|The Barn Swallow Project||
When I was about eight, my uncle Neil introduced me to a riddle-game called “Beyond the Green Glass Doors.” Beyond the green glass doors, there are streets, but no roads. There are bees, but no honey. Beyond the green glass doors, there is glassware, but no china. We played this game, going around the dinner table at Thanksgiving, each trying to guess at the underlying rule and make a statement about what was or wasn’t behind those peculiar Twilight-Zone-like doors. Sometimes, I feel like being in Russia is like that. Like I’m always trying to figure out some underlying pattern that would explain why things are as they are here. For example:
Novosibirsk opera house
If our posts up to this point have sounded relaxed, or even giddy, it’s because fieldwork rarely goes this well. Birds don’t just fall into your lap (or net) the way they did for us in Moscow and Yekaterinburg. Food just isn’t as tasty (or plentiful) as it was at those research stations. Sure we’ve been working pretty hard, but we’ve also been coasting through Russia on a cloud of excitement and slight disbelief at our good luck.
Well, the other shoe had to drop sometime, and it definitely dropped for us in Novosibirsk. In 3 days of work we caught a pretty respectable number of birds (27), but it was via traditional fieldwork methods- looong hours, very little sleep, and a touch of despair.
My bunkmates for the train ride
The trip from Kamyshlov is immediately different. Upon boarding the sardine can train car, you propel yourself past rows of bunks, people, and their stuff, occasionally having to dislodge your wide pack from between overflowing mattresses. You find your bunk, throw your small pack on it and immediately commence negotiating where to put THE REST of your gear; in particular, where to put the 80 lbs. duffle that won’t fit in the shelf over your bunk or that of your traveling partner. You look around desperately, trying to phrase in what broken Russian your brain seems willing to cough up.
“Uh, pozhaloosta,” shit, I don’t know how to say ‘can I’... oh, wait, “magoo,” oh shit, I don’t know how to say 'put'—Nik said that was complicated, didn’t he? “Er.” <You point to your bag, then to the shelf over the girl’s bunk>.
The girl says, “Nyet, eto nash.”
OK, she thinks you don’t know it’s not yours—but she’s not using the space...try again. “Uh, pozhaloosta...mnye,” <point between bag and shelf> “nash chemodan...?”
The girl repeats what she said before. Hmm, this isn’t going well...
The Trans-Siberian Railroad is one of those few human accomplishments that still turns heads in today’s society—like the Great Wall or the Pyramids or the Acropolis. But of these, the Trans-Siberian is clearly more recent, and yet, less familiar to Americans. It stretches across almost the entire length of the world’s largest country—covering 5,753 miles, seven time zones, and requiring 8 days to traverse at a go. When we learned we would be traveling the train from Moscow to Vladivostok, we started reading up about it. Word of mouth hinted that it would be dirtier and noisier than we imagined, and that we would be drinking a lot (as this was the custom). In contrast, blog posts and travel books suggested it would be grungy and boisterous and we would be drinking a LOT. Thus, we prepared ourselves to chat for hours in pidgin Englian or Rusglish as bottles of vodka and samogon, fish, and pickles were passed around into the wee hours of the night. We anticipated these rituals with equal parts excitement and trepidation, often saying to people with a smile and a shrug, “Yep, it’s gunna be an adventure.” So it was with this mindset that we boarded our train in Moscow, prepared for a 33 hour “Russian Experience: the stuff great stories are made of.”
The kitchen/ dining room/ bunkhouse at the field station
After we caught our forty birds, Gennady decided we had time for some cultural experiences in Irbit, and before we knew what was happening Nadyezhda had called two museums and arranged an afternoon of private tours. First up was an art museum, which apparently contained some pieces by famous European artists. We weren’t expecting much from a tiny museum in a Siberian town with 50,000 inhabitants, but we were blown away by the place. The museum was closed the day we visited, but the director made a special trip out to open it up and take us on a tour. He had floppy white hair, wireless glasses that he constantly twirled between is fingers and used for emphasis, and was missing the top button of his khaki shirt- the stereotype of a passionate and well-educated art wonk. At the entrance he told us they were currently exhibiting graphic prints from the 15 and 1600s, as well as their two most famous paintings.
One of the best things about fieldwork (and science in general) is that it is rarely predictable. I like to think that after years of research in remote places, I am a little jaded. Fifteen-hour bus trips, open-air toilets, and swarms of insects no longer faze me. However, I admit to being pretty surprised by our visit to the field station outside Yekaterinburg.