Altai, Condoms and Eclipse Chasing…

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Hot Russian Folk Singing Action

Hot Russian Singers Video

We get started in the mid morning with a few missions in mind for the day. The plan is to try and get down into the Altai countryside, at least to or past Barnaul; a town best known in Russia for being a ski resort; but also a summer getaway. Vortex Yulia had recently spent some time staying in a cabin by a lake there and had showed us some pictures. The stunning scenery made up our mind to try and get there. We spend time wandering around a craft festival in the city centre, watching some music and theatre performances, before meeting Yulia to enjoy some Uighur food. The Uighur people come from the far west of modern China and the food is a curious blend of central asian and chinese styles that we enjoy a lot. Yulia vortexes us through the post office to get us registered and then, with help from her sister, tries to find us a way to visit the Altai.

After numerous failed attempts to make the Altai journey happen, we decide we really want to share the eclipse with Vortex Yulia and Yana. There may be problems being understood in the Altai and catching the right buses or trains will be tricky….and it won’t be the same without our crazy new friends. Vortex Yulia says she and Yana will meet us after seven as the two of them are going to help her mother clean the place a little with the renovations almost finished. We immediately say that we’ll stay and help as well, but Vortex Yulia won’t hear of it.
“You’re a guest and that wouldn’t be right, I can’t let you do that, you go off somewhere and we’ll find you when we’re finished. It’ll be easier with the three of us, we know what needs to be done and where everything is and it’ll be easier and I have to go now, see you!”

Russian Craft

Real Russian craft..

With that, she disappears into the flow of people on the street. We stand idly and watch her leave. Feeling the Yulia vortex dissipate from around us always brings a kind of sadness before we take control of the day again. We go wandering again for a while and then decide we’ll try the Mexican place we passed on the first day for dinner. We order an array of burritos, enchiladas, tacos and several glasses of different cocktails, which we pass around before the food shows any sign of appearing. By the time Yulia, Yana and Vanya find us, we’re more than a little happy and very interested in heading over to Lenin’s square, where a Couchsurfing meetup is about to start. On the way I mention I could do with some eye-drops as we’re passing a chemist and we all stop off. There’s a fair queue inside and all of our group suddenly seem to remember they also need something. Don notices a box of condoms with labelling that seems strange to him and he asks Vortex Yulia,
“What are these ones? Are they really big or something? When I was in Japan the condoms were too small for me, so I had to get special ones”, he explains with a cheeky smile.
Vortex Yulia examines the packet and says,
“Oh those condoms are for boys”. Don looks confused and says,
“I thought ALL condoms are for boys?”
She looks a little embarrassed and says,
“No. These condoms. Are for…..boys. Only boys.”
He looks confused for a moment and then realisation dawns on him that there might be some demand for gay condoms.
“Really? You can get different ones? I’ve never seen that before! Lari, can you buy me some condoms?”
We all laugh as Vortex Yulia looks disturbed at him and then me.
“Why do you want them?”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing before. Now I find them in Russia. Isn’t it illegal or something over here?”
“Apparently not that illegal.”

Siberian publicity fun..

We all love puffer fish, right? Right??

We head for the meeting point and the first person we find is a middle-aged American guy who has been a dedicated eclipse chaser for more than fifteen years. You can tell the only thing on his mind now is the moment of Totality and he is a fount of knowledge on all things eclipse. I take a few mental steps backwards and let him take over that role, only correcting the odd inaccuracy. In any normal group, I’m this guy, but it doesn’t control everything I do in the way I’m seeing that it does for him. He has only come to Russia for the Totality, he’s not travelling anywhere else or doing anything else; just here for one week to find a good spot to see it. I hope I never reduce the experience to this level. For me Totality is the particular experience that I follow to tell me what country I’m going to be travelling in and when. It doesn’t tell me what to do there, or provide anything more than a focal point in space and time. The two of us still break off from the main group and exchange eclipse chasing stories; this will be his eighth and my third. He’s proud to have managed to see all of them, in a variety of countries. He seems to know Fred Espenak; an icon personality to eclipse chasers. He is the guy who runs the NASA website dedicated to showing us all where they will be for the next twenty or so years, in addition to writing books on the topic. I’ve certainly always been interested in the idea of meeting the man to talk about his experiences and attitudes towards Totality. Our American friend is taking great delight in telling me that Fred has missed a couple due to bad weather, a couple that he managed to see, so he says he’s seen more than Fred. I can’t say I especially care and feel myself moving further away from this fellow eclipse chaser’s pathway by the minute. We all love to follow them and be there for the magical moment, but I just can’t see it as a competition on seeing more. Having the best viewpoint I can understand, I will see the one rising over the Pacific Ocean and would also like to be in a plane flying along the line of Totality. The plane trick can make a two minute Totality last for ten minutes or longer as you race the moon shadow across the earth. However these things are experiences I’d love to share with as many people as possible. The idea of making it a pissing competition on how many you’ve seen is starting to annoy me.

Everyone smoking means bins often end up on fire...

I disentangle myself and move to try and talk to Ravil, another local Couchsurfer I’d exchanged messages with over the last few weeks, but he’s busy deep in conversation with Lari and I turn to find some more of Vortex Yulia’s friends have arrived. They are two young women who have already been into the vodka as much as we have. They suggest we join the Russian open air pub happening outside the supermarket across the square. We’re talking in English as we arrive and a Russian guy walks into the group, puts his hand out, and with a weird laughing tone asks for money. I stop and look at him for a second before ignoring him. He has a group of friends standing about ten metres away egging him on and I wonder where this will lead. One of the girls speaks to him curtly in Russian and the other one joins in, much to his amazement. His attitude changes and he walks off to rejoin his friends as we return to the main group sitting on a string of park benches behind the statue of Lenin.

The American guy corners the two girls and starts hassling them for drinking and smoking cigarettes, telling them how terribly unhealthy it is. They both look at him sideways and clearly don’t care for the lecture.
“Yes, we know it’s bad for us, but we feel good and enjoy our lives and the night more.”
The two of them are smiling hugely and give each other a hug. He continues anyway,
“But isn’t there a Russian saying about this, ‘It’s a shame to die without health’?”
The two girls look confused and they consult each other for a minute. They then say the sentence in Russian back to him and ask if it’s the one he’s heard. He agrees it is and they look concerned again, then explain.
“That’s not really how it’s meant. The better translation is ‘It’s a shame to die healthy’, so it doesn’t matter if you’re healthy or sick, young or old, you’re still dead. So dying healthy means you miss out on living when things are going well for you, dying after sickness is a release from pain.”
He looks confused now; this isn’t where he was going at all – and they are unstoppable in their exuberance now.
“So you should live your life! I’m going to smoke these cigarettes and drink these beers and enjoy my life before I lose it!”, she exclaims triumphantly.
I join the cheer and we all share a toast to living life to the full as he turns away to find another path.

Soon after, two policemen come walking down towards this large, English speaking group to explain to us that drinking here is not allowed. They instantly receive a tirade from the two girls that spreads as most of the Russians join in. We three Australians sit quietly and hope for the best as the engagement continues. The police seem surprised to find most of the people present are locals and walk off after giving us all a warning. The girls are quite angry at them, I saw them pointing to the many groups of people standing outside the supermarket doing exactly what we’re doing and not being bothered by the police sitting in a car close by. I decide to play it safe, finish my beer quickly and dump it in the bin. The group breaks up soon after without giving me a chance to talk to Ravil. Lari says,
“He’s driving the American guy into the Altai region to see the eclipse from the side of a mountain.”
It sounds like a great idea, but I decide I’m in better company here in Novosibirsk. Later I discover they don’t see the eclipse at all due to cloud cover and I feel karma is served somehow.

..because Russian men CAN wear pink shirts and carry handbags...

As we’re walking back to the two apartments, Yana asks the three Australians if we would be willing to attend a conversational English class she’s holding on Wednesday night. We immediately agree and ask her to let us know details on the day. The idea of talking with more locals sounds like great fun to all of us and we’re more than happy to spend some time helping out. As I crawl into bed again I wonder what on earth we will do tomorrow. We’d been planning to be on the way to Altai on an overnight bus by now, but now we have no ideas. I also realise I don’t really care; just the amazing experience of being here in the care of this family is awesome. I’m running over the last few days in my head when sleep creeps quietly to me and lays its hand across my eyes.

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