Nu and the Friendship Village

Vietnam Friendship Village, Hanoi. A learning and medical center for children and adults with disabilities as a result of Dioxin poisoning, a chemical used by the American armed forces during the war in Viet Nam. "Operation Ranch Hand" distributed the chemical/herbicide, also known as "Agent Orange", over the jungles of South Viet Nam in hopes that it would defoliate the vegetation and expose the locations of their enemy. Several generations later and the effects of the chemical are still prevalent, the VFV provides housing and education for children that come from all over the country with many different disabilities. 


I spent a couple of weeks at the village through two visits. My first visit was an incredible experience; fun, exciting and enjoyable. A lot of my time was spent playing with the kids. I would be reminded of what a struggle it is for these kids and their families. The standard of care and supervision was far from the "developed" world but the kids really governed themselves a lot of the time. If a fight broke out or someone was hurt a fellow student was there first. On one particular occasion a potentially serious accident occurred and my eyes were open towards the drastic differences between the society I grew up in and the one these kids live in. I was put into a situation that showed me more than what was on the surface and the challenges that an organization like this has to deal with when it is primarily funded by donation from the outside, "developed" world.


During one of our night-time games of soccer when the courtyard is illuminated by the fluorescence of stadium-esque lighting a wave of the kids huddled in a crowd at the entrance of a residence hall. At the center of this crowd was 21 year-old Nu, a student that I had heard about but hadn't met. The reason Nu was at the center of the crowd and the reason I hadn't met her are one and the same. Nu's disabilities are far more challenging then the other students and it requires her to spend most of here time alone with a full-time caretaker separate from the other students. Nu is blind and deaf, leaving her without a way to communicate. She does not leave the residence hall unless guided by a student or volunteer. Nu's appearance is that of a 12 or 13 year-old not her true age of 21. While her caretaker stepped away for a moment Nu managed to feel her way out of her room on the second floor of the residence hall and climbed over a railing, she stepped out as if to feel for the floor and felt nothing. She fell to the ground, unconscious and bleeding. At this moment I ran over to the mass of students and found one of the older kids trying to carry her, his own disabilities kept him from managing her unconscious body so he handed her to me. Not knowing what had happen or where to go, no staff member was in sight, the kids directed me to the medical center. 
Walking down the hall with hope that a doctor or nurse would be in the building to help stabilize Nu, 15 kids running around me screaming and pulled me into a room with a bed. No one was there except a young physical therapist's apprentice. Another volunteer, Jenni Nguyen, a Vietnamese American translated to me what had happened and began to call the director of the village and an ambulance. After what seemed like 15-20 minutes the ambulance arrived but still no staff or caretaker. The ambulance arrived but void of a paramedic, basically a taxi service. I tried my best to instruct the students on how we needed to move Nu, falling from such a height was high risk for spinal injuries. I pulled some of the older stronger students to the bedside and laid their arms across Nu and motioned them to slide them beneath her, they followed my instruction while I kept Nu's head stable. But as soon as we lifted her they began to let go, one by one. Nu's lower half fell to the floor. Nu and I were left alone, I did my best to carry her to the van. 

Sitting in the back of the ambulance watching the street lights illuminate the empty shelves where in a wealthier society every tool imaginable for any type of medical emergency would sit sterilized and individually wrapped in plastic. This is a place I hope to never be again, sitting comparing my life to someone else's, comparing what I have to what someone doesn't. A girl, who at the time was only two years younger then me was slowly waking up unaware of where she is, who she was with and not knowing what happened. At the end of the Ambulance ride, members of the VFV's staff were waiting at the hospital. Nu was fully conscious and fighting to stand up. She spent several days at the hospital. 

I returned to the village after the student's winter break to visit with Nu, she came away from the incident with hardly a bruise or scrape. I spent an afternoon with her walking around the courtyard, stopping whenever she did and watched the way she sat; legs crossed, rocking her whole body back and forth.

 

Duc (front) a student at the Viet Nam Friendship Village. I spent a lot of time helping Duc with his math work. When I wasn't sitting next to him I would watch him cruise through the work but as soon as he knew I was watching he would pretend he didn't know so that I would do all the work. It was his game, pretty sure he was making fun of me. Dũng (back), sitting on the soccer court playing with a toy fighter jet.

 

The companionship and protectiveness that these young people had for each other was something to aspire towards, they always took care of each other. Two of the younger students in front of the soccer goal at night.

 

Nu, the best way to communicate with her was through touch. The other volunteers would tap her hands and draw circles on her palms to show her they were familiar. This image was taken when I returned after her accident.

Rosewood

In the outskirts of Hanoi there is a group of small village boroughs that specialize in manufacturing rosewood sculpture and furniture. Most of the rosewood is illegally harvested from forests in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and as far away as Myanmar. In Viet Nam, the rosewood is sold on the streets of these village boroughs as well as in China where it enters a larger market.

When Dave and I arrived in Hanoi, back in December, we met a Chinese tourist named Sebastian, who was traveling outside of China for the first time. He was beginning his own tour of Viet Nam. In Hanoi, Sebastian planned to meet a friend he had met online, playing a video game. Sebastian invited Dave and I to join him. His friend turned out to be Miaho, a rosewood dealer from China. 

While working in Viet Nam, to oversee the manufacture of rosewood sculpture and furniture, Miaho lives in the storage garage where he stocks his inventory.  He ships the work home to his Chinese warehouse, where the work is finished and sold. Here, Miaho sits in the storage garage amidst the smoke from a small fire he prepared on the floor, to cook lunch.

While working in Viet Nam, to oversee the manufacture of rosewood sculpture and furniture, Miaho lives in the storage garage where he stocks his inventory.  He ships the work home to his Chinese warehouse, where the work is finished and sold. Here, Miaho sits in the storage garage amidst the smoke from a small fire he prepared on the floor, to cook lunch.

Workshops and showrooms fill every building, lining both sides of the streets of the village boroughs outside Hanoi. In the workshops, the red sawdust of the rosewood lays everywhere and fills the air.

Workshops and showrooms fill every building, lining both sides of the streets of the village boroughs outside Hanoi. In the workshops, the red sawdust of the rosewood lays everywhere and fills the air.

David walks through one of the larger showrooms. 

David walks through one of the larger showrooms. 

The workshops are often run by families, with every member of the family a craftsman. The artists will sit on the street in front of their shops, to hand-carve the smaller pieces.

The workshops are often run by families, with every member of the family a craftsman. The artists will sit on the street in front of their shops, to hand-carve the smaller pieces.

China

Steep steps and slippery stones to climb the Great Wall of China.

We caught one of the last trains for the notoriously-touristed-section of the Great Wall at Badaling. And yet, upon our arrival, there was nobody there. We were two of three people walking on the wall at sundown. Wishing we had brought our sleeping bags and food, as we could have easily camped-out right there on the wall. 

When we reached the highest point of our walk, before the sunlight had completely departed the hazy skies of Beijing, we each took turns pulling air from our lungs - to let out the loudest yells we could muster. Watching the last light of day slither and guide our eyes up over the rolling mountains, as it reflected off the grey stones, I was caught by the experience, and removed from any reminders of modern times, and placed in a space of personal and historical contemplation. 

David on The Great Wall at Badaling. 

 

We left Beijing for the southern Province of Guangxi, where we spent two weeks in Yangshuo. In Yangshuo, we volunteered at  Zhuoyue English College, helping students practice conversational English - four nights a week, two hours each night. With such an open schedule we spent a lot of the time getting lost, cycling through the winding roads of Lijang River Valley, and climbing the beautiful karst cliffs.

 

Stefan Lendl, a 25 year-old Austrian computer programmer.

Prior to volunteering for Zhuoyue English College, Lendl spent three months fulfilling an internship in Mongolia. He had planned to extend his stay, and spend the week climbing with us. But shortly after this photo, he suffered an accident while belaying, which left his hands badly burnt and kept him from climbing for several weeks.

Zhuoyue English College students: David (left) and Andy look over Yangshuo, from the T.V tower west of town.

The College requires the students to take English names and to speak only English while attending school. Andy was sent to the college by his employer, a French international company that specializes in manufacturing wall outlet covers. David is studying  English with the hope of opening his own business. 

Raul, from Spain , left home to travel the world and found himself studying English in China. He spent 6 months in Guilin, a large city to the north of  Yangshuo, studying at a college where he was required to simultaneously learn Chinese in order to follow the English curriculum. He moved his studies to Zhuoyue  College, where all  the teachers are foreigners and the only language spoken is English. 

Raul, from Spain , left home to travel the world and found himself studying English in China. He spent 6 months in Guilin, a large city to the north of  Yangshuo, studying at a college where he was required to simultaneously learn Chinese in order to follow the English curriculum. He moved his studies to Zhuoyue  College, where all  the teachers are foreigners and the only language spoken is English. 

Club 66

Walking along an iron fence that surrounds the famous Dynamo Stadium, I see a group of young boys playing football on the practice court behind the concrete bleachers. Looking through the iron bars - as I approach the end of this city block - I see a group of men standing in a loose line... bouncing lightly, tapping their toes on the cold asphalt, letting their relaxed arms mirror the movement of their shoulders,  as their feet hit the ground. Warm breathe billows out of their mouths as the morning light makes its rise over the stadium seats. Two of the men are eye to eye, moving swiftly across the open court with their hands to their chins. Behind the cracked surface of used boxing gloves, their wrinkled faces and eyes are fixed on their opponent. The two men dance around the court sending blows to the body and slow transparent punches to the gloves that protect the head. 

The Vladivostok Boxing Club meets every Saturday morning for practice and sparing. Mr. Vadim, 66, tells me that the men are apart of the "Club 66", all members of the group are in their senior years. Vadim is a retired economist who spent his career in the fishing industry and now operates a small shipping company out of Vladivostok. With gregarious camaraderie Vadim goes around the group riddling off the names of the other men and spitting out bio details of individuals. Georgi (66) was Far-Eastern Champion in 1971-72'. He is catching jabs  from "The Baby", Alexsander (56), the youngest member of the club. The men take turns sparing, encouraging one another to push harder and harder, bellowing loudly with each punch. 

 

--Situated near the borders of China and North Korea and at the southern end of the Primorsky Krai peninsula, Vladivostok is home to the Russian Navy's Pacific Fleet and Naval Base, where mandatory servicemen spend a lot of their enlistment.--

 

Vadim Evanovich, 66, practices jabs with the clubs coach and fellow boxer Georgi (also 66 years-old). Evanovich was Vladivostok City Champion in 1965-66. 

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Demonstrating technique for one of the members of the club, Georgi, a former Champion, acts as coach for the men during their Saturday sessions. 

Warm Hands

Leaving Russia… not easy.

 

Like the work, our departure from the karst cliffs of the Russian Far East came upon us with "Kramer" panache. We had two hours to pack, clean and say our goodbyes. The refrigerator proved to be the most challenging: a pool of blood building on the floor from 15 pounds of wild boar and a 3 foot long red fish that had been given to us during our last week at the Reserve. Trying not to waste any of the delicious meat, we forced every bit into our stomachs, before leaving for Vladivostok. During that last week it was rainy and cold but we continued to meet people with warm hearts and energy that surpasses the gloom and chill.

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Sergey Elsuvok, a 77 year-old retired ornithologist, has accumulated, over his 40-year career, the largest private collection of taxidermy birds in Russia. His collection holds 14,350 specimens, from over 350 species. 

In 1960, Sergey arrived in Primorski Krai to work for a railroad company, as a machinist. From his modest salary (as low as 31 rubles a month) Sergey would collect his wages, purchase enough food for two weeks and head into the forest. It was there that he would live and keep a diary of his field observations. -- Even while serving in the Russian Army, he kept what he calls his "bird diary”. 

 

During our visit, his passion and excitement, for his lifelong pursuit, carried him around the room, and up and down an old stool that he uses as a stepladder, to share his collection. He takes great pride in his work. If we had let him, he would of talked with us all day.

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I sat in the back of an old Russian military truck on my way into the old growth forest of the Reserve's interior.  As we moved across the tough terrain, the truck’s winch, with its 60 lb. hook, swung violently, threatening to detach itself, right next to my violently swinging head.

-- This was where I met Taisia Palkina. A person with the warmest hands I have ever held. - -

Sitting in the back of that truck, concerned with the giant hook that got closer and closer to my face, and more importantly - my camera’s lens; I was transfixed on Taisia's red hair. I spent the entire ride waiting to get the right photograph… As we arrived to our destination, the temperature dropped to minus 15 degrees centigrade. I hadn't bother wearing gloves because I was obsessed with Taisia's hair, and kept shooting for the photograph. But within 10 minutes I could not move my fingers. They were burning from the cold. I could not grip the boxes that we were assigned to carry into the forest. I didn't want to complain or stop to put on my gloves because I was with these tough Russian women, who, I might add, were not wearing any gloves. 

After several attempts to offer me her gloves (fitted with pink flowers and butterflies) Taisia stopped, marched over to me, grabbed my hands (which were now completely stiff) and began to massage them back to life. -- I swear her heartbeat was in her hands. All I could say was spa-See-ba (Thank you).

-- The boxes we carried into the forest were designed to set beneath the Korean pines, to catch and collect seeds and needles for the Scientific Department's research.

 

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Sergey Elsuvok, a retired ornithologist. His life's passion and pursuit is documented in his collection of over 14,350  specimens of birds. He has used his collection to publish books and educate local students, with  hands on experience. Through his work, he has helped identify and catalogue 100 new species in the Sikhote-Alin region. His enthusiasm and dedication for his work and collection is infectious.


Sergey catoalogues and stores his collection in a small spare room in his home. The room is outfitted with ultraviolet lights and humidifiers to preserve the specimens. (Parus minor, Japanese Tit). 

 From this hatchling (delichon urbicum, common house martin), to Golden Eagles. 

Northern Hawk Owl (surnia ulula)

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Driving into the boreal forest at dawn. Tasia Palkina sits up front in the cab of a retired Russian military truck. The roads traversing the interior of the park are only accessible by off-road vehicles with many deep river crossings. 

Taisia Palkina. The women with red hair.

Deserts - Oceans - Mountains & WIldlife

The way work is presented to us here, is exactly how I wish all my jobs were…

Dave and I hear a knock on the door. With no time to answer, Dmitry swings in and says one of three things: "Okaaay lets go", "Okaaay tiiime to work" or "Would you guys want to move some wood at my house… not as volunteers… but because you are my friends". We like that he has to separate the two (volunteers and friends).

With no time to think, this method keeps you on your toes, and a backpack always seems to be within arms reach. Sometimes we are spoiled with a full night to prepare - or - as in one situation, we had about a week to prepare a presentation for a group of young students. 

In thinking of how to keep a group of third, fourth and fifth graders interested for a half hour, we scrolled through our Facebook photo albums, scanning for any shots that showed America's beauty. We divided the country into sections, based on the areas where we had spent the most time. Thanks to Dave's photos of giant Burmese pythons and sharks, the presentation went on for a full hour and we ran out of things to impress the kids. Putting all those photos into one place created a level of homesickness I was not prepared for. 

Mid-November.  Once the snow and winter arrive, Inspectors and other Reserve Staff will spend a week traveling from cabin to cabin, conductting the winter track counts. We spent two days clearing a 10 kilometer trail leading to this remote cabin, to prepare firewood.

Sergey guided us through the forest and acted as our crew leader during our trail maintenance work to the remote cabin. He is a very dedicated, hard worker.

A young Russian boy fights the wind and the rain, on his morning walk to school.

Rainy morning, at the Zapovednik's main office.

Ludmila, an Ecology Department employee, prepares the main lobby of the Sikohte-Alin Reserve's Visitor Center, for a prestation being given to a group of students, on American wilderness and wildlife.

Using radio telemetry and a compass, Dasha says " I can see him whenever I want". "Him" being the two-year-old musk deer that is a part of her graduate thesis study of small ungulate.

Dasha -- Feeling the thawed ground, where one of her collared musk deer recently lay.

Dave waits in the backseat of a Reserve vehicle, on our way to assist a graduate student with her field research of musk deer. Ivan, a Deputy Director, stands outside; taking a smoke break on the early morning drive.

An article about Dave and me, in a local newspaper. 

He broke the seat out of his pants, while hiking commando. Time to go 90's.

They asked me to dance, so I did.

Tiger Country

No electricity, only stars... Living like frontiersmen for the past two weeks.

When we arrived in Terney, we were greeted by a scruffy, dark-eyed man, who invited us in, to our temporary home. Dmitry Gorshkov, the Director of Sikote-Alin Zapovednik Nature Reserve, asked us (in Russian) if we spoke Russian. Dave and I gave our generic response: "Chut-Chut", as in, "very little". [All my Russian translations are phonetic. Don't use this as your Webster's Dictionary, seriously]. "Then I will speak in English" he replied..., in perfect English. Already, we knew we had made a wise desicion. 

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Our time here has been full. We have blazed two trails, hiked roughly 40 miles, and have become part-time volunteers for the Sikhote-Alin Reserve and the Wildlife Conservation Society. And, we have been scared out of our minds once --- well, Dave twice, when a rotten old tow-line snapped and sent him slidding down a cliff. 

During a night hike, along the coast, under the stars, we were reminded as to why Dmitry gave us flares...

Setting out to the beach to set up a night time-lapse, we push our courage and began to follow the coast north. There are a series of pinnacles standing tall out of the water, and a small gathering of Common Seals barking, beyond the wave break. As we make our way north the beach becomes narrow, pinched by the high tide and a cliff that marks the entrance to a dark oak forest. The cliff rises and rises until it is high above us. At it's peak the stars begin to find openings between the chaos of the wiry tree trunks. The stars seem like eyes, looking down upon us. We make it past the pinch, to the safety of steeper walls and rockier shores. I admire the smooth rocks that make up the ocean floor, illuminated by my headlamp, their colors and shapes dance like a backlit mosaic.

Arriving on the other side of the bay's northern wall, we admire the stars. The Big Dipper has sunk low to the horizon. And after a long exposure, I notice a small boat out at sea. It's orange light moves slowly across the black horizon. As we head back, my boots wade through shallow water. I begin to think about the connectivity of the oceans and how the water I now stand in is the same water that breaks on the shores of Japan, some 400 km away. [Japan, an island. I move past it towards the island of Midway and further East until I pass over Hawaii and eventually hit the cliffs of California, and America, home.] Rounding back to the pinch, we walk with a steady pace, knowing that the eyes in the forest are only stars.   

I stop. Dave stops.

Two eyes that are not in the forest above, big and bright, weave smoothly amongst the boulders, cat-like. The eyes stayed fixed on us, not stopping but approaching. My headlamp is fixed as well. I stare steady on the eyes as they disappear and reappear, behind uneven ground. My world has become the circle of light my headlamp creates, like a campfire, everything that surrounds it goes pitch black, with no detail. My perception begins to fail me. I can not tell if the eyes are 50 feet away or 500. Dave scans the nearby cliffs for any signs of a get away (unlikely) or Mama. [Earlier that week the Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Russia told us that a female tiger had been identified in the area, with several cubs.] It continues to approach, and both of us have pulled out our flares (thanks to Dmitry). We start to walk towards it, still unsure of its proximity. We walk slowly. It finally stops, lifts it's head high and stares for a few seconds. As we continue, it gets smaller and smaller. It was, indeed, a cat -- a house cat. Wanting to do the same thing, just seconds before, the tiny tigress turns and heads for the saftey of a cliff. Dave and I didn't say much after that. The stars in the forest became eyes again. 

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We just returned from dinner with Dmitry, and are reminded again of the hospitality and generosity of the Russian people. Tomorrow we head into the northern reaches of the 1,000,000 acre Reserve to aid a graduate student with her study of musk deer.   

There are over 60 Inspectors' cabins and outposts throughout the Reserve. A 28 year-old Inspector, Evgeni, cuts brush from around a cabin that overlooks several points of the highway, which bisects the Reserve. From here, the Inspectors can listen for gunshots and see if there are any suspicious vehicles on the road.

Concealing his cigarette, Evgeni examines a decaying skull of a wild boar. The Sea of Japan is to his back.

Surrounded by several feet of dry leaves, a single track in the sand makes me think - How quiet the predators must be, in the fall foliage.

 

Dave pours plaster in a tiger track, to make a mold.

 

A few days before we arrived, a small deer was shot and killed, right here along the main road: a first sign of the poaching season. Standard practice for poachers is to "spotlight", using a flashlight. The animal's eye shine and become visible. And the animal is stunned, by the light.

Without enough funding, for more state-of-the-art tactics (mechanical deer bait; cameras), the Department of Environmental Protection has devised a primitive roadside deterrent [as seen here]:  a reflective eye-shaped tape is stapled to the tree,  giving the animals a decoyed-camouflage, forcing "spoltlighters" to misfire or get discouraged and move on. 

Dmitry guides us along the coast; low clouds create a nearly invisible horizon.

Dave and I on top of "The Tower", one of the Reserve's highlight hiking destinations. The Education and Tourism Departments are working together to attract more tourist to the Reserve. Annual federal funding that enters the park is 53 million Rubles (1.62 million USD) and the salary for employees alone is 33 million Rubles ( 1 million USD). Without other sources of income the park struggles to fund important conservation efforts.

Dimitry Gorshkov became new Director in September. He says he feels very lucky to have entered the Reserve when he has, there are a lot projects to look forward to.

Common Seals

Setting up my homemade camera trap.

Big Dipper rising over the Centeral Sikohte-Alin Mountains.

Tidal zone waves, along the cliffs, wash over a smooth pebble floor. Illuminated by a headlamp the green and gold stones shimmer and move as if they are a backlit mosaic.

Trash litters the coastline; refrigerators, plastic bottles and hundreds of meters of old towing rope. Along the way we came along a group of 30 to 50 foot cliffs that edge right up to the water. A series of short lengths of rope were anchored and set as guidelines for the few that hike the beach. When Dave was ten feet from the bottom this line snapped, clean, sending him sliding down. Thankfully he was not hurt. 

Andre, an Inspector, takes a smoke break, dwarfed by tall pinnacles erupting out of the shallow water. 

Climbing in rubber boots, Andre scrambles above the jagged coast

We spent two weeks living like frontiersmen without electricity, plumbing or gas. We cooked all our meals on a wood fire stove-top. Fishing is illegal within the Reserve so this is store (back of a tuck) bought. Like we could catch a fish this big anyway

David contemplatively looks over a fallen tree where exactly 36 hours earlier a female tiger and cubs had scratched, played and crossed. Russian government has shut down and banned the use of snares for trapping tigers so WCS's only way to monitor the population is through the use of motion triggered cameras.

David and Wildlife Conservation Society scientist, Nicholi, look at a recent image that a trail camera captured of a tiger cub. The cub, his mother, and sibling(s?) passed in front of this camera a day and a half earlier.

 

Mouse Trap and Leaving Udege Legend

 

"Mickey Mooouuse Miiiickey Mooouuse" ... Bam! Bam!... Sasha Alexander stares at a rug nailed to the wall. He is looking for any kind of movement, waiting to attack. Meanwhile, on the other side of the small inspector's cabin, a Russian military drama plays on the television, which David and I are watching, void of distraction. Explosions and gunfire battle against Sasha's attempts to exterminate the little critter. Bam! Whack! Bam! "Ha! I got you!" He did not, until a few nights later when we were doing pretty much the same exact thing. But this time, instead of watching a Russian military drama, it was a bootleg copy of American Gangster with Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington… dubbed in Russian.

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Our time in Udege Legend was not the most productive time. We were told that we would have work, and to us this meant enough work to justify traveling half way across the world. All in all we spent 21 days in the park, but amounting to maybe 8 hrs of work. I do not want to sound ungrateful for the opportunity and the park's initial attempt. We were their first volunteers. And the main reason we were not given too much responsibility was for our own safety. We were treated very well in the small town of Roschino. We met a lot of the community and eventually gained some celebrity status once the knowledge of our existence became known to a group of high school students, who visited the park. We held a chunk of heavy space rock, from a meteorite, that landed in Primorski Krai in 1947. We were guests in many homes. And twice we were special guests in the local primary school. We had the privilege to hear the school's choir and watch a group of Cossack students perform a traditional song, complete with sword twirling and whips. The second time, to sit in and help a 9th grade English class and to join a 7th grade fitness class where Dave ripped his pants and I nearly threw up after they force fed us before heading to a heated volleyball game.

At times the hospitality and generosity felt undeserved, considering the small amount of work we did. But now I know that our effort in traveling half way across the world, to visit this beautiful place, was enough for the community to want and take us in. We were guests, many times, in many homes, for tea and dinner.

The park staff of Udege Legend National Park were very helpful and protective of us. When we mentioned that we would like to travel to the coastal town of Terney, they not only arranged the six hour ride over the snow crested mountains but they also contacted the Sikhote-Alin Zapovednik (Strict Wildlife Reserve) in Terney, where we are now volunteers.

MOuse

Vasha, a 17 year-old who has been studying English for several years invited us to his house to meet his family and for a chance  to practice his English. He spoke very well, but with the cadence of his native tongue. When we asked him if he enjoyed hiking and nature he quickly answered with a slight chuckle, "No, guys this is very dangerous".

 

 

View of the valley that is home to the entrance to Udege Legend NP and Dersu, a very small farming village occupied by the "Old Beilevers".

18 months ago Masha rescued this Russian Red Deer after he had become oprhaned, his parents killed by poachers.

Russian Red Deer

 

First light on the Iman (Ussuri).

Group of eleventh graders from Roschino leaving the park after a weekend feildtrip.

Andre, a park employee and engineer, who developed the ferry on the Iman River, weilds the crossbeams to the new fence surounding the park's guesthouse.

The Roschino Primary School is 70 years-old and houses all grades from K-12. Two high school students during a class

break.

When we decided to leave Udege Legend the Director of Science, Natasha Dimitrinov, arranged a ride for us over the mountains and Sahsa, a park mechanic, was our driver. He was never a big fan of ours so despite his look I am sure he is very excited to be getting rid of us.

Hitch-hiker on our way to Terney

Udege Legend

Almost two years ago, my good friend David Cockerill and I started planning a trip: an extended backpacking trip throughout Southeast Asia and Oceania.

In the beginning, the trip was designed to do just that. We would wander from beach to beach, jungle to beach and beach to beach again. As our planning continued, and the number of days until graduation decreased, somewhere along the way we got some sense knocked back into us, and we realized, if there was any time to stay focused and determined it should be now. 

For me, I didn't want to repeat out loud a line I had said to myself several times…" yeah, travel while you can, and get it out of your system". I did not know what system they, and I, were talking of. For me, visiting new and different places, meeting new people, learning new skills and gaining knowledge is not something you look to as a one time thing, or a period in your life, that you took advantage of, or not. We should do this everyday, at least introduce ourselves to someone new. You don't have to travel to distant lands to do that. 

 David studied wildlife biology, and myself, photography. We wanted to combine those studies and seek out something that would be an extension of our educations and help affirm our reasons for heading in those directions. David started to talk about an area in southeastern Russia called Primorski Krai (Приморский край) or the Maritime Province, which borders China and North Korea to the west and southwest, and the Sea of Japan to the East. A very bio-diverse area, Primorski Krai is home to some amazing wildlife and virtually untouched wilderness. But there are current threats to this sub-siberian wonderland that could change its beauty and turn it into another failed attempt at conservation, which we have seen happen to other places that have something amazing and powerful, of which the rest of the world wants. In Primorski Krai, the threats lie mostly from the poaching of wildlife: the bodies and pelts of Amur Tigers (Siberian), Asian Black Bears and Amur Leopards are sold in China for medicinal use. And there is illegal logging and cutting of tress, which make up the habitat for these large predators. 

Once David introduced me to this amazing place we decided to volunteer our services to whomever may have a place for us. We contacted several organizations with no luck. Then David emailed an organization called the Phoenix Fund, a Russian organization that was created in 1998 as an effort to help aid in the conservation of Russian wildlife, with a specific focus on the Amur Leopard and Tiger. The fund, which supports only five full time staff, has an array of projects to handle:  human-tiger conflicts, ecological education and anti-poaching, among others. Please visit their website (www.fundpheonix.org) and learn more about their very important work, and their success thus far. 

The Director of the Phoenix Fund, Sergei Bereznuk, was very generous to us and put us in contact with a newly formed national park in Primorye, the Udege Legend National Park (Удэгейская легенда Национальный парк). Udege Legend National Park was named after the tribe of people who lived in the region, when Russians settled in the area, in the 19th century.

After several months of planning and numerous visa applications, we are here and have started our work as volunteers. Udege Legend is a small and young park, so our work varies quite a bit. We intend to be here for two months, until December… 

 

 

 

Wallpaper in one of the bedrooms

Bridge suspended over the Ussuri River, and the guideline for the ferry's pulley system.

Victor Vasilievich, a ferry driver, gets paid 200 Rubels (about 6 US dollars) for every trip across the river. When winter comes, the river will freeze several meters deep and motorist will use the ice as a bridge to cross. Until then, Victor and the other ferry drivers will break through the ice that forms. The ferry is the only way to cross the river, other then, the suspension bridge. For the people who live in the small villages of  Dersu and Dal'nekut, and for the park inspectors, it is the only connection to life outside the taiga (boreal forest).

Masha Vyacheslavovna and Victor Vasilievich, on our first trip across the river, and our first visit into the park. Masha is the Deputy Director for the park and was our contact who helped get us into Russia to become the park's first volunteers. Her English is good. Our Russian is not so good. She has been acting as our translator. Without her, we are pretty helpless.

Olga Vasilievna, Communication Specialist for Udege Legend National Park, waving to fisherman on shore.

During one of the last warm weekends, before winter arrives, the park hosts a annual fishing competition. The judges look at each contestants largest catch, smallest catch and the quality. Hunting, along with carrying any firearm, is illegal in the park. So the main sporting event is fishing the rivers abundant resource of Umber, Taimen and Lenok.

Autumn comes and goes quickly in the taiga, with weather systems that bring freezing temperatures from the Siberian North. Temperatures can drop to -40 degrees celsius.

A view of the Ussuri and the ferry, from the suspension bridge, at the end of our first day in the park. The current from the river and the angle the ferry sits in the water is what propels the mostly steel and wooden platform from shore to shore.

Alexey, a park forestry engineer, guides a friend up onto the steel ramp that leads you to shore. There have been situations, were due to icy conditions or negligence, cars have fallen into the river and found several kilometers down stream.

During our first week working, we were shadowed by one of the park inspectors and forestry engineers, Sasha Alexander. We spent most of our days with him. And as he helped us with our Russian, he was able to practice English. In Russian, the word for white is белый (phonetically: Be-a-le). Here,  Alexander is translating White Russia (or Belarus, the small Eastern European contry). This kind of blow my mind, for some  reason. Sasha has a wife and one year old, in Roshino.

The largest threats, to this mostly untouched region of southeastern Russia, are the poaching of large wildlife animals, such as the Amur Tiger (Siberian Tiger), the Asian Black Bear and the Amur Leopard, and  the illegal logging of the forest (тайга́). One of the protected botanical species is the Japanese Yew (тис). Here Sasha Alexander walks around a 2,000 year old specimen.

Victor Alexsage, a park inspector and former veterinarian technician, has been with the park for two years. During our first visit with the rangers he was acting as the cabin caretaker and would monitor the entrance of park and register the visitors.

The Inspector's cabin is a social place, where park guests and fisherman start and finish their day. Sasha (A popular name for Russian men. Dave and I had to start giving them nick names, to seperate them) or "Dancing Sasha" is an engineer from Vladivostok, the capital of Primorye. He comes to the park several times a year to fish and visit with friends.

An official park patrol boat, tethered to the shore while the moon rises over the Ussuri.

Getting There

We left Baltimore at 6 am and arrived in Beijing at midnight the next day. 

We chased the sunset into China for twelve hours, after leaving Seattle at 2 pm. Somewhere over the Pacific

Dave and I didn't reserve a hotel or train ticket before arriving in China. We also didn't even know where the train station was. Not knowing any Chinese we somehow managed to get to the station where, even at 2 am is full of people. One thing we learned about the Chinese is that they can sleep anywhere. 

Beijing train station at 4 am. Illuminated only by the LCD train schedule. 

On something like 38 hrs of non stop travel. After leaving Beijing we arrived in Harbin. in Harbin we met a few obstacles but through some intense telepathy sessions with the awe-struck locals and the tremendous help from one english speaking women. We got on our next train to Suifenhe, a Chinese-Russian border city. We were very tired so we spent the extra money on a sleeper car. Best 10 hours of sleep I will ever have. Maybe. 

 Small village outside Suifenhe. 

At the Border crossing in Suifenhe we thought the gaurds were running a scam on us, because by day 2 in China we new how to purchase any bus or train tickets. We never saw a ticket office at the border the guards just ask for 500 yuan and told us to sit and wait. they would get us when it was time. almost two hours later we got on to a bus to Ussuriysk, Russia. Where we meet our new comrades, Sonya, Ramon, Jeina (jack). 

Sonya spoke the most english and would translate for the other two. Our Russian is much better than our Chinese so we communicated pretty well. The night got long with these three. Sonya checking his phone outside some apartments while Ramon beat-boxed and Jeina rapped in Russian for us. 

As the night dragged on the three boys brought us to the "criminal district" where they said we could stay the night with there friends in this one bedroom. Dave and I turned down the offer when they asked us to pay   4,000 rubels ($120) then they brought down the offer to 2,500, we left in a hurry and got a nice hotel room for less than 2,000 rubels.  

Bus to Dal'nerechensk

On our ride to Dal'nerechensk we met this man, he never gave us his name and he didn't speak English so after he finished about three liters of beer we gave him the name "Drunkle" He was kind, sort of, and looked out for us while we traveled 8 hrs to Dal'nerechensk but at the same time he didn't like us. Depended on when the next drink was. Needless to say before our last stop he tried to head-butt me and start a fight. 

"Drunkle" during one of his fits.

 "Drunkle" leaning his head on my shoulder as he gave me a Lesson in Russian.

Last Days At Home

Any succes and adventure I find I will forever blame these people. I have considered myself a lucky person, mainly because of the stories I can tell that are the direct influence of my friends. I have always been sorounded by great people who show me so much in confidence, knowledge, compassion, dedication and adventure. Thank you to all the people I call my friend.

Samwise Solomon