Shashlik smells yummy. Shaman stinks.

It’s 6:30 am in Irkutsk, about 40 km from Lake Baikal. I’m at the kitchen table at Baikaler Hostel, a remarkably friendly, clean, well-run place owned by a native Irkutskian. Seems like I had to come 2000 km east of Moscow to find some decent backpacker accommodation. My sinuses have me up before everyone else in the hostel. But it’s quiet, so I can finally write a bit.

When I last posted, I had returned from a wonderful day in the steppes with a Tuvan throat-singer. A few days later, on my last night in Tuva, Sean Quirk invited me to his home for a family BBQ. (The word “shashlik” seems to mean both BBQ in general and shish-kebab in particular, since that’s all people BBQ here.) Sean, his Tuvan wife (whose name I already forget), their two daughters, and wife’s grandmother live in a small, low-ceilinged wooden house in Kyzyl. In the dirt yard sits a well-preserved 30-year-old Russian car with a recently busted tranny.

I arrived before his cousins, so Sean and I could chat. We sat in his tiny kitchen making pork, mutton and beef kabobs while Sean told me how and why he came to Tuva. The short version: he was a bike messenger in Chicago, got a throat-singing CD as a gift from his roommate, taught himself to throat sing, decided he wanted to go to Tuva to learn more, applied for an received a Fulbright to do so ($18k!), and off he went. That was 6 years ago. He met the members of Alash, who had just started the group, joined the band, met and married a Tuvan. A familiar story of boy meets throat-singers.

Now he works playing for the Tuvan National Orchestra and Alash, scraping together a living in the same way as any other Tuvan. Sean has gone native.

As we put the second round of shashlik on the tiny grill, the wind kicked up. Dirt from the yard swirled up and “seasoned” the meat. Sean’s two-year-old cheerfully tottered about, climbing on everything. Soon a swarm of cousins arrived, brought the kitchen table out to the yard and began cutting salad and bread. Someone brought a pizza. And vodka. We had a lovely time, and I was sad to leave.

I came home late, smelling of shashlik, vodka and happiness.

The next day, the first day of June, I caught a ride with Marina’s cousins to Abakan. She had arranged for me to meet her aunt’s friend, a shaman. Thus began my period of confinement.

At around 2 pm, the cousins rather unceremoniously dumped me in front of Svejta’s house, across the river from Abakan proper. I was alarmed at first, but then Svejta cheerfully waved me in, instructing her sons to help me with my bags.

Svejta is a big fat Kazakh shaman. She wore white patterned stretch pants and a tattered t-shirt with holes in the armpits. Her blue eyes sparkled when she was joking around (often) but went dull when she was serious. Her presence, physical and otherwise, filled her tiny kitchen. She introduced me to her sons: Andrei (a tall, red-headed, befreckled 21-year-old), the middle kid (a chubby-going-fat 16-year-old who most resembled his mother), and Peter (a skinny 9-year-old with an evil streak – his toys consisted of two fake uzis and a soccer ball which he kicked, hard, in my direction while I had my back turned and almost took my head off. Twice.). Then I met Sasha, her wiry and rather dim 30-year-old husband (her third), on whose crappier-than-promised English I had to rely for translation. Svejta herself is 40.

Though I’d love to, I can’t go into all the details of the next 24 hours here. It’s…just too much. I told Svejta I was interested in learning about shamanism, and after a short chat she invited me to stay the night (or two) in her home. I accepted, curious. So it began:

1.
Svejta could see in my soul/body that something is not right, and it’s ruining my energy and my life. Do I have headaches often? (No.) I had a traumatic experience when I was 18 or 20. (Nope. So then her guesses became more general.) Unrequited love! (Um, who hasn’t? I just blinked at her.) This is causing bad circulation. I must have varicose veins! (Nope.) I was instructed to stand on a stool at the table, life my pant legs and turn around so she could inspect my calves. Yes! There! Under the skin! “In 5 years, your legs will be full of varicose veins, because of this problem,” she told me, gravely. “But I can help.” She advised me to come to her for healing – 10 days of intensive therapy, complete with shaman rituals and chiripractic-sounding realignments. I just smiled and said nothing.

2.
Sasha probed to see what I believed. On the computer he showed me photos of shaman excursions (!), a short video promo of “The Secret” (“the power of thinking positive!” he gushed), photos of a magic cave in India, and, inexplicably, an animated Pixar film, dubbed in Russian, about a sheep who learns to “stay positive” even after all his fleece is shorn.

3.
Seeing that I wasn’t into the idea of a 10-day treatment, Svejta offered to do a shaman ceremony for me the following night, to help me find a husband – my “love half” as Sasha put it. She would do this for free, because, eveidently, she and I were sisters in a past life. All I had to do is buy the spirit offerings, which would be lamb meat and other things and which I would throw into a fire at the appointed time. The ceremony would take place after midnight, on the edge of the River Abakan, which means “bear blood.” Again, I smiled and was noncommittal. By now I had given up trying to journalistically find out about shamanism. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

4.
Interspersed with all this craziness were these prolonged, painful attempts to translate some rather odd questions from Svejta – questions that had no reasonable answer. “What do you think about network marketing?” (huh?) “Tell me some things that are amazing in USA.” And my favorite: “Can mothers rent cars in America?” (uh…what??)

That night, without asking me first (and in a clear attempt to convert me), Svejta did her shaman thing. As I got ready for bed, she entered my room with these kooky dolls and a sparkly blue piece of cloth. As she arranged the dolls along the wall, on the cloth, Sasha came in and explained that the dolls were alive and would “heal” me overnight. “Don’t be scared,” he said. My devolution into a Stephen King short story continued as Svejta and the middle son continued to bring in shaman stuff – her shaman costume, drums, flails, a monkey paw, some old bone, and other paraphanalia. The son lit incense.

Then I was instructed to sleep naked. (“You must not be confined,” explained Sasha.) When I said I’d be way too cold, they brought another blanket and a big, loose-fittingĀ  t-shirt. When I was appropriately dressed and under the covers, Svejta came in again – this time with three lit candles and some chimes. She told me to close my eyes, and rang her chimes over my feet, torso and head. Then she sat down, noisily – she’s a large woman – and began chanting and beating a drum. This went on for about 15 minutes.

For my part, I was fucking exhausted (I had slept just 3 hours the night before, and had been awake for about 22 hours by then) so I just tried to go to sleep, thinking through a plan to escape this craziness as soon as possible the next day.

Finally the “ceremony” ended, and I was allowed to sleep. I’ve got pictures of the whole set up, which I will upload as soon as I can.

The next day, they asked, “How do you feel this morning?” Fine. “You slept well?” Yes. “You don’t usually sleep so well, right?” It depends. (In hindsight, I’m kinda surprised they didn’t try to drug me or something.) They gave up their questions. Pleading work-related needs, I told them I had to go to the internet cafe in town, instead of to a nearby forest (a magic forest, of course) to collect birch branches for our planned trip to the banya later that day. I had to be very firm, but finally they agreed to let me go. Escape! I logged on, checked the train schedules, walked to the train station and bought a ticket for that night. When I returned to Svejta’s, I explained I had to get to Irkutsk by Thursday “for work” and that I would be leaving in a few hours. I showed them my train ticket. They couldn’t argue. No midnight shaman ceremony by the river!

So after insisting on a quick trip to a friend’s banya (a Russian sauna), they dropped me off at the train station.

I have to work on this story – it’s crazy, crazy, crazy – but I haven’t had much time to write. Later this morning I’m going to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal with Nikki, a Dutch man I met here. He had met Nikki (female) and Russell, the British couple I had met in Moscow, in Yekaterinburg. They three arranged a hiking trip along the western shore of Lake Baikal next week, and Nikki the Brit emailed me to see if I wanted to join. When I arrived to the hostel here (the Brits come in a few days) Nikki the Dutchman heard me talking about the hike and introduced himself. Funny! Anyway, we’re spending the weekend relaxing on the island instead of sitting around in the hot hot city. I hope to finally be able to write more, but I have a feeling we’ll be exploring the island instead.

OK running out of battery. More soon – I hope!

Kyzyl foh shizzle

It was 6:45 am, Eastern Siberian Time. I was in a minivan with nine laughing Mongolian-looking young men who I had just met at the train station. As we rattled along the road out of Abakan, our chain-smoking driver pulled out wrap-around shades to block the sun that had squeezed its way through the thick clouds.

It wasn’t until five hours later, as we descended out of the snow-capped Ergaki Mountains into the rolling steppes outside Kyzyl, that it occurred to me that I should be scared. I mean, I just jumped from a train into a van with ten strange men with whom I didn’t share a language, to drive hundreds of km from the nearest city, towards the Russian border with Mongolia. But it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do.

Naturally, it was fine. The driver dropped me at my hotel, I checked in to the cheapest single so far (800 rubles!) and went to find the only internet cafe in town – here at the local post office. Kyzyl is the center of Tuvan throat-singing (some of whom with perform at the Lowell, MA Folk Festival in July!), a place Richard Feynman was obsessed with, and a built-from-scratch Soviet city. Should be interesting.

Plenty has happened since I last posted, of course – I went bowling in Tomsk, discovered that all of Krasnoyarsk is closed on Monday (museums, parks, even the zoo), and spent that rainy Krasnoyarsk afternoon drinking cheap beer with two Australians I had met on the train. I’ll see if I can write a better post on my laptop and USB it onto this computer. But at the moment I can’t write too much – there’s a little girl who insists on opening and closing the creaky, squeaky wrought iron door and my nerves are wrecked.

The short-version plan: I hope to *finally* find someone to take me on a hike, or rafting, or ANY place out in some natural setting to get some fresh air and see the country without a train’s pane glass separating us. Even the van ride, on a real Russian road with real Russian air blowing through the windows – felt better than the train. Perhaps that’s been my disconnect so far – I’ve only been in cities and large towns, and I want to see some NATURE.

So if I can find that, I’ll say here for about a week. If not, I’ll stay 3 or 4 days, and then either backtrack through Abakan for a train to Irkutsk, or fly direct to Irkutsk from here.

OK really gotta run. My teeth are grinding.