BfR's Culture/Eco-AG Tour 2005 Travelogue
From May 30-June 16, 2005, seven of us -- co-leaders Shoshana Billik and myself, and the five ecotourists David Buckley, Mark and Romola Georgia, Arline Kapphahn, and Jill Slocum -- traveled around five regions of Western Russia. We met with BfR's friends, visited beautiful historic and natural sites in cities, towns, and villages, and in each area got acquainted with bountiful gardens and orchards during the all-too-short 18-day tour. Group members also dined in pleasant cafes and restaurants, attended operas, and chatted with our Russian hosts at picnics.
In Moscow we visited a number of the usual attractions, including the Kremlin and the Tretyakov Gallery. But the most delightful day began with two hours spent at Abramtsevo, a rural estate where the best-known late 19th-century Russian realist artists lived and worked. From there we were driven to Sergiev Posad, the renowned monastery city, and then on to Novo-Sin'kovo, where three of our past workshops have been held at the Educational Methods Center of the Russian Ministry of Agriculture.
That evening Evgeny Shmelev, Foreign Methods Lab Director, and his wife Tatyana hosted us to a picnic in a tent on the lawn behind their home, and we visited the family garden and those of the teachers at the local agricultural college. During the tour of Evgeny's and Tatyana's own garden, we were thrilled to see his ongoing experiments with Biointensive, and plan to follow up by requesting a written report.
Following our arrival in Bryansk, NGO Viola co-directors Ludmila Zhirina, Igor Prokofiev, and others from the organization conducted visits to the sights in Bryansk, including Ovstug, the estate of the poet-diplomat Fyodor Tiutchev. That same day, Jill Slocum and Carol visited gardens in Novozybkov and the village of Mglin in the radiation zone of the Bryansk oblast', where Viola's colleagues are conducting an experiment using Biointensive techniques to limit the uptake of radionuclides into the vegetables they grow. By chance, we were privileged to spend time with Svetlana Gorbacheva, an art teacher at a local primary teacher's college, and view impressive work by her students aged 12-15 which could rival art produced by much older students in the US.
We were received at their schools in Bryansk and in the village of Domashevo by the schools' principals, Oleg Zavarzin and Natalya Karyagina, who are active in Viola and who had both attended our workshops in past years at Novo-Sin'kovo. The ecocenters at both schools made a wonderful impression, presenting information on the components of GROW BIOINTENSIVE (GB), as well as natural science, various seeds of wild plants, student art work depicting nature, etc. In Domashevo, being greeted with bread and salt in the traditional way by costumed students brought tears to our eyes, and we were equally delighted by the children's puppet show on the theme of vegetables.
Ludmila and Igor, our hosts in Bryansk, also organized our trip to Orel, where we gathered and spoke (Romie and I) at a "round table" of about 70 students and teachers at the university where Viola plans to teach GB in the fall. The dean of natural sciences and a teacher of English and her students accompanied us on our sightseeing excursions around that beautiful city.
We journeyed on from Orel to Krasnodar by train. The air conditioners being broken, the train was hot and stuffy, but we managed to get some sleep on the overnight portion. That is, we slept until we had to get up in time for our pre-dawn arrival. Vladimir ("Volodya") Loginov met us at the station in a van that he had repaired with funds we sent him earlier in the spring. The group breakfasted at the home of his colleague Irina, and met with environmentalist Andrei Rudomakha and a local author, Galina Kondratova.
From Krasnodar we carried on in Volodya's van via Maikop, capital of the Adygeya autonomous republic, where we briefly visited a mosque, then to Kamennomostkii in the Caucasus mountains. Just before reaching our abode for two nights, we stopped at a limestone gorge and walked along the rushing stream to where a grizzly bear was playing with a log in a pond in its reasonably extensive enclosure. Ekaterina, Nikolai, and Genia made us comfortable at their new guest house in Kamennomostkii and fed us three delicious meals a day at a very modest price.
A highlight of our entire tour was our day hike, guided by local guide Tatyana and her little dog Knopka. She led us via wildflower-strewn mountain meadows to a deep gorge, down the side of which we descended along a precipitous path to a waterfall -- one of a series of 14 -- where we enjoyed our picnic in perfect weather with no bugs. Before our descent Arline, an experienced birdwatcher, spotted a pair of eagles and we found ourselves mesmerized watching them wheeling this way and that in the updrafts and downdrafts near their nest on the opposite ridge.
Volodya conducted excursions to local sights, including a local museum where we bought nature prints in color from the photographer, and a dolmen, a megalithic sound chamber which reputedly transmitted sound in prehistoric times to a similar dolmen some distance away. In the evening, Volodya built a fire in a pit where he baked potatoes for us and others including his friend Anatoly, an amateur archeologist who showed us his collection of ancient objects, from stone and bronze speartips to elegantly patterned 19th-century bullet casings.
In his van, Volodya transported us on to his home town of Kurganinsk, where we enjoyed a festive evening meal hosted by his older friend Antonina Mikhailovna and her local circle of culture buffs. Our time was only too short there, but we did succeed in visiting the fine garden of longtime members Tamara and Nikolai.
We took an overnight train "platzkart" -- sleeping in berths in an open carriage, not in compartments -- to Sochi, where we had only the morning to spend, sadly. We enjoyed a luxurious breakfast complete with wine offered by the restaurateur at an upscale Armenian cafe, then an excursion of the harbor area and Sochi's beautifully landscaped parks. The highlight was the Arboretum, graced by 1500 species of subtropical trees from all parts of the world, as well as sculptured paths, fountains, and even peacocks.
Flying via Pulkovo Airways from Sochi to St. Petersburg, we were met at the airport by old friends and partners Albina, Volodya, and Vitya Kochegina and Natasha Krestiankina and her husband Igor Rufov. We visited the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, Peterhof, Palace Square, the canals, Nevsky Prospect, the Church on the Spilt Blood, the Mariinsky Theater (for a performance of Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta") and other sights, all looking as beautiful as ever.
We had valuable help registering our visas from the Center for Citizen Initiatives staff and enjoyed chatting with them and long-time friend and colleague Vladimir Shestakov. Our last evening was spent in Taitsy (a town east of St. Petersburg in the area occupied by the Nazis during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad), enjoying the dacha of Natasha Krestiankina and her family, where the poet-novelist Boris Pasternak stayed in 1921.
The group returned to California on Aeroflot via Moscow, while I remained in Russia for a week, in order to visit the Avrorins in Moscow. I had a great time catching up with Larissa and hearing about her work with Charities Aid Foundation-Russia, and enjoyed an overnight trip with Sasha and grandson Sanya to Chukavino, near Staritsa in the Tver' oblast', where the organization directed by Sasha is doing renovations. I also worked with Sasha planning the publication of Ekologicheskii ogorod, the Russian translation of The Sustainable Vegetable Garden by Jeavons and Cox.
It was wonderful to be able to visit with so many of our old friends and partners in Russia, and their friends -- we are sending thanks to 25 of them! With five ecotourists paying all their costs and Shoshana and I providing a portion, we were able to donate $1000 to the NGO Viola for their experiments in the radiation zone and their fall workshops at Orel University, and send $500 (along with $200 from other donations) to Irina Kim for her summer tour to the Nuratau villages.
It's impossible to say which was the best part of the tour -- we enjoyed it all! Several of us presented a digital slide show in August at Common Ground, the garden supply store and educational center in Palo Alto run by Ecology Action. We will be happy to do so again for your group on request, hopefully (if local to Palo Alto) with one or more of the other group members helping out with the narration. That show ran for 1 1/2 hours, but yours could be tailored to a length appropriate for your group.
I do hope to repeat the trip in future years, hopefully including in the summer of 2006 with Tamara Kowalski as co-leader. With more in the group, not only will more Americans get to know Russian culture, dacha gardens, and our work, we'll also be able to provide the wherewithal for more trainings and publications to an expanding circle of gardeners. We sent books to Azerbaijan recently, and we haven't forgotten the Russian Far East. In 2007, Shoshana Billik and I may lead an ecotour to Central Asia. Do write if you have any desire to join us!