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.

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Irkutsk: Paris of Siberia

Winter sunset, Irkutsk, Siberia

Pervomaiski region of Irkutsk. This scene continuously reverberates inside my head as a city on the very edge of the earth. Probably not what you expect from the Paris of Siberia, but striking all the same.

The Paris of Siberia, that is Irkutsk. I wrote on the wonders of Irkutsk several years back, it is worth a read. Here are some beautiful photos of the city who rests on the banks of the blue Angara river.

http://tigersontearoad.wordpress.com/cities-on-tea-road/irkutsk-paris-of-siberia/

Orthodox church in Irkutsk.

A lovely vision off the beaten path.

 

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.

Sunny Skies of Siberia

The Clouds on Tea Road

A blue khadak finds temporary rest under the eternal blue sky of Mongolia.

A blue khadak finds temporary rest under the eternal blue sky of Mongolia.

The Great Tea Way begins in a stone gate in the Great Wall of China, wends across the Gobi sands, intersects the great and remote steppe of Mongolia and Siberia, Russia’s massive Boreal forests in Asia and Europe, and by way of Moscow’s shining cupolas perseveres on toward the Baltic coast and the white nights of St. Petersburg. Tea Road is the places and the people who lived and live along that route. I have spent ten years living on Tea Road, in three cities that played a major role in the tea trade, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude (formerly Verkhneudinsk) and Ulaanbaatar (formerly Urga). Each city has it’s own flavor and group of characters that contribute to the history and culture of Tea Road. On the pages of this blog you will find many of their stories. So come to the Siberian Orient, it’s yours for the opening here.

Chopping Baikal ice for camp fire tea, always and essential in wintertide and sumertime alike.

Chopping Baikal ice for camp fire tea, always and essential in wintertide and sumertime alike.

Clouds and stars compete over the vast frozen basin of Lake Baikal in March. Yes, one of those tents is mine!

Clouds and stars compete over the vast frozen basin of Lake Baikal in March. We are sleeping on the ice.

Siberia and Mongolia’s azure skies are steeped in the myth of antiquity. Their legends and beliefs are wrapped in the vault of the sky. The first story I recall is the Buryat tale of the archer who finds a wife. Three celestial sisters decided to descend to the earth for a bath. They lit on the beautiful waters of lake Baikal as swans, and then shed their swan clothing to bathe. Seeing these lovely maidens, the archer was enchanted. He hid away the cloths of one of the sisters, and she became his wife. After bearing him many children, she tricks him into returning her swan attire and off she flies back into the heavens. Ghengis Khan himself worshipped Tengri, Eternal God of the blue sky. Blue is a holy color to the Nomads of Asia. When you go to visit, especially to people who are more traditional, you will recieve a blue khadak, a scarf of silk as a sign of honor.

Golden Buddha stands under a lovely sky in Zaisun, Ulaanbaatar.

Golden Buddha stands under a lovely sky in Zaisun, Ulaanbaatar.

There are more days of sunshine in this area than virtually any place in the world. This vast oriental blue sky is a majestic backdrop on which winnow scudding white billows, above green or fawn hills and the camps, caravans or cabins of the people, who make Tea Road place. Here are some images of clouds and the skies they sail upon over the place called Tea Road.

When I first came to Siberia, this seen from Universitetski, the region where I lived, seemed to me the edge of the earth.

When I first came to Siberia, this scene overlooking Pervomaiski from Universitetski, the region where I lived, seemed to me the edge of the earth.

Ice skaters revel in the chill, next to the historical icebreaker "Angara" on the Angara river, Irkutsk.

Ice skaters revel in the chill, next to the historical icebreaker “Angara” on the Angara river, Irkutsk.

A gloaming sky over the ancient capital Urga, now Ulaanbaatar.

A gloaming sky over the ancient capital Urga, now Ulaanbaatar.

The Angara River Embankment in Irkutsk, a place for people to stroll and chat.

The Angara River Embankment in Irkutsk, a place for people to stroll and chat.

Older than the Old West, it's the Ancient East, Terelj, Mongolia.

Older than the Old West, it’s the Ancient East, Terelj, Mongolia.

Orthodox churches bid farewell to the sun in Irktutsk. Many churches in Irkutsk were built by the fortunes of Tea Merchants.

Orthodox churches bid farewell to the sun in Irktutsk. Many churches in Irkutsk were built by the fortunes of Tea Merchants.