Archive for June, 2007

Offensive Driving


Driving is a real cultural thing. As you may remember my rants about the very bad manners Kazakh drivers have, particularly how they challenge pedestrians. Russians are skillful and individualistic souls weaving their own brand of chaos on the roads.


Here in Yekaterinburg, driving is an offensive operation. Uniqueness is the hallmark of a good driver here; I’m being kind really as the Russian ego gets in the way of good driving habits; in Singapore they would all be caned for their bad practices. I am one of those folks slogging through the traffic each day. The streets are shared by cars, buses, electric buses, trams and pedestrians; the latter are at risk here as they were in Almaty. One of my routine intersections that I must navigate is Malashava and Academenchskaya streets. When approaching to make the left turn onto Academenchskaya, you jump from the left traffic lane onto the tram track going in your direction. This is against the law but offers a strategic advantage in turning. Almost always there is an electric bus turning left also. They must take a wider ark because of their being connected to the electricity above them. You stay on the inside of the electric bus and let them run interference for you as you make the left turn. If they are turning, it is OK for you to follow as no sane person driving in the on coming traffic would hit one of these old electric buses. They are like tanks. Problem is the Russian in my illegal lane frequently will still sit like lemmings even though they have the bus as a blocker. This is frustrating, so I am behind them cursing and honking trying to move them to make that left turn.


Drivers here cannot tolerate you leaving a gap between your vehicle and the car in front. Each square centimeter must be occupied in a traffic line. Traffic lanes here are free form. Usually 2 lanes will become 4 AND during busy times the impatient drivers will cross a double line and proceed against oncoming traffic to gain a few hundred meters advantage. They go against on coming traffic and then beg to be let back in the line up ahead. These clowns are pathetic.


Seat belts are in almost all cars and are mandatory. But for Russians it is a game. You put the belt across your lap so the police see that you have one but occupants don’t fasten them. This is the US ala late 1960’s early 1970’s when the education campaign was started on safety belts. Someday it will all be routine to fasten them like we do in the States. I don’t like people telling me what to do either, but when the statistics are so overwhelmingly on the side of safety belt use, I will always buckle up. They saved my life a long time ago.


Cars. Choices, lots of choices. After all we are living under Putin’s brand of capitalism and consumerism. It rains supreme. The modern Russian has choices in cars. Gone are the days when you had only the little Moskva, or the retooled Fiat known as Lada, or your midsize Volga and full size Zill to choose from. The latter by the way was the Soviets’ Lincoln Towncar. In fact it looked a lot like a 57 Lincoln and was doled out to the Soviet apparatchiks. Today you have all brands with Toyota again dominating the market as they do around the world. We have a 1997 Honda Civic that Sophie found when she arrived. Nice little car and it has about 50 horse power more than my father in laws 34 year old Volga. He was duly impressed with the Honda.


I consider Russians above average in driving skills but out and out law breakers. They go where they want to, when they want to. They take good care of their cars and make them last a long time. Compared to Kazakhstan they are truly civilized.


Tales from Toraphonic


Here we go. I’m sitting composed and excited about this first of the new Blogs, sipping a Guinness Stout and looking out one of the windows at the dacha as I start composing this first real entry in the revised Lynn Blog. We have morphed from talk of the Kazakh Oil Patch to Dacha Life in the Urals and other interesting things that will be unearthed as we move forward.


Tales from Toraphonic


Toraphonic is a mythical place and a real place. In reality it means burning ground. The Scots call toraphonic peat. Toraphonic is also a micro region on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg that is the cradle of local dacha life. For those who want the comforts of a dacha close to town, Toraphonic is an area holding several dacha communities geared (now) to a variety of life styles and pocket books. Who would have thunk it! Dachas for rich folks (nice cabins that would rival domiciles in the Boulder, CO foothills and places like “Village Iset” where my in laws have their place. This would be an “economy class” dacha community, complete with a property manager who is usually knocked out on vodka. Dachas have evolved since the collapse of the Soviet system and truly accommodate the needs and tastes of all economic strata. From protected gated communities to the wild west feel of keeping your own gun to keep “hooligans” out of your dacha………the latter is much more practical and fun than paying a security guard. Shooting hooligans who are stealing from your dacha is kind of like hanging horse thieves in the 19th century United States. If you shoot a hooligan, nothing much is going to happen to you. Shades of the “make my day” law in Colorado.


I perhaps should hold my tongue about Village Iset being economy. Just up the road two houses, a fellow is building a three story dacha house. Outside walls are nearly a foot thick with felt insulation between the timbers. He will have his banya in the house; clearly the sign of at least a middle class Russian if not an upper crust Russian (he owns 3 cars also, so I think he is probably upper crust). It is clearly a status symbol not having to go outside to reach the banya house.


As the subtitle of the revised Blog indicates “Perfecting Dacha Life in the Urals”, I will be chatting from time-to-time about the great Russian past time of being at the dacha. A dacha is a summer house for us in the west. A get away or place that serves as a safety valve from the pressures of work and city life. Activities at the dacha include:


  • Gardening, raising both flowers and food stuffs (the latter a hold over from the bad old Soviet times when you had to rely on your private garden to insure that your family didn’t starve). “The Garden” is also another name for “Dacha”. “Lets go to the garden for the weekend”.
  • Bar-b-queuing. Can it be that Russians are closet Americans? Well they don’t do tailgate parties yet, but certainly embrace braising meat over a fire. Here the favorite is shoshlic’ usually chunks of pork marinated in vinegar and spices. Like the short handled broom, the short-legged bar-b-que device is king here in Russia. I’ve inquired why Russian insist on stooping over or squatting to cook when you can have a gas fired or even a wood burning grill at waste height?  The answer is usually something based on the fact they have always done it that way. The style for most chefs is to have low to the ground fires and to cook over wood coals. Wood can be problematic. Some bar-b-ques I’ve attended here left me wondering about the wood quality. Since Russians use everything at least three times before it is thrown away, wood is no exception. Wood use is pretty helter-skelter with painted wood being included when the chef runs short of natural forest material. Could you be eating lead paint marinated shoshlic? Yuk!
  • Gossiping. Although there are getting to be more  people commuting and living year round at their dachas, the usual mode is to be here principally during the late spring, summer and into the fall with mushroom season. People in the dacha community are folks you only see at the dacha; you don’t mix with them in the city. As dachas are passed down from generation to generation, children make summer time friendships that are rekindled each new dacha season but not carried on away from the dacha community. It is a right of spring when you return to the dacha in the spring to get together on the road and gossip; getting caught up with everyone and find out the latest scoop on who is doing what to who, who is pregnant (not missing the circumstances and whether the girl married or chose to have the next generation dacha dweller by herself.
  • Building and mending. As noted everything a Russian possesses is re-used at least three different times before it is thrown away. Just today we went out walking through a particularly swampy area where some ingenious (but not very environmentally conscious) fellow had used an old gas tank out of a Lada automobile as a “stepping stone to help you get through the bog in the swamp. Problem was the tank was still oozing gasoline leaving a shimmering blue slick on the water. Most of the dachas are nothing more than shacks. Some places, like my in laws is listing badly to the point you have to put a ¾ inch block under two of the dining room table legs so things don’t go sliding off into the floor. The house is just so old it is not worth trying to make a real repair, jacking up the foundation and putting new piers underneath. Yet the expectation is to see the place handed down for at least two more generations before it collapses. My brother in law Sasha is very handy fabricating things out of wood. He has made any number of things that enhances his family’s dacha which is across the road and up two houses from my in laws. He is one of the rare ones who is putting work into his dacha, building an outside shower with water pump, sandbox for the kids and the ultimate for the new wave of dacha dwellers – a roof mounted antenna to pick up his GRPS and EDGE signals for remote access to the internet and email. He works from home quite a lot and during dacha season he will spend a whole week there whilst most people only come out on the weekends. He has the place wired for the 21st century.
  • Banya talk. The banya is sacred to Russians. A good banya is more important than a toilet or a nice bathroom or for that matter a nicely decorated flat. The banya cleanses the soul. Men and women who don’t have private banyas will talk about building a banya “someday”. Out here in the sticks, it is certainly doable and there is no permitting process. Just get your old and new materials and put it together. Banyas become multi-year projects and take on implications of being for some guys, their life’s crowning achievement.
  • Firing up the banya. Banyas are also places where you commune with your family or your buddies. A banya is not unlike a Swedish bath house in construction. Or as another example the states you have dry and wet saunas. A banya is like those, but it is nearly a religious experience for Russian. It fires the Russian soul to have had “a great banya”. A proper banya is really three rooms. The hot room which can get up to around 90 degrees Celsius – upwards of 200 degrees F – if your fire stoker is paying attention to his job. You have to be very careful not to overheat or to throw too much water on the hot rocks if you want more of a steamy effect. You go into the hot room with at least one other person – kind of like the buddy system in SCUBA diving. If you pass out the other one can drag you out; you also have to have a buddy to flog you with the wet birch branches. This gives a wonderful heat filled tingling sensation whereever you are hit with the branches. Next is the wet room/shower room where you keep large wooden buckets of ice cold water and buckets with a mix of hot and cold water. The ice water is used during the summer in lieu of being able to go outside and throw yourself in the snow, as is custom during the winter months. This shower room can become a very comfortable wet sauna simply by leaving the door to the dry hot room open. It’s like going from the extreme heat of Death Valley to the incessant humidity of Miami, Finally is the dining area where you can sit wrapped in your towel, eating smoked fish, drinking beer and vodka and tea. A large samovar of water for the tea is the center piece of the banya dining table. You usually make two or three trips back and forth heating, washing, eating; heating, washing, eating. This is kife – the good life – and if you can do it in your own personal banya, you are a rich Russian, even if your dacha is in Village Iset.


Toraphonic the Swamp. There was book I received prior to my first trip to Russia in 1995, about cyclists who make the trip across Russia and all the problems they encountered navigating so-called roads. It’s a bog pure and simple and my is hat is off to those who chose to build the city of Yekaterinburg back in the late 1700’s for it is all swamp. Once you get out of Moscow heading east there is an awful lot of the country that is swampy mixed forests of birch and pine wood with incessant rain, mosquitoes, and ticks. In the winter it is a frozen swamp. Weather patterns here in the Urals is not unlike Seattle. It rains frequently and is gloomily without sun.


Next time: Offensive Driving

The New Blog

Katia and Yakov. That will be the name of the new Blog that replaces Tales from Kazland . As the old-old name, Yekaterinburg holds official sway, and has come back into vogue; it derives from the name of the old queen Katherine.  The new-old name Sverdlovsk is still used by many who carried on under the Soviet regime. Yakov Sverdlovsk was the fellow who assassinated Czar Nicholas II and his family in Yekaterinburg and he was duly rewarded by the commie aparachniks in Moscow by having his name attached to this city for 75 years. Katia and Yakov will deliver snippets on the life about the Lynn’s new adventure in Yekaterinburg-Sverdlovsk, after a short and interesting run in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The old address will remain the same talesfromkazland….will remain as we are trying to show some continuity and to maintain the library of photos so you can see Nadia grow and progress.

Sunday May 27, 2007. We are into serious dacha life. We come out on Friday night go home on Sunday afternoon and manage to come out two nights during the work week from the city of dinner and a walk. The birds are singing and the clean air dominates. Civilization and the city are far behind. Here in the dacha village our peace and quiet is interrupted only by the sound of an occasional train whistle in the distance. Sophie often has some work to do and is bringing her laptop which brings us back to reality for a bit.

Nadia and I arrived in Yekaterinburg from Kazakhstan on May 15 at 3:25 am in a driving rainstorm that turned into snow later in the day; yes snow in May – it is after all the Urals. All was the immigration and customs formalities went flawlessly in Moscow, transiting with the cats and otherwise having a comfortable journey.

Sophie bought a car just before we arrived – a 1997 Honda Civic that really did belong to a little old lady. It has only 56,000 kilometers about 35,000 miles and is a wonderful little car. As was the practice in the States, Sophie has me doing most of the driving. I’ve gotten a translation of my Colorado driver’s license. We’re not sure if this will be enough to keep me from getting a ticket as an unauthorized/registered driver but we will try in for awhile. So far have not been stopped. Old Soviet era rules make it mandatory that you carry a raft of paperwork telling all about your car, your family, why you like to drive, safety history of the vehicle, special notarized paper giving me as owners husband the right to drive the car, etc. I have a huge new wallet for my passport and one whole section devoted to car stuff. We can only hope that one day it is reduced to driver license, registration and insurance card.

I’m developing enough bad habits on the road to be aggressive but not dangerous. In the States the mantra is drive defensively. Here you drive offensively or you get run over. It is not as uncivilized as was Almaty with the blaring horns. Russian are more subtle and don’t go to the horn unless they are about to get hit.

I’ve started making contact for my own work, emailing furiously with Americans that have been here recently and trying to set up meetings with various people that can offer advise and leads. This is the ultimate test for me as I don’t speak a lot of Russian and I’m in the thick of Mother Russia. Time will tell.