The Red Gated Golden City

I peered through inky blackness while our aeroplane jetted northward from Beijing across the invisible steppe. Feebly lit villages briefly flickered and disappeared sinking into a sable sea. The age-old stars lit our long, long way.

Out of the inky blackness of empty steppe rises a city of gold; Ulan-Ude.

Out of the inky blackness of empty steppe rises a city of gold; Ulan-Ude.

And then gold. Ulan-Ude, like some bejeweled fairy tale city, some golden Oz, pierced the darkness beckoning our wandering craft to come and rest in her berth. The temperature in Ulan-Ude during our 7 am touchdown was a crackling -37° C. Siberia didn’t disappoint.

A cold, dark arrival.

A cold, dark arrival.

Our airport stay was prolonged by the consternation of officials trying to get their heads around a three-year visa. Finally the immigration officer in charge confidently informed us the Russian Consulate in Seattle had made a mistake, for there is no such thing as a three-year visa. With that they let us go and we collected our baggage, hailed a taxi and set off into the city.

Wood smoke rises to greet the sun who finally peeps over the hills at 10:00 am.

Wood smoke rises to greet the sun who finally peeps over the hills at 10:00 am.

Tigers, and deer stationed on the bridges leading into the city welcomed us. Lovely Mother Buryatia greeted us with a bowl of mares milk and blue silk at the eastern entrance to the city as is steppe custom. Stalwart Buryat warriors astride their chargers silently saluted us as we drove into the mist covered chill resting on Ulan-Ude. (Ulan-Ude means: Red Gate)

Ulan-Ude on a cold sun day.

Ulan-Ude on a cold sun day.

Nina, Yulia’s delightful mother set down before us warm bowls of salamat; fried sour cream, a Buryat delight. We savored the steamy, creamy goodness, and laughed at excited antics of our nieces and nephew. Just the things one needs after a long flight through the darkness.

Late afternoon on the Trans Siberian Railway.

Late afternoon on the Trans Siberian Railway.

The sun sets orange on another frigid day.

The sun sets orange and frigid.

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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.