The Final Frontier

Well that’s it. I have officially made it back to the land of the free. So I suppose I’ll fill you in on my last two weeks in Russia.

When I last left off, I was preparing to take my Test of Russian as a Foreign Language exam. It was a tough exam—including 7 hours of testing in grammar, reading, listening, writing, and speaking over two days. I took the Certificate Level 3, which qualifies one to study in Master’s and PhD programs in Russian universities in all disciplines except linguistics or to work in Russia in any sphere (including translator, diplomat, manager, or teaching Russian at an elementary level). I’m proud to announce that I passed my exam! My Russian has improved a great deal in the last year, and it will be nice to have a certificate with some stamps to prove it.

My penultimate weekend in Ulan-Ude did not disappoint. On Friday, we had a semi-rainy day, which of course led to unreasonable flooding. I found myself wading barefoot through a knee-deep ocean covering the Arbat, watching as some people scaled walls to avoid the puddle while others plunged right through unfazed—high heels and all. Everyone was in high spirits, laughing at themselves for getting caught in the rain and enjoying the ridiculousness of the situation.

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On Saturday I met up with some of the women from Moms’ Club. And on Sunday, I attempted to have a calm, solitary day shopping for last-minute presents and souvenirs—but alas, I can’t even by yak socks in Ulan-Ude without making new friends. The sales-babushka was super-impressed by my foreignness and started bragging about me to all her customers. This resulted in me making two new friends in the shop and spending the entire afternoon гулять-ing with them and eating Shenakhenskie buuzy.

On Monday, I was invited to a real Russian dacha with a couple Moms’ Club moms and babies. We caught a train to the village in the morning and spent the whole day cooking grilled vegetables and fish, watering the garden, and drinking tea. We even hiked down to a cold mountain stream. The food, the company, the nature—I was so glad to have this traditional Russian dacha experience as part of my Russian adventure!

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From Tuesday until Friday, I went with the Institute of Linguistics and Intercultural Communication to Maksimikha. It seemed only fitting that my last week in Buryatia, like my first, be spent at Lake Baikal. This was my chance to bid farewell to my favorite lake—and it was a sneak peak glimpse of summertime Baikal, which is Baikal at its finest. I never cease to be amazed by the dynamic beauty of this lake—how it’s ever changing, ever different, always teeming with powerful energy and life. Over these three days, I experienced Baikal in ways that fall, winter, and spring just don’t allow. I was at Baikal, around Baikal, on Baikal, over Baikal, with Baikal, under Baikal, in Baikal. It was a tremendous trip.

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I got to put my boating expertise to the test, as we were able to rent rowboats and paddleboats to take out on the lake. We went on countless hikes through the woods and along the shore. We had a bonfire and made shashlyki and were fed fine food from the base’s cafeteria. We played volleyball and durak and table tennis. We sat on the beach under jackets and blankets. I even went swimming in Baikal.

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Yes, it was freezing.

Cold doesn’t even begin to describe the temperature of Baikal in June—when I remember that just two months ago, the whole lake was buried beneath over a meter of solid ice. But this was my last shot to swim in Baikal. It’d have been a sin not to swim. Plus, I seem to have developed a tolerance for the cold—as well as for the reckless, the somewhat-stupid, the extreme. I wasn’t alone, either. Nearly everyone plucked up the nerve, waded out into the water, and made the ice-cold plunge—if only to go running straight back to shore to dive under a towel. On the last evening, several of us went to the sauna, after which we escaped the heat by diving off the dock into Baikal’s midnight waters. What can I say? Life in Russia can get extreme.

One day, a few of us hired a speedboat to take us for a ride out to Svyatoy Nos—Holy Nose peninsula. It was about a two hour trip in total, but it took all day to soak in all the sights and impressions and wonder of it all. Baikal is absolutely stunning, and the water is pristine. The lake’s surface is like a mirror—the same shining blue of the sunny Siberian sky, a perfect reflection of shore and heavens. Out on the lake, we could clearly see the stones on the bottom—some 200 meters below. All around us in the distance, nerpas (Baikal’s endemic seals) were surfacing to breathe and sunning themselves on rocks. I even drank a glass of sparkling clear Baikal—probably tastier and less dangerous than drinking from my faucet regardless of seal poop and omul.

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group baikal nerpa

And of course, Baikal brings out the philosophical side of people. Even though I feel perfectly comfortable keeping up in Russian these days, I was relatively quiet for much of the trip—preferring to listen and to soak up the nature and energy. But there was plenty of interesting conversation to go around—from religion to revolutions and civil wars and slavery and feminism and politically correctness. But eventually it was time to say goodbye to Baikal, to get back onto our bus, and head back to the city.

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With only two days remaining in Ulan-Ude, I was on a tight schedule. On Saturday, after some extreme super-packing and cleaning, I hosted my goodbye party—which was not as wild and crazy as the previous ones have been (and was missing a couple key players), but which suited me just fine and was a lovely evening. And on Sunday, I was on a tight schedule, running around to make meetings with everyone I knew while trying to squeeze in some last-minute buuzy. The whole while, I had to deal with the thought that this was my last day—my last marshrutka, my last glimpse of Lenin head, my last everything. And that was sad.

On Monday morning, I was packed into my last taxi and shipped to the airport for what I thought was going to be a 30-hour journey home. To my great dismay, I arrived to a surprisingly empty airport with just a few people milling around in confusion and no open registration desks and the departures board listing the next flight as 4PM to Irkutsk. Turns out my flight had a huge delay—as in a 14-hour delay that would undoubtedly make me miss my next three flights. This put me in the uncomfortable predicament of having no idea of how I would get home. I started waiting in line to speak with an Aeroflot representative feeling lonely and confused and lost, and the tears started coming.

But then help arrived. Four of my friends showed up a few minutes later to see me off and say goodbye. We waited in line and spent the whole day trying to work everything out. Aeroflot ended up putting us up in Hotel Buryatia for the day (the real Soviet deal with a Soviet fridge, a Soviet bath, a toilet that didn’t work, and a key ring that could easily kill a man with a good clobber) but said “there was nothing they could do” to help me change my flights to get home. Eventually, we got through to Scandinavian Airlines, who were happy to rearrange my intinerary for me without a problem. Once that was sorted out, I was able to enjoy this extra second last day in Ulan-Ude. My friends stayed with me all day, and we had a nice time—I really wouldn’t have survived without them! Two of them (and their brothers, commissioned to help me—a complete stranger– with my heavy bags) even saw me to the airport and through security for my 2:40AM flight.

It ended up taking a whole 48 hours (6 of which I spent unsuccessfully playing Find Snowden in Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport), but I eventually found my way to Detroit, where my family was waiting for me. This has been the greatest year of my life. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have had all these wonderful, unforgettable adventures and met all these wonderful, unforgettable people. So thank you, Fulbright, for making this happen. And thank you, Buryatia, for taking such good care of me!

About Arielle

I am a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ulan-Ude at the Buryat State Agricultural Academy.
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