Gagarin on Wintersong

February is Wintersong month on Transform Siberia. I am playing music to take your winter blues away.

Yuri Gagarin, first man in space. Most cities in Russia have a street named for him. I take Gagarin street into the city center everyday.

This video has dancing cosmonauts! What could possibly be better? Your winter has just been made, you’re welcome.

Steel Wranglin’ Vaqueros

Sasha cuttin' rail with a diamond bladed saw. I waited four nights to get this shot!

Sasha cuttin’ rail with a diamond bladed saw. I waited four nights to get this shot!

These boys bulldog steel!

Between cigarettes, these boys bulldog steel!

Sparks turn contemplative in the ambient glow of Uncle Vanya's cutting torch.

Sparks turn Lyoha and Seryoga contemplative in the ambient glow of Uncle Vanya’s cutting torch.

Opportunity knocked this fall. Actually, she bucked. Like an unbroke ten ton bronc, she rudely threw me about the cabin of the Ulan-Ude city tram, which is why I had taken to calling the tram lines in our region of the city “Rodeo Drive”. Accent on the first o. The steel rails climbing Bald Hill in Shishkovka, our gritty part of the city, humped and divoted their way up to our tram stop where we deposited ourselves; stumblers on solid pavement, eyes all a spin. Now I didn’t pay it no mind, riding roughshod up and down, back and forth between the city center. My gallop called forth the west where hard grinnin’ men lose their hats and seats on busting out beasts. I could feel the fairgrounds dust grit between my pearlies.

I failed to recognize that ride as opportunity, that is until the day I saw the iron vaqueros in their wheeled excavators, track loaders, and cranes converging like jaw licking wolves on a horse with a bum leg. The rails were about to make their exit, under cover of the Siberian night. Lacerating steel with blades and torches, men doing heavy work, that friends, is opportunity knocking to a fella bent on shooting his camera.

Uncle Vanya has got a fiery glint in his eye. Bolt cuttin' like nobody's business

Uncle Vanya has got a fiery glint in his eye. Bolt cuttin’ like nobody’s business

With bated breath, I slapped together my gear, slid into my long johns, and went to scout up the boss. The boys were cutting that steel, kicking hot sparks like meteors into the dark. That is what I wanted to capture. But permission from the headman would put me in everyone’s good graces. Who wants to agitate gents who fling rails like they were toothpicks, right?

Clearing the ties of extra weight. Each span of rail was approximately twenty yards in length.

Clearing the ties of extra weight. Each span of rail was approximately twenty yards in length.

Hammerin' spikes home like it ain't no thang.

Hammerin’ spikes home like it ain’t no thang.

The boss, Alexander, was pleased to make my acquaintance, in part because we were тёзки (tyozki) which means we have the same name. Alexander in Russia is as common as Jason in the States. I meet a passel of “samely named” hombres out here on the steppe, and it’s always a pleasure. Really. When a stern faced Russian breaks into full grin while bestowing a hearty handshake proclaiming “We are tyozki!”, you find yourself in friendly territory. Play your hand right, and you will win a new friend. In Siberia, finding a friend is better than finding Kolchack’s lost treasure.

I told Alexander what was on my mind, and he gave me free-reign to the work-site. He told me his crew would be rustling old track to lay down new from 8 pm to 6 am the next four days. Siberian Jackpot! Four glorious nights of dusty, diesel fueled steel wranglin’, amen.

It was time to meet the bread and butter of Ulan-Ude, a salty group no doubt, friendly, funny, and ready to share what they do with someone genuinely interested. Each night when I showed up out of the gloom to shoot more images, they met me with a grin. They were glad to have the American around, to joke with, ask questions of, and maybe show off just a bit to. If they were showing off, it was their skills, slangin’ sledges and rails like they were first graders visiting kindergarten again.

The Iron Vaqueros of Siberia. L-R Munkho, Lyoha, ?, Sasha "Handmade", Andrusha, and Seryoga

The Iron Vaqueros of Siberia. L-R Munkho, Lyoha, ?, Sasha “Handmade”, Andrusha, and Seryoga

Uncle Vanya, and Sasha whose last name literally means “hand made” were cutting bolts. Down the hill another fella operated a pavement saw, built by the hand of Sasha “Handmade” with miscellaneous parts found at the shop. Now that is Russian ingenuity! I clicked, clicked, and clicked torches and saws spitting flaming steel for the stars. When I showed Yulia a few images, she immediately suggested that the boys should be wearing protective masks. I queried Uncle Vanya on that very point, my answer coming in the form of an uninterested shrug. Around here, protective gear is for softies. About the only thing Uncle Vanya needed was a lit cigarette. If he had a smoke in his snout, his torch cut like butter. Now, when Uncle Vanya and I breached the subject of pike fishing, well . . . his eyes lit up like two cancer sticks burning bright, in the forests of the night. In heaven I know where I’ll find Uncle Vanya. He’ll be snaggin’ great pikes near the banks of the River of LIfe!

Uncle Vanya has a magic torch. And he thinks protective gear is for sissies.

Uncle Vanya has a magic torch. And he thinks protective gear is for sissies.

Uncle Vanya shows his golden tail.

Uncle Vanya shows his golden tail.

Sasha, Andrei, Munkho, Lyoha and Sergei are bruisers. It was something watching the boys set upon new rail, line it up, ram it flush, bolt it in and spike it home. Real steel wranglers. It’s a manly pleasure, using combustion, pneumatic pressure, and torque to put tons of steel were you damn well please. When their minds were set, they became like a single being willing the steel to do their bidding. Each knew the other so well that barely a word bawled over the wail of steel rail under sledge hammer. Business. Got. Done.

Munkho, ready to dig to . . . hmm, China isn't that far . . . Oh, I know! Puerto Natales, Chile! It is the anitpode of Ulan-Ude. Antipode? Global opposite.

Munkho, ready to dig to . . . hmm, China isn’t that far . . . Oh, I know! He’s ready to tunnel to  Puerto Natales, Chile. It is the anitpode of Ulan-Ude. Antipode? Global opposite.

Munkho takes a breather. He looking like a stoic Greek philosopher-poet. He was full of funny stories and quick retorts.

Munkho takes a breather, looking all stoic Greek philosopher-poet. He was full of funny stories and quick retorts.

While the boys waited for the Alexander the crane operator to lasso the next span of rail into place, or the excavator to tear up the old rail bed, we shot the breeze. Subjects for confab included river spearfishing, ale, the Ukraine, English study, profanity and other Russian language specifics, the fairer sex, similarities and differences between Siberia and Montana/USA and of course vodka. I find myself satisfying similar questions time and again, but I don’t sweat it. Them questions are expected. I am the lone ‘Merican they have chanced upon. I answer those questions faster than I can bulldog a steer, granted, I ain’t never bulldogged no steer!

This is another Alexander, crane operator. He could lay thirty tons neatly on your head. He fulfilled every boys dream when he let me climb on his crane!

This is another Alexander, crane operator. He could lay thirty tons neatly on your head. He fulfilled every boys dream when he let me climb on his crane!

Alexander, crane operating angel.

Alexander, patron saint of heavy construction and steel workers. He’s got a halo and everything.

I hung out with those boys for hours. I enjoy immensely the opportunity to kick it with Siberians, it’s a pleasure. Recording authentic people in their element is how you get to know a place. Politicians, oligarchs, and movie stars? Reckon I’d rather you pluck my teeth with pliers! Give me the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker every time. Now them are people!

I called her an evening, and ambled into the homestead just as wife was pulling piping banana bread out the caboose. She said, “You wanna treat the boys?” First and only time those fellas get hot from the oven, home made and hand delivered sweet bread from an American in Siberia. I’d stake my life on that. The boys offered thanks, demolished aforementioned bread and got straight back to business.

Four hours and several spans later, with all new track laid, Rodeo drive was transformed. I thank those boys every time I take a smooth tram ride home. After five nights of slavin’ in rain and snow, they stretched their weary bones, rubbed their sleepy peepers and packed it in. With only one thing on their mind, they mounted their diesel equines, and road off into the . . .  *ahem* sunrise, lookin’ for a bed to bunk in.

Ridin' bolts of Rodeo drive. (The streets is really called Young Communist St.)

Ridin’ bolts of Rodeo drive. (The streets is really called Young Communist St.)

Seryoga has a knack for whackin' track into place. Andrusha, right, gifted me whole bag of home roasted pine nuts. Thank you Andrusha!

Seryoga has a knack for whackin’ track into place. He patiently answered all my questions, and seemed to quietly will the tracks into their bed.  Andrusha, right, gifted me whole bag of home roasted pine nuts. Thank you, Andrusha!

Sasha "Handmade" was a master with many tools, and wasn't too shy to pick up a shovel.

Sasha “Handmade” was a master with many tools, and wasn’t too shy to pick up a shovel.

Now you seem him, now he's gone. Uncle Vanya vanishes into the dark Siberian night.

The ghost of Uncle Vanya appears and vanishes into the dark Siberian night.

Adventure? New experiences with new faces is a rousing form of social adventure. You mightn’t have the coin, occasion, or inclination for transcontinental jet-setting, but that’s OK. A someone adventure can’t be more than a few doors down from your familial stomping grounds. Going new places is grand. Learning new folks grander yet. World exploration by befriending her people in your own back yard has never been easier. Travel the world you might, but you will never know a place, if you don’t engage her people. So engage people, people!

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/be-the-change/

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/new/

Happy Siberian 2015!

Soviet Square, Ulan-Ude, decked out for 2015.

Soviet Square, Ulan-Ude, decked out for 2015. The central “avenue” you see is the terminus of an ice slide 75 yards behind me.

Happy 2015! We are getting close to the New Year here in Ulan-Ude, it is just over two hours away. I went out in -15 F to capture some of the festive Siberian spirit. I have photographed in colder, but I admit my fingers turned to bricks, and I had resort to sticking those ice bricks in my pants, I mean IN MY PANTS. You dance a bit, but you can warm up frozen photographer’s appendages fast!

Our Siberians are bundled in all types of fur, from reindeer hide boots, to sable coats and fox, rabbit or hats of mink. Ice is king during the New Year, and right this moment kiddies and their Moms and Pops alike are sliding down ice slides with shrieks of glee. The first round of celebratory fireworks have met their match so to speak, but there are numerous rounds to come. A Very Happy New Year to you, from us on the steppe! Next up, Christmas! Russia celebrates Christmas day on the seventh of January.

Fireworks bust over Lenin's head to cheer the hearts of the people.

Fireworks bust over Lenin’s head to cheer the hearts of the people.

2015 is the year of the goat. And that is who you see lit and enthroned in ice with the Opera theater in the background.

2015 is the year of the goat. And that is who you see lit and enthroned in ice with the Opera theater in the background.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/getting-seasonal/

Dashing Eastern Nomads: Khori Tribe

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Khori Buryats in the late 1800’s.

Ahhhh, this is what black and white is missing. Color! A Khori family at Altargana 2014.

Ahhhh, this is what black and white is missing. Color! A Khori family at Altargana 2014.

A true beauty of Buryatia in a contemporary stylized take on traditional dress.

A true beauty of Buryatia in a stylized take on traditional dress.

There is something mystical about those who have gone before us. I can’t help but wonder about them. Who were they apart from the labels of race, color, sex and place we humans apply to one another? What I wouldn’t give to be able sit by their fire, and be privy to their real lives. To find common ground, mutual respect, and appreciation for their unique stories. These are the fancies of an idealist I realize. If one were to appear in some other place and time, the grappling to cope with a whole different understanding and worldview would be mind bending. A swift arrow in the eye might be the quick end of a well meaning visit to people from a century.

Pondering their images makes me itch. Itch to have an intimate experience, a shared moment of humanity with them in laughter or mourning. Our gateway to the past is her descendants, we the people of now. Meeting the people of now is fascinating and harrowing. Fascinating because they carry in them those who came before. Harrowing because meeting new people, while exciting, is not always pleasant or easy. Certainly it is worth it. For people in any age are the real treasure of this hurtling ball of mud.

You will find in this post images of Buryats from central Siberia, and the great Mongolian plateau which stretches from the Lake Baikal basin in Siberia to China in what is known as Inner Mongolia. Grab yourself a cup of tea or coffee, sit back down, and dally over their photos while you sip. Consider their demeanor, their dress. Just imagine what their eyes might have seen. Buryats have covered the width and breadth of this land on horseback, camel-back, and even yack-back! Inter tribal strife and drastically changing political atmospheres have cast them far from their home steppe. And so, among the four main tribes, Bulagat, Ekhirit, Khongodor and Khori, you find groups of Buryats referred to by locality, such as the Shenehen Buryats and the Selenginski Buryats. This came about as a result of groups of Buryats picking up and migrating, in the case of the Shenehen Buryats to save their own lives. Many, though not all of the Shenehen Buryats are Khori.

Shenehen – “New Land”

From a new world perspective, a person can’t help but shake his head in wonder at the situation that forced Buryats to escape from Siberia, . . . into the relative safety and freedom of China! Who escapes to China? (Besides of course North Koreans.) While Shenehen Buryats made a prosperous life for themselves in Inner Mongolia (China) they pined for their homeland. With the abrupt change the termination of the USSR summoned, a gateway home opened in the 90’s, and they have been returning to their former homelands since, bringing with them many traditions that were lost here in Siberia while Communism ruled the roost. In Ulan-Ude, a walk along virtually any major street will soon enough bring you to a “Shenehen” cafe featuring traditional Buryat fare. When I appeared in Ulan-Ude circa 1998, there was nothing of the sort. Since that time, Shenehen has become synonymous with tradition, quality, and authentic Buryat cuisine.

Bayasal in the process of earning bronze for his vocal prowess at Altargana 2014. Singing is a beloved practice of the Buryats and they admire great vocal artistry. Which is why on our cramped bus returning from the far reaches of Khentii Aimag to Ulaanbaatar, Bayasal gave us an encore presentation! (Find out more about Altargana by following the links at the end of this article.)

Bayasal in the process of earning bronze for his vocal prowess at Altargana 2014. Singing is a beloved practice of the Buryats and they admire great vocal artistry. Which is why on our cramped bus returning from the far reaches of Khentii Aimag to Ulaanbaatar, Bayasal gave us an encore presentation! (Find out more about Altargana by following the links at the end of this article.)

Bayasal with a relaxing grin after his performance. His family recently moved to Ulan-Ude from Hailar in China.

Bayasal with a relaxing grin after his performance. His family recently moved to Ulan-Ude from Hailar in China.

Virtually all of these Buryats pictured are Khori, some of them Shenehen, and some not. They are all unique and beautiful, representative of the characteristics Buryats model to the world around them, industriousness, boldness in the face of peril, artistry, steadfastness, and a particular humor bred from living in the harsh regimen and fascinating allure of steppe and taiga. Acquaint yourself with them, they are the treasure of Siberia. Imagine a ride across the steppe with these characters. Maybe you will meet them in your dreams. They are good people to ride out a storm with, but If you upset them, duck swift, cause it’s that, or an arrow in your eye!

A young Shenehen girls’ escape to China can be read here. Escape to China

The Story of the Khori

The sons and daughters of Horidoi-Mergen, (Mergen means roughly a sharp shooting archer) make up the Khori tribe and descend from Horidoi and his wife, a swan from the heavenly realms. Three sisters, swans, would at their pleasure, descend to earth to bathe in the clean waters of Lake Baikal. Removing their feathered outfits, they frolicked in the fresh water sea. Horidoi happened upon them bathing, and was taken with their beauty. Horidoi, sneaky fellow that he was, hid one of the maidens feathers. Her sisters dawned their wings and rose on the dawn, but she (Hun-Shubun which means person-swan), without her feathers, was bound to earth. Horidoi took Hun-Shubun for his bride, and they raised a family. She bore him eleven sons who became the heads of each clan of the Khori tribe. In their golden years, Hun-Shubun asked her husband if she might once again lay her eyes upon her feathered clothing to try it on. Horidoi reasoned that after so many years, and so many children she would want to stay with her family and so it would be safe to fulfil her request. I think you can guess what happened next. In an instant Hun-Shubun dawned her outfit and took off for the smoke hole in their yurt. Horidoi shouted and one of his daughters, whose hands were black with ash from cleaning a pot near the fire, grasped at her mothers webbed feet as she flew out of the yurt. That is why to this day Swans’ feet are black with the soot of the kitchen fire from Hun-Shubuns’ home of long ago.

The swan is the most important totem animal of the Khori tribe, and is regarded highly by all the Buryat tribes. The Khori, largest of the Buryat tribes reside on the eastern shores of Lake Baikal in Buryatia, and east from there into the Chitinski province right up to the border with China. Many Khori Buryats live in Northern Mongolia, and as noted above some occupy the very north of China, known to the Buryats here as Shenehen. While life here on the Siberian steppe can be harsh, the Khori have excelled here. Truly, they are the heart of central Siberia. Their vibrance and beauty provide an exotic spark and the warmth of humanity both when spring blossoms flower or icy winds howl.

You may peruse a brief general history of the Buryats here.

The red marks mainly the traditional lands of the Khori Buryats, whose tribe counts for the majority of Eastern Buryats. Map found here: http://www.face-music.ch/bi_bid/trad_costumes_en.html

The red marks mainly the traditional lands of the Khori Buryats, whose tribe counts for the majority of Eastern Buryats.  Shenehen is the lowest red area on the right, located within China’s borders. Map found here: http://www.face-music.ch/bi_bid/trad_costumes_en.html

A Khori family taking in the sites of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at Altargana 2010.

A Khori family taking in the sites of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia at Altargana 2010.

A Khori family, resplendant.

A Khori family, resplendent at Altargana 2014 in Khentii province, Mongolia.

What can be cuter than a row of Khori Buryat girls? Answer: Not a ding dang thang!

What can be cuter than a row of Khori Buryat girls? Answer: Not a ding dang thang!

These Khori Buryats have seen many a winter on the Mongolian Plateau. They don't look worse for the wear!

These Khori Buryats have seen many a winter on the Mongolian Plateau. They don’t look worse for the wear!

My friend Natasha representin' the Khori Buryat tribe on the Mongolian steppe.

My friend Natasha representin’ the Khori Buryat tribe on the Mongolian steppe.

These peeps are dressed in the outfit of Shenehen Buryats. The site I pulled it from claims they are Evenks, and certainly, Evenks have mixed with the Buryat people. The boy mid left looks particularly Envenki, but, they seem tall for Evenks from that time period. Just sayin' . . .

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These peeps are dressed in the outfit of Shenehen Buryats. The site I pulled it from claims they are Evenks, and certainly, Evenks have mixed with the Buryat people. But this family seems tall for Evenks from the 1950’s. Just sayin’ . . .

Shenehen Buryats. In case you don’t know, their hats give them away, the dark ladies, center, are wearing “working hats” which the Shenehen Buryats incorporated into their celebratory finery. All other Buryats do not wear them. Lastly, a word for the younger generation in the back row: (Holy) tallness Batman!

Once again, betrayed by her headgear, we see a Shenehen Buryat miss practicing her trade.

Once again, betrayed by her headgear, we see a Shenehen Buryat Ms. practicing her trade.

Many of these images were taken at Altargana, a festival of Buryat culture. I have written about it often, here are a couple of links you may follow to learn about it. Altargana 2014 and Altargana 2010.

All color images are mine, taken between 2010 and 2014. Black and white images are courtesy of the M.N. Khangalov Museum of History in Ulan-Ude, except the image of Shenehen Buryats which I found here: http://forum-eurasica.ru/index.php?/topic/4299-tungusy-verbliudovody/

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/warmth/

 

 

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 exotically 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 multiple 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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Postlude:
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.

Pack your bags if you dare! Altargana is in Ulan-Ude in 2016.

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