A month ago, on the first Sunday of December, I left the city for the first time since I got here in mid-August. I spent the day in the countryside.
The Wednesday before, I had been sitting in my Russian language lesson when I got a message on my phone from my elf. She wasn’t my elf then, she was still just our HR guru. She told me that she had a friend who was organising a day trip to the countryside. A walk through a village, a brief foray into a nearby forest and a traditional lunch at a house in another nearby village was promised, along with an English-speaking guide and a driver. Seats were limited to three and seeing as how I’ve been lightly itching to go to the countryside since I got here, I didn’t hesitate. I responded in the same minute and told her that I was in. Thank God I had my phone with me in my class that day!
She gave me her friend’s contact information so I could make the necessary arrangements. By that evening, plans were made for me and two of the other foreign teachers to join the excursion. She and the driver would pick up two of us at 10 am in front of school (I live on the next block, the other lady lives across the street) then we would pick up the third person, who lives about ten minutes away by car.
Unfortunately, the third person cancelled on Saturday because she wasn’t well (frozen kidneys, I didn’t even know that was a thing but apparently it is here) and although she was feeling better than she had a few days before, she thought it was wise to stay in that day. So we were down to two for our excursion. I didn’t mind. If it was down to just me, I’d still go!
Our guide, Masha, and the driver, her husband Marat, picked us up just after 10 am and we made our way towards the airport and the edge of town. By 10:30 I was officially out of Yakutsk for the first time since I got here. It wasn’t bright daytime yet since sunrise was only about an hour old but the countryside was beautiful with freshly fallen snow.
As we drove, Masha gave us some details about her life growing up in the nearby village of Tulagino, where her grandmother still lives. She and Marat told us about the annual spring solstice festival as we drove past the field where it’s held. She told us about the herds of wild horses that roam the countryside, one or two horses of which her family owns, as do other families; the baby horses are meat for them. We had an easy and informative conversation as we drove.
Out first stop was at a civil war monument on a rise above a village. Marat pulled off onto the shoulder and we exited the car and tramped through the ankle-deep snow up to the monument. I was happy that I had worn all of my cold weather gear and could frolic up the small hill (I did…I frolicked in the snow) – I had my thick tights on, along with my unti, ski pants, warm scarf, mittens, yadda yadda yadda. I don’t recall now what the temperature was that day but I was warmly wrapped up against it so I was good.
Since there was nothing much to see, we didn’t stay at the monument for more than a couple of minutes. We tramped back down to the car and continued on our journey to Masha’s village, Tulagino. When we got there, we got out of the car and walked down one of the streets. Masha explained to us that many of the villages don’t have piped in gas like we do in Yakutsk – or if they do, many residents can’t afford the price of the piped in gas – so residents have to chop wood and keep their home fires burning through the night. Marat and I walked out onto the river, where blocks of river ice were stocked up for use by the villagers for their water needs throughout the winter. Afterwards Masha told us about how difficult it is to cut the blocks of ice from the river but how much she had enjoyed doing it with her dad and brothers when she was younger. While we were on the ice, Marat also showed me a hole cut into the ice (I didn’t go close to it, it was a little distance away) that villagers walk their livestock down to daily in order to water them.
We walked on to the village hall, which was locked up tight for Sunday, then we got back into the car and drove around the corner to Masha’s grandma’s house, where we walked through the yard and to the shed where grandma keeps her cows that she uses for daily milk. It’s basically a shed built of cow dung, which Masha says keeps the structure warm for the animals. Yup, village life.
We didn’t meet grandma because she was babysitting Masha and Marat’s little boy and they didn’t want him to see them because they couldn’t stay. We got back into the car and drove to the nearby forest. We got out of the car again and Masha served us hot tea in plastic cups with little pastries that she had made. We ate and drank our tea and chatted standing around by the car. Masha showed us some deer tracks that she said was at least a few days old. By this time, it was going on midday, so we took a few pictures and got back into the car, heading to a local house for lunch.
The morning had been quick but stimulating. There was more to come for the afternoon.