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.
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.
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/