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Published: October 19th 2007
I am starting to get the idea that the local deities like their offerings. This afternoon, whilst visiting the Open Air Ethnographic Museum of Transbaikalia Peoples with my local contact, a charming young man called Pavel, I was just about to put a couple of coins onto the bronze age 'little deer' stones, as is custom here, when my beloved Celine sunglasses fell off my head. Before I knew it, I had stepped on them and broken them. Dismayed, I realized they were completely ruined. But Pavel was impressed and indicated that I should lay them on the stones as an offering. 'Tradition!', he said, 'good sign you broke them here! Don't be sad. It's good!' The local deities seem to have an expensive taste in sunglasses. The problem was soon remedied, however, as I was lucky enough to find a very similar pair in Ulan Ude later on, for a third of the price I'd have paid in the UK.
As you may have gathered, I am now in Ulan Ude, capital of the Buryat Republic. I arrived here two nights ago after another day on the train. This time, my compartment companions were all tucked up in their
berths, fast asleep, by 3 pm. What else can you do but follow suit? Despite Igor's doubtful 'Are you sure you want to go to Ulan Ude? There's nothing there, except the biggest Lenin head in the world!' questions back in the UK, I love it here. It's a very inspirational place, multi-faith and multi-cultural, laid-back, and very artistic. I've really fallen in love with the Buryat tradition and art, and I mourn the fact that I can't really buy anything for lack of space: there are so many beautiful arts and crafts for sale here. The Buryat people are very beautiful, especially the women: with their dark smoky eyes and long black shiny hair, they often look like artist's impressions. And they dress incredibly well, very elegantly - and they really like their shoes. It's rare to see a Russian or Buryat woman without sky-high heels. Speaking of artists, as I was having lunch in the very lush Lounge Cafe yesterday, the waitress brought me a couple of books by Buryat artists to look at. One of them, Dashi Namdakov
, impressed me especially: he creates wondrous shamanistic sculptures, made out of bronze, silver and bone, of celestial creatures and
spirits, warriors and bowmen, and the like, with an extremely otherworldly feel. The other artist is called Zorikto Dorzhiev
. He works mainly with oil and acrylic, and writes philosphical poetry and stories to go with his dreamy paintings. He often paints nomads, as he views them as contemplators. This is really one of the joys of travelling, to learn more about local artists and traditions. There's an excellent Buryat history museum in Ulan Ude, with a fantastic collection of items relating to Tibetan Buddhism,statues, shaman's robes, and masks and robes used in mystery plays. I watched a very evocative little film there showing these ancient sacred drama dances.
Then there are lots of datsans (Buryat Buddhist temples), and this morning Pavel, Serge and I visited Ivolginsk Datsan, a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery and the centre of Russian Buddhism. It stands on a wide plain about 35 km outside the city, and is very colourful with golden dragons, manifold Buddha incarnations, a fabulous statue of Green Tara, ginormous praying wheels, and, most joyfully, lots and lots of animals roaming around outside the temples. There were lots of cute little puppies, dogs, cats and kittens, and even a cow. They have a
library of Tantric texts which the monks study, stupas - in the biggest of which lie the ashes of the most famous of the Datsan's head lamas, Sherapov, who died in 1961. They even have a bo tree! But the most bizarre thing happened when I was just about to leave. I was quizzing one of the monks, who spoke good English, about their tantric texts, when he suddenly produced a double-sided sheet of paper with black typing on it. He asked me if he could read the text to me, to test out his English pronunciation. Thinking they would be important tantric texts, I readily agreed. As he started reading the words from the sheet rapidly and rhythmically, I glanced over his shoulder. What on earth was he reading out there? 'Hush little baby don't you cry...' It sounded familiar. As he was getting more and more into reciting the text, I realized that he was wrapping the lyrics to an Eminem song!! 'Yes', he said sheepishly, when I laughingly questioned him about it, 'this is how I learn English: I print out lyrics from pop songs from the internet!'
After that, we visited the Open Air Ethnographic
Museum, which is quite simply amazing. It houses Bronze Age stone circles, an Evenki camp with birchwood wigwam, a shaman's hut, wooden carvings, Buryat yurts, and much more, in a big park. When Pavel and I arrived, there was a huge congregation of Buryat newly-weds outside the gates, drinking vodka and celebrating. We've seen loads of weddings today, so I guess Friday is the traditional wedding day here! Unfortunately, there is also a horrendous zoo in the museum. It's one of the most depressing things I've ever seen: brown bears and wolves cramped into little concrete cages, pacing around and chewing at the bars; a very despondent tiger (!), camels standing around in the mud, and a whole range of other incarcerated animals. Quite simply awful.
Through some strange twist of fate (don't ask!) I was also introduced to a couple of Russian gangsters - the Russian mafia business is rife here. As nice as Ulan Ude seems to a passer-by like me, apparently there's little perspective for young people, so a lot are roped in by crime and mafia-related activities, like 'debt collecting', to make a living.
Apart from that, it's bloody cold here. Even though it's apparently only 0 degree celsius, it feels much colder due to the icy wind coming from Lake Baikal, and I realize that my clothing is going to be woefully inadequate for my forthcoming trip to Tibet - and maybe even for Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, the coldest capital in the world, where I am heading tomorrow. Yes, there are challenges along the road! As exciting as travelling is, certain things, the lack of language, can really be frustrating. Something really simple like ordering a meal in a restaurant, finding a place, or buying a stamp, can take ages, because often nobody understands what on earth you want. People usually understand the gist, but it's the finer nuances that get lost, and so you tend to eat the same things, and just go with an option you don't really want because it's just too complicated otherwise. And although I've met many lovely people along the way, it's been a while since I've had a really good conversation: current communication, although it works, tends to be mono-syllabic and in sign language. From now on, I will have a lot more compassion for non-English speakers back in England! All being said and done though, this journey has been wonderful so far. I feel that, even though I am only scanning the countries I am visiting, spending a few days in each place, I am making valuable connections for the future. On Wednesday morning, just before I left Irkutsk, Valera casually revealed that he is very good friends with a Siberian shaman called Valentin, and that he runs at least one shamanic tour with him in Siberia every year. He showed me some amazing photographs of one such tour he has done with a group of Dutch shamans, and he offered to take me (and some friends - if any of you are interested) on one of them. So, although I am leaving Russia tomorrow, but I will definitely be back. Do svidaniya Russia!
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