An Education in the Russian Outdoors

Summer is here, and in the summer especially, I think again about the academic exchanges with a secondary school in Russia that I led some years ago.  I especially remember a hike I took one Sunday when my American students were all at their host families’ dachas for the day. Call this post an American teacher in an outdoor Russian classroom. I learned a lot–not just about history and biology and geography–but about relaxation, camaraderie, and low-tech, no-fuss trekking. Please, can I do it again?

My colleague Tatyana proposed that we go on a hike. “Let’s go to Izborsk,” she suggested. “We’ll have a picnic by the lake.”

Her friend Sasha, an aerobics instructor and part-time construction worker, volunteered to be our guide. Sasha hiked often with his two sons, and even though he and his family were leaving on vacation in just a few days, he welcomed the chance to take visiting Americans to the Russian countryside he knows well.

Besides, Sasha was thinking about conducting formal tours of the Izborsk region where we would hike. Here was a chance to try out the route with some visitors from afar.

The trip he had in mind would take us through conifer forests and along a glacial valley in the Izborsk region of the Russian province of Pskov. Putin had visited the fortress at Izborsk when he first was a candidate for President, and for three successive years, my students and I had also visited this historic site.The fortress was built in the 14th century and served as a defense post for the entire Pskov region. It overlooks the Valley of Snakes, a hilly, green terrain with sparkling streams and icy glacial lakes, a landscape that is much more inviting than its name would suggest.

Would we be able to do 15 kilometers in a day?

Of course! Didn’t I hike regularly in America? I most certainly didn’t want to miss this opportunity even though I hadn’t brought proper boots or moisture-wicking socks or thinsulate garb or any of the other specialized gear American hikers deem absolutely necessary for a trouble-free hike.

My friend Tatyana and my colleague Rahul were ready, too. Sasha said we would start at a point north of the fortress and walk towards it all day, stopping only for lunch. I envisioned 15 kilometers of “Davai!  Davai!” (Come on! Come on!) and Sasha at us with a whip so we’d reach Izborsk in time to catch the evening bus back to Pskov.

I was concerned about the amount of food Tatyana was packing. In my experience, packing light was important so that you didn’t wear out from the weight on your back. Tatyana put apples and strawberries, cookies and blue cheese on the kitchen counter, and then she produced a bottle of wine. She said that Sasha was bringing one, too. I was to make ham and cheese sandwiches. “Make four,” she said. “We’ll treat the others.”

No granola bars. No freeze-dried food. No attempt to minimize the weight or pack food that couldn’t be crushed. And wine on a trip like that?  We’d all be too loggy to move. But I made the sandwiches and contributed two chocolate bars to the pile and let it be.

Since neither Tatyana nor Sasha owned a car, we planned to take the bus towards Pechory, a small town on the Estonian border. We’d get off at one of the bus stops that appear, isolated and unexpected, all along the highways in Russia and then take off into the woods. It was a wet, gray morning, the day of our departure, and we waited and waited at the bus stop under Sasha’s dripping umbrella.

A taxi driver approached us and asked if we wanted to hire his services. We said we’d wait for the bus. A second taxi did the same. Four hundred rubles for 35 kilometers. That was only $3-$4 for each of us. No, we were waiting for the bus.

We stood in the drizzle for another twenty minutes until finally someone remembered the bus schedule was different on the weekends. There wouldn’t be a bus for another hour.

So that was how it was that we went by taxi to our wilderness hike.

Our driver flew down the pitted asphalt highway and eventually turned onto a sandy road. He dropped us at the edge of a pine forest in the middle of nowhere. If I’d been blindfolded and helicoptered in, I would have thought I was in the north woods of Wisconsin. Pine and spruce towered above me on all sides; lush mosses and sprawling ground cover blanketed every part of the forest floor.

We struck off into the forest on an old logging road. Sasha carried his umbrella inside a rolled-up pad that was about the size of a bedroll. I had no idea what the pad was for, but I stopped wondering when he began talking about what was around us—for example, Icelandic moss.  “It makes a good cure for pulmonary ailments,” he said, and told us he treats his own son’s asthma with it. He gave us the instructions for making a medicinal tea from the dry grey moss, and Rahul put a clump in his pack.

Sasha pointed out bottlebrush (the same ancient plant which we know in the American West as Mormon Tea), and remarked that it’s good for digestion.  A plant called Mother/Mother-in-Law whose broad leaves are cold and smooth on one side and warm and fuzzy on the other side is a coagulant and can be used to staunch bleeding. “It was used for bandages during the Great Patriotic War,” Sasha said.

Remnants of trenches and a bomb crater from that war, now thickly covered with moss, ran alongside the road we were traveling. Fighting had been heavy in the Pskov region as the Soviets tried to hold back the Germans on their march to Leningrad. Later in the day Sasha picked a piece of badly rusted barbed wire, an artifact from the war.

A mile or so into the walk, we came across a young couple, Misha and Natalia, sitting at a picnic table in front of an old farm building. They had made a summer cottage—a dacha—from an abandoned barn. One day they too were hiking in the woods and discovered this building, a two-story structure of limestone bricks on the first floor, and weathered logs on the second. They’d tracked down the owner, who said there had originally been seven buildings on this property, but the barn was all that was left of the farm. They welcomed us to go inside their house, and Rahul and I did. Downstairs, they’d created a cozy kitchen with a small table, cupboards and shelves, and a wood stove.  Colorful baskets hung from the rafters; a bicycle was stored in the corner. Upstairs, four short beds were positioned along the papered wall and there were even lace curtains at the windows. A long table in the middle served as a nightstand.

Tatyana and Sasha stayed outside and talked with the couple  while Rahul and I explored. When we rejoined them, Sasha was describing a kayaking adventure he was planning for July. Perhaps Misha would like to join? Misha had been fishing in nearby LakeMalski and showed us his catch, 4-5 fish in a net bag. They offered us tea, which we declined, but insisted we take some of the pickles Misha’s mother had made that were in a jar on the ground by the corner of the table.

The path from their house led to a wide stream, several feet deep, and a bridge that had been fashioned of skinned pine logs lashed together lengthwise. Fortunately, there was a rickety log handrail as well because the logs were slippery. We had to step sideways to avoid sliding off into the water. It was the toughest part of the trip so far, and it wasn’t so difficult that we didn’t stop to take pictures of ourselves standing on the bridge.

The trees around us began to change from conifers to deciduous varieties and soon we came to the edge of LakeMalski, and sunshine and shadow dappled the vista. An osprey lifted into the air as we drew near. My feet, already damp from the morning, were soon soaking wet from the marshy ground.

An apple tree about five feet high was growing along the path; one hundred yards farther, there was another one. Sasha speculated that they had grown from the seeds of apple cores that hikers had tossed aside. Rahul asked if they’d bear fruit, and that led to a discussion of grafting and then a demonstration, not on the apple trees, but on some other specimen of which there was an abundance.

Suddenly, at our feet was a small bird hopping along the path in front of us. A tit, we thought, who’d fallen from the nest or was making early attempts at flight. Rahul moved ahead of the bird, and it hopped forward right onto the top of his tennis shoe. We could hear the mother screaming at us from wood’s edge. The bird hopped into the grass, and we walked on, coming soon to our destined lunch spot.

Sasha immediately began a fire. As soon as it was going, he took a coffee can and a dozen small potatoes from his pack, positioned the potatoes in a pile in the fire, and put the coffee can over them. While they steamed, I explored the lake’s edge. I photographed wild iris among the tall reeds and watched white gulls swoop and dive and float on the water. When I came back to the fire, Sasha had snails and frogs to show me. The coloring on the frogs was different than North American species, but the behaviors were the same—they squirmed and jumped and mostly outmanuevered even Sasha.

The sun warmed us, a gentle breeze kept bugs away, and the sparkling blue of the lake matched the incongruous brilliant blue domes of an ancient monastery across the lake. It was a restful sight.

I collected wildflowers from the field for a bouquet for our “table” while Tatyana and Sasha and Rahul unrolled Sasha’s mysterious pad and laid out our lunch. From Sasha, steaming potatoes and fresh herbs from his dacha—parsley, green onions, and dill—served as the Russians do, as whole foods. Tatyana unpacked our fruit, blue cheese, sandwiches, and chocolate; and Rahul contributed leftover homemade pizza. On a side plate, the dill pickles from Misha and Natalia glistened in the sun, and in the center of everything were the two bottles of wine, one red and one white. I wondered how we could eat and drink it all, but we did—every bit—sitting on the ground, lingering over the wine and food, talking for at least an hour about the tourist industry in Russia and whether people would come to Russia for expeditions like this one today.

“People would pay,” I remarked, “for a day like this.”

While we ate, my shoes and socks dried. Sasha had hung the shoes on stakes rammed into the ground at the fire’s edge, and the socks were ingeniously pinned on sticks like marshmallows and roasted over the fire.

The wine, of course, made us sleepy, so before we left, I shamelessly napped while Sasha went for a swim. We left Tatyana and Rahul to pick up from the picnic. Then we doused the fire, left more firewood stacked for the next hikers, and resumed our walk toward Izborsk.

We climbed us the high glacial hill above the camp site and walked for some time along the ridge overlooking the long, narrow lake. Then we descended again and walked through fields on a rutted road that once had served now abandoned farms. The fields waved with waist high grasses, the scene interrupted by occasional clumps of wild strawberry and wild rose.

We passed through a tiny old village whose weathered wooden houses and broken barns slumped in the afternoon sun.  Few people were about, but lace curtains at windows and vegetables growing in gardens provided evidence that this cluster of buildings, surely at least 100 years old, had occupants. In fact, the probable denizens passed us a half hour later, tired people, men and women, walking toward homeward from Izborsk with their arms full.

We had taken a 20-minute break by the side of a stream just off the path. An old mill had once stood there; Tatyana washed her face in the clear water that tumbled down over the rocks in the stream and those that remained of the mill’s foundation.  Trash littered this wayside, so we built another fire and burned the candy wrappers and plastic bags. Someone had dug a pit for empty water bottles, and we threw those we found into the pit.

The fortress of Izborsk loomed on the horizon. It must have been intimidating to approaching armies, this high stone wall studded with towers and turrets with their keyhole openings. It’s imposing even today. We walked past the church overlooking the SnakeValley, past the cemetery behind it, and past the waterfalls of Izborsk that superstition says offer wealth, or health, or beauty to those who drink the waters. We walked into the fortress itself and then away from it, away from the roadside restaurant where Putin dined, away from the babushkas selling their woolen socks, woven baskets, and ceramic plates, and through the village of Izborsk.

It was as if we’d been transported to another century. A horse-drawn cart carrying villagers from one spot to another came up behind us and passed us on the lane. On one side of the cart, a shapeless old woman in a dusty dress was perched, her legs, in woolen stockings though this was June, hung over the side. A man on the other side of the cart was her mirror image. We passed a backyard chicken coop and fed leftover bread from the picnic to the rooster and his bevy of hens. The wooden houses all had gardens attached; an old woman in a scarf and heavy sweater sat on a stool outside one house, scrubbing vegetables. In another front yard, another woman, bundled up in a scarf and jacket as older Russian women keep themselves, sat straight on a bench, her feet firmly on the ground, conversing with a younger woman, not so heavily clothed. In villages throughout Russia, life goes on this way, in sharp contrast to city life where tall slim girls in form-fitting clothes stride down the sidewalks in stiletto heels and men assertively drive cars, smoke cigarettes, and talk incessantly on cell phones.

We were pleasantly tired when we boarded the bus for Pskov. Rahul summed up the experience of the day: “A picnic you have to get to,” he called it.

Sasha’s dreams of becoming an expedition guide didn’t seem far-fetched.

“Yes, people would pay,” I told him again. “People would pay for a day like we just spent. A little history, a little biology, a glimpse of life a century ago, and just enough exertion to feel good.”

A picnic you have to get to, but an experience you’d never forget.

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One thought on “An Education in the Russian Outdoors

  1. Lovely! This brought back memories of hiking in the Lake Baikal region and of the numerous small villages in that area. Those Russia experiences were powerful on several levels, and I continue to recall and consider how my life has been affected. As significant are the connections with you, Cindy, Fran, and Peggy! Thanks for sharing.

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