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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Artist. Creator.

Handshake at the bus stop. A jaunt to a Soviet carriage. Modest. Scrapes with dings. Off-white paint. Passenger side door opens from the inside. No apologies. None needed. I duck out of the cutting spring wind. Anatoly commands the wheel. We scanter over dips and hollows. Small wood domiciles, still crouching after winter, populate our peripheries. We roll to a stop, and pop out, doors clicking behind us. Anatoly opens the gate, where the ubiquitous (to Russia) scruffy necessary wags his tail to greet us. One level, dark, self-constructed. Solid. Anatoly’s son chops wood in front of the outlying bathhouse turned “music studio”. We enter. He lays out tea. Sweet biscuits, milk whitened black tea. The interior is spare, one light bulb per room, rough wood in shades of natural brown. Simple.

We conversate, offering small pieces of the experiences that brought us to our point of intersection. Patiently we dig, sifting fumbled human words, for the chance to touch the face of meaning together. As we warm to our task, our lingua franca, wells up, filling in and smoothing over the cracks of our utterances. She leaps cultures, weaves viewpoints, she reveals that golden spark that hides under life’s ashes. We bend in, wondering. And now colors crackle, theory and influence, history, philosophy, passion, image-spirit-flow-connection. Art. Life blood of creation.

Anatoly birthing art.

Anatoly birthing art. “Let there be light!”

Expounding upon the finer points of perfection visual communication.

Expounding upon the finer points of perfecting visual communication.

Pregnant with possibility, Anatoly the creator struggles to birth new offspring from the long forgotten *Buryat School, buried in ashes of the scorched earth policy of Bolshevism in Siberia. But first he had to dig. He had to understand where to dig.

He studied four years of graphic arts at the Pedagogical Institute here in Ulan-Ude, three more in the Ulaanbaatar college of Art and Culture. From 94-96 he learned how to draw Buddhist tankas (Tibetan icons). Then wife, children, mouths, shelter, rat race for survival. He resurfaced in 2001 for breath, studying long distance at the Eastern Siberian State Academy of Culture and Art here in Ulan-Ude in tandem with manual labor for sustenance. In 2006 with a home built, and his art foundation sound, he filled his lungs, spread his pencil-feather wings and leapt.

Original vs Reproduction. Anatoly uses the reproduction to spot places in his drawings that need shoring up.

Original vs Reproduction. Anatoly uses the reproduction to spot places in his drawings that need shoring up.

His creations are cold fusion. Intricate scenes from the East, with Western technique applied for depth and emphasis. His human subjects are demure, slightly cheeky, his countrysides sprinkled with references bowing East and West, just as his people have done now for centuries, turning first toward Beijing, Ulaanbaatar, and Tibet, then toward Moscow. Buddhist temples, and Orthodox churches, Buryat and Russian children building snow men together. Anatoly wields tools of cosmic significance, calling things into being that have yet to be, at a table by the window of his wooden cottage.

What started as a “get to know you” conversation transfigured incrementally. Anatoly and I meet as strangers in a space that becomes sacred as our communication reveals one to the other. This communication transcends speech, flashing and flowing all imagery and color, the white hot могущество (able-power) of creativity coupled with community unveils shared marvel; apprehends the magnificence of a knowable beyond. This is recognizing the Creator in another creative. Real. Holy communion.

Nothing in Sunday school prepared me for this. Meeting the power that anchors stars in the sky in a person of another faith, this tangible presence of a consuming fire contained in the dust of another man. Why should I be surprised? Aren’t we all image-bearers? But I am surprised. When did I become so sure of where and when the Creator would put majesty on display? When did I think I could nail down Mystery? And when did Protestants give up the privilege of communicating in the divine tongue?

Art flows. It flows from a throne.

The artist.

The artist: Anatoly Tsidenov

(*The aforementioned Buryat School is a historical style.)

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

10,000 Miles to Altargana; Festival of Nomadic Culture

A picture is worth a thousand words, but is it worth ten thousand miles? I am talking about a particular image, and ten thousand very real miles of travel.

Behold the image:

10,000 miles for a smile. These Khori Buryat girls are on their way to parade into the stadium at the opening of Altargana 2014, in Dadal, Mongolia.

10,000 miles for a smile. These Khori Buryat girls are on their way to parade into the stadium at the opening of Altargana 2014, in Dadal, Mongolia.

This image was captured by covering miles in the following manner:

By Air:

United Airlines: Bozeman to Denver = 518 miles

Denver to Washington D.C. = 1507 miles

Washington D.C. to Beijing = 7048 miles

China Air: Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia = 731 miles

Overland:

Old Soviet Autobus called a Gaz: Ulaanbaatar to Dadal, Mongolia. = 365 miles

The careful student of math will conclude I travelled 10,169 miles. Of these, the last 365 were by far the hardest, and that is where we will pick up our story, in the teaming streets of Ulaanbaatar, a capital city, a boom town. Right now it is flush with three things, no four. Mining money, Toyota Priuses (seriously, I am seeing them lined up three in a row at traffic lights!), pregnant women, or recent mothers, and newly rising high rises.

Into the hushed pre-dawn of the city I stepped, backpack on my back, camera gear on my chest. I made my way to the 5 am rally point where I would travel with the Buryat Community of Ulaanbaatar to Altargana 2014. If you don’t know what Altargana is, read my post on it from 2010 by clicking here.

Buryat Community of Ulaanbaatar

What you should be thinking, although you may not know it is: “Alex, how do you know the Buryat community in Ulaanbaatar? You spend most of your time in Ulan-Ude.” Well I don’t, that is, I didn’t. Nope, I just called them up from Montana, and asked if I might go along. Let’s be clear here, I called some number I found on the internet connected with a Mongolian site about Altargana 2014. The man who answered spoke some English, and some Russian, and we kind of communicated. Kind of. With whom did I speak? I assumed it was some young man whose job it was to help people find their way to Altargana. And you know what they say about the word assume.

So, here is this red-bearded Montana kid appearing from among the silent high-rises to select a spot among the gathering Buryats. This was certainly a mysterious turn of events for them. The ice breaker came when little Saruul, a mischievous young man, with a gifted set of pipes, decided to take a recon run by me, since I already grinned at him, oh! and my red beard has mesmerizing powers. He rounded up his chubby partner in crime Shineft, with an equally nice vocalisation skills, to swing by me for a closer look. We all laughed and that sealed the deal. The rest of the Buryats continued about their business, now sure that I was OK.

Our five o’clock rally point continued to be our rally point through six, seven and eight. Eight thirty was our ticket out of the city and into the boundless Mongolian steppe. Two Soviet Buses rounded the corner to round us up, and the expedition was on.

Oh Mongolia! Your beauty is unsurpassed.

Oh Mongolia! Your beauty is unsurpassed.

Four elbows in the grease. This is episode # 1.

Four elbows in the grease. This is episode # 1.

Meeting The Matriarchs

As we tooled out of the city, the question “Sasha, do you drink Kumis?” was flung into the buses atmosphere. Kumis, fermented mares milk has a savory tang to it, and is a taste one acquires among nomads, one I had acquired years past. “Certainly.” Was my response, and soon a jug of the slightly alcoholic milk beverage found my place. I took a few swigs, glad that in some way my cultural immersion was paying off. In one short exchange I had become Sasha, which around here is short for Alexander, and payed respect to Buryat culture all in one swig. In a real sense, that made me one of the Buryats.

Our first break down took place took place about two hours in. The Mongol mechanic got about his business, got a face full of oil, deftly cut hoses and had us back up and running in twenty. That was hopeful, I felt good about that, we were in good hands. Our second breakdown occurred let’s see . . . two more hours in. Now we are pulling stuff out of the buses engine I’ve never seen before. Oh well, the picnic is in effect. People be bustin’ out plastic-ware full of scrumptious stuff, and they are handing it around, cause they prepared to feed everyone, like they always do in this part of the world. And I’m making inroads with the ladies, you got to do that. The ladies are where it is at, and by ladies I mean the Matriarchs. If they have a low opinion of you, you can become persona non grata. But if the Matriarchs can laugh a bit, and see your earnestness to learn, then they will take care of you. This is not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, this is about finding your niche in the community and making a proper contribution. Mine became this: Recording every triumph and setback along the way. That, and being an interesting conversation piece. See, these people had been to festivals before, they knew all about being Buryat. But meeting a ‘Merican who is interested in what being Buryat means, that is unusual. So, I took pictures, made a few jokes, enjoyed their hospitality, and that made them happy. Bango! I am part of the community! You know what a relief that is? I don’t speak the language here (some of them spoke Russian, as I do), now I got people who will make sure I get a plate at the local cafe, I got people who will give me half of what they got. Really! These people are great! I mean it, really great.

A Buryat patiently waits in his element.

A Buryat patiently waits in his element.

"The Matriarchs" gettin' their game on. These ladies have their fingers on the pulse of their community, good friends to have.

“The Matriarchs” gettin’ their game on. These ladies have their fingers on the pulse of their community, good friends to have.

The kids keeping their cards in this high stakes game of waiting as we deal with broke down episode # 2.

Meanwhile at the kids table they are keeping their cards close in this high stakes game of waiting as we deal with broke down episode # 2. L to R: Dorjderem, Bold, Otgoo, and Selenge.

Bold and Saruul let their inner artists flow in the roadside dirt.

Bold and Saruul let their inner artists flow in the roadside dirt. This is already broke down episode # 3.

We were on the road after a forty-five minute forced picnic. And I’ll bet we rolled for forty-five minutes before . . . I don’t even have to say it. Breakdown number three. Number three was a red-line. 50% of our fleet of Soviet buses down and out. The market for a new bus just opened up somewhere out in Khentii province. We made the call, and now are awaiting our replacement carriage. It’s origin point is Ulaanbaatar, a three or four hour mad-dash away from our present position.

Saruul keeps us all entertained through silly antics, and an age-old game of hopscotch.

Saruul keeps us all entertained through silly antics, and an age-old game of hopscotch.

Selenge rockin' that nerdy cool vibe out in the Mongolian steppe.  Selenge is named after the river "Selenge" or "Selenga" which flows north out of Mongolia into Buryatia right through Ulan-Ude into Lake Baikal.

Selenge rockin’ that nerdy cool vibe out in the Mongolian steppe. Selenge is named after the river “Selenge” or “Selenga” which flows north out of Mongolia into Buryatia right through Ulan-Ude into Lake Baikal.

Making Friends

This stop was highlighted by hopscotch. Yep, nomads play hopscotch, who knew? We also drew in the dirt.  My new friend Bold drew a seriously striking resemblance of the Montana kid with a roman nose and red beard. Me in dirt.

We made our way up the road a bit to a settlement with a cafe. I wanted buuz, that is steamed meat dumplings (find out what buuz are by clicking here) but the joint didn’t have any. That is when Selenge, a young lass practicing her English with me, took it upon herself to go to a different cafe and order me as many buuz as I wanted. See what I mean? These people are awesome! Meanwhile my new friend Otgoo the mountaineer is feeding me half his plate of beef and noodles. Otgoo, who has peaked out on Mt. Elbrus four times if memory serves me. Otgoo, Buryat mountaineer from Dadal, Mongolia. Dadal may be bigger than Two Dot, Montana, but not by much, not by much. We play cards, a game called “fool”, still the game of choice in former Communist regions. I managed to not be the fool one time, a small triumph that I will take!

Bayasal and Saruul having fun with rocks, one of our many forms of entertainment waiting for our replacement vehicle to come from Ulaanbaatar.

Bayasal and Saruul having fun with rocks, one of our many forms of entertainment waiting for our replacement vehicle to come from Ulaanbaatar.

Four-thirty, we’ve been sitting at least as long as rolling. The new mini-van is here, and we load our gear onto the top. My rucksack will be with one vehicle, while I’ll be on another. You do the math. Five O’clock and we are trundling across the steppe again. I’m still a long way away from making that first image you saw. And things are about to get complicated.

For part 2 click here: Adversity is 375 Miles to Altargana

Part 3 is here: Smiling Faces at Altargana

 

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.