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

 

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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.

Mongolian Rebound

The vaunted Wrestlers Palace in central UB.

Dear Friends,

While in Mongolia, I began to feel unwell, which precipitated several visits to several Doctors both in Ulaanbaatar and back here in Irkutsk. I seem to periodically suffer from excessive fatigue. It comes and goes, and it remains unclear what the culprit is. We continue to investigate. So, a post I began early in April, is now just hitting the presses!

I have survived my latest trek into one of Asia’s most beautiful and fascinating countries, Mongolia. It is pleasant indeed to be back in Siberia, with my favorite Native and wife, Yulia the lovely. But before I entirely take my leave, I thought I would share a side of Mongolia which maybe you have not yet seen. The underbelly!

Belly up!

Hold me back!

Solid.

Imagine twenty pairs of rippling/ample bellied Asian strong men in turned up toed boots, and blue or red speedos shoving, grasping, grappling, hoisting-suddenly-heaving their opponent over.  Like waves rolling onto a beach, the hubbub of spectating Mongols rises to a roar with each victory.

Ya, they wear pink. You got a problem with that? You wrestle them!

This is called Mongolian Boh, traditional Mongolian wrestling which is practiced in similar forms among all Mongolian peoples. From Inner Mongolia to Siberia, from Mongol ethnic groups in China to Central Asia to Kalmykia in Europe, this style of wrestling has been practiced for centuries. When in Ulaanbaatar, like a dusty moth to a glowing bulb, I am drawn to the Wrestler’s Palace, where most weekends starting in March, you can watch sweating titans go head to head, in two-man scrums, propelling each other to and fro about the ring like fighting buffalo bulls. But don’t be fooled! This is a sport of brains and strategy, not just brawn.

Heavy-duty face off. It's about to get rough up in here.

Bringing the thunder.

This is real wrestling, no hype. There is no jawing, no attacks with folding chairs, no explosions, just two serious athletes going head to head. In Mongolia, everyone knows the names of the top wrestlers of their region, and the nation. Champion wrestlers are afforded great respect and are highly honored by the people.

What's under that green 1970's turf like carpet? Cement.

To win a wrestler must compel his challenger to contact the ground with knee, elbow or upper body. There are no weight categories in Mongol Boh! Unevenly paired wrestlers must use strategy to defeat stronger or swifter wrestlers.

The winner will spring up into a traditional victor's dance, gracefully imitating an eagle in flight.

When a wrestler brings his adversary down he springs up, runs a few bow-legged steps, stops, and gracefully imitates a flying eagle. Then he returns to his conquered opponent who usually congratulates him, whereupon the referee crowns him with his hat, declaring him winner by calling out his name to the crowd. Our winner then runs to the flagpole in the ring, soars like an eagle around the pole, nodding to the flag before rumbling out of the ring until the next round.

Dance of a victor.

It is a thing of wonder.

Monkhbaiyir: Buryat Pianist

I met Monkhbaiyir, left, through my friend Zorigtkhuu, far right. Maral-Erdene in lavender, and Ganbaatar join us in a game of Phase 10 at a local java joint.

Tonight I received a great gift. Monkhbaiyir who I just met this evening told me he was a pianist and music teacher at a local school here in UB. (Ulan-Bator) I asked Monkhbaiyir if I could get an album of his music. Instead he said, “Come with me to my school right now, and I will play for you.” So, Zorigtkhuu who also teaches at the school, and I went with Monkhbaiyir to the top floor, turned on the lights to the music room, and thus started our impromptu concert.

Monkhbaiyir and his muse.

Monkhbaiyir’s Playlist:

  • Chopin’s Second Nocturne
  • Bach’s Preludio II
  • Mozart’s Eighth Sonata
  • Two of Monkhbaiyir’s pieces, one entitled “Thought”, the other untitled.
  • Zhantchannorov’s “I Want to Love You”
  • Khangal’s “Migrating Birds”

The last two names on the list are famous Mongolian composers. How marvelous it was to sit in reverie listening to the influence of the steppe on their musical compositions. You never know what priceless offering you may receive on the steppe. Monkhbaiyir’s gift leaves me speechless.

Happy Fifth Birthday David!

Yesterday was David's fifth happy birthday!

Happy Birthday David! Rita (David’s mom), Gillian, Luki, and I celebrated with David yesterday. It was a fun break from speech and language work. David is doing well and his speech after a week and a half or so is clearer, when he focuses on making the proper sounds.

Licking frosting from undercarriages!

Our menu was pizza, cake and ice-cream. Yes! David provided the evenings music, he has learned two cords on the guitar. Luki, David and I played a rousing, if confusing game of battleship. No ships were sunk. Robots and Spiderman apparel were unwrapped and greeted with proper childish excitement. Look out David! Here comes year number six!

A round of absolutely non-lethal battleship.

Banging out chords with a smile.