(Ed. note: Maggi Sliwinski '07 of East Concord, N.Y., is among more than a dozen HWS students and faculty who headed for Siberia shortly after graduation on May 14. This is the fourth and final entry in her “Siberia Journal.” A photo album from Maggi's travels is available online.)
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Now that I’m home — we arrived on Wednesday, June 14, at 4 p.m. after leaving Irkutsk at 8 that morning, which was pretty strange — I have more time to write. However, I’m having trouble starting because there is so much to talk about. I kept a journal while I was in Siberia, so I’m going to pull things from that and go in chronological order.
The second half of the trip started with an excursion to Ulan-Ude on a night train. It would have been nice to be able to see what we were passing, but it was very efficient for us to take a night train.
The morning we arrived, we went to Marco Polo’s for breakfast, where they served us hard-boiled eggs and ham and cheese sandwiches for breakfast — pretty American if you ask me. We found our hotel and then got to see parts of the city; it seemed very similar to Irkutsk except there was more Asian influence — it is close to the Mongolian border. We saw the biggest head of Lenin and a Japanese play in Russian, with a little bit of English, for us.
We also visited a Datsan, a Buddhist temple, where the chants being performed inside by the monks were also broadcast outside on loudspeakers; I thought it gave the place an eerie feeling.
After the Datsan, we went to the Old Believers Village, a very long drive outside the city. When we arrived, we were greeted by colorfully dressed women and two men playing the accordion. They served us lunch (traditional foods) and taught us about their customs. Two students “got married” in a mock ceremony using their traditions.
When we returned on the night train, we had a few hours in Irkutsk before heading to Olkhon Island. In that time I was able to write an e-mail home at an internet café and get some pizza at Fiesta for lunch. We left for the island in a big bus.
After five hours of traveling, we got to the ferry and waited another hour while it came across the lake to take us. We were accompanied by another bus full of Swiss tourists: I was worried the ferry couldn’t hold both buses, but it did just fine.
On Olkhon Island, we stayed in a nice cottage in a resort. We were told the island had had electricity only since last fall, and we had anticipated staying in yurts of some sort. The owners told us it hardly ever rains on Olkhon, but it rained every day we were there except the morning we left, when it got sunny.
At the island, we climbed on Shaman’s Rock and saw the north end with its cliffs and rock outcroppings. The forests we drove through were filled with bright pink flowers and the town had about five or six little shops. We were served breakfast, lunch and dinner every day in the resort’s dining hall: lots of fish, but eggs and bread for breakfast.
Another interesting Russian thing we did was have a banya down at the lake. We would run into Lake Baikal, which was about 4 degrees Celsius — less than 40 degrees F. — and then run into the banya. I only did it once, but a few people did it four times!
Our main purpose on the island was to conduct a project on eco-tourism. Arkady, our teacher from the Irkutsk State Linguistic University, assigned us into groups, which he called teams, that were competing with one another to do the best project. This is apparently a common practice in the Russian education system; students can graduate with medals if they do well.
The goals of the project were to determine the carrying capacity (how many people the land could hold) and devise a development plan for the land that would be ecologically sound and good for the town. We were each assigned a plot of land — my group’s included the Shaman's Rock, so we had to be particularly careful about religious beliefs in the town and make sure that we had a lot of resident input. Everyone did an awesome job on the projects, especially considering that we only had about two days to do the whole thing.
Here’s an excerpt from my journal about the presentations: “Friday we gave our presentations. Question time was really strange because Arkady did not allow students to ask questions until the professors had asked and the hotel owner had asked. We weren’t really allowed to have discussion either, which is completely opposite of what we experience at HWS … “
Leaving the island was bittersweet — we all had a lot of fun there but we knew that trail building was also going to be pretty awesome. We had a little time in Irkutsk to get lunch, and met with the leaders of the Great Baikal Trail before climbing on the bus that runs about twice daily from Irkutsk to Bolshoe Goloustnoe (BG).
On the first night in BG, I wrote in my journal: “The house I’m staying in is awesome — not what I expected at all. There’s a really nice computer in it, but no running water; an outhouse, a banya instead of a shower, and no phone lines (they’re hoping next fall). It’s a strange dichotomy of old and new — didn’t phones come before computers?”
I had that impression a lot of the time in Russia. Things had a funny mixture of old and new: very old cars, with new cassette or CD players installed. Internet cafés everywhere but the water in the city still gets turned off periodically to check the pipes. I think (but haven’t been taught this) that it’s because Russia as a democratic capitalist society is so young that it hasn’t had time to grow into itself yet. I hope to go back from time to time, and see how it changes.
The people who run the Great Baikal Trail organization are our age. It’s amazing how young they are and how much they already do. The girl I lived with, officially our translator, was 19 and had three exams the day after returning from trail building. Vladimir, the guy with expertise, was also a riot: he had the stereotypical Russian accent when speaking English.
We had three days set aside for building trails, and finished the whole trail to the Sacred Mountain. That was followed by lots of time planned for cultural activities. We visited a church service and the Dry Lake, and heard buryat and Russian folk groups. We also learned how to spin wool, crochet, and carve spoons.
We played lots of games with our Russian hosts and learned a lot about their culture. A lot of their games involved an audience and a couple of guinea pigs to play the joke on, which was pretty amusing — I was never the guinea pig.
Our time in BG was probably the best all of us had. Most of us had gotten used to — and were even enjoying — the food. Everyone had gotten to know each other, so we felt really comfortable working in groups to get the trail done, and making idiots of ourselves during the games.
Going to Russia was one of the best things I’ve done: it was an amazing learning experience and we all had so much fun together. I made connections that would not have been possible had I not gone, and I’ve decided that I definitely want to return to Russia some day.
I hope this experience will be