Mysterious Dance

Tsam, Dance of mystery

Tsam, Dance of mystery.

Mogi*, my Mongolian friend, runs the Top Tours hostel in Ulaanbaatar. She has hosted me there multiple times on my journeys down from Russia. I roll in regularly due to the intricacies of visa requirements here in old Rus. She knows I am a cultural enthusiast, generally with camera in tow, so she put a bug in me ear about the “Tsam” dance.

Mongolia is an explorers paradise. She feels a lot like Montana to me, minus the fences, and the welcome is high, wide and handsome. Opportunities for discovery are as unlimited as the steppe itself. It is discovery that soothes my restless heart.

So when Mogi’s words flowed into my oral receivers and made contact in my frontal lobe, my comprehension was ECSTATIC! I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Tsam, or Cham dances are a rarity, attendance can be quite a trick. One has to be in tune with sacral calendar of a monastery that observes the Tsam, not all do. Unknowingly, I had made my way to Ulaanbaatar for three days, and a Tsam dance dish was served up spicy on my discovery plate! No chance I was gonna miss this.

Black Hat dance, performed by the Yellow Hat sect.

Black Hat dance, performed by the Yellow Hat sect.

Since my return to the confluence of the Selenga and Uda, the capital of the Siberian steppe, Ulan-Ude, I have actively searched the world wide web so to inform you of the deep meaning and religious significance of the Tsam dance. Alas, the web has remained virtually silent on this point. The Tsam dance is mostly mystery to the uninitiated. Here is what I know: the first Tsam was performed around 770 A.D. The dance originated in India, and quickly spread to Tibet. From Tibet, it spread up into Mongolia and then into Siberia. The dance is staged to combat the enemies of Buddhism. Many of the characters who appear in dreadful form, present themselves such, so as to strike fear into the hearts of evil demons: a kind of fight fire with fire approach. While they look dreadful, their hearts are full of love and peace according to the practicants of the ritual.

The rise of Soviet power in Siberia and Mongolia not only put the kibosh on Tsam dances, but ended the lives of more than 18,000 lamas in Mongolia alone. In Buryatia, between 1929 and 1937 45,000 Buryats were disposed of, roughly 10,000 of those being Buddhist monks. Monasteries across the Mongol world lay shattered, their practices and rituals soaking into the soil along with their lifeblood.

Tsam is only now making an impression again, twenty-five years after the end of Soviet power. The mystery has arisen again, to remain . . . mystery.

And now, unveiled before your very own two peepers, behold the mystery that is Tsam!

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 Tsam in the words of it’s practicants:

“The performing of cham not only destroys all obstacles to Dharma and its people,
it also purifies and blesses the whole earth.
These dances leave powerful karmic imprints in the minds of the people
who observe them.”
Drupon (Master Teacher) Sonam Kunga

“We show the same form as the evil so the evil can feel fear. The protective deities take a wrathful form in order to scare evil.”
Khenpo (Scholar) Konchok Namdak

“With the help of Cham, people can know the role of gods and devils,
and understand the fruits of good and bad work.”
Lopon (Abbot) Konchok Namgyal

“Through cham we are trying to destroy evil with love and compassion.”
Lopon (Abbot) Thupstan Standin

If you would like to know more about the “Tsam” or “Cham” dance, I did find this explanation on the “History and Development of Dance” website. Just follow the link below:

Cham Dance: the Masked Ritual

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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

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.

Adversity is 375 Miles to Altargana

Bold presents a convenient map to lay out our journey upon.

I needed a map of Mongolia. Bold readily supplied for my needs. Here you can see the general path of our journey, I admit, it was not the straight line this illustration suggests.

*This is Part 2 of “10,000 Miles to Altargana; Festival of Nomadic Culture”

A Running Battle with Fatigue

Besought with travelers exhaustion, the whole bus conks out. Anybody remember the sunset? I didn’t think so. Perhaps we didn’t have one on account of gathering storm clouds. As fast as a Soviet bus can manoeuver dirt track in the Mongolian steppe, that is how fast we advanced. SUVs, mini vans, and Priuses lapped us. They would roll on by with a honk and a wave, often the Mongolian flag royally rippling, blue, scarlet and gold over their steppe vessel.

Things got dark, and as the road pounded up through the frame of the bus, up through the frame of your body, things got blurry. Things like reality. A hard jolt would send us all flying in a collective gasp of surprise and displeasure. Each time you sailed, your brain would run the following set of diagnostics.

Brain: “Who are you?” Me, groggily: “Mmmmm . . . Oh! Alex.” Brain: “Correct. Where are you?” Me: “Airborne in the back of a bus?!” Brain: “Insufficient. Where are you?” Me, getting hot: “I Am In AIRBORNE SYNCHRONIZATION With Twenty-Nine Buryats On A Bus BARRELING Across North-Eastern Mongolia For The Altargana FESTIVAL!” Brain: “Accepted. Are you prepared for landing?” Me, incredulously: “Wha??? I was just sleeping!” Brain: “Warning! In .000135 seconds a sorrowful spine compressing landing will be reality’s affirmation that you are on a bus barreling across the Mongolian steppe. Prepare.” BAM!!! “UNGH!!!” Ten out of ten chiropractors would not recommend this.

At midnight we found some gas station somewhere. I have photographic proof. We staggered for the exit to put our feet on solid ground. Jadedly, I watched the driver, mechanic, and Otgoo the mountaineer struggle with one of the bus’s wheels in the dark. Brain: “Keeping the wheels on.” Me: “Oh shut up, Brain!” A stroll and a stretch and it was already time to slide yourself back into your slot in the rolling sardine tin.                            It started to rain . . .

Driver, Mechanic, and Otgoo keeping the wheels on.

Driver, Mechanic, and Otgoo keeping the wheels on.

Fatigue plays games. You realize you were sleeping only when jounced awake. Consciousness to “out cold” transpires in milliseconds. In this state, your body lets go, which explains why I kept being impolitely awakened when my head swung wide and careened off the metal wall of the bus again. Nothing like a blow to the head to wake a fella. I would groan in pain, start to feel sorry for myself . . . and I’m asleep. Karaam! This time I’ll feel sorry for myself first, no time to groan in . . . asleep. Rain pattered down the windows.

Light begins burnishing the edge of Mongolia’s horizons around 4 am. An hour later the merciless punishment slowed and stopped as we encountered a rain swollen obstacle. Obstacle protocol played out as follows: The driver spied other vehicles collecting like wildebeests at a watering hole. He surmised, that this is a tricky piece of country. He pulled in for observation. Observation consisted of watching these skittish vehicle-wildebeests attempt to clear the (crocodile infested) obstruction and in accordance with their results, deciding which path is the most likely for a successful ford. The fact that we stopped, and growing tension in the air roused many from slumber. We ooh and ah in simulcast as each driver released their emergency brake and rolled into a bounce, dash and totter on the edge of catastrophe.

Our stalwart van takes on this interim creek.

Our stalwart van takes on this interim creek. 5 am.

Some of the fine young fellas, myself included, clambered out to reconnoiter. My viewfinder was open and ready to record this successful siege on a rain bloated gully bottom. “She’s hardly a creek, boys! Hardly a creek!” Our white mini-van lined up and took her setup run. She hit that rivulet right, blew mud sky high, and conquered the grass covered mud flats after fording. Next up, us. The driver shifted down, revved the GAZ’s (Soviet Bus) engine, and rumbled down the hill. He hit the creeklet straight on and lumbered through. He’s looked OK. Then he got a bit wobbly! That mud flat grabbed at the tires like minty quicksand toothpaste. GAZ ground to a halt.

One of the first of many, many attempts to free ourselves.

One of the first of many, many attempts to free ourselves.

Mud: A Hungry Thwarter

It was 5 am, raining hard, and the bus is mired in muck. Good morning!

Oral steppe policy begins with the rule that you help someone when they need it, and they help you. So we unrolled the towing cable and hooked it up to our stalwart van. Stalwart gave her a go. But it’s a no go. After two hours, with all my gear accept my camera pack and water bottle, that van forged ahead with the promise to send back help. Ever after, people would say to me: “It’s raining, don’t you have any pants?” “Yes, of course, they are in my pack, on the other van.” The mosquitoes came out well fed on that deal. Other vehicles gurgled through and rolled on by. These are the moments when a person thinks, “If I’m stuck, everyone should be stuck.” “Get stuck, get stuck! GET STUCK!!! No? I wish you safe voyage.”

Driver and mechanic were busy trying to jack the tires up, while we scoured the rain drenched hillside digging out rocks by fingernail. Returning, we sacrificed those rocks to the gluttonous maw of muck sucking our tires down into perdition. Ya know what? That mud ate rocks like it was a coney island hot dog eating contest.

The driver jacks up the tire, while we find rocks to throw into the abyss under that tire.

The driver jacks up the tire, while we find rocks to throw into the abyss under that tire.

We commissioned Dorj to intercept the Russian jeep we saw on another track. Dorj ran two miles, Dorj brought back the jeep. We thought of every trick in the book, and that Russian jeep driver made two hours of attempts to jerk us out. No luck. All hands queued up on the steel cable, young, old, and slightly infirm for a tug o’war battle with the GAZ. GAZ Didn’t Give! At one point I considered Tserigma in my lens. She stood in mud spattered pink sandals, rain soaked hair plastering her face, lamenting our most recent failure to extract the bus. In exhausted misery she plaintively uttered into the air “I just want to go home!” Tears of frustration mix well with rain.

Solving our would-be rescuers engine woes.

Solving our would-be rescuers engine woes.

The rain pours down as we consider our options.

The rain pours down as we consider our options.

Giving it the old heave-ho!

Giving it the old heave-ho!

Tserigma laments our situation.

Tserigma laments the mud, the rain, and the immobility of a bus.

The day stretched, yawned, got about his business. He produced the sun, who dried us out and knocked us out. Our driver misplaced his consciousness in the grass in front of the bus, laying in the sun as if dead for three hours. People played cards, they socialized, they slept. I stalked steppe eagles scouring the landscape for lunch. Bold and I even pushed another car out of the gully, while we remained STUCK. After that, I dug myself a bed amongst the stored luggage, and exited this world for three lovely hours. I didn’t know we were stranded, I didn’t know I was in Mongolia, heck, I didn’t know I was alive. I was wherever our driver had wondered to.

Making the best of a sticky situation.

Making the best of a sticky situation.

A prickly sun chased me from reverie as thunderheads started building. I’m not joking when I say, we were all contemplating spending the night on the bus in a deluge.

The Mongols materialized in several boss looking SUVs. Sporting fedoras common to steppe environs, their confident saunters exclaimed: “This isn’t our first rodeo.” That lit our hope light. We believed they could pull us out of the sludge, and toward broader horizons. Out came the tow cable to be bridled to a bright and creamy Toyota. When our driver signaled, the driver of the Toyota quirted his horses, and they spit mud to the moon. It was beautiful. Soon the moon was covered in mud, but our bus? That bus just would not budge.

Confident Mongols give it a go. This has to work, right?

Confident Mongols give it a go. This has to work, right?

After forty-five minutes, the Mongols rounded up their SUV’s and sped off. Chastened, we took stock. Our promised help hadn’t come. Three different vehicles and their drivers had done their level best to clear us from our trap to no avail. Storm clouds continued to gather, but the distance to Altargana remained the same – Infinite. It was late afternoon, our prospects poor. And yet, we hadn’t lost hope. Even in the midst of trouble, you realize, once you survive this, it will be an epic life tale, one you will never forget. (Other epic tales: Part 1 and Part 2 of “Return from Snowy River” and “A Long Haul for Olkhon” part 1 and “Retracing Baikal’s Ice Crucible” part 2.)

Our driver gets down in the steppe mud yet again in hopes of freeing us.

Our driver gets down in the steppe mud yet again in hopes of freeing us.

The World Wildlife Fund ready to give her a go.

The World Wildlife Fund ready to give her a go.

And then the World Wildlife Fund motored into our lives. Calm, collected and humble, this man displayed for us magic we had yet to try. That magic is spelled w-i-n-c-h. Hope burned in our eyes! The meadow where we had been lounging in the sun transformed as everyone got up to push. The driver, who had been granted resurrection from his death like sleep, crawled under the bus to attach the winch cable. All was ready. We held our collective breath as the winch cable tightened, and found purchase. The bus was still winning, it pulled the SUV dangerously close to its failed orbit. But WWF was not to be foiled, he let the winch out again, and we gave her another try. The SUV stood its ground, and the bus teetered, choked, and started to MOVE! Inching forward, while we all pushed, that GAZ found its feet and drove up the hill at 5 pm, twelve hours after our bog down. Quickly we reloaded our bus (all extra weight had been jettisoned), and got back underway, after the WWF driver had received his proper kisses from the Matriarchs! (If you don’t know who the Matriarchs are, read part one of this story here.)

We celebrate as the GAZ is finally pulled free, twelve hours after bogging down.

We celebrate as the GAZ is finally pulled free, twelve hours after bogging down.

The Sweet Bliss of Movement

It was a half an hour before we found our promised help. One of the van crew, an elderly gentlemen had searched for half the day for a tractor to come pull us out. Several tractor drivers had agreed, only to back out. When he finally found one, they started back the way he had come and we met up just before six! We will never know the great lengths he went to, to procure a tractor. He piled in, and we left our would be rescuer to trundle back to his home base.

The scenery started to change. We skirted the great bed of the Onon river, best known river of Chingis Khan’s homeland. Up, up we broke out into high grasslands and saw two wild boar sauntering through tall grass as if all Mongolia was theirs. As we drew near our goal, the roads got really crazy. Supply trucks were stalled out on muddy hillsides and our bus was desperately leaning at forty-five degree angles while we picked our way toward the valley where Dadal lay.

Altargana Encampment

Darkness swallowed the verdant landscape just before we crested the final hill and tooled through the grand gate that signaled our arrival at Altargana. My breath caught as the dazzling lights of the entire encampment stretched out wide across the valley below. It was as if we had been transported back in time in a magic bus, to arrive at the great cantonment of the Grand Khan, Chingis. From here he united the steppe tribes, from here he rode forth with his army of mounted archers to unleash the Mongol blitzkrieg across Asia and Europe. For the next three days, we would live in the tents and gers of his encampment, and experience the culture and traditions of Chingis Khan’s northern vanguard and arguably his most feisty warriors, the Buryats.

Part one of this series, 10,000 Miles to Altargana can be read here.

Look for the final post of this series, Smiling Faces of Altargana where you can learn what Altargana is all about.