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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Exploring the Scottish Highlands

Last week was Reading Week here at St. Andrews University, a lovely town on the east coast of Scotland famous for being “The Home of Golf.” I’m spending two semesters here at the University where I’m continuing my studies of Physics. I am really enjoying the university, but I was glad when Reading Week came along as it is a whole week off of lectures, a wonderful tradition in my mind! The week is nominally used for revising and catching up with your lectures, but most students, particularly the young ones, travel. This is what I chose to do, and on the 6th of November, I set out for Edinburgh where a five-day tour of the Highlands began.

Interestingly enough, our first stop was none other than the quaint little village of… St. Andrews. Here, we had about an hour to “see the sights.” A fellow St. Andrews student and I played tour guide and even sampled the pseudo-Scottish pseudo-delicacy: the deep fried Mars Bar. Surprisingly, it was tasty enough, and I found myself wishing that I had delayed trying it until I was about to leave so I couldn’t eat more than one of these heart attacks in a bag.

From St. Andrews we ventured north, up towards the Highlands. I’ve received many questions regarding the difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands, so I’ll take a moment and explain that here. Geographically, the two regions are divided by the Highland Fault Line or the Highland Boundary Fault. Looking at any map will show you this line without difficulty; it is where the mountains start. The “high” in “Highland” is derived from the elevation not the latitude, after all! Culturally, the Highlands and Lowlands are very different, due in part to the isolation that the mountains produce. The Lowlands have been more influenced my England and Europe. For example, the “traditional” clothes worn in the Lowlands would have been the same as the current fashions in Europe and particularly France. Only in the Highlands was the plaid worn. Now, of course, the kilt -- the modernization of the plaid -- is worn by Highlanders and Lowlanders alike, and that’s a good thing!

After a stop at Dunkeld to see the amazing cathedral and some very unique trees (The Duke of Atholl who owned the land fired the seeds of many different species of tree out of a cannon to disperse them) we headed on to Pitlochery where we spent our first night in the youth hostel there.

The next day we headed north again. Our first stop was at a place called the Queen’s View. Queen Victoria, the site’s namesake, had good taste!

We also saw Killiekrankie pass, site of the first Jacobite uprising in 1689. The scenery was so lovely that I had a hard time paying attention to the history! I was very lucky in taking this tour right as the leaves were changing. It was amazing!
Then it was straight on to Loch Ness, were we saw everything except Nessie, the famous monster of this huge, dark, and -- it must be said -- rather mysterious loch. Three of us opted for a quick swimming dip in, and were relieved to have mugs of whisky-hot chocolate waiting for us on shore to help warm us up!

After heading to the hostel in Inverness for a hot shower and a change of clothes, we headed out for a night on the town. We found a great pub that had live music and a great atmosphere and spent most of the evening there. This place was great! It was lit mostly by large, serviceable candles, the floors and all the furniture was all wood and had clearly been there for some time. There was a group of people playing traditional music that were just sitting at a table in the centre of the room. There were three fiddles, a small set of bagpipes, and a wooden flute, quite the traditional ensemble!

The next morning it was up early again and we were off to Clava Cairns. (As the sun sets here around 4:00, you have to get up early to make the most of the daylight!) Clava Cairns is a Pictish site that has three large stone mounds each of which is surrounded by a circle of standing stones. It was really a neat place, and we were the only ones there.

We also stopped at Eilean Donan Castle, site of the filming of many famous movies such as Highlander and even scenes from The World is Not Enough, the 19th James Bond film. We were told that this is the most photographed castle in Britain, if not the world, so I figured I’d help them maintain their claim!

From there we drove on to Skye, an island off the west coast. We spent the night there and got up early, of course, to explore Skye the next day. The weather was really awful while we were there; we almost got blown off a cliff! It cleared up in the afternoon, though, and we went to the Farie Glen, an awesome place complete with miniature landscapes and a castle -- all natural, I hasten to add. The Little People have good taste in scenery!

From there, we drove back down to Edinburgh and the trip ended. I caught the train back to St. Andrews and was surprised that I was sad to come back to St. Andrews. I love this place, and didn’t think I would ever be sad to come back to it!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Trying to find the words to sum up Russia

It is difficult to say everything I want to say about so large a country as Russia in just a few short paragraphs, but for the sake of my friends back home who would like a nice little summary of my adventures, I'll try…

After spending two and a half months baking in the sweltering St. Petersburg summer, I decided it was high time for a change. Russia being the land of extremes that I have found it to be, it is no surprise that after all those tank-top days in St. Petersburg, I now find myself bundled-up in every possible way against the friggedness of Siberia.

While Irkutsk is one of the most southern of Siberia's cities (only one degree of latitude north of London), we still get our fair share of cold. September and October weren't bad – an occasional snow day here and there, but for the most part the weather was surprisingly good. I spent as much time as I could at Lake Baikal (THE lake – the one that holds 20% of the world's fresh water) and other outdoor destinations. I had this image in my head of huge snowdrifts and such. That may soon happen, but not yet. I'm still debating whether these trips will be repeated in the next two months – it'll be absolutely freezing, but you only see something that beautiful once in a great while, right?

Speaking of which, I've come to a conclusion in the past few days – a realization that is difficult for a photographer like me to accept. There are some things in this country (and this world) which simply cannot be translated to a photograph. What is hardest about this fact is that so many of my favorite moments on this trip cannot be preserved other than in my memory and in an occasional blog entry. For example, I was on a night train last night from Ulan Ude (capital of the neighboring Buryati Republic) back to Irkutsk when I was suddenly and for no particular reason awoken. I looked out the window (possible at this point only because all the lights in the cabin were off) and saw something quite miraculous – a full moon gave me a wonderful view of the snow-topped mountains surrounding Lake Baikal, while in the sky, framed perfectly in my window, was the constellation Orion. It was one of those "right-place-at-the-right-time" kind of moments, and one that I will probably never experience again. But I think I will always remember lying there, as the train slowly chugged along the lakeshore, staring in wonder at all the natural beauty that was passing by my window. While my studies are interesting and I'm learning a lot about Russian language and culture, I count these moments as the ones that make my trip halfway around the globe the most worthwhile – the moments for which it is worth it to put up with the -10˚C (and lower, as I suspect the temperature will yet drop before I return to the sunny Lone Star State).

I'm not quite sure what to expect from the next month and a half. Exactly how cold is it going to get? How on Earth am I going to be able to pass all my exams (since all my classes are in Russian, including a literature class which covers Dostoevsky and Tolstoy)? And how am I going to handle things when I get back home? By now I've gotten used to hand washing all my clothes, riding the trolley or walking everywhere I need to go, and operating just about 24 hours a day in a foreign language. While I miss a lot of the conveniences of American life, I know I can get buy just fine without them.