So. We headed out of Ulan Ude, hauling our sleeping and eating gear, expecting to trek in a few miles to a campsite on Lake Baikal. Drove a few hours and then turned off on the dirt road that led to the trail. The campsite was waiting, prepared for us. We were eager to not only get a glimpse of this enormous famous lake, but to dwell on its wild shores for two nights and parts of three days.
Then, oops! The road in is closed, due to a fire ahead, so we are told by some officials who are standing there preventing our passage. Lots of discussion in Russian ensued, with Erjen and guides Rinchin and Sasha taking part. Things got heated, then disgusted. Somebody whispered to me that the officials wanted us to bribe them, some kind of exorbitant price per person. Thanks anyway, forget it!
Meanwhile, the rest of us were standing in or near the beautiful, clear little stream, cooling off on this hot day.
Erjen, Sasha, Rinchin, and Bill (our American guide) held their own discussion. The rest of us could just imagine what took place there. Then I noticed Erjen, her broad Mongolian face composed, walk over to the stream, stand on its shore, and very deliberately begin scooping water to wash her face. It’s as if she was internally preparing to go from Plan A to Plan B, only what was Plan B? Did she know?
Pile back in the van. Yes, Plan B did exist, was just hastily put together by the side of the dirt road. We would travel another hour or two along the east side of Baikal, and then “Sasha knows of a possible village where there is a possible boat to take us to the campsite.” Oh my. The two “possible”s in Erjen’s statement really struck home. No wonder she was keeping her face composed.
Well, it all worked out. The possible village was actual, and the captain of the boat turned out to be someone that Erjen had already met somewhere along the line. To me this sweet, handsome man looked and acted like a ship captain right out of central casting.
All that is how I remember the initial scenes from our Lake Baikal camp adventure. Here is J.K.s version, probably more accurate, since she took notes right away.
Drove to Baikal, but when we start to close in, we are stopped by the cops. No entry because of the forest fire – trees are down – and on top of that they planned to charge each and every one of us $5000 rubles for being in the wrong place. But Sasha and Rinchin are indignant. How in hell could we have known? There were no signs and besides they called ahead and there was no warning not to go this way. The cops are ok, they aren’t really going to make us pay, but we have to back out and find another way. Our ride [for our food; we would walk — A.K.] is waiting for us on the other side, and we can’t reach him. Later we learn he had waited 5 hours and finally gave up and went to the campsite on Baikal where we’d been aiming for. We go to a village and what do you know? It’s where Sasha’s family lives. We meet Yuri and Kamur, his sons, playing on the cold beach. Erjen is greeted yet again warmly, and realizes that the man who is greeting her is an old friend. Surprise.
Vodka, puzzles – “a bear hung himself on a cliff; what is it?” – indeed! Never did give us the answer to that one, Erjen. She twinkles, secretly smiles at our confusion. We get a boat ride; it takes an hour to ferry each set of passengers over and return for more. We let the first crew cross, the captain is friendly, I think it’s the same guy who is Erjen’s old friend.
While they ride the waves we feast on bread, cheese, tomatoes by a warm fire. Then we’re on the next boat, or the one after that, I forget. The boatman only has room for one passenger (this is Erjen again, posing riddles), and he has to transport the wolf, the goat and the cabbage to the other side. How will he do that? So Ann and Erjen and Bill and I finally arrive at the camp, having not eaten one another en route. Again, we each find where we will lay our heads. I am in a bungalow with Lisa and Carl. It’s late, still light out. Dinner. Two dogs, a big sweetheart whose ears and tail are almost completely lopped off, Russian style, and little Uma, who’s frightened by my initial greeting – hopping and lunging at her. A lively young couple runs the place. Nice vibes. Ready to sleep, bottom bunk.
Baikal dreams upon awakening. We eat breakfast, wear our head coverings and skirts. Menstruating women stay behind. The rest of us walk along the shore. Here’s Buyan [who will transform into our shaman — A.K.] and his partner in this work, Sochar. Buyan in everyday is a bank manager.
And to me, feels very nice and “ordinary.” Mild mannered. Not in your wildest dreams would you pick him out for a “shaman”! Sochar is a professional musician; he has assisted Buyan for ten years.
Now they have prepared the space at the edge of Baikal. Four fires burning in the cardinal directions. An altar cloth and bowls. A bottle of spirits (vodka) and here’s mare’s milk.
Buyan is immense, powerful. He is in silken robes, a divine presence. He kneels facing the lake. He will call the black water spirits in the east to come to the white water spirits in the west. He is singing, drumming and striking the drum toward his own face. He changes. He calls for nourishment. Bill, get over here. Feed him. Then Buyan becomes a little child spirit – he mews, murmurs, babbles. How many beings are inside?
All the while Buyan is beating powerfully on the drum, waving it back and forth, kneeling on the sand, his upper body stretching, hunching, twisting strenuously as each internal voice, each of the Spirits of Lake Baikal, make themselves known. The effect on all of us, lined up in a row sitting on a log in back of him, is electric, galvanic, utterly mesmerizing. We are clearly in the presence of beings entirely other than our usual 3D world.
Suddenly in my own quiet I hear Erjen call my name – JK, come over here. I kneel next to him. He says, “closer” – or at least Erjen tells me so. [Erjen is our continuous translator from both Russian and Mongolian. — A.K.] Closer and closer. Suchar’s hand on his back from the left. Me on the right. I am bent down to the sand, I am shaking. Do you all see this? I am outside myself and inside at the same time, wondering at this trembling going on. Then I sit up and face him and as with the others, he spits burning vodka and milk into my face, into my eyes. Then he uses the whip. Don’t take the load of others into yourself, that’s my teaching. So compassionate, says Erjen. I am confused. Compassionate, me? I wonder. A week or so later I realize. It’s the tormented captive eagles, it’s their pain he has found living in me. Yes, I took that on. Harder by far for me to identify with my own species. The song of the four elements. Ann is wearing the blue scarf. It is something you wear for the dead. She is asked to take it off.
Wow! I had no idea! I had gifted my original scarf at another ceremony, and so decided to wear the blue scarf that each of us had received from the shaman at the Ceremony of Mare’s Milk in Mongolia instead. [Women are to to wear both scarves and long skirts in the presence of a shaman.]
Someone hands something over to the person on his left by passing his right hand over his left. That way is the way you hand something to the dead. We are all learning.
After my serious scarf faux pas, he then did not spit on me, but instead murmured that for me there are three points that are important, shaped as a triangle, indicating my third eye and two on the ground on either side.
Mascha is called in despite her being in moon time. She needed a healing, Buyan determined. Rather, the Spirit called for her. Strong ones for the Mongols. [Mascha is Erjen’s daughter. A.K.]
After the ceremony we are invited to do whatever it is we feel called to do. I have rose elixir gathered on Summer Solstice 2014 under a full moon by my dear Latah, the lovely witch who runs the little shop Flower Power. She has given me half to offer Baikal. I walk in the shallows and give her offering to the blessed lake.
. . . .
A few lake photos:
Drizzle, fog; I wake up, something about Irkutsk. I think it means this is the Irkut River that flows into Baikal.
Sasha made porridge of rice and milk and butter and jam
The shamans and elders leave in a dinghy to the mist where the boat, all ghostly, awaits them to ferry them to the next place.
Bayer-la, Bayer-te Buya
So now we wait our turn.
Time, free time. I go along the sand intending to collect water for Latah. Bill and Marc are in the sun. Bill strips off his clothes – jumps in – Marc next. OK, my turn. It’s glorious. Cold and bracing and I’m naked in Siberia. Here come the rest of our group. We go to the point and see the nirpa, the black/white freshwater seals lazing on rocks in the distance. The only ones of their kind on planet Earth.
OK, here’s the dinghy again, hop on and then the boat takes us to shore somewhere. I hitch a ride on the jeep, hanging on the outside like that Neapolitan cop. Whee. Back in the van and we get back to Ulan Ude, one of the major metropolises of Siberia. We flop into our rooms and await the next thing, i.e. dinner. Nothing … hours go by …. We start to stir. Where the hell is everybody? They’re in the Irish bar. There’s a mutiny brewing here. OK, a late dinner and feathers soothed. We eat expensively and vengefully.
I think it was the next day — more and more the entire experience becomes suspended in the dreamtime — when we visited another shaman, one who lived in a small village along the highway — here is the hut the villagers built for him.
This man felt very humble and kind, and though he wore a blue silk robe and a mirror, was mostly just a human being, sitting behind a tiny desk, with stringed instruments on the wall. From him, and from others in Mongolia, we learned that a shaman is often chosen after a very difficult early life. Somehow, only as they agree to take on shaman duties do they heal. That was the case for this man; he used to be a meat seller, and initially tried to refuse the call. Now his shamanic gift is to heal individuals.
As I recall, on the same day, we also went down the same road to another village where we visited for many hours with Lama Norbu, a Buddhist monk, who is busy renovating an old, neglected Buddhist temple there.
He is the warmest man. They have just started to raise the building – what is that word again? The Stupa. It is moved from the Sayan Mountains.
His teacher taught the 14th Dalai Lama. There is a place in the mountains with a cave, and they studied together inside. The Sayan are to the West, Altai to the East.
Sayan is the eyebrow and Baikal the eye. There is another lake in Mongolia, and that is the other eye. The stupa is the third eye.
We are at the northern gate of Shambala. The old inhabitants were the Tyuka, the original people from whom arose the Buriyati. Tuva is the southern gate. Some of them are still here. There is so much passion generated here that the Mongols went west, after the Huns. And east and south and became the Navajo (and Apache). The immense energy of this place made these nomads move, and move far.
When Lama Norbu’s grandmother fled the Communists with her family she was shot through her back and the bullet went through her right nipple. She went on to have many children – so don’t worry!
Bill says that the Buddhists here (the yellow Buddhists) honor and share shamanic practice and wisdom. This is the only place where that happens; elsewhere the Buddhists suppressed the shamans.
After our long talk with the monk, we posed for the only group photos of the entire journey. Lama Norbu is in the back with red top hat. I’m in front, kneeling, on the left, J.K. is in back of me, long brown hair.
And just to top off this day, we stayed in the same village, but further in from the main road, where there is an ancient “steam bath” — no! methane spring! geez! — that draws people from near and far. While this experience may sound innocuous, it is anything but. One enters the dimly lit room – foggy, odiferous, hot liquid (part water part methane?) and slimy stones underfoot, hissing black pipes, and Russians standing under them all around the central column with whatever the liquid is beating on their backs — at one’s peril. I loved it. J.K. did not!
It’s night. We go to the methane springs. Oh jesus. Steam punk in dim sickly light. On the women’s side a little old gnome to my right. To my left a woman finishing up and washing her feet off. I try to get under the shower and she snaps something at me. I move away. Stones underneath, hard to walk, the circle of jets around the pipes all hissing and slime everywhere. We had to walk down a plank into this 9th Circle of Hell. One of the rails sink right into the pebbles. You cannot maneuver around it without hurting yourself. I have just told Lama Norbu that I am trying to stop fracking. But this is natural, I’m told. So what? So what?