Week 4: Buryatia (Part 1 of 3)

Posted: October 6, 2009 in Buryatia (Fall), Иркутск, Out of Town
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My task here is to shrink down the 18 handwritten pages of everything I saw, experienced, etc. over the course of the past week into an equally exciting (well. . .), yet decidedly less lengthy update. So ready, set, read!

Friday, Sep 25: Train Station

I met my two Middlebury cohorts and our coordinator, Elizabeth, at the Irkutsk Vokzal at a quarter past 9 p.m., and also randomly ran into Ira, one of my friends from the MezhFak. Despite the late hour, the station was as bustling as ever with people spilling both out of and into the platform entrances. We walked through the high-vaulted hall of the station with the train times ticking away on the big boards overhead.

They print all the railroad station clocks and train ticket times in Russia only in the Moscow time zone. I suppose you could think it’s cool, but only until you end up somewhere where you don’t know how many time zones away you are. Or get too drunk, as Russians in transit not infrequently do, to understand how the sun is rising at, say, 5 p.m. in Vladivostok.

Setting off on my first train journey in Russia from the Irkutsk railroad station at night felt legendary almost. Mixing with the scent of fresh-cut lumber from Baikail in transport to the West, steam billowed off of the tall and grand train wagons, spilling into the light of the platforms and casting a fog over the hushed crowds of people, saying their last goodbyes. It would have also been at this same train station along the same rail lines that the Decembrists (not the rock band “The Decemberists”, but the anti-tsarist, intellectual court members that attempted a coup in 1825) arrived in the city to be taken to their exile across Lake Bai. . . well, on second thought, no, they didn’t have the Trans-Siberian in 1825. Right. They came by horse and foot. Well, I’m sure someone famous passed through at some point. Anyways. Train station in Siberia at night. Cool feeling.

We had tea and cookies, and then off to bed in our 4-person, too-hot and opening-windowless kupe.

Saturday, Sep 26: Religious Centers

“Good morning, let’s get up!” were the words with which the provodnik (the guy, usually a woman, who is in charge of each car) woke us up on our first morning. Since they lock the bathrooms 30 minutes outside of bigger cities so as to not dump waste in the middle of towns, you’re usually woken up an hour before big stops, or in our case our destination, Ulan-Ude (pronounced oo-lan’-oo-day’). Ulan-Ude, meaning “City on the River” in both the Mongolian and Buryatian languages, pop. 500,000, is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, one of the subjects of Russia, running along the south and eastern parts of Baikal and spreading out to the East. Our guide for the week, Misha, a friend of Elizabeth’s and a professor of outdoors sport and ecology in Ulan-Ude, met us at the station, and brought us to the Hotel Barguzin in his van, where we’d be spending a lot of time for the next week.

The Semeiskii (Семейские): After breakfast in the hotel cafe, we set off southbound (passing through the city named “Siberia”. . . we all made good on the puns from that one) to Tarbagatai, the city with the greatest population of Semeiskii people, a group of Old Believers (people who rejected the reforms of Orthodox Patriarch Nikon in the 00 century). After we were shown the icons of the church below (some more than 350 years old), and shown the Semeiskii Museum by their bishop, we thought that we’d had our full Semeiskii experience.

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But then Misha drove us to the village of Desyatnikovo, where four sweet, half-in-character women, all dressed in their traditional celebratory costume, showed us a preserved traditional Semeiskii house and fed us lunch. The surprises kept coming when they whipped out the samogon (home-made vodka, which we’re advised not to try out of a fresh bottle, because that means that it hasn’t been tested for being the messed-up kind that can paralyze your legs for life), and then proceeded to dress up and wed Romany and Patrick. I got some great pictures and audio, so hopefully I’ll be able to make a cool audio slideshow soon.

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(My pictures here are all turning out duller than they actually are. Check on the Flickr feed by the end of the week for better quality pictures.)

The Ivolginskii Datsan (Иволгинский дацан): Since we had extra time, we decided to make a pit stop on the way back to Ulan-Ude at the Ivolginskii Datsan, or temple. It’s the main Tibetan Buddhist (that’s the strain of Buddhism most Buryats follow) temple of Buryatia. We had our first interactions with Buddhist datsan practice, which would come in handy the next few days: the necessary clockwise motion around datsans, temples, etc. that’s a part of the idea of harmony with the rising and setting of the sun; spinning prayer wheels (see below) with prayers written on them, which are offered every time they make a full spin around; walking backwards on the right-hand side of the interior of the temples to not turn your back towards the Buddha statue. One of the temples also houses, Misha told us, the perfectly preserved body of their Dalai Lama who, after he predicted the persecution that the Soviet period would bring upon the Buddhists of Buryatia back in the 1910s, drifted off into an “eternal meditative state” of sorts, and still sits there today, visible on feast days and other occasions.

The datsan also functions as a university where students take philosophy, languages, and art. We walked into a classroom occupied only by a single student drawing mathematically perfect and in-harmony fire swirls. He was Russian (not Buryat) and told us how he ended up wanting to study there to become a monk. The monks of the Tibetan Buddhist brand are much less secluded monks associated with the Buddhism of China, but more “in-the-world” (think Franciscans or Sisters of Charity, or even just your parish priest or minister) holy people that can still own business, live outside the datsan, etc.

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We stopped on a mountain top as the sun was setting across the beautiful landscape of taiga rolling into the more southern steppe, and got some pictures. After dinner back in Ulan-Ude at a Buryat restaurant, we settled in for a solid night of sleep in our hotel.

Sunday, Sep 27: No-orthern bound, I wish I wa-a-as…

Different Sunday morning: Our second full day began with a quick run to the bank to change some dollars and another Buddhist encounter. We stopped in at an ongoing Sunday service at a more modern, in-town datsan, where normal worshippers sometimes visit. The service involved beautifully mantric Tibetan chants read out of these horizontally-aligned booklets the participating monks use, horns blowing, this huge drum being beat, incense, rice throwing, sweets and vodka offerings, big hats with feather things that give the Knights of Columbus a run for their money, and a list of other things completely different from any other religion I have had encounters with. A cool new experience, to say the least.

The Museum of the Peoples and Cultures of Zabaikalia: We spent a few hours on the outskirts of Ulan-Ude at a huge complex, a village with houses and land-plots preserved for hundreds of years. We saw the houses and little farms and living styles of the Semeiskii, traditional Russian, Westernized Russian, Kazakh Russian, Buryat, Pribaikalskii (west of Baikal) Buryat, and a few other indigenous peoples whose names were too complicated to remember. All of which, more or less, shared a few unifying features: warm housing, warm clothing, and means of sustenance. One happy human (Siberian) family, right?

But not to leave out the animal kingdom, albeit that they kept them in abusively small cages, they also had a small zoo area (the Russian word is great: zoopark), complete with native-to-the area camels, wolves, mountain lions, tigers, and bears (I’ll spare the Oz reference). Birds, too. Educational moment: I have a strange aversion to learning animal names in foreign languages. I’ll survive.

Sunday morning in a Christian church: That morning, we had received word that the third member of the Middlebury Class of 2011, Ben Wieler (my heart stopped when Elizabeth, while giving us the news, paused mid-word to remember what came after the “Wee” sound–one of my very closest friends’ name is Ben Weir), had passed away. So, a few hours after leaving the museum, we came to a women’s monastery (Russian Orthodox) situated in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, and being it was one of the rare Sundays that a Roman Catholic church was nowhere within a hundred miles or so, I was at peace when I was able to light a candle in the church and have my Sunday prayers. The attendant showed us the staircase up to the top of the bell tower, where we 5 stood in silence, with the exception of our cameras occasionally snapping.

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And then it was back on the road. A few notes about the roads in between tiny villages in East Siberia: Rather rocky. Sometimes smooth and paved where you can speed up to 60 mph, only to have to slow back down to 5-40 to navigate frequent detour (“obezd,” or “drive around”) signs, even more frequent potholes, or pull over to let an oncoming vehicle use the narrow through way. But we had a great and expert driver in Misha.

Arrival, 120 miles, 6-7 hours of driving later: We got our first views of Baikal from the other side as the sun was getting ready to go down as we stopped in the little town of Goryachinsk for a snack. Beautiful and breathtaking, again. Just as the sun was going down, we made it to Misha’s hometown of Ust’-Barguzin (ust’ is the Russian word for the mouth of a river, and Barguzin is the river), where Misha had arranged a homestay for us 4 at some friends of his, who regularly take in visitors to Baikal from abroad.

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Aleksandr, a park ranger in the neighboring Zabaikalskii (east of Baikal) National Park, set up the banya (sauna) for us, and Galina, a schoolteacher, set out a delicious meal of the omul’ fish, that’s native to Baikal, and about 6 or 7 other dishes. They had a beautiful, spacious home that was the most Western-looking and feeling I’ve been in here, along with the, from what I could tell, forward-thinking inhabitants to go along with it. At the same time, the good-sized vegetable garden, the two little cottages (domiki heated by wood stoves, where Patrick and I slept), and the two banya’s on their property made it just as authentically Russian as anything.

Stay tuned for the next 4 days and nights. . . .

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