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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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.


The Fuchsia Bow Master at Surharban!

The Fuchsia Bow Master! Targets shake in fear at his appearance.


This Buryat archer is kickin’ it old school with the braid. Surharban, Ulan-Ude circa 1924.  This is probably the Fuchsia Bow Master’s Grandfather. (The photo was found here.)

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.


Buryat wrestlers show us how it’s done at Surharban, around the turn of the century.

Buryat Wrestlers continue the tradition in 2010.

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!

Buryats on parade at the opening of Surharban. What finery!

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!


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.

Flower of the Steppe: Altargana

A steppe flower indeed.

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.

Referees, coaches, and heralds, these men kept the order in wrestling matches.

Wrestlers preparing for the next match.

Matching whits. Size does not matter, mental quickness does. Wrestler in red was the champion at Surharban 2010 in Ulan-Ude. (He is small compared to most!)

Blue seems to be a favorite among Buryats.

Archers take a break from the rays of the burning steppe sun.

Enjoying wrestling, or catching a snooze.

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.

Did I mention it was HOT! This young man has fur on!

Checking arrow integrity.

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!

These are Western Buryats, distinguishable by flatter headwear and different stripe pattern on their outfits.

Slapstick, Buryat style.

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.

Cold creamy goodness!

Ice-cream behind the back pose!

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.


Surharban: Hitting the Mark!

Opening ceremonies of Surharban.

The toxophilites had drawn together. Grapplers, gathered. Jockeys, jumbled. Every hair follicle on my fair head prickled as the sun beat us. Dorj, Yulia’s cousin, sat stoically in a black button up shirt, and black slacks. We were waiting for action! But instead, mayors, governors and other top dog’s were filling our ears with pretty speeches of inconsequence. Dorj kept saying, “Man they are opening long”. In all fairness to the big wigs, they were sitting in the shade, and had no idea that a sun of treacherous intent coupled with their endless rambling prose was mind bending! Suddenly the droning stopped and . . . Dancing! Buryats and Russians alike twirled and whirled in a kaleidoscope of color to our delighted eyes. And singing! (Check out some Buryat singing here) Buryat style and Old Believer style are quite unique and different from any singing style known in the West. Twirling, silks of different hues billowing in Buryat hands, whirling, curved swords brandished in Cossack hands, color spun in dance to the lilt of their songs!

An archer looking fine.

Traditional Buryat stringed instrument the Morin Huur.

That was my introduction to Surharban, which means “hitting the target” in reference to archery. Toxophilites are by the way, “devotees of archery”. This is a festival celebrating archers, wrestlers and horse racers. All of which we watched under a burnt sun. After two ice-cream bars, a liter and a half of kvass, (a Russian sort of soft drink made of fermented bread, which Russians of all ages incessantly drink in the summer), several rounds of Mongolian style wrestling, and a couple rounds of archery, Dorj and I decided we were hot. We left the stands, and went to the cultural area for lunch, and to enjoy the dancing and singing of Buryat and Russian groups from different regions of Siberia.

Dorj in his stoic black.

Yulia came in time to watch horse racing. Dorj and I hung on until the race when after eight laps, we couldn’t tell if the race would finish soon, or continue till midnight! We decided we were baked twice over, and it was time to go home for Pozi! (Traditional Buryat meat dumpling of sorts.) As the day wore toward dusk, Dorj, his father, Sanpil and I ate pozi, and discussed the Creator of the world, and how he is crazy about Buryats! Every tribe!