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International Adventures
Nancy E. Muleady-Mecham, PhD

Siberian Fulbrightness

Where the mountains meet the steppes

Did you know that in Russia it is believed that if you whistle in a room you are bound to lose your money? That you do not greet anyone over a threshold and that the number of flowers in your bouquet determines if you are going to a happy or sad occasion? My favorite cultural insight came when I learned that when you hiccup, someone must be thinking of you. I learned all of this and so much more after I was selected by the United States Department of State to go to Russia on a Fulbright Scholarship. Established in 1946 via legislation introduced by Senator J. William Fulbright, it is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people of other countries.

While I could apply for many posts, I picked Russia because it had Siberia. Most Fulbrighters, as we are called, go to large cities with large institutions. With my background in biology, natural history, national parks, and rural medicine, I bypassed St. Petersburg and Moscow and was the first Fulbrighter at Gorno-Altaisk State University in the Altai Republic. Located in southern Siberia, the Altai is a sort of “four corners” area of Russia. Here close by are the borders of China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan.

I spent the Fall of 2010 teaching, doing research in protected areas, and establishing a community outreach program. I taught a lower division course, Clinically Applied Anatomy and Physiology, and an upper division course on evolution utilizing Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. My students called them the “Medicine” and “Darwin” courses. I visited protected areas including national parks and zapovedniks. A zapovednik is a very Russian concept. It is a strictly protected area where visitors are not allowed without special permission, so researchers and park rangers are the only ones who may gain legal entry. As an amateur astronomer, I have taught astronomy at community colleges and conducted public star talks. My community outreach was a five-part bilingual evening program, “Introduction to Amateur Astronomy.”

I spent six months prior to my arrival studying the Russian language. I learned the Cyrillic alphabet and wrote it down faithfully every day. A retired friend down the road had been a Russian linguist and tutored me. I could read and pronounce any Russian word, but knowing what it meant was often a different matter. It was rough going at first, but about halfway through my journey I was recognizing what was being spoken to me and could reply in turn.

Petroglyphs at Yelengesh
Petroglyphs at Yelengesh

Siberia Bound

My family came with me as far as St. Petersburg and returned to the states as I began my solo journey. I took the train to Moscow and reported in to the Russian Fulbright Office. With help from its staff I was able to gain entry to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Center at Star City. It was an incredible experience highlighted by the chance meeting of two cosmonauts.

In many areas of Russia there are no ramps or elevators or escalators. Luggage was hauled by its owner up steep flights of stairs and up and into compartments. What I refer to as common courtesy was not prevalent: no one opens doors for another and the one who gets there first gets the seat on the bus. I started east out of Europe, over the Urals into Asia on the Trans Siberian Train. I purchased bottled water on the platforms and food from local vendors. I practiced my Russian all the way to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal where I explored Pribaikalsky National Park and the Baikal Astronomy Observatories. Lake Baikal is the largest lake on the planet and the host to nyerpa, Russian freshwater seals.

Cyanitchka bird of Altai
Bird of the Altai

Back across Siberia on the train to Novosibirsk, I connected to another train to Barnaul, a sister city of Flagstaff! Then I began a hair-raising drive to my new home in Gorno-Altaisk. In Siberia money is scarce, and cheap used cars from Japan are common. While Russian-built cars, like the Lada, are made with the steering wheel on the left like American cars (Russians drive on the right side of the road like Americans), the Japanese cars have the steering wheels on the right. The two young men driving me south in a Japanese car through the huge agricultural collective farms would get stuck behind a slow farm truck. With only one lane for each way, the driver would inch out and the passenger would quickly say da (yes) or nyet (no) indicating if it was safe to pass or duck back in. On more than one occasion, I was the first to say nyet when I saw the oncoming traffic from the back seat!

I arrived in a small town with two main streets, the university at one end and high-rise apartments at the other. In between were stores and businesses and parks and a stadium. The old Soviet-era plain buildings dominated, but the university had a royal blue facade that gave it a newness it did not reflect on the inside. My hostess was Natalia Yurkova, the Head of the Department of International Relations. She was fluent in English and had arranged for my invitation letter and was the most incredibly helpful person. She made the arrangements for my expedition, stored my luggage at her home, arranged for my apartment while I taught, and served as an interpreter for my outreach program. More importantly, she and her son Sergey became my friends.

Within blocks of Gorno-Altaisk it was rural, with a community water spicket for the small homes that had no running water and kitchen gardens for the bulk of most homes' foodstuffs. There they grow cabbage, potatoes, fruits, and other vegetables. Many raise and slaughter their own livestock as well. The population is only 50 percent Slavic Russian, the other half a dizzying mix of Asians and indigenous people. There are five groups of native peoples that have individual tribal names but are collectively known as Altai. There are also Kazaks, Uzbeks, and Turkmen in the community and attending the university as well. The pace was slower and less hurried. There was no crush of the Russian metro, but there were still the stoic faces, unsmiling and serious. Much like the buildings, I found them stark on the outside but once invited in there was a warm welcome, a happiness and joy that were hard to fathom with the abject poverty. Many had two or more jobs; many had none and did a lot of things on the side for money under the table. All transactions were in cash; no credit cards in the Altai. There were ATM machines, and you paid thousands of rubles for rent in cash.

Mountains, Steppes, and Taiga

Doc Nancy and Valya at the Aktru Glacier

Doc Nancy and Valya at the Aktru Glacier

For two weeks I explored the Altai. We were a good team, with Alexander driving; me in the front left; and Valya, a student, in the back seat, interpreting for me and teaching me new words and phrases. The rural mountains and open valleys were gorgeous: the reason I had chosen the Altai. I soon learned that the Altai people are warm and welcoming, and they were anxious to share their thoughts with me. At Ongudai I stayed on a farm with Natasha, an Altai cultural expert and archaeologist. Though barely five-feet tall, Natasha did most of the work on her farm. We roamed throughout the fields and hills of Karakolsky Park and Zapovednik, exploring kurgan (tomb mounds) and stellae (tall and slender rock monuments).

In the steppe regions I hiked into the mountains to Aktru Glacier, the only glacier I know of that still lies below tree line. Yelengesh, at over 8,000 feet and near a mountain pass that had been an area of travel for millennia, had over 35,000 petroglyphs. But there is no protection for the petroglyphs except by the indigenous people who live below in the Kurai Steppe. On the steppe I saw an abundance of domestic animals, but I also spotted fox, pika, prairie dogs, griffons, bald eagles, and far-away yaks. It really was not barren at all.

Onward to Kosh Agach, a desolate area that was more Mongolia than Russia. Here archaeologists have found bronze-age mummies so well preserved in the permafrost that their tattooed skin was still intact. The indigenous people have managed to stop most of the archaeological digging and have a new zapovednik called “Quiet Zone Ukok,” so-called because it is now quiet again with no one digging. I learned about the efforts to protect endangered cats such as the snow leopard and manul. I was able to attend a local concert with a topshur player and throat singer, known as kai chi. I was also able to interview a kum, the Altai word for shaman as he explained how he used the constellations in his healing practices.

After exploring Kosh Agach, we returned north to Ust Koksa. I was then introduced to Vaselyev, a blonde farm worker to whom I would pay 500 rubles to ride horses in search of marals. My horse was a broad, brown mountain horse with black tail and mane and long hairs around its hooves. The saddle lacked a pommel and was old and comfortable, and the bridle was made of rope. It was a crisp, sunny day as we traversed the mountain slopes and worked our way up and up. We could see far into the distance and to the Katun River below.

We rode off-trail and through the forest until we finally stopped and Vaselyev motioned me to look up the hill. There in the shadows was a magnificent bull elk, what they call the Siberian maral. Then we approached a clearing and saw a group run across. It was glorious. Up and over the mountain and down the steep side we saw maral near and far. But in a draw we sat still as we heard an approach. Over the hill twenty feet away came a young buck with its antlers sawn off and an ear tag. On horses, we were no threat, and we sat still as we watched. I later learned that antlers are removed in the summer, and the velvet is used to make potions while the antler is boiled down for other uses.

The next day we approached Tungur. The weather had been great until now, but clouds were swirling around the mountains. Alexander knew I wanted to see Mount Belukah, so in Tungur we turned into a farmer’s field and drove up the side of a hill. We got out into cold and crisp winds and looked over to the mountains. Mount Belukah peaked through, which was great as it would be shrouded in clouds the next few days. We then drove over the Katun on the worst bridge I have ever seen. It was rusty with huge gaps in the loose planks on the floor. (See cover photo.)

Teaching in Translation

Two days later we headed back to Gorno-Altaisk, where I began teaching my Darwin class and my Medicine class. The Darwin class consisted of reading a chapter a session, and then a student would lead the discussion. A topic would come up, and I would expound on it in English using a dry erase board. We talked about every concept under the sun from island biogeography, genetics, selection, speciation, to religion and more. I had a real mix of students, from faculty and administrators to law students and English language students. My students called me “Doc Nancy,” which was far easier than my very long last name.

In my Medicine class we learned a new system in physiology every session, and we did a lot with donated and purchased diagnostic equipment. We learned glucometer testing, urinalysis, cardiac monitoring, made “lungs,” and more. I had brought books for both classes, all of which stayed with the library or the students

My Astronomy Outreach course was on Tuesday nights for five weeks. As with my Medicine class, I hauled my computer and LCD projector to the classroom. I had a bilingual PowerPoint program (with many thanks to Elmira Freeman who did much of the translation). I also had Natalia and two others translate as no one in the community was expected to know any English. After the presentations I went outside with my green laser pointer and gave star talks. The most special night was when we built the donated Galileo telescopes. We eventually started the first astronomy club and averaged 100 in attendance at each meeting. I also reached out to the local schools, visited the local fire department and ambulance crews, and exchanged ideas and friendship.

Doc Nancy surrounded by her students, who show off certificates of completion for her courses. (Photos courtesy of the author)
Doc Nancy surrounded by her Siberian students

Goodbye, My Friends

When I walked through my Siberian town I felt I belonged to the Altai. The people of Altai are truly remarkable. They are survivors. They are pragmatic, doing what it takes to make ends meet. It’s generally all about here and now for the Altai, for there is no future if there is no surviving the now. I am very grateful to the Fulbright for this opportunity and continue to e-mail and write to the many friends I made in Siberia.

—Nancy E. Muleady-Mecham, Adjunct Professor of Biology and Fulbright Scholar