It got light at two thirty this morning, but I’ve only been up since five. Stacked a cord of firewood that I split last night just before going to bed, then followed Khadizhat’s Grandfather out the gate toward the fields. He’s pulling a big steel wheelbarrow that I estimate weighs at least a hundred and twenty pounds when it’s empty; and in it are a rake, a tarp, and get this, a scythe…. Like, for real. We’re going to collect grass from the fields for his chickens. We work well together though, he and I. The other day he told me that if he was in the KGB and had to choose a partner it would be me. Apparently that’s actually a compliment here.
Modern Russia is a masterpiece of Karmic entanglement - something like a forty year old cracked and peeling fly line, stripped from its reel in a tangled mess onto the deck of a sinking flats skiff, and then stepped into by an inexperienced angler who has somehow just managed on his very first cast to hook a two hundred pound tarpon that is now tail hopping its way across the surface of a roiling sea.
There is a lot of beauty in that picture, and about a ton and a half of disaster in the making at the very same time. But here we are, back in Khadizhat’s homeland. We’re doing a bit of side trip from our new driving lifestyle, visiting family and showing off our latest catch (little Aya), so I suppose we/you-all might as well enjoy the show. I’ll start off though with a bit of the back story:
A REMOTE INTRODUCTION – THE FAR EAST
My first trip to Russia three years ago landed me in the farthest east city of the country, Petropavlovsk, after a flight out of Alaska and across the Bering Strait for a season of guiding on the remote Kamchatka peninsula. I’ll never forget that morning when the plane landed in the gray drizzling rain. We were all stoked and ready to get started, but instead we sat on the Tarmac and looked through the steamy windows while a few uniformed soldiers stood outside smoking and chatting with each other for over an hour before a stairway was finally wheeled out to the door to let us de-board. Myself and the other guides of our team then shuffled through another two hours worth of clearing immigration and customs, attended by a team of straight faced, barking officials who looked like they had all woken up on the wrong side of a straw-mattress bed, before finally being allowed to walk outside and load our equipment into a line of old grey Soviet built four wheel drive vans. By then it was almost noon.
The original plan had been to make a short drive over to the chopper pad where we were supposed to board one of the MI8 helicopters that our operation kept on call for purposes of moving staff, equipment, and clients north into the wilderness, but these great birds are flown by VFR pilots only, and with the super low ceiling those guys couldn't even get off the ground. So the vans sat at the base for a couple of hours waiting on the weather to change, and then we moved everything into an old school bus and started the twelve hour journey north towards the tiny town of Esso, at the very end of the only road on the entire peninsula outside of its capital city. Our first group of clients for the season was with us as well, and since there were only so many seats on the bus we of course let them have those and climbed ourselves on top of the enormous pile of gear in the back and went to sleep. Guides are good at making best use of rest-time whenever it appears, planned or not.
There were stops along the way though, each time the bus would enter one of the small towns along the route, and since we had not a single bilingual person with us that happened to have both Russian and English in his arsenal we and the clients would be ushered off the bus past what seemed to be an omnipresent group of drunken, smoking men on the street and into either a store with a filthy bathroom at the back, or a cafeteria serving some combination of potatoes, smelly fish, and unidentifiable meat. Of course none of us had any rubles, so it didn't matter what was offered (even the bathrooms charged a fee). The towns got more and more dilapidated as we continued north, and then late in the evening we pulled up to some old wooden sheds surrounded by rusty equipment and farm junk on the edge of a field which had two helicopters sitting in the middle of it. We were ecstatic. That is, until we started unloading the gear and got attacked by what must have been the whole of Genghis Kahn's army reincarnated as mosquitoes, each of which was big enough to rape a turkey all on its own. Welcome to Kamchatka!
At that point to be honest I began to seriously question my chosen profession, and to lament the fact that I had somehow managed to miss the doors of so many classrooms throughout my student career (usually ending up on a stream somewhere nearby instead). But alas, even though once the helicopters were loaded it was too close to dark for us to fly, we were transferred to what ended up being a very nice hotel in quaint little Esso for the night and that next morning found ourselves airborne and headed North into one of the most amazing and beautiful wildernesses I have ever had the fortune to experience. Even the mosquitoes had only been a preliminary gauntlet sent to test my resolve; they were far fewer where we landed, and maintained themselves at just tolerable levels for the rest of the summer which made their nuisance hardly even noticeable compared to the beauty of our surroundings.
Which is not to say that the problem of Russia's Russian-ness had gone away quite yet.
After guiding the first group for what was left of their week on a spring creek I met my team for what was to be the balance of the season running rivers even further north on a program called "Wilderness Floats". None of these rivers saw humans on their waters more than once a year, and several of them had in fact never been floated even a single time before. A dream come true for me. But then, there were still people involved...
We got dropped off with all of our gear at the first put-in late that afternoon and after the usual chaos of hurriedly unloading the helicopter whose use is charged by the minute in numbers that carry far too many digits we made camp, getting everything ready for the first group of clients who were scheduled to arrive first thing in the morning on another MI8. Once that work was done I was able to finally try and get to know my team.
Aleksey and Zhenya were the two Russian guides and seemed to know their way around the program fairly well, at least as far as I could judge in terms of their level of relaxation. Nadia, our female Russian cook who was far too pretty to have been out there without causing undue distraction to the team said she had worked in many restaurants, but never before in the wilderness. Still, she too seemed quite confident that things would all go just fine. Hann and Tchu-cho were our two anti-bear dogs, and managed by an elderly Koriak fellow named Volodya who was to row the gear raft and provide general all around help. After Aleksey translated the introductions and a few aspects of what the American corporate world would call “team building practice”, I asked what was for dinner.
"Uhhhh..." Said Aleksey, "Vee have,.. no food. Food come tomorrow,… viz clients."
Great, I thought. And with that the team split up to go gather what we could for dinner. This turned out alright I thought, in terms of being one of those "it just added to the adventure" moments, since I got us three trout in twenty minutes of fishing while Volodya and Zhenya rustled up a variety of wild onions and a couple of mushrooms, all of which went together into a pot of water and became my first experience of what I later understood to be pretty much a three times a day staple in this country - soup. (That one still shocks me to this day. My God these people eat a lot of soup.) The cute adventure aspect of what had happened had worn off though by the time the helicopter, food, and clients finally arrived though, since due to the weather socking in again that next morning this latter event did not actually occur for another two days. I had experienced the whole trout-cooked-in-a-shallow-bath-of-water-three-times-a-day thing before, at a couple of points during my long walk through Patagonia, but this time between the constant rain, the fact that I somehow managed to break the only fly rod I'd brought with me the second day and as a result was reduced to hand-lining with mouse patterns, and the fact that I had been ostensibly put in this position by one of the top fly fishing outfitters in the world, yeah, maybe I was a bit grumpy about it all this time around.
What I didn't understand then though (and do now) is that it doesn't matter how good at their jobs the people back in the states who had hired me to be there were; in Russia, this is just the way shit goes. And that's a fact. It doesn't seem to matter whether you are dealing with provincial natives in Siberia or you’re standing at the help desk of the biggest airline in Moscow.
And in the end, it was an awesome summer. The clients and food arrived, we ran a ton of beautiful rivers and caught ridiculous quantities of fish while adventuring our little butts off, and I got exactly what I had signed up for, all of which left me with nothing but thanks.
THESE DAYS - MIXING BUSINESS WITH PLEASURE IN THE WEST
Fast forward a year to the first time I flew into Moscow and you'll find me in a very different space of life than that which I had occupied when I landed the summer before in Kamchatka. There I was with my wife Khadizhat, going to meet her family, and also to get a peek at the other side of this country which had been such a giant pill for me to swallow in its eastern wilderness. I will admit I had high expectations. Would it be like the difference between Rio Pico and Buenos Aires? I tried as always when I am traveling not to project; but I really just couldn't help picturing richness, in both the cultural and material senses of that word's descriptive properties. I mean, here was the land of Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Dostoyevsky, not to mention the literal location where all those metric tons of Inca gold had ended up after the Spanish civil war!
So did I find the richness? Yes and no, with neither side of that answer looking like anything I could have imagined it to before I came.
On that first trip to the west I saw a good bit of Moscow, some of St. Petersburg, a wide swath of Tatarstan, and even did some Atlantic Salmon fishing all the way up on the furthest north river of the Kola Peninsula. This made for a fairly diverse sample from which to take notes, and it continues to as we come back to visit family and also keep up the catalog building for the business.
As it turns out, there are a lot of things over here that are just like they were in Kamchatka, albeit the palate with which it is all painted is in some cases changed. One way or another, here are my general notes on the country broken down into topics I think the reader who has never yet been here might be wondering about:
THE LAND ITSELF AND ITS CITIES:
Russia is the largest country on earth in terms of land area, but only the 9th largest (and holding steady without growth) in terms of population. So with only 143 million people scattered across 6.6 million square miles, and most of those people concentrated into just a few cities, well, there is a lot of uninhabited land over here. And good thing too, because not much respect has been shown for the land that is used by people in this country for far too many generations. I’ve seen improvement just since my last trip, but to be honest, I think it will take the dying off of a generation or so before the litter and pollution disappear. There are beautiful urban areas, to be sure, and the downtown sections of both Moscow, Kazan, and St. Petersburg are spectacular in many ways. But by the time you get outside the center, or to any of the smaller cities or towns in the rest of the country, things start to look like a dump. Thankfully vast expanses of the country are still wilderness, but most of the areas people actually live in Russia feature filthy rivers, trash strewn streets, and buildings and utility infrastructures that are both ugly as hell and flat-out falling apart. Which is quite a shame, because the landscape all of this is strewn across is so spectacularly beautiful. And it’s not as though Russians just don’t know how to take care of things. The gardens behind the walls that surround almost every residential property in the country are extremely well kept, and the interiors of most of the houses are as well. But it is almost like this concept of caring for a space applies only to what one has title to, in the literal sense, and as such it is not the least bit uncommon to follow a property owner out into the street passing through the obligatory locked gate in his spike-topped wall, and then watch him throw the wrapper from the snack he is eating into the gutter just outside. Ask why he did that and he just shrugs and says “What? It’s the street! It’s filthy!” And as such most of the country's inhabited regions end up painted in a mosaic of stark contrasts between well kept, walled-in spaces, and outside sprawling filth and rot. It's just the way things are. And over the last three years since I first set foot on Russian soil I've been trying my damdest to figure out why.
The culture too is a split between extremes. In some ways I see community and peaceful cooperation that is unthinkable in many other areas of the world. Mosques sit right next door to orthodox churches all over Tatarstan, with neighbors from each of those communities are all out walking along the river every evening and doing cookouts while their kids ride bikes and play together, not a hint of religious discord or tension in the air. But put one of those same neighbors behind the desk of a government office attending the public, or even a cash register at a store, and you’ll almost invariably see them put on a mask of what looks to us Americans like a cross between disinterested apathy and flat out hatred, as though they would prefer you weren’t standing in front of them at all, and since you are they intend to make whatever it is you are trying to accomplish as difficult for you as possible.
And for all that the Russian government is a pretty functional system in its own way, it is also one of the most complex structures of corruption I have ever seen, which at this point in my travels is kind of saying something. Bribes are just an understood function of doing business here – any kind of business, and can range from being down in huge sums of money to examples of pure ridiculousness, even to the point that if you want a doctor’s appointment made in a timely fashion it is something you will have to “make happen” by perhaps bringing a couple of good chickens to the right person at the right time. Yet Putin is so popular it is barely comprehensible to a westerner. Something like a cross between the way people in the US relate to their president in terms of nationalism during moments like 9/11, and the way they relate to their movie stars or pop-singers. I mean, there are Putin T-shirt vending machines,… everywhere. Like, for real. And the images of the Russian president that appear on them flat out crack me up. Here he is shirtless and standing in a river flexing one bicept like a body builder and holding an enormous salmon by the gills with the other. And here he is (still shirtless) on a tall horse with a rifle on his back riding out across the open taiga. Then there’s the one where he is dressed like the karate kid and drop kicking President Obama in the face. You gotta love it. It’s like the circus.
RUSSIAN FOOD – A SYSTEM OF EXTREMES:
I've had some of the best food of my life in Russia, and also plenty of the worst. On the side of good I would begin by pointing out that agriculture in this country is almost organic by default. They simply don't use the thousands of metric tons of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that we dump on most of our farms in the states, nor do they engage in the practice of genetically modifying any of the plants themselves. And that's just to talk about commercial production. An even more interesting fact is that almost all Russian households still have family gardens; and these gardens are nothing short of spectacular. Using nothing but simple tools and their bare hands the people of Russia plant, irrigate and weed spectacular spreads of fruits and vegetables every year, cooking fresh cut produce every day throughout the season and then storing the surpluses in old fashioned cellars and the freezers of their homes for winter.
Then as if that weren’t impressive enough it turns out that the tomatoes, pumpkins, strawberries, raspberries, carrots, potatoes, squashes, mint, currants, onions, and so many other foods that Khadizhat's family cooks for me while I am here are being harvested from plants which are directly descended from God only knows how many generations of those same plants, all of which have been in the family and the community for longer than anyone can remember! No one here that I’ve met buys paper packets of seeds from the hardware store or nursery. No-no, here they harvest and dry the seeds of their own gardens’ plants every year for the next! And as such, tomatoes actually taste like tomatoes.
And the difference between the tomatoes from the gardens here and those we all buy at the grocery stores back home (the ones Mike calls "strip mine" tomatoes, as he remembers those grown by his mother in Indiana when he was a child) is like the difference between salt and sand. As a result of this, I almost always end up making it a staple of my diet every time I am here. Which is good, because the entrées in those same homes I am generally not as fond of.
Staple entrées in Russian homes tend towards the, well, let us say, bland. Lots of meat filled dumplings, soups, soups, and more soups, and then usually some sort of fish with questionable origins. The fish in particular are a pretty serious sticking point for me. People eat an awful lot of fish here, but I rarely see it available in any state that could be described even creatively as "fresh". Half of the space within any urban installation in Russia (airports, bus stations, offices) will smell like three week old fish that's been laying on a counter at room temperature since it was caught. On top of that there is a lot of smoked fish, and salt dried fish, and canned fish, pickled fish, and fish that has been frozen and thawed and re-frozen eight or nine times throughout its journey from whatever watery home it once occupied on earth to the now smelly environment where you encounter it. And no matter how it looks or smells when it arrives, the word "filet" is never going to show up in any part of its preparation instructions. The cleaning of fish here usually seems to involve hatchets or machetes instead of knives. And so even if added to soups (did I mention all the f-ing soups?) it must always be deboned as it is eaten, a practice of which I am less than fond. So I avoid it these days at all cost.
The meats are prepared in much the same way - bones in. Almost always. The only exceptions are meatballs, which are usually decent but could also usually benefit from at least a few more spices. I remember my first experience of this going back to the days in Kamchatka when we would shoot ducks and geese sometimes with the shotguns we always had to carry while guiding in case of bears (more on those in a second). Hours would be spent by Zhenya and Volodya plucking each bird and then burning the last of the feather fluff off over the fire; then the entire thing would be hacked into chunks with one of the axes like some scene from a Friday the 13th horror film before being dumped into a pot full of vegetables for yet another, you guessed it,… soup. I'll never forget the week we had a client with us who had lived in Patagonia for many years. He had become accustomed (as I was down there) to eating milanesas de Cauquén (upland goose), which is essentially the filleted out and chicken-fried breasts of that wonderful waterfowl. I wanted to cook his old favorite meal for him and as such took charge of the duck cleaning operation myself one evening. You should have seen the anger of my crew as they nearly mutinied while I filleted out the birds! They even took what was left of the carcasses afterwards to continue their God-awful axe-hacked-up soup production (minus the breasts), and none of them would even speak to me after that for days!
But now on to the story of the bear. The first bear that broke the rules that summer (meaning he didn't run away when he saw us, but instead continued to approach even after warning shots were fired) unfortunately and of necessity met with an untimely death. As sad as I was that this had to be done, I was also at least curious as to what the back strap steaks might have tasted like if we put them on the grill. Unfortunately I was busy, and so only asked the crew whether or not we could eat some of the bear before going on about my guiding day. "Oh yes" I was told, “We will be butchering him after you float on down with the clients.” I was excited about that, until that evening when I saw what Nadia had prepared. A soup, of course, and made out of the only part of the bear they had removed – HIS FEET!!! I mean, bear-foot soup, bones and claws included of course. And no, I am not making this up.
Dairy is another high point on the menu though, for sure. Milk in Russia (at least for the folks that I tend to hang out with there) is nothing like that watery white stuff we buy in plastic jugs back in the states. How the processes of pasteurization and the addition of man-made vitamins to milk became such mandatory practice back home I will never know, but in Russia when you go to buy milk you get it from the milk vendor, and you bring your own glass vessel for her to fill. She (usually a lady dressed and, shall we say, "endowed" much like the women of old Victorian oil paintings, with the only difference now being that she is also fielding calls on her cell phone as she works) then pours the milk into your container from a giant barrel on her counter, which was filled fresh that morning immediately after the liquid was squeezed from some nearby cow's tit. Of course there is pasteurized milk available in the grocery stores of cities here as well, and I guess there are plenty of people who drink it, but Khadizhat’s family doesn’t, and the difference between the stuff I pour here on my cereal every morning and what I am used to back in the states is as stark as it is with the vegetables. This milk is amazing! I could drink it (and sometimes do) by the gallon. Thick, rich, and flavorful in ways that my limited skills as a writer defy me to describe. And the butters and cheeses that get made from it are even more so. Then what's even funnier to me is that although this fresh organic milk only stays good in the fridge for three or four days, and the pasteurization process got skipped altogether in its path to that location, no one seems to ever get sick from it at all. Hmmmm….
But I will close this little segment with the story of one of the best meals I have ever eaten in any restaurant anywhere in the world. It happened in Moscow last year, at a little place down and around some corners then through some alleys that looked nice, and since they didn't have the cod I wanted to order at first I decided that I would try the orange roasted duck breast. When it arrived it was a work of art, and My God! I can practically taste that meal from here. I have no idea what most of the ingredients were or how they were prepared, but if I don't stop remembering it soon I'll be drooling on my keyboard in no time.
So that’s the news from behind the crumbled but not all that crumbled Iron Curtain here folks; now everyone write us back and let us know what’s going on in your neck of the woods. We look forward to hearing from you soon!