Wednesday, October 30, 2013

5 things you (probably) didn't know you could do in Kharkov

You know those days when you really should be doing something productive... but you find yourself wandering aimlessly through the hours instead?

That day is today.

So let's hang out together on the internet and avoid the outside world for just a little bit longer. Because-
picture found on

Here are 5 totally spur-of-the-moment-things-I-just-thought-of that you probably didn't know you could do in Kharkov.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

On the road in the Tuva Republic

After getting off to an unpromising start, Odin's journey in search of the Tuvan reindeer herders continues...
(If you missed Part 1, click here

Thanks to for this map.

Map of Tyva Republic showing our route. Kyzyl to Toora-Khem is shown in blue, while Toora-Khem to the herders' camp is in red. Regional boundaries are indicated by faint pink lines—Todzhu is the largest region and the one furthest to the northwest.

Finally our host-family in Toora-Khem asked their neighbor, Anton, to guide us, and he proposed an arrangement that would be slightly cheaper and less risky than our other options had been. This plan involved renting a huge Soviet truck called a ЗИЛ (ZIL), apparently capable of plowing across the swollen streams along our route to the herders. The ЗИЛ could get us to within walking distance of the herders' current camp. Anton would then hike up and fetch back the herder, along with reindeer on which we and our gear could ride up to their camp. (A former herder, Anton disingenuously claimed that I would be able to ride a reindeer, despite the fact that I weigh 220 lbs!)

After a morning marked by yet more gossip-driven uncertainty, and an afternoon spent buying lots of groceries and packing, we at last loaded up the ЗИЛ and prepared to leave. Our host family sent one of their relatives along with us (a "service" for which they requested a hefty chunk of our cash); a local cop and some other friend or relative also came along for the ride. This entourage was planning to use the trip as an opportunity for a few days of hunting in the mountains, and the cop also had some sort of work-related mission near our destination. We weren't supposed to know about it, but he himself told us while drunk later that evening.

Just before leaving, our host family warned Ayanka that we be extremely careful to guard our money from our traveling companions, that they would undoubtedly be drinking lots of vodka, and that under no circumstances should I drink with them...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Siberian Adventures

Dear readers,
I have an extra special treat for you today! Odin, the larger-than-life guy who is always hopping from one crazy situation to the next, is here to share his summer reindeer-herding adventures! Enjoy!!

When I visited Katherine in Kharkov this August, she asked me to write a blog entry about my travel to the Tuvan reindeer herders this past summer. After months of procrastination, I've finally obliged. This first part is more about the journey—why and how I got there—than about the herders themselves. The next part will be about our few weeks of life with them among the reindeer.

My enthusiasm for reindeer is something that was gradually born from my enthusiasm for Russian language and culture. As it happens, I first met Katherine in Russian 101 at University of Alaska Fairbanks, where we learned to say phrases like "привет!" "хорошо," and «ёбанный мороз!» After a few years of studying Russian, we decided to do a student exchange together, to Yakutsk, Sakha Republic--in the "ёбанный мороз" (&*&E@%! cold) Northeastern corner of Siberia. Here we are in 2006, shortly after arriving, together with Gunhild (Norway) and Ruslan (Yaktusk local).
L to R: Odin, Katherine, Gunhild, Ruslan.
Katherine and I both dropped out of the exchange program after our first semester there. Katherine returned to Alaska, while I got short-term work teaching grade-school English in Verkhoyansk--a small town in northern Sakha Republic. While there, I traveled to the village of Sakkyryr for the annual Reindeer Festival--my first glimpse at the world of domestic reindeer and reindeer herders. I didn't really see or learn that much, partly because I made the mistake of drinking too much vodka with the herders. But it was enough to kindle a persistent, nagging curiosity about reindeer and the folks who herd them.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Before there was Lady Gaga, there was Mr. Gaga...rin

Crazy cool murals have been popping up around town. This one appeared on Sumskaya Street in August, featuring a lead character from the 1973 film В бой идут одни «старики» (Into This Battle Go Only Veterans).

Then work began on a mural of Yuri Gagarin on (where else?) Prospect Gagarina. Side note: is it just me or does this guy not get much publicity in the US? I didn't even know who he was until I saw his portrait on the wall of a Russian bakery/grocery store in Alaska. [cue gasp of horror] What do you mean, who is that? It's Gagarin, the first man in space!

That was only about 5 or 6 years ago, shamefully. Until then I'd heard of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and maybe a dog or monkey that had been sent to space... but seriously, nothing about Mr. Gagarin. Oh high school, where did you go wrong? Or did I fall asleep during that part of the lesson?

So if you're like me and somehow missed out on this rather monumental historical fact, here are the basics-

Yuri Gagarin was the first human to truly get off this rock. He orbited the Earth once, spending less than 2 hours in space, but it was enough to make him a mega-ultra-super celebrity in the Soviet Union and the rest of the world (except for my school district, apparently). Although he died in a plane crash at the tender age of 34, his name will never be forgotten. Just like every city here has its Lenin Avenue, there's bound to be a Prospect Gagarin or Gagarin metro station somewhere nearby. His face is instantly recognizable both for being quite cute (it's true! do a Google image search!) and for its smile. Let's face it; how many other famous Soviets have you ever seen smiling?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Yevpatoria in October, part 2

As you can see, Yevpatoria is a mix of the grandiose and the mundane.
Gates that proclaim the entrance to the "old city"

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Yevpatoria in October, part 1

Yevpatoria- hands down my favorite place on the planet.

They say it's a hot mess in the summer time- beaches swarming with tourists, rusty Ferris wheels running nonstop, exorbitant prices. Vacations and the massive dance festival/party called Kazantip (advertised to "crazy party animals") bring tens of thousands of visitors into the city during the hottest months of the year.

In the winter the city is sullen and silent. Most of the shops are bordered up. Downtown feels haunted, empty, and unsafe. Hotels drop their prices.

For both economic and sanity reasons, we avoid the entire Crimean peninsula in the summer. Come fall, winter, and spring though, you can find us on the phone, booking a room in Yevpatoria for the following weekend!

This was our first time visiting in the autumn. Last year we managed a visit in the winter and in the spring. This year we fell victim to workaholism and only now took our first vacation of 2013. Can't complain about the timing too much though, because we found a train that left Kharkov at 2 AM, meaning we could work a regular day on Thursday and still arrive in Crimea the following morning.
View of the countryside from the train window
Plus, we ended up travelling in the first-class compartment, which meant it was just the two of us! : ) Usually we travel in a four-person compartment, which is fine but it can't compare to having your own private space. Not to mention that trains coming through Kharkov are often en route from elsewhere, so when you board at 2 AM you enter a pitch-black compartment where people are already sleeping and you're fumbling around to make your bed in the dark. Not this time!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A train ride away...

Hooray, we got our train tickets!!!! I feel like a peasant living in mediaeval Europe who rarely ventures beyond the city walls and now my farmer husband is in his Sunday best, hitching the horse to the wagon, and I (in my finest) am climbing into the back of the wagon with the vegetables and livestock that we'll sell in the neighboring city.

Well, except that we have no produce or pigs to sell.
Or a horse for that matter.
And in a very un-peasant-like manner, we'll be traveling there... СВ!!!

СВ stands for спальный вагон, or sleeping car. It's the first-class version of overnight train travel with only 2 bunks to a compartment. I've only met one person who has ever travelled this way. We usually go купе (kupe), which is second-class with 4 bunks to a compartment. Most friends and relatives travel плацкарт, which is the cheapest and also resembles how cattle are transported (if cattle could be coaxed onto a bunk. And if they drank beer in transit). D and I took плацкарт once. I told him that if he wanted our relationship to survive, then the future held only купе for us.

СВ is usually prohibitively expensive but we waited so long to buy tickets that it was the only available option. Плацкарт is usually the first to sell out, then купе. I guess the truly wealthy are too busy traveling around in helicopters and Maseratis to be bothered with traveling first-class on a train, and СВ is too expensive for most. Luckily the tickets weren't too bad this time: $50 each to get there via СВ, $25 each to get back in купе. I'm really, really excited to see what conditions are actually like in СВ, even if it merely means freedom from snoring strangers :p

I'm not going to tell you where we're headed yet, but here are some clues...

It takes about 10 hours on the train + 2 hours by bus to reach this place from Kharkiv.

It's my favorite place to visit in Ukraine during the chilly months. Everyone else says this is crazy, that it's vastly superior in the summer. But on our last visit these two cats agreed that winter is best :p Cats are never wrong, right?

And one final clue- the city is ancient. I mean, all European cities are old, of course, but the party started here in about 500 BC.

See you next week!!!! : )

PS: If your curiosity has gotten the best of you, here's the answer.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Problem solved (and other good news)

Some days it seems like expat life (or life in general?) is made up of thousands of tiny inconveniences-think, death by papercuts- and periodic huge leaps forward. Last weekend some of those tiny papercuts healed and we solved two issues that had been hanging overhead for ages. This story is also a claim that alcohol occasionally can solve some problems!

On Friday night, my friend Alex organized a Big Night Out as he's soon heading abroad for the next stop on his adventurous life. He rounded up a total of 8 Ukrainians, 1 Canadian, and 4 Americans to start the night at Mexico House, where the "Mexican" food consists mainly of potatoes. I don't think they even have any beans on their menu, but it's sure a fun place to hang out. By the end of the night the foreign contingent had ventured onward to Club Galaktika, Mafia, and settled at Гигант (Giant), where the dance floor was filled with decidedly un-sober young men from the Caucasus (you know, Georgia, Azerbaijan, all that good stuff). We enjoyed ourselves in this quieter area below, along with a bunch of cops. A brawl sprawled into the room at one point but it wasn't the cops who broke it up, rather a sharp-tongued administrator in a clingy dress! All in all, a really good night out on the town with some really good people.

Not shockingly, the next day brought a massive hangover in which I tossed and turned between the bed and the couch, being spectacularly unproductive for most of the day. When it came time for dinner, I only had one thought: sushi. That's semi-healthy hangover food, right?

Hands down, the best place in Kharkov for sushi is SushiYa, who luckily caters to worn-out partiers by offering free delivery.
SushiYa sushi!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What I love: Kyiv architecture

There's just something magical about the architecture in Kyiv.

Doesn't matter if it's a plain apartment building, a gleaming monument to 21st century business, or a heavily embellished structure- there's simply something that gives you pause. Of course I love, love, love Kharkov architecture too, but it tends to be more somber so we'll save that heavy stuff for another day.

On our last trip to the capital we stayed in this apartment. As you can see in the photo above, the view from the window was gorgeous in springtime. The other side of the building was much more modest: