Monday, September 15, 2008

Seven days in Великий двор (Velikiy Dvor)

Last July at the World Hang gliding Championships in Italy, I once sat talking with people of various nations about what place in their own country they would most want to show to a visitor from another country. When it was Yulia's turn to speak, she told us of Velikiy Dvor, where her family spent the first six years of her life. There they lived in the peaceful comfort of a simple country life while Russia's difficult transition out of communism made living in Moscow too much of a challenge. Above, Yulia's mother Gulia has just returned from a wolf hunt.

When her family was able return to Moscow in the early 1990's due to the stabilization that eventually emerged, the rest of the town's small population soon followed to other major cities and Velikiy Dvor became a ghost town.

As Yulia described the area and how much she'd always longed to return there one day to see it again as an adult, I could see an inspiring gleam in her eyes. To her it was not so much a place but a state of mind.

A few days later as she and I talked of something else, I changed the subject and told her, "Remember that place you described where you grew up? I'd love to go there one day with you."
"Then let's do it," she simply said. I love it when people take me at face value.
"I'm serious," I countered, just to be sure.
"So am I," she said.

And so the wheels began to turn, both in our minds and in reality (airline tickets, visas, etc.). Initially there was talk of a group joining the adventure but, in the end, it was only she, her boyfriend Artur, and myself.

(Artur has asked that I not post any pictures of him on my blog, for reasons I didn't understand but of course did not question. The only images of him shown here and in the slide show below are ones where he is far enough away to be indistinguishable.)

I arrived in Moscow on September 5th and, after a bit of visiting, Moscow touring, and most importantly shopping to pick up a backpack and other assorted camping gear for myself, we were ready.

Monday evening, September 8th, we took an over night train to Вологда (Vologda). Arriving bleary-eyed at dawn, we spent most of that day on a bus heading further north to the nearest paved road that passed close to Мирный (Mirniy). There we hiked a few kilometers down a dirt road into the small group of houses where Yulia hoped that any member of a particular family there that her mother had once known might recognize her and assist us with covering the remaining 50 kilometers. We were prepared to cover that entire distance on foot but the friends were found, they remembered Yulia and her family, and we were given a ride further down the rough dirt road, something that took two hours in itself.

We were dropped off at a wooden bridge being rebuilt but lacking the last few truckloads of fill-dirt at the far side. After crossing it on foot, hopping down the the ground, and taking a short walk of a few hundred meters, we were there at Великий двор (Velikiy Dvor).

Though part of the house's foundation had settled and dropped the back half of the log cabin structure a few feet, Yulia's childhood home was mostly intact. This was not true for many of the other home in the town of perhaps 15 houses. Many had roofs that had completely collapsed. Some had walls that had fallen down.

Inside Yulia's home we were delighted to find a picture of her as an infant still up on a wall.

We spent some time cleaning up bird droppings, dust, and other debris, chopping wood for the night, and preparing for our first night in our home for the next week.

The next morning, our first full day there, we set out to try our hand at fishing on the river. A complete day's effort was met with little success.

The second day we hiked five kilometers to a nearby town on the edge of the lake feeding the river passing by Velikiy Dvor, hoping to find a boat we could borrow or rent. It was there that we encountered one of the trip's greatest blessings: Alec.

We had asked whomever we'd encountered (perhaps three people) if we could rent a boat to take out onto the lake. An old man offered us his rowboat free of charge, but cautioned that it would be difficult to row into the lake against the wind. After struggling with it a few hours, we reluctantly agreed and let the rowboat drift back to the shore. There we encountered fisherman returning from the lake on small boats with outboard motors and asked our questions again. We were directed to Alec's cottage and, when queried, he said he'd be happy to take us out himself tomorrow if we could return in the morning at around 11:00. The size of his boat, however, allowed only two people to join him.

His cottage had a row of freshly shot ducks hanging on one side and Yulia asked if we could buy one. "No, but you can have one,"Alec answered and handed her one, much to Yulia' delight. We would have fresh meat that night to go with the mushrooms we'd picked during the hike there.

The next morning, at Yulia's insistence, Artur and I left her and hiked back to Alec's town. After a few tries in Alec's boat as well as those of his friends, we discovered none of the boats could carry three full grown men, so Artur was left behind to fish from the shore while Alec took me off onto a wonderful, marvelous adventure of both the Russian wilderness and human kindness.

It was only after a few minutes into our journey to the part of the lake Alec wanted to show me that I discovered he spoke a little bit of English. He'd stop the motor now and then to describe various things about what we were passing, stopping onshore at one point to visit a small fishing hut that, to his gentle disgust, had been left less than clean by the previous user.

He loaned me his best fishing reel (the one I'd bought in Moscow, he gently explained, was not very good) and we fished from opposite sides of the boat. I caught one fish (two kilos: huge by my standards but average to small for the lake, I was told) and after a bit, we felt it was time to get back to Artur. As we neared the shore, he slowed the boat down to walking speed and said, "I get duck for you." In just a few minutes he shot two on the wing at unbelievably long distances.

Back at the shore he brought Artur and I into his cottage to join him for mushrooms, sausages, bread and, of course, many shots of vodka. After another hour and perhaps seven shots each (both Artur and I lost count) we felt we should return to Yulia, who'd spent the day scrubbing her home and cutting grass around it with a scythe we'd found.

Artur and I were happy, then to return to Yulia with plenty of meat to add to our stores of food to consume over the next few days.

Yulia, Artur and I went back to join Alec and his two hunting companions the next day, using all three available boats to carry the six of us out into the same area of the lake I'd been the day before. We only caught one fish between all six of us (though two got away) but Alec had caught a huge one (perhaps six kilos) two days before and so we had a huge feast anyway, deep frying filets in a wok-like device over an open fire.

As it began to grow dark, Alec and his friends used their boats to give us a ride down the river under the colorful sky, skimming on the water back to the bridge next to Yulia's home. Our hosts insisted that we three take the lone catch of the day for ourselves. With too much vodka in us again, we did not think clearly enough to get any contact details with Alec, who lives in Moscow and was only there at his dacha for another day. Before this could be rectified, all three were gone.

I so wish I had the chance to see Alec again and take him to dinner in Moscow. In all my travels these last few years, it never ceases to amaze me how good people can be all around the globe. Alec is the perfect example.

Below is a three minute collection of footage from my first afternoon with Alec amidst his kind generosity and hospitality.

Artur, Yulia and I spent our remaining days in Velikiy Dvor living simply, picking wild fruit (the forest floor was covered in blueberries and a cranberry-like fruit that was naturally sweet), cutting up scrap wood for our fires, and enjoying the natural beauty all around us.

Sunday morning, by prior arrangement, we were picked up by the same friends who'd driven us to the bridge near Yulia's home and were dropped off back at the paved road. There we caught the bus returning to Vologda and continued on with reversing the 24 hour process that had brought us to Velikiy Dvor. The last leg was, again, a Russian sleeping train which, to me, was almost as much of an exciting adventure as anything else. After dawn, I sat transfixed at the window, fascinated with simply watching the small details of Russian life pass by as we closed in on Moscow.

Below is a slideshow of the trip.

Next up: Visiting both old and new friends in Chelyabinsk, Russia.