Deeply embedded in many religious and philosophical doctrines is the idea of dualism. I’m not going to presume to know anything about any of that—even the Wikipedia page on dualism frazzled me more than it probably should have. The only grand, sweeping generalization I will dare to make is that someone somewhere out here in the East said something about the duality of body and spirit. And that—vaguely and abstractly—is the theme through which I will attempt to convey my most recent adventures in Irkutsk and at Baikal.
In any case, this weekend’s trip to Irkutsk played Yin to the previous trip’s Yang. Whereas, the trip two weeks ago was unplanned, unstructured, and generally reckless, this week’s trip was organized and structured and wholesome—but both trips were equally fun and equally pleasing to my soul, if you know what I mean.
When I arrived in Irkutsk at 8AM Friday morning, I realized the one flaw in the meticulous planning that had gone into this conference: I was supposed to be picked up at the station by a professor from the Linguistic University, but I didn’t know how we’d find and recognize each other. After traipsing across the whole train station staring down every man I passed in an attempt to determine whether he might be the Ivan I was looking for, I still had no luck. In real life, I might have started to panic. But again, this isn’t real life: this is Russia—full of chill and flow, and все будет хорошо. Sure enough, my phone started ringing. “Hello? Is this Arielle? Where are you? What are you wearing?” Then it was just a matter of waiting for someone to approach me with the tell-tale expression of someone trying to decide if this is the right light-blue-coat-wearing devushka.
Back at the dorm, my American friends were waiting for me with kasha, tea, and scrambled eggs. Though we had only spent four days together what seems like a lifetime ago, this little get-together of five Fulbright ETAs had the feel of a reunion of old friends. It was great to see them again, to swap stories and share our experiences. It was also nice to indulge in a whole weekend of speaking English and being completely myself.
After heading over to Irkutsk State Linguistic University for a flurry of paperwork and stamps and meeting the American Studies department, we had the first session of the seminar with university teachers. We were presenting on teaching language and culture through extracurricular activities. In the US, extracurriculars are a fixed part of our educational culture, and we tend to take them for granted. High school and university students in America are encouraged to participate in student organizations as a way to follow their interests and passions, make a difference in their community, and to build their resumes and leadership experience. In Russia, this is not the case. For better or for worse, we were there to share our experience in forming and participating in extracurricular activities as a method of language learning. It was both interesting and useful for me to hear my peers’ presentations—they inspired me with lots of ideas that I’d like to try with my students and with English Club in the future.
On Saturday we presented for high school English teachers. Then we went on an excursion around the city. We walked along both Naberezhnayas (river embankments) and admired the hardcore, крутые Siberian ducks who have bravely foregone migration to swim in the icy Angara. Enveloped in tufts of fog, the river was a spectacular sight. I suppose the fog phenomenon results from the disparity between the frigid air and the still relatively “warm” temperature of the water. But perhaps the fog was the breath of Angara as she runs away from Papa Baikal to elope with Yenisei. You never know.
We visited the Museum of Local Lore, which was full of the history of Irkutsk and Siberia and its indigenous people (I felt very attached to the Buryat exhibit… my adopted familyJ ) We also stopped in some churches to keep warm and managed to infiltrate a classic Russian wedding photo op.
And of course, what’s a visit to any Russian city without paying homage to its local manifestation of Lenin? With the help of geometry and a passing plane, I made a surprising discovery: Lenin is Spiderman.
In the evening, we met up with some more people from the department and had a nice dinner. I dined on “Omul City,” and it was delicious. For those of you who don’t know (oh, you poor, unfortunate souls! How deprived you’ve been!), omul is an endemic fish of Lake Baikal. One of the most delicious of fish, it is considered a delicacy. I consumed two whole fresh omul over my weekend in Irkutsk.
On Sunday, despite several impassioned attempts by our Russian colleagues to dissuade us from such folly, we journeyed out to Listvianka to pay a visit to my beloved Baikal. Young and reckless, with our hearts set on Baikal, we braved the cold for a day of wonder and awe. When we arrived, we took a chairlift up a mountain and hiked through some woods to an observation point. The lake was mostly obscured by that enigmatic fog, but no fog can hide the awesome energy and beauty of Baikal. Then we went to the Limnological Museum (complete with two frolicking Nerpa—Baikal seals—and a yellow submarine room!) Lena gave us the most wonderful tour, and I got so much more out of this excursion than if I had merely visited the museum on my own. I learned that Baikal contains more water than all the American Great Lakes combined—and that if the only source of drinking water left on earth were Lake Baikal and the Siberians were generous enough to share their precious treasure, Baikal’s water would be able to sustain the entire human population for over 40 years—and that, in addition to being delicious and healthy for drinking, Baikal’s water is also an excellent place to dispose of dead bodies, as it is mystifyingly fast at decomposing the evidence. However, I was utterly shocked that, over this extensive and thorough tour—and indeed, over the course of an entire day spent on Baikal’s shore—not once did a single person say the words “special aura” or mention Baikal’s powerful energy. How was this even possible??? I distinctly recall that, during my time in Maksimikha just two months ago, a sentence could not be uttered that did not contain the word “aura” or “energy.”
Actually, having visited Baikal from both Buryatia and Irkutsk, I can make an interesting comparison. Listvianka is MUCH more touristy than Maksimikha was—with museums and restaurants and stalls of souvenir vendors and very active people trying to shove fish, cedar nuts, and souvenirs down your throat. Maksimikha had none of that (though I imagine some other places on the Buryat side probably do). It is said that the nature on the Buryat side is prettier, and I’m inclined to agree. But the difference is more than that. Both sides gave me a very full picture of Baikal and each side presents their natural treasure with pride, but each taught me something different about the lake. Listvianka taught me about the “body” of Baikal—its physical characteristics, its history, its scientific features, the life that lives in and around it. But Maksimikha taught me about its soul. I suppose it makes sense this way: the “Russian” side presents the visible and tangible aspects of this great lake, while the “Buryat” side handles the spiritual characteristics—its special aura and energy, its magic powers, religious and shamanist traditions (perhaps this explains why I was the only crazy fool in Listvianka who thought it necessary to wash her face in Baikal). Now, having experienced Baikal both body and soul, I can appreciate its beauty even more.
Later that evening, Ivan and Sasha came to escort me back to the train station. At this point, I probably could have managed the journey on my own—but I appreciated the company and decided this was no time to play the independent American devushka. They even waited with me for the train to arrive and begin boarding and escorted me down onto the platform and all the way to my bed. That was probably a bit excessive, but I didn’t mind. Russia and I are a really good match this way: I like to feel cared for, and Russians like to show that they care.