Friday, August 14, 2015

And end...

The end. Writing this now, it's hard to really comprehend. A program like this both takes a lot from you and, of course, gives you something back, but it may take time to see all the impacts.

Our final dinner, which was held two weeks ago today, was an appropriately festive way to mark the end of formal instruction at ALTGPU and to celebrate the work of all our Russian colleagues which made this program a success. There was, of course, plenty of excellent food and drink, but what made it special was the opportunity to toast friends new and old and reflect on the ways all the participants advanced their understanding of Russia during the program.

And what makes it even more satisfying is that we know a 2016 seminar will take place, giving us the opportunity to improve the program and introduce the Altai region to another cohort of students and educators.


“Kosh-Agach means ‘Last Tree’ in Kazakh, but that tree appears to have died long ago”
-Lonely Planet

By Ryan Zlomek, Manlius Pebble Hill School & Madeline Hanley, WS ' 15

While each weekend trip has been a unique experience, they have all featured an element of surprise. We pile into the van and head out toward distant locations without always knowing what lies in store for us at the end of the road. Often, our endeavors started off with a lack of information (or details only delivered in Russian) which left most of us disoriented, confused, and up-for-anything.

Hoping to go into the Kosh-Agach weekend with a clearer picture, a handful of students interrogated their language professor about the region. These interviews painted Koch-Agach as a barren wasteland with little to do other than twiddle your thumbs and daydream about modern conveniences. Adding to the concern was the news that our fearless trip organizer, Sandy, would have to bow out from the adventure due to family commitments, our previous interpreter was going to be replaced with a young man named Nikita that we had never met, and an additional Russian male, also named Nikita, was slated to join us in order to work on his English proficiency. Long story short, as our time in Russia drew to a close, we were all a little on edge about how successful our explorations of Kosh-agach would be. Thankfully, we were all surprised by the result of the trip.

Things kicked off bright and early on a Saturday morning following a late night of celebration. Sleep deprivation was high and spirits were low. The first ray of bright light came through in the form of the Chuiski Trakt, a long stretch of road along the Rivers Katun and Chuya, and our delight in its successful paving. Riding in a cramped van for 8+ hours is all the more enjoyable when bumps are the rarity. We strode down the road a few hours and arrived in Srostki which is the birth place of the famed Siberian artist, Vasiliy Shukshin.

Shukshin is the hero of the Altai Krai. Growing up in a small village he found success as a writer,actor, and popular film-maker who presented a “realistic” view of village life. His characters were flawed and self-deprecating which Russian felt was one of the most true to life representations of Siberian villagers. He is beloved by his followers to the extent that a festival is held annually to honor his work. Thousands of people crowd the streets to celebrate during the week long celebration.

The Shukshin museum is one of many within the country. It is housed within an old school house where he studied and worked for a short time as a teacher and administrator. The walls within the museum are covered with photos of people he worked with, films he created, images of him at work, and artifacts of his life. Our tour guide was enthusiastic about his representation of the Altai and screened film clips demonstrating his masterpieces.

The town has embraced his presence outside of the museum.  Several Shukshin statues exist within Srostki as well as a park composed of word carvings that highlight moments from his stories. You can’t turn your head without glimpsing into the world he created in text and on film.

We hopped back on the bus and blazed our way to Chemal, a place embodying characteristics of both a tourist resort and spiritual pilgrimage destination. Chemal houses multiple chapels where people come from miles to worship. The area also transforms itself just a few meters down a hiking track into a Russian carnival complete with games, exotic food, souvenirs, and extreme sports.

As we arrived the spiritual component was clearly visible. We parked in front of a small chapel and made our way to the entrance of the Island of Patmos Orthodox Monastery, consisting of a 50 yard rope bridge stretched across a gorge. On either end, a sign in Russian stated that only 6 people may be on the bridge at a time though this guideline was enforced simply by the honor system. Across the bridge lies the beautiful, though tiny, Orthodox Monastery where you can light a candle in prayer. The walkable distance of the entire island is only a few carefully cared for square meters. At the point where the walk around the island ends, travelers have the opportunity to toss change into a small pond, behind which is a religious painting on a rock. As with the majority of spiritual experience we have had in Russia, this one seeks to make dreams come true and ensure we will make it back for another visit in the years to come.

Climbing back over the bridge we gradually entered the touristy aura of Chemal. Walking by the gorge we were encouraged to try a cold tea by a local vendor, listen to saxophone music performed mid-trail, and enjoy a boardwalk consisting of small cafes, souvenir vendors, and honey sales. Even further the trail opened up to a fair where everything from classy cocktails and exotic foods to zip-line adventures and shooting galleries were for sale. The juxtaposition between spiritual enlightenment and consumeristic society seemed very strange to us but didn’t stop anyone, Russian or otherwise, from embracing it and having a great time. Many of us picked up gifts for our friends at home and the brave few zip-lined from one end of the fair to the other end crossing a river along the way.  

That night we slept at a camp ground by the Katun River where everyone enjoyed a homemade meal, learned to play Russian card games (especially the Russian classic Durak), tried to learn the Altai mouth harp, sat by the camp fire singing American songs accompanied by a Ukulele, and had an all-around relaxing evening.

On Sunday we piled back into the van, breaking up our remaining 420km drive with a stop at a statue dedicated to 200 years of relationships between the Russian and the Altai people, a tree that is believed to have healing powers, and a small market. This was the first time a lot of us ate Pirozhski (a meat or potato filled bun) which is the Russian equivalent to street vending. You can say what you want about the repetitive nature of the Russian meal but it’s a tough task to get sick of the combination of pastry and savory edibles.

As we continued the trek, a hyper awareness took over the bus at the realization that we would be staying in Yurts for the next two nights. It’s important to realize that Yurt living, though quite comfortable, has a layer of unpredictability. The previous weekend, we were greeted to our first night in Yurts with a monsoon and violent thunder storm. On this trek we were convinced bad omens were following us around. At one point, as we arrived at a small café for lunch, the windows blew open as a result of an impromptu wind and sand storm. We had survived an influx of rain but wind, as we planned to be situated near Mongolia, seemed to provoke a hint of fear.

Thankfully, our preconceptions were simply that. We pulled up to yurt camp ground and were amazed by the glorious warm weather and beauty of the space it was encapsulated in. The camp ground is a family-run enterprise where people from all over Russia come to experience the yurt life. We were informed that that following weekend the Altai motorcycle league would be staying in the same place.

Dinner consisted of pasta, hot dogs, and tea served family style as our hosts sat at the table next to us. People used the evening to relax in the Banya, play cards with the local children, and hike around the mountains at dusk.

Monday morning started off a bit rough. Half of our tour group had been up late in the night with “gastrointestinal distress.” The odds were in our favor, though, as this had been the first time at which Siberian food had reacted poorly with our international stomachs. Despite these concerns every group member packed into small off-road vehicles and got ready for the day’s adventure.

Our guides took us through the mountains boarding Mongolia for a truly unique exploration. Theother areas of the Altai Republic we have driven around are very green. Trees and lakes border everything and all seem to have a similar look. Kosh-Agach is a different beast entirely. Every few minutes the landscape changes drastically. Green is replaced with deep reds, then deep whites, then the full color spectrum as you glance from mountain to mountain. Small villages are few and far between. It’s apparent that these geographic gems have rarely been altered by the human hand.

We found scattered petroglyphs and rare stones throughout the day but the most valuable portion of the excursion were the stories that accompanied our sights. At one point we were led to a vast white sea of small hills. We walked through this area aimlessly until a guide took out his knife and showed us how the earth easily crumbles in visible layers. This had previously been a lake, twice the size of Lake Teletskoye, but had died up thousands of years ago.

Other areas showcased a color palette that is incomparably beautiful. In one field of vision the mountains bled deep red, while another showcased ivory white stacks of stone, and further in the view canyons went on for miles. In these places we found petroglyphs and learned about their identification. Heavily detailed ancient drawings are from older generations of Altains showcasing Altaian life. More modern petroglyphs contain less detail and focus on Altaian iconography and significant spiritual symbols.

When we were returned from the trek we had another family style meal, this time a Turkic plate of noodles, meat, and vegetables, and then split up for our own explorations. Some went hiking, others relaxed in the Banya, some continued to learn card games from the local children, and others enjoyed the downtime to catch up on reading. One of the sights that no one could pass up was the sky above. When the sun went down the full-moon rose and eliminated the surrounding desert. Constellations were easily identifiable, and the deep black of space was in pure form. One of our hosts set up a telescope aimed at the moon so that we could explore every crater and crevice.

Leaving the next morning was like the break-up of a family. The children and all family members of the resort said their good byes, gave us hugs, and wished us safe travels. This was the pinnacle moment of our weekend as these positive spirits gave us renewed energy for our journey back to Barnaul.

Our 900KM drive back was split up with a night at a hotel, multiple bus rides to photographic locations, and the exploration of some locals markets. But the element we took away from our Kosh-Agach weekend was the beauty and importance of simple living. The resort and family who hosted us has stayed with us. Many of us now regularly play card games that the children taught and can’t get the visuals of the near-Mongolian mountain-scape out of our heads. I think we can safely say that all of us would return to Kosh-Agach in the blink of an eye. Trip advisor may have one way of viewing the “last tree” but for us it refers to a dying breed of people who love nature and want nothing more than to share their love with anyone who is willing to open their eyes to it.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

There and Back: Уч-Энмек

Alexandra Belden WS'15 & Sebastien Sauvagnat H'20

Karakol Valley is located in the Altai Republic. Making our way off from the чуйский тракт, the linking road between Mongolia and Russia, we allowed our horse and carriage a rest while we toured a museum German designed. The museum consisted of three traditional houses: German, Russian and Altai. As we walked between these houses, trying on traditional clothes on the way, we were able to notice the differences between them. One common factor to the Russian and German houses was the large brick stove, most of the time centered in the house, with the secondary purpose of heating and the primary of cooking. The Altai юрта also had this element, but reduced to a humble fire, however still centered in the house. Once the horses were bridled again we set off for the Денисова Пещера, luckily no more than a few days ride, or so it seemed. 

The camp where we stayed, most of the time hosted archaeological teams, which was next to the cave. On Saturday morning Sergei, an archaeologist by day and a tour guide also by day, led us into the cave. Blind and afraid, he led us towards the lit excavated shaft where we could see the layered ages of civilization, with each one clearly marked. Sergei lead us deeper into the cave where we watched another archaeologist as he uncovered square meters of the cave divided down even further into smaller sections. The dirt is even further searched when it is transported via bucket across a rope which lead to a site further away where the dirt is sifted. Sergei also showed us some of the skulls and bones which had been found by the archaeologists in their camp. The walk out of the cave was enlightening. It inspired some of us to go look for our own artifacts. So it was that we made our way to Уч-Энмек a protected park in the Karakol Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The rest of the day was spent walking around the area where some of us found artifacts from the Stone Age in a field near our иурт! In the evening, we were treated to a traditional Altai meal: intestines, кефир, thick soup and the occasional toasts were on the menu. Dazed from such an interesting dinner, we made our way to our beds to be lulled to sleep by the crashing thunder and flashes of lightning. It was humbling to think one would sleep through seasons alike in these cozy homes.

On Sunday, we went horse back riding! Experienced riders were given faster horses and novice riders were given special slower horses.  The excursion took us up into the mountains where we were surprised to see cows and even some small houses and юрты. The horses had great personalities. One horse would eat every ten yards or so then would break into a trot to catch up with the group. The views were spectacular, and although it started to rain a bit, our horses came equipped with raincoats for us. We stayed dry and warm as we continued the ride. The ride lasted a little longer than we thought it would, about six hours, and although we were a little sore, it was a great experience. After refueling from the ride with milder traditional Altai блюда, we were offered a performance by an Altai throat singer and his son. 

Their songs were epic stories recounting the heroic feats. When the father sung, the ambiance took a light tone, but as the son started singing there was a much graver tone and although we could not understand the words, the аил resonated with only his voice. The atmosphere changed as some of the audience was invited along to play instruments as the father sang! A good night. 

Last day of our trip, Monday. Daniel a founder of the park, gave us a tour of some of the sites and he explained to us the many rituals and traditional beliefs of the Altai People. We saw the burial mounds/курган and some traditional homes. The tour as a whole was thought-provoking, perfectly preceding a seven hour or so drive back to the профилакторий. 


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Meeting with parents of children with Down syndrome

Tonya Luna, HWS '97 & Geneva City School District, Geneva, NY

     Jenna Keeton and I recently had the opportunity to meet with some parents and children with Down syndrome here in Barnaul. I myself have a son with Down syndrome and it is a strong interest of mine. During many of our previous visits to schools in Barnaul we would ask about the education of children with disabilities. The answer we received is that they have special schools and we got the feeling that inclusion was not yet acceptable, which is why we wanted to hear first hand from families.  The four mothers that came are pioneers in this region and country. They are the first to advocate for inclusion, although with limited success.  They are out there trying to change public perceptions of people with Down syndrome and show their capabilities. They do admit that they are still the minority, and many parents still give their babies with Down syndrome up at birth.
     As we entered the room, we were greeted with the biggest smiles from 6 year old Varrya and 15 year old Arman. Varya then proceeded to say hi and use other English words. Her mother, Marina, says that she has been learning English from Canadian websites. Wow! As we talked, she shared that Varya attended a regular preschool but she does not want to send her on to the first class in a public school because she would be with 30 students and they do not have student helpers or specialized teachers.
     As we began talking, the parents fired questions at us about education, inclusion, sports, and benefits for children with Down syndrome in the NY. They seemed intrigued with many of our answers and we could sense just how different it is in Russia. They are part of a group that translates as  Sunny Kids that are working to change public perceptions of Down syndrome.  Check out their website,
     As it was nearing time to leave, you could sense that we all still had more questions for each other, so by exchanging contact information and with hugs and "I Love You" from Varya we reluctantly parted.  I am so fortunate to have met these wonderful mothers and I applaud their efforts to make a difference for their children.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Teacher Twitter (Ryan Zlomek)

One of our teacher participants, Ryan Zlomek, also has been tweeting about his experiences here: Musings on culture, life in Barnaul, and the challenges of starting Russian in Russia are documented :).

City Hymn of Barnaul

Students in the beginning classes were sent a link to this Youtube video of the city hymn. It shows a number of views of Barnaul. Viewers may also recognize the late actor Valery Zolotukhin (1941-2013), who was born in the Altai Krai, in several shots.

Lake Teletskoye, Day Two: Rafting and Riverside Lunch

Alison McCarthy, WS '15

On Sunday morning, we gathered at the bus after breakfast to head out for our rafting trip. After generous applications of the strongest sunscreen and bug spray we could get our hands on, we felt prepared to take on the Biya River, which is an outflow of Lake Teletskoye. Our bus driver dropped us off on the river bank, where we split up into two rafts and received instructions from our rafting guides. They told us that the rapids were only rated 2 on a scale of 1-6, which was reassuring. What was less reassuring, however, was the realization that our guides would be giving instructions in Russian. As obvious as this might seem, I think that none of us were really prepared for that reality. Nonetheless, we climbed aboard our rafts and pushed off from the bank.

We hit our first rapid within the first two minutes of the trip. Despite the language barrier, we managed to follow our guide's instructions and made it through the rapid, though Maddy and I were the first ones to experience a refreshing splash of river water. After the rapid, we had a chance to glide along the river and appreciate the natural beauty surrounding us. The water was calm and as clear as glass; there was hardly a moment where we could not see the smooth gray stones on the river bed. Everywhere we turned, we were surrounded by steep mountain slopes covered with Siberian pine, birch, and fir trees. Occasionally, we could spot a black kite perched on a high tree branch or searching for prey overhead. It was incredibly beautiful, and I tried to take in the view every time we took a break from paddling.

In total, the trip down the river was 20 km (about 12 mi). I can't speak for the other group, but my rafting group certainly had some difficulty with synchronized paddling, which led to a little bit of friendly bickering. However, we paddled through several rapids without issue. The final test, which our guide referred to as a "surprise" as we approached it, was a small waterfall. Professor Galloway, Joan, Maddy, and I got thoroughly soaked, but in the 90 degree heat, we had no complaints. Soon enough, our rafting adventure came to an end and we clambered from our rafts onto shore.

Next on the agenda was lunch and banya, but we were on the side of a road, surrounded by forests. Suddenly, we were being led through the forest by one of our rafting guides. In bathing suits and flip-flops, we trekked down narrow trails and climbed up and down hills along the river. En route to our destination, we had a stunning view from a small hill overlooking the Biya River and the surrounding mountain peaks.

Finally, we passed through a small wooden gate and found ourselves in a hidden Siberian paradise, complete with banya and river views. It was here that we met our host Maria. She was an Altaian woman, dressed in traditional Altaian clothing, and the property tucked away in the woods was actually her family's ancestral land. 

After the men and women took their turns in the banya, we sat down to a traditional Altaian lunch which consisted of soup, salad, and kasha. We also tried alcohol made from milk, and чай brewed from local plants. 

My favorite part of the day was when I had a few quiet moments to myself sitting beside the river. Right before we left, I plunged into the cold river water one last time, since I knew I would not get another chance. After lunch, Maria led us back to the bus and gave us a heartfelt goodbye. We had a long bus ride home, but we arrived in Barnaul just in time to see the sun setting behind the city skyline. It was a perfect ending to the weekend.