republic's archive.

Tsagan-Aman is one of the places that stands out in this research. It's a small town on the banks of the Volga River--the only Volga River town in a 13-km "finger" of riverfront territory that is part of the Republic of Kalmykia. Other river lands that used to be part of the Kalmyks' territory were given to Astrakhan oblast after the group's deportation in 1943 and not returned when the Kalmyks were officially rehabilitated by the Soviets in 1957.

During the Soviet period, Tsagan-Aman was home to a man named Ochir Mandzhievich Dorzhiev (also known as Tugmuid Gavdzhi), one of the few practicing monks in the Kalmyk republic at that time. People traveled from all around to visit him and seek his guidance; when Valeriy was a few months old he was sick, and his parents brought him to see Tugmuid Gavdzhi to be cured. 

We traveled to Tsagan-Aman with Valeriy and his relative Arslan. The drive took three hours over the beloved Kalmyk roads--well, more a direction than a road. When we arrived, we were treated to a home-cooked meal of fried fish and tomato salad at Arslan's mom's house and then went to the khurul to meet the local lama.

He was quite a character, dressed in an embroidered maroon silk robe over sweat pants. The Friday service was still in progress when we arrived, so we took off our shoes and sat on the low benches as the monk chanted the names of the deceased relatives of the locals (written on scraps of paper for him to reference). After the service, we had a chance to meet privately with the lama; we talked about everything from Buddhism in the Soviet Union to U.S. police officers to the mosquitoes on the Volga in June.

The khurul at Tsagan-Aman

A close-up of the khurul's entryway

A view of the khurul through its gates

Dorzhiev's house at Tsagan-Aman. It was originally built in Astrakhan--a large city at the mouth of the Volga about 100 km downstream from Tsagan-Aman. At some point during the 1960s it was taken apart and rebuilt here.

The temple sits only about 100 meters from the Volga River. While the lama met with other visitors after the Friday service, we walked over to take in the view:

A panoramic view of the Volga at Tsagan-Aman

Upon returning to the temple, we were treated to a long and lively meeting with the lama that included tea and lunch. During lunch his pet peacock repeatedly interrupted us with a loud call and a cocky display of plumage from just outside his window. We were not allowed to record the monk's words or take his photo, so you'll just have to imagine it!

After saying goodbye, we made a quick stop at Dorzhiev's grave in the town's cemetery. Inside the domik (small grave house) we burned incense to honor his spirit - and to mask the odor of the rotting food offerings left behind by previous visitors.

The small house that was built around Dorzhiev's grave

The surrounding cemetery was also of interest. Each grave (or family plot) was surrounded by a low metal fence to demarcate the plot. The fences and graves are not on a grid but rather built at odd angles here and there, all facing in the same general direction.

To finish off another long day of travel, we were offered a boat ride along the river with Arslan and his friend, Sasha Gromko ("Loud Sasha"). I have a feeling that the nickname is intended to be ironic...

Loud Sasha and his boat

On the river with Arslan and Loud Sasha

Looking back towards Tsagan-Aman and the Khurul from the river

Representing the U of A and keeping warm

The Volga River is a popular destination for fisherman. They come and stay at all-inclusive resorts called tur-bazi (tour bases). There's a wide range in terms of quality and price--some cater towards rich clients from Moscow, while others are aimed at locals. Loud Sasha works at one of these tour bases, where rates for room and board run about 2,000 RR per person/per day (about $35 USD).

One of the more upscale tourist bases along the Volga

We ended our boat ride back at the jetty where the river level was high thanks to spring run-off further upstream. The watershed of the Volga River is vast; the river drains much of Russia's historic core and into western Siberia.

The Buddhist manta "Om Mani Padme Hum" is half-covered by the high river

The capper for the night was beer, vodka, and snacks out of a car trunk along the banks of the Volga River. I think this is a popular activity, as we weren't the only group and the police did a slow drive-by. The weather was perfect, the company was good, and the view was spectacular. Mackenzie said that her favorite moments of the trip have involved eating and drinking next to large bodies of water--first the Caspian Sea (see Dagestan: Day 3) and now the Volga River. 

The sun setting over the Volga
After the sun has set over the Volga

A candid of drinking adult beverages out of a car trunk
Siberian Corona is the least-worst beer in Russia - a ringing endorsement

After our "picnic," Valeriy went out to meet an old friend who now lives in Tsagan-Aman, and Mackenzie and I enjoyed another delicious meal at Arslan's mom's house. Homemade berigi (dumplings) are delicious after a long day--I recommend picking some up if you have the chance. After good food and good conversation, it was off to bed in preparation for an early-morning departure the next day. 

From right to left: Arslan, his mother, his son, and his sister

Our quarters at Arslan's mom's house

Monday, May 15, 2017

Russian Potato Chips

When we first arrived in Russia, I was expecting to see no American products here because of the sanctions. However, we've since learned that many American and European brands have factories in Russia whose production is not limited by sanctions.

As a result, we've been able to get at least some of the foods and products we buy in America, although some taste or perform slightly different. For example, Coca Cola is made with real sugar here - not corn syrup - but the taste is pretty close to American Coke. Sprite, on the other hand, tastes awful here in Russia. 

One of the brands I was so thankful to find here in Russia is Lay's potato chips. I am definitely a "salty tastes" person, preferring french fries, potato chips, pickles, etc to sweets. Life without potato chips could hardly be called life at all, in my opinion. And besides potato chips, the salty snack option here is dried calamari or canned fish (insert "yuck" emoji face here).

The potato chip flavors here in Russia, however, differ fairly significantly from the flavors in the United States. There is some overlap, like the Original flavor and Sour Cream & Chives (the flavor we buy most often), but that's about it. 

Some flavors are not quite tailored to our American tastes, like Crab; Bacon; and Cheese. The cheese flavored chips have the color and flavor of cheese-flavored microwave popcorn, so not really my jam. 

And then there are some flavors we would just never consider, like these:

Not Lay's, but interesting flavors nonetheless.

One of the things that has kept me busy here in Russia is watching YouTube videos of people testing products. Some of them are pretty entertaining. So I decided I wanted to make a video where we taste some of these interesting potato chip flavors for the first time on camera and give our reactions. 

Although Ted agreed to participate, I don't think his heart was truly in it because he opened the bag of Lobster-flavored chips and ate them before it was time for our video recording, murdering my vlogging dreams! That may have been my biggest melt-down in Russia so far, which gives you an idea of the hyper-sensitive emotional state I am currently living in. 

Yes, they truly taste like shellfish.

Anyway, we were at the store today and saw that there were two new flavors on the shelf! Argentinian Ribs and Italian Focaccia. Perhaps these flavors have been released in the U.S. as well, but I couldn't find anything online about that so we're going to taste them for you here in our first ever vlog post (video + blog = vlog)! 

(Sorry for the shoddy camera work - I don't know why our point-and-shoot kept trying to focus and refocus during our shoot.)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Dagestan: Day 5

Sarykum and the Sulak Canyon

Eldar saved the best for last! On our final full day in Dagestan our driver Makhach took us up into the mountains to view the Sulak River Canyon. We had heard about this canyon several times already - how it's just a little bit deeper than the celebrated Grand Canyon of the United States. Though I've never visited the Grand Canyon, Ted did when he was much younger. He says that all he remembers from that trip is his oldest brother making him touch a nasty moth! Hahahahaha...

So, although we don't have adequate experience with the Grand Canyon to make a comparison, we can attest that the Sulak Canyon is truly a sight to behold. But first, we made a stop at another interesting Dagestan natural area:  the Sarykum sand dune in the Dagestan Nature Reserve, not far from Makhachkala.

Like the wild tulips in Kalmykia, red poppies were in bloom everywhere in Dagestan!

Sarykum is the highest sand dune in Europe. We could see it from the main road as we approached the nature reserve. It took us a few tries to get the correct dirt track off the main road to lead us to the dune, but after a couple do-overs we finally found the right path and arrived at the base of the dune.

At the base of the dune there are a couple crumbling buildings that were fun to explore, including the original train depot for this area. 

Inside the old depot

In addition to the old buildings, there are some newer buildings that make up a small retreat where school groups and camps can come to be in and learn about nature (I presume). 

There was a group of kids there at the same time as us, one of whom showed me a bat he had caught under the old train depot. Eek!

Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

In addition to the bat, the camp also housed several birds and other animals, including a domesticated deer, a cat, a goat, several peacocks, an owl, an eagle, and a vulture. 

A boardwalk has been built up to the base of the dune, where there is a small nature center installed to teach visitors about the geology, ecosystems, and animals of the surrounding area. Here we are posing with a scale model of the sand dune and with the cousin of our University of Arkansas razorback hog.

Photo shared by Eldar Eldarov

Woo Pig Sooie!

After checking out the nature center, we walked up to the viewing tower at the end of the boardwalk. It looks like the boardwalk is under construction to extend further up the sand dune, so maybe we'll get to walk up further on a future visit!

Lower viewing deck

Upper viewing tower

This sand dune reminded Ted and me of a trip we took years ago to the Great Sand Dunes National Park in south-western Colorado. If you can't make it to Sarykum in Dagestan, we highly recommend the dunes in Colorado! There's even a hot springs with a water slide nearby...

Photo credit: Bela Eldarova

New boardwalk being constructed

View from the base of the dune looking back toward the nature center and the foothills of the Caucuses

Despite the chilly weather, we had a nice time exploring the natural area and buildings around the sand dune. This was just a quick stopover on our main excursion to the Sulak River, however, so after about an hour we got back in the car and continued on our way!

Our approach to the Sulak Canyon was quite impressive, as you can see from the photos. As we made our way up the mountain, we stopped at a hydro-electric power plant for our first view of the Sulak River. The river is an amazing cloudy turquoise color - a result of the minerals in the mountains.

You can see the power lines stretching from the plant below to the towers above us.

That stop was just an appetizer, though. We got back in the car and followed the road until it ended, at which point we followed a dirt path until that ended, at which point our driver took us right up to the edge of the canyon, which made our hearts pound pretty heavily! Our driver, Makhach [ma-HOTCH], realized how nervous us Americans were in the car, and he got a real kick out of scaring us half to death with his driving antics.

Our first view of the canyon; the hillside doesn't rise up on either side as it appears in the photo - that's just a result of the panorama distortion.

Makhach, beckoning us to come closer to the edge

I made Ted nervous by accepting Makhach's invitation to the edge!

And then Makhach went even further...

Isn't the water amazing? And the canyon itself, too! After this first glimpse of the canyon, we hopped back in our cars (Eldar's friend had joined us at the base of the mountains to act as our tour guide) and drover further up the hillside to another viewpoint.

We were almost higher than the clouds at this point.

A geographic marker at our second stop

A slightly different viewpoint - still beautiful!

At our second stop, Makhach picked me some wild flowers,
I think to make up for scaring me with his driving!

After we'd taken our fill of photos - scenery, selfies, group shots, etc - we drove to a small Soviet-era mountain village to eat lunch. Dubki ("Little Oaks") was built in the 1960s to house workers at the nearby Chirkey dam. It had all the feeling of a Soviet-era town, with standardized apartment buildings and a Lenin statue - supposedly one of the few in the former USSR with Lenin wearing a karakul

It was COLD in this village, high up in the April mountain air, but the villagers didn't seem bothered by it. I'm sure they must be used to it. We were let into an unheated school building to use the restrooms, then we spent a few minutes in the town square, looking around and taking photos. 

There was a small group of children hanging out, playing the Russian version of Rock, Paper, Scissors, competing to win each others' pogs. POGS! I haven't seen pogs since the 1990s. In Russian Rock, Paper, Scissors, the children use the syllables "oo-ee-fa" as they pound their fists. There's a rhythmic quality to it as the children did rapid-fire rounds while chanting "OO, EE, FA! OO, EE, FA! OO, EE, FA!"

As a funny side note... I couldn't remember the syllables the children were chanting as I was writing this, so I tried to search online for "Russian rock paper scissors." All the videos that popped up were some version of this: 

LOL! I ended up asking Eldar's daughter, Bela, to remind me of the chant - which she did - and I told her about the YouTube videos I found. Her response was priceless: "It's harsh Russian games, like winters..." Haha! Anyway, back to the mountain top village...

The Lenin statue in Dubki

For lunch, we entered a small shop where the table had been set with hot tea, pilmeni (dumplings), and blini-style pancakes filled with meat. The shop seemed to be a little-bit-of-everything store, with small home goods like bed sheets and glassware for sale alongside homemade sweets. I'm unclear about whether this shop usually serves meals like the one we ate, or if it was prepared specially for us. 

The 3 varieties of pilmeni were filled with spinach, meat, and cheese curds.
There are no serving utensils - you just grab what you want with your fork, finishing one dumpling before you take another.

The meringues were perfectly done; the taste reminded me of Lucky Charms cereal.

After our lunch and bathroom break, we drove to one more canyon viewpoint. This one seemed more official than our other stops in that there was a platform built for looking down into the canyon.

You'd better believe that Makhach drove us right up to that edge!!
He's like a mountain goat.

Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

Again, the "hills" on the far left and right of the photo are just the distortion caused by the panoramic lens - there aren't actually hills there, just the hillside I'm standing on.

This was my favorite view.

Closer view of the village and the tiered hillsides on the other side of the canyon.

After this stop, we drove over to that reservoir in the distance.

This was our Sulak Canyon crew, from left to right: Eldar's friend, Makhach (our driver), Bela and Eldar, Ted and Mackenzie

The water level of the reservoir was very low at the time of our visit.

On our way out of the mountains we stopped for an early dinner at a roadside cafe. The surrounding hillsides, setting sun, and cool temperatures made for a delightful and relaxing time.

We ate in that small gazebo on the left. The city of Makhachkala is visible in the distance.

Another view of Makhachkala

Our waitress

We ordered shashlik (grilled meat and onions), which was served alongside a large plate of herbs and sliced vegetables - always a welcome site here in Russia!

Green gold!

We ended up ordering more shashlik than we could eat, which was good news for the folded-ear cafe cat!

We slept well that night, after a day of fresh mountain air and full bellies. The next morning Eldar accompanied us as his friend drove us the 4-5 hours to the Dagestan border, where we were met by our Kalmyk taxi driver who took us the rest of the way to Elista.

Mohammed is one of Eldar's fishing buddies, and he was quite a character. He served in the Russian army in Afghanistan, and he has a love of music and singing. 

At right, our Dagestani driver, Mohammed, dropping us off at the Dagestan/Kalmykia border.
The wind was blowing dirt right into our faces during this photo!
Photo shared by Eldar Eldarov
Our Kalmyk taxi driver picking us up at the border of Dagestan and Kalmykia.
Photo credit: Eldar Eldarov

Our time in Dagestan was an experience we will not soon forget! Thanks again to our gracious host, Eldar Eldarov, and all those who made our visit to the Land of Mountains a memorable one.