I may be a rapid soccer fan, but I’m also an environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights advocate, so I couldn’t resist the temptation of visiting Earth’s deepest lake, Baikal (which contains roughly 20 percent of our planet’s unfrozen freshwater), and the homeland of the indigenous Buryat people, in the heart of Siberia.
Fortunately, I work for an international network of public interest environmental lawyers and happen to have a local colleague in Ulan-Ude (relatively near Eugene’s sister city Irkutsk) to provide recommendations and facilitate logistics. Beyond any expectations, however, my colleague and her husband met me at UUD at 7:30 am, drove me to a furnished apartment to enjoy during my stay in Buryatia, lent me a local cell phone, explained useful public transport details, and then asked me what I would like to do that day while offering to take me to the center of Russian (and Buryat) Buddhism — Ivolginsky Datsan. I accepted the kind offer and enjoyed an amazing day.
After a delicious Buryat dinner, my generous colleague and her husband gave me a brief driving tour of downtown Ulan-Ude. On the way to my apartment, I noticed some guys playing soccer in a korobka (a fenced in space used for playing 5-on-5 soccer) and immediately made mental notes of geographical references to be able to return with the hope of playing.
The next day I was independent because my colleague had to visit family in a distant village, so I explored the city and visited the Ethnographical Museum before returning to the korobka that I saw the night before. A five-on-five match was in course, with another five or six sweaty young men cheering and/or jeering from a bench. I approached during an opportune lull in play and tried one of my few key Russian phrases: “Mozhna paigrat s vamy?” (May I play with you?). The apparent spokesman for the group replied, but all I understood was the initial “Nyet” (No) and a sentence- (or paragraph-) final “shest” (six), so I inferred that I had to wait until 6 pm.
As 6 pm approached, so did another young man with apparent desire to play. He didn’t speak English but did have enough patience to permit me to pursue communication with my limited Russian. I learned that this was a pay-to-play space. To greater surprise and disappointment, I also learned that this guy was two hours early to his soccer appointment and that it was unlikely he or I would get to play before then. He kindly invited me to play with his friends at 8 pm, but I wasn’t excited to wait two hours since I hadn’t any reading with me, it was too late to visit a nearby museum, and I didn’t want to abuse this guy’s patience with my mostly fruitless communication efforts. The he suggested I go for a beer, which seemed like a bad idea since it was a hot day and I was surely under-hydrated (and in suboptimal physical condition), but I accepted his suggestion on the condition that he join me.
As we were slowly enjoyed beers and comical communication efforts in a cafe, an older Buryat man walked in and immediately curious about my presence in his Ulan-Ude, so he ordered three beers and sat at our table, placing fresh beers before each of us. We discussed soccer and, of course, the World Cup Final to be played that night. After sharing predictions and preferences, I asked about fastest transport options from the field to my apartment to be able to shower and change before the Final began at 11 pm. The older Buryat man quickly put 200 rubles before me and said “Taxi.” I thought maybe the money was just to ensure I understood how much it would cost since I had already demonstrated my poor comprehension skills, but sure enough he was gifting it to me and my incomplete attempt to politely decline the gift was swiftly rejected.
Having finished our second beers and warmly thanked the kind curious Buryat man, my new soccer friend and I hurried back to the korobka. One of the 20 guys in the korobka spoke English well enough to communicate comfortably, and we were put on the same team — along with my beer-drinking companion and two others. Two teams of five eagerly waited in the margins as two played on the field for 10 minutes or until a team scored two goals, with the winner staying for their next opponent.
After several matches, I realized we had rented the field longer than one hour, so I timidly inquired about getting a taxi., explaining that I had to meet someone at 10 pm before going to watch the World Cup Final. My English-speaking teammate thought for a bit, consulted another teammate, and then explained that the other teammate is a taxi driver willing to drive me for 150 rubles upon finishing our play in 20 minutes. I was hoping to leave earlier, but it was a kind offer and good excuse to continue playing, so I agreed.
Upon finishing, we quickly exchanged heartfelt goodbyes and the soccer-playing taxi driver and I left in a hurry. Arriving at my apartment a couple minutes past 10 pm, I thanked my teammate-driver and tried paying him 150 rubles, but he refused payment. I thanked him again, we shook hands, and I jumped out of his car where my friend of a friend was waiting for me.
After a quick shower, my new friend and I hurried to a bar to watch the Final. It was an exciting match, with France ultimately winning the world’s greatest tournament 4-2 over Croatia. We watched the French celebrate their triumph (and Croats suffer their disappointment) as we finished our fifth or sixth round of beers. Once our check arrived, my friend insisted on paying because I was the guest in Buryatia. I accepted the generous gesture with the intention of buying him beers in the coming days since we planned to spend some days together with our mutual friend (UO L.L.M. Aryuna Radnaeva) at her dacha near Lake Baikal.
I won’t go into exhaustive detail, but the generosity from these friends and complete strangers continued in the coming days. The World Cup may be over and I may be thousands of miles from the closest host city, but in my experience the hospitality of Russian people (and especially Buryat people, who are known for their generosity) appears to know no such bounds. Spasiba Russia! Bayarlaa Buryatia!