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.)

Dashing Eastern Nomads: Khori Tribe

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Khori Buryats in the late 1800’s.

Ahhhh, this is what black and white is missing. Color! A Khori family at Altargana 2014.

Ahhhh, this is what black and white is missing. Color! A Khori family at Altargana 2014.

A true beauty of Buryatia in a contemporary stylized take on traditional dress.

A true beauty of Buryatia in a stylized take on traditional dress.

There is something mystical about those who have gone before us. I can’t help but wonder about them. Who were they apart from the labels of race, color, sex and place we humans apply to one another? What I wouldn’t give to be able sit by their fire, and be privy to their real lives. To find common ground, mutual respect, and appreciation for their unique stories. These are the fancies of an idealist I realize. If one were to appear in some other place and time, the grappling to cope with a whole different understanding and worldview would be mind bending. A swift arrow in the eye might be the quick end of a well meaning visit to people from a century back.

Pondering their images makes me itch. Itch to have an intimate experience, a shared moment of humanity with them in laughter or mourning. Our gateway to the past is her descendants, we the people of now. Meeting the people of now is fascinating and harrowing. Fascinating because they carry in them those who came before. Harrowing because meeting new people, while exciting, is not always pleasant or easy. Certainly it is worth it. For people in any age are the real treasure of this hurtling ball of mud.

You will find in this post images of Buryats from central Siberia, and the great Mongolian plateau which stretches from the Lake Baikal basin in Siberia to China in what is known as Inner Mongolia. Grab yourself a cup of tea or coffee, sit back down, and dally over their photos while you sip. Consider their demeanor, their dress. Just imagine what their eyes might have seen. Buryats have covered the width and breadth of this land on horseback, camel-back, and even yack-back! Inter tribal strife and drastically changing political atmospheres have cast them far from their home steppe. And so, among the four main tribes, Bulagat, Ekhirit, Khongodor and Khori, you find groups of Buryats referred to by locality, such as the Shenehen Buryats and the Selenginski Buryats. This came about as a result of groups of Buryats picking up and migrating, in the case of the Shenehen Buryats to save their own lives. Many, though not all of the Shenehen Buryats are Khori.

Shenehen – “New Land”

From a new world perspective, a person can’t help but shake his head in wonder at the situation that forced Buryats to escape from Siberia, . . . into the relative safety and freedom of China! Who escapes to China? (Besides of course North Koreans.) While Shenehen Buryats made a prosperous life for themselves in Inner Mongolia (China) they pined for their homeland. With the abrupt change the termination of the USSR summoned, a gateway home opened in the 90’s, and they have been returning to their former homelands since, bringing with them many traditions that were lost here in Siberia while Communism ruled the roost. In Ulan-Ude, a walk along virtually any major street will soon enough bring you to a “Shenehen” cafe featuring traditional Buryat fare. When I appeared in Ulan-Ude circa 1998, there was nothing of the sort. Since that time, Shenehen has become synonymous with tradition, quality, and authentic Buryat cuisine.

Bayasal in the process of earning bronze for his vocal prowess at Altargana 2014. Singing is a beloved practice of the Buryats and they admire great vocal artistry. Which is why on our cramped bus returning from the far reaches of Khentii Aimag to Ulaanbaatar, Bayasal gave us an encore presentation! (Find out more about Altargana by following the links at the end of this article.)

Bayasal in the process of earning bronze for his vocal prowess at Altargana 2014. Singing is a beloved practice of the Buryats and they admire great vocal artistry. Which is why on our cramped bus returning from the far reaches of Khentii Aimag to Ulaanbaatar, Bayasal gave us an encore presentation! (Find out more about Altargana by following the links at the end of this article.)

Bayasal with a relaxing grin after his performance. His family recently moved to Ulan-Ude from Hailar in China.

Bayasal with a relaxing grin after his performance. His family recently moved to Ulan-Ude from Hailar in China.

Virtually all of these Buryats pictured are Khori, some of them Shenehen, and some not. They are all unique and beautiful, representative of the characteristics Buryats model to the world around them, industriousness, boldness in the face of peril, artistry, steadfastness, and a particular humor bred from living in the harsh regimen and fascinating allure of steppe and taiga. Acquaint yourself with them, they are the treasure of Siberia. Imagine a ride across the steppe with these characters. Maybe you will meet them in your dreams. They are good people to ride out a storm with, but If you upset them, duck swift, cause it’s that, or an arrow in your eye!

A young Shenehen girls’ escape to China can be read here. Escape to China

The Story of the Khori

The sons and daughters of Horidoi-Mergen, (Mergen means roughly a sharp shooting archer) make up the Khori tribe and descend from Horidoi and his wife, a swan from the heavenly realms. Three sisters, swans, would at their pleasure, descend to earth to bathe in the clean waters of Lake Baikal. Removing their feathered outfits, they frolicked in the fresh water sea. Horidoi happened upon them bathing, and was taken with their beauty. Horidoi, sneaky fellow that he was, hid one of the maidens feathers. Her sisters dawned their wings and rose on the dawn, but she (Hun-Shubun which means person-swan), without her feathers, was bound to earth. Horidoi took Hun-Shubun for his bride, and they raised a family. She bore him eleven sons who became the heads of each clan of the Khori tribe. In their golden years, Hun-Shubun asked her husband if she might once again lay her eyes upon her feathered clothing to try it on. Horidoi reasoned that after so many years, and so many children she would want to stay with her family and so it would be safe to fulfil her request. I think you can guess what happened next. In an instant Hun-Shubun dawned her outfit and took off for the smoke hole in their yurt. Horidoi shouted and one of his daughters, whose hands were black with ash from cleaning a pot near the fire, grasped at her mothers webbed feet as she flew out of the yurt. That is why to this day Swans’ feet are black with the soot of the kitchen fire from Hun-Shubuns’ home of long ago.

The swan is the most important totem animal of the Khori tribe, and is regarded highly by all the Buryat tribes. The Khori, largest of the Buryat tribes reside on the eastern shores of Lake Baikal in Buryatia, and east from there into the Chitinski province right up to the border with China. Many Khori Buryats live in Northern Mongolia, and as noted above some occupy the very north of China, known to the Buryats here as Shenehen. While life here on the Siberian steppe can be harsh, the Khori have excelled here. Truly, they are the heart of central Siberia. Their vibrance and beauty provide an exotic spark and the warmth of humanity both when spring blossoms flower or icy winds howl.

You may peruse a brief general history of the Buryats here.

The red marks mainly the traditional lands of the Khori Buryats, whose tribe counts for the majority of Eastern Buryats. Map found here: http://www.face-music.ch/bi_bid/trad_costumes_en.html

The red marks mainly the traditional lands of the Khori Buryats, whose tribe counts for the majority of Eastern Buryats.  Shenehen is the lowest red area on the right, located within China’s borders. Map found here: http://www.face-music.ch/bi_bid/trad_costumes_en.html

A Khori family taking in the sites of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at Altargana 2010.

A Khori family taking in the sites of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at Altargana 2010.

A Khori family, resplendant.

A Khori family, resplendent at Altargana 2014 in Khentii province, Mongolia.

What can be cuter than a row of Khori Buryat girls? Answer: Not a ding dang thang!

What can be cuter than a row of Khori Buryat girls? Answer: Not a ding dang thang!

These Khori Buryats have seen many a winter on the Mongolian Plateau. They don't look worse for the wear!

These Khori Buryats have seen many a winter on the Mongolian Plateau. They don’t look worse for the wear!

My friend Natasha representin' the Khori Buryat tribe on the Mongolian steppe.

My friend Natasha representin’ the Khori Buryat tribe on the Mongolian steppe.

These peeps are dressed in the outfit of Shenehen Buryats. The site I pulled it from claims they are Evenks, and certainly, Evenks have mixed with the Buryat people. The boy mid left looks particularly Envenki, but, they seem tall for Evenks from that time period. Just sayin' . . .

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These peeps are dressed in the outfit of Shenehen Buryats. The site I pulled it from claims they are Evenks, and certainly, Evenks have mixed with the Buryat people. But this family seems tall for Evenks from the 1950’s. Just sayin’ . . .

Shenehen Buryats. In case you don’t know, their hats give them away, the dark ladies, center, are wearing “working hats” which the Shenehen Buryats incorporated into their celebratory finery. All other Buryats do not wear them. Lastly, a word for the younger generation in the back row: (Holy) tallness Batman!

Once again, betrayed by her headgear, we see a Shenehen Buryat miss practicing her trade.

Once again, betrayed by her headgear, we see a Shenehen Buryat Ms. practicing her trade.

Many of these images were taken at Altargana, a festival of Buryat culture. I have written about it often, here are a couple of links you may follow to learn about it. Altargana 2014 and Altargana 2010.

All color images are mine, taken between 2010 and 2014. Black and white images are courtesy of the M.N. Khangalov Museum of History in Ulan-Ude, except the image of Shenehen Buryats which I found here: http://forum-eurasica.ru/index.php?/topic/4299-tungusy-verbliudovody/

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/warmth/

 

 

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.

What is 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.

Ghengis Khan's grandchildren

Some of the uncountable offspring of Chingis Khan. The Buryats were riding the steppe before he came to power, and when he did, they rode with him.

The third and final part of 10,000 Miles to Altargana will be posted soon!

What is the legacy of the most prolific vanquisher in history? If you are a non-historian from the west, then all you were taught in school about Chingis (Genghis) Khan probably cemented him in your head as a rapacious bloodletter. In these parts, Siberia, Mongolia and the Central Asian Steppe, he is honored as a conqueror and saint, his halo brightening as the centuries stretch. In Mongolia he is admired like a founding father, his image is embossed on Mongolian currency, he sits in state over Ulaanbaatar’s main square. His image is everywhere. In Siberia, among native people he is viewed the same way. His image however is significantly absent from public places. This is because his image to the Soviets and Russia’s current governing powers alike is seen as dangerous and thought to encourage separatist ideas. All the same, his stoic image on carpets can be found gracing the walls of dwellings or watching over diners in restaurants and cafes. His name still rides the wind.
To dismiss Chingis Khan as meglomaniacal barbarian would be extremely short sighted. He must fall somewhere in the middle of bloodthirsty and saintly. Certainly he was a man of unmatched intelligence and sage judge of both character and potential. In a political atmosphere of constantly changing allegiances punctuated by internecine battle, Chingis kept from being slaughtered, or poisoned as his father before him. Over a quarter of the world’s population was under his dominion. He allowed religious freedom, put power in the hands of the capable instead of his relatives, he forbade the selling or kidnapping of women, a common steppe practice. He brought an incredible law system to a people who traditionally followed bowed to tradition and the whims of their clan leader. A man of stupendous talent, he is worth getting to know.

Click here for what the History Channel has to say about Chingis Khan.