This week, I was lucky enough to be invited to a retreat for the Academy’s deans and administration (read: university big-shots) at the Academy’s recreational base on Lake Baikal, about 2.5 hours outside of Ulan-Ude. I left on Wednesday afternoon and returned Thursday evening feeling invigorated, awe-struck, and inspired.
Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest (over 25 million years old) and deepest (averaging 2,442 feet) lake, containing 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh-water. But those are just statistics. As a native of the Great Lakes State who considers herself half-mermaid, I have a deep appreciation for water—and I assert that Baikal is perhaps the greatest of lakes. Everyone tells me that Baikal has a very powerful energy and spiritual/magic powers. I definitely felt it. The atmosphere is so joyful and invigorating, fresh and tranquil—I fell under the spell of the so-called “особая аура” (“special aura”) of Baikal.
The Academy’s Rector (President, for you folks at home) insisted that Darima and I ride up in his car instead of on the mini-bus with the others. It was a very interesting ride. Rector wanted to practice his English, so he forbade me from speaking Russian. He told me about his life and our breathtaking surroundings of taiga and steppe, and reiterated the need to find me a Russian husband so I can become a true daughter of Buryatia.
This ride and the Baikal retreat that followed were a lesson to me in Russian (and Buryat) culture and traditions. I’ve been studying the language and culture for four years, I spent four months living in St. Petersburg, and I’m pretty well-read, but there is still so much to learn and experience. Allow me to share some things I learned from Baikal.
Russian Roads: The roads here are notorious for being awful. Now that I’ve spent some time on a real Siberian highway, I’d like to offer some commentary. We took one road all the way from Ulan-Ude to Baikal. Chunks of it are nice, new pavement, while chunks of it are exactly as you might expect: wide, bumpy, dusty dirt paths. Rector told me that this highway has been under construction for the last two years, interspersing these lovely paved portions amongst the dirt sections. Construction zones work entirely different out here, too. No orange barrels and signs announcing “road work ahead.” In front of pits or piles, there will be a sign that says “detour,” which means you drive around on the shoulder. For the most part, you drive right through the construction zone and honk at construction workers to get out of your way.
Right of Passage: Rector says that in Siberia, a boy becomes a man when he kills his first bear.
Holy Pit-Stop: When making a road trip, it is apparently your Holy Obligation to God to stop at a point halfway to your destination and stuff your face with snacks and vodka. We all stopped at a little rest-area-type-thing and had a massive picnic. Everyone thrust piles of food at me (two fish pies, a sandwich, cake, shashlik, and a loaded plate of more food) and a cup of vodka. It’s a sin not to drink.
Holy Places: Some trees along Baikal are covered in ribbons. There are holy places, and you’re supposed to leave a coin. The same goes for Buddhist temples.
Buryat tradition: Our road took us along the shore of Baikal for a while, and we stopped to take pictures—my first taste of Baikal. One of the deans (who is also apparently a local TV celebrity) told me about Saint Nose (one of the mountains on the other side of Baikal, inhabited only by bears) and the Buryat tradition of splashing your face in the water. So I consider myself baptized as a daughter of Baikal. Apparently, you’re also supposed to swim in the lake on your first visit. Sadly, I was unable to uphold this tradition because—for some silly reason—I forgot to bring my swimsuit to Siberia.
Toasts and Songs: Soon after we arrived at the base (after we had a chance to go out to the pier and marvel at Baikal), it was time for dinner (which was still going strong at 5AM if my ears can be believed). Dinner was God knows how many courses, but no one really had a chance to eat because, every few seconds someone would stand up for a toast, or everyone would break out into song with accordion accompaniment. When asked to sing an American song for them, I realized that the status of songs in Russian culture is incomparable to folk songs in the US. Our folk songs are essentially children’s songs, and we don’t sing them as adults. In Russia, everybody knows all the songs, the songs all have meaning, and they love to sing them together.
Darima and I really didn’t want to drink too much because we were among twenty very important boss figures. But when it comes to alcohol, no one does peer pressure like the Russians. It’s a sin not to drink. You can’t not toast to the Great and Wonderful Rector. You can’t not toast to success and development. You can’t not toast to anything they propose—they’re clever like that. Also, they refill your vodka glass after each toast, regardless of how much you drank. All twenty of the big-shots made at least one toast throughout the evening.
Even I made a toast. My first real Russian toast—with a speech and everything (not just “to health and friendship). I thanked everyone for inviting me on their retreat, thanked the Rector for all his kindness, shared my first impressions of Baikal and its Special Aura, and told everyone I was happy to meet them and looked forward to working with them this year. Then we toasted to “сотрудничество” (cooperation), and everyone told me “молодец” (well done!), and I felt very impressive.
The Russian Village and Nature: In the morning, Darima and I went on a bike ride along the shore of Baikal and through a “typical” Russian village—which, according to three different sources, is no longer very “typical” because many of the homes are actually fancy dachas. Still, if I blocked out the polished-looking houses and the ones with two stories, it was a taste of Russian village life. Little wooden houses (I’ve been told wood is the greatest of all building materials in Siberia), dirt paths, stray dogs and cows. On the way back, we met up with Vera Borisovna and two other women, and the five of us went for a nice walk through the woods and along the shore.
Marriage: From my experience, in Russia it is common practice to ask a woman how old she is and if she’s married. Here, women get married on average much younger than in the US. Thus, it fairly typical reaction to meeting a 22-year-old single woman is to find her a husband. I’ve mentioned already the Rector’s intention to find me a man. One of the deans I met, who sat next to me at every meal (we really bonded) told me on two occasions that I need to find a Russian husband. On both occasions, he indicated one of his colleagues as an eligible bachelor– and the colleague would tell me that his big belly was a sign of a wealthy lifestyle or that he is tall and has big muscles (and I would laugh and be embarrassed). Apparently, a favorite pastime of Russian men is marrying off their acquaintances.
Personal Space: Obviously personal space varies from person to person, but on average… Russian’s have zero personal space. They don’t even have a word for it. They tend to be much more touchy-feely than most Americans. It has been very noticeable. Hands on arms to emphasize a point, arms around shoulders when making introductions or suggestions or plane conversation, linking arms when walking together…
Russian Kindness: Everyone I’ve met so far has shown me the utmost kindness. People are quick to give compliments (ах, ты такая красавица, and you speak Russian so well) and show a genuine interest in you and your well-being—from telling me my eyes look like the eyes of Old Believers to finding me a husband to making sure I am warm enough.
I’ve been having stomach problems the last couple days, and all the deans and administration have been so kind about it—always asking how I’m doing, but never embarrassing me. I guess the moral of this story is: you can get sick at a stranger’s dinner table in front of 20 important people and still receive an invitation for a return visit. Moreover, the person you get sick on will still toast to your new friendship and want to find you a husband and take you hunting.