At the Surharban horse races, I trolled the infield speaking with racers and event staff to learn more about this fascinating steppe festival. I couldn’t help noticing a gaggle of pink girls hanging out in a van near the event HQ. They were so striking, I didn’t resist asking them for a photo shoot. Their bright smiles radiated their pleasure at being asked. They readily agreed, even performing one of their dances for me! Their traditional pink deels made the steppe gasp in awe as they moved rhythmically across her. Dancing flowers under the sun. Ailana, Surzhana, Alexandra and Uyan-Selmeg are flowers of the village “Upper Ivolga” and dancers in a group called “Hatar”. There are two traditional dance groups known as Hatar, a younger one and an older one. The girls are excited to join the older group who gets to travel to France to perform. Then they will be dancing flowers in Paris!
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.
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.
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.
Surharban is here again, that Siberian nomadic summer classic where Buryats gather to wrestle, race horses, and demonstrate their archery prowess. Buryats dancing, Buryats singing, Buryats carrying on, slurping the juices from inside hot pozi, downing cup after cup of milk tea as they laugh with their friends. It is a good day to be Buryat, to remember the nomadic days on Siberian steppe, and to see your family relations from all the outlying villages. Archers loose, wrestlers grunt, and off dash the mounted horses under a smiling Asian sun.
We are not up in the mix of all that hullabaloo this year, we miss it indeed. But you can admire some photos from Surharbans of yore, and you can check out a recent Surharban experience here. Please pray for our Buryats!
This story is entitled: A Samovar for Colonel Sampilov
In the village of Uldurga1 arose a big fuss. From mouth to mouth travelled news, which caused its hearers to gasp out loud with excitement. Here is what happened:
The son of Yampil, the clan’s headman, home town hero, graduate of the Emperor’s Military Academy of Saint Petersburg, Colonel in the Czar’s Army, first military doctor of Buryatia, participant in the war of 19052, Bazar-Sada Yampilov was coming to visit his home stomping grounds3. And he wasn’t coming alone! His wife, who some said was Russian, others German, but at any rate not Buryat, was coming with him!
The elders and respected citizens of Uldurga gathered to council together.
“How shall we welcome our countryman, our dear guest?” Asked one esteemed elder. “With tea4 and refreshments as we usually do.” the people answered.
“Of course, of course, but what type of tea?” wondered the elder. “Our dear Bazar-Sada has lived for a long time among Russians, he must have forgotten our Buryat dishes and drinks. And furthermore, his wife is Russian . . .
“That’s true! Why didn’t we think of that?” agreed the people of Uldurga, duly impressed by the shrewd mindedness of their own elder.
“It looks as if, continued the elder, scratching his wise brow, we need to prepare a Russian feast.”
“Most certainly.” Nodded the village people.
“And the tea must be served from a samovar.5”
“Absolutely, we can’t pour tea from our simple pitchers!”
“Where can we obtain a samovar?” exclaimed the elder all a worry.
Everyone looked at one another. The old man collected in his minds-eye every last utensil the people of Uldurga owned, it’s true, in those days everyone knew exactly what everyone else owned. In the homes were cast iron and copper pots, silver pitchers, drinking bowls, gold plated and zinc coated serving dishes, but a samovar? There is not one trace! Nobody owns a samovar.
“What shall we do?”
“Send riders to the neighboring regions.” after some pause for thought declared the wise elder.
“Consider it done!”
Immediately they gathered all the daring young fellows and issued this brief command:
“Though it cost you your blood, deliver us a samovar!”
The young riders tore away in every direction, hell bent for leather. The next day one rider returned, hugging before him on his saddle like his very own new bride, a big bellied, three-bucket capacity, Tula6 made samovar. The young man broke into such a grin that it was hard to tell if it was his face sparkling so bright, or the treasured serving vessel polished to a high shine.
“You’ve done it!” Exclaimed the rejoicing village-folk giving the rider a hero’s welcome.
Soon there after the guest unexpectedly arrived in a horse drawn carriage. There he was, Bazar-Sada Yampilov in a colonel’s full dress uniform, with golden epaulettes, a chest full of medals and a long saber strapped to his left side. With him was his wife, a large of nose and haughty German in a full length European dress with a silk parasol in hand.
The throng of glad hearted villagers lauded their highly esteemed native son and his wife, brought them to the best house in the village, sat them in the place of honor at the table covered with Russian fare, poured the brewed tea concentrate into tea cups that even sat on their little saucers, which by the way, were also difficult to come by, added boiled water from the samovar and delivered their guests their tea, not having forgotten the corresponding necessities to a proper Russian tea, those being sugar, jam and silver tea-spoons. They sat for some time, indulging in tea, chatting teatime chats, when suddenly Bazar-Sada said over the chatter:
“It’s amazing how quickly you have accepted Russian customs. You even serve tea from a samovar. I have been dreaming and dreaming of drinking our own Buryat tea.”
At this point his German wife, who up until now had been sitting blankly among the enlivened Buryat conversants, perked up, when she recognized some familiar words, and having caught the gist of the discussion, with a thick German accent loudly declared in Russian: “Yes, yes Bazar-Sada has been longing for Buryat tea. He has been constantly repeating to me, ‘”When I go to my homeland I will drink Buryat tea!”’
Immediately all the eyes of Uldurga focused on their elder. The elder simply grunted, squinting at the big-bellied samovar.
* As told by Tsevegzhavin Erdenechimeg a fellow tribesman of Yampilov. From the book, “Steppe Stories and Tall Tales” pgs. 247-248. Story takes place after 1905 and before 1917, I believe.
1. Uldurga is a village in Yeravninsky Aimag (District), in the Republic of Buryatia, Russia. (Buryatia is part of Siberia.)
2. The war of 1905 was the Russo-Japanese war.
3. The word used here is “Kochevie”, which basically means “where nomads roam.”
4. Tea in this case does not mean simply the beverage, but rather a feast.
5. Samovar is a large ornate pot especially devised to boil water for tea. The word literally means “Self-boil”.
6. Tula is a city located to the far west in Russia, famous for its samovars.
Walking toward the entrance of Nadaam stadium, the central stadium in Ulaanbaatar, I was unsure of what to expect. Stepping through, a sunlit, grassy field opened before my eyes. Milling about on the green grass were Buryat wrestlers dressed in “gutal”, Buryat/Mongol style calf high boots with turned up toes so as not to scuff the ground, hats, and not much else! Amongst them sauntered wrestling referees in burgundy, sky blue or gray raiment, and conical red fringed, blue hats. At the west end, archers dressed in every color under the sun, though predominantly blue, a favorite of the Buryats, launched volley after volley of practice arrows. The view before my eyes reminded me of the famous picture called “A Day in the Life of Mongolia”. Flags fluttered in the breeze under Mongolia’s famous blue skies. Buryats from Russia, China, and Mongolia cheered wildly for their favorite wrestlers, chatted each other up, and watched as Fffffffft! Fffffffft! Ffffffft! arrows whizzed from the line of archers to targets. In a color buzz, I went camera happy, snapping everyone I saw in this nomadic kaleidoscope.
I don’t speak Buryat! Yet. A working command of the language would have been handy, as it seems the schedule traveled by word of mouth only. Typical to native Buryats, (and native peoples in general), it was problematic for me as a foreign visitor, leaving me stranded and ticketless outside of several events amongst the Mongolian pickpockets systematically working the crowd. Sometimes I found Russian speaking Buryats, when I didn’t I had to investigate, and work out from advertisement banners hanging on theaters, stadiums and the Wrestlers palace the date and time that some event was in a particular venue. I missed a lot.
Upon opening one of the double doors to the central Drama Theater, a no holds barred scrum ensued. A couple hundred nomadic Buryats from north Mongolia charged the door like a crash of rhinos, pushing, shoving, squeezing through said door three at a time. Picture Alex, sandwiched in this writhing mass, with old ladies leveraging their weight on his frame in a mad bid for good seats. (Later, I discreetly picked up my left arm on the way out.) Having survived entry, I found a suitable perch, and watched the drama competition unfold. Buryats acted out comedies and dramas, centered around nomadic daily chores, giving daughters away in marriage, intrigue with neighbors, shepherding herds, and yes, drinking. The juxtaposition of technology and nomads led to a bizarre evening of laughter at Buryat comedy, interspersed with loud one sided cell phone dialogues of spectators chattering with relatives still on the steppe!
Soaking up the rays of a four o’clock August sun, Buryats gathered under the watchful eye of Chingis (Genghis) Khan, who sits enthroned overlooking Sukhbaatar Square keeping track of his children. Families strolled in their finery or gathered in crowds to empty their pockets for ice-cream vendors. Ice-cream must be like the nectar of gods for nomads, who have no place to keep it. This is the memory that will keep in my mind of Altargana, colorfully garbed Buryat families promenading, each one licking ice-cream on a stick.
Altargana means “Golden Rod” in Buryat. The festival was named in esteem of the hardy qualities of this flower, similar to the stalwart qualities of the Buryat people. Golden Rod’s extensive root system allows it to flourish on rocky mountain ridges, arid steppe lands, and sandy dunes, just as Buryats have done for centuries. In two years Buryats will again gather in the city of Chita (Siberia), like so many flowers in a mountain meadow, and we hope to be there, shining like stars in the universe, as we hold out the word of life.