Chemal, Russia July 2016
Not to get all too political all of a sudden, we’ll leave that until we leave Russia, but let’s see where such a provocative title could take us.
First, out of Pavlodar, our last Couchsurfing address in Kazakhstan, a country which shares a lot of the same democratic values as its aforementioned big bother. The family we stayed with had some of their own political struggles. They were homeschooling their five children, which is not officially allowed. The mother and kids fled the country to homeschool in India and Nepal and it took the Nepal earthquake for the local school director to urge them to come back and work out a solution.
Much respect to the mother, as she took care of the home and the schooling ánd the Couchsurfer guests. With five kids, two parents, us two and another Couchsurfing guest in a two-bedroom apartment its safe to say that it was an intense two days.
But our journey continued further eastwards, still without much sleep. We happily took the quick and easy option to cross the border back into Russia by train and would have taken a second train or bus further east, but there wasn’t any leaving anytime soon, so we started walking out with our thumbs in the air once more. Not soon after, we were sitting in a car with a mother and her daughter and son on their way to an outdoor church musical recital, to which we were cordially invited. The gathering thunderclouds hadn’t deterred the crowd, consisting mostly of babushkas and dedushkas, but the gusting winds played their part, cracking the sound of the music from the speakers. Linda offered the wind protector of our microphone, which didn’t help them much, but as the rain started coming down it was time to break up the concert anyway.
As we got back in the car, we were spontaneously invited for a small tour through the city of Kulunda, where we learned about the (to that point to us unknown) honeysuckle berries and the local soda lakes. The mother didn’t want to send us out into the light rain, but after some strong convincing on our part we were allowed to leave the car. As a joke, we got all five of us lined up with our thumbs in the air for the next passing car. It must have been a convincing image, as the driver actually stopped. We said our goodbyes and hopped in, hoping to make it to some of the bigger lakes to camp for a few days. Our driver, Ivan, told us he was driving straight to Barnaul, our destination for the upcoming language camp. Hinging back and forth on taking a breather or taking a quick ride into the city, the prospect of heavy rain, salty water, no shower, and many mosquitos, swayed us to stay in our comfortable seats of the big and fast Mercedes SUV. As we were happily chatting away in Russian, all thanks to Google Translate, Ivan was so kind to invite us for the night to his home. After Ivan collected all the groceries, we prepared a wonderful meal together. The local unrefined sun seed oil we used for the salad dressing was amazing and as Jeroen strategically tried to keep his whiskey glass half-full (to not have it refilled), we moved with a bottle of wine, some melon and a guitar to the penthouse balcony, where we spent the rest of the evening with an incredible nighttime view of the city.
After we kindly declined to stay a second night, we made our way to a hostel where we locked ourselves in a room to catch up on some overdue sleep. Here we met a few rather remarkable characters, although they probably thought the same about us, as we would often hear the aroused words Germania and Njemski (German) from behind a corner or a closed door. We decided to not overthink it and made our way to the language school where we met the other volunteers from the UK and France. We spent a few wonderful days with the Russian counselors/cameraman Polina, Anja and Slava (thanks for hosting us!) and the other volunteers in Barnaul, before heading out with about 90 kids to the 10-day language camp in Chemal in the Altai mountains.
To get an idea what it was like to be a camp-counselor, which brings us back to our title of a modern day gulag, we put together a small video, which you can find in our film section (Bad counselor). Of course we weren’t mean to the kids áll the time, but we did have lots and lots and lots and lots of fun. The hardest part was answering questions about whether we like Russia, to which we honestly answered that the country is beautiful and the people are incredibly friendly, while mostly leaving out anything political. Self-censorship is a shameful consequence of an oppressive regime, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, we’re still inside Russia. Did we already say it’s beautiful here?