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.

Advertisements

Steppes of Summer: Yordinski Games

The Yordinski games stretch out on the Tajeranski steppe, Olkhon region of the Irkutsk territory. In the distance you can see all the way across lake Baikal.

The Yordinski games stretch out on the Tajeranski steppe, Olkhon region of the Irkutsk territory. In the distance you can see all the way across lake Baikal. The hill in front of the man in black is Ekhe Yordo, or Big Hill.

Opening ceremonies at Yordinski Games 2013.

Opening ceremonies at Yordinski Games 2013.

Summertide embraces the Tajeranski steppe, and the land releases a tangible sigh, relishing the ticklish rush of life. Tender blades of grass wriggle toward the sky, petals pop, visual songs all lavender-violet and canary. In Buryat “Tajeran” means something like “summer pastures” or maybe “summer home”; a place where Western Buryats brought their families and herds for the summer. According to legend a multi-ethnic nomadic gathering “Yordoin Naadan” took place under the kindly watch of “Ekhe Yordo” a symmetrical hillock seemingly misplaced on the floodplain of the river Anga. Buryats, Mongols, Sakha, and Evenks would come to browse, contest and carouse. Summertime in Siberia, it is all the relish, drama and swagger of a block party on a hot July eve. Obligatory horse dashes, grappling matches and archery heats awaited their champions’ claim. Shamans beat their drums and sprinkled offerings, children disappeared on all day adventures, mothers chatted in the kitchen fire smoke, and fathers compared horseflesh as they drew on pipes. Nomadic rubbernecking abounded as indigenous cowboys ever virile and all bowlegged, searched the sparkling dark eyes and generous cheekbones of the female persuasion for an alluring steppe mate. The green and the golden alike took up their neighbors hands and rhythmically circled the fire, frolicking like sparks who whirl up into the sky in hopes of attaining star hood.

Grapplers butt heads in their bids to become Yordinski champion.

Grapplers butt heads in their bids to become Yordinski champion.

Yep, they've heard of Jack in Siberia. In a nod to their herding past, contestants shear sheep. Glad I'm no sheep.

Yep, they’ve heard of Jack in Siberia. In a nod to their herding past, contestants shear sheep. Glad I’m no sheep.

Members of the Bulagat tribe take in the opening presentation.

Members of the Bulagat (center) and Khori (right) tribes take in the opening presentation.

Bowman of the Ekhirit tribe.

Bowman of the Ekhirit tribe.

Nomadic cowgirls

Nomads are the original cowboys. They were roping, shooting and riding long before Columbus started across the sea.

Then the red star waxed over Russia’s vast tracts, and the Red Czar dethroned the White Czar. On horsebacked hooves a tidal wave of repression, expatriation and collectivization engulfed Russia and expunged countless sparks. The rhythm of the Steppe and Taiga nomads halted. The song became discordant.

Tying on a prayer flag after opening prayer for the Yordinski Games.

Tying on a prayer flag after opening prayer for the Yordinski Games.

A generation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union the song of renewal has sprung from the lungs of Siberia’s indigenous. The people in their golden years are remembering, and teaching those in their green. And they gather under the summer star to laugh, grapple, shoot, eat, race, dance and sing at the foot of Yordinski hill.

Yohor around the Ekhe Yordo. The culmination of the games come when the hill is completely surrounded with people dancing the Yohor.

The culmination of the games come when the hill is completely surrounded with people dancing the Yohor.

A smiling Yohor round Ekhe Yordo.

A smiling Yohor round Ekhe Yordo.

In the midst of proffered prayers and colored pageantry a summer storm rolled in and towered over the festival. After the rain, around our campfire my friends from Irkutsk with whom I had made the journey to the Yordinski games grasped hands, gathered me in their circle to dance a yohor; a traditional round dance. I felt privileged to dance this yohor in the company of friends. Not as a performance, but for fun, to dance, to celebrate summer, friendship, life, restoration. As we spun around our fire, sparks shimmied up into the steppe sky.

Yohor at Yordinski Games 2013

These Ekhirit friends ring the Yohor ’round the rosie, who happens to be me!

Under the Umbrella Glow. I feel like even now she is protecting my head from the rain.

Under the Umbrella Glow. I feel like even now she is protecting my head from the rain.

A Trek Across Baikal

The Angara is the only river that flows from Lake Baikal. Over three hundred flow in! Due to her currents, no matter how cold it be, the Angara does not freeze over for some way down river.

The Angara is the only river that flows from Lake Baikal. Over three hundred flow in! Due to her currents, no matter how cold it be, the Angara does not freeze over for some way down river.

Next week I will be attending a mens conference on Lake Baikal. After several days of manly camaraderie, we are going to cross from the East side of Baikal to the island of Olkhon on the West (Irkutsk) side. I am really looking forward to this, although it may be extremely windy and yes, . . . cold. It will take most of a day to cross. (And another to cross back!) I am hoping for pristine skies, multicolored sunrises and sunsets, and a billion stars in black velvet at night. I’ll share the adventure when I return. Prayers for the safety of all participants are gladly accepted and kindly requested.

DSC_2123

This will be our view as we make toward the Island of Olkhon. I have crossed Baikal on skis twice. The mountains seem to keep moving further into the distance even as you draw nearer.

All Night Fish Fight

The Geologist, and the Shaman fishing boats in dock in Lystvianka.

Sunset over Baikal, forty-five minutes before we set off on a night of fishing.

Baikal had gotten rough; that was confirmed as a third fisherman poked his head through the railing to evacuate his innards into the sea. I had put my pole down, and was trying to get a good shot of the bow crashing through oncoming waves. Thinking of Lieutenant Dan unleashing his anger at God from the mast of a Bubba Gump Shrimp boat, I grinned. We were riding the “Northwest” on the back of bucking Baikal in the whipping wind, the stellar galaxies looking back on us from all directions of up. With the universe in full array and Baikal giving us a buffet, I couldn’t help but wonder at vastness of the Creator’s majesty. I enjoyed the ride, feeling a certain sense of freedom as the vessel heaved, things being entirely out of my control. It helped that several miles to our north the confident lighthouse glow on the hotel of that same name reminded us of where the Lystvianka port rests.  I kept my pole at the ready, to start fishing again the moment the boat slowed to an idle because I was behind!

Plowing waves.

Mark my fellow adventurer who invited me on this trip, giving technical advice.

We dropped our lines around 9 pm. After an hour and a half of no fish, I reeled up the first one! I felt charmed as the only foreigner on board among thirteen fishermen. As I said, I reeled up the first one. But I am used to standing in rivers. I had not yet mastered the reel and jerk, and I lost the blasted fish! And it was not the last one I set free!

A monster from the deep! Flee for your lives earthlings!

Corral that wriggler Mark!

But Baikal’s waves had somewhat leveled the playing field! I was still on my feet. I could fish, unlike a few groaning fishermen below deck, he he! Some of those boys had been pulling out one omul after another. Grrrrr! We were catching omul from depths of 30 to 60 meters. Ah-ha! Fish on! I reeled carefully and as silver flashed in our lights shining in water, I mentally prepared myself; reeled my fish to the surface and jerked! Tangled line! Radio antenna! I had to clamber up onto the bridge’s roof to free it. Meanwhile I swear one of the guys pulled in four fish as I untangled. Soon buckets were filling with silver fish. My bucket? Well, it wasn’t empty!

At the fish market, omul are a nondescript silver and black. Freshly caught they a delicate cerulean, rose and white.

And so went the night. Stars speaking from the past, a cold breath blowing on us. Lines searched the deep long into the dark Siberian morning. I went below around 4:30 am for a quick and toasty doze. Buckets moving on the deck above me said the boys were still reeling in omul. I shook my head and scrambled topside, cause I wanted more fish dinners. The boys fished until we hooked the sun and pulled it over the horizon.

Fishing for the sun.

Thirty greenbacks = 1000 Rubles, for a sleepless night of fishing and morning glow on frosty Baikal. A Siberian’s paradise!

The sun rubs his eyes and yawns, stretching his rays as he prepares to arc over the Hamar Daban Mountains.

We've pulled our lines, and are heading back to port in Lystvianka.

About Omul:  Omul are native to lake Baikal. They can only be found in the pearl of Siberia (Baikal), and you have got, got, got to understand how tasty they are! I mean T-A-S-T-Y! Baked with boiled or fried potatoes and a big dollop of sour cream? That is considered the height of fine cuisine in these parts. Never had some hot smoked omul? Friend, you haven’t lived. You got to get you to Siberia, Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude that is. Then make for Baikal because smoked omul is the bomb among fish!

After a long night's fishing, morning's rest.

Zhargal: Buddhist Lama

Zhargal and Alex.

My friend Zhargal is a Buddhist Lama. I had the honor of meeting Zhargal at a conference on Buddhist peoples in Ulan-Ude.  The purpose of said conference was to help Christians to better understand Buddhist beliefs and worldview. Zhargal was our resident Buddhist expert.

Of the several forms of Buddhism, Lamaism, or Tibetan Buddhism is what is practiced here in Buryatia. Lamaism has other names, Vajrayana, Tantric Buddhism, and Mantrayana to name a few.  Tibetan Buddhism traveled from Tibet, through Mongolia and to

Stuppas over the Selenga river. Looking toward Mongolia.

Buryatia in the early 1700’s. It spread throughout the region of “Zabaikalye” or “beyond Baikal” to the extent that the eastern Buryat tribes consider themselves Buddhist. The western tribes, who live in “Prebaikalye” or “before Baikal”, remain strictly Shamanist. For reference, Irkutsk is on the western side of lake Baikal, in the area occupied by western Buryats, whereas Ulan-Ude is on the eastern side, where the eastern Buryats live. Lamaism is always a mix of local religions and Buddhism, so here what you find is Buddhism mixed with Shamanism.

Zhargal and I met together at “Silk Road” cafe. Over some hot cappuccino we discussed the foundational beliefs of faith in Jesus, and Buddhism. We agreed on two things.

One of many Buddhist temples in Ulan-Ude.

1. There is a lot we don’t agree on.

2. We really enjoyed each others company.

Having agreed on that, we ate dinner together, Sharbin and tea with milk. A good old-fashioned Buryat meal. If you are wondering, “what on God’s green earth is Sharbin?”, you take some ground meat, beef, mutton or viande de cheval (horse meat), mix in salt, pepper, and onions, slap it in some dough, fry it in a pan, and it comes out like a stuffed, fried “meat pancake” if you will. Lousy on the veins, but very tasty.

Zhargal and I have met twice now. Our conversations cover meat, scripture, soccer, the four noble truths,  ghosts, Jesus, the eightfold path, meat, and why people do bad things, not necessarily in that order. We grin when we meet each other, because we have become good friends.