Happy Siberian 2015!

Soviet Square, Ulan-Ude, decked out for 2015.

Soviet Square, Ulan-Ude, decked out for 2015. The central “avenue” you see is the terminus of an ice slide 75 yards behind me.

Happy 2015! We are getting close to the New Year here in Ulan-Ude, it is just over two hours away. I went out in -15 F to capture some of the festive Siberian spirit. I have photographed in colder, but I admit my fingers turned to bricks, and I had resort to sticking those ice bricks in my pants, I mean IN MY PANTS. You dance a bit, but you can warm up frozen photographer’s appendages fast!

Our Siberians are bundled in all types of fur, from reindeer hide boots, to sable coats and fox, rabbit or hats of mink. Ice is king during the New Year, and right this moment kiddies and their Moms and Pops alike are sliding down ice slides with shrieks of glee. The first round of celebratory fireworks have met their match so to speak, but there are numerous rounds to come. A Very Happy New Year to you, from us on the steppe! Next up, Christmas! Russia celebrates Christmas day on the seventh of January.

Fireworks bust over Lenin's head to cheer the hearts of the people.

Fireworks bust over Lenin’s head to cheer the hearts of the people.

2015 is the year of the goat. And that is who you see lit and enthroned in ice with the Opera theater in the background.

2015 is the year of the goat. And that is who you see lit and enthroned in ice with the Opera theater in the background.

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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…

Melody of the Western Buryats

“We love to perform. We are always happy to spend time with people and share our culture, even if it means we will be cold, or miss a few meals. A lot of us are older, and it can be difficult, but we love what we do so we stay ready.” Natalya Nikolaevna of Ayanga.

Warm melody for a winters day.

The first time I chanced upon Ayanga was brilliant February day. While the sun was beaming, it was not warm, so our hardy singers were bundled against the cold. Oh! How their Buryat carol hung in the chill, thawing heart if not toes. Colorfully furbished warblers gathered about a crackling fire to sing, make Salamat (fried sour cream, yumm!) and wish every soul present a Happy Sagaalgan. Sagaalgan, which means “White Month”, is the main holiday of the Buryat people, and the first month of the lunar calendar, that is the New Year.

Another song while we wait for the sour cream to fry up in the kettle.

One of the singers invited me to attend a rehearsal, where I watched Ayanga’s (Ayanga means Melody in Buryat) preparations for the climax of Sagaalgan; the public concert at the end of White Month here in Irkutsk. I sat and chatted with them, laughing at their humorous view on life, and wondering at the fascinating tales they wove. Buryats laugh, and it is easy to laugh with them.

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Last week I was able to sit down with Natalya Nikolaevna to hear about the history and development of Ayanga. Buryat culture has made a real resurgence here in Irkutsk. In the last decade many Buryats have moved into our city from the countryside. At the onset of this wave of migration, Natalya Nikolaevna and four other Buryats in October of 1998 came together to form the nexus of what was to become Ayanga. Their idea: To save and teach Buryat language, dance, song and culture so that it doesn’t disappear. “Ten years ago, we didn’t know our culture very well. We weren’t prepared to present it in capably,” said Natalya. In the ensuing years they found other Buryats who had a living knowledge of their traditions, and with their help learned the proper techniques for voice inflection in song and authentic yohors (Buryat circle dances) instead of those developed for the stage.

It is traditional for Buryats to greet guests with silk of white or blue.

It is traditional for Buryats to greet guests with mare's milk in bowls and silk of white or blue. A deep bow of respect to you ladies!

Intermission Yohor instruction for the audience.

Most any festival in the Irkutsk Province, Buryat or Russian, will boast a performance by Ayanga. With twenty-four members, including a number of young people, they have garnered awards for representing their culture. Third place in 2006 and 2008 at Altargana, Biannual International Buryat Festival and second place at Altargana 2010. “Next year we will be shooting for first place!” smiles Natalya.

We’ll be keeping our eyes on you Ayanga.

hайниие xγсэхэ! Best wishes!

Picasso, I dedicate this picture to you and your Blue Period. On stage at the Sagaalgan 2011 concert in Irkutsk.

Ayanga 2011.

White Month

Passing the glass for a celebratory drink.

White Month (Sagaalgan), the most important holiday of the Buryat people is upon us! Together with the rest of the Asian world, the Buryats’ celebrate the lunar New Year, which kicks off White Month. White Month is celebrated by visiting family and friends, having guests over and eating white foods. White foods are milk based and include salamat, fried sour cream mixed with flour, cottage cheese, and aarsa which is a milk drink made from a fermented milk base cooked together with fresh milk. The results are a somewhat sour yet tasty beverage.

Why the emphasis on white you ask? Learn more about that in a later post. Until then, enjoy these photos from a celebration of Sagaalgan near Irkutsk put on by the Center for the Protection and Development of the Buryat Ethnos.

Gettin' their Buryat dance on!

Meditative moment.

Western Buryats serenade the gathered witnesses.

This young man is dipping his finger in his tea to drip some upon the ground as a sacrifice.

If you think Siberia is only cold, grey and icy, think again!

The color and movement is enchanting.

Buryat maidens strike a pose for the local news crews.

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.