Fulbright scholar on tourism assignment writes from the east of Russia for Vision on Sustainable Tourism
"Coffee or tea?" I groggily opened my eyes to see that the orange rays of the sun were beginning to shine through the windows. "Tea, please. With milk." As I sipped the unappetizingly light brown liquid, I glanced down at the mountains, which were growing closer every minute.
It's strange how quickly wonder turns into routine. I remembered how three years ago, this moment ranked highly in my list of "The Coolest Moments of My Life." Now, several occurrences later, I was just flying home. But for all of my attempted nonchalance, my eyes were glued to the scene below. And then it happened.
A glint of blue appeared at the edge of the window. A murmur traveled through the plane, and faces pressed against every window. The other aisle grumbled disappointedly. They had chosen the wrong side of the plane. "Baikal."
The world's deepest lake, containing 25% of its fresh water, was now directly below us. From a height of 8000 meters, it looked surprisingly small, at least width-wise. More like a tiny cut in the earth. Of course, when we were over the lake, our altitude over solid, rocky earth increased to 9500 meters.
The moment ended as quickly as it began. Passengers leaned back in their seats to prepare for landing. I finished my tea.
After climbing off the plane, I walked into the airport under the large letters, Ulan-Ude. After fighting through the smallest baggage claim terminal on the planet, I walked out of the airport into the swarm of taxi drivers. To my left, a group of musicians (they were all carrying instruments) were met in traditional Buryat fashion: a woman in traditional dress drapes a blue cloth (called a khadak) over the esteemed guest and offers a bowl of milk to the travelers.
I chose the least sketchy taxi driver and watched as he put my luggage in the trunk. I climbed in the back and we drove off.
As we pulled away, the driver confessed that he noticed my accent and asked where I was from. I answered that I was from the United States, but had lived in Ulan-Ude for several months already. My driver knowingly nodded his head.
"There's a spirit here," he said. "In the people and in the land. People here change. People here are different."
He pointed to a nearby group of houses. "That's where my father built our house 50 years ago. I've lived here my whole life, and I never want to leave."
"There's a spirit in the people here that isn't in Moscow. We here in Siberia are very different from the rest of Russia. It's our spirit."
Buryatia has beautiful mountains, wide steppes, dense taiga, rich culture, unique history, and the holy lake, Baikal. But it's the Siberian Spirit that keeps drawing me back, again and again. It took me some time to put into words, but for me, Siberians are people who live extraordinarily well in an extremely difficult environment. Winter temperatures drop below -40 C. The ground has to be coaxed to grow a minimal amount of food. The federal government is loath to fund local initiatives. But every individual household makes delicious homemade meals, has a banya, and stays cozy warm during the hard winter. This is what makes Buryatia such an attractive destination. It is also what makes sustainable tourism so crucial. In order for the hospitality and spirit that makes Buryatia more than just a beautiful plot of land to remain, tourism must be developed so that the local population receives all of the benefits of development.
I was sent to Ulan-Ude as a United States Fulbright Graduate Student to observe and research the development of tourism in Buryatia. The views that I will share through these blog posts in no way reflect the views of the United States Government or Department of State. Over the next few months, I will be writing posts about the various regions of Buryatia and how to best support the local population through your tourism. I hope that you will enjoy your journey through these posts with me, and that you will one day have the opportunity to experience Buryatia as I have.
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Tuesday, July 17, 2012