Sunny Skies of Siberia

The Clouds on Tea Road

A blue khadak finds temporary rest under the eternal blue sky of Mongolia.

A blue khadak finds temporary rest under the eternal blue sky of Mongolia.

The Great Tea Way begins in a stone gate in the Great Wall of China, wends across the Gobi sands, intersects the great and remote steppe of Mongolia and Siberia, Russia’s massive Boreal forests in Asia and Europe, and by way of Moscow’s shining cupolas perseveres on toward the Baltic coast and the white nights of St. Petersburg. Tea Road is the places and the people who lived and live along that route. I have spent ten years living on Tea Road, in three cities that played a major role in the tea trade, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude (formerly Verkhneudinsk) and Ulaanbaatar (formerly Urga). Each city has it’s own flavor and group of characters that contribute to the history and culture of Tea Road. On the pages of this blog you will find many of their stories. So come to the Siberian Orient, it’s yours for the opening here.

Chopping Baikal ice for camp fire tea, always and essential in wintertide and sumertime alike.

Chopping Baikal ice for camp fire tea, always and essential in wintertide and sumertime alike.

Clouds and stars compete over the vast frozen basin of Lake Baikal in March. Yes, one of those tents is mine!

Clouds and stars compete over the vast frozen basin of Lake Baikal in March. We are sleeping on the ice.

Siberia and Mongolia’s azure skies are steeped in the myth of antiquity. Their legends and beliefs are wrapped in the vault of the sky. The first story I recall is the Buryat tale of the archer who finds a wife. Three celestial sisters decided to descend to the earth for a bath. They lit on the beautiful waters of lake Baikal as swans, and then shed their swan clothing to bathe. Seeing these lovely maidens, the archer was enchanted. He hid away the cloths of one of the sisters, and she became his wife. After bearing him many children, she tricks him into returning her swan attire and off she flies back into the heavens. Ghengis Khan himself worshipped Tengri, Eternal God of the blue sky. Blue is a holy color to the Nomads of Asia. When you go to visit, especially to people who are more traditional, you will recieve a blue khadak, a scarf of silk as a sign of honor.

Golden Buddha stands under a lovely sky in Zaisun, Ulaanbaatar.

Golden Buddha stands under a lovely sky in Zaisun, Ulaanbaatar.

There are more days of sunshine in this area than virtually any place in the world. This vast oriental blue sky is a majestic backdrop on which winnow scudding white billows, above green or fawn hills and the camps, caravans or cabins of the people, who make Tea Road place. Here are some images of clouds and the skies they sail upon over the place called Tea Road.

When I first came to Siberia, this seen from Universitetski, the region where I lived, seemed to me the edge of the earth.

When I first came to Siberia, this scene overlooking Pervomaiski from Universitetski, the region where I lived, seemed to me the edge of the earth.

Ice skaters revel in the chill, next to the historical icebreaker "Angara" on the Angara river, Irkutsk.

Ice skaters revel in the chill, next to the historical icebreaker “Angara” on the Angara river, Irkutsk.

A gloaming sky over the ancient capital Urga, now Ulaanbaatar.

A gloaming sky over the ancient capital Urga, now Ulaanbaatar.

The Angara River Embankment in Irkutsk, a place for people to stroll and chat.

The Angara River Embankment in Irkutsk, a place for people to stroll and chat.

Older than the Old West, it's the Ancient East, Terelj, Mongolia.

Older than the Old West, it’s the Ancient East, Terelj, Mongolia.

Orthodox churches bid farewell to the sun in Irktutsk. Many churches in Irkutsk were built by the fortunes of Tea Merchants.

Orthodox churches bid farewell to the sun in Irktutsk. Many churches in Irkutsk were built by the fortunes of Tea Merchants.

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Retracing Baikal’s Ice Crucible

25 million years old according to Scientific estimates, she looks as pretty as a princess!

25 million years old according to Scientific estimates, she looks as pretty as a princess!

A short but good sleep, and I awaken predawn. Disengaging my pajamas (a down parka) with difficulty from my blue kazoo (sleeping bag), I leave my snoozing comrades with camera in (mitten bound) hands. Snapping the wonder of our solar star rising over the wind-driven plain of ice on Baikal is AWESOME.

Marius slept under the cold stars and next to a warm fire. I doubt he was warm though.

Marius slept under the cold stars and next to a warm fire. I doubt he was warm though.

Kesha was always on point, and saw to it we got fed well. Here he gathers ice for tea.

Kesha (Innokenti) was always on lead sledge, and saw to it we got fed well. Here he gathers ice for tea.

Baikal is a venerable sea. Known as the “North Sea” during the Han dynasty, battles were fought on her shores between the Han and the Huns, ancient inhabitants to this area around 119 BC! According to scientific estimates, Baikal is the oldest lake in the world, a mere 25 million years old. Snap! Snap! I snapped Old Glory until frozen. Coffee calls from the fire.

Just off Olkhon's Eastern shores fault action thrusts huge ice slabs up for admiration.

Just off Olkhon’s Eastern shores fault action thrusts huge ice slabs up for admiration.

Sasha and Vanya wave at you, and give some perspective to this ice jumble.

Sasha and Vanya wave at you, and give some perspective to this ice jumble.

The magnificence of this blue ice is . . . magnificent!

The magnificence of this blue ice is . . . magnificent!

We pack, luncheon, stow gear, disembark! Straining at the traces to move quickly across naked ice, with thirty miles still ahead, we are all go. We gain the hummock field that had us near despair the day previous. Clearing that labyrinth, on trudge we to nightfall. The wind whips as we drive heavy screws into ice to anchor our tent. Stars marshal in millions, peering down on us through cosmos jet black. Bone penetrating cold drives us into the tiny enclosure of our nylon domicile to toss and shiver and shiver and toss until dayspring. Oh Shackleton, my Shackleton, why did I read your tale? Near morning as we lay awake freezing, we cackle at the absurdity of sleeping on a solid sheet of sounding ice. What do I mean by “sounding” ice? Follow this link if you have never heard the strange sounds ice makes.

Ready for our second go at Baikal's ice box.

Ready for our second go at Baikal’s ice box.

How easy it is to pull a sledge on naked ice.

How easy it is to pull a sledge on naked ice.

The wind carved snow cover on the lake.

The wind carved snow cover on the lake.

Preparing for our last night on Baikal. It was North Pole like.

Preparing for our last night on Baikal. It was North Pole like.

Babylonian star catalogues list Orion as "The Heavenly Shepherd". The Shepherd tends to our shivery encampment.

Babylonian star catalogues list Orion as “The Heavenly Shepherd”. The Shepherd tends to our shivery encampment.

The only way to conquer this wicked cold is to get this expedition under way! I shed my frosty sleeping sack and stuff, strain, struggle into frozen boots. Our gear is hooded in hoarfrost. The promise of sleeping this eve in a warm yurt with a full belly drives us forward.

At lunch Marius, a friend from Romania relates to me his struggle of two nights past. The trek across Baikal had been rough, and he didn’t relish returning through the same ice bin of suffering again. Seeing the distant lights of habitation somewhere on the isle of Olkhon, he hatched a plan to escape our expedition, make his way to one of these homesteads, arrange transportation to Irkutsk, and catch the train back to Ulan-Ude! But he didn’t have enough money, and he needed a place to stay in Irkutsk. Since I have lived there, he thought I could furnish him with a host and a loan. He seriously considered making his escape! I burst into laughter with Marius at this idea, partially from commiseration, and partially because I couldn’t get my head around the lengths he was willing to go to avoid re-crossing Baikal. An enduring spasm of mirth cavorted in our bellies, now that we knew Marius, and the whole crew would survive our crossing.

The only way to conquer hummocks is by force!

The only way to conquer hummocks is by force!

Another team hits the hummocks.

Another team hits the hummocks.

The north wind blows, freezing our lunch break, and our expedition soldiers on. We become automatons, pulling the traces until we are spent, and then pulling three miles more. Our water freezes, and we are reduced to eating snow. Pain is ignored, vision tunnels, I will stop when I step on the eastern shore. But our team stops now, for a tea break! Gaaaah!

A stop for tea and . . .

A stop for tea and . . .

Ibuprofen. In the Fatherland they make it pink.

Ibuprofen. (In the Fatherland they make it pink.)

The end is in sight, but the team is flagging. I quarrel with Sasha over chatter and focus. I reason that the time to shoot the breeze waits in camp beyond the shore. So let’s shut up and get there! And we do, willing our sledge through the last field of hummocks to be met by cheers of the teams ashore. But we don’t stop; we drag our burden on into camp to deposit it where it need move no more. Only then do we slip the traces, and hug our rejoicing comrades. Now for a hot meal, a hot sweat*, (*Russian Banya), and a bed of oblivion.

A wood burning stove and a bunk bed. Spoiled rotten.

A wood burning stove and a bunk bed. Spoiled rotten.

Buryat Tales and Legends

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:

A festive Buryat hubbub at Surharban 2010.

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

Traditional Russian Samovar.

This pitcher is a brass dombo from Mongolia. This style of pitcher was also used in Buryatia.

“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.

Not as wide a grin, but a good one all the same!

“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.

Notes:

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.

Ice Garden

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A garden of ice has been cold forged in Ulan-Ude to celebrate the New Year. Several themes that figure brightly in the history of the Buryat people are represented in the shaved sculptures standing in the city center, Soviet Square. Walking toward the arched entry way you will notice two ice-women welcoming you (coldly, he, he!) onto the square. One is Buryat, the other Russian, dressed in their respective ethnic outfits. In 2011, Buryatia will celebrate becoming part of the Russian Federation 350 years ago, which explains our ice-ladies, who echo the official emblem of the upcoming year of celebration. (See emblem below.)

350 years: "Together through time!"

Stealing through crystal arches, you blunder right into the middle of Wild Kingdom! (Shout out to Marlin Perkins, who showed me the world from my television window.) The animals of the lunar calendar, stand paw to paw in ice.  Rabbit is standing in the center, for it is his year to reign the cycle. I first came to Siberia in 1998, and in December of that year rabbits showed up everywhere in the city!  On plastic shopping bags, little figurines for sale, framed pictures, on notebook covers, and stuffed animals. I remember asking someone, “Why are there rabbits everywhere?” Answer: Chinese lunar calendar.

After animal kingdom, two stories of ice samovar, crowned with a teapot, and accompanied by four faithful courtier tea cups sparkle in the sun. No matter what people say about vodka, tea is Czar in Russia. You can easily go a day without vodka, but a day without tea is like forgetting how to breathe, it just doesn’t happen.

The tea road originated in China, passed through Mongolia and on through Buryatia, the Irkutsk Oblast (territory), and west toward to Moscow. Fortunes were made, cities built, intrigues played and perils risked on dried bales of tea leaves.

Tomorrow the square will be filled with fur garbed New Year’s revelers, sliding on the ice-slides, merrily strolling together with family, greeting friends, and at midnight setting the sky ablaze with a veritable arsenal of Chinese fireworks. Happy New Year! С новым годом!

Leaving the year of the Tiger for . . .

the year of the Rabbit.