Smiling Faces at Altargana

Part 3 of “10,000 Miles to Altargana; Festival of Nomadic Culture”

Shivery was the Night

Shivery was the night who delivered me from sleeps catacombs unto the bright light of morn. A dark angel materialized just minutes after I struggled from my insufficient huddle sack, to serve breakfast. Black leather, black jeans with dark tresses and a steaming pot of buuz! Every nomads sweet dream is to be served savory meat dumplings the moment you roll out of bed. Dark angel of breakfast, please visit again!

This dark angel provides steaming meat dumplings (buuz) to newly awakened and frigid breakfast eaters such as myself.

This dark angel provides steaming meat dumplings (buuz) to newly awakened and frigid breakfast eaters such as myself.

Insecurity was my companion the evening prior. My encounter with a whole encampment of unknown Buryats triggered a feeling that was, well . . . comfort zone-less. In Siberia, my Russian language aids me well in finding common ground quickly. The Mongolian Buryats speak little Russian. Even with years of practice finding equilibrium in a foreign culture, it is never easy. You feel naked in your fear. My desire to dine led to my running across contentious Buryats. They were upset with each other over food preparations in their food yurt. Struck with my inability to communicate, I imagined their anger venting on my obviously bumbling other-worldliness. So, instead of finding dinner, I fled. Hurriedly striding the dark night, I searched looming shadow tents for my people.

Relationships are vital in voyaging the sea of culture, especially in new and unexpected situations. A community of Buryats to “embed” in was, for me, paramount. Faces you recognize, who willingly return your smile does your heart good. I attribute my survival overseas thus far to benevolent insiders who took me under wing and forgave my cultural blunders.

Color coded Buryat Family. Gram and Gramps - café au lait, Pop and Son - mint, Mama and her lass - azure.

Color coded Buryat Family. Gram and Gramps – café au lait, Pop and Son – mint, Mama and her lass – azure.

Color Fever

Morning, of course, brought a different perspective. Smiling eyes and smiling faces welcomed this stranger. People were pleased to meet me, and my camera acted as a passport to their hearts.

Grandma musician preps for performance.

Grandma preps for performance.

Musicians and singers practiced in our platoon sized tent; meanwhile the whole encampment pulled on boots, braided hair, and adorned themselves in traditional finery, (what I like to call steppe bling). Declaring themselves “put together,” they flocked toward a rally point. That rally point became an instant garden, each arriving Buryat adding a floret to the sprawling meadow of rapidly multiplying flowers.

Buryats gather in the marshaling area. It's a parade, where the people are floats.

Buryats gather in the marshaling area. It’s a parade, where the floats are people.

This is the traditional dress of Shenehen Buryats, Buryats who fled to China (Inner Mongolia) in the 30's to escape Bolshevik Repression.

This is the traditional dress of Shenehen Buryats, Buryats who fled to China (Inner Mongolia) in the 30’s to escape Bolshevik Repression.

Because, the opening of Altargana would soon transpire, vines began creeping from different “instant garden” rally points. Colorful battalions of Buryats hailing from homelands in China, Siberia and Mongolia marched for the stadium under banners proclaiming their region and tribal totems. To the general delight of marchers, I ran willy-nilly in color-fever, recording the procession.

Jaunty banner bearers ready for duty.

Jaunty banner bearers ready for duty.

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Foiling the gate keepers with my participant credentials, I popped through the gate holding back a flood of Buryats. The stadium was a beehive of activity. People of every age perched in the stands grinning, frowning, pointing and pouting at the foreigner taking their photo. All plausible shades of brocade flirted in sunlight as its wearers milled about the infield in degels, traditional raiment of Genghis Khan’s descendants. Imagine thousands of bronze Asians sporting dazzling floor length smoking jackets, with an iconic conical blue hat fringed red, brimmed with black velvet. You got the idea. Normally I would be green faced with envy. Who doesn’t want to look this cool, right? But, as I am the owner of such an array, gifted to me by a fine Mongol in the Gobi desert, I can hardly complain. He even got the color right, green.

Oh to see what their eyes have seen. As you might gather from this image, blue is the favorite color of Buryats.

Oh to see what their eyes have seen. As you might gather from this image, blue is the favorite color of Buryats.

Chingis Khan’s Legacy

For those unaware, Dadal, the small village where Altargana took place is known as the birthplace of Chingis (Genghis) Khan. Further, you must know that according to Buryat history, Chingis Khan’s grandmother was Buryat This gives them as strong a claim as any to his legacy. (For more about Chingis Khan follow this link: Chingis Khan’s Legacy)

Chingis Khan waves to his great grandchildren in his homeland of Khentii province, Mongolia.

Chingis Khan waves to his great grandchildren in his homeland of Khentii province, Mongolia.

Silk and peacock feathers. These dancers demonstrate the greeting respected steppe royalty would receive.

Silk and peacock feathers. These dancers demonstrate the greeting respected steppe royalty would receive.

These are Glory Days

Altargana celebrates the cultural aspects of being Buryat, yet it is more. It is memory. Altargana cannot help conjuring life on the Mongolian Plateau, (which includes a good portion of Buryatia and the southern part of the Irkutsk region), a time when horses equaled life, when your bow both fed and protected you, and when vast tracts of wilderness were audience for whom you WOULD belt out song. That is what you will see if you go.

I lingered at wrestling in the Central stadium watching stout Buryats in outfits generally reserved for superheroes. Naked except for red or blue “speedos” and boots virtually knee high, an outfit to tickle Superman’s fancy, evoking his winning grin. These heroes tested minds and mettle against one another in matches lasting seconds. Or twenty minutes, at which point referees intervened and put the wrestlers in a hold, to jump-start the match. Matches are surprising, quickness and a deft mind are just as likely to win the day as straight up strength. Until placing rounds, multiple contests take place in simulcast. With numerous titanic struggles to keep eyes on, the ebb and flow of a bawling crowd embellishes the competitive grappling, leaving a wonderfully chaotic impression careening through your marbles.

Match winner soars on the thermal of victory per tradition.

Match winner soars on the thermal of victory with eagles wings as per tradition.

Horses are family too. Here a much decorated horse gets an admiring gaze after his win.

Horses are family too. Here a much decorated horse gets an admiring gaze after his win.

I couldn’t stall longer for the first vocal notes of the singing competition already wafted on ether. I ran off to cheer on my boys Shineft, Bayasol and Saruul. The venue for singing was tight. Squeezing through a packed house, my camera granting me passage, I found a perch right up front where they could see me. Dang could those boys sing! Saruul won silver and Bayasol won bronze, but I believe I enjoyed Shineft’s performance most, because he grinned at me when he stepped on stage and winked back at my wink of support. I felt like a proud papa watching his boy sing!

R to L. Bayasal, Saruul, and Shineft discuss their performances, or, more likely, discuss which girl in the competitions was hottest.

R to L. Bayasal, Saruul, and Shineft discuss their performances, or, more likely, discuss which girl in the competitions was hottest.

Celebratory toasts and song light up the darkness of the Khentii steppe.

Celebratory toasts and song light up the darkness of the Khentii steppe.

Clu-clu-clumping hooves and whisssh-thwaping arrows, gave a martial seasoning to laughter and applause. Appreciative audiences enjoy drama, sport, and beauty contests in the far-far reaches of Chingis Khan’s boyhood stomping grounds. Forty-eight straight hours of steppe drama!

Yohor Makes Us One

The sun brushes romantic across the Khentii Mountains all birch and cedar, festive hullabaloo turns into song. Even as clouds converge, voices issue forth from tents and gers where champions and friends have gathered with family to toast triumphs. Triumphs must be acknowledged with toasts. Toasts are not toasts without serenades. I’m talking about serious serenading here. The rain that began to steadily patter in no way drenched the hours of laughter, merriment and congratulatory speeches accompany the filling of glasses and emptying of bottles. All this was punctuated and perfected with song. Many sang into the wee hours. But I could not miss the moment I had been waiting for since before I left the States. Yohor. Yohor is traditional Buryat circle dancing. In the stadium around a pointy nest of logs five meters high the closing ceremonies were on. Across darkness some of my new friends and I ran to catch the final attractions. Singers sang, dancers danced. Sky lanterns floated above the peoples heads into the Milky Way. One hungry little match struck and logs that loomed in shadow gave way to a tower of bonfire. Everything falls away, fear, gender, race. All is forgotten in a sublime gathering of “we”. People grab hands of people they have never met, and twirl, twirl with them, twirl! Imagine hundreds of humans spinning about the fountain of flame. For fifteen real minutes I am running hand in hand with I have no idea whom in utter peace. That must be the kind of peace human hearts long for, a peace to reign over all.

Yohor (Circle Dance) in the rain. The culmination of Altargana 2014.

Yohor (Circle Dance) in the rain. The culmination of Altargana 2014.

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Postlude:
The rain kept up all the next day. Our bus was one blessed little dirt berm away from rolling, the results of which would have been a tossed salad of musicians, singers, dancers and yours truly lying upon the rain soaked steppe. Arm in arm, I slowly traversed potentially lethal stretches of bus ending quagmire with an elderly woman and her cane. Finally she set her face, damned the consequences and road out the hairy spots with the driver. Brave Buryat Grandma. Long was the road back to Ulaanbaatar.

Find Part 1 of “Altargana” here: 10,000 Miles to Altargana

Find Part 2 of “Altargana” here: Adversity is 375 Miles to Altargana

Pack your bags if you dare! Altargana is in Ulan-Ude in 2016.

Converge

Sushi with a Shaman

Shamans close heaven's gates in Ulan-Ude, Siberia.

Shamans close heaven’s gates in Ulan-Ude, Siberia.

I am getting phone calls from a shaman.

Actually, she is a shamaness. Newly initiated. We’re friendly. I met her about a week before her drumming in. The morning of our meeting, I briskly packed my camera in hopes of shooting the annual shamanic ritual called “Closing Heaven’s Gates”. The previous day, I spied an announcement about the rite taped to a window in the tram. Right then and there I knew, I was going to the shamans.

The mystique of shamans is legend here in Siberia. I am sure they prefer it that way, a little swirling mystery, the potential of tapping power inaccessible to most is good for business. Shamans get respect, even from those who do not believe, because deep down inside, we wonder if, or fear, or hope their power is real.

In an effort to sidestep all the myth surrounding shamans, all the dire warnings of religious prognosticators, I disengaged my worldview, my labels, and approached these men and women as, well . . . men and women.

After being delivered by bus to the East side supermarket, I started walking the quarter mile jaunt to the Shaman’s temple currently under construction. Striding the sandy roadside, rocking Coldplay’s latest, I was oblivious to all except the sun. Softly, surely, a poom-poom-poom swelled over the stereophonic sound pulsing through my ear tubes. Confused I plucked my headphones and stopped to run a system diagnostics of my sensory faculties. My ears had not betrayed. The air was alive with ricocheting drumbeats!

Quickening my pace, I cleared the squat, time darkened homesteads for my first view of the ritual. As if on the pages of a picture book, the scene opened upon a gentle decline into the Uda river. The city ascended the far bank; industrial, commercial, and residential belts scaled the uplands, who wore cedars for a crown. Clouds, like cotton ball exclamations rode powder skies. Banners, emblazoned with totem animals of Buryat tribes snapped on zephyrs. A crowd of all ages had placed their offerings of milk, vodka, sweets, and tea on a table, and now waited patiently for the shamans.

Photographing an event is one thing, understanding what you have witnessed quite another. While I photographed, I thought, “who can explain what I am witnessing?” That is how I found myself two weeks later searching for someone in a crowd, yelling through our phones at each other over the noise of celebration. On that Wednesday afternoon I needed two things: a quiet place to sit, and a translator of ceremonies, yes, someone to clue me in to what I had witnessed. The only option for peace from the blaring loudspeakers of another state sponsored holiday was a Japanese restaurant. Now I liked the sound of that. The only hitch was, Irina, shamaness of Shishkovka (region where I live), needed a lesson in chopsticks. So, with ninja dexterity, I oversaw Irina’s chopstick apprenticeship. Her apprenticeship accomplished, over fruit and chocolate “spring-rolls” and green tea, chopsticks flashing, she brought me up to speed.

Totem flags of the Buryat people ride the wind.

Totem flags of the Buryat people ride the wind.

Scattering offerings to the North in preparation of closing heaven's gates.

Scattering offerings to the North in preparation of closing heaven’s gates.

This smiling shamaness attests to the fact that while most shamans are Buryat here, not all of them are!

This smiling shamaness attests to the fact that while most shamans are Buryat here, not all of them are!

The people gather behind a table rich with their offerings.

The people gather behind a table rich with their offerings.

Shamans call the thirteen rulers of the Baikal basin into birch trees.

Shamans call the thirteen rulers of the Baikal basin into birch trees.

The ritual ground had been set up in a square, the Shamans perched shoulder to shoulder on stools like birds flocking a power line, beaks to the sun. Drumming they were, drumming, drumming. By and by the shamans rose to make their way East, South, West, and finally North. In each cardinal direction, a fire was kindled and an offering of tea and water flung heavenward. The shamans trooped clockwise from fire to fire, the crowd respectfully bringing up the rear; all this under the drum.

Around ten years ago, a woman, making her way to the Buddhist temple, felt compelled to exit the tram car on rundown and blustery Sverdlova street. Wandering down the street aimlessly, she halted before a severe building. Raising her eyes, she saw she had come to the offices of the Tengeri religious organization of shamans. She gasped in surprise, opened the door, and went in.

Her grandma, Shage had been a great shamaness of the Khongodor tribe. In 1966 Irina, girl of 18 or 19, dreamed of grandma. For three consecutive nights, Shage, delivered a message from beyond the veil. She reminded her grand daughter of her ancestral homeland near Kukunur lake, reminded her she was shaman-born, reminded her of obligations to help her progenitors and progeny alike. Here family history collided with the political reality of Soviet Russia. You might think that back corners of Siberia were places one might get away with “anti-soviet” behavior. Not among native communities, where word travels by tongue at jet fighter speed. Memories of the thirties, when Shamans were labeled enemies of the state, were hunted down and murdered by zealous communist converts, remained branded in peoples psyches. Becoming a shaman was not something one did. And so in late middle age, after the pale of communist life had receded, Irina began pursuing the life of a Shamaness.

During the closing heaven’s gate ritual, one of the Shamans had made it known I had an all access pass, which I took full advantage of. And that is how I met Irina, who approached me to clarify. In my artistic exuberance, I had trespassed into territory exclusively reserved for spirits. Graciously she accepted my apology, we traded introductions, and phone numbers. And that is what lead to sushi with a shaman.

With directional prayers properly dispensed, the company collected within the angles of their sacred space. Now rocking on their dragon staffs, thrumming drums escort them into communion with their ancestors. After attuning their ears to the needs and advice of familial spirits, the sapphire clutch circumambulates a standing grove of recently cut birches. Spinning round, kicking up dust, they call to the 13 master-spirits who rule the Baikal basin. This is an invitation to the birch grove; a grove provided for the masters occupation.

In earnest then, they begin praying. Embroidery eyes gawk on heads in a confusion of flashing color. Forged amulets sound against polished discs and golden tiger bells. Other worldly, their appearance camouflages the voyage between worlds, faces extinguishing in black tassel. The tempo of drum beats quicken, quicken until they lurch up from stools burdened in trance. Hissing, they stalk stiffly about. Assistants and seekers of blessings both genuflect before the channeled presence. When a shaman delivers what blessings and messages the spirit had, she leaps up, up and again until the spirit takes leave. Spent, she sinks to a stool in the helping arms of other shamans.

The implements of a shaman rest for the moment.

The implements of a shaman rest, for the moment.

Bukha Noyon visits the people he protects.

Bukha Noyon, protector of the Buryat people, visits Ulan-Ude, capital of the Buryat people.

A shaman gets his trance on.

A shaman gets his trance on.

This shamaness, deep in trance hisses as she channels a spirit.

This shamaness, deep in trance hisses as she channels a spirit.

People bow before a shaman as she bestows blessings.

People bow before a shaman as she bestows blessings.

A commotion of shamans, constantly releasing from or slipping into trance; that is what chaos repeating itself looks like. Numerous people temporarily throng about one or another shaman, punctuating the ebb and flow of ceremony, and disperse back into the encircled crowd. Finally this action metamorphoses into a throbbing shaman drum team congregated about the most experienced shamans who call the thirteen into themselves. Like a delirious sunbaked octopus desperately shuffling for the sea, the host shaman staggers under the presence of spirit. Spirits answer questions and bestow their blessings of health and welfare for the winter months. The last spirit to appear is Bukha Noyon, the head of the thirteen and the protector of the Buryat people. After he is properly honored and thanked, he goes back into the birch trees, and after the trees have been paraded around the sacred space where the people may honor which ever spirits they care too, the trees are burned along with a sheep slaughtered for the occasion. The eternal blue sky welcomes these spirits into their winter domiciles, and heaven’s gates close. After the sun’s hibernal rest, the shamans will reopen it in spring.

Earlier I stated that I wanted to interact with the shamans on a human level. My reasoning was, if chose to see them first as shamans, my western scientific education would label them quacks, while my church upbringing would label them instruments of the devil. Both of these judgements seem unjust to make about people I have never met. But do you know what? Deep down, I confess, I still expected to meet conniving, drunken, shifty shamans. Imagine my surprise when instead, I met pleasant, gracious, smiling people! People I could shoot the breeze with over coffee. People who might be friends. People.

With this clear in my mind, it was so easy to set my agendas aside, and sit down with Irina to listen to her life. With nothing to prove or defend, I found it easy to laugh. I left that day knowing one soul on this earth better, my new friend, the shamaness of Shiskovka.

The shamaness of Shiskovka.

The shamaness of Shiskovka.

A long exposure to capture the feeling of what it is like to walk between worlds.

A long exposure to capture the feeling of what it is like to walk between worlds.

Shamans escort birch trees about their sacred space, before releasing the spirits into heaven. The ritual is near completion.

Shamans escort birch trees about their sacred space, before releasing the spirits into heaven. The ritual is near completion.

The birch trees used for hosting the spirits become the wood for a burnt offering. The offering, a sheep, lies on blue material amidst smoke.

The birch trees used for hosting the spirits become the wood for a burnt offering. The offering, a sheep, lies on blue material amidst smoke.

Gathering for a communal send off, the shamans escort the spirits through the gate and into heaven.

Gathering for a communal send off, the shamans escort the spirits through the gate and into heaven.

White and black shamans in prayer overlooking Ulan-Ude.

White and black shamans in prayer overlooking Ulan-Ude.

10,000 Miles to Altargana; Festival of Nomadic Culture

A picture is worth a thousand words, but is it worth ten thousand miles? I am talking about a particular image, and ten thousand very real miles of travel.

Behold the image:

10,000 miles for a smile. These Khori Buryat girls are on their way to parade into the stadium at the opening of Altargana 2014, in Dadal, Mongolia.

10,000 miles for a smile. These Khori Buryat girls are on their way to parade into the stadium at the opening of Altargana 2014, in Dadal, Mongolia.

This image was captured by covering miles in the following manner:

By Air:

United Airlines: Bozeman to Denver = 518 miles

Denver to Washington D.C. = 1507 miles

Washington D.C. to Beijing = 7048 miles

China Air: Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia = 731 miles

Overland:

Old Soviet Autobus called a Gaz: Ulaanbaatar to Dadal, Mongolia. = 365 miles

The careful student of math will conclude I travelled 10,169 miles. Of these, the last 365 were by far the hardest, and that is where we will pick up our story, in the teaming streets of Ulaanbaatar, a capital city, a boom town. Right now it is flush with three things, no four. Mining money, Toyota Priuses (seriously, I am seeing them lined up three in a row at traffic lights!), pregnant women, or recent mothers, and newly rising high rises.

Into the hushed pre-dawn of the city I stepped, backpack on my back, camera gear on my chest. I made my way to the 5 am rally point where I would travel with the Buryat Community of Ulaanbaatar to Altargana 2014. If you don’t know what Altargana is, read my post on it from 2010 by clicking here.

Buryat Community of Ulaanbaatar

What you should be thinking, although you may not know it is: “Alex, how do you know the Buryat community in Ulaanbaatar? You spend most of your time in Ulan-Ude.” Well I don’t, that is, I didn’t. Nope, I just called them up from Montana, and asked if I might go along. Let’s be clear here, I called some number I found on the internet connected with a Mongolian site about Altargana 2014. The man who answered spoke some English, and some Russian, and we kind of communicated. Kind of. With whom did I speak? I assumed it was some young man whose job it was to help people find their way to Altargana. And you know what they say about the word assume.

So, here is this red-bearded Montana kid appearing from among the silent high-rises to select a spot among the gathering Buryats. This was certainly a mysterious turn of events for them. The ice breaker came when little Saruul, a mischievous young man, with a gifted set of pipes, decided to take a recon run by me, since I already grinned at him, oh! and my red beard has mesmerizing powers. He rounded up his chubby partner in crime Shineft, with an equally nice vocalisation skills, to swing by me for a closer look. We all laughed and that sealed the deal. The rest of the Buryats continued about their business, now sure that I was OK.

Our five o’clock rally point continued to be our rally point through six, seven and eight. Eight thirty was our ticket out of the city and into the boundless Mongolian steppe. Two Soviet Buses rounded the corner to round us up, and the expedition was on.

Oh Mongolia! Your beauty is unsurpassed.

Oh Mongolia! Your beauty is unsurpassed.

Four elbows in the grease. This is episode # 1.

Four elbows in the grease. This is episode # 1.

Meeting The Matriarchs

As we tooled out of the city, the question “Sasha, do you drink Kumis?” was flung into the buses atmosphere. Kumis, fermented mares milk has a savory tang to it, and is a taste one acquires among nomads, one I had acquired years past. “Certainly.” Was my response, and soon a jug of the slightly alcoholic milk beverage found my place. I took a few swigs, glad that in some way my cultural immersion was paying off. In one short exchange I had become Sasha, which around here is short for Alexander, and payed respect to Buryat culture all in one swig. In a real sense, that made me one of the Buryats.

Our first break down took place took place about two hours in. The Mongol mechanic got about his business, got a face full of oil, deftly cut hoses and had us back up and running in twenty. That was hopeful, I felt good about that, we were in good hands. Our second breakdown occurred let’s see . . . two more hours in. Now we are pulling stuff out of the buses engine I’ve never seen before. Oh well, the picnic is in effect. People be bustin’ out plastic-ware full of scrumptious stuff, and they are handing it around, cause they prepared to feed everyone, like they always do in this part of the world. And I’m making inroads with the ladies, you got to do that. The ladies are where it is at, and by ladies I mean the Matriarchs. If they have a low opinion of you, you can become persona non grata. But if the Matriarchs can laugh a bit, and see your earnestness to learn, then they will take care of you. This is not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, this is about finding your niche in the community and making a proper contribution. Mine became this: Recording every triumph and setback along the way. That, and being an interesting conversation piece. See, these people had been to festivals before, they knew all about being Buryat. But meeting a ‘Merican who is interested in what being Buryat means, that is unusual. So, I took pictures, made a few jokes, enjoyed their hospitality, and that made them happy. Bango! I am part of the community! You know what a relief that is? I don’t speak the language here (some of them spoke Russian, as I do), now I got people who will make sure I get a plate at the local cafe, I got people who will give me half of what they got. Really! These people are great! I mean it, really great.

A Buryat patiently waits in his element.

A Buryat patiently waits in his element.

"The Matriarchs" gettin' their game on. These ladies have their fingers on the pulse of their community, good friends to have.

“The Matriarchs” gettin’ their game on. These ladies have their fingers on the pulse of their community, good friends to have.

The kids keeping their cards in this high stakes game of waiting as we deal with broke down episode # 2.

Meanwhile at the kids table they are keeping their cards close in this high stakes game of waiting as we deal with broke down episode # 2. L to R: Dorjderem, Bold, Otgoo, and Selenge.

Bold and Saruul let their inner artists flow in the roadside dirt.

Bold and Saruul let their inner artists flow in the roadside dirt. This is already broke down episode # 3.

We were on the road after a forty-five minute forced picnic. And I’ll bet we rolled for forty-five minutes before . . . I don’t even have to say it. Breakdown number three. Number three was a red-line. 50% of our fleet of Soviet buses down and out. The market for a new bus just opened up somewhere out in Khentii province. We made the call, and now are awaiting our replacement carriage. It’s origin point is Ulaanbaatar, a three or four hour mad-dash away from our present position.

Saruul keeps us all entertained through silly antics, and an age-old game of hopscotch.

Saruul keeps us all entertained through silly antics, and an age-old game of hopscotch.

Selenge rockin' that nerdy cool vibe out in the Mongolian steppe.  Selenge is named after the river "Selenge" or "Selenga" which flows north out of Mongolia into Buryatia right through Ulan-Ude into Lake Baikal.

Selenge rockin’ that nerdy cool vibe out in the Mongolian steppe. Selenge is named after the river “Selenge” or “Selenga” which flows north out of Mongolia into Buryatia right through Ulan-Ude into Lake Baikal.

Making Friends

This stop was highlighted by hopscotch. Yep, nomads play hopscotch, who knew? We also drew in the dirt.  My new friend Bold drew a seriously striking resemblance of the Montana kid with a roman nose and red beard. Me in dirt.

We made our way up the road a bit to a settlement with a cafe. I wanted buuz, that is steamed meat dumplings (find out what buuz are by clicking here) but the joint didn’t have any. That is when Selenge, a young lass practicing her English with me, took it upon herself to go to a different cafe and order me as many buuz as I wanted. See what I mean? These people are awesome! Meanwhile my new friend Otgoo the mountaineer is feeding me half his plate of beef and noodles. Otgoo, who has peaked out on Mt. Elbrus four times if memory serves me. Otgoo, Buryat mountaineer from Dadal, Mongolia. Dadal may be bigger than Two Dot, Montana, but not by much, not by much. We play cards, a game called “fool”, still the game of choice in former Communist regions. I managed to not be the fool one time, a small triumph that I will take!

Bayasal and Saruul having fun with rocks, one of our many forms of entertainment waiting for our replacement vehicle to come from Ulaanbaatar.

Bayasal and Saruul having fun with rocks, one of our many forms of entertainment waiting for our replacement vehicle to come from Ulaanbaatar.

Four-thirty, we’ve been sitting at least as long as rolling. The new mini-van is here, and we load our gear onto the top. My rucksack will be with one vehicle, while I’ll be on another. You do the math. Five O’clock and we are trundling across the steppe again. I’m still a long way away from making that first image you saw. And things are about to get complicated.

For part 2 click here: Adversity is 375 Miles to Altargana

Part 3 is here: Smiling Faces at Altargana

 

Retracing Baikal’s Ice Crucible

25 million years old according to Scientific estimates, she looks as pretty as a princess!

25 million years old according to Scientific estimates, she looks as pretty as a princess!

A short but good sleep, and I awaken predawn. Disengaging my pajamas (a down parka) with difficulty from my blue kazoo (sleeping bag), I leave my snoozing comrades with camera in (mitten bound) hands. Snapping the wonder of our solar star rising over the wind-driven plain of ice on Baikal is AWESOME.

Marius slept under the cold stars and next to a warm fire. I doubt he was warm though.

Marius slept under the cold stars and next to a warm fire. I doubt he was warm though.

Kesha was always on point, and saw to it we got fed well. Here he gathers ice for tea.

Kesha (Innokenti) was always on lead sledge, and saw to it we got fed well. Here he gathers ice for tea.

Baikal is a venerable sea. Known as the “North Sea” during the Han dynasty, battles were fought on her shores between the Han and the Huns, ancient inhabitants to this area around 119 BC! According to scientific estimates, Baikal is the oldest lake in the world, a mere 25 million years old. Snap! Snap! I snapped Old Glory until frozen. Coffee calls from the fire.

Just off Olkhon's Eastern shores fault action thrusts huge ice slabs up for admiration.

Just off Olkhon’s Eastern shores fault action thrusts huge ice slabs up for admiration.

Sasha and Vanya wave at you, and give some perspective to this ice jumble.

Sasha and Vanya wave at you, and give some perspective to this ice jumble.

The magnificence of this blue ice is . . . magnificent!

The magnificence of this blue ice is . . . magnificent!

We pack, luncheon, stow gear, disembark! Straining at the traces to move quickly across naked ice, with thirty miles still ahead, we are all go. We gain the hummock field that had us near despair the day previous. Clearing that labyrinth, on trudge we to nightfall. The wind whips as we drive heavy screws into ice to anchor our tent. Stars marshal in millions, peering down on us through cosmos jet black. Bone penetrating cold drives us into the tiny enclosure of our nylon domicile to toss and shiver and shiver and toss until dayspring. Oh Shackleton, my Shackleton, why did I read your tale? Near morning as we lay awake freezing, we cackle at the absurdity of sleeping on a solid sheet of sounding ice. What do I mean by “sounding” ice? Follow this link if you have never heard the strange sounds ice makes.

Ready for our second go at Baikal's ice box.

Ready for our second go at Baikal’s ice box.

How easy it is to pull a sledge on naked ice.

How easy it is to pull a sledge on naked ice.

The wind carved snow cover on the lake.

The wind carved snow cover on the lake.

Preparing for our last night on Baikal. It was North Pole like.

Preparing for our last night on Baikal. It was North Pole like.

Babylonian star catalogues list Orion as "The Heavenly Shepherd". The Shepherd tends to our shivery encampment.

Babylonian star catalogues list Orion as “The Heavenly Shepherd”. The Shepherd tends to our shivery encampment.

The only way to conquer this wicked cold is to get this expedition under way! I shed my frosty sleeping sack and stuff, strain, struggle into frozen boots. Our gear is hooded in hoarfrost. The promise of sleeping this eve in a warm yurt with a full belly drives us forward.

At lunch Marius, a friend from Romania relates to me his struggle of two nights past. The trek across Baikal had been rough, and he didn’t relish returning through the same ice bin of suffering again. Seeing the distant lights of habitation somewhere on the isle of Olkhon, he hatched a plan to escape our expedition, make his way to one of these homesteads, arrange transportation to Irkutsk, and catch the train back to Ulan-Ude! But he didn’t have enough money, and he needed a place to stay in Irkutsk. Since I have lived there, he thought I could furnish him with a host and a loan. He seriously considered making his escape! I burst into laughter with Marius at this idea, partially from commiseration, and partially because I couldn’t get my head around the lengths he was willing to go to avoid re-crossing Baikal. An enduring spasm of mirth cavorted in our bellies, now that we knew Marius, and the whole crew would survive our crossing.

The only way to conquer hummocks is by force!

The only way to conquer hummocks is by force!

Another team hits the hummocks.

Another team hits the hummocks.

The north wind blows, freezing our lunch break, and our expedition soldiers on. We become automatons, pulling the traces until we are spent, and then pulling three miles more. Our water freezes, and we are reduced to eating snow. Pain is ignored, vision tunnels, I will stop when I step on the eastern shore. But our team stops now, for a tea break! Gaaaah!

A stop for tea and . . .

A stop for tea and . . .

Ibuprofen. In the Fatherland they make it pink.

Ibuprofen. (In the Fatherland they make it pink.)

The end is in sight, but the team is flagging. I quarrel with Sasha over chatter and focus. I reason that the time to shoot the breeze waits in camp beyond the shore. So let’s shut up and get there! And we do, willing our sledge through the last field of hummocks to be met by cheers of the teams ashore. But we don’t stop; we drag our burden on into camp to deposit it where it need move no more. Only then do we slip the traces, and hug our rejoicing comrades. Now for a hot meal, a hot sweat*, (*Russian Banya), and a bed of oblivion.

A wood burning stove and a bunk bed. Spoiled rotten.

A wood burning stove and a bunk bed. Spoiled rotten.

Meeting the Grayling of Sable Lake (Part 1 of Snowy River)

Do not pass up an opportunity to adventure with Russians. You may come face to face with your mortality, but upon surviving, will have a memory to tell grandchildren.

A Montanan amongst Siberians. Julian (the dog) asks your pardon.

We piled our gear on the fan-boat, and watched her navigate the first bend on Snowy river. Marching East just inside the border of Buryatia, we hiked the taiga to the confluence of the Snowy and Selenginka rivers. Collecting pine-cones, we cracked pine-nuts and plucked wild berries as we went. Citrine (yellow) tail waggers, red-headed loons, and Grey herons greeted us on our way. Standing like giants, cottonwoods of extravagant girth towered along our path. Julian the Caucus Shepherd, bred to protect villages from wolves, kept us laughing with his ridiculous antics and humorous view on life. Bounding rock to rock along Snowy river, we finally arrived at the fork of the rivers famished.

Citrine Wagtail, wagtail's are easily the most entertaining bird personality in the area.

Pitch camp, start fire, prepare dinner, bed down to sleep under all the cold stars. This morning we trek further in to Sable lake, and may grayling await us. Marik, our commander, led an all out charge lakeward. Crossing raging waters via suspended bridge, scrabbling over fallen trees and along cliff faces like the fellowship of the ring fleeing Nazgul (Ringwraiths, Dark riders) we flew. Climbing up to the shore, we gathered in silence gazing out on silent waters. Kindling a fire we made tea, and a quick soup (it it amazing how quick Russians can whip up a soup on a campfire), and checked our fishing equipment for battle.

Autumn falls on Sable Lake.

We caught grayling; more beautiful than gems.

I drew my blade, the “Golden Sage”, an eight weight rod, to catch grayling, which is like bringing a broadsword to a knife fight. My sage I purchased to catch Taimen, or River Wolves, as they are sometimes known. Any grayling who took my fly was destined for “Ukha”, a Russian favorite, fish soup. Returning to our campsite at dusk, we cleaned the fish, made the soup, and broke out the star map. In Siberia, you can see all the stars. To be continued . . .

Snowy River Monsters (the fish, not Anton and Petya!)

Fish soup cures a hiker's hunger.

Setting the sky straight.