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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Converge

Sushi with a Shaman

Shamans close heaven's gates in Ulan-Ude, Siberia.

Shamans close heaven’s gates in Ulan-Ude, Siberia.

I am getting phone calls from a shaman.

Actually, she is a shamaness. Newly initiated. We’re friendly. I met her about a week before her drumming in. The morning of our meeting, I briskly packed my camera in hopes of shooting the annual shamanic ritual called “Closing Heaven’s Gates”. The previous day, I spied an announcement about the rite taped to a window in the tram. Right then and there I knew, I was going to the shamans.

The mystique of shamans is legend here in Siberia. I am sure they prefer it that way, a little swirling mystery, the potential of tapping power inaccessible to most is good for business. Shamans get respect, even from those who do not believe, because deep down inside, we wonder if, or fear, or hope their power is real.

In an effort to sidestep all the myth surrounding shamans, all the dire warnings of religious prognosticators, I disengaged my worldview, my labels, and approached these men and women as, well . . . men and women.

After being delivered by bus to the East side supermarket, I started walking the quarter mile jaunt to the Shaman’s temple currently under construction. Striding the sandy roadside, rocking Coldplay’s latest, I was oblivious to all except the sun. Softly, surely, a poom-poom-poom swelled over the stereophonic sound pulsing through my ear tubes. Confused I plucked my headphones and stopped to run a system diagnostics of my sensory faculties. My ears had not betrayed. The air was alive with ricocheting drumbeats!

Quickening my pace, I cleared the squat, time darkened homesteads for my first view of the ritual. As if on the pages of a picture book, the scene opened upon a gentle decline into the Uda river. The city ascended the far bank; industrial, commercial, and residential belts scaled the uplands, who wore cedars for a crown. Clouds, like cotton ball exclamations rode powder skies. Banners, emblazoned with totem animals of Buryat tribes snapped on zephyrs. A crowd of all ages had placed their offerings of milk, vodka, sweets, and tea on a table, and now waited patiently for the shamans.

Photographing an event is one thing, understanding what you have witnessed quite another. While I photographed, I thought, “who can explain what I am witnessing?” That is how I found myself two weeks later searching for someone in a crowd, yelling through our phones at each other over the noise of celebration. On that Wednesday afternoon I needed two things: a quiet place to sit, and a translator of ceremonies, yes, someone to clue me in to what I had witnessed. The only option for peace from the blaring loudspeakers of another state sponsored holiday was a Japanese restaurant. Now I liked the sound of that. The only hitch was, Irina, shamaness of Shishkovka (region where I live), needed a lesson in chopsticks. So, with ninja dexterity, I oversaw Irina’s chopstick apprenticeship. Her apprenticeship accomplished, over fruit and chocolate “spring-rolls” and green tea, chopsticks flashing, she brought me up to speed.

Totem flags of the Buryat people ride the wind.

Totem flags of the Buryat people ride the wind.

Scattering offerings to the North in preparation of closing heaven's gates.

Scattering offerings to the North in preparation of closing heaven’s gates.

This smiling shamaness attests to the fact that while most shamans are Buryat here, not all of them are!

This smiling shamaness attests to the fact that while most shamans are Buryat here, not all of them are!

The people gather behind a table rich with their offerings.

The people gather behind a table rich with their offerings.

Shamans call the thirteen rulers of the Baikal basin into birch trees.

Shamans call the thirteen rulers of the Baikal basin into birch trees.

The ritual ground had been set up in a square, the Shamans perched shoulder to shoulder on stools like birds flocking a power line, beaks to the sun. Drumming they were, drumming, drumming. By and by the shamans rose to make their way East, South, West, and finally North. In each cardinal direction, a fire was kindled and an offering of tea and water flung heavenward. The shamans trooped clockwise from fire to fire, the crowd respectfully bringing up the rear; all this under the drum.

Around ten years ago, a woman, making her way to the Buddhist temple, felt compelled to exit the tram car on rundown and blustery Sverdlova street. Wandering down the street aimlessly, she halted before a severe building. Raising her eyes, she saw she had come to the offices of the Tengeri religious organization of shamans. She gasped in surprise, opened the door, and went in.

Her grandma, Shage had been a great shamaness of the Khongodor tribe. In 1966 Irina, girl of 18 or 19, dreamed of grandma. For three consecutive nights, Shage, delivered a message from beyond the veil. She reminded her grand daughter of her ancestral homeland near Kukunur lake, reminded her she was shaman-born, reminded her of obligations to help her progenitors and progeny alike. Here family history collided with the political reality of Soviet Russia. You might think that back corners of Siberia were places one might get away with “anti-soviet” behavior. Not among native communities, where word travels by tongue at jet fighter speed. Memories of the thirties, when Shamans were labeled enemies of the state, were hunted down and murdered by zealous communist converts, remained branded in peoples psyches. Becoming a shaman was not something one did. And so in late middle age, after the pale of communist life had receded, Irina began pursuing the life of a Shamaness.

During the closing heaven’s gate ritual, one of the Shamans had made it known I had an all access pass, which I took full advantage of. And that is how I met Irina, who approached me to clarify. In my artistic exuberance, I had trespassed into territory exclusively reserved for spirits. Graciously she accepted my apology, we traded introductions, and phone numbers. And that is what lead to sushi with a shaman.

With directional prayers properly dispensed, the company collected within the angles of their sacred space. Now rocking on their dragon staffs, thrumming drums escort them into communion with their ancestors. After attuning their ears to the needs and advice of familial spirits, the sapphire clutch circumambulates a standing grove of recently cut birches. Spinning round, kicking up dust, they call to the 13 master-spirits who rule the Baikal basin. This is an invitation to the birch grove; a grove provided for the masters occupation.

In earnest then, they begin praying. Embroidery eyes gawk on heads in a confusion of flashing color. Forged amulets sound against polished discs and golden tiger bells. Other worldly, their appearance camouflages the voyage between worlds, faces extinguishing in black tassel. The tempo of drum beats quicken, quicken until they lurch up from stools burdened in trance. Hissing, they stalk stiffly about. Assistants and seekers of blessings both genuflect before the channeled presence. When a shaman delivers what blessings and messages the spirit had, she leaps up, up and again until the spirit takes leave. Spent, she sinks to a stool in the helping arms of other shamans.

The implements of a shaman rest for the moment.

The implements of a shaman rest, for the moment.

Bukha Noyon visits the people he protects.

Bukha Noyon, protector of the Buryat people, visits Ulan-Ude, capital of the Buryat people.

A shaman gets his trance on.

A shaman gets his trance on.

This shamaness, deep in trance hisses as she channels a spirit.

This shamaness, deep in trance hisses as she channels a spirit.

People bow before a shaman as she bestows blessings.

People bow before a shaman as she bestows blessings.

A commotion of shamans, constantly releasing from or slipping into trance; that is what chaos repeating itself looks like. Numerous people temporarily throng about one or another shaman, punctuating the ebb and flow of ceremony, and disperse back into the encircled crowd. Finally this action metamorphoses into a throbbing shaman drum team congregated about the most experienced shamans who call the thirteen into themselves. Like a delirious sunbaked octopus desperately shuffling for the sea, the host shaman staggers under the presence of spirit. Spirits answer questions and bestow their blessings of health and welfare for the winter months. The last spirit to appear is Bukha Noyon, the head of the thirteen and the protector of the Buryat people. After he is properly honored and thanked, he goes back into the birch trees, and after the trees have been paraded around the sacred space where the people may honor which ever spirits they care too, the trees are burned along with a sheep slaughtered for the occasion. The eternal blue sky welcomes these spirits into their winter domiciles, and heaven’s gates close. After the sun’s hibernal rest, the shamans will reopen it in spring.

Earlier I stated that I wanted to interact with the shamans on a human level. My reasoning was, if chose to see them first as shamans, my western scientific education would label them quacks, while my church upbringing would label them instruments of the devil. Both of these judgements seem unjust to make about people I have never met. But do you know what? Deep down, I confess, I still expected to meet conniving, drunken, shifty shamans. Imagine my surprise when instead, I met pleasant, gracious, smiling people! People I could shoot the breeze with over coffee. People who might be friends. People.

With this clear in my mind, it was so easy to set my agendas aside, and sit down with Irina to listen to her life. With nothing to prove or defend, I found it easy to laugh. I left that day knowing one soul on this earth better, my new friend, the shamaness of Shiskovka.

The shamaness of Shiskovka.

The shamaness of Shiskovka.

A long exposure to capture the feeling of what it is like to walk between worlds.

A long exposure to capture the feeling of what it is like to walk between worlds.

Shamans escort birch trees about their sacred space, before releasing the spirits into heaven. The ritual is near completion.

Shamans escort birch trees about their sacred space, before releasing the spirits into heaven. The ritual is near completion.

The birch trees used for hosting the spirits become the wood for a burnt offering. The offering, a sheep, lies on blue material amidst smoke.

The birch trees used for hosting the spirits become the wood for a burnt offering. The offering, a sheep, lies on blue material amidst smoke.

Gathering for a communal send off, the shamans escort the spirits through the gate and into heaven.

Gathering for a communal send off, the shamans escort the spirits through the gate and into heaven.

White and black shamans in prayer overlooking Ulan-Ude.

White and black shamans in prayer overlooking Ulan-Ude.

What is 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.

Ghengis Khan's grandchildren

Some of the uncountable offspring of Chingis Khan. The Buryats were riding the steppe before he came to power, and when he did, they rode with him.

The third and final part of 10,000 Miles to Altargana will be posted soon!

What is the legacy of the most prolific vanquisher in history? If you are a non-historian from the west, then all you were taught in school about Chingis (Genghis) Khan probably cemented him in your head as a rapacious bloodletter. In these parts, Siberia, Mongolia and the Central Asian Steppe, he is honored as a conqueror and saint, his halo brightening as the centuries stretch. In Mongolia he is admired like a founding father, his image is embossed on Mongolian currency, he sits in state over Ulaanbaatar’s main square. His image is everywhere. In Siberia, among native people he is viewed the same way. His image however is significantly absent from public places. This is because his image to the Soviets and Russia’s current governing powers alike is seen as dangerous and thought to encourage separatist ideas. All the same, his stoic image on carpets can be found gracing the walls of dwellings or watching over diners in restaurants and cafes. His name still rides the wind.
To dismiss Chingis Khan as meglomaniacal barbarian would be extremely short sighted. He must fall somewhere in the middle of bloodthirsty and saintly. Certainly he was a man of unmatched intelligence and sage judge of both character and potential. In a political atmosphere of constantly changing allegiances punctuated by internecine battle, Chingis kept from being slaughtered, or poisoned as his father before him. Over a quarter of the world’s population was under his dominion. He allowed religious freedom, put power in the hands of the capable instead of his relatives, he forbade the selling or kidnapping of women, a common steppe practice. He brought an incredible law system to a people who traditionally followed bowed to tradition and the whims of their clan leader. A man of stupendous talent, he is worth getting to know.

Click here for what the History Channel has to say about Chingis Khan.

Adversity is 375 Miles to Altargana

Bold presents a convenient map to lay out our journey upon.

I needed a map of Mongolia. Bold readily supplied for my needs. Here you can see the general path of our journey, I admit, it was not the straight line this illustration suggests.

*This is Part 2 of “10,000 Miles to Altargana; Festival of Nomadic Culture”

A Running Battle with Fatigue

Besought with travelers exhaustion, the whole bus conks out. Anybody remember the sunset? I didn’t think so. Perhaps we didn’t have one on account of gathering storm clouds. As fast as a Soviet bus can manoeuver dirt track in the Mongolian steppe, that is how fast we advanced. SUVs, mini vans, and Priuses lapped us. They would roll on by with a honk and a wave, often the Mongolian flag royally rippling, blue, scarlet and gold over their steppe vessel.

Things got dark, and as the road pounded up through the frame of the bus, up through the frame of your body, things got blurry. Things like reality. A hard jolt would send us all flying in a collective gasp of surprise and displeasure. Each time you sailed, your brain would run the following set of diagnostics.

Brain: “Who are you?” Me, groggily: “Mmmmm . . . Oh! Alex.” Brain: “Correct. Where are you?” Me: “Airborne in the back of a bus?!” Brain: “Insufficient. Where are you?” Me, getting hot: “I Am In AIRBORNE SYNCHRONIZATION With Twenty-Nine Buryats On A Bus BARRELING Across North-Eastern Mongolia For The Altargana FESTIVAL!” Brain: “Accepted. Are you prepared for landing?” Me, incredulously: “Wha??? I was just sleeping!” Brain: “Warning! In .000135 seconds a sorrowful spine compressing landing will be reality’s affirmation that you are on a bus barreling across the Mongolian steppe. Prepare.” BAM!!! “UNGH!!!” Ten out of ten chiropractors would not recommend this.

At midnight we found some gas station somewhere. I have photographic proof. We staggered for the exit to put our feet on solid ground. Jadedly, I watched the driver, mechanic, and Otgoo the mountaineer struggle with one of the bus’s wheels in the dark. Brain: “Keeping the wheels on.” Me: “Oh shut up, Brain!” A stroll and a stretch and it was already time to slide yourself back into your slot in the rolling sardine tin.                            It started to rain . . .

Driver, Mechanic, and Otgoo keeping the wheels on.

Driver, Mechanic, and Otgoo keeping the wheels on.

Fatigue plays games. You realize you were sleeping only when jounced awake. Consciousness to “out cold” transpires in milliseconds. In this state, your body lets go, which explains why I kept being impolitely awakened when my head swung wide and careened off the metal wall of the bus again. Nothing like a blow to the head to wake a fella. I would groan in pain, start to feel sorry for myself . . . and I’m asleep. Karaam! This time I’ll feel sorry for myself first, no time to groan in . . . asleep. Rain pattered down the windows.

Light begins burnishing the edge of Mongolia’s horizons around 4 am. An hour later the merciless punishment slowed and stopped as we encountered a rain swollen obstacle. Obstacle protocol played out as follows: The driver spied other vehicles collecting like wildebeests at a watering hole. He surmised, that this is a tricky piece of country. He pulled in for observation. Observation consisted of watching these skittish vehicle-wildebeests attempt to clear the (crocodile infested) obstruction and in accordance with their results, deciding which path is the most likely for a successful ford. The fact that we stopped, and growing tension in the air roused many from slumber. We ooh and ah in simulcast as each driver released their emergency brake and rolled into a bounce, dash and totter on the edge of catastrophe.

Our stalwart van takes on this interim creek.

Our stalwart van takes on this interim creek. 5 am.

Some of the fine young fellas, myself included, clambered out to reconnoiter. My viewfinder was open and ready to record this successful siege on a rain bloated gully bottom. “She’s hardly a creek, boys! Hardly a creek!” Our white mini-van lined up and took her setup run. She hit that rivulet right, blew mud sky high, and conquered the grass covered mud flats after fording. Next up, us. The driver shifted down, revved the GAZ’s (Soviet Bus) engine, and rumbled down the hill. He hit the creeklet straight on and lumbered through. He’s looked OK. Then he got a bit wobbly! That mud flat grabbed at the tires like minty quicksand toothpaste. GAZ ground to a halt.

One of the first of many, many attempts to free ourselves.

One of the first of many, many attempts to free ourselves.

Mud: A Hungry Thwarter

It was 5 am, raining hard, and the bus is mired in muck. Good morning!

Oral steppe policy begins with the rule that you help someone when they need it, and they help you. So we unrolled the towing cable and hooked it up to our stalwart van. Stalwart gave her a go. But it’s a no go. After two hours, with all my gear accept my camera pack and water bottle, that van forged ahead with the promise to send back help. Ever after, people would say to me: “It’s raining, don’t you have any pants?” “Yes, of course, they are in my pack, on the other van.” The mosquitoes came out well fed on that deal. Other vehicles gurgled through and rolled on by. These are the moments when a person thinks, “If I’m stuck, everyone should be stuck.” “Get stuck, get stuck! GET STUCK!!! No? I wish you safe voyage.”

Driver and mechanic were busy trying to jack the tires up, while we scoured the rain drenched hillside digging out rocks by fingernail. Returning, we sacrificed those rocks to the gluttonous maw of muck sucking our tires down into perdition. Ya know what? That mud ate rocks like it was a coney island hot dog eating contest.

The driver jacks up the tire, while we find rocks to throw into the abyss under that tire.

The driver jacks up the tire, while we find rocks to throw into the abyss under that tire.

We commissioned Dorj to intercept the Russian jeep we saw on another track. Dorj ran two miles, Dorj brought back the jeep. We thought of every trick in the book, and that Russian jeep driver made two hours of attempts to jerk us out. No luck. All hands queued up on the steel cable, young, old, and slightly infirm for a tug o’war battle with the GAZ. GAZ Didn’t Give! At one point I considered Tserigma in my lens. She stood in mud spattered pink sandals, rain soaked hair plastering her face, lamenting our most recent failure to extract the bus. In exhausted misery she plaintively uttered into the air “I just want to go home!” Tears of frustration mix well with rain.

Solving our would-be rescuers engine woes.

Solving our would-be rescuers engine woes.

The rain pours down as we consider our options.

The rain pours down as we consider our options.

Giving it the old heave-ho!

Giving it the old heave-ho!

Tserigma laments our situation.

Tserigma laments the mud, the rain, and the immobility of a bus.

The day stretched, yawned, got about his business. He produced the sun, who dried us out and knocked us out. Our driver misplaced his consciousness in the grass in front of the bus, laying in the sun as if dead for three hours. People played cards, they socialized, they slept. I stalked steppe eagles scouring the landscape for lunch. Bold and I even pushed another car out of the gully, while we remained STUCK. After that, I dug myself a bed amongst the stored luggage, and exited this world for three lovely hours. I didn’t know we were stranded, I didn’t know I was in Mongolia, heck, I didn’t know I was alive. I was wherever our driver had wondered to.

Making the best of a sticky situation.

Making the best of a sticky situation.

A prickly sun chased me from reverie as thunderheads started building. I’m not joking when I say, we were all contemplating spending the night on the bus in a deluge.

The Mongols materialized in several boss looking SUVs. Sporting fedoras common to steppe environs, their confident saunters exclaimed: “This isn’t our first rodeo.” That lit our hope light. We believed they could pull us out of the sludge, and toward broader horizons. Out came the tow cable to be bridled to a bright and creamy Toyota. When our driver signaled, the driver of the Toyota quirted his horses, and they spit mud to the moon. It was beautiful. Soon the moon was covered in mud, but our bus? That bus just would not budge.

Confident Mongols give it a go. This has to work, right?

Confident Mongols give it a go. This has to work, right?

After forty-five minutes, the Mongols rounded up their SUV’s and sped off. Chastened, we took stock. Our promised help hadn’t come. Three different vehicles and their drivers had done their level best to clear us from our trap to no avail. Storm clouds continued to gather, but the distance to Altargana remained the same – Infinite. It was late afternoon, our prospects poor. And yet, we hadn’t lost hope. Even in the midst of trouble, you realize, once you survive this, it will be an epic life tale, one you will never forget. (Other epic tales: Part 1 and Part 2 of “Return from Snowy River” and “A Long Haul for Olkhon” part 1 and “Retracing Baikal’s Ice Crucible” part 2.)

Our driver gets down in the steppe mud yet again in hopes of freeing us.

Our driver gets down in the steppe mud yet again in hopes of freeing us.

The World Wildlife Fund ready to give her a go.

The World Wildlife Fund ready to give her a go.

And then the World Wildlife Fund motored into our lives. Calm, collected and humble, this man displayed for us magic we had yet to try. That magic is spelled w-i-n-c-h. Hope burned in our eyes! The meadow where we had been lounging in the sun transformed as everyone got up to push. The driver, who had been granted resurrection from his death like sleep, crawled under the bus to attach the winch cable. All was ready. We held our collective breath as the winch cable tightened, and found purchase. The bus was still winning, it pulled the SUV dangerously close to its failed orbit. But WWF was not to be foiled, he let the winch out again, and we gave her another try. The SUV stood its ground, and the bus teetered, choked, and started to MOVE! Inching forward, while we all pushed, that GAZ found its feet and drove up the hill at 5 pm, twelve hours after our bog down. Quickly we reloaded our bus (all extra weight had been jettisoned), and got back underway, after the WWF driver had received his proper kisses from the Matriarchs! (If you don’t know who the Matriarchs are, read part one of this story here.)

We celebrate as the GAZ is finally pulled free, twelve hours after bogging down.

We celebrate as the GAZ is finally pulled free, twelve hours after bogging down.

The Sweet Bliss of Movement

It was a half an hour before we found our promised help. One of the van crew, an elderly gentlemen had searched for half the day for a tractor to come pull us out. Several tractor drivers had agreed, only to back out. When he finally found one, they started back the way he had come and we met up just before six! We will never know the great lengths he went to, to procure a tractor. He piled in, and we left our would be rescuer to trundle back to his home base.

The scenery started to change. We skirted the great bed of the Onon river, best known river of Chingis Khan’s homeland. Up, up we broke out into high grasslands and saw two wild boar sauntering through tall grass as if all Mongolia was theirs. As we drew near our goal, the roads got really crazy. Supply trucks were stalled out on muddy hillsides and our bus was desperately leaning at forty-five degree angles while we picked our way toward the valley where Dadal lay.

Altargana Encampment

Darkness swallowed the verdant landscape just before we crested the final hill and tooled through the grand gate that signaled our arrival at Altargana. My breath caught as the dazzling lights of the entire encampment stretched out wide across the valley below. It was as if we had been transported back in time in a magic bus, to arrive at the great cantonment of the Grand Khan, Chingis. From here he united the steppe tribes, from here he rode forth with his army of mounted archers to unleash the Mongol blitzkrieg across Asia and Europe. For the next three days, we would live in the tents and gers of his encampment, and experience the culture and traditions of Chingis Khan’s northern vanguard and arguably his most feisty warriors, the Buryats.

Look for the final post of this series, where you will see what Altargana is all about coming soon.

Here is how other bloggers resolved sticky situations. Lemons and Lemonade.

10,000 Miles to Altargana; Festival of Nomadic Culture

A picture is worth a thousand words, but is it worth ten thousand miles? I am talking about a particular image, and ten thousand very real miles of travel.

Behold the image:

10,000 miles for a smile. These Khori Buryat girls are on their way to parade into the stadium at the opening of Altargana 2014, in Dadal, Mongolia.

10,000 miles for a smile. These Khori Buryat girls are on their way to parade into the stadium at the opening of Altargana 2014, in Dadal, Mongolia.

That image was captured by covering miles in the following manner:

By Air

United Airlines: Bozeman to Denver = 518 miles

Denver to Washington D.C. = 1507 miles

Washington D.C. to Beijing = 7048 miles

China Air: Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia = 731 miles

Overland

Old Soviet Autobus called a Gaz: Ulaanbaatar to Dadal, Mongolia. = 365 miles

The careful student of math will conclude I travelled 10,169 miles. Of these, the last 365 were by far the hardest, and that is where we will pick up our story, in the teaming streets of Ulaanbaatar, a capital city, a boom town. Right now it is flush with three things, no four. Mining money, Toyota Priuses (seriously, I am seeing them lined up three in a row at traffic lights!), pregnant women, or recent mothers, and newly rising high rises.

Into the hushed pre-dawn of the city I stepped, backpack on my back, camera gear on my chest. I made my way to the 5 am rally point where I would travel with the Buryat Community of Ulaanbaatar to Altargana 2014. If you don’t know what Altargana is, read my post on it from 2010 by clicking here.

Buryat Community of Ulaanbaatar

What you should be thinking, although you may not know it is: “Alex, how do you know the Buryat community in Ulaanbaatar? You spend most of your time in Ulan-Ude.” Well I don’t, that is, I didn’t. Nope, I just called them up from Montana, and asked if I might go along. Let’s be clear here, I called some number I found on the internet connected with a Mongolian site about Altargana 2014. The man who answered spoke some English, and some Russian, and we kind of communicated. Kind of. With whom did I speak? I assumed it was some young man whose job it was to help people find their way to Altargana. And you know what they say about the word assume.

So, here is this red-bearded Montana kid appearing from among the silent high-rises to select a spot among the gathering Buryats. This was certainly a mysterious turn of events for them. The ice breaker came when little Saruul, a mischievous young man, with a gifted set of pipes, decided to take a recon run by me, since I already grinned at him, oh! and my red beard has mesmerizing powers. He rounded up his chubby partner in crime Shineft, with an equally nice vocalisation skills, to swing by me for a closer look. We all laughed and that sealed the deal. The rest of the Buryats continued about their business, now sure that I was OK.

Our five o’clock rally point continued to be our rally point through six, seven and eight. Eight thirty was our ticket out of the city and into the boundless Mongolian steppe. Two Soviet Buses rounded the corner to round us up, and the expedition was on.

Oh Mongolia! Your beauty is unsurpassed.

Oh Mongolia! Your beauty is unsurpassed.

Four elbows in the grease. This is episode # 1.

Four elbows in the grease. This is episode # 1.

Meeting The Matriarchs

As we tooled out of the city, the question “Sasha, do you drink Kumis?” was flung into the buses atmosphere. Kumis, fermented mares milk has a savory tang to it, and is a taste one acquires among nomads, one I had acquired years past. “Certainly.” Was my response, and soon a jug of the slightly alcoholic milk beverage found my place. I took a few swigs, glad that in some way my cultural immersion was paying off. In one short exchange I had become Sasha, which around here is short for Alexander, and payed respect to Buryat culture all in one swig. In a real sense, that made me one of the Buryats.

Our first break down took place took place about two hours in. The Mongol mechanic got about his business, got a face full of oil, deftly cut hoses and had us back up and running in twenty. That was hopeful, I felt good about that, we were in good hands. Our second breakdown occurred let’s see . . . two more hours in. Now we are pulling stuff out of the bus I’ve never seen before. Oh well, the picnic is in effect. People be bustin’ out plastic-ware full of scrumptious stuff, and they are handing it around, cause they prepared to feed everyone, like they always do in this part of the world. And I’m making inroads with the ladies, you got to do that. The ladies are where it is at, and by ladies I mean the Matriarchs. If they have a low opinion of you, you can become persona non grata. But if the Matriarchs can laugh a bit, and see your earnestness to learn, then they will take care of you. This is not about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, this is about finding your niche in the community and making a proper contribution. Mine became this: Recording every triumph and setback along the way. That, and being an interesting conversation piece. See, these people had been to festivals before, they knew all about being Buryat. But meeting a ‘Merican who is interested in what being Buryat means, that is unusual. So, I took pictures, made a few jokes, enjoyed their hospitality, and that made them happy. Bango! I am part of the community! You know what a relief that is? I don’t speak the language here (some of them spoke Russian, as I do), now I got people who will make sure I get a plate at the local cafe, I got people who will give me half of what they got! Really! These people are great! I mean it, really great!

A Buryat patiently waits in his element.

A Buryat patiently waits in his element.

"The Matriarchs" gettin' their game on. These ladies have their fingers on the pulse of their community, good friends to have.

“The Matriarchs” gettin’ their game on. These ladies have their fingers on the pulse of their community, good friends to have.

The kids keeping their cards in this high stakes game of waiting as we deal with broke down episode # 2.

Meanwhile at the kids table they are keeping their cards close in this high stakes game of waiting as we deal with broke down episode # 2. L to R: Dorjderem, Bold, Otgoo, and Selenge.

Bold and Saruul let their inner artists flow in the roadside dirt.

Bold and Saruul let their inner artists flow in the roadside dirt. This is already broke down episode # 3.

We were on the road after a forty-five minute forced picnic. And I’ll bet we rolled for forty-five minutes before . . . I don’t even have to say it. Breakdown number three. Number three was a red-line. 50% of our fleet of Soviet buses down and out. The market for a new bus just opened up somewhere out in Khentii province. We made the call, and now are awaiting our replacement carriage. It’s origin point is Ulaanbaatar, a three or four hour mad-dash away from our present position.

Saruul keeps us all entertained through silly antics, and an age-old game of hopscotch.

Saruul keeps us all entertained through silly antics, and an age-old game of hopscotch.

Selenge rockin' that nerdy cool vibe out in the Mongolian steppe.  Selenge is named after the river "Selenge" or "Selenga" which flows north out of Mongolia into Buryatia right through Ulan-Ude into Lake Baikal.

Selenge rockin’ that nerdy cool vibe out in the Mongolian steppe. Selenge is named after the river “Selenge” or “Selenga” which flows north out of Mongolia into Buryatia right through Ulan-Ude into Lake Baikal.

Making Friends

This stop was highlighted by hopscotch. Yep, nomads play hopscotch, who knew? We also drew in the dirt.  My new friend Bold drew a seriously striking resemblance of the Montana kid with a roman nose and red beard. Me in dirt.

We made our way up the road a bit to a settlement with a cafe. I wanted buuz, that is steamed meat dumplings (find out what buuz are by clicking here) but the joint didn’t have any. That is when Selenge, a young lass practicing her English with me, took it upon herself to go to a different cafe and order me as many buuz as I wanted. See what I mean? These people are awesome! Meanwhile my new friend Otgoo the mountaineer is feeding me half his plate of beef and noodles. Otgoo, who has peaked out on Mt. Elbrus four times if memory serves me. Otgoo, Buryat mountaineer from Dadal, Mongolia. Dadal may be bigger than Two Dot, Montana, but not by much, not by much. We play cards, a game called “fool”, still the game of choice in former Communist regions. I managed to not be the fool one time, a small triumph that I will take!

Bayasal and Saruul having fun with rocks, one of our many forms of entertainment waiting for our replacement vehicle to come from Ulaanbaatar.

Bayasal and Saruul having fun with rocks, one of our many forms of entertainment waiting for our replacement vehicle to come from Ulaanbaatar.

Four-thirty, we’ve been sitting at least as long as rolling. The new mini-van is here, and we load our gear onto the top. My rucksack will be with one vehicle, while I’ll be on another. You do the math. Five O’clock and we are trundling across the steppe again. I’m still a long way away from making that first image you saw. And things are about to get complicated.

Expedition to Altargana Part 2 to follow!

Here is what other people are writing about this summer: http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/summer-lovin/