First held in the summer of 2005, the Siberia study abroad program is a four-week long interdisciplinary study of Russia that explores the country’s culture, economy and environment.  The program is particularly beneficial for biology students because of the research conducted on Lake Baikal, which holds nearly 20% of the world’s fresh water and is home to more endemic species of plants and animals than any other lake on the planet.


by Maggi Sliwinski '07

April 18

In about one month, I will be getting on a plane in New York City and flying to Moscow, and from there to Irkutsk near Lake Baikal in southern Siberia.

First off, I have not been on a plane except for the short flights to Florida and back.

Second off, I have never been out of the United States except up to Québec. This was my last option for going abroad during college, so I grabbed it. There are seventeen students and three professors going on the trip, and it is all being paid for by the U.S. Department of Education.

As one might suspect, I am a little bit nervous about going to Russia. I don't know a word in Russian yet -- I will be taking a crash course for the next month to prepare. I've never been through customs in another country, and I get nervous just going through security at an airport. I don't even want to imagine what customs is going to be like.

I am allowed only a certain weight in luggage I can take (one small suitcase and one carry-on, for a whole month).

Even though I'm nervous, I'm also extremely excited: I get to study the oldest and deepest lake in the world, Lake Baikal. I will experience the Russian culture, something that not a lot of people can say they've done. I'm going with a great group of students (most of whom I know already), so they will help my transition into Russia.

There will be museums, cultural experiences, home stays, camping, trail building, visits to temples, and a lot more that isn't planned (this is the cultural experience that I've heard so much about from students abroad).

I've been trying to prepare myself for my trip to Siberia, but it's difficult sometimes with school and work taking up most of my time. I have a list of things to do, like buying proper luggage, shoes, clothing, etc., and also reading about where we're going and learning the Russian alphabet and some useful words. The meetings I've gone to have helped a lot in answering my questions, and I have had plenty.

I went to the Passport Health meeting and got my vaccinations, and also learned about staying healthy in a foreign country whose conditions may not be as sanitary as the United States.

Being careful about water is important because even a drop on top of a pop can could make you sick. We've been told we shouldn't eat anything that has been in water but not boiled. I hope that my roommate will have a better handle on safety than I do: it seems like there's a lot to remember.

Whenever I tell someone I'm going to Siberia, I can read what they're thinking on their faces: "WHY?" At first, my general answer was that it's my last chance at going abroad, and that it's free. My answer is changing now though because of the course I'm in, Russia and the Environment, taught by Professors Judith McKinney and Kristen Welsh.

Russia is a fascinating place environmentally and culturally. Because I'm interested in the environment as a future career direction, but know nothing specific beyond that, Siberia may give me some inspiration or direction.

Maybe I'll end up working there some day.

May 5

Last night was our last orientation meeting for the group of students and faculty going to Siberia on May 15.

When I walked in the door, Professor [Judith] McKinney handed me my passport, visa and plane tickets for both there and back. This was a little overwhelming at first, to have all these expensive responsibilities in my hands.

We also received our insurance cards and learned a little about safety. They told us if we are ever stopped by the police in Russia, to speak only English and make sure to show them our passport right away. Usually, I guess, if they know you're American, they'll just let you go. Using the buddy system is also smart to do while we're there.

Doug Reilly from CGE was at the meeting to talk to us a little bit about travel photography. We learned about the Rule of Thirds, checking the foreground and background of photos, and (most importantly) to take lots of pictures. Most of us are taking digital cameras and extra memory cards, so we don't have to worry about carrying around film.

Toward the end of the meeting there was time for questions, I think I asked about seven: How much money should we bring? Should we bring long underwear? What about the gifts to families and teachers, etc. etc.

We can't exchange money in the United States for rubles, so I'm going to carry cash with me. In Russia it's customary to take small gifts for host families and teachers, things like key chains, little toys for kids, things that represent the United States or where we're from.

We also talked a little bit about luggage and weight limits. I finally bought myself a roller duffel bag a couple weeks ago, but I've been so busy with final papers and exams that I haven't even thought about what to put into it. My roommate and I talked about what kind of stuff to take: she's already been to Russia a few times.

She said that 30 pounds is really heavy, and our limit is 44. So, I'm going to try to keep the weight down to around 25 pounds.

Since my last journal I've also learned how to say "My name is Maggi" in Russia, although I have no idea how to spell it and I won't attempt it here. We also decided as a group to go to a banya, a type of sauna-swimming pool-steam bath that is popular in Russia. We will be doing this right after our flight arrives in Moscow, I think we'll all need it to relax a little.

I'm very excited to go to Russia, even though my busy schedule hasn't allowed me time to express that excitement. I think in about four days my nerves will start kicking in and the last night here will be like Christmas Eve and I will get very little sleep.

I'll be taking lots of pictures, and will continue the journal while I'm over there.

May 25

I've almost been in Russia for just over a week now. We arrived in Moscow on the 16th of May and got to see the Kremlin and also St. Basil's Cathedral -- the one with the colorful domes.

Our flight from Moscow to Irkutsk was cancelled and we were forced to stay overnight in Moscow in a very strange hotel in the middle of nowhere. It didn't really feel like I was in Russia until we arrived at the airport in Irkutsk. The terminal was basically a wooden barn with the different sections (i.e. arrival, baggage claim) were sectioned off with chicken wire. It was about degrees 40 outside when we arrived.

We met the families we'd be staying with that morning, and most of us headed to our homestays and fell asleep for four hours before classes. I'm in an apartment building with Elena, who works at the university, and her grandmother. We get lots of good food cooked for us; last night we had a flat pancake they called "bellini."

We've been having language classes everyday in the mornings, some "Siberia Today" classes in the afternoons, and lots of visits to museums. At the Limnological Museum in Listvyanka, we got to see the Nerpa, the only freshwater seals in the world. Our professors tell us that we've learned a lot of Russian for the amount of time we've had, and that we're getting great pronunciation taught to us -- our teachers speak only in Russian during class.

Irkutsk is a city of about 600,000 people. Most of the girls and women wear high heels everywhere, and they are well dressed all the time. We Americans stick out like sore thumbs because we're loud, dressed funny, and carrying backpacks around. Many Russians are very quiet; they speak quietly and it's considered rude to be noisy in public.

Yesterday we had a meeting with university students about environmental issues in Irkutsk and Russia, and we got into some good discussions about what they can do to initiate some "green" thinking and acting. There was a German exchange student in the room who said that Russians do a lot of talking but not much acting, and most of the Russians agreed with this, and said that maybe it was due to their upbringing and the former Soviet policies.

The food here was at first a little hard to deal with, lots of fish and mayonaise, and Russians don't distinguish between breakfast and other meals; so, for example, I was served cucumbers, crab and mayo for breakfast the first morning. I've gotten a little more used to it, plus my host seems to be dealing better with my eating habits. We also drink a lot of tea; it comes after every meal and sometimes in between.

This first half of the trip has been lessons in the language and learning about the city, the second half will be more about the environment and nature. I'm looking forward to that because it's more oriented toward what I'm interested in. I hope to send pictures when I return to the states, and probably won't be able to write again until we return home: there is limited access to Internet and little time to write.

June 22

Now that I'm home -- we arrived at 4 p.m. after leaving Irkutsk at 8 that morning, which was pretty strange -- I have more time to write. However, I'm having trouble starting because there is so much to talk about. I kept a journal while I was in Siberia, so I'm going to pull things from that and go in chronological order.

The second half of the trip started with an excursion to Ulan-Ude on a night train. It would have been nice to be able to see what we were passing, but it was very efficient for us to take a night train.

The morning we arrived, we went to Marco Polo's for breakfast, where they served us hard-boiled eggs and ham and cheese sandwiches for breakfast -- pretty American if you ask me. We found our hotel and then got to see parts of the city; it seemed very similar to Irkutsk except there was more Asian influence -- it is close to the Mongolian border. We saw the biggest head of Lenin and a Japanese play in Russian, with a little bit of English, for us.

We also visited a Datsan, a Buddhist temple, where the chants being performed inside by the monks were also broadcast outside on loudspeakers; I thought it gave the place an eerie feeling.

After the Datsan, we went to the Old Believers Village, a very long drive outside the city. When we arrived, we were greeted by colorfully dressed women and two men playing the accordion. They served us lunch (traditional foods) and taught us about their customs. Two students "got married" in a mock ceremony using their traditions.

When we returned on the night train, we had a few hours in Irkutsk before heading to Olkhon Island. In that time I was able to write an e-mail home at an internet café and get some pizza at Fiesta for lunch. We left for the island in a big bus.

After five hours of traveling, we got to the ferry and waited another hour while it came across the lake to take us. We were accompanied by another bus full of Swiss tourists: I was worried the ferry couldn't hold both buses, but it did just fine.

On Olkhon Island, we stayed in a nice cottage in a resort. We were told the island had had electricity only since last fall, and we had anticipated staying in yurts of some sort. The owners told us it hardly ever rains on Olkhon, but it rained every day we were there except the morning we left, when it got sunny.

At the island, we climbed on Shaman's Rock and saw the north end with its cliffs and rock outcroppings. The forests we drove through were filled with bright pink flowers and the town had about five or six little shops. We were served breakfast, lunch and dinner every day in the resort's dining hall: lots of fish, but eggs and bread for breakfast.

Another interesting Russian thing we did was have a banya down at the lake. We would run into Lake Baikal, which was about 4 degrees Celsius -- less than 40 degrees F. -- and then run into the banya. I only did it once, but a few people did it four times!

Our main purpose on the island was to conduct a project on eco-tourism. Arkady, our teacher from the Irkutsk State Linguistic University, assigned us into groups, which he called teams, that were competing with one another to do the best project. This is apparently a common practice in the Russian education system; students can graduate with medals if they do well.

The goals of the project were to determine the carrying capacity (how many people the land could hold) and devise a development plan for the land that would be ecologically sound and good for the town. We were each assigned a plot of land -- my group's included the Shaman's Rock, so we had to be particularly careful about religious beliefs in the town and make sure that we had a lot of resident input. Everyone did an awesome job on the projects, especially considering that we only had about two days to do the whole thing.

Here's an excerpt from my journal about the presentations: "Friday we gave our presentations. Question time was really strange because Arkady did not allow students to ask questions until the professors had asked and the hotel owner had asked. We weren't really allowed to have discussion either, which is completely opposite of what we experience at HWS ... "

Leaving the island was bittersweet -- we all had a lot of fun there but we knew that trail building was also going to be pretty awesome. We had a little time in Irkutsk to get lunch, and met with the leaders of the Great Baikal Trail before climbing on the bus that runs about twice daily from Irkutsk to Bolshoe Goloustnoe (BG).

On the first night in BG, I wrote in my journal: "The house I'm staying in is awesome -- not what I expected at all. There's a really nice computer in it, but no running water; an outhouse, a banya instead of a shower, and no phone lines (they're hoping next fall). It's a strange dichotomy of old and new -- didn't phones come before computers?"

I had that impression a lot of the time in Russia. Things had a funny mixture of old and new: very old cars, with new cassette or CD players installed. Internet cafés everywhere but the water in the city still gets turned off periodically to check the pipes. I think (but haven't been taught this) that it's because Russia as a democratic capitalist society is so young that it hasn't had time to grow into itself yet. I hope to go back from time to time, and see how it changes.

The people who run the Great Baikal Trail organization are our age. It's amazing how young they are and how much they already do. The girl I lived with, officially our translator, was 19 and had three exams the day after returning from trail building. Vladimir, the guy with expertise, was also a riot: he had the stereotypical Russian accent when speaking English.

We had three days set aside for building trails, and finished the whole trail to the Sacred Mountain. That was followed by lots of time planned for cultural activities. We visited a church service and the Dry Lake, and heard buryat and Russian folk groups. We also learned how to spin wool, crochet, and carve spoons.

We played lots of games with our Russian hosts and learned a lot about their culture. A lot of their games involved an audience and a couple of guinea pigs to play the joke on, which was pretty amusing -- I was never the guinea pig.

Our time in BG was probably the best all of us had. Most of us had gotten used to -- and were even enjoying -- the food. Everyone had gotten to know each other, so we felt really comfortable working in groups to get the trail done, and making idiots of ourselves during the games.

Going to Russia was one of the best things I've done: it was an amazing learning experience and we all had so much fun together. I made connections that would not have been possible had I not gone, and I've decided that I definitely want to return to Russia some day.

I hope this experience will be available to students again next year.

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.