● Expedition SIBERIA-MONGOLIA. July 28th − October 3rd, 2018. Two Toyota Land Cruisers, Kolyma “Road of Bones”, off-road, GULAG camps, abandoned ghost towns, Oymyakon − the Pole of Cold, Lena and Yenisei rivers, lake Baikal, Sayan and other Siberian mountains, endless taiga, Mongolian mountains and steppe, yurt and tent overnights, Sakha (Yakutia), Buryatia, Khakassia, Tyva, Altai, Buddhist temples and monasteries, Russian Orthodox churches, shamans, indigenous peoples, mystical spiritual places, Karakorum − the capital of ancient Mongol Empire, birth and death site of Genghis Khan, Siberian Jesus Vissarion…
Text by Tiina Jokinen.
After battling an 8-hour jet lag and suffering from bad conscience from all the work that still remained incompleted on my desk, I woke to a misty and cloudy early morning in Magadan, hating myself for coming voluntarily somewhere where others have been taken against their will and so already for some centuries with the climax between 1932−1953. With the sense of duty prevailing, though, I decided to make the most out it a possibly wrong decision and self-loathing and managed to drag myself out the bed and my hotel room just in time to meet Alexei − the gentleman that released the sea container that had delivered our expedition Land Cruisers.
Thus by 10 am we were hassle-free in possession of our specially equipped engines for starting off towards Yakutsk along the notorious Bone Road.
As all days that start off with guilty conscience one might find an unexpected grain of gold. Just as smalltalk I asked Alexei if he happened to know some places in the vicinity where we could meet some aboriginal people (how on earth else should you call Koryaks, Yukaghirs and others that probably inhabited those areas since times immemorial), he proudly announced that he had participated in archaeological excavations and we should definitely pay a visit to the local museum. In addition, though, he asked a colleague that bhelped to purge the container if he could direct us to some specific areas and, indeed, the latter advised us to visit a fishing village of Nyucla (ca 30 minutes from Magadan).
While in the end we successfully found the place and due to a lucky coincidence (read: Monday and Tuesday are days of fishing ban in order to grant the migrating salmon fish at least two days of free passage) found an empty beach at the Ola River Delta, at a closer scrutiny we noticed swarm of salmon fish that struggled to get upstream positively leaving an impression of a bubblling fish soup kettle − and a thick soup it was. As a cherry on the cake the huge delta was also full of truly “big fish” that turned out to be local arctic seal or nerpa as the locals call them performing a dance the name of which we could not really determine. Actually, the animals resembled more hungry border guard that collected tax from each fish swarm trying to enter the delta.
Under our very eyes the low tide strained the river bed and several of the poor migrating salmon (keta, gorbusha, trout) were literally stranded and condemned to a most horrible death through the beaks of hungry seagulls. We actually tried and did our best to salvage some of them by catching and throwing them out into the open sea but truth be told, some of them basically crawled into a pot that happened to be on the beach. The laws of nature are merciless…
After the marine adventure we noticed a nice log house with a broken fence on the beach − on a closer scrutiny it happened to belong to a local boss. The fence, however, had suffered a bad luck in the hands of very drunk guards that could not find the breaks of the owner−s jeep and had accidentally flown directly into wall of the fancy villa. The laws of nature had again shown their might…
The evening saw us back in Magadan where we duly celebrated the funeral of the stranded salmon (keta).
To be continued when back in the internet coverage…
A lot has happened during that time after we left Magadan for our great Siberian adventure − enough to fill a lifetime, it seems…
Under seemingly endless rain we travelled through breathtakingly beautiful landscapes of the Far North. In summer as it is, it is not so easy to imagine all the anguish and actually life-threating experience that the people from Stalin’s slave ships went through. To think how many lives in fact ended here in the forced labour camps amidst the natural beauty is beyond me… in order to get a better idea, we decided to visit one of the few prisons the remains of which are still standing, Dneprovsk. The Almighty, though, had made other plans for us and due to the constantly drizzling (sic!) rain the water level in the rivers was rising rapidly. Upon trying to cross the final (number 4) river that separated us from our destination, the current nearly carried us away. We made it successfully to the other bank as turning in the middle of the river is impossible, but took an immediate decision to return on the spot as the water was still rising under our very eyes. OUr visit was probably not meant to happen.
Instead we visited the first center for gold mining where they find the so called samorodky − nuggets of gold created by Mother Nature. Somehow the people running those enterprises are not too welcoming for visitors, but something we still managed to see. At least we know that the lucky ones (mostly Ukrainians) that have managed to secure several mining sites are doing really well: the owner of Palatka enterprise for example owns 17 sites and is also politically active.
As we were running hopelessly late with the “accommodation hunt”, we had to pitch our tents at a roadside cafe and tire repair shop where a young bear used to visit every day at lunch time. After a short but much needed rest we woke quite late and decided to wait for the bear to come and take his lunch. Luck, however, had turned against us and the bear-boy had decided to skip lunch that day − maybe he had had enough of junk food from the café’s garbage bins.
We continued through ghost towns and beautiful nature towards the capital of gold − Susuman. The ghost towns en route were in reality industrial cities where production after the collapse of Soviet bankrupt economy had stopped and within a couple of year from that almost all the inhabitants had been forced to leave when the city’s supply of water and power had been cut. It is just incredible why someone far away in Moscow had planned tractor spare part production into the Far North where there was no use for that type of tractors nor were there iron, steel or any other necessary ingredients nearby. The demise of that kind of settlements was inevitable, causing a lot of pains for their populations. In some of those towns, though, new settlers, mostly from the Eastern Ukraine, were arriving and buying property for next to nothing. Time will show what comes next as no one seems to have a fixed plan one way or another. Maybe it is best if the mighty Arctic nature claims hers back.
In Susuman we managed to negotiate our way into a fully functioning open gold mine. An interesting experience, especially considering that the methods have not significantly changed from the ones that have been used thousands of years ago: soil is ladled onto conveyor belts, mixed with water and the rubber mats with coarse relief will keep the heavy particles, i.e. mostly gold, to be harvested later. Teh yield was harvested under our very eyes was impressive.
The road side was full of so called “starately” − people that come, settle for most of teh summer in abandoned houses, rent bulldosers and other machines and privately mine gold. Unlike the regular Klondyke they actually find it and live off it relatively satisfactorily. Surprisingly, their houses are usually extremely clean and cosy inside with most of the modern conveniences despite their “after-the-nuclear-war” appearance. We were invited for tea by a couple of those prospectors and cold only admire their households. Those settlements consist mostly of men from either nearby towns that still exist pr from as far away as Moldova, the Ukraine, the Caucasus etc.
Our next place of accommodation was in a garage of an abandoned city where we pitched our roof tents with the hope of escaping the constant drizzle and its devastating effects on our sleeping gear. An experience it was even despite the fact that almost at midnight a van with 13 Polish students arrived with exactly the same thoughts in mind.
Leaving Susuman after a productive visit to the gold mines, we carried on towards Sakha Republic, with the first stop in another gold town Ust-Nera on the banks of the Indigirka. Although the annoying drizzle had stopped and the surrounding sopkas (‘mountains’) under the clear blue sky were bathing in an incredible spectre of colours both from the different minerals and also arctic vegetation, the river was still higher than usual and the town’s water supply had obtained a deep yellowish-gray tint and was nearly unusable even for washing. For want of any better accommodation we separated and part of the expedition crew found housing in an apartment, while others had to make do at a pretty peculiar local hotel which was a true remnant of the bygone Soviet era − in our group slang the Soviet rubbish.
After as short a stop as possible in Ust-Nera, we continued to the Pole of Cold in the Northern hemisphere − Oymyakon. Rushing a bit ahead of the actual events, I would like to make an amendment to our general knowledge of the world: the lowest temperature was actually measured in the neighbouring village from Oymyakon, Tomtor. As Oymyakon, however, is the name of not only one village but of the whole region, the honorary title of the Pole of Cold was given namely to that place.
We must consider ourselves lucky, since after our arrival in Tomtor, we learned that right behind us the road had been flushed away by the flooding Indigirka. There must have been a reason why we made our stop in Ust-Nera as short as possible…
On the way to Tomtor we passed through an Even village Yuchyugey. It feels quite strange when upon entering a village you see people rushing into the houses and warily watching you through the curtains. Upon greeting them you notice how they hasten their steps and try to find cover in the buildings or some activities that require absolute concentration. It was weird and that only to say it mildly. After some time, though, we managed to make contact with two boys that came to the village festival square with an obvious aim to play football. Thank God that for a 13 and 10-year old football was still irresistible despite the threatening alien invasion… Thus I managed to explain through the boys to the village community that we were almost their distant relatives speaking a language that was closer to them than to Russian and in general we had not come to eat them up. Apparently, though Russian is the lingua franca between the different peoples on the territory of the huge federation, not everybody speaks it well and willingly. Only naturally the villagers take visitors with foreign appearance for Russians or in general for a nuisance to whom one should “smile in a foreign language” and typically for Northerners, they try to keep to themselves. When we finally discovered how many similar words our languages contain even at first glance, most people came to talk to our strange looking gang and we learned a thing or two about their life. Like the fact that their natioanl sport is a special type of wrestling and that just two weeks prior to our visit they had had their national festival where all neighbouring villages had gathered dressed in their national costumes. We also learned that the village had 300 two-legged inhabitants (a mix of Evens and Yakuts) and 500 reindeers, let alone innumerable husky or laika dogs. Finally we were honored by taking photos of the beautiful girls in the village and even allowed to show them in our documentary as a dress rehearsal for their future career as film stars. Life will show if their dreams come true.
Oymyakon, actually Tomtor, greeted us in a considerably friendlier way: the guest house owner came to meet and greet us at the cross roads and became our guide for three days. The permafrost museum as well as the local ethnographic museum opened their doors to us and gave us a chance to admire the wonderful artwork of the local ice sculpturers and deeds of historical persons. As legend goes winter cold arrives each autumn riding on oxback from the Polar Ocean and in February the first horn of the mount is broken around the 18th and the second around the 28th, after which teh beast with his rider returns to the North to grow new horns in order to return again. When the Cold has the region in its power, the temperatures can drop down to −70 Celsius. Due to permafrost there is no running water or sewage in the houses but central heating works faultlessly.
During our visit the actual village of Oymyakon stood out in a completely different way than the Pole of Cold − it was namely almost totally flooded by the Indigirka, probably to thr great joy of the village kids that were running through high water accompanied by their laika dogs. It certainly seemed quite a change for the eternal cold switched by swarms of mosquitoes in the short summer.
Shamans are certainly a keyword for North-Eastern Siberia. A Burjat geologist that had lived in the Far North for nearly 40 years told me that her niece had ever since childhood suffered from mystical diseases that our evidence-based medicine could neither diagnose nor treat. The family decided to ask a powerful shaman for help. The latter had agreed and informed the family that the girl has to become a shaman because from her mother’s side there had been shamans in the family and also her Russian father had a witch among his predecessors. However, if the girl agrees to fulfill her duty at a later stage in her life, the shaman can make her healthy so that she can grow up, have a family and raise her children before dedicating to her true vocation. And indeed, both kept their word.
We had also learned about a shaman that lived close to Ytyk-kyol town. The present shaman’s father Foma had been even more powerful in his lifetime and treated all kinds of diseases. His life, though, happened to coincide with the worst period of the Soviet era and several stories were told how the militia or NKVD tried to persecute him. Once a militiaman had arrested him as an enemy of the people and in order to be most effective had decided to shoot him on the spot without any court or conviction which obviously would have approved his judgement anyway. He pulled his gun and aiming at the shaman told the latter that he was unworthy of occupying a place under the sun, while all of a sudden he noticed that he held his gun to his own temple and the words were addressed to himself.
Another story goes that the NKVD came to arrest Foma and locked him in a cell. Afterwards, though, they saw the shaman exactly on the same spot where they had arrested him. In order to be on the safe side, they arrested him once again and locked him in another cell. The same story repeated itself with Foma being locked in the third cell. When they went to check the first cell, it was obviously empty. The same goes about the second cell. In the third one, however, a big brown bear was sitting and charged at the NKVD men.
Foma’s son Mikhail has lived in considerably easier times, but even he has had his fair share of possibilities to show his power. It is said that being a bright pupil, when he got bored at a class, he turned into a piglet and ran around between classmates and teachers.
Be it as it is with those stories, but one thing is certain, when Yakut people tackle health porblems that ordinary doctors cannot help solving, Mikhail might be the one to turn to.
And strangely enough, although, it was not our main aim to visit him or any of his colleagues, before arriving at Ytyk-Kyol, I noticed a small road leading into a pretty ethnic Yakut village and something almost forced me to turn there. We came to an almost empty but very picturesque place where only children were running around at their farm yards. Despite our repeated attempts to communicate with them, not even a single head turned our way. It felt as if we had become transparent or invisible. The whole atmosphere was syrrealistically film-like. Only later we learned that this was Mihkail’s village. To our greatest pity we did not meet him, though we tried to call him the next day and ask for an audience. He was said to be busy making hay as the rare and few hot sunny days needed to be used to their maximum.
Probably our meeting was not meant to be.
It is sadly impossible to travel the route from Magadan to Yakutsk without mentioning GULAG and all the injustice that has been done under a pretext or another. I actually tried to avoid the subject as long as possible because no words, let alone mine, can describe the atrocities done. So let those few passages be just a personal thanks to all the peoople that have lost their lives at somebody’s whim in a huge sadistically ingenious scheme to obtain the almost unobtainable natural resources at that time. And let it also be a prayer that the lost lives have served a greater purpose in the history of humankind whatever that is − to be a warning for the future does defintely not sound profound and adequate enough…
From 1931 the government in the Kremlin invented a system of prison camps in the Far North in order to mine gold, diamonds and other natural resources that the impoverished country with its rogue leadership badly needed for its existence. As I briefly mentioned before, the usual slavery based social systems set up a legal code on how slaves should be treated and kept up to a point where in several African pre-colonial states the slaves had the right to complain about their owners and demand a transfer to another owner and even buy themselves free for exemplary service. In the evil Soviet empire, though, the slaves were snatched from their homes, stamped criminals for nothing and sent to GULAG as total outlaws. The figures obviously vary but in these parts it is maintained that by 1953 a total number of 12 million people were sent to the labour camps. Before WW II it is said that only 10% of the “slaves” survived their tragic destiny.
We travel along the road that bears an unofficial name “the bone road”. That because it is literally built on the bodies of the people that died here working under impossible conditions. They were buried directly under the roadworks. No wonder the Nature rebels from time to time and flushes away parts of the highway even today…
Should you wish to visit a former labour camp, however, it is almost impossible as most of them have been carefully cleared away so that even no bit of wood remains.
Anyone who wishes to know more about that period of time can find information in several research papers publicly available in the vast space of internet.
One thing is clear, there is no comparison between the destiny of Stalin’s victims and that of the tsar’s exiled “undesirables”. The latter were sent to inhabited areas and the local community had to provide them with private accommodation, food and even a servant-assistant. In Chorkyokh there is a balagan (traditional Yakut dwelling house) consisting of three cosy rooms that had once upon a time belonged to an exiled Polish linguist. The living conditions were often favourable enough for people to voluntarily stay on even after their official exile was over.
After several campings by the picturesque rivers along the road we finally reach Russia’s capital of diamonds – Yakutsk. What a relief to wash the cars and ourselves and sleep in a soft bed for a change!
Yakutsk managed to surprise by being warm (literally), clean, well-kept and beautiful. While walking through the streets of the Old Town to the monument of Beketov, the founder of Yakutsk in 1632, a nagging doubt about the actual origin of the city kept disturbing me: why namely here on this spot? Was it really an empty place in the middle of taiga or was there something here before? After looking at the Sakha (Yakut) handicraft and noticing a pattern of runic script on several of them, another question arises. Was it really the Russians that brought culture and literacy to the savage nomadic tribes in the Siberian wilderness or could it have been that the Sakha people actually had their runic texts that wait to be discovered and interpreted? And maybe on the spot of the present-day Yakutsk where Beketov built the block-house there was another settlement before? Permafrost has preserved the mammoth remains in an exemplary condition but probably eliminated the chance to erect buildings that could be excavated by archaeologists today. Maybe that is one of the reasons why the local nations have preferred lighter structure for housing thus making it more difficult to study their earlier history?
City people in the capital differ cardinally from the their village relatives. While in the village it is not so easy to get in contact with anyone at the first moment, then in the city people are less suspicious and open to conversation with foreigners.
We paid an interesting visit to the Sakha Republic’s Treasury exposition and were surprised to learn that despite being one of the biggest producers of diamonds in the world, nearly all of them are exported to the so-called Mainland (Russia) were the stones are cut and processed into jewels or other necessary final products and part of them are imported back to Sakha − approximately like crude oil from Nigeria and refined product into Nigeria. It was quite surprising to discover that Sakha’s jewelry tradition concerning diamonds started only in 1992, i.e. after the collapse of the USSR. Silversmiths have longer traditions in the Sakha culture and so silver jewelry is prevailing in the national costumes.
While driving South, the roadside is “embellished” by mines of various precious stuff or alternatively holy places usually in breathtakingly beautiful spots like watarefalls, non-melting glaciers, natural springs etc. In one of the latter we met three people that treated us to home-made pancakes − really delicious − and told that they were on a kind of pilgrimage through the sacred sites of Sakha people. In the course of various rituals there had been a so-called rebirth of a lady and they were now waiting if she would become a shaman or a healer. All of a sudden, two people of the group asked me to stay with them for a couple of minutes more andd started palying Jew’s harp (homus). This was a truly beautiful melody and while I was grateful for being the sole attendant to such concert, they told that this was actually a ceremony and they had a message for me.
Things happen in this wildly surrealistic country.
So much is happening only by driving a hundred kilometres: visit to the capital of gold in Sakha, a city called Aldan, among that. Actually a small town surrounded by various open mines where in addition to gold also platina and diamonds see sunlight. The houses clearly show that people are not entirely deprived of at least a microshare of the huge profits earned from the mountains. As in most cities that we pass through, new Orthodox Cathedrals dominate central squares or their respective sites. Eager young clerics tell us over and over again the stories of martyrdom when Christianity was brought to Eastern Siberia. At the same time it is not so easy to spot any first nation representatives on the streets. Maybe it is for their own good that they still often hide deeper in the taiga and pursue their traditional ways of living like raising reindeer.
En route we pass through an Evenk village. Maybe because it is already further South, but people are more open to contact with foreigners. However, upon asking about their daily life, I learn that not so many can speak the Evenk language any more. Reputedly, only the older generation knows it. Luckily, they have not completely abandoned their own ways as at least every self-respecting family must have a herd of reindeer. Solely visually judging, the Evenks differ greatly from their neighbours Yakuts and Evens.
Before leaving Sakha behind, we visit a forest spa. To call it a spa is a slight exaggeration, but it is a place where the water flows from the depth of more than a hundred meters and keeps a constant temperature of 30 °C even at the harshest winter months. On the taiga path we encounter nomadic Yakuts with their reindeer. The road to the hot water springs is peppered with obstacles − huge stones and finally we have to cross a river, as last winter’s ice has taken the old bridge with itself to the Arctic Ocean. The so-called spa complex itself comprises some ascetic wooden cabins, two pools where the water constantly flows and surprise, surprise! − an Orthodox chapel. It is a holy place after all with all the thermal water. It has probably been holy also for the aboriginal people but not many traces are left from that.
Our first stop after Sakha is Tynda. This is the capital of the former Komsomol shock construction project. Though parts of the rail-line were constructed earlier using prison labour, in the 1970s−1980s it was a popular project in the USSR where young people went to work and many of them stayed. 30 years ago Tynda was called the city of youth. By today, though, it might as well be called the opposite: many people have left as the BAM line is not exploited to its maximum to say the least and aside from providing railway education, there is not much to do in Tynda. The railway station, though, is an impressive building housing some quite prestigious businesses like banks, jewellers etc.
Talking about railways, we pitched our tents for overnight not far from Moscow-Vladivostok rail line and there we defintely could not complain about the under-exploitation of the route. I guess in every 10 minutes an incredibly long train roared by either in one or another direction. In addition to mining, logistics must be a lucrative branch of economy in these parts of the world.
In another Evenk village we met a nice lady of Evenk descent that told about the same story as the ones in previous places: not many people know their language any more and younger people tend to leave for bigger cities not to return so eagerly. But the ones in the villages still stick to their old ways, i.e. grow what crops the soil and climate support – potato mostly – and keep cattle or reindeer at higher altitudes. The people have become mixed with Russians and now also with Chinese. Each and everybody maintained that in Siberia all the colourful mix cohabit in a friendly way.
I tried to get a better picture about the relations with the central power in the Mainland (Russia). Apparently, the difference between our dear EU and Russia is not as great as we would like to think. An entrepreneurial cafe owner, a true Siberian Cossack descendant, explained to me that she had applied for a grant to establish the roadside cafe, to employ people and grow her own vegetables and produce beef and mutton and her application had been successful. For all that she needed to write a project just like we have to do and submit it to Moscow (well, in reality a local representative of the central power) just like we have to submit ours to Brussels or their local substitutes on the Earth. The only difference at the first glance, though, seemed to be that the whole application process is considerably shorter in Russia and also that in case of approval the money is tranferred right away in advance, so that the entrepreneur does not have to take any loans in order to carry out the planned works. Maybe our Eurocrats should be sent to Siberia or at least to Moscow for improving their professional qualification?
Another similarity between the EU and Russia is the reform of local governments. In Estonia there were even several city governments that disappeared altogether and here in Russia, several huge oblasts, krais and okrugs seized to exist. This way the Amur oblast and Aginsko-Buryat Autonomous region formed a huge Zabaikal Krai. I asked several people, if that changed something in their lives and it turned out that the aboriginal Buryats that formerly enjoyed their special subsidies had lost most of that while the others whose predecessors had come to Siberia during the Russian invasion (under that I mean tsarist Russia) had gained some.
Our next stop was Chita, the city of Decembrists and their wives. The church where the progressive thinkers − after all the 1825 December revolution was an attempt for constitutional Russia − were taken from the prison to pray during important Orthodox holidays and where they could occasionally even glipmse their wives that had followed them to their destiny, has been converted to Decembrists museum. To think only what could have been different in the world if instead of ending up in Siberian silver mines, the forward thinking army officers would have succeeded…
Another memorable visit that we made in Chita was to the only Tatar Mosque that serves a community of about 20,000 moslems in the area. The building dates back to the beginning of the 20th century while during the Soviet time it had been used for many different purposes, a chicken farm among them. Today we received the most cordial welcome and a hafez from Yemen recited the first Sura for us. The Sheikh said that invited guests are guests of the hosts, but the uninvited ones like us are guests sent by the God. Be it as it is, we certainly felt that way.
On the way out of Chita, we paid a visit to the only Buddhist temple in the city and the welcome was not less cordial than in the Mosque. The head of the monastery took an hour out of his busy schedule to explain to us how the temple was rebuilt on its present site after the original one in the city centre behind the Army officers’ club had been destroyed.
It seems to have been a rule in Chita that all the sacred buildings had to give way to some more important structures like the original Kazan Cathedral to Lenin’s monument and the Buddhist temple to the war history park. About the mosque we already knew. Luckily, all of them have been rebuilt or restored after 1992.
Railways again. We have been driving parallel to the extremely busy Trans-Siberian railroad and one has to admire the precise work of those tracks. There is literally a train, and a long one at that, in ervey 5 minutes. We have been stopping in some otherwise completely unremarkable townships that function only on their rail stations. All the stations have at least 10 tracks on which trains are waiting for their turn to be dispatched further. Honestly, I have never been fascinated by railways before, but Trans-Siberian has a special appeal about itself. Maybe one day I decide to take a trip through it.
This year, though a lot of roadsides and railway surrounding areas are to a higher or lower degree flooded. People to whom we talk say that this is very unusual and they are worried that both the local and central governments are ignoring the situation. They also say that the floods are worse because several formerly dried-up springs in the mountains have started flowing again.
We enter the Republic of Buryatia and immediately the feeling changes from before − it is as if one arrives in a friendlier Tibet. Smaller and bigger stupas and temples with prayer flags in every village and emerald green conifer forest patch.
Ivolginsk Monastery is the only one that Stalin after sanctioning represseions on the Buddhist monks had allowed to erect in Buryatia upon the request of several high lamas that had managed to survive the hard times. During Stalin’s purgatory most Buddhist monks were either arrested and sent to labour camps or just killed. Some luckier ones had been forced to renounce their vows and return to secular lives including marriage. In 1944, though, some daring high-ranking monks asked for audience with the Generalissimus himself and achieved his permission to build a Buddhist monastery in Ivolginsk at an idyllic place with a mountain range on the background. Several healing springs were spread in the valley and until today, people have a chance to either cure their eyes with the water from a spring directly behind the monastery or drive 12 or more kilometres in order to bathe in mineral springs spiced with radon that cure a number of health conditions. The whole atmosphere here is etherally spiritual. Despite the fact that there are several souvenir and religious artefacts’ shops in and outside the temple complex, most of the salesmen (actually, mostly saleswomen) take their time to explain the symbolic figurines up to telling your future without being disappointed if you finally do not buy anything. Even stary cats and dogs look relatively content − their secret is that once they are already the Monastery’s subjects, they get at least one meal per day, usually an early morning breakfast.
We met a Byelorussian guy that told us about a Tibetan Medicine practicioner who had first been a shaman and then turned into a lama and later become a merited teacher at the university. With our curiosity raised, we decided to pay the gentleman a visit. And we were lucky to be received as we later realised. In fact we met the esteemed Chimit Dorje who has never been a shaman but has been many things like the abbot of the Ivolginsk Monastery, research fellow at the Academy of Tibetan Medicine, a branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and is still a practising doctor as well as tutor for several well-known practicioners of Tibetan medicine in the world. It is not often to meet a person that can so fascinatingly discuss history, religion and politics while at the same time diagnosing and prescribing treatments. The 76-year-old gentleman is like a walking history book that has personally met people of whom I have only read in books like Agvan Dorjiev and Ashin Ananda alias Friedrich Lustig. Paying our farewells, we saw the queue of patients waiting to be received and understood that we had been given an extraordinay chance that day.
Ulan Ude suprised with its free-spirited atmosphere and actually very clean and beautiful city centre crowned by the gigantic monument of Vladimir Lenin’s head on its central square. It was quite a sight to observe young boys practicing acrobatic tricks on skate boards around it. Buryatia certainly has its own character within the Russian Federation.
The lake Baikal glitters from between the conifereous taiga and dense undergrowth in its almost divine glory. The blue hue of the water merges with that of the sky so that we really have to strain our eyes in order to see where one ends and the other begins. Needless to say, we turn the noses of our Land Cruisers towards the “promised land”, i.e. the shoreline, and hit lucky – we find a totally empty strip covered with small round stones warmed up by the Sun. Though the aim of our trip is not a beach holiday, but we could not resist the first temptation to throw off our travel gear and lie down on the stones by the edge of the water to bask in the sun rays to the lullaby of the Baikal’s waves. This was truly a top-class spa experience with hot stone massage, music therapy and cristal clear water of the lake which was even not too cold. Secretely I nearly wished that this were the final destination for at least some time.
Time pressing, however, we had to collect our stuff from the paradise beach and hit the road again. As soon as we reached the Baikal area, the roadside was studded with small kiosks or just tables were people were selling freshly smoked or salted omul, the famous Baikal whitefish. I must say that it really tastes as good as people say and even better − it is not boney at all. For the sake of that delicacy already one has to wish that the eco system of the Baikal would hold up for ever.
Actually talking about the eco system of the famous lake, I was very keen to see the Baikalsk area where in 1961 a cellulose plant was erected. This factory, though employing several thousands of people and making the city of Baikalsk a kind of monotown had managed to destroy the ingenious natural cleaning system of the lake so that formerly directly completely potable water had changed into not drinkable and even worse, the fauna and flora had suffered great damage. Actually from the 1980s I remember seeing that the lake’s surface around the mill was covered with some kind of slime. After repeated protests of one green movement or another and also economic mismanagement the plant was finally closed down in 2013. Today I am glad to say that at least upon visual scrutiny the water in that particular region is again cristal clear and transparent, though still not drinkable as it used to be.
I was expecting to see Baikalsk a ghost town like we had encountered in the Magadan Oblast, but to my pleasant surprise, the city had somehow managed to reorientate itself. It is true that the inhabitants of the town had been extremely dissatisfied to say the least by the plant’s closure, but today several more enterprising citizens have switched into tourism industry offering accommodation and food for both winter and summer visitors. The plant itself is partially being remodelled to a drinking water production factory. So possibly not all is lost.
Camping near the lake though is an experience in itself. Firstly, because the railway runs parallel and very close to the shoreline and secondly, because of the incredibly high humidity at night. Even under torrentail rain has our camping gear been so wet by the morning than in the clearest weather by the Baikal. It is just miraculous how some local people sometimes like to sleep under the open sky on the stony beach. But this is the Baikal after all.
One cannot help noticing that the style of Russian dachas (‘summer houses’) has changed in the course of time and by today the Baikal shoreline is embellished by some very luxurious buidlings.
Since this is not my first visit to the beautiful lake, I remember that the weather here can be extremely unstable and so it is until now − one day glorious and sunny and the other, pouring rain.
Glad to see that some things do not change.
The Baikal as we probably all know is a lake of tectonic origin. Hence there are areas around it that are still volcanically active and sprinkle out mineral water that reputedly has a lot of health benefits. One of those places is Arshan with its hot and cold springs that help against all possible conditions.
Arshan’s multiple springs were used for healing already by Buryat shamans in ancient times. At the end of the 19th century, though, the first resorts were built, while in the 1920s it really got wind under its healing wings and even the wounded civil war veterans were sent here for after-cure.
As we did not feel very poorly, we decided not to overstay our intially planned short overnight visit and head back to the the Baikal. But a moody beauty as the lake is, it had enveloped itself in a thick layer of rain clouds that waited just for our arrival in order to open their water gates and pour down all that had gathered during the last couple of hot sunny days. We had to turn our Land Cruisers’ noses towards Irkutsk and maybe that was not the worst decision.
Irkutsk, though in torrential rain, surprised us with finely restored Siberian timber houses and nicely kept city centre full of potted flowering plants. All through our way from Magadan I had noticed the mostly dilapidated usually dark timber houses with bright blue-white window shutters, but here in Irkutsk also the real estate people had noticed the same and started proper renovation works. The result is stunningly beautiful and definitely inviting. Should anyone happen to pass by this city, I would recommend a leisurely stroll in the centre − this can be quite a rewarding sight for the sore eye.
During my travels I have met and visited several so-called exile Estonians. I would not really like to use that term because not all of them are actually exiled which is also the case in Siberia. It is the sad truth that during Stalin’s times and also before, when Estonia was still part of the Russian Empire, people were deported or sent to Siberia as a punishment, but in the 19th century there were also people that came to Siberia voluntarily in order to improve their living conditions. It was a common knowledge that there was a lot of empty land in the Siberian vastness and those who lacked the means at home could come and try their luck here. The result was that a multicultural mix appeared in the more favourable areas of this part of the Eurasian continent.
We literally stumbled upon a village of Setus − a small people from the South East of Estonia speaking a Fenno Ugric language that sometimes is considered a dialect of Estonian and sometimes a language in itself. Being fluent in standard Estonian, I must admit that I have huge difficulties in understanding Setus. But here is Siberia the Setu immigrants had kept their language from the 19th century and this was almost beyond me to communicate in that. The situation, however, was made considerably easier by the extremely warm welcome, cordiality and goodwill with what we were received.
Our first stop in New Petseri (the original capital of Setomaa is Petseri on the border between Russia and Estonia) was the small village shop and though there were no Estonians or Setus at that moment, the kind Russian shopkeeper and her customers immediately directed us to the local library that was the meeting point of Estonians. And so it really was: the village drums (cell phones) did their work in less than an hour and before we could pitch our camp by the river, the local Estonian ladies had already arranged a welcome tea party for us at the library and an envoy was sent to invite us there.
Needless to say, that was an invitation that we had no intention whatsoever of turning down. In a single line we filed through the meadow and village towards the library building that had once served as a middle school. By today there is no school and in winter the few families with children had to send their offspring to the neighbouring township of Alexandrovka for education. Most families opted for sharing their lives between the close-by big city Krasnoyarsk where they spend half a year and New Petseri for summer period. But people that have retired, and the retirement age for women in Russia is 55, have returned to their home grounds in New Petseri. It is noteworthy that the whole community meeting us consisted only of women. I tried to ask about where the stronger halves were, but somehow the replies became ambigious, though I noticed that there was quite wealthy agricultural enterprise in the area that certainly used some male labour. Be it as it is, the ladies were not just sitting back and doing nothing despite being retired at 55: many of them had their small enterprises like knitting, making home-cooked jams, pickles etc and they have their regular meetings at the library where they speak Estonian (or Setu) and sing songs from their distant homeland that many of them have never visited.
It may sound tragic that they have never been in their homeland, but it is anything but that. Upon asking they all say that their home is in Siberia and after all they have lived here for more than three generations. Even the national dresses that they stitch and wear with great pride are not the one to one originals from their forefathers’ home country but a mix between the Estonian tradition and Siberian materials and colours. I guess they are right calling themselves Siberian Estonians.
The language that the people of New Petseri speak, for the likes of me that are not from South Estonia, is difficult to understand: even the word tere (‘hello’) is terege. Using my linguist’s intuition I can obviously communicate − Estonian after all is my mother tongue − but it takes some effort. I can certainly hear and translate some Seto words like hämmätus (‘sauce’) and itke (‘cry’) and many others.
When I compare Siberian Estonians to the ones that I have met in Sweden or Canada or anywhere else in the West, then there is a big difference: The Siberian ones actually like to be Estonians and at the same they are true Siberians. They are happy to be who they are and where they are and assimilation is not even an issue − Siberia is a Bable of nations anyway.
My special thanks hereby go to Lyubov Cirkunova whose care and love during our short stay really warmed the heart and whose well-kept and expertly tended garden will be in my memory for ever.
First of all, I wish I had more time for writing – it is not exactly easy to put into words all that we see and experience in so short time frames that I have during the constant rolling on.
Krasnoyarsk is certainly worth a longer chapter in itself with the name living up to its original meaning: krasnyi in old Russian is beautiful and yar means a steep river bank in Turkic languages. Here krasnyi is both beautiful and also reddish at places where the stones and cliffs appear on the surface between patches of forest. The river Yenisei itself is also something exceptional − being huge is not such a wonder in the Siberian vastness (so are the Lena, Indigirka, Aldan and others), but being male as water body is definitely worth while mentioning. It is called Father Yenisei and maybe it is my imagination, but the aura around it is truly masculine.
I happen to have grown up with glorifying stories about Kransoyarsk and its nature, as my childhood nanny had spent many years in this city being a 20th century “Decembrist Wife” − her husband had been sent to exile here at the 1900s for political activities and she had followed him. Maybe it is the male Yenisei or maybe the forests and cliffs “Krasnoyarskie Stolby” or maybe the all blue springs (ephemeral scillas) or the kind-hearted Siberians, but she was absolutely in love with the place till the end of her days. I thought that most of her stories were just nostalgy for her bygone youth, however seeing is believing and now I have joined the admirers’ club.
Not all is gold that glitters though and this is also the case with Mr Yenisei. There are two hydro-electric power plants on the almighty river − Krasnoyarsk power plant and Sayano-Shushenskoye − out of which Kransoyarsk plant has been built by erecting a gigantic dam that has flooded more than 2000 square km area, but none of them is supplying the million inhabitants city with electricity. Both have been privatized and belong to the owners of the aluminium producing corporations that in its turn produce more than 50% of our planet’s aluminium. The city, though, gets its power from fossile fuel plants until today.
I tought that getting farther from Sakha and Magadan means also less mining, but apparently the saying about Siberia’s wealth is true: when the God distributed Earth’s resources, His hand momentarily froze above Siberia and dropped most of it there. Almost all Mendeleyev’s elements can be found in Krasnoyarsk Krai and hence a lot of defence industry has planted itself in the close vicinity of the charming city: foreigners have to watch out when they want to travel outside the city “walls” if they do not want to end up in trouble.
The day of our arrival in Krasnoyarsk happened to be the city’s birthday and in honour of that tere was a grand open air concert on the square in front of the philharmonic hall with all the performers being true world stars in classical music, all friends of the late Dmitri Hvorostovski. It was quite a surreal feeling to listen to the best possible vocalists from all over the world performing the most famous arias in Siberia under the starry August sky in the last heat of summer, especially having come all the way from Magadan on the Bone Road.
Our next stop by Salbykov Kurgans in Khakassia − a reputedly energy charging place. About the geomagnetic field I cannot say much, but the kurgans which actually are burial mounds, originally in the shape of pyramids were a little surprise. As it is my special hobby to try to rewrite history for myself, I got new inspiration in that Valley of the Kings where a Scythian ruler or possibly several with their family have been buried some time in 5th or 4th century BC. If the graves were constructed as royal and substantial as they were, it obviously raises the question if the people that did it were really just some nomads or if there was actually more to it.
Our first encounter with Tyva (or Tuva) begins also with kurgans and the Valley of the Kings which was excavated only recently, i.e. in the 21st century. The treasure of the main pyramid together with the construction istelf has been taken to the museums in Kyzyl and St Petersburg. I must remember to try to find out more about the recent finds of the Scythians.
For most of the world Tyva is mostly known by its throat singing culture and rightfully so − the probably most famous throat singing group is Tuvinian Huun-Huur-Tu. As I have already noticed in this mysterious part of the world, things just tend to happen when you least expect them. We stopped at a yurt camp and at teh same time a group of people were having a pretty ethnic party there. It appeared that this was the City Council whose elected period was approaching its end celebrating their last days in power. Among them was an exceptionally good singer that came to us an introduced himself as Artistic Director of Tyvinian National Orchestra and invited us to the rehearsal next day. Huge was our surprise when we learned that the afore-mentioned orchestra was actually a 27-member choir of throat singers that accompany themselves on their national instruments. I truly hope that I will have a chance to invite them to our festival in Estonia.
Something totally different and less known about Tyva is their authentic shamanistic culture. Through complicated channels we had been directed towards a female shaman that left a lasting impression on me. She came to us and although we even dared not ask for any special ritual, she matter-of-factly stated that there was something that needed to be adjusted here and almost on the spur of moment decided to do a proper ceremony. It is difficult to describe all the different feelings that enveloped me during that ritual, but the effect was certainly posivitively uplifting. Hereby I would like to point out that Tuvinian shamans do not use any psychedelic substances nor try to go into trans in front of the audience. But even more noteworthy was the stunningly beautiful lady herself: a highly educated lawyer by profession before she entered her shaman’s path. She had been married by two clans making an agreement and met her husband only at the wedding day. On top of it all, her husband had been one of those Buddhist monks that can be found in Siberia who can simultaneously lead both monastic and secular lives by having families.
Shamans in Tyva are as important to the local people as their Buddhist temples − one would not visit a shaman every day, but in times of trouble everybody asks for help and guidance from them. Likewise the shamans go to pray at the Buddhist temples. There are more than 500 shamans of various degrees of learnedness in the country and they are divided into white and black while black which does not have any negative connotation.
Spirituality in Siberia does not only involve shamans; there are a lot of different religions and their practitioners in addition to the Russian Orthodox Church. Starovers or Old Believers for example can be found in many isolated enclaves.
This time, though, I would like to write about something that is completely fresh and new and still old and strangely enough, totally Siberian: Vissarion and his followers. This would actually require a whole chapter in itself, but unfortunately, I have so limited time for writing and even more limited internet to post it. However, we had the honour to visit the Sun City which in fact is an eco-village surviving totally without outside communications including even electricity. By today, they have built a gravel road so that we could drive to the entrance of the township. Further from the guard point, though, no cars are allowed, i.e. we had to carry all our earthly belongings for overnight on our backs. But this was nothing compared to the fact that the inhabitants had had to carry even building material on their backs for their lots where they were constructing their houses by manual labour only. Even worse, before the road was completed 4 years ago, they were transporting the building material either on their own or horses’ backs 50 kilometres through the taiga. Many families in the community had lived in the tents for 3 to 5 years before they could move in to their partially finished dwelling houses. Most houses are still under construction. The energy problem, though, is solved with the help of solar panels and water is pumped from the mountain springs. But sewage system is still something that needs to have additional finances in order to be built.
The overall impression of the village, however, is tranquil and extremely beautiful, partly because of a very good landscape design. Every household has its own well-tended garden and orchard. Each family needs to grow their own food and they have managed to supply the whole community with everything neccessary − very few items need to be bought or traded from the outside. Meat is not eaten but vegan diet is not strictly followed either. Chicken are kept for eggs, goats and cows for milk and the rest comes from the orchards or forest. I must say that the food the we were offered was truly vegetarian gourmet.
The ideology that the community follows is close to the nature and the roles of men and women are strictly determined and children are taught to follow them from the early childhood. Men have to be the stronger half and women must be their anchor to keep them on the ground while being also beautiful and generally muses for the male side.
Most of the education is done at home but by qualified teachers that are part of the community. In certain time periods the pupils have to take qualification tests at the regional schools and so far they have all passed them and many even with honours. Their school year, though, is shorter than usual, because it is adjusted to the natural agricultural cycle: the studies begin only after harvest and end before spring sowing.
The general religious ritual usually held twice a week is something of a mix between a church service in the open air and a concert where everybody can sing along. Most people are dressed in white like in many Hindu rituals. It also involves a lot of walking along the forest paths and ringing handbells and chimes. The overall atmosphere is serene and inspiring.
We had the honour of meeting the Teacher Vissarion himself and he certainly is an impressive well-learned and inspiring person.
Autumn in Siberia comes according to the calendar. September 1st saw us attending the school year opening ceremony in Verkhnyi Suetuk while the weather had overnight turned from summer to autumn: through drizzling rain the trees that so far had been emerald green had literally turned into an artist’s palette of yellow, red and brown. Remembering all my own first days of the school year, I almost envied the students here − no temptations whatsoever to run around in the sun − school and autumn, here they come.
Verkhnyi Suetuk is originally a Finnish-Estonian village where the first exiled Finns arrived in the middle of the 19th century. Until today the local Lutheran church is governed from Finland and the priests are mostly Finns. Estonians arrived somewhat later and the village was initially divided into the Finnish and Estonian parts. By today there are no Finnish speaking people left, but Estonian can be heard all over. The school ceremony, though, was completely held in Russian − after all, this is Russia and the inhabitants are Russian citizens.
Our way through Siberian autumn takes us towards Altai and Mongolia. I have consciously avoided writing about the driving but hereby I would actually like to correct that mistake a bit. Namely, the main roads in Siberia outside Magadan Oblast and Northern Sakha are usually very good, but we have kept encountering so-called off-roaders that like to try the limits of themselves and especially of their cars and upon their advice we have sometimes been purchasing a lot of spare parts that later prove not so necessary. The road from Abakan to Gorno-Altaisk likewise has two options: 800 km of really nice tarmac or 350 km offroad. Needless to say, we took the risk and chose the latter preparing for the worst on all the warnings of the off-roaders. The first 10 km through the taiga in its autumnal flare really seemed quite a trial and we were expecting the absolute worst. The reality later, however, turned out to be somewhat different. Yes, the road is unpaved and meanders through several open coal and gold mines, but maybe due to the small number of cars traveling that route or just thanks to our good luck, we ended up having a day of driving along picturesque forest paths. Not too bad at all.
Gorno-Altai surprised me not only with breath taking views and the grandeur of its nature, but also with very well developed infrastructure and tourism facilities. Even that much that it makes me wonder if they are not overdoing it by promoting so much tourism − too many tourists can be hazardous to the fragile balance both in nature as well as society.
Be it as it is, the resorts on the Katun River banks are beautiful and so far at least everything seems to be tranquil, well-tended and extermely clean. For people who love mountains, local lore and herbal cure, this is the place.
Altai is the place that Nikolai Roerich considered an important point on the Earth and where he during his expeditions tried to find the mystical Shambala. Despite his not finding it, the scenery and riches of the region might almost allow for the speculations to last today. On the bank of the Katun, not too far from Gorno-Altaisk a monument to the brave visionary has been erected with a view over the river and mountains. It is not often that the waters of a river can be called turqoise but here it is so. It does not take too much fantasy to imagine gold and precious stones hidden in the sand and the surrounding mountains.
In parenthesis, Gorno-Altai is rich in gold, many kinds of precious stones, silver and all the rest of Mendeleyev’s table. Local people are experienced enough to find loose stones containing something valuable in the mountains and an active trade is being pursued between the finders and buyers, many of the latter from China.
We, as usua,l were not happy with resorts and were trying to pry a bit under the surface in order to see how people live and what they think. An especially memorable meeting was in the village of Shebalino. We stopped at the local clergy and had a lovely exprompt reception by the Orthodox priest and some of the community members and learned a lot. The first questions to us were not so surprising, though a bit more intense than in other places: why do Estonians consider Russians occupants. What reply can you really give here except smile and try to glide over the subject?
More interesting was to learn about the building of Chuisky tract, the road leading through Altai to Mongolia. Older people still remembered the stories and those were less uplifting. Namely, before Gulag which was started in the 1930s, there was SibLag and this was the entity responsible for supplying builders for Chuisky Tract. In 1920s, when the construction was under way, a lot of people were sent there for correcting their political views and if 50 of them died during the first month of their “re-education”, the following week 100 more were sent. The same story repeated itself here as on Bone Road (only this was first): who died on the road works, was buried under it.
Mongolia welcomed us with sunshine. Strangely, while crossing the border, we also arrived in a different scenery: the mountains were mostly brownish grey with occasional green tufts of grass. The roadside houses had disappeared as if by a magic touch and substituted by yurtas, called ger in Mongolian. Those were real gers built of felt with a foundation dug partly under ground to keep them warm in winter, not the fancy wooden round buildings like Sailyugem park yurts in Altai.
The nomadic culture in Mongolia is a living and breathing phenomenon and especially in the North-Western part, the region we visited first. Most of the population here is more or less nomadic traveling with their herds from one place to anoter depending on the availability and nutritiousness of the grass. The land belongs to the state and hence everybody is free to set up their yurts and pasture their cattle, sheep and horses on the first come first principle wherever they like.
In my imagination Mongolia was mainly hilly steppes and a lot of green grass. The reality that met the eye, though, was somewhat different. The landscape kept changing but it was generally very mountainous and the grass was mostly brown, not green at all. Numerous lakes and mountain rivers enlivened the otherwise dry scenery.
Considering the amount of rivers and lakes, it is quite amazing that nomadic Mongols had not developed fish eating tradition in the course of their history. Naturally, the modern city dwellers in Ulaan Baatar appreciate all kinds of seafood but in earlier times and also in the rural areas today, fish was considered poor man’s last resort or next to unedible. In general, talking about the food in Mongolia, especially in the out-of-the-way areas that are not so much influenced by the modern trends, it makes you wander what is the average life span of the nomads and other villagers: it is almost impossible to get anything other than meat and potatoes and cabbage at best. It certainly is tough for a non-meat eater like myself. I was told that some people, usually the females, practice vegetarianism but normally not longer than a couple of years at most − allegedly, meat is too great a temptation.
Great horsemen as the Mongols are, the first things that we happen to stumble over was local Naadam festival and as this was a Saturday, it was the day of horse racing. In a completely remote village, there were hundreds if not thousands of people and about triple as many horses gathered in the steppe. Gers were set up to cook and serve local delicacies and families had arrived with children and grandparents for spending the weekend camping next to the festival ground. Horses were grouped according to their age and race distances were measured accordingly. For example young horses just over one year had to run 12 km, their riders being also in the age of 6 to 8. The quickest obviously was the winner. Next to the food gers, bookmakers had set up their shops and active betting was heating up the atmosphere. Unfortunately we could not stay until Sunday when other traditional kinds of sports like archery and wrestling were to take place. Well, maybe next time…
It is remarkable how Mongols until today live under the wings of their legendary great leader Genghis Khan and how they still try to prove the supremacy of their nation. National pride is certainly a progressive force but the claims that all the great people from Ashkenazy jews to Queen Elizabeth II are direct descendants of the Mongols makes one wander…
Western Mongolia is truly out of the way from the main tourist path: the best possible overnight in the world’s Northermost desert was in the roof tents on top of our loyal Land Cruisers. The feeling under the clear starry sky in the cold night with minus degrees must have been quite the same that the once so feared Mongol soldiers experienced. You sleep where your mount stops and make do with the comfort that you and your horse can carry. Luckily Toyotas are a bit roomier than the wooden horse saddles of Mongols were, but undeniably: while desert nights are known to be cold, then the golden and pink dunes sitting on permafrost exude an icey breath towards the Moon and everything and everybody in between.
Numerous two-humped Bactrian camels, though, did not seem to mind the cold – their thick woollen coats were protecting them from any weather, hot or cold. The nomadic people, though, do not only herd camels but also cattle, goats, sheep and horses. After waking into a glorious desert morning we continued our way on the tracks meandering between all the crazing animals in slightly more grassy areas. The roads in our understanding do not yet exist here, but like all roads that are supposed to lead to Rome, the tracks finally take you to your destination or at least to the right direction if you navigate with a compass. In order to make the travel more convenient, there is always a possibility to stop by a nomadic household consisting of gers and usually a tired traveller is invited inside and treated to a cup of airag, fermented horse milk that tastes heavenly, resembling a mixture of yoghurt, kefir and ordinary sour milk with a slight degree of alcoholic content. The entrance of a ger as a rule is facing the South as the coldest winds blow from the North. The Eastern side is the female area where the stove’s mouth is pointing and an airag making leather bag is hanging on the wall next to the door. The master of the house has his bed to the East and an honoraray guest is seated by the Northern wall, furthest away from the entrance. The usual snacks offered with airag are dried curds and cream, made from cow milk.
In order to produce delicacies like airag, the family has to own a whole herd of horses because mares are not exactly as productive milk machines as cows. And to milk a horse is an entirely different matter than milking a cow or goat or even sheep. Horse milking requires the effort of at least two people: one comes with the mare and another with the colt that gets the first right for suckling and only after he is delicately taken aside, the mare can be milked for human consumption.
Besides domestic animals there are also wild herds − the Przewalski’s horse. One has to be lucky to see them in the wild as they are quite shy animals, usually coming down from their mountain pastures to drink or play in the valleys at dusk or daybreak. The best chances of sighting are in Hustai National Park that has been created specially for them. We were lucky enough to see several herds, one of them more than 20 heads, consisting of stallions, mares and playful naughty youngsters and foals, all of them golden beige with black tails and light muzzles. As summer had already waved its goodbyes, the horses had grown their thick winter coats and were not in the least bothered by the icy Northern winds blowing through the valley. Nature is adapting to the winter in Mongolia by the beginning of September.
Buddhism is the main religion in Mongolia and needless to say the whole country is studded with stupas and smaller or bigger temples. As in Southern Siberia, Shamanism and Buddhism are going hand in hand also here. Next to stupas erected on mountain passes are stone heaps called ovoos and also completely pagan symbols created from wooden poles − all co-exist peacefully.
The destiny of the monasteries, however, has been and is a bit different. During the communist era in the last century, they were mostly either destroyed or used as storages, workshops or in the best case made into museums. By today, some of them have been rebuilt thanks to kind sponsors and their donations. The prevailing school is Gelug or Yellow Cap and obviously, Dalai Lama’s photos are displayed in every temple, no matter how big or small. Unlike any other country where I have visited the temples, the Holy Man’s pictures here show him in his youth − actually a different but refreshing approach.
The main centres of religious learning are Erdene Zuu and Ganden, the latter situated in Ulaan Baatar. As is custom in Buddhist countries, young boys can have their education either in ordinary schools or they can choose a monastic career up to PhD in religion. At both afore-mentioned monasteries the traditional morning rituals also work as ordinary school classes: while the senior, older and wiser monks are chanting in earnest in the centre of the temple, the back rows are occupied by naughty monastery school boys with their teachers and tutors who try to keep an eye on the class where many boys have their own distractions in the form of iphone games, pieces of paper or God knows what else. The overall atmosphere is easy and relaxed, not a single time did I notice any angry glares from the older monks or annoyed glances by tutors − smiles and gentle ways obviously work as well. By the way, this is not the case in all similar temples, I have been present at much stricter classes in Bhutan.
The government’s position towards religion, however, is somewhat dubious: the monks are encouraged to have a family and households at the side. It makes you wander, if the communist rule has actually disappeared or it has just turned another side of its ideological face…
Though the average population density in Mongolia is 2 per square kilometre, the reputedly coldest capital on Earth Ulaan Baatar stuns with nightmarish traffic jams − it might take an hour to cover 2 kilometres in the centre of the city and I am not talking about the rush hour. Like any other metropolis of the world Ulaan Baatar (‘the Red Hero’) is vibrant, noisy and offers something for every taste.
As a pleasant surprise to a visitor it is not uncommon that Mongolians regardless of their age and place of living, be it a remote village or the capital itself, dress in their traditional robe deel − a silk gown that is drawn tightly around the waste by a colourful sash. Needless to say that hand-made boots go with it.
Genghis Khan is held in such a high esteem that many place names, enterprises etc bear a hint to his grandeur. Allegedly the reason is that he was a real self-made man: left to die with his siblings in the desert at the age of 9, forced to eat the lowest of the foods, fish, he came out it, advanced in rank in the army and during his lifetime managed to achieve the indescribable expansion of the Mongol Empire. In his honour Mongols have erected a statue that reputedly is the highest horse rider’s monument in the world.
Before reaching the border crossing, we pass through vast emptiness − for want of a better word this is the best description of the endless steppes where the eye meets only occasional horse herds. The closest town to Ereentsav control point is Choibalsan named after the communist leader who apparently is still held in that much esteem that the city has not been renamed. As the point is close to Russia and China, it is full of people in all kinds of military uniforms. Considering the fact that the great joint excercise between Russia, Mongolia and China have just ended, this is not exactly surprising. In this remote place, though, I see something that I even could not imagine existed: namely, in the middle of a sunny day, all of a sudden, air was so full of small flies that it was impossible to breathe and even less keep the eyes open. People covered their heads and faces and rushed into the nearby buildings for cover. The whole scene was like from a movie by Alfred Hitchcock. In some time, luckily, slight wind started blowing and the insects began disappearing but when we looked down in front of the feet, we saw a several cm thick layer of fallen flies. Only then I understood what it meant when people in Siberia warned us that mosquitos are nothing compared to midges.
Something that totally surprised me was the transformation of an otherwise totally dull town at the nightfall. People in Choibalsan had decided to make their life exciting by installing light and sound design in the riverside park and virtually all the bigger buildings along the main avenue. We know that Las Vegas is plain in the broad daylight and acquires its grandeur only at night, but to see something like that in a North-Western Mongolian small town, one and a half day trip away from the capital, is pretty amazing.
Entering “Matushka Rossia” (‘Mother Russia’) this time is pretty exotic: the border between Mongolia and Russia in Ereentsav-Solovyevsk seems to be forgotten by the God and people alike. On the Mongolian side the “international highway” leading to the neighbouring country is in reality a barely noticeable track and that for hundreds of kilometres. The basic guideline is to follow the railroad that once upon the Soviet time has transported the Russian army to their bases close to Choibalsan. The customs is the working both for trains and cars, so that when we finally arrived at the border we had to wait for a train to be checked before our turn came. This may sound as a long wait and a time consuming process, but in reality there is possibly maximum one cargo train per day, if even that and may be the same number of cars. Hence both customs take their time for checking in order to pass away the long working hours in somewhat useful way…
Our next visit was to be Aginskoye Buddhist monastery, but en route we made a stop at the alleged birth place of Genghis Khan. The Mongolians obviously claim a different place for the great man’s first sunlight and needless to say, within the limits of present-day Mongolia. However, considering the fact that Mongolia’s borders have changed in the course of time, it is not so impossible that Buryat Land can as well be the place. Be it as it is, we happened to be at the place when a holy star had risen and many Buryat pilgrims were flocking to banks of the River Onon in order to get energized for the forthcoming cold winter months. The whole scenery is breath-takingly beautiful with bare rocks in sculptural shapes resembling heart, liver, cradle etc in the steppe grass and according to their shape being used as treatment of respective disorders. From top of Genghis home cliff the river valley lies in front of us in its autumn glory of flaming red, orange and yellow. The place was enveloped in eerie silence as if some mysterious spirit was watching us. For Buryats the area is a destination of pilgrimage as well as a place for health treatment.
Aginskoje Monastery welcomed us with warm heart despite the onsetting cold weather. We were received by the Abbot Badma Lama and shown around not only the monastery premises by also at the Buddhist Academy were they teach the Tibetan language, Buddhist philosophy and first and foremost, Tibetan medicine. The number of students is not too big as most of the teaching is done on the basis of individual tutoring. The graduates will later continue their path in different monastic academies of the world. The medical faculty, though, prepares not only doctors but mostly the graduates find work as manual therapists and masseuses. It is said that to become a doctor in Tibetan medicine you have to have talent, be hard-working and the path is very long. A specific feature that Aginskoje Academy is promoting and studying is the use of local Siberian herbs and other matter in preparing medicines. They go as far as stating that the Siberian nature gives much more powerful substances than the originals in Tibet.
The road from Aginskoye to Nerchinsk is lined by birch forests that in their autumn decore resemble jewelry of white gold for stems with tender oxidized black branches embellished with a few remaining yellow leaves. The once great city of Nerchinsk that has played such important role in the history as a Sino-Russian trade port, silver mining centre and signing of the first ever border treaty between Russia and China in 1689, is today a sleeping beauty waiting for the prince to come and kiss it awake. Much of the former glory can still be noticed in the form of derelict palaces and gardens, but for how long more before they finally fall apart, is another question altogether. Nerchinsk with its silver and gold mines was also a feared place for exile and forced labour, its most famous convicts being the Decembrists. As if a memory of those gruesome bygone times, a modern prison is still in full use on the banks of the Nercha River.
There are two officially declared Jewish countries that I know, one of them known to everybody − Israel, and the other maybe less known − Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East with the capital Birobidzhan. On the basis of all the information that I managed to collect prior to our trip, I was fairly certain that there might be anything in Birobidzhan but Jews or Jewish culture.
To my pleasant surprise, though, the picture was somewhat different. We arrived in the eve of Sukkot, the Jewish Feast of Ingathering, into a town that had put on its best festival robe of light and decorations. In the courtyard of the Synagogue was a tabernacle where men spent most of their time of the week. Obviously, as it is equal to Shabbath, work was not encouraged, but there are enough non-Jewish people in the city to do the necessary and keep everything running including the normal function of the Synagogue and the Jewish Culture Centre.
A big difference between the big brother Israel and its little sibling, though the elder being founded only in the 1930s, is the language. Russian is spoken in both of them but of the Jewish tongues Yiddish is the preferred one in Birobidzhan. At least theoretically it is so. In practice, it seems that Russian is the lingua franca here despite Yiddish being taught at the schools. Some Yiddish words definitely caught my ear even in everyday speech with us foreigners.
In the 1990s there was a huge emigration wave to Israel, up to 25,000 was the number offered by various sources, out of which by far not all were Jews. Today, the traffic has not only slowed down, but some people are returning to their homeland in the Far East which is not so surprising considering that there are several programs that promote the reimmigration. And truth be told, the city of Birobidzhan is well-kept and neat with an overall calm and friendly atmosphere.
Many of the Siberian cities have been built on the banks of mighty rivers. But the ones on the Amur or on its tributaries excel with their embankment promenades. Be it the border point and trade centre Blagoveschchensk or Khabarovsk or Birobidhzan − they all have a common feature in beautifully carved embankment promenades with sculptures of their founders or other dignitaries that have played an important role in the city’s development.
Our visit to the Jewish city would probably have been much less interesting, had we not met the local volunteer museum guide, a former Asst. Professor of geography Boris Mikhailovich Golub who took us all under his wings and walked us through the history of Yiddishkeit in Birobidzhan. Hereby my greatest thanks to him!
On the way towards the Amur there is a “brand new” city called Tsiolkovsky. This is the new space centre of Russia that was built after Baikonur appeared on the territory of another country − Kazakhstan. The entrance to that place is obviously restricted and on the basis of special permits only, but the little that we managed to glimpse at through pouring rain and closed fence was impressive enough. A very state of the art rail station that looks as if it could take you directly to the outer space and buildings that left me watching mouth agape. Next time, if that ever comes, I will do everything in my powers to get a permission and tour in Tsiolkovsky.
I have been waiting to see the Amur peoples, and there are many of them − Nanai, Udeghe, Olche, Orche (the spelling in different sources might vary) etc. Finally we arrive at Sikachi Alyan which is not really more than 80 km from the city of Khabarovsk. It is the village of the Nanai people that are allegedly the successors of the Jurchens who in their turn founded the Jin dynasty in China, in the 12−13 c, just before the Yuan Dynasty originating from Genghis Khan.
Today the Nanai live a kind of idyllic life on the banks of the Amur and subside mainly on fishing aside from trying to revive their once greater culture and language that the Soviet regime effectively almost erased from the face of the Earth. During the Soviet era any shamanism was considered an “anti-people” activity as well as speaking some kind of aboriginal language. Most certainly, this has left a deep imprint on the fates of several nations that were incorporated into the great Russian empire already before the revolution in 1917. It seems that unlike the people that were occupied as a consequence of WW II, such as the Baltics, anybody that lived under the tsar’s wings was autuomatically taken for Russian and there was no way that they could continue living within the lines of their own culture. This concerns almost all the Siberian and Far-Eastern peoples and only now I notice that there is some kind of Renaisssance movement going on in Sakha, Buryatia, Tyva and also along the Amur. The difference between the afore-mentioned and the Amur people, though, is that while the former have still managed to keep their identity, then the latter have freely mixed between themselves and with Russians and their languages have thus more or less disappeared. The matters are made worse by the fact that there has been no earlier written language found and all writing today is being done in Cyrillic. Nevertheless, taking into account that several programs calling for tenders in Russia, even if they are a replica of the EU project economy, help to promote the revival of the small forgotten cultures, the development is rather towards better than worse. I have actually visited the same Nanai village about 10 years ago and there is an enormous difference between then and now: then it was the Amur backwaters with some drunken aborigines and today it is an ethno-village, a little kitschy, but earnestly trying to be Nanais even if their parents happen to be Orche, Olche, Udeghe or Korean.
Shamanism that has always been a part of the Amur culture has been eradicated during the Soviet regime as well and the present-day new shamans may descend from the old roots but need to get their instructions and invocation from the Buryat or Tyvinian masters. The locals whom they should be serving, on the other hand, think that the new stock lacks the proper powers of their ancient Gods as their initiation is done by the foreign ones.
Although, all the “aboriginal” languages are being taught at schools today, the problem of not knowing their own tongue lies also in the fact that almost all the families are based on mixed marriages: Nanais with Udeghes or Orchas or Koreans or Russians and the same goes about all of them.
The traditional life style is slowly getting new wind under the wings by the state handing out a patch of forest, land and river for each ethnic family to stick to their centuries old ways of hunting, fishing and gathering of medicinal herbs.
In the Udeghe villages the picture is quite similar to Nanais − mixed and a bit confused people that are trying to find their roots. Most of the Udeghe land, however, is on the tributary of the Amur, the Bikin river. Bikin area in its turn has been converted to a national park functioning as the tiger and leopard reserve. I was mildly surprised to hear that actually the locals are not afraid or wary of the big cats and they meet them frequently. They were more worried about the taiga being cut outside the park area and thus leaving less habitat for the “cat meal” − wild boar, deer et al. Everybody maintained that the number of tigers has grown considerably in the park and the people were proud of their feline neighbours. Having done a fair share of traveling, this is not the usual approach from the local population as most farmers would not like to have predatory animals close to their households. Luckily, the Udeghes and other Amur people are less farmers and more hunters and fishermen and they know quite well how to make good living out of having a growing tiger population and tourists willing to be part of a taiga experience. And thank God, the roads leading to the Bikin area are not directly inviting for less adventurous travelers, hence yet no threat of mass tourism spoiling it all.
Sitting by the camp fire (there are basically no hotels or even organized camps, so one has to be ready for some really wild stay) with two Udeghe men, we heard a number of local stories and one of them was quite extraordinary. They told about a French lady and her boyfriend that several years ago happened to cycle to the village. As if in a fairytale, the lady met her life’s love in that remote spot of the world. Instead of leaving with romantic memories and going back home, she sent her boyfriend home and herself returned to the village, married the Udeghe man and became an esteemed member of the community. Were it a true fairytale, they would have had children and lived happily ever after. Life, though, is not enyirely so sweet and some years later, her husband got killed caught in some local family feud. But the lady stayed in the community with her three kids and today everybody knows the brave hunter woman that takes care of her late husband’s lot of forests and lands.
Our expedition is irreversibly approaching its final destination in Vladivostok. Just before the end, we take a detour to the formerly closed military area where the Southernmost lighthouse of Russia is situated. The whole peninsula is a picturesque place of small villages and mostly wild nature and unspoilt white sandy beaches with turqoise waters washing the upright cliff islands that grow out of the sea like gigantic mushrooms. Again, there are no roads, just directions, and if you wish to drive from one cove to another you have to have patience and a good mode of transport − a horse, mountain bike or a very substantial four wheel drive.
Ernest Hemingway has said that there is at least one Estonian in every port in the world and at this remotest place in Russia where today even ports have ceased to exist − earlier the coves functioned as harbours for Soviet submarines − we met an Estonian. He had been born in the Far East to a Russian mother and an Estonian father who had served as captain in the Soviet Navy. Obviously, regardless of his very Nordic appearance and estonian name, he did not speak the language any more, but we still felt that we run into a compatriot. Thanks to him and his lovely wife we managed to see more of the peninsula with its capes, gulfs and coves than we otherwise would even have dreamed of.
As if closing the story of our Siberian adventure that began with nerpa seals performing for us at the mouth of the Ola river in the Far North, a herd of nerpas appeared in the cove of Saviour and played in the glittering waters. In another cove a curious kotik popped up his head from the sea to check who are the crazy two-legged creatures swimming so late in the year.
The visit to the lighthouse was an educational one. The building, still in active use, is not really open for public but in Russia there are no impossible things. It was built at the end of the 19th century by a French architect and with its one meter thick stone walls and nearly 3 metres deep foundation in the mountain it is meant to last at least for 600 years. Despite the heavy winds gushing through the gulf, it probably will as well. The lighthouse warden had lived in this lonely spot with his cat Mishka for 8 years and said that he will leave the place only for the other world. Besides the winds, the place is the sunniest during daytime and starriest at night in the Far East and I could sort of understand the giant of a former seaman and his cat.
The more we see of the Far East, the more I appreciate in some perverse way that they have formerly been closed military areas. It might be a paradox, but their closed status has kept their virginity. The military has built some ugly structures but generally left the land and sea untouched which would not have happened if real estate developers had had their say. The same goes even about a big city like Vladivostok: it was a highly restricted area until the beginning of the 1990s with access on the basis of special permits only. Consequently, there are some less appealing apartment blocks in the suburbs that had housed the navy officers’ families but the centre of the city is virtually as it was before the army stepped in − beautiful old houses from the end of the 19th century and new totally state of art structures popping up on the shoreline. The overall impression is that of a promising metropolis on the coast of the Sea of Japan, a worthy competitor to Hongkong in not so far future.
Especially impressive are the new bridges: the Golden Bridge called Mama by the people and the Russian Bridge called Papa. In order to decipher those nicknames one has to see them. I have seen many legendary bridges in the world but those less known ones here are definitely worth seeing, both in daylight and at night: airy structures that cross not only the gulfs of the sea but also hover above newly built skyscrapers.
We arrived in Vladivostok on the last day of September which happened to be the Day of Tiger. The whole city centre was resembling Ussuri taiga where tigers roam freely − feline symbolics everywhere and many people wearing tiger and leopard costumes. In general, Valdivostok considers itself, among other things, also the capital of tigers: there are tiger paths, sculptures, art, music − all connected, one way or another, to the big cats. Close to Vladivostok is also the Amur Tiger rehabilitation centre where actually a lot of work is being done in order to increase the number of the once almost extinct species.
I truly hope that all the fuss around the big cats also leads to positive results.
Special thanks: Toyota Baltic AS, Lexus Tallinn, 4x4kool.ee, Matkasport, Vadim Redkin, Jaanus Piirsalu, Väino Laisaar, Andrey Shidlovskiy, Aimar Ventsel, Aado Lintrop, Tuuli Roosma, Aigar Ojaots, Boris Leikin
Read more from the travel magazine GO Reisiajakiri 6 / 2018 an interview by Tiit Pruuli Peeter Vähi − tagasi Venemaal (‘… − back in Russia’)
See also: Silk Road Tour, African Round ja Arctica-Antarctica 2010