Evening 8:30

Pleasant evening in a typical Ulan-Ude neighborhood.

Pleasant evening in a typical Ulan-Ude neighborhood, ours.

Evening 8:30

Simple. The view from our balcony is simple. Forest fire smoke scents the air. Shirtless Ukrainian refugees sit on wrought iron, sucking cigarettes in the evening cool even as mamas stroll baby carriages or strollers. City swallows wheel, “screeing” at the joy of flight. Municipal trams rumble into the local stop, and away on the other side of this five story Communist construction. Children clamor on obligatory playground equipment, kindergarten cares their only burden. Neighborhood matriarchs water their tiny flower refuges. Sun settles; swallows scree. The silhouette of dark chokecherries hasten summer’s demise; but not yet, not yet. The richness of evening rests in this “not yetness”, this “summer is upon you, summer is stealing away” feeling which soothes the soul even as it harries the mind. Our favorite street doggies are quiet, trams roll, babies roll, sun rolls into twilight . . . into the scree of swallows.

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Mysterious Dance

Tsam, Dance of mystery

Tsam, Dance of mystery.

Mogi*, my Mongolian friend, runs the Top Tours hostel in Ulaanbaatar. She has hosted me there multiple times on my journeys down from Russia. I roll in regularly due to the intricacies of visa requirements here in old Rus. She knows I am a cultural enthusiast, generally with camera in tow, so she put a bug in me ear about the “Tsam” dance.

Mongolia is an explorers paradise. She feels a lot like Montana to me, minus the fences, and the welcome is high, wide and handsome. Opportunities for discovery are as unlimited as the steppe itself. It is discovery that soothes my restless heart.

So when Mogi’s words flowed into my oral receivers and made contact in my frontal lobe, my comprehension was ECSTATIC! I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Tsam, or Cham dances are a rarity, attendance can be quite a trick. One has to be in tune with sacral calendar of a monastery that observes the Tsam, not all do. Unknowingly, I had made my way to Ulaanbaatar for three days, and a Tsam dance dish was served up spicy on my discovery plate! No chance I was gonna miss this.

Black Hat dance, performed by the Yellow Hat sect.

Black Hat dance, performed by the Yellow Hat sect.

Since my return to the confluence of the Selenga and Uda, the capital of the Siberian steppe, Ulan-Ude, I have actively searched the world wide web so to inform you of the deep meaning and religious significance of the Tsam dance. Alas, the web has remained virtually silent on this point. The Tsam dance is mostly mystery to the uninitiated. Here is what I know: the first Tsam was performed around 770 A.D. The dance originated in India, and quickly spread to Tibet. From Tibet, it spread up into Mongolia and then into Siberia. The dance is staged to combat the enemies of Buddhism. Many of the characters who appear in dreadful form, present themselves such, so as to strike fear into the hearts of evil demons: a kind of fight fire with fire approach. While they look dreadful, their hearts are full of love and peace according to the practicants of the ritual.

The rise of Soviet power in Siberia and Mongolia not only put the kibosh on Tsam dances, but ended the lives of more than 18,000 lamas in Mongolia alone. In Buryatia, between 1929 and 1937 45,000 Buryats were disposed of, roughly 10,000 of those being Buddhist monks. Monasteries across the Mongol world lay shattered, their practices and rituals soaking into the soil along with their lifeblood.

Tsam is only now making an impression again, twenty-five years after the end of Soviet power. The mystery has arisen again, to remain . . . mystery.

And now, unveiled before your very own two peepers, behold the mystery that is Tsam!

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 Tsam in the words of it’s practicants:

“The performing of cham not only destroys all obstacles to Dharma and its people,
it also purifies and blesses the whole earth.
These dances leave powerful karmic imprints in the minds of the people
who observe them.”
Drupon (Master Teacher) Sonam Kunga

“We show the same form as the evil so the evil can feel fear. The protective deities take a wrathful form in order to scare evil.”
Khenpo (Scholar) Konchok Namdak

“With the help of Cham, people can know the role of gods and devils,
and understand the fruits of good and bad work.”
Lopon (Abbot) Konchok Namgyal

“Through cham we are trying to destroy evil with love and compassion.”
Lopon (Abbot) Thupstan Standin

If you would like to know more about the “Tsam” or “Cham” dance, I did find this explanation on the “History and Development of Dance” website. Just follow the link below:

Cham Dance: the Masked Ritual

Siberian Chameleons

I became canary-yellow. My camera? Yellow. Chameleons, having shed their typical skin for indigo-emerald-vermillion-violet, painted the square. Puffs of bright chased on the breeze. Hot. Sweaty. Pleasure.

Yellow Holi High Jinks on Soviet Square, Ulan-Ude, Siberia.

Yellow Holi High Jinks on Soviet Square, Ulan-Ude, Siberia.

Multicolored selfies. Yes!

Multicolored selfies. Yes!

A color filled grin in the midst of pandemonium.

A color filled grin in the midst of pandemonium.

Holi has hit huge in Russia. The festival of colors is extremely popular with the youth culture across this country. I mean, who doesn’t want to spackle your mates multi-color? Holi powder is colored rice flour, or a synthetic equivalent. Here in Ulan-Ude, suppliers are selling 3.5 ounce bags at $3.00 a pop. An expression you hear often in Russia is: “Деньги на ветер”, which means spending money on the wind. I imagine many a sober minded grown-up here has uttered that expression in judgement of Holi. It is a racket, they are making money hand over fist, but, try quelling youth’s enthusiasm for a grand time! When the central square of your city becomes a frolicking rainbow mass of adolescent exuberance, you catch the wave.

A purple haze rises off humans celebrating.

A purple haze rises off humans celebrating.

I caught the wave, with a bunch of bright smiling teens/pre-teens who I met in the party on Soviet Square. They happily included me, quite pleased to have someone highlight their high jinks. In Russia, sharing is second nature, and I am always impressed with the generosity with which I am treated. Holi was no different. The crew I hooked up with made sure I had Holi powder to throw. Everywhere I looked, young people furnished Holi powder to whomever lacking. In Russia, people make sure everyone has fun. For photographers, Holi holds fantastic visuals, and the likelihood of maiming your camera. I know many of the photojournalists in Ulan-Ude. They were all up front, shooting from the stage, protecting their money-makers. Having thought about it, I knew the middle of the action was the place to be! Nikon D-60 resurrect!

Sprinkling citron satisfaction.

(*Note the photographers in the background safe on stage. :) Sprinkling citron satisfaction . . .

Fun

is fun . . .

on you! The camera takes a hit.

on you! My camera and I take a direct hit.

Holi transports everyone back to the joy of youth. You forget worries and laugh with strangers. It crosses barriers that are generally uncrossable. Life becomes a kaleidoscope of movement, vivid colors and grinning teeth. Possibly Holi is hot tinted nirvana!

Managing a dapper look, while painted green.

Managing a dapper look, while painted green.

My embed with the kids was indelible. If I see them around town, will I recognize them without the bright sheen of Holi pasted faces? The only one who didn’t crack a smile was Lenin, looming over Soviet Square in Ulan-Ude. Inside his stone facade, I wonder, was he red with indignation, or green with envy?

This is my favorite shot of the day. I love the contrast.

This is my favorite shot of the day. I love the contrast.

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Other festivals on Word Press. The colors of the blogosphere are here: ROY G. BIV

Starstruck in Siberia

Midnight solitude on Muhur Bay, Lake Baikal, Siberia.

Midnight solitude on Muhur Bay, Lake Baikal, Siberia.

It was a result of passion; our evening at Muhur Bay. Art, possibility and camping gear aligned like Orion’s winking belt, and delivered us to the shore of the bantam sea, or “Small Sea” strait that is separated from most of Baikal’s impossible gallons by mysterious Olkhon Island. Siberia’s black velvet is pierced by vibrant light; Baikal’s fathoms are mirror-like, reflecting the galaxy’s darkness back into a moonless night, magnifying countless crystal suns. Awesome.

Our intrepid crew each burn with a passion to capture impressions of transcendent wonder in a digital box. Tonight we are three star hunters. Oleg, my old friend from Irkutsk, is a contractor, and budding photographer.  Alexander, a new friend from Ulan-Ude, is photo-correspondent for our local news agency, and this Alexander, whose longing since boyhood is to sail among the cosmic luminaries. Alexander talked us into three empty seats on a bus hauling volunteers to evening berths, 50 km north from the ethnic festival we were covering.

Alexander and Oleg, about to hop the bus.

Alexander and Oleg, about to hop the bus.

Our northern hemisphere’s June evenings have been set aglow by Venus and Jupiter dallying on the western horizon. My desire to capture them over Baikal was thwarted by the hurry up and wait of festival admin drama. But hey! Do yourself a favor and look west about forty-five minutes after sunset, while it is still June. When you see Venus, you will know why she is goddess of beauty. Above her and left, about the width of your fist held at arms length, Jupiter shines golden.

Regardless of my missed rendezvous with Venus and Jupiter, the whole priceless sky had revealed herself, and Saturn remained all night. Original works of interstellar jewellery, the pearls of Cassiopeia, the Corona Borealis, Pegasus, and the Big and Little Bears (Dippers) glistens in our lenses. I can see for miles and miles and miles. Campfires have sprung up around the western end of the bay, speaking back to starlight. The boys made for a boat in dock shining sweetly in lights in Muhur Bay. But the proximity of fire on the beach under the starlit universe transfixed me. Two Russian families were absorbed in the warm glow of firelight discussion. I asked permission to photograph their vodka enhanced reverie. They accepted, expressing astonishment at an American appearing out darkness at their campfire.

Russian friends enjoy a pleasant June evening under the stars.

Russian friends enjoy a pleasant June evening under the stars.

Tour bases and campfires light the Western horizon beyond Muhur Bay.

The Milky Way over tour bases and campfires on the Western horizon beyond Muhur Bay.

Like the beginning of a good thriller, this photo suggests the otherworldly sound of death's approach.

Like the beginning of a good thriller, this photo suggests the otherworldly sound of the approach of the fearful unknown.

And that is the night’s tale. The star hunters shuttled between shore and campfire, between the silent solitude of water lapping a stellar sky, and laughter around a friendly fire. The sun began painting the eastern sky at 2:30 am. It was a battle to turn in, as pinks and oranges rallied toward Saturn’s early morning perch. I set my alarm for four thirty, to capture sunrise on Baikal, a phenomenon not to be missed. Two days of road weariness conspired to hood me in sleeps realm. At 5:15 the insistent solar star roused me. The sky was already bright as day. Silver water set off the charcoal shore that faded by degree in lightening shades of grey toward the horizon. We couldn’t keep our fingers off the shutter buttons, such was the morning’s magnificence. Finally we opened cans of silky pacific caught saury, to eat with black bread. We packed our tent, collected our camera gear, and hightailed it back to catch the bus full of sleepy headed volunteers. Our star hunt was successful; we were witnesses to wonder.

2:45 am. Incoming dawn.

2:45 am. Incoming dawn.

Muhur Bay, Small Sea Strait, under the morning shine of our Solar star. 5:49 am.

Muhur Bay, Small Sea Strait, under the morning shine of our Solar star. 5:49 am.

What remains. 6:07 am.

What remains. 6:07 am.

A fisherman works the waters on the horizon in Muhur Bay, on the Sacred Sea.

A fisherman works the silver waters of Muhur Bay, on the Sacred Sea. The mysterious Isle of Olkhon lies behind him.

Siberia: unfortunately off-season in most people’s minds.

Artist. Creator.

Handshake at the bus stop. A jaunt to a Soviet carriage. Modest. Scrapes with dings. Off-white paint. Passenger side door opens from the inside. No apologies. None needed. I duck out of the cutting spring wind. Anatoly commands the wheel. We scanter over dips and hollows. Small wood domiciles, still crouching after winter, populate our peripheries. We roll to a stop, and pop out, doors clicking behind us. Anatoly opens the gate, where the ubiquitous (to Russia) scruffy necessary wags his tail to greet us. One level, dark, self-constructed. Solid. Anatoly’s son chops wood in front of the outlying bathhouse turned “music studio”. We enter. He lays out tea. Sweet biscuits, milk whitened black tea. The interior is spare, one light bulb per room, rough wood in shades of natural brown. Simple.

We conversate, offering small pieces of the experiences that brought us to our point of intersection. Patiently we dig, sifting fumbled human words, for the chance to touch the face of meaning together. As we warm to our task, our lingua franca, wells up, filling in and smoothing over the cracks of our utterances. She leaps cultures, weaves viewpoints, she reveals that golden spark that hides under life’s ashes. We bend in, wondering. And now colors crackle, theory and influence, history, philosophy, passion, image-spirit-flow-connection. Art. Life blood of creation.

Anatoly birthing art.

Anatoly birthing art. “Let there be light!”

Expounding upon the finer points of perfection visual communication.

Expounding upon the finer points of perfecting visual communication.

Pregnant with possibility, Anatoly the creator struggles to birth new offspring from the long forgotten *Buryat School, buried in ashes of the scorched earth policy of Bolshevism in Siberia. But first he had to dig. He had to understand where to dig.

He studied four years of graphic arts at the Pedagogical Institute here in Ulan-Ude, three more in the Ulaanbaatar college of Art and Culture. From 94-96 he learned how to draw Buddhist tankas (Tibetan icons). Then wife, children, mouths, shelter, rat race for survival. He resurfaced in 2001 for breath, studying long distance at the Eastern Siberian State Academy of Culture and Art here in Ulan-Ude in tandem with manual labor for sustenance. In 2006 with a home built, and his art foundation sound, he filled his lungs, spread his pencil-feather wings and leapt.

Original vs Reproduction. Anatoly uses the reproduction to spot places in his drawings that need shoring up.

Original vs Reproduction. Anatoly uses the reproduction to spot places in his drawings that need shoring up.

His creations are cold fusion. Intricate scenes from the East, with Western technique applied for depth and emphasis. His human subjects are demure, slightly cheeky, his countrysides sprinkled with references bowing East and West, just as his people have done now for centuries, turning first toward Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, and Tibet, then toward Moscow. Buddhist temples, and Orthodox churches, Buryat and Russian children building snow men together. Anatoly wields tools of cosmic significance, calling things into being that have yet to be, at a table by the window of his wooden cottage.

What started as a “get to know you” conversation transfigured incrementally. Anatoly and I meet as strangers in a space that becomes sacred as our communication reveals one to the other. This communication transcends speech, flashing and flowing all imagery and color, the white hot могущество (able-power) of creativity coupled with community unveils shared marvel; apprehends the magnificence of a knowable beyond. This is recognizing the Creator in another creative. Real. Holy communion.

Nothing in Sunday school prepared me for this. Meeting the power that anchors stars in the sky in a person of another faith, this tangible presence of a consuming fire contained in the dust of another man. Why should I be surprised? Aren’t we all image-bearers? But I am surprised. When did I become so sure of where and when the Creator would put majesty on display? When did I think I could nail down Mystery? And when did Protestants give up the privilege of communicating in the divine tongue?

Art flows. It flows from a throne.

The artist.

The artist: Anatoly Tsidenov

(*The aforementioned Buryat School is a historical style.)