Riding a Short Horse

Practicing a tradition over 1,000 years old.

Practicing a tradition over 1,000 years old.

A middling breeze wafted churned dirt, dusting riders in dusty anonymity. Obscured, galloping hooves pounded past. The riders turned crosswind and stretched out over the plain conjuring a thousand year old picture in my eyes; the darkened silhouettes of nomads bolting over the steppe. Horse racing.

This horse is rarin' to run.

This horse is rarin’ to run.

A crowd of locals, and visitors from outlying regions mix in the stands and ramble trackside sizing up the horseflesh before they stake their bets. The flag drops; equine hustlers careen up the straightaway. Moms, Dads, kiddies, politicians, lamas, workers, drinkers, and gamblers find a perch on wooden seats or at the trackside rail. With each lap, the flock chirps encouragement and advice to their chosen champion. I meanwhile, scout the infield chatting up waiting racers and event staff alike to learn more about the traditions of Surharban.

Surharban is a sports festival annually celebrated by the Buryat people. It is the Buryat version of Naadam in Mongolia. Wrestling, Archery and Horse racing are the main events, complemented by concerts, dancing and singing and various other cultural traditions. Check out “Surharban: Hitting the Mark” to experience a day of festival under a mean Siberian sun!

Buryats are horse people, and are proud of their rides. There is a horse breed named for the Buryat people. They are related to the horses the Mongols conquered the world with and can be described thusly: longhaired short horses. The Buryat breed stands a hand or two higher than their Mongolian cousins, but they are still short. When racing these small statured runners, Mongolian peoples have deemed it proper to rock a pigtail between the horses’ ears. That is steppe style racing.

Proper racing stripes.

Proper racing stripes.

There are approximately twelve races of differing lengths at Surharban. The horseman who left a lasting impression on everyone was horsewoman Otkhon Zhargal, whom I have dubbed the “Determined Firecracker”. A young lady of 12 or 13, she rode in two races and masterfully controlled both, bringing home two gold medals. Otkhon Zhargal was a cool customer, managing each race with steely aplomb. Psychologically, she ruled the race. Physically she put down any crowding/jockeying shenanigans with a quick elbow and an iron will. Take that boys! You’d better practice all year if you wanna win the crown from Firecracker.

Determined Firecracker (the girl, not the horse) winning her second gold. She is the definition of determination.

Determined Firecracker (the girl, not the horse) winning her second gold. She is the definition of determination.

Otkhon-Zhargal recieves a lama's blessing on her win.

Otkhon-Zhargal recieves a lama’s blessing on her win.

Proud papa stands by as "Firecracker" speaks to a local news crew.

Proud papa stands by as “Firecracker” speaks to a local news crew.

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What is White Month?

Rinpoche Bagsa Temple lit up in white fire to celebrate White Month.

Rinpoche Bagsa Temple lit up in white fire to celebrate White Month.

The White Month holiday (Sagaalgan), emerged from nomadic culture on the steppes of Mongolia. Originally it was celebrated in autumn, when the production of so many milk-based foods which saw the nomads through the rigors of winter, drew to a close. White Month therefore features “White foods”, which are of course milk based. These foods include: Airag – fermented mares milk, YUM! Salamat – sour cream mixed with flour and fried. It is to die for! Sour cream, cottage cheese, cheese similar to Brinza, and Tarasoon, “milk vodka” all fall into the white food group. You must not forget Buuz, the crowning culinary treat in Buryat culture.

Glorious homemade buuz crafted by us in celebration of White Month.

Glorious homemade buuz waiting for the steam pot. Lovingly crafted by us in celebration of White Month.

With the influence of Buddhism waxing in the 1700’s among the peoples of the steppe, the holiday was moved to the first month of the Lunar Year. Sagaalgan starts on a different date every year depending on when the first new moon of the year falls, which makes it a “nomadic holiday” on the calendar. It can start anytime beginning in mid-January to roughly mid-March.

Before the White Stupa. A woman pays her respects on the first day of White Month (Sagaalgan), or the Lunar New Year at the Hamgyn Hureh Temple in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia.

Before the White Stupa. A woman pays her respects on the first day of White Month (Sagaalgan), or the Lunar New Year at the Hamgyn Hureh Temple in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia.

Because of the change, Sagaalgan is now the celebration of the lunar New Year. The ideas of a clean start, and cleansing oneself from the sins of the last year fit in nicely with the idea of White Month. White itself is a “color” that represents peace and good fortune in the family according to Buryat belief. So turning from sins to a clean start should bring peace and a better future to the family.

Casting dough full of last year's sin into the prepared bonfire.

Casting dough full of last year’s sin into the prepared bonfire.

The people's collected sins awaiting the first sparks of the "Cleansing Fire". (Дугжууба (Dugzhooba) The Cleansing Fire. What does this have to do with cold? It was -30 C out. Even in my fur and feathers (down) After being out for hours, I was COLD. This is a ritualistic fire into which Buddhists throw dough which they have rolled ov

The people’s collected sins awaiting the first sparks of the “Cleansing Fire”. (Dugzhooba)

At roughly the same time at all the Buddhist temples across the city, bonfires flare up to pierce the frigid night sky.

At roughly the same time at all the Buddhist temples across the city, bonfires flare up to pierce the frigid night sky.

Lamas return to the temple after completing the ritual burning of sins.

Lit by flare of fireworks, lamas return to the temple after completing the ritual burning of sins.

On the evening before Lunar New Year begins, people gather at their local temple for the ritual of Dugzhooba, (Дугжууба) or, the “Cleansing Fire”. This event will make quite an impression on any person who manages to wait out the cold to see all the sins of last year burn in a bonfire. Through out the day leading up to the lighting of the fire, people visit the temple to pray and throw bags of dough into the bonfire. The dough is mixed at home and rolled over the body to collect the sins of the last year. This year while watching people approach the fire, I noticed several take dough out of their purse or pocket, and dab off any uncleanliness or sin they may have collected on their feet on the way to the temple. They then cast it amongst the straw and wood to be burned later.

Worshipers pray as they circle the remains of the fire.

Worshipers pray as they circle the remains of the fire.

Visiting family is a vital part of White Month. Buryats value their family connections. Relatives that people in the west would consider distant, are close relatives to the Buryats. Much of White Month, which truly is a month long celebration, is spent visiting relatives. Gifts are exchanged and the prerequisite white foods are set upon tables across the Buryat homeland. Laughter abounds at the table as families catch-up, feast and admire any new babies who have made their appearance. Cup after cup of tea disappears in between toasts to the New Year and health of the family. And just when you think everyone has had their fill, another round of eating and toasting begins! (And then, yet another!)

A young lama in training smiles after an all night vigil of prayer at the Ivolginsk temple the night before the beginning of Sagaalgan.

A young lama in training smiles after an all night vigil of prayer at the Ivolginsk temple the night before the beginning of Sagaalgan.

Look for part B of this post coming soon to a blog near you. Here is a teaser:

Sagaalgan Adventures

The pocket into which I had (safely?) slid my passport was EMPTY! After triple confirmation, I quickly scanned the faces of the Buddhist supplicants crushing in from all sides…

Burgers and Booz: Nomadic Paradise

McBuryat's the perfect melding of the classic American burger and the Buryat National treat, booz. It's a meat-eaters paradise!

McBuryat’s: the perfect melding of that classic of American cuisine and the Buryat National treat, booz. It’s a meat-eaters paradise!

I found it! In the 44th quarter of Ulan-Ude, the promise to every American born Buryat of burgers and booz all at one table. The thought is mouth-wateringly tantalizing. That is if you know what booz is. Take a look below and you will see what dances in Buryat dreams instead of sugar plums. And you can bet, with White Month now just days away, lips are already being licked in anticipation.

A plate full of steaming booz. A nomad’s paradise.

Booz done up Buryat style are simple. Ground beef, ground pork, garlic, onions, salt and pepper. Wrapped in dough and steamed, these steppe dumplings are made to fuel a nomads appetite. They are not for the sedentary! If you want fries with them, well, you’d better be heading out to herd some sheep in the -40’s. Only that will keep your belly in check.

Siberian Ice Slicers

The crew of "Crystal Swan" ice cutters, stars of History Channel's new hit "Ice Slicers". Wednesdays, 10 central, 9 mountain.

Earning their pay. Note the boats frozen into the harbor.

When I saw the standing columns of ice on the Angara, I was drawn to them like a magnet. Like some crystal Stonehenge, ice columns and ice blocks gleamed in the winter sun. I stopped on the river bank to take in the whole sight: Fishing trawlers and sailboats frozen into their winter rest, hundreds of blocks of blue-glow stacked ice, a silhouette team of ice cutters toiling against the frozen surface of the river.

An ice "stele", transient monument to an enduring Siberian winter.

The photographic possibilities seemed endless, and I set about capturing this strange benumbed world. Stretching out on a bed of bright snow for half a mile was what looked like an ice graveyard, frozen snow capped monuments a silent memorial to some cold-blooded race.

The "graveyard' effect is actually for safety. The cutters mark holes with ice blocks to warn anyone venturing onto the ice.

Ice sawyer Sergei wielding his blade.

A small shack, shelter for ice cutters, stands on the shore. Andrei, one of the crew appears and I introduce myself. Andrei gladly answers my questions, taking me over to the working crew.  Vapor lifts off the surface of several 10 by 10 foot windows into the deep.  The sound of shovels scrapping snow from ice accompanies the gas engine’s low growl as it powers the two foot chainsaw blade. The engine and blade are fastened to a rail which moves in roughly 8 inch increments along a steel frame anchored in the ice. Sergei the “blade runner” lifts the rail one notch over, saws a ten foot slit into the ice, lifts and slides the rail over 8 inches and saws again. When he reaches the frame’s edge, they lift and rotate the rail ninety degrees and our ice sawyer duplicates the process. The results are uniform 8 inch by 1.5 by 1.5 foot ice blocks. Sayan the hauler, then fishes out 120 kilo’s of ice with huge ice tongs. One block weighs 40 kilo’s or about 88 lbs. (They measure in metric here.) The process was a bit mesmerizing, and I watched for some time.

Harvesting the current batch.

Sayan hauls the frozen payload.

The boys of Crystal Swan Ice Harvesters had been cutting ice for over a month now, the boss, Slava Maksimov told me. Nothing stops these boys, not even last weeks – 40’s temperatures.  With the stove stoked, the whole pack packs into their shack for the night, (with plastic sheeting for windows) and in the morning load ice despite the weather.

Next stop, central square.

Slava has been harvesting ice for about thirteen years. In 1997 when he started his business, all ice was harvested with hand saws. Ten years ago Slava realized using a frame to cut from would be more efficient, faster and easier. Each December Crystal Swan harvests between 30,000 and 40,000 blocks of ice.

Dinner in the cutters shack. Sergei, Slava the boss, and Sayan.

Stacked and carved, the ice is transformed into luminous fairytale kingdoms on central squares of Siberian cities to celebrate the New Year. In December, elaborately carved, colorfully lit kremlins and stately buildings spring up around Irkutsk. Ice slides, sometimes two stories tall send young and old alike pell-mell into the pile of “recently slid” at the bottom. Crystal Swan provides ice for Irkutsk, Angarsk and Cheremhova’s New Year celebrations. Thanks to the crew at Crystal Swan, the city is bedecked in holiday cheer!

The hard work behind sweet childhood holiday memories.

Keep a sharp eye, you may find aquatic plants frozen into ice blocks.

Surharban: A Season for Festivals

It is Surharban time here in the land of the Buryat people. Surharban means “Shooting the target”. Surharban is a Buryat festival of sports and culture. Wrestling (Mongolia Style), Archery and Horse Racing are celebrated sports for most nomadic peoples in Asia. Prowess in one of these sports could gain a man great standing among his people.

Eastern Style Buryat Plumage.

Surharban is celebrated on a local level, where people local to a small area gather and compete. Winners then go to compete in a Regional Surharban. (Imagine County Fair vs. State Fair).  There are three regional Surharban’s in our area, one in the Irkutsk Province, one in Buryatia, and one in the Chita Province. I had hoped to attend our Surharban here on the Irkutsk side, but this year it is on the extreme west side of Irkutsk province. I have never been there, and know no one there, so, this year I intend to go to Surharban in Buryatia, conveniently located in Ulan-Ude. Hopefully next year the Irkutsk Surharban will be closer to us.

As times have changed, and political, religious and cultural forces have combined to bring great change to the nomadic way of life, Surharban has become a repository for Buryat culture. Surharban now includes competition in traditional and contemporary song, and a beauty pageant in traditional dress. You can get traditional foods, listen to story tellers, (that reminds me, I must translate a traditional Buryat tale or two for you. They are fascinating), and the traditional Yohor (Circle dance) is always danced.

I have not yet been to Surharban, the anticipation is killing me! It will be a great opportunity to meet people, make connections, and celebrate Buryat culture. I will take my camera, and hope to get some interesting stories out of the experience.