Russia is Illuminated

 

My recent trip to Altai is proof that life imitates art. Just a few days before leaving the US I watched the film “Everything is Illuminated.” Even if you’ve never seen it, you know the plot: a mismatched cast of characters (an octogenarian Ukrainian anti-Semite, his hip-hop obsessed playboy grandson, a shy young American Jew, a deranged dog) embark on a road trip to an unlikely place (the Ukrainian countryside) and adventure (and illumination) ensues. In my case, the characters include an American GIS expert visiting Russia for the first time, two native-rights activists from Kamchatka, and a flamboyant military veteran turned professional driver. We have spent our days crammed into a van with all of our luggage and supplies, traveling across windswept tundra and over frozen mountain passes, spending our evenings in a three-room cabin with no running water and no heat beyond a wood stove. In between work-related discussions and meetings with local conservationists, we have had adventures ranging from a visit to an Altai shaman who interpreted our dreams to a swimming excursion in weather more fit for skiing.

As I watch our GIS expert, Tammie, experience Russia for the first time, I can’t help but envy her. My first visit to Russia, in 2005, took me to Moscow, where I lived in a student dorm and visited one museum and tourist attraction after another. At the time it all seemed very real (and very “Russian,” whatever that means), but looking back I can see that I learned about as much as I would have at Epcot’s Russia exhibition.

Not so for Tammie. She has already visited an outhouse at 8 AM when the thermometer read -50. And she helped wash the dishes with nothing but well water heated over our wood stove. But she is also treated to the rewards, such as a dinner of besh barmak (a traditional Turkic dish of mutton or horse meat over homemade noodles) and home made milk-vodka at the home of an Altain musician. She also got to witness the sunrise pictured above with her own eyes. Translating for and helping Tammie has made me realize what I love about Russia; the camaraderie, the adventure, the beauty and yes, the challenge. This trip has also made me realize how much I love my job, and hope that we will be successful in preserving this amazing land for future generations of adventure seekers.

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