Saturday, October 25, 2008
The Road Less Traveled
We've spent much of the past two weeks headed to a place that many local people rarely visit. Ridder is not a large city; it doesn't offer vast job opportunities, it has no airport, and it's somewhat remote. It's almost 80 miles between Ust and Ridder but it takes 2 hours to make the drive. Much of the road is rough and slow going; it can be closed for days when the snow falls. Ridder's clean air and mountain hiking and skiing trails do draw visitors and there is mining here that supports the local economy. There are good primary and secondary schools but no professional schools or colleges to draw students to the town. The population of Ridder is 64,000 people, greater than the population of our own town of Salem...but the area is large and the population density is small. Ridder has the feel of a small town in the White Mountains...it's not a village. It boasts two traffic lights (one put in since we've arrived!) and has shops and services in many of the apartment blocks, also an open market and an enclosed market much like Ust...but you get the feeling that everyone knows everyone here and the locals have lived here forever...and then there are the cows that you see wandering in the street on occasion.
We also pass through true villages on our drive each day, small settlements that have some houses and even sometimes an apartment block. The shopping in these places consists of a small “magazeen” here and there, like a mom-and-pop store...or even more often, a group of ladies seated next to a table where they're selling their home-canned vegetables and fruits or buckets of potatoes from their garden.
We stopped in front of one house because Alma wanted to buy mushrooms...you can see the proprietor trying to convince Alma that her canned mushrooms were safe to eat and not the deadly variety that can also be found here..the lady couldn't tell Alma what type of mushrooms she had canned so it was a no sale. In these small villages, you're as likely to see a horse-drawn cart as you are a car and motorcycles with side cars that have been modified to carry parcels on a flat bed are also seen. We see many contrasts on our drive that show the changes that are coming to Kazakhstan...sheep and cows cross the road in front of us but so do kids with backpacks, cell phones and MP3 players. We see men on horseback in the fields and people searching for mushrooms by the side of the road on a clear day. We also see that not much gets wasted out here...recycling occurs on a very practical level; empty soda bottles are washed and filled with milk from the family cow that's then sold at the roadside. The jars that are filled with home canned goods are also recycled. Table scraps are used to feed livestock or are used as compost...everyone has a garden as a matter of necessity in the villages and food is still stored to be used in the winter months. The gardens are all but empty now, just some cabbages and potatoes are still being harvested and sold. It's clear the babushki have been hard at work pickling cucumbers, cauliflower, and mushrooms, making fruit compote, and storing the root vegetables that will last for months.We pass a trash dump on our ride each day...it's really just small piles of refuse which are burned and there's not a whole lot there...no trash pick up or big landfills out here.
The countryside is beautiful, the rolling hills are dotted with stands of birch and pine trees and there are many small lakes and rivers.. The mountains seem to greet us each day as we approach Ridder; Tatyana tells me that the locals believe the mountains guard the town. She also say there are wolves and snow leopards, deer, elk and squirrels in the nearby forest. The air is much better than the air in Ust, another fact that the locals are all quick to point out. We see the evidence of this each day as we return to Ust—the haze from the air pollution is visible many evenings; health advisories regarding the air quality are frequent here. Everything's a trade off and bigger cities can mean bigger problems even in this part of the world. It makes the road less traveled look pretty good.