Thursday, October 25, 2007

Kyiv Adventure, Part 4: Old Friends

Our Kyiv trip afforded us an opportunity to catch up with some old friends. On Sunday, we strolled around the alleyways of old Kyiv with Val. Erik met Val last year in Crimea when he participated in a conference on elections. The conference's first session was for advanced students and graduates who planned careers in politics. The second session included politicians and members of the Central Electoral Commission. Val was Erik's Ukrainian translator, and they became friends over the week, indulging in trips to Crimean wine country and to the beach in between and after sessions. Val grew up in Kyiv and showed us places we had never seen. We had been down the streets many times, but Val knew interesting places to visit "off the beaten path." He showed us the area where he spent his youth, in a ravaged post-WWII city, and many other fascinating historic sites.

We also picked up a good friend for a visit to L'viv - Vladimir from Salekhard, Russia. Back when Erik was a graduate student at Michigan State, he received an email about his website from Vladimir, asking him to include a link to the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Republic on the site. An email-based conversation followed for several months. When Erik conducted his dissertation research in Russia and Ukraine in 1999, Vladimir invited us to visit. During Lea's trip to Russia in November 1999, we bundled up and headed north.

Vladimir's town is located on the Arctic Circle and is home to about 30,000 people. Because it is so far north, there is limited daylight in the fall and winter months. During our stay, the temperature often dropped below -30°. This is around the point where Celsius and Fahrenheit scales cross, so the temperature was about the same in both metrics. On the right you see us and our friends Vladimir and Igor at about 4:00 PM in front of a sign welcoming visitors to "Salekhard - The City on the Arctic Circle."

Salekhard is the capital of the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Region. The primary employer in the region is Russia's main natural gas company, Gazprom. Although the city's history extends back to 1595, it is perhaps most famous for its stint as the local hub for labor camps during the Stalin era. Stalin decided to build a Trans-Polar Railway as a northern complement to the Trans-Siberian Railway. Thousands of people were forced to work in brutal conditions to build the railroad. The project was abandoned after Stalin's death and was never completed. Some of the homes in contemporary Salekhard were used as living quarters for camp guards.

Many nomadic reindeer herders live in the area and we met some on the road to the village of Aksarka. They graciously agreed to take photos with us and give us a ride on their sled. As you can see in the photo on the left, one of the reindeer is an albino. White reindeer are considered to bring good luck to the Khanty people. The local cuisine was quite interesting and surprisingly delicious. We sampled reindeer meat as well as the tastiest salmonid we have ever encountered. Muksun is a delicious, fatty, white-fleshed fish that lives in the upper Ob river. It is traditionally eaten raw (frozen and dipped in salt), but we also ate it smoked, cooked in aspic, and fried. It was simply the best fish that we have ever eaten (in all of its forms).

Eight years have passed since that visit. When Vladimir found out that we would be in L'viv, he made plans to come down south. He is originally from Ukraine and his family still lives in a small town in the northeast of the country. On top of this, his best friend from childhood works in L'viv, so Vladimir could visit with him as well. He made his way to our Kyiv rental apartment on Monday and we all boarded the train for the overnight trip to L'viv. We have been showing him some of the sights (see Vladimir at the Armenian Church in the photo to the left) and he has been giving us lessons in Ukrainian! Vladimir will visit for a few days, then head off to spend more time with his mother in his hometown.

1 comment:

Lea's Dad said...

-40 is the point at which they are equal!! NO matter how you spell it, it has to be cold. The e-mail system sure is an interesting way for people to search out and form good relationships, a far cry from some of what happens when people are not acting in good faith. The fish sound a lot more interesting than dipping frozen catfish or carp in salt...as one would have to do here