The Buran

The Buran at my back

Ok, after reading that Minnesota grabbed the coldest temperature in the Northern Hemisphere today, I guess all the shit I talk about how cold it is here doesn’t impress you any more. But cold is so yesterday, we’ve established our dominance in cold weather and moved on. Now we’ve got the Buran.


For the past few weeks I’ve heard whispers in hushed conversations, and made out one word… Buran. Then last week, as if coming out of a special place in hell, southern winds leapt over the horizon and screamed into our village. The Buran is an evil combination of snow and high southern winds. Although cajoling the mercury up to bearable, it’s deadly when faced head on and treacherous at your back. If you don’t walk backwards or pull your fur-lined hood down to your chin while walking south, the snow will pepper you like bird shot if windburn hasn’t already mangled your face. When walking north it’s necessary to take extra caution as not to be suddenly swept across the icy road into oncoming traffic, car or other. It’s hard to stay focused though, because the dust clouds that dance and weave their way across the ground look eerily like the ghosts of snakes and eels streaming onward into oblivion.


So maybe I get a little carried away with ideas and imagery, but it’s either that or bitch about it, and frankly the surreal nature of the beast leaves me no choice. I’ll briefly narrate a story about how the Buran is not of this world, and then hopefully never mention it again for fear of being cursed. I was walking to the music school at dusk after shoveling out the door to our house (which is three feet above the foundation) and the door to our dog’s house. Tymas was grateful and gave me the double-edged gift of licking my face, warming my heart and ensuring my frostbite. But nevertheless, I wanted to play piano, and was walking to the school during the climax of the Buran’s daily rage against God and man. After ten minutes of hard walking I peeked out of my hood to make sure I was still going in the right direction, and had to do a double take. What I think I saw was the ghost of a hummer lumbering through the howling winds. I surmised that I must be hallucinating or that I had wandered into hell, so I pointed myself into the direction of what I thought was the music school, and retreated back into my jacket to dream of butter and warm things.



Our home mysteriously ran out of butter for five (not that I’m counting) days last week, and unfortunately it didn’t improve my fat intake, it was actually deleterious to my health. Why? Because without butter, I was without purpose, I slouched around the house vacantly staring at the pechka, listlessly teaching my classes, and unhappy while on my runs; that is until I found a substitute. Concentrated milk.


It is the garnish of the Gods, a substance that lifted my spirits, heightened my senses, and is the perfect condiment for every dish, chicken included. After lunch one day, high on concentrated milk, it seemed like the world cried out to me as I ran, nature being a mosaic of sensations and a catalyst for thoughts. Later, I traced this explosion of sensations to the warmer weather, but at the time, I attributed it solely to concentrated milk. I realized the weather had something to do with it, because when the mercury rises to a level that allows you to think, you also begin to smell things again. It’s like adding color to a black and white movie, the activation of sense literally bringing an entirely new dimension into life.


My dip into the new world of sensations and dimensions, and consequent journey into the recesses of my brain was jolted into focus by a snarling dog that suddenly materialized in front of me. I looked up to see that he accompanying a horse-drawn sleigh pulling an entire family. Dogs are not a huge problem in Sergeyevka, and I’ve learned that the mere act of picking up a snowball will send them running; so this was no big deal, and I reached down to complete the ritual. The driver of the sleigh saw my action and with a slight tinge of apology in his voice, assured me that everything was ok. I nodded my recognition and continued running, marveling at the sight of a sleigh in the year 2011.


I distinctly remember singing “Jingle Bells” in fourth-grade, and lamenting the lack of sleighs in our modern world, “ahh, to have the backwards 1800’s again.” (That was before we learned about slavery, women’s rights, atrocities committed against Native Americans, the Mexican American War, etc, etc) But here I am, in 2011, in Kazakhstan, and a horse-drawn sleigh is still a lagitement form of transportation. So different from yogging around Lake Harriet and dodging baby strollers, roller-blades, and weekend warriors in their barefoot-running-rubber-shoe-things. But the people and their dogs have a distinct similarity, the apologetic half statement for something stupid that their dog (who has little agency) is doing, but what they will continue to let happen tomorrow, the next day, and until the world’s last bubble bath is taken. If a dog’s running beside a horse-drawn sleigh or on a doggy leash, you know it’s gonna do something stupid for which the owner will apologize. That however, is where the similarity to dogs, and horses for the matter, ends in Kazakhstan. Here, dogs are tied to a short leash for months on end, and horses are eaten.



Unfortunately I was only able to enjoy one day of warm weather before falling victim to the flu epidemic that’s taking over Kazakhstan. This is only the second time I’ve been sick since I’ve left Minnesota, so I actually feel grateful as I’m trying to get back on my feet. I bullied the Peace Corps doctors into letting me go back to work today, and I’m hoping that sitting on my butt, reading my kindle, and eating inordinate amounts of cabbage soup hasn’t permanently affected my constitution.


I had a “moment” two days ago.


Anyone who knows my mom, or our neighbor Kathy Iverson, knows what a “moment” is. A moment is when an adventurous middle-age woman has an experience that makes her say “ooha jease, this is reaally speaacial,” translation: “my mind is being blown.”


Our neighbors had a birthday party for their 5th grade son who is one of my students. The boy briefly made an appearance at the table to receive toasts, which the adults tossed back with vodka, and then he left us to feast on salted horse meat, vegetable preserves, fried bread, and colslaw. When I told the man next to me that I wasn’t going to eat any more meat for the same reason why I wasn’t going to drink any more vodka, because I was sick as shit, he looked at me incredulously and said,


“But you must eat more meat. I don’t want to eat any more, but I’m eating meat.”


Normally this would have struck me as funny, but I was sick, in a bad mood, and tired of being told how to live, so the comment just pissed me off. Luckily I maintained some sort of poise and told him quietly in a voice that left no room for discussion that he wasn’t going to put any more meat on my plate or force any food or drink on me for the rest of the night. Usually I laugh and smile to deflect things, but this actually worked great, and had an almost hypnotic effect on my friend, who continued to talk to me about life and cats for the rest of the night.


I excused myself from the table around 10 pm pleading fatigue and sickness, and was graciously thanked by the hosts for coming over. I walked outside and left my winter coat open as I made my way home, letting the warm breeze blow thoughts of spring into my soul. I stopped to squat down in the fresh snow and talk to Tymas (our dog), who was also taking advantage of the beautiful evening that was close to 30 F. As I scratched him behind his ears, I followed his gaze up into the sky and was treated to an unpolluted and shimmering view of the heavens.


It was a moment.


Time sort up stopped, and I breathed, and scratched, and felt my face, body and soul relax into that present moment in time.


No moment is complete without marking your territory, so I followed Tymas’s example and we reestablished the yard as our territory, creating between us an unbreakable alliance. Then I went inside, forgetting that I had left my “moment” for all to see for an indefinite amount of time.

Oh, and below are some pictures of Sergeyevka:

One of our many abandoned apartment complexes

Apartments at dusk: No running water and a pechka in every unit...

Beautiful Hoarfrost

Raw meat in our house, common, gives one a new appreciation for food.

Our square with father frost, his daughter, and the yolka (big tree)

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4 Responses to The Buran

  1. Helen Schroeder says:

    Collin, your blog is fantastic.

    Seriously kid, you are quite the writer. Hope you know that.
    What’s your address? I’d love to send some six one two art your way.

    Stay warm. You are doing great things, sir.

    • Rick Cousins says:

      Another thoroughly entertaining post! I especially appreciated the imagery of smell adding the dimension of color to a black and white movie. The temperature moderated today in Minnesnowta also, a welcome rise from the cold that has held on more or less since mid-November. We are even expecting a thaw this coming week, and the track looks fast for the Vasaloppet this Sunday. I agree with Helen’s opinion of your on-line work, and so does Lynnell, an accomplished writer of note. Please keep us updated as we enter this most optimistic time of year. Even Egypt had a nice thaw in events today. As always, your dad

  2. Carol Markham-Cousins says:

    I had a very special “moment” reading your blog tonight. Collin you are funny!!! That IS what life is about one moment after another. No wonder why you are considering not eating any more meat!. I love you much.

  3. Lelde says:

    Collin! I am absolutely thrilled that you’ve finally discovered the essence of my childhood: concentrated milk (or as well call it in Latvia: condensed milk). It’s true that once you’ve tried it, nothing will ever taste quite as good afterwards. 🙂

    Loved your blog, you’re such a good writer! Keep it up!
    Many hugs,


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