Monthly Archives: June 2012

It’s been a hectic week back in America — family and friends to see, housing to find in DC (check), among other things. Tomorrow, I leave for my month long backpacking journey across Western Europe. Part of it is by myself, part of it is with a friend from college, and the last two weeks are with my good ol’ Pop. Papa Tran has wanted to see Europe for the longest time, and when he asked to come with me, how could I say no? We’ve got a backpack each, a heavy guide book, and reservations at some grungy hostels.

My route. Somewhat similar to that taken in the 2004 comedy “Eurotrip.”



I seem to have really good luck with Russia’s weather. I came from one of the chilliest summers ever to a scorching 134 F (in the sun, and this is according to one of the babushkas who works in the dorm, so I don’t know how accurate the measurement is). Last Sunday, after the post-farewell-party train ride from hell (never ever ride a train hungover), I arrived in Elista. It’s the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, but it’s still a fairly small city — it’s got the same population as Ukhta, and I would say that it’s just more stretched out than Ukhta is.

Seven Days Pagoda in the center of Elista

I haven’t been here for long, and I’m only staying until Tuesday, but it’s a nice change of scenery. The mix of Asia and Europe here is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. At least, more pleasing than ugly, squat khrushchevki buildings that clustered the streets of Ukhta. Also, unlike the Komi Republic, I definitely feel that I am in an ethnic republic here — most people are Kalmyk here, and Russians are the minority. The Kalmyk people, in case you didn’t know, are related to Mongolians. Some of my friends back in Ukhta joked, “You’re going to finally be with your people!” Humor aside, I do fit in quite well here. No one stares at me, and it’s only when I begin to speak Russian do people give me funny looks.

Buddha. in honor of the Dalai Lama.

What’s most fascinating to me is the Buddhist culture here. Kalmykia is the only Buddhist region in Europe (Sibera and whatever is east of the Urals is considered to be Asia), and they practice Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has even been here quite a few times, and the people here recognize him as their spiritual leader. While I’m technically a Buddhist, I’m a rather terrible one, so I look forward to checking out the temple some more while I’m here. It’s not the same branch of Buddhism that my family practices, but it’s worth exploring anyway.

The largest Buddhist temple in Europe

There are only a few downsides to being here. The first being that it is ungodly hot, and there’s no escape from the heat. The school is unbearably stuffy, and the poor kids sit there weakly fanning themselves as I make half-hearted attempts to teach them English. They’re good sports about the heat though — I’m not, mainly because I’m a wimp and I hate sitting in my own sweat. The second would be that since most of the college students here are busy, none of them want to hang out with me, which makes me feel rather alone. I have, however, befriended some people from Benin and Congo in the adjacent dormitory, so not all is terrible.

I know that I’ve been writing about leaving and saying goodbye for the last few posts now, but this is really it! I leave this Saturday bright and early in the morning to head to Elista, the capital of the republic of Kalmykia. In case you’ve never heard of it (you really have never heard of it). Elista is famous for Buddhism and Chess!

Life size chess boards and pagodas — my kind of city.

As my days here are quickly winding down, I can’t help but be filled with conflicting emotions. I am itching to leave to see something new, to travel, to get back to America to see my friends and family.  At the same time, it’s heartbreaking to leave all the friends I made here. This goodbye is different from typical goodbyes — after I graduated from college, at least I knew that most of my friends were staying stateside. Visiting is only a matter of buying an airplane ticket and a little bit of planning ahead of time. Visiting my friends here will take a trip to the consulate, shelling out $$ for an invitation and visa, even more $$$ for a plane ticket. Not to mention the 40 hours it will take to actually arrive here, crossing an ocean, etc.

The people I will sorely miss. The city, however, I will not. As a person from a big city, living in a small provincial town is something that I just can never do. Sometimes, I feel as if Ukhta is a good example of what’s wrong with Russia: the crumbling infrastructure, lack of opportunities for young people, stifling atmosphere, and general attitude of “nichego sdelyat’.” Can’t do anything about it. Case in point, there is no hot water here, and until I leave, I will be joyfully bathing in ice cold water. When I asked about it, I got some convoluted answer about using a basin to get hot water from the kitchen and somehow taking a shower with that. I pressed on and asked why they turned off the hot water, to which the babushki in the dorm answered defensively: “That’s the way it is, we can’t do anything about it.” It’s an answer that infuriates me to no end, because it’s not true — there is something one can do about it, but no one does, because the belief that nothing can be done is basically ingrained into people’s heads.  On a larger scale, people who can leave this city do, mainly because, again, there is nothing to do in this city and it’s a dead end — no opportunities are available here (well, aside from oil and gas, but not everybody can work in that fun sphere). A lot of my students dream of going to a bigger city. Maybe St. Petersburg, perhaps Moscow, maybe even Europe if possible. Similar to the way young people dream of leaving Russia. It’s not the way it should be. But I guess, for now, leaving is the better option than trying to change.

Negativity aside, while this is a farewell, this isn’t the last time I’ll be in Russia, nor will it be the last time I’ll be in Ukhta. At least, that is what I’m telling myself now. Because, in the end, even if I was sent to live in a big city, it would have been terrible if I didn’t have good friends. I am so, so grateful to have met all of the wonderful people that I am friends with here. I will miss being able to drop by someone’s place whenever I wanted to. I will miss walking around and wasting time as if I had all the time in the world to spend. I will miss being able to do things that I never got to do in America: sing, ride dogs, ski. I will greatly miss their company, and I appreciate their willingness to put up with a crazy American like me.

Someone once told me that life is like a train ride. People get on and off, join you in your compartment (of life…), and you enjoy their company while they’re there, and make peace with it when they leave. However, I’ll make sure that my train goes back to this snowy land, at least one more time.