A cold new world

May 13, 2019


It all started back in seventh grade when I made two decisions. The first came when, for some reason, I found out about New Zealand and Russia. I must’ve been Googling beautiful areas with lots of land. So I said, “You know what? In my life, I’m going to go to New Zealand, and I’m going to go to Russia.” The second decision came during our unit on astronomy in earth science class. I got 100 on the test, and I loved it. I was like, “You know what? I’m also going to be an astronaut.”

Story and photos by Rylin McGee, '19

Editor’s note: At Richmond, McGee began taking courses in mathematics, chemistry, and Russian language studies to further her NASA ambitions. She also became an international studies major and used class projects to explore her interest in the Arctic.

During the fall of her junior year, she studied abroad in New Zealand and then traveled directly from there to Siberia for a non-UR spring semester program at Irkutsk State University in Irkutsk, Russia.

Saturday, Feb. 3 - Arrival Day - Irkutsk, Siberian Russia

It’s negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit every day here. Yes, this is for real. 

All I was told is that someone at the airport will have a sign with your name. You just need to go up to them and say hello. I get in the terminal, and there are so many people with signs with people’s names. When I finally find the person with mine, she hands me a tiny little TracFone and then just stands there, so I say to her in Russian, “Hello. What are we doing? What’s next?”

The woman says, “Just wait.” I get my bags, and then she says, “All right. We’re going to go to your dorm now.”

I’m taken to a car, basically like an Uber. But Russian drivers ... it is crazy. It’s lawlessness. The driver is blasting the song “Rockstar” [by American rapper Post Malone]. Mainly all the music I will hear will be Russian, but this is the song that I listen to while he’s cutting corners going to the dorm.

There’s a nice section of the town, but for the most part, Irkutsk is very undeveloped, and a lot of people live in poverty. And my dorm is not in the nicer section. It is a run-down Soviet building. We take my bags out of the car at the dorm, and I learn I’m on the 11th floor.

When we get up there, I go into my room, and there is dust and dirt all over the the ground. The bed is one of those military metal bunks without a mattress, just a thin pad, and there aren’t any blankets, but I am so tired. I’m just going to sleep on this thing.

It’s Saturday, and classes don’t start until Monday. I remember that the woman at the airport had told me where the grocery store is. She said, “You need to buy bread, honey, salt, and sugar.” I am so tired, but before I go to sleep I buy my bread, honey, salt, and sugar. Then I go back to my room and sleep for 12 hours. I wake up the next day and eat some bread with honey and try to orient myself.

Monday, Feb. 5 - First day of classes

Public transport is really crowded here because not many people have a car. There are so many people in the morning that you have to wait an hour in line. You can imagine how this plays out when it’s –30 degrees. I finally get on a bus that takes an hour and a half for what should be 15-minute drive because there are so many stops and so much traffic.

The university is nothing like Richmond, as you would expect. It’s very small, almost like an elementary school building. You have your wooden desk, wooden chair, a chalkboard, and the teacher. Some of the rooms have a computer or other technology in them.

My environmental studies course is taught in English by a Russian woman who did a Fulbright to the U.S. She is amazing! I love her.

For my Russian classes, I am tested to figure out what level I should be placed in. For the test, I take my place in a room with probably 10 other people. Everyone has already somehow made friends. I sit here the odd man out, which is a weird feeling coming from Richmond.

OK, I can be a Russian, but I'm still going to be Rylin. I'll just figure out how to do it in Russian.

The Russian classes — grammar, reading, speaking, etc. — will be only in Russian, which is cool. The classroom culture is an adjustment. I quickly learn I’m not supposed to interact with the professor or my classmates that much. From what I can tell, all the other students are from countries where the teaching style is like this. I’m supposed to just sit here and repeat the lessons.

OK, I can be a Russian, and I can do it this way. But I’m also still going to be Rylin. I’ll just figure out how to do it in Russian.

Early February - Figuring things out

Every morning, I walk outside my dorm and take a right, but everyone else takes a left, and we are all going to the same school. I’m doing something wrong here.

One day I decide that I’m just going to follow everyone else. If I’m late to class, I’m late to class. So I take a left, I walk awhile, and all of a sudden I see this tremendous line. You’d think that it was a hot summer night and people are waiting for ice cream after a soccer game, that type of line, but people are bundled up and standing next to the road.

OK, this looks like maybe public transportation, but I don’t see any huge buses. Instead I see these tiny white utility vans with the windows blocked out. I’m going to try this. Little do I know.

I am squished up against 40 different people and can’t see outside, so I don’t know where I’m going. Hopefully this is the right one because I saw some other students get on.

I get off when they get off, and eventually I get the hang of it. I learn to check my GPS to see where we are. When I want to get out, I yell “Na stanovkye, pozhaluysta!” which means “On the stop, please!” and jump out before it takes off again.

These are the marshrutkas. They go faster than the bus, but they’re not really legal. Basically, the drivers hang up scarves and curtains to block out the windows and put cardboard or some other barrier between the driver and the passengers, with a little hole to exchange money. It’s all supposed to be kind of secretive. They’re this way because the drivers are usually illegal immigrants. Russia has challenges with border control at the southern border in Siberia, and people come here to work as drivers.

The marshrutkas reduce my travel time by half or so, so this is a milestone. It’s all very sketchy, but it’s the fastest way to get to class.

Saturday, Feb. 10 - Lake Baikal

 Map of Lake Baikal area of Russia with inset showing location on globe

The university has been taking us on local excursions. Today, we’re going to see Lake Baikal for the first time, so it’s basically an introductory, fun day.

The lake is frozen, so it’s fun to walk around on it to see everything. Lake Baikal is the deepest freshwater lake in the world, and it’s also the largest by volume.

A lot of people also say it’s one of the cleanest lakes in the world because of the melted ice’s purity, plankton that eat floating debris, and a lack of mineral salts in the lake. When it’s frozen, you can see down almost to the bottom if you’re close to the floor, and the lake is very blue. Across the lake is a ridge of mountains. Everything is beautiful and makes incredible photos. The fresh air is one of the best things about being here.

Late February - Day-to-day routines

To get into Dormitory No. 10, where I’m staying, I have to have a card. This is a problem because I don’t have one yet, and everything is really bureaucratic and takes forever. So, every single day, I have to argue with people in Russian to get in.

I have a paper pass that I am supposed to show to the guards at the dorm, but if they remember I am American they often give me trouble. They have a tiny, old ’70s box television they’re always watching. If Trump pops up and they see me walk by, they sometimes do mean things, like lock the kitchen or mess with the hot water, which is an issue when it’s this cold. I finally get my official card after about three weeks.

My environmental studies class is cool because it’s basically an environmental history of Russia. We start back in the 1300s and look at the Russian history after Western Russia was established and people start to trickle east into Siberia. We also look at how the foundation of subsistence life is then impacted by the industrialization of the Soviet state. That’s a dramatic binary.

Another interesting topic is radioactive waste. I want to research and write an article about it, but the article will go online and no one here really wants an American talking about Russian nuclear waste within their country. But I am able to learn about radioactive waste in class and the professor tells us about a place called City 40 in Chelyabinsk. The region is the most polluted, in terms of nuclear and radioactive waste, in the world — worse than Chernobyl, and no one knows about it. There’s so much censorship, so it’s really interesting to get an actual Russian perspective.

Some days I think, “What did I get myself into?” It’s weird because this is something that I have been wanting to do for years and worked toward. Now I’m here, and it’s like, “Oh. My. God.”

Because it’s winter in Siberia, it’s hard to find green vegetables. The water — you filter it and boil it, and it still isn’t drinkable. The air quality is poor because the buses and marshrutkas are from the ’60s or ’70s. When I go out for a run, I get layers of dirt on my skin and my phone. Over time, I get really sick from, I think, not getting the right nutrition, and the air quality is really hard for me.

The hardest thing is maintaining a sense of positivity in these surroundings. It’s so cold. If I’m out somewhere trying to take pictures, my hands are sometimes so cold that I can’t change the settings on the camera because I can’t take off my gloves. And people here, well — every day I have to check myself. I like to smile or say something to someone if I think of it, but here I think, “OK, don’t smile. Sit. Be really quiet. Don’t make eye contact.” I’m trying to fit into Russian culture.

Saturday, Feb. 24 - Fresh air

I’ve coordinated a little trip back to Baikal on my own to do some hiking. I go in a kind of taxi, so I have to make sure I know exactly what to say and where to go.

I just love being outdoors. There are some smaller mountains surrounding the lake, so I hike up to the top of one. I’m happy to be breathing in the fresh air. It’s quiet here. I think to myself, “I’m in the middle of Siberia. This is just incredible.”

While taking a break, I put my hand out, and a bird comes and lands on it and is looking at me. I don’t know if it is because this is not a very populated area or what, but we hang out together on the middle of the slope for a few moments.

I make my way up to a place where people tie colored ribbons onto rocks and trees. Green is wealth, yellow is happiness, white is longevity, something like that. It’s a really cool thing to see all of the other people who have been here and tied their ribbons. I don’t have one myself, but I know I’ll remember this as a really special day.

I make my way east to a ski base, get hot mors, a Russian berry juice, and write in my journal. This day is a little turning point for me. I have been able to coordinate something on my own and get into nature, which is the reason I wanted to come to Siberia in the first place.

Thursday, March 8–Sunday, March 11 - Field notes

The program takes us to Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal for four days. We travel over an ice bridge that forms when the lake freezes over. This is the only time of year you can access the island by land.

I am excited for this trip in particular because I want to look at the impact of development on the environment here. The biodiversity of Lake Baikal is very specific. There are so many endemic species that you can’t find anywhere else. On Olkhon, there’s a lot of very rare vegetation. If you start building roads and bridges and such, it’s going to completely destroy it because it’s fragile.

Irkutsk and the entire Baikal region have opened up in recent years to a lot of direct investment from China, specifically in the tourism industry, but there’s no one to enforce any regulations on the companies. There are a few hotels on the island that are really more like cabins. For me, it’s a Catch-22. I’m here to study how humans threaten the environment, but at the same time, I’m staying in a hotel that doesn’t have a sewage system. I feel very conflicted.

On the second day, we go on an ice trek. We travel in uazi, which are basically old Soviet military vans. They’re the only vehicles that can safely travel on the ice because it’s actually quite bumpy.

The mountains around Baikal are on the southern side of the lake, so we travel on the northeastern part where it’s completely flat. It looks like Mars meets the Arctic.

We stop and get out. At the edge of the lake, ice caves have formed along all of these little capes, so we go exploring. I can see the mountains, too. They’re really beautiful.

Throughout the trip, I take pictures of anything to do with development: electricity, roads, those kinds of things. Researchers 10 or so years ago looked at activities related to camping and the locals, so I want to look at other activities: transportation, housing, waste management, and other infrastructure. Do they have recycling? Is there a sewage system? As I go through my tourist activities, I write everything down so I can use my notes to do more research later.

Every month, I am exploring a different topic. One of the first was water quality because that is something that I am challenged by. Then I studied eco-tourism in Siberia and development challenges on Olkhon Island.

During the trip, we go in a banya. A banya is the Russian version of a sauna, but it’s very ritualized. You are supposed to enter it with birch tree branches so you can hit yourself with them because it’s supposed to open your pores. It’s the craziest thing.

We go in the sauna and then run out and jump and roll around in the snow. Then we go back in and do the birch thing. The warmth is good.

Saturday, March 17–Sunday, March 18 - Ellie and me

There’s another American in Irkutsk, Ellie. She’s from Utah. The minute I found out there was someone else from the U.S. in this city, I became determined to be friends with her.

We’re having some of the same challenges. We both just want to be independent and explore, but we understand it’s not the easiest thing. But together, we’re like, “We’re going to do it anyway.”

We set up a trip to go to a Buryat village called Arshan, which is hard to do as a foreigner. We had to wait a long time to get a special permission because the border zone around nearby Tunkinsky National Park is highly restricted.

Arshan is known for its Buddhist monasteries, and the water is supposed to have minerals that can heal any illness. Ellie and I stay in a wooden home and go on a daylong, snowy hike to a remote place called Peak Lubvi, which means Peak of Love. Along the way, a stray dog follows us up the ridge and becomes our friend.

When we’re ready to leave the next morning, we discover our planned transportation back to Irkutsk is sold out. This is a problem. As foreigners, we had to register to travel. If we don’t return on the day that we’re supposed to, we could be deported.

In the transportation office, we find a tiny flyer for some kind of private driver, and we’re like, “All right, this is our only option.” It’s expensive, which is expected, but it turns out to be a fun trip. He’s Russian, so I speak to him in Russian the whole time to practice, and we have the best conversation.

April - Grind it out

My academic work is piling up, so I spend much of April keeping up with projects and papers.

I have gotten into a rhythm in my daily life. I’m now getting fresh vegetables from a shop I found hidden in an underpass. I can get tomatoes, peppers, root vegetables, stuff like that. I have also found the central market, which is a really interesting mix of cultures. There’s a Chinese market, a central Asian market, and a Russian market all in one, and it’s really intense. People practically attack me: “Devushka! Nam nada pokupat eto ee pokupat eto!” which is “Girl! Come buy this, come buy that!” 

I don’t eat at the university cafeteria much. A lot of that is because I am a vegetarian, and Russian meals are generally very meat-intensive, especially in Siberia. I usually pack my lunch, and then in the evening, I cook in the kitchen on my floor in the dorm.

There used to be a washing machine for clothes in the kitchen, but it worked for two weeks and then broke and flooded the whole room. Instead, I hand wash all of my laundry and hang it to dry inside my room because it would just freeze outside. I have strings running in different directions across it. Throughout my closet, above the shower — hanging my clothes anywhere. My dorm room is hilarious. Here I am, the Spider from Richmond living in a spiderweb. It’s definitely a shift in lifestyle for me. 

Spending an entire semester here is a double-edged sword. On one hand, my Russian has improved so much that I am finally able to really communicate with the locals, move about my daily life without any troubles, and still have time to learn. At the same time, the excitement of being in a new place has worn off. It’s a mix of homesickness, the cold, being a little sick. A lot of things that I usually root myself in, such as being able to work out, eat healthy food, all these things that are my foundation, I’m not able to tap into. That’s what makes it hard for me.

Friday, April 27–Thursday, May 3 - St. Petersburg, Russia

A friend in Europe wants to visit, and we decide that St. Petersburg is a good place to meet. It means a long plane ride for me.

On our first night, we stay in an Airbnb, catch the metro into the city, and pop up in the middle of a jazz festival. Everyone is dancing, and there’s music all around. People are smiling and talking. Strangers are coming up and being really joyful. I’d gotten used to Siberian Russia. It’s completely different here. People’s demeanor, their liveliness remind me of a European city. And St. Petersburg is really beautiful.

This trip is a good way for me to see my friend, have more familiarity with Russian culture, and enjoy myself. It’s my rejuvenation so I can make May a strong month.

Mid-May - Winding down

Spring is arriving, and classes are wrapping up. They’ve been good. When my Russian classes started back in February, I felt like everyone else was thinking, “Who is this weird American, and why is she asking so many questions?” But over time people started to like it because it makes class fun. We ended up having a lot of cool conversations as we practiced our Russian. I’ve come to feel like I have my little family of friends. 

Russia’s Victory Day celebrating the end of World War II comes on May 9. Some of my Russian friends invite me to tag along with them for the whole day while they volunteer with the city government, so we have behind-the-scenes access to the events. Basically the whole city puts on a big parade, and everyone exchanges food and desserts. The whole city. It’s like a big party.

Irkutsk has 146 different ethnicities: Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Mongolians, Chechens, Armenians, and many, many more. It’s just so diverse, and most people have a family member who fought in the war. Today, everyone has their country’s flag, but it’s a celebration of unity. It’s awesome. When I walk past the groups, I can see people from 20 different countries all in one space. It is such a beautiful celebration.

Saturday, May 26–Sunday, May 27 - Poka poka (goodbye)

Rylin McGee smiling and drinking tea with friends in RussiaOn the day before I have to leave, I visit Lake Baikal one last time with some of my friends. By now, we are in 75-degree weather. We swim in the lake and walk around. It’s so sentimental because, first, Baikal is what the region is known for and, second, seeing Baikal was always one of my biggest dreams.

Russia has made me appreciate a lot of things in the U.S. Before I got here, I was discouraged by our environmental policies and practices in the U.S. compared to other places I’ve been. But I’m really glad that I’ve come to Russia because I will be able to re-appreciate certain things that I have taken for granted. There are also some things that are amazing in Russia that we don’t have in the U.S., like gulyats. Gulyats is Russian for “to stroll,” and it’s a go-to thing to do when friends get together here. So the trip has opened my mind in that way, too.

The more I travel, the more I see that who I am is not about the material things that I engage with.

Russia has definitely challenged my sense of my identity. I realize that the way that I think about who I am has been rooted in a lot of external things: the food I am eating, the environment that I go hiking in, buying fair trade, organic, this and that. The more I travel, the more I see that who I am is not about the material things that I engage with.

In Russia, I haven’t been able to do a lot things that are fairly easy to do elsewhere. I think it has made me stronger in ways that I haven’t thought about before and reinforced my sense of identify and independence. Now, I feel confident in my sense of sense of self no matter where I go because I have built my sense of identity through experience rather than what’s easy to do or what I have. Russia has been amazing but challenging.

On my final day, I order my taxi to leave Irkutsk. And when I get in, what song is playing in the car on my ride back to the airport? “Rockstar.” The last song I listen to in Irkutsk is the first song I ever heard here. How serendipitous.

Editor’s note: Earlier this year, McGee landed a fellowship at a weeklong conference in Tromsø, Norway, that gathered researchers and government, industry, and NGO representatives from Arctic countries to discuss political, economic, and environmental issues. While there, she became an ad hoc translator for members of the Russian delegation.