Week 4: Buryatia (Part 2 of 3)

Posted: October 7, 2009 in Buryatia (Fall), Иркутск, Out of Town
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

And the saga continues (from Part 1). It might not be your ever-encapsulating expedition through Paris or African safari, but I can’t imagine you’ve read too many blog posts about this place.

Monday, Sep 28: Through the Barguzin Valley

Orientation: To give you a visual, think of Lake Baikal as being shaped like a crescent moon like a right parenthesis, as such: ). But tilt it about 30 degrees clockwise so that the right bank is more or less perpendicular to the equator. Then put Ulan-Ude off to the right (east) a bit, about a 1/3 of the way to the north from the southern-most point of Baikal. Then Ust’-Barguzin (where we stayed Sunday night) goes about 1/2 the way up, right on the border. Or just search these places on Google Maps.

Anyways, the Barguzinskii Valley, through which runs the Barguzin River (the fourth largest tributary of Baikal), stretches out from the mouth on Lake Baikal at about a 45 degree angle to the northeast for about 200 km. We set out on the road running along the foot of the gigantic, sharp and rocky, snow-capped–majestic, in a word–mountains of the northwest side of the valley, and made a few stops along the way.

Ferry across the river Barguzin: Romany and I pretended to take pictures of the coast to get a shot of a nice old lady with a bike who talked to us through the rolled-down window of the van about what we were doing there.

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Cemetery in the town, Barguzin: Walked around a cemetery that had a few graves of Decembrists, who were exiled to the area around the town. But get this. In the language school play this summer, Pushkinogopolis (a grotesque about the relationship Pushkin and Gogol never, historically, had), when I was playing the character of an Italian in a Siberian camp, I played opposite someone playing the Decembrist, M.K. Kukhelbaker (1798-1858), whose grave I was standing there photographing. What’s more, the first lines to the poem Pushkin wrote (“In the depths of the Siberian mineshafts. . .” –again, sounds better in Russian) to the Decembrists in exile, which we had just learned a week beforehand in our Russian Lit class, were engraved over this grave. Go figure. Small world (which I think means more coming from Siberia).

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Photo-op in the valley, Barguzin (Note: all these “Barguzin’s” are very spread out across the map, despite their similarities in spelling): More random datsans included.

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P9284494Buryat holy place at Kurumkan: We got out of the car and Misha led us through a peaceful wood with all the signs of a datsan nearby: the prayer banners and other pieces of cloth tied to tree trunks and branches, coins and unused cigarettes tossed about the ground and placed on rocks and tree stumps, little stone pillars stacked up everywhere, the domestic dogs running around. And then the prayer banners started getting thicker, and thicker, and then they were literally everywhere.

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Finally, almost a kilometer in, we got to our destination. It was a little glass-encased Buddhist-style pavilion housing a big rock. Apparently, the rock had an imprint on it of the goddess who dwells on the mountain top towards which we had been climbing, and if you can make out the imprint, that means she’s appearing to you and you’re going to have a fertile womb. None of the guys saw it. But Romany did. Mazel tov.

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Alla (“. . .back girl, ain’t no ‘alla back. . .”): A little town situated almost at the northeastern-most point of the valley, Alla (not related to the Muslim Allah, population 8,000. . . so like the Siberian, Buryat/Russian version of Middlebury minus the university and mostly everything else) was our next overnight rest spot. But, by that point unsurprisingly, this rest spot was located somewhere at the base of a mountain, to which we could only get by turning off onto a dirt road that cut through open plain, half-forest/half-plain, full forest and almost bog. With all his typical coolness, though, Misha navigated the bumpy, boulder-filled dirt paths through said terrain, and got us to our “kurort” (the Russian word for resort that includes any sort of warm-, water-, or beach-related vacation/rest spot).

P9284607After dropping our things off in the domik we stayed in that night, we took a hike along a stream to a beautiful, at least 75-foot tall series of waterfalls that ran off another Buryat holy mountain (all of which are illegal to summit without permission from the religious administration of the given area). On the way back, we stopped and got a beautiful of the valley of this particular tributary-to-the-Barguzin. The dark gray mountains running on both sides of the bright sand-white river basin, dotted with the deep green or alternate bright yellow of the autumn trees, gave way in the far distance to the blue-white of again snow-capped mountains. Julie Andrews singing the reprise of “Climb Every Mountain” at the end of the Sound of Music popped into my head.

Hot springs and a hot dinner: We got back as the sun was getting ready to go down and took our dip in the hot springs along the river basin. After our hike, it was the perfect end to the day to sit for the recommended 15 minutes in the naturally heated water in the dark and tellingly rotten-egg, sulfurous smelling wooden shack. Afterwards, Misha showed us the other sources of different mineral waters in the general vicinity, each marked with painted signs reading “for the eyes,” “for joints,” etc. indicating which part of the body the given chemicals would help.

As we were finishing our dinner later, we were joined by two Petersburgers, Vika and her friend Paulina, two normal looking Russians who were taking a long vacation. Romany and I got to talking with them, mostly Vika, who took an instant liking to us and complimented us on our Russian. She also gave us the name and number of her friend who’s a doctor in Irkutsk (who’s also a Ukrainian, a fact that she shared with us with the typical Russian giggle about the Ukrainian accent, a giggle which I’m finding is basically a rule of Russian conversation about the Ukraine). She was a funny little lady, with short, white, kind of spiky hair, a painter by profession, who was more than happy to share with us her philosophy on the balance that people should try to observe between nature and man-made stuff. She and her friend were also Buddhist. Accordingly, they had their night prayers to chant and beat a drum and tambourine to, but enchanted with our random but quickly endeared new friend, we went to sleep listening to their foreign prayers in the room next door.

Tuesday, Sep 29: Leaving the Barguzin Valley

Museum and Cultural Center in Alla: First thing in the morning, we left the hot springs resort for the museum, housed in a traditional Russian house in Alla. A nice lady showed us around their room of traditional garb, nick-knaks, and photo-history books, and then told us about the cultural activities and classes that they conduct for the Buryat and endemic Evenkiiski peoples who live in the area.

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Where in time is Carmen Sandiego? I got to thinking that it’s pretty amazing that such vastly different cultures and religious- and lifestyle-traditions (Russian/Orthodoxy, Buryat/Buddhism, Evenkiiski/Shamanism) could exist so strongly and independently of one another in such a small and isolated microcosm of a place, yet, as we were told, each have evolved into a modernized-enough lifestyle where members of each group think of themselves as typical Russians. That was also the case with the Semeiski people we talked with, that is, that they thought of themselves as everyday folk.

As much as it’s a step forward in time, preserving such old cultures in such vibrant and very much alive ways to the present day, still, for me, learning about a lot of these cultures was also very much a step back in time, as I was living in little houses heated by wood ovens, sleeping on matress-less, wooden beds with hand-made covers and real down bedding, seeing people dressed in hand-made garments passed down through generations, and so on.

Such thoughts were occurring to me as we began to cut across the vast and sometimes swampy plains of the valley, finally being able to get a good view of the gigantic mountains to the geologically newer West (closer to the Baikal rift, the source of the area’s seismic activity) and the slightly more rolling mountains to the East. We crossed the Barguzin and soon found ourselves in a rock garden, used by Buddhist believers of old. I didn’t really get why they call it a “garden,” because seeds, soil, sunlight, sweat, patience, and a green thumb had no part in the rocks getting there. Probably a “Garden of the gods” or “of earth’s erosion patterns” or something.

To take me back even further on my H.G. Wells trip, when Misha pulled the car over along yet another random dirt road (mind you, we usually just got places, and then found out what they were) and told us that there were paintings from the Bronze Age (3000 BCE), my jaw kinda dropped. But yeah. There, just a few yards up from the ground level, you could make out the red outlines of the paint (made from blood and a ground up pigment) depicting a shaman with a few regular Buryat’s just hangin’ out. From 5000 years ago. CRAZY!

“And that ain’t no bull:” We also saw the “Bull rock” (also a Buryat holy place speckled with the colorful prayer banners and a black dog running around), which is a rock that according to legend used to be a cow that wandered too far from his keeper, and too close to the god that lived on the mountain he got too close to. We had a lunch on the side of a low mountain with some cool rock formations at the top, which we climbed to. As we got to the top and got the view over the valley from the east, again, roll the Julie Andrews. . . . Elizabeth told us that there are a lot of nameless peaks on the west side of the valley that haven’t been summitted and officially registered yet, which means that, in all seriousness, if I got bored in the spring and wanted to come back, even as a foreigner, I could find one of such mountaintops on a map, fill out the paperwork, climb it, plant the flag, and have a Mount Mahoney overlooking Baikal. To assess the probability of this happening, I reference my post on the Russian bureaucracy.

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Weather spoiler: So far on the trip, we’d had a mix of overcast with a splash of sunlight here and there, at which time we’d flip on our cameras to get as many shots in the good light as possible. Unfortunately, the one night we were sleeping in a tent on the coast of Baikal in preparation for our hiking a daunting, 1877-meter, straight-upwards trail to the top of the Svyatoi Nos peninsula, the weather turned, canceling any hope of our Everest hike. But we did the tent anyways.

Misha and Elizabeth sent us three out to find firewood while they set up the tent. It occurred to us later that they probably didn’t care about the firewood, they just wanted to quickly set up the tent on their own without us before it got completely dark, seeing as the rain was steady and we had a gas stove anyways. Good thing, because we didn’t find any dry wood. Duh. As the rain picked up and the wind (and like strong, big, gale-strength Baikal wind, called a “burya”) howled outside the well-constructed and comfortably spacious tent, we crouched around the little camp table preparing dinner. I had two revelations. The first, the Russian word for raisin is fun to say (izyum). And the second, that I had been peeling potatoes incorrectly for my whole life. Which really doesn’t mean anything, since the night before that was the first time in my life that I had ever peeled potatoes.

But with full stomachs and warm sleeping bags, we drifted to sleep listening to the storm and the huge waves crashing onto the sandy beach of Baikal a stone’s throw away.

Next time on “Update Buryatia”. . . Pollution clean-up efforts and an ugly case of food poisoning by the Chinese (. . . restaurant named Omon). There aren’t any pictures, don’t worry. ‘Til then.

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Comments
  1. Bill Mahoney says:

    What a great story teller you have become. take it all in! All my Love.

  2. […] to hide in her hair-do, who was permitted to visit and be married to her fiancé in the work camps. In Buryatia, we saw the graves of a few of the Decemberists who received this secret message of commiseration, […]

  3. Linda says:

    Reading Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, section on Barguzin, google it and find your post. Enjoyed reading it for a wider “picture”. Thanks.

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