The Fuchsia Bow Master at Surharban!

The Fuchsia Bow Master! Targets shake in fear at his appearance.


This Buryat archer is kickin’ it old school with the braid. Surharban, Ulan-Ude circa 1924.  This is probably the Fuchsia Bow Master’s Grandfather. (The photo was found here.)

Surharban is here again, that Siberian nomadic summer classic where Buryats gather to wrestle, race horses, and demonstrate their archery prowess. Buryats dancing, Buryats singing, Buryats carrying on, slurping the juices from inside hot pozi, downing cup after cup of milk tea as they laugh with their friends. It is a good day to be Buryat, to remember the nomadic days on Siberian steppe, and to see your family relations from all the outlying villages. Archers loose, wrestlers grunt, and off dash the mounted horses under a smiling Asian sun.


Buryat wrestlers show us how it’s done at Surharban, around the turn of the century.

Buryat Wrestlers continue the tradition in 2010.

We are not up in the mix of all that hullabaloo this year, we miss it indeed. But you can admire some photos from Surharbans of yore, and you can check out a recent Surharban experience here. Please pray for our Buryats!

Buryats on parade at the opening of Surharban. What finery!

Flower of the Steppe: Altargana

A steppe flower indeed.

Walking toward the entrance of Nadaam stadium, the central stadium in Ulaanbaatar, I was unsure of what to expect. Stepping through, a sunlit, grassy field opened before my eyes. Milling about on the green grass were Buryat wrestlers dressed in “gutal”, Buryat/Mongol style calf high boots with turned up toes so as not to scuff the ground, hats, and not much else! Amongst them sauntered wrestling referees in burgundy, sky blue or gray raiment, and conical red fringed, blue hats. At the west end, archers dressed in every color under the sun, though predominantly blue, a favorite of the Buryats, launched volley after volley of practice arrows. The view before my eyes reminded me of the famous picture called “A Day in the Life of Mongolia”.  Flags fluttered in the breeze under Mongolia’s famous blue skies. Buryats from Russia, China, and Mongolia cheered wildly for their favorite wrestlers, chatted each other up, and watched as Fffffffft! Fffffffft! Ffffffft! arrows whizzed from the line of archers to targets. In a color buzz, I went camera happy, snapping everyone I saw in this nomadic kaleidoscope.

Referees, coaches, and heralds, these men kept the order in wrestling matches.

Wrestlers preparing for the next match.

Matching whits. Size does not matter, mental quickness does. Wrestler in red was the champion at Surharban 2010 in Ulan-Ude. (He is small compared to most!)

Blue seems to be a favorite among Buryats.

Archers take a break from the rays of the burning steppe sun.

Enjoying wrestling, or catching a snooze.

I don’t speak Buryat! Yet. A working command of the language would have been handy, as it seems the schedule traveled by word of mouth only. Typical to native Buryats, (and native peoples in general), it was problematic for me as a foreign visitor, leaving me stranded and ticketless outside of several events amongst the Mongolian pickpockets systematically working the crowd. Sometimes I found Russian speaking Buryats, when I didn’t I had to investigate, and work out from advertisement banners hanging on theaters, stadiums and the Wrestlers palace the date and time that some event was in a particular venue. I missed a lot.

Did I mention it was HOT! This young man has fur on!

Checking arrow integrity.

Upon opening one of the double doors to the central Drama Theater, a no holds barred scrum ensued. A couple hundred nomadic Buryats from north Mongolia charged the door like a crash of rhinos, pushing, shoving, squeezing through said door three at a time. Picture Alex, sandwiched in this writhing mass, with old ladies leveraging their weight on his frame in a mad bid for good seats.  (Later, I discreetly picked up my left arm on the way out.) Having survived entry, I found a suitable perch, and watched the drama competition unfold. Buryats acted out comedies and dramas, centered around nomadic daily chores, giving daughters away in marriage, intrigue with neighbors, shepherding herds, and yes, drinking. The juxtaposition of technology and nomads led to a bizarre evening of laughter at Buryat comedy, interspersed with loud one sided cell phone dialogues of spectators chattering with relatives still on the steppe!

These are Western Buryats, distinguishable by flatter headwear and different stripe pattern on their outfits.

Slapstick, Buryat style.

Soaking up the rays of a four o’clock August sun, Buryats gathered under the watchful eye of Chingis (Genghis) Khan, who sits enthroned overlooking Sukhbaatar Square keeping track of his children. Families strolled in their finery or gathered in crowds to empty their pockets for ice-cream vendors. Ice-cream must be like the nectar of gods for nomads, who have no place to keep it. This is the memory that will keep in my mind of Altargana, colorfully garbed Buryat families promenading, each one licking ice-cream on a stick.

Cold creamy goodness!

Ice-cream behind the back pose!

Altargana means “Golden Rod” in Buryat. The festival was named in esteem of the hardy qualities of this flower, similar to the stalwart qualities of the Buryat people. Golden Rod’s extensive root system allows it to flourish on rocky mountain ridges, arid steppe lands, and sandy dunes, just as Buryats have done for centuries. In two years Buryats will again gather in the city of Chita (Siberia), like so many flowers in a mountain meadow, and we hope to be there, shining like stars in the universe, as we hold out the word of life.


The Girl from Tunka Valley

Buryat, Archer, Archery, Altargana, Siberia

Soelma in green.

Watching consecutive arrows dart across the sky and strike the bullseye, I must say, the young lady’s archery skills impressed. Her name is Soelma and I couldn’t help but notice the poised archeress in a long green Buryat degel (robe) and matching malgai (hat) cooly unleashing her missiles. Green is Soelma’s favorite color, and as you can see, she makes green look good! (Green is my fav too!) I don’t know a whole lot about archery, much less Buryat archery, so I asked Soelma if she explain archery while telling me a bit about herself.

Buryat, Archer, Archery, Siberia, Altargana

Taking aim.

Soelma was competing at Altargana, an biannual international Buryat festival, held this year in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. At fifteen years of age, she has competed for three years, and won  national champion of Russia in her age class in 2009! She competes in both traditional Buryat archery, and modern archery, so look for her at the 2012 summer olympics!

Stepping up to the line, Soelma would draw and fire almost immediately in one smooth action. I never saw her miss the bullseye! In Buryat Archery, you get a total of sixteen arrows, eight of which you fire from thirty meters and eight from forty-five meters. You actually fire at color coded, weighted bags that are lined up in a row on the ground. The arrows have special blunted tips made of wood. Soelma’s bow cost the equivalent of five hundred us dollars, and that is a lot of money for the income level here.

Tunka Valley courtesy Baikal Nature.

Tunkinski region, part of Buryatia.

Soelma told me she studies at a school in Arshan. Arshan is in the Tunka Valley, a steppe valley overshadowed by the jutting Sayani mountains. This valley is in the Tunkinski region of Buryatia a place both magical and severe.  Soelma will continue competing in archery, but also would like to pursue a career in politics, or work at a bank. Thank you Soelma for taking time to speak with me, it was a pleasure and I wish you much success in your future!

Surharban: Hitting the Mark!

Opening ceremonies of Surharban.

The toxophilites had drawn together. Grapplers, gathered. Jockeys, jumbled. Every hair follicle on my fair head prickled as the sun beat us. Dorj, Yulia’s cousin, sat stoically in a black button up shirt, and black slacks. We were waiting for action! But instead, mayors, governors and other top dog’s were filling our ears with pretty speeches of inconsequence. Dorj kept saying, “Man they are opening long”. In all fairness to the big wigs, they were sitting in the shade, and had no idea that a sun of treacherous intent coupled with their endless rambling prose was mind bending! Suddenly the droning stopped and . . . Dancing! Buryats and Russians alike twirled and whirled in a kaleidoscope of color to our delighted eyes. And singing! (Check out some Buryat singing here) Buryat style and Old Believer style are quite unique and different from any singing style known in the West. Twirling, silks of different hues billowing in Buryat hands, whirling, curved swords brandished in Cossack hands, color spun in dance to the lilt of their songs!

An archer looking fine.

Traditional Buryat stringed instrument the Morin Huur.

That was my introduction to Surharban, which means “hitting the target” in reference to archery. Toxophilites are by the way, “devotees of archery”. This is a festival celebrating archers, wrestlers and horse racers. All of which we watched under a burnt sun. After two ice-cream bars, a liter and a half of kvass, (a Russian sort of soft drink made of fermented bread, which Russians of all ages incessantly drink in the summer), several rounds of Mongolian style wrestling, and a couple rounds of archery, Dorj and I decided we were hot. We left the stands, and went to the cultural area for lunch, and to enjoy the dancing and singing of Buryat and Russian groups from different regions of Siberia.

Dorj in his stoic black.

Yulia came in time to watch horse racing. Dorj and I hung on until the race when after eight laps, we couldn’t tell if the race would finish soon, or continue till midnight! We decided we were baked twice over, and it was time to go home for Pozi! (Traditional Buryat meat dumpling of sorts.) As the day wore toward dusk, Dorj, his father, Sanpil and I ate pozi, and discussed the Creator of the world, and how he is crazy about Buryats! Every tribe!