Monday, 14 October 2013

A Month in The Country (well Novosibirsk actually)

Back from Russia for 2 weeks and so much to do that my feet have barely touched the ground.   At least today I have managed to edit my photos, with captions in English at least (I still need to produce a Russian version) which will be on YouTube for those who have nothing better to do than look at them (links below).  Photo albums still to be made up, blog updated and linked to my Flipboard magazine. 

Well at least this blog is a start.
By way of background you should know that I have been “learning” Russian for over 13 years, though not that well; in that time an able student would have written a thesis (in Russian).  But my studies have not, frankly been that serious. Now I have more time and plan to study seriously; do my homework, memorise vocabulary, read every day, etc... This trip was planned both as a treat to myself on retirement and to kick-start my learning onto a higher level.  I have also been so afraid to make mistakes (a hangover from a draconian French language teacher at school) that I could not speak Russian even with friends and acquaintances.  Apart from that I would not have understood them anyway when they spoke, but that was another problem to overcome.

The first question I am asked (even by Russians) is“why Russian”? The fact is that I persevere because it is hard!  Its grammar is not like English.  At school I read Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Gogol etc.. in English translation while at university I studied Russian history and economics.  Russia is also an enigma, as Churchill indicated, and undoubtedly an important power in the world.   It is my belief that what happens there (as well as in China) will have a profound effect on us in the West over the next 20 years.  So it better turn out well.

The next question is usually “why Novosibirsk?”, followed quickly by "where is it anyway?”.  These are easier to answer.  To the first: because I have not been there before.  And anyway it is significantly cheaper than Moscow, St Pete’s or indeed any of the western Russian cultural centres.  And anyway, why not?   

As to the second question, Novosibirsk is in central Siberia (which your insurance company probably thinks is not part of Russia, so I recommend you check your health insurance before travelling).  It is the third largest city in the country, after Moscow and St Petersburg, although with a population of only 1.5 million, but growing fast.  It is known as the “Capital of Siberia” and was created from a small town in the late 19th Century when a bridge was built across the river Ob for the Trans-Siberian railway.  It subsequently grew rapidly during Stalin’s industrialisation and the “Great Patriotic War” (WW2), where armaments and equipment were manufactured for the Red Army, out of reach of Hitler’s bombers.  After the war, research institutes were established and there now numerous institutes and universities located in the thriving “sister city” of Akademgorodok, 30 km from the centre of Novosibirsk.

Enough history.  It is all on the web.  

September should have been a glorious autumn month, silver birch trees radiant in yellow and red. Instead we had balmy summer weather and, trees still hung in green.  Only in the last week did Autumn begin to set in.  This meant that I was able to wander the streets and parks in short sleeves, rather than seeking out the warmth of museums and galleries, though I visited a few.  Of course I have also not experienced the real cold of a Siberian winter (-25C is “normal”; -40C is getting cold), though we learnt about it in school.  If I had been there in winter perhaps I would have seen more of the local museums and become an expert on Siberian geography and history.  But I was not winter, and I have not become an expert.   If there is a reason to go back it is probably to be there in February and feel the cold!

I was told Novosibirsk was ugly, industrial and uninteresting, not like Moscow anyway, and that there would be nothing to do.  I wonder if those giving the advice had ever been there?  It is true that, like all cities, including Moscow, there are large areas of uninteresting suburban sprawl.  But Novosibirsk cannot be written off as boring.  It has broad avenues; good public transport; parks; a major opera house with excellent ballet and opera companies; numerous theatres, museums and art galleries; some good restaurants, jazz clubs, outdoor concerts, and dancing in the streets on Sunday.  That is a whole lot more than any city of the same size in the UK.  Getting anywhere else takes a bit of travel (19 hours by train to Irkutsk, but “only” 4.5 hours by bus to Tomsk).  But if you study 7 hours a day, with homework in the evenings, there was more than enough to occupy you.  And unlike in Moscow, people do not try to speak English to you as soon as you open your mouth, which is surely much better if you are learning Russian.

Of course I am glad to be home, but I am also sorry to have left and would have loved to spend longer there, except of course for being parted from my dear wife.  As for the purpose of going, I was there to lose my fear of speaking Russian and to learn more, which I did.  I have only praise for ExLinguo, the school that organised a constantly varying daily programme and tailored teaching to every student’s needs (including additional individual lessons).  They also organised or recommended a variety of social and cultural learning activities, arranged for students to stay on local farms and generally made us extremely welcome.  The teachers were all brilliant, bright, young, good looking (!), very skilled communicators that made every lesson a pleasure.    

And staying with local families was undoubtedly the best way to do it; not only a cultural experience but great for learning too.  Who knows; you may even find you have made friends for life. 

So, objective achieved.  And if you really want to, you can read this blog in Russian here

If you are interested in seeing some pictures (quite a lot actually) then follow one of the links below (English versions.  Translated versions will hopefully follow)

A month in Novosibirsk (very long - about 13 minutes - to be edited)

A weekend in Tomsk (about 5 minutes)

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