Monday, March 27, 2017

A Feast for the Eyes

Despite the flat brown pallet of the surrounding steppe - or more likely because of it - Elista is a city bursting with color and pattern. Even if you transplanted a bunch of Americans here and everyone was speaking English, it would still feel foreign to me.

Over the past month, I have enjoyed exploring on foot and photographing the details of the architecture and infrastructure. Two things that are more prominent here than in America are (1) colorful buildings, inside and out; and (2) intricate patterns in everyday objects such as street lamps and sidewalk pavers.

While you may see an occasional American home painted in a funky color, many public and private buildings in Elista are painted in pretty pastels and even bold primary colors. I wish there were a more eloquent way to present this, but the rest of this post is basically going to be a long scroll through many photos of Kalmyk/Russian architecture. A feast for the eyes!

Smaller shops close to downtown

Even when the exterior is more subdued, the interiors can still be quite colorful and interesting.

The hallways of the university

White House: a popular spot to have a "business lunch"
(We have to make a joke about Trump every time we go there...)

Upstairs hallway in a local Kalmyk restaurant (I think there might be business offices on this hallway.)

Stairway detail, looking up

It's not always the colors but sometimes the textures and patterns that really strike me as I'm walking around - textures on the buildings and even on the ground. Many sidewalks are paved in a variety of shapes and colors, even sidewalks in mundane places like convenience stores and bus stops.

It's never boring walking around here, as long as I've got my camera. Ted might be getting tired of waiting for me to stop and take a photo 10-20 times whenever we're on our way somewhere, but if he is he hasn't complained!

Something that adds to the foreignness: There doesn't appear to be strict zoning,
so you'll see residential and commercial buildings intermixed, even close to the city center. 

When we return to the U.S., I plan to have several of these architectural photos printed in large format to hang in our house. There's an almost vintage feel to some of them, but this is modern day Elista!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Chess City

On a travel blog that I read before our trip, the city of Elista was described as a place where "two hours was an hour too long." There's not much to do here tourism-wise: a visit to the main temple, a quick loop around downtown, and maybe making the trek out to the deportation memorial.

On this roster of attractions, a (the?) highlight of any visit to Elista--whether short or long (read: one hour or two)--has to be Chess City. How to describe it? Imagine a shoddily-built condo complex placed in the middle of the steppe. Or, according to the Atlas Obscura entry, a "Russian City...Built for Chess Fanatics According to Alien Specifications."

The Museum-Restaurant-Chess Tournament Complex at Chess City

View of the condos - and the empty steppe beyond - from the Chess City complex

Another view of Chess City condos

There's a lot to unpack here. First, Chess City isn't a separate city; it is an enclave of Elista and includes, or has included: a hotel, residences, the Mongolian consulate (which was busier when Russians needed visas for Mongolia), and a museum-restaurant-chess tournament complex.

Inside the museum/event center

Second, it was built for the 1998 World Chess Championships, but wasn't completed on time (as I understand it). The top players were housed with local residents since the facility wasn't finished. (The construction of Chess City was itself controversial, as it occurred during Russia's post-Soviet economic low point in the mid- to late 1990s). It has hosted several major international tournaments since 1998, including the 2006 Women's World Chess Championships.

And third, the former head of Kalmykia (Kirsan Ilyumzhinov) indeed claims to have been abducted by aliens. He has also been the president of FIDE (the International Chess Federation) since 1995.

We visited Chess City during our first week here and spent a couple of hours there in total (we've needed at least four hours to see Elista's sights). Some of the highlights:


The car of a wedding party

Ignore me. This was a stealth picture of the wedding party photo shoot in the background -
the bride kept her powder blue down jacket on for all the photos.

The Wall of Champions:

The Chess Champions of Kalmykia

Chess sets given as gifts to Ilyumzhinov (this was a world leaders board with interesting geopolitical overtones):

King =  G.W. Bush; Queen = C. Rice; Bishop = A. Merkel; Knight = J. Chirac; Rook = J. Koizumi; Pawn = John Howard

King = V. Putin; Queen = B. Bhutto; Bishop = F. Castro; Knight = H. Chavez; Rook = M. Ahmadinejad; Pawn = M. Gaddafi. 

And clothing in the Kalmyk museum:


The dress on the right is for a married woman, indicated by the belt.
Difficult to see, the dress on the left is for an unmarried woman,
indicated by the two tassels that hang to either side of the neck/torso and the lack of a belt. 

Book your plane tickets now!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What We're Eating, Part II

Today we woke up to our first snowfall here in Kalmykia. It wasn't a lot, but we're staying inside today nonetheless. Even when the temperatures here don't seem that cold (low 40s), the windchill is FREEZING. Yesterday and today were the coldest I've felt since we arrived, and I am so glad I brought my down parka!

Even though we're staying in, we're still eating well. It was a little tricky at first, figuring out what to cook here. Some of our favorite meals back home are things like kale salad paired with bean and cheese quesadillas, but there are no tortillas, pinto beans, or kale to be found! Additionally, I don't have access to a lot of the ingredients and kitchen tools I'm used to.

Even just boiling potatoes takes some planning and some time because I have to wash and scrub the thick, black mud off the potatoes, peel them with a kitchen knife, and then boil them in water that I have previously filtered. The potatoes here are delicious, though. They have a creamy yellow flesh and cook up quickly.

We store our potatoes on the porch, which is just as cold as the fridge right now!
Add a little plov seasoning, and we've got ourselves some home-style potatoes.

The first few dinners at home were things like pasta with pre-made tomato sauce and canned peas. Not bad, but after several nights of this, it gets to be pretty unsatisfying. We've since improved upon this simple and easy dinner by adding things like cooked onions, carrots, and cut-up hot dogs and supplementing with prepared side dishes from the market and beer. :)

Available side dishes include: Korean-style carrots (a little
spicy, a little sweet), pickled cabbage, and cucumber salad.
These cost less than 50 cents each and feed us for days.

I also recently went on a mission to create some kind of quesadilla-like meal, which I (sort-of) achieved with lavash, smashed white beans, and "gouda" (we're finding that many different kinds of cheese here are labeled gouda, though none of them has tasted like gouda yet). 

That can opener took some trial and error (and a YouTube video) to figure out...
The easiest and best dinners so far have been when we've gotten a rotisserie chicken from the large grocery store called Magnit [mag-NEET]. I cook up some rice with frozen vegetables mixed in, and we add either bread or a potato side-dish. One chicken feeds us for two dinners, then I use the leftover carcass to make chicken soup, which feeds us for another 2-3 meals. There's something calming and deeply satisfying about sitting at the table in the evening, picking whatever chicken we can from the boiled chicken carcass.

Homemade chicken soup - Mmmm mmm mmm!

Another favorite and easy dinner is cheese omelettes. Also, we eat Uncle Vanya's pickles with just about every meal. I may turn into a pickle by the end of our trip, but they're just so good!

There have been a couple of missteps along the way, like when we bought this jar of what looked like pickled asparagus or string beans.

We ate them as a side dish one night, and they just weren't tasting that great on their own - definitely not like asparagus or string beans. Ted looked up the word with my Google Translate app, and we discovered that these are pickled scapes

The only reason I know what a scape is is because one particular farmer at the Oxford, OH farmers market sold me some scapes once. They're like the trendy food of the moment, basically garlic stalks. It has a very subtle garlic flavor, but I don't care for the stem-like texture. 

We've managed to use these up little by little. I cut them up like a scallion for garnish, and then they're pretty decent with omelettes or pasta, which is like 2/3 of the dinners we eat at home.

Breakfasts have pretty consistently been yogurt, toast (toasted in a pan for lack of a toaster, which takes about 5-10 minutes), and tea. If we're going to lose any weight on this trip, it'll be because we're eating a small breakfast rather than breakfast burritos or bagel sandwiches (which I miss terribly)!

Moloko (milk), yogurt, and black tea

So that's our home life right now! I haven't used the oven yet because it kept tripping the circuit breaker the first couple times I tried it. I think I've figured it out, though, so I may try to bake some corn bread soon. 

Coming soon.... Ted's post on Chess City!

Friday, March 17, 2017

What We're Eating, Part I

To immerse ourselves in the full Russian experience, Ted and I have been doing our best to eat like the locals. There's too much to say about food for one post, and I'm sure we'll continue to have new food experiences during our stay here, so I'm breaking this post into several entries. Today I'll talk a little about what we've learned so far about Kalmyk food. 

The Kalmyks are historically a nomadic population. It was only about 150 years ago that they were settled in the city of Elista. As in all nomadic cultures that I know of, the Kalmyks did not plant crops, so their diet was mostly dependent on meat and milk. There's even a traditional Kalmyk song that goes something like, "As long as you like meat, we like you."

Coming from the United States, where vegetarian and vegetable-heavy options are plentiful, it has taken some getting used to, but luckily the meat is cooked in delicious ways here.

Dumplings (beregi) stuffed with ground lamb -
one of the things I was most looking forward to about this trip!

A brothy lamb soup at a Kalmyk restaurant (which also serves pizza and sushi)

In addition to meat, most meals are also accompanied by Kalmyk tea (mentioned in my first post from Kalmykia) and bread (khleb).

The bread is usually a spongey sourdough.

Other common ways of preparing and eating meat are goulash and sausage:

Goulash and rice, pictured with cabbage slaw, beet slaw, and a kind of "cheesecake"

What's left of my sausage, pictured with barley and a cabbage slaw

As you can see in the above photos, vegetables usually come in the form of small chopped/shredded salads on the side. The meat is usually served atop rice, barley, or mashed potatoes. Once in a while you can get "home-style" potatoes or cooked cabbage instead.

Chicken cutlet served atop mashed potatoes, with sauce

One of our favorite places to eat is the university cafeteria. Yeah, you read that right. Unlike most American cafeterias, the cafeteria food here is cheap, excellent, and tastes "just like home" (we've been told by the locals). 

The smells from the university cafeteria hit you as soon as you enter the front door of the main building.
After this trip, I will probably always associate the smell of dill with Kalmyk State University. 

The basic cafeteria routine is: (1) Choose a side salad: cabbage slaw, Korean-style carrots, shredded beat salad,  "crab" salad, or a kind of potato/cabbage/beet/pea salad; (2) Choose your base: mashed potatoes, rice, pilaf (rice containing chunks of lamb), or barley; (3) Choose your meat: sausage, cutlet, meatballs, or goulash. Oh, you can also get lamb stroganoff. 

Our first cafeteria lunch cost less than $4 U.S. We got a meat-filled pirochki,
two slaws, a plate of rice with sausage, a plate of lamb stroganoff, and a juice box. 

You can also get a bowl of borsch (which is not beet-based here - it's cabbage-based) or chicken noodle soup, garnished with sour cream if you'd like. 

Just like home!

Finally, there are many pastries to choose from, including potato-stuffed pies (pirozhki), sugared cookie-like pastries, pig-in-a-blanket, or plain bread, all of which are eaten at room temperature.

Needless to say, we eat lunch at the university cafeteria several times a week...

There's plenty more to write about, but I'll save it for another post. Anyway, it's almost lunch time here, and Ted's getting HUNGRAY!