Flowers and Fountains! Finally. FINALLY! F-I-N-A-L-L-Y!!! When fountains flower and flowers flourish then Lazurus-Spring has finally chased the Queen of Winter from her Siberian throne. Pink Rhododendron have burst into the sleeping grey forest, jolting a sleeping winter heart into beating-beating blood red LIFE! Blazing blossoms of fuchsia shatter the Siberian paradigm and make the quiet of the forest so loud. And the fountains! A ballet of water washes through the souls of city dwellers. Under protection of a fountain, toddlers squeal at new sensations, children splash, skate, gawk, and dash. Youth cuddle, parents chat and tend the young ones, and the elderly rest, enjoying the water show, complete with music and light. Fountains create refuges in the rush of Russian cities. Fountains and flowers transform Siberia!
Maslenitsa, Maslenitsa! Have you been to Maslenitsa? If only for the love of pancakes (blini – something like a cross between a hearty American flapjack and a delicate French crepe) you should kick up your heels at Maslenitsa. Possibly translated as “Butter Week”, Maslenitsa is a festival that falls prior to lent and an official kick in Winter’s pants on her way out Russia’s door. Granted, Spring is still only a dearly guarded hope in the hearts of a frozen people who collectively seem perfectly pleased to shiver in the cold Siberian wind just for the chance to kiss Winter goodbye. Well, that and to strip down to their underoos and scale a gaily ribboned wooden pole for prizes tied on top, cheer on pancake relays, engage in some old fashioned tug o’ war (even Grandmas got in on that fun), watch Cossack sword dances, strain at lifting 30 kilo weights before a cheering crowd, scarf blini and condensed milk (a treat that makes Russians moan in ecstasy, really I have seen it!), mount a balance beam to take shots at each other with weighted gunny sacks, and finally burn lady Maslenitsa in effigy! This is a decidedly Russian experience.
Historically the roots of Maslenitsa are pagan, but Orthodox influence has changed it enough for it to become an steaming, eclectic mix of pagan and Orthodox Christian tradition. A week long event, nowadays Sunday, the last day of the festival is when Russians come out in force. Sunday is known as “Forgiveness Day”
On Forgiveness Day, I made my way to the Ethnographical Museum of Ulan-Ude. Full of festive ardor, people streamed into the festivities between cars packed into the turn off to the museum. Smiles and laughter flitted through the crowds, making otherwise reserved spirits bright. The continuous creek of people flowing toward the celebration site encountered a menagerie of humanity dressed as bears, goats, fools, musicians, bunnies, and people in traditional Russian or Cossack dress. The milling crowds attended to different cultural ensemble’s dances and songs, played traditional games and cheered on participants in the strong man contest. My favorite group was the six and seven year old white clad bunnies whose fuzzy ears rivaled the snow in brightness. They didn’t seem sure they were in the right place, but there hopping, carrot wielding antics warmed my cold heart. The turn toed Cossack dance avec swirling saber captured my wonder. Cossacks always cut striking figures. I was pleased that they were dancing, smoking and laughing rather than chasing me down whip and sword. When the song and dance no longer kindled my bones, I shivered my way over to the culinary promenade. Flinging everything I could at my chills, hot pozi, hot tea, hot blini, my body temperature rose to lukewarm.
Stumbling toward the “maypole” I contemplated collective chaos as a scrum of young men climbed over/on one another at the pole’s base. After a scrabbling struggle, some ascendant fellow would begin inching his way top-ward giving out somewhere between 1/2 and 3/4 of the way up. And the climbing scrum scrabbled again vying for pole position. After several prizes swinging from the top had been hard claimed the last successful pole crawl was completed by a champion in briefs. The crowd stepped back in respect upon seeing his literally naked determination. Unfazed by a future certain of sliver picking his birthday suit, this Vanya made fast work of the nearly unconquerable pole to claim his prize. He descended to hearty cheers for his audacity.
The afternoon was waning and Maslenitsa had yet to be burned. A procession bearing the effigy made its way through the crowd to install the colorfully garbed paper maiden on her funeral pyre.
Doused in kerosine she stood unknowing and serene, dripping flammable. The fire dancers circled spinning their torches ever nearer the gassed maiden until . . . smoke and fire inflamed her pyre. I ran ahead of everyone making for the gates to the warm transport waiting to carry revelers back to the city.
The Clouds on Tea Road
The Great Tea Way begins in a stone gate in the Great Wall of China, wends across the Gobi sands, intersects the great and remote steppe of Mongolia and Siberia, Russia’s massive Boreal forests in Asia and Europe, and by way of Moscow’s shining cupolas perseveres on toward the Baltic coast and the white nights of St. Petersburg. Tea Road is the places and the people who lived and live along that route. I have spent ten years living on Tea Road, in three cities that played a major role in the tea trade, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude (formerly Verkhneudinsk) and Ulaanbaatar (formerly Urga). Each city has it’s own flavor and group of characters that contribute to the history and culture of Tea Road. On the pages of this blog you will find many of their stories. So come to the Siberian Orient, it’s yours for the opening here.
Siberia and Mongolia’s azure skies are steeped in the myth of antiquity. Their legends and beliefs are wrapped in the vault of the sky. The first story I recall is the Buryat tale of the archer who finds a wife. Three celestial sisters decided to descend to the earth for a bath. They lit on the beautiful waters of lake Baikal as swans, and then shed their swan clothing to bathe. Seeing these lovely maidens, the archer was enchanted. He hid away the cloths of one of the sisters, and she became his wife. After bearing him many children, she tricks him into returning her swan attire and off she flies back into the heavens. Ghengis Khan himself worshipped Tengri, Eternal God of the blue sky. Blue is a holy color to the Nomads of Asia. When you go to visit, especially to people who are more traditional, you will recieve a blue khadak, a scarf of silk as a sign of honor.
There are more days of sunshine in this area than virtually any place in the world. This vast oriental blue sky is a majestic backdrop on which winnow scudding white billows, above green or fawn hills and the camps, caravans or cabins of the people, who make Tea Road place. Here are some images of clouds and the skies they sail upon over the place called Tea Road.
A short but good sleep, and I awaken predawn. Disengaging my pajamas (a down parka) with difficulty from my blue kazoo (sleeping bag), I leave my snoozing comrades with camera in (mitten bound) hands. Snapping the wonder of our solar star rising over the wind-driven plain of ice on Baikal is AWESOME.
Baikal is a venerable sea. Known as the “North Sea” during the Han dynasty, battles were fought on her shores between the Han and the Huns, ancient inhabitants to this area around 119 BC! According to scientific estimates, Baikal is the oldest lake in the world, a mere 25 million years old. Snap! Snap! I snapped Old Glory until frozen. Coffee calls from the fire.
We pack, luncheon, stow gear, disembark! Straining at the traces to move quickly across naked ice, with thirty miles still ahead, we are all go. We gain the hummock field that had us near despair the day previous. Clearing that labyrinth, on trudge we to nightfall. The wind whips as we drive heavy screws into ice to anchor our tent. Stars marshal in millions, peering down on us through cosmos jet black. Bone penetrating cold drives us into the tiny enclosure of our nylon domicile to toss and shiver and shiver and toss until dayspring. Oh Shackleton, my Shackleton, why did I read your tale? Near morning as we lay awake freezing, we cackle at the absurdity of sleeping on a solid sheet of sounding ice. What do I mean by “sounding” ice? Follow this link if you have never heard the strange sounds ice makes.
The only way to conquer this wicked cold is to get this expedition under way! I shed my frosty sleeping sack and stuff, strain, struggle into frozen boots. Our gear is hooded in hoarfrost. The promise of sleeping this eve in a warm yurt with a full belly drives us forward.
At lunch Marius, a friend from Romania relates to me his struggle of two nights past. The trek across Baikal had been rough, and he didn’t relish returning through the same ice bin of suffering again. Seeing the distant lights of habitation somewhere on the isle of Olkhon, he hatched a plan to escape our expedition, make his way to one of these homesteads, arrange transportation to Irkutsk, and catch the train back to Ulan-Ude! But he didn’t have enough money, and he needed a place to stay in Irkutsk. Since I have lived there, he thought I could furnish him with a host and a loan. He seriously considered making his escape! I burst into laughter with Marius at this idea, partially from commiseration, and partially because I couldn’t get my head around the lengths he was willing to go to avoid re-crossing Baikal. An enduring spasm of mirth cavorted in our bellies, now that we knew Marius, and the whole crew would survive our crossing.
The north wind blows, freezing our lunch break, and our expedition soldiers on. We become automatons, pulling the traces until we are spent, and then pulling three miles more. Our water freezes, and we are reduced to eating snow. Pain is ignored, vision tunnels, I will stop when I step on the eastern shore. But our team stops now, for a tea break! Gaaaah!
The end is in sight, but the team is flagging. I quarrel with Sasha over chatter and focus. I reason that the time to shoot the breeze waits in camp beyond the shore. So let’s shut up and get there! And we do, willing our sledge through the last field of hummocks to be met by cheers of the teams ashore. But we don’t stop; we drag our burden on into camp to deposit it where it need move no more. Only then do we slip the traces, and hug our rejoicing comrades. Now for a hot meal, a hot sweat*, (*Russian Banya), and a bed of oblivion.
The sledges are packed; their loads ratcheted into place. Sleeping bags, tents, thermoses, packs filled with minimal amounts of dry cloths and necessary gear, boxes of canned meat, dry soup, noodles, rice, sweet biscuits, cookies, and tea make up the balance of each burden. Our expedition is at hand. Into each set of traces slips a man, and one after another, the sledges began sliding toward the ice-bound shore of Lake Baikal. We wave to well wishing friends collected along the start of our route. Just off shore, we gather arm in arm to place our lives in the hands of our Maker. Now into the teeth of Baikal!
An Oriental maiden is winsome Baikal. Lake Baikal is Medusa. A glimpse of her concealed shores will leave a man gasping at her exquisite expanse. Her enchanting allure has led many to perish in her frigid storm frenzied waters, or on the arctic desert of her frozen agua. Baikal = danger, but her magnificence is > than her danger. When you partake in the grandeur that is Baikal, you will become aware of an indescribable majesty; a power that rent the foundations of earth to purposely lay Baikal in her basin. Your heart will fly to this Creator.
Ice hummocks. Stubbornly they oppose our sledges, blocking, bashing, and halting our progress. Even after yesterday’s work of hammering a path through them, they still had their way. But we were hopeful of naked ice. Clearing the hummock field we set off southeast on soft-crusted snow for the coast of Olkhon, largest island and most sacred place on the Sacred Sea.
Our toils end at sunset. Progress, eight kilometers out of forty-seven. (A thirty-mile total taking into account hummock fields.)
Have you ever made your bed on s frozen sea? The ice speaks spooky. (Click on this link to hear how ice sounds while you lay upon it.) 5521 cubic miles of water ominously smacks the bottom surface of your ice mattress. Many years ago I read “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage”, a story of desperate survival in the Antarctic. While sleeping on the ice, I “conveniently” recalled the instance where an ice lead opened under one of the tents dunking an unsuspecting sleeper in the sea. With a mile deep trench of water below my bed, ask me if I slept well!
Breakfast is a piece of frozen bread, frozen cheese, and two FROZEN slices of salami. And hot tea. Break camp, repackage sledge, fill thermos, off!
Our mustachioed Ukrainian captain, Oleg Ivanovich gaily chats his way across the kilometers. Laughing, scolding Vanya* and stopping for tea are his main endeavors aside from pushing the sledge most of way. His constant chatter originally miffs me, but soon his golden heart shines through. (Besides, I tend to think everyone talks too much.) It’s amazing how sharing a bit of suffering can turn someone into a friend you would go anywhere with. Oleg – a tribute to the Ukrainian people.
Timur our most experienced member had already made several winter crossings. We got on splendidly, laughing a lot, freezing together taking pictures of the black velvet and diamond sky and sharing the frustrations of trying to put up a tent in sub-zero temps while fighting the wind. Timur’s Russian throws me for a loop. That is until I notice native speakers also asking him to repeat himself, hah!
Sanya, at sixteen was on his second crossing. He and I took turns at the lead pulling the sled. When he focuses, we cruise. When he starts talking, we falter. Vanya often gets Sasha’s goat, (his specialty) and twenty-minute arguments ensue. This went on until we all invite Vanya to catch the team ahead of us. Invitations flow freely. Sanya and his brother Dima usually drill for water at lunch stops. They drill through a meter and a half of ice in about ten minutes. When my lunch kit was packed at the bottom of our sledge, Sanya found me a cup, spoon and bowl in a heartbeat. Twice.
That brings us dear thirteen-year old Vanya. Parentless and full of energy, un-needed advice, ridiculous questions and always ready to argue, he was our expedition’s anchor. Wrestling him earned me my first black eye in decades. As our sledges spread across the ice, he often brings up the rear, and we end up waiting for him, slowing the whole expedition to a crawl, until we start sending him ahead. (Yes, to heckle other teams.) Though he drives us nuts, everyone loves Vanya, and when we finally make the eastern shore after 60 miles of sledge pulling, we heave Vanya into celebratory air.
On naked ice, pulling sledges is pretty easy, as long as you have crampons, or poor man’s crampons, screws screwed into your boots. Soft-crusted snow is another matter demanding the pushing and pulling of multiple team members who continually interchange places as they get tired and take breaks. The Holy Nose rose far to the north, a marvelous mountainous peninsula of sacred significance second to and on the opposite shore of Olkhon. Olkhon imperceptibly creeps closer with every step. In the evening we finally find our long-awaited naked ice, which gives wings to our sledges. The first sledge makes Olkhon a good 45 minutes before we do. They set up a blinking beacon to guide the other sledges in and start a fire. A FIRE! I had been searching the shoreline for thirty minutes in anticipation of a campfire to zero in on. Finally flaming into sight, it gives my heart wings.
My down parka, as a rule rebuffs cold like an angry badger rebuffs house guests, yet while making camp, my veins become ice choked. After tent pitching I stumble all a shiver to the fire and hunker down to wait dinner. Hot chicken and pasta puts everyone in a fine mood; and we encircle the fire drying boots, pants, socks and whatnot, laughing into the wee hours.
(Look for Return from the Isle of Olkhon tomorrow!)