Summer in Siberia
Two Months of Translation, Trail-building, and Fish
Republic of Buryatia
"You're going where?!" This was the typical response that met the announcement of my summer plans. The first response was usually quickly followed by "Isn't it really cold there?" or, in a very confused tone, "Why?!" For most people, including myself before I started learning about it, Siberia meant a bleak landscape dotted with gulags; a place of snow and bears roaming the streets unchallenged. I suppose the idea that I would be willing to spend two months in Siberia away from friends and family was nearly incomprehensible. But the more I investigated the internship being offered by OCREECAS, the more convinced I became that this was an opportunity I couldn't pass up.
I have always been passionate about environmental and social justice issues, and so was very interested when I learned that OCREECAS was sponsoring an internship working with a Russian environmental organization. Not only would this give me a better perspective on the environmental movement in Russia and some much needed practical experience, but I would be able to collect information for my honors thesis on international cooperation in the environmental movement. And as I read more and more about Siberia and especially the Lake Baikal region, I became convinced that its reputation as a freezing wasteland was far from deserved.
Contrary to common belief, the temperatures in the summer near Baikal range from 60-85 degrees farieghiet, and the unique natural features of the area are astounding. Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest lake in the world, and is home to thousands of endemic plants and animals, including the world's only species of fresh-water seal (which I was able to see in person while I was there!). The lake is edged by mountains, and around 350 rivers and streams flow into Baikal, which is also one of the clearest and cleanest lakes on the globe.
The internship was based in Ulan-Ude, the capital city of the Republic of Buryatia, a semi-autonomous republic located within Russia's borders directly to the north of Mongolia. Another part of its location that intrigued me was that almost 50% of the population are ethnic Buryats, an ethnicity closely related to the Mongol people, and Buryatia is known as the center of Russian Buddism. The Buryats speak Russian, but a large portion still speak their native language and celebrate Buryat traditions and rituals. Clearly this was an incredibly interesting, unique place, and the more I planned for my trip, the more excited I became.
The experience exceeded all of my expectations. The lake and surrounding area was breathtakingly beautiful, and the people were the friendliest, most laid-back people I have encountered in Russia. I worked for the majority of the summer with the Federation for Mountaineering and Ecotourism, a tour company based in Ulan-Ude that is spearheading the Great Baikal Trail project. The GBT is a gargantuan project involving a number of different Russian and American non-profit organizations and the Russian Department of Parks and Reserves. The basic idea is to build a system of trails around the lake with the assistance of local and international volunteers to encourage ecotourism as an economically viable alternative to more damaging development. This summer was the project's first season of construction, and I was surprised to learn when I arrived that I was its very first international volunteer!
During my internship with the Federation for Mountaineering and Ecotourism, I filled a number of different roles. For my first week, I traveled to various proposed trail locations with a representative from the American Bureau of Land Management, who gave advice on how best to develop already existing trails. Mrs. Young spoke no Russian, so it was my job to translate conversations between her and the Russian project managers and park officials. This was a very interesting and challenging experience, especially since I had to learn all sorts of new trail-building vocabulary (not something often taught in Russian class).
After about a week of translation work, I joined a group of Russian and international volunteers to begin work on a section of the trail. The natives were a group of about 25 first-year university students from Ulan-Ude who were volunteering as practical experience for their major, the Management of Protected Wilderness Areas. There were only four people in the foreign contingent, myself, two other Americans, and one Englishman. We were renovating an already existing trail that went about 5 km into a wildlife reserve. We camped out at the trail head, about a 40 minute walk from the nearest village, which was truly a village (only one store and one main street). I loved the trail building- the weather was beautiful, we were working outside, and I was finally getting to do something physical. All the Russians looked at me funny, however, when I picked up a tool or did any heavy lifting of dirt or rocks. Apparently, girls aren't expected to do this sort of work in Russia. It wasn't only the guys that were puzzled, the girls were bewildered as well. "What are you lifting heavy things for?" one asked me, "we have boys." By the end of the trip, however, all members of the team were hard at work.
Because of the lack of funding for materials and tools, we had to improvise a lot, finding materials in the surrounding forest and hiking down to the river to get rocks. The trail was fairly primitive, with lots of treacherous tree roots and bridges that were nearly falling apart. It was fun and interesting to think through how to get around these obstacles and build new bridges, and especially interesting to get to work and live with this large group of young Russians. I was able to conduct a lot of interviews for my honors project and learn about how people my age in Russia viewed the environment. We celebrated both the 4th of July and the 70th anniversary of the Republic of Buryatia in grand style, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. So much so, that even though I was extremely filthy (having the opportunity to wash only once in every 4-5 days) and getting a little tired of fish soup and kasha, I was very sad to leave. By the end of my trip to Siberia, I was already fantasizing about when I could return.