Sent by Megan Herzog '07, April 2006

"Privyet iz Rossii"

Privyet Russian Department!!
I hope that this email finds you all well and enjoying the Spring Semester. I've officially been in Russia for one month now, and as promised, here is an update on what I've been up to:

I am traveling across the country with a group of 6 other students and our SIT director. We started in St. Petersburg where we spent 5 days having a brief orientation and then jetted down to Irkutsk, Siberia. Right from the plane, we took only the clothes on our backs (and of course, our coats and boots) and went to spend four days on a hydrofoil on frozen Lake Baikal. A hydrofoil is like a boat that travels on ice, on frozen lakes. Lake Baikal is amazing. I can't describe it's beauty, surrounded by Siberian mountains. The water is so clear that you can see 200 meters down into it, or 10 meters when it's iced over. We explored the lake and spent the night in bear hunters' cabins along the shore. We ate lots of fish--raw fish just caught, smoked fish you peal off the bones, fish that you have to snap the heads off of.... Peter--I never thought I would be grateful for you making us learn how to say all those fish names in Russian! We've also been hitting a lot of traditional Banya's, beating ourselves with birch branches and rolling naked in the snow--it's fantastic.

After that I settled down for a few weeks in a homestay in Irkutsk with a Russian family. In addition to speaking Russian to them all day, I have four hours of intensive language per day and lectures on cultural issues. I've also been conducting personal ethnographic research about Post-Soviet Siberian politics...I've come up with some very interesting material through my interviews centered on a referendum to dissolve a Buryat autonomous okrug.

Most amazing of all, was how I spent last week experiencing two different cultures of Siberia. We traveled to the village of Orlick in the Region of Buryatia. Obviously, theses Buryats don't live in Yurts anymore because Stalin made them build houses, but we saw pictures of them visiting their relatives and friends in yurts in Mongolia. Where I was is only a few kilometers away from the Mongolian border, so I was practically in Mongolia. The landscape is breath-taking--rolling mountains everywhere. We drove for about 8 hours on a dirt road that was constructed only 10 years ago. Some of the way there wasn't even a road--we drove on a frozen river!

Finally, after miles and hours of seeing nothing, we got to the village of
Orlick, 2,000 Buryats. We lived with them for three days. They spoke in Russian for our benefit. We got to visit the school, hospital and go ice skating on the river with the local kids. How the Buryats live is
amazing--completely self-sufficient. No running water, raising/growing all their own food (mostly cows and yaks), building their own wooden houses. My homestay "mom" was 22 and already had a two year old son and her own livestock! (I was asked fairly frequently why I wasn't married yet.) We watched a concert of traditional Mongolian dance and music, and got blessed by the local Lama. Needless to say, in the Siberian mountains, it was FREEZING! Especially when you have to get up in the middle of the night and use the outhouse...

The most interesting part of this stay though, was when they drove us 3
hours out of the village to a "hot" spring (hot meaning not frozen--maybe 5 degrees Celsius) and a bear hunting cabin. We made a fire, and then they killed a sheep for us. I thought I wasn't going to be able to handle it, but I watched the entire thing. It was actually fascinating how they did it--in order to protect the meat, they killed the sheep by making an incision and then closing off the valve to the heart, bare-handed. After it died, two men went to town carving it up--how they did it was incredibly practiced, quick, clean and thorough. They wasted nothing. This is the man's work--then the women come in to clean all the "insides" and make sausages. We helped them clean out the intestines. It was quite the afternoon. Then we had to eat every part of the sheep -- this is a huge ceremony for the Buryats and a big gesture to us as their guests so nothing could be refused. Raw liver, heart, everything--I ate it all. It was the most mentally straining meal I have ever had in my life. On top of the fact that in rural siberia there is no water or coffee with a meal--it is rounds and rounds of vodka shots. I think that being a little tipsy helped me keep eating a sheep I had just seen alive...

Then we had to make sacrifices to the gods of the land and to do a few Buddhist rituals. It is Buryat belief that there is a god of the land,
Burkhan, who most be sacrificed to or he will take retribution on your
journey. Therefore, all along the roads in Buryatia there are little
gazebos set up where every car must stop and make a sacrifice to
Burkhan--this means, you pour a shot of vodka, dip your finger in and flick a little bit north, south, east and west and then suck it down. These gazebos pop up about every half hour or so and make the trip quite an interesting time, especially considering that we started driving in the morning and my first vodka shot was at 9:00am. After an eight hour trip we'd gone through 3 bottles.

After the Buryat village we traveled for another 15 hours (van and then
Trans-Siberian Railroad) to an ethnic Russian Old Believer village called Desyatnikogo. The village is 300 years old and absolutely amazing. The wooden houses look like fairytale houses--my homestay had squirrels and dragons painted all over it. I stayed with Baba Tamara -- a 77-yr old babushka who runs her house completely by herself. She is the most amazing old woman I've ever met. The house is one room with a stove in the middle to heat it and cook with. I couldn't imagine how she fit her five kids and husband in there with her. No running water, again--completely self-sufficient. We helped chop wood, carry in water from the well, and I learned how to spin wool on a spinning wheel! All the babushkas of the village had a great time dressing us up in traditional russian costumes, teaching us folk songs and how to play the balaliaka, teaching us swear words (they had incredibly dirty mouths) and making us drink all day long. There are sayings in the village--after the first vodka shot "between the first and second is a short break" and then after that one "God loves a trinity," then after that one "Drink to my health, I have a sore throat because it's dry." etc., etc. These were some tough babushkas! I learned how to cook pelmenie, pirogi, pozzi, make samagon and make dough out of grain.

We also got to visit their spiritual leader. These old believers are almost completely illiterate--they worship by interpreting the pictures in bibles brought over by the first settlers in the 17th century. We got to see the bibles--they are amazingly beautiful and written in old church slavonic. The whole experience was like traveling back in time 200 years. Again, more questions about why I'm not married.

I love Siberia! I'm sad to be leaving so soon--in 4 days we fly to Moscow, hang out there for a week, and then train again to St. Petersburg. I wanted to make sure to say thank you to Peter and Susan for all the Russian I learned while at Mount Holyoke -- even the stuff I never thought that I would use, I end up using all the time. Peter, you would be happy to know that the other day at the dinner table my family started reciting Pushkin's poem about the storm, and because you made me memorize it I could jump right in, too.

I miss everyone and I hope that you all are having a great spring semester! Enjoy the warm weather because I am jealous.
Best, Megan

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