Posts Tagged ‘Buryatia’

"Art belongs to the people," says Lenin. On the UU Opera House

Russians have a word (“trevoga”) for the spiritual qualms that you experience before traveling until you’re safely seated on your train/plane seat. I call it stress. Whatever it is, I feel it.

The day of our departure, I went straight from classes to my internship, and then straight to choir rehearsal, leaving early around 8 p.m. to inhale my dinner, grab my things (packed the day before), and run to meet Ryan at the station to catch our 9:40 overnight train to Ulan-Ude. The guidebook says it’s nickname is “UU,” but I’ve never heard that in real life. (Prophesy from the future: more “the guidebook was wrong” moments to come).

Regardless, we got in at 6 a.m. and bought the last of our train tickets (the ticket lady in Irkutsk had advised us to hold off on getting a few of them, since better seats opened up in the end).

MISTAKE ONE: Not booking the hotel. (more…)


Last weekend, a festive craze swept Irkutsk into a mid-winter’s frenzy that would have been hard to produce any other way. Skies beautiful and clear, the winds calm, and the temperatures nothing too extraordinary at this point, there was plenty to be happy about, the first of which might very well have been the fact that winter, slowly, is leaving.

February 8-14 was the last week before the Great Fast (or “Velikii post”), which, in a religious sense, is the equivalent of Carnival or the New Orleans version of Mardi Gras. The weeklong festival is called Maslenitsa, with the root of “maslo” (butter), which is consumed in quantities of “mountains,” as the holiday rhymes go, in order to prepare for the forty-day abstinence from meat, milk and butter, and honey leading up to Easter.

Ryan, Romany, Romany’s ski friend Zhakko, and I decided to go to the cultural center/open-air ethnographic architecture museum, Tal’tsy, outside the city on the way to Listviyanka. (more…)

I’ll blame my lack of posting on a few things. First, wrapping up finals season always comes with alternating bouts of productivity and extreme laziness, meaning that when I was working, I was burning the midnight oil, and when I wasn’t working, I really wasn’t. Second, Ryan got into Irkutsk two weeks ago, so between showing him Russia, making sure he knew where to go around the city and how to get there, and trying to keep him entertained, that’s occupied me, too. Finally, it’s Christmastime, which I’ve been preparing for with great anticipation (!). Check my next post for that.

But, having Ryan here to show around the streets of Irkutsk (he’s been clinging to my Irkutsk-Detroit analogy as an explanation for many of his discoveries) has been fun to one, see what I’ve learned since I got here almost four months ago equally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and two, to revisit and expand my knowledge about a few aspects of the life and culture I’ve been living.

Russian America. Our Buryatia trip hadn’t completely run down Midd’s budget for excursions for our Irkutsk group, so Elizabeth organized a van tour around Irkutsk two weeks ago after our classes. The theme of the tour was “Russian America and Irkutsk;” to give the appropriate history lesson (parts of which are from our Baikal studies learnings, parts from the tour). . . .


The grand finale of 6 days in Buryatia, which unfortunately left a bad taste in my mouth. . . .

Wednesday, Sep 30: Returning to Familiar Sights

Our fears were confirmed, meaning that the strong west wind from the night before hadn’t let up and didn’t show any signs of stopping, our hike to the top of the large peninsula on Baikal was cancelled. Looking across the bay to the peninsula from our beach, it was clear that the peak was covered in clouds and that even if we had done our hike, it would have been all for naught, since the promised 360 degree view would have been blockaded.

Packing it out: So instead, we ate. For about 2 hours. We had our kasha (oatmeal) with raisins and dried apricots and condensed milk, a delicious yogurt fruit salad (apples, oranges, raisins, and peanuts, topped with cinnamon), the rest of the butter cookies, chocolates, and so forth, topped off with the necessary tea. After we did the dishes and packed up, we climbed to the top of a lookout tower about 6 stories tall, consisting of wooden planks and ladders, and enjoyed the view despite the wind. To kill time and get our exercise in, Misha agreed to meet us at the mouth of the river (the ferry ride away from Ust’-Barguzin) with the van two hours later, to which we walked in about 2 hours.

Long walk on the beach: It was sunny and bright, and a sandy beach the whole way, and the wind blew big waves ashore, so it felt like any ol’ ocean beach. Elizabeth, the ecological go-getter of the group, picked up a piece of litter a few minutes in, and then a bottle, and then another, and soon, we (myself, Elizabeth, and Romany; Patrick decided not to participate in our project) found ourselves hands full of empty-vodka-bottle- and fishnet-filled, tattered plastic bags. The wind got pretty wicked and was tossing us and our payloads around pretty freely, so we eventually had to abandon our broken bags and take only the litter that we could carry in our bare hands with us. Though it was because we ultimately only moved the trash further down on the beach, and take a handful with us, we at least managed to make the first half of the beach nicer. Felt good to do our part to support the effort to grow the eco-tourism sector of Baikal.

Familiar places and faces: After the same ferry ride back to Ust’-Barguzin, we found ourselves again in the care of Aleksandr and Galina at our homestay there. Upon arrival, Aleksandr gave us a tour of their property, including the second banya and their little dining hall decorated with paintings depicting the Russian banya culture, also where the veniki (the dried branches you beat each other with in the banya) were hung to dry. Since we had an hour or two until the banya would be ready before dinner, Romany and I took a stroll around town where we were surrounded by the directionless flow of people walking home from school and work through the town’s colorful, mostly unpaved streets.

When we got back, the banya was ready. This was a special banya, called a banya po-chyornomu (a black banya, as opposed to a “white” one, po-belomu), which people generally don’t use anymore, and which, Aleksandr told us, plenty of Russians haven’t ever done. It’s prepared in a little domik, built out of full-width logs for insulation, with a stone oven, which looks like a pile of stones with a hollowed out area for an oven. The difference is that there’s no chimney, so the smoke just fills the domik as the wood burns, and escapes through a little hole cut out in the side of the house. So the entire inside is charcoal black, and really dark, which makes a cool effect when the coals blaze up beneath the stones and the steam rises. When the stones have been heated enough, you open the door to let all the smoke out, and when the smoke has stopped, you go in, shut the door, pour the water to make the steam, and so on and so forth.

So we had our banya, shower, and then delicious dinner and a few shots of vodka and toasts to health, us (the guests), and travel, and then it was off to bed.

Thursday, Oct 1: Almost Home

Happy Elderly Person Day! The polite way of saying that is, well, morphologically equivalent to “person who has lived ‘through.'” Unfortunately, we were traveling as and with the young, so no celebrating really took place. Bummer.

I felt a little woozy in the stomach, even before breakfast, but eating an oily egg and fish dish didn’t help, so I asked if Elizabeth had any medicine. She did. But bad question to ask. It was this clearish gel that you’re supposed to take a huge tablespoon of to “clean out everything” as she made a circular motion with her hand indicating the stomach. Just what I needed, right? Well, it took me about 5 seconds after barely swallowing the tasteless but slightly sandy compound, that it wasn’t going to make it as far as my stomach to do any “cleaning.” Made it to the restroom in time, and felt mostly better afterwards. So on with the day.

Vizit-tsentr: On our way out of Ust’-Barguzin in the morning, we stopped in at the not creatively named “Visit Center” of the Zabaikalskii National Park, in which we had camped out two nights before. A nice German girl, barely any accent at all speaking Russian, who had met her (Russian) husband when she was visiting the park about 5 years ago, gave us the run-down of the park’s flora and fauna, geology, history, and so on. After a browse around their display on the preservation of the Baikal seals and through their collection of stuff-for-sale, we got into the car for our five-hour (turned into seven with stops) drive back to Ulan-Ude.

Stop 1: Neat little complex about 35 km out of Ust’-Barguzin with an Orthodox church and a few other houses and a little museum built entirely out of wood in the traditional Russian Orthodox way by this woodworking artist–no metal nails, wood glue, or string involved. The church was closed for internal remodeling (which isn’t an infrequent occurence in Russia at all: “Remont idyot,” or “Remodeling is happening” is a common excuse for strange noises or smells from a neighboring room or for locked doors and detours), and there weren’t any tours that day, so we just wandered around for a bit and stretched our legs.

Stop 2: Random shore of Baikal with a rock that was famous for looking like a turtle jumping out of the water. Indeed. It looked like a turtle jumping out of the water. But that wasn’t why we stopped. . . Elizabeth, out of the blessed goodness of her Kansasan (word?) heart, shared her last stash of US-bought marshmallows and graham crackers (plus some Russian chocolate) with us, as we made s’mores over a campfire Misha whipped up for us. Plus apple juice. Yumm, and aww, America. . . .

Stop 3: Lunch in Goryachinsk, where we’d had lunch on our way there. Our last stop at a road-side cafeteria, which are good for a hot bowl of soup and a pirozhok (sometimes deep-fried ball of bread filled with meat, potatoes, or cabbage–so good), that is, if they’re not out of half the things on their menu. Also our last authentic Buryatian pozi, which consist of a half-palm-sized ball of spiced meat inside an almost rubbery type of dough or pasta wrapping, pinched together at the top but left open with a small hole. My theory for the existence of said hole is that it’s for ventilation, because the way you eat them is by biting another small hole in the side of the pozi, slurping the juice out of it (thus the need for the cross-wind through the pozi), and then eating it normally, usually with a mustardy horseradish-type sauce called gorchitsa.

Stop 4: Gas.

Big things in Ulan-Ude on a Thursday afternoon: As our drive came to a close, the color scheme changed from the grey, deep green, and golden yellow highlighted with the streaks of dirt roads and crystal white birch tree trunks, and into the grey fog of the mountains before Ulan-Ude, and then into the brown-grey smog of the city. Once we got into town, we drove up a hill along a street called “Panoramskaya” (yes, again, shamelessly stolen from “panoramic”) with another modern-looking datsan at the top. Getting there just as it was closing, we got to see the largest statue of Buddha in Russia. Ironically or not, it was the skinny version of Buddha, but in all his golden splendor in a huge hall with chandeliers, tile floors, and the rest of the typical contents of the Buddhist temples we’d seen. Happy with the sense of peace that a journey almost complete plus a Buddhist temple will tend to create, we spun our last prayer wheels, each rang the huge bell commemorating the visit of the Dalai Lama, watched the colors of prayer flags waving in the wind, and took in the view of the Selenga flowing through the city, just as the sun began to get low in the sky.

At this point in the day, I found myself in what seemed to be a communist plot. We drove back to the downtown area, where Misha and Elizabeth dropped us off to wander for an hour and a half while they unpacked the stuff at Misha’s apartment. On our walk along Lenin street (note, literally, every city, town, village, sparsely populated area in the country has a Lenin Street, and a Karl Marx Street, just like every good Soviet city), we saw, again, the largest Lenin head in the world, the arts center still bearing the Red star and the hammer and sickle in its decor, a cafe named “Carlos VII,” and a blue-domed church (being remodeled, of course), inside of which they were conducting a service for the blessing of the Elderly on Elderly People’s Day. Communist conspiracy number one: the communists–gerontocrats, propaganda symbols, Karl Marx disguised as a Spanish freedom fighter alias “Carlos VII,” and the Wizard-of-Oz-head of Lenin–were following me.

Misha and Elizabeth picked us up and brought us to dinner at the Chinese restaurant named “Omon” (which, we later learned in Baikal Studies, is the name of the river in Russia on which Genghis Khan was born). The restaurant, on the second floor, was a funny, awkward, long, dark room lit by soft overhead lights, red and green christmas lights hung over the windows, and a green laser light, which was part of the DJ’s set up. Note, no one was dancing, but the DJ was jammin’ nonetheless. It was a good tasting meal, and the fried pears and bananas were good for desert. But, had I realized that I had also fallen into communist plot number two of the day, I would have avoided the combination of sparkling water with a food-poisoned (. . . by the Chinese communists, of course) seafood dish.

We got to the train station at about 5 in the evening Moscow time (10 in Ulan-Ude, but you never would have known that from the clocks. . .), said our farewells to our guide Misha, and boarded our wagon. It was a pretty quick lights out, as we were all pretty wiped from the long drive, and long week.

Friday, Oct 2: Food Poisoning

Communist plot number 2: Successful. After 4 scenes in the train bathroom and one in the little room at the end of the car before you walk out the door onto the tracks crouched over a bag, I was down and out for the count. Elizabeth ordered me a taxi home (the other two came along with, since we all live on the same road), Tatyana Eduardovna gave me strong tea upon arrival, and I spent the rest of the day in bed, missing the classes at school that I didn’t really want to go to in the first place. Not that I would have minded exchanging the class time for the train ride back to Irkutsk.

Returning to Irkutsk in the drizzly, morning rush hour, though, was a strange feeling of homecoming, yet complete estrangement only in the fact that I felt moderately comfortable telling the taxi driver how to get to the front door of my homestay so far away from real home.

But it was a successful trip, I learned a lot, saw new things, and had my time to gather my strength for the three-week stretch (now just two weeks) of classes until the actual scheduled fall recess. In other news, Romany and I purchased our train tickets today for our trip to Mongolia for the week of fall break. The one-sentence preview of that trip: 36 hour train to Ulan-Bator; 2 days there in the capital of Mongolia in a $10-a-night hostel; 4 days being led on horse or camel back through the Mongolian steppes by natives (no English or Russian there) who will house us, armed only with a small phrase book; and the 36-hour train ride back to Irkutsk. Who’d a’thunk. . . .

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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.



(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.



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.



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.



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. . . .