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:

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.

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.

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.

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-fitting¬† 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!

Tuvan cowboys and bachelor pads

I’m sitting at a low makeshift kitchen table, made of a slab faux-cherrywood countertop balanced on a cardboard speaker box. It’s the only clean surface in the apartment. Balanced against the wall beside me stands a mountain bike. The Kruschev-era, meal-colored wallpaper is peeling in places, revealing cheap plaster underneath. It’s hard to tell what is original and what is a half-finished “improvement” – the half-tiled windowsill, the plastic insultation bulging from gaps in the windowframes, the puckered linoleum tile. Everything is covered – not in a film of dust, but in a film of filth.

And then there’s the bathroom. <shudder>

On the other hand, the bare living room is half-filled with a giant flat-screen TV and stereo. There’s another flat-screen mounted to the wall in the shabby bedroom. And then there’s the fast fast computer sitting next to me on this table, its hard drive filled with video games.

But the per-night cost is right (free). And there’s a washing machine, currently on its second load.

Marina, my new Tuvan buddy, is letting me use her boyfriend’s apartment while he’s off in Tomsk taking is final exams for law school. At 36, it seems he is still living the lifestyle of a 26-year-young bachelor. So my inelegant surroundings are a combination of his lack of concern for things like, say, glasses (there are none), and the fact that the apartment is in what is known as a Kruschev special – cheaply-built 5-storey apartment blocks built mostly in Kruschev’s time.


Yesterday Ayan Shirizhik,¬†a member of the Alash throat-singing ensemble I met through Sean Quirk (see previous post), took me to his brothers’ horse farm about 100 km south. Unabashed and cheerful, he played proud tour guide for the day, despite his limited English. As we drove across the treeless, grassy steppe he expounded on such topics as the names of the various mountain ranges surrounding Tuva, the Indian music playing on his radio (Shaakti – check it out!), Russian politics in the formerly independent state of Tuva, how great Obama is (a Tuvan favorite), how bad Bush is, the animist/Buddhist mishmash that makes up most Tuvans’ religion, how many horses his brother has, how much pot American musicians smoke, and so on.

As the snow-capped Tangde Mountains (sp?) came into view, his face beamed with child-like delight. “This is my country!” he grinned. After Lake Cheder, a small salt lake where people come to roll aound in the smelly “healing” muds, we turned west off the main southbound road. With each passing kilometer the road degraded. We passed through the remote village where his parents and a few siblings live and were soon creeping along a heavily rutted dirt path. To our north sparkled Lake Chagytai, named for Ghengis Khan’s son. To the south rose another snow-capped mountain range whose name I now forget. To the east, the direction we were driving, were the Tangde Mountains. The horse farm – a few wooden shacks dating from his grandfather’s time – stood on the eastern shore of the lake, framed by the mountains.

The whole scene – the remote grassy steppe, the mountains, the lake named for the son of a feared warrior, the chanting, guttoral throat-singing on the radio (we had changed CDs), the warm sun and clear blue sky – was a fairlytale.

His brothers also live bachelor-style, in an unspeakably shabby wood shack. It was furnished with three ancient, sagging spring beds with dusty coverlets, a few half-broken wooden chairs, and a large clay stove. A half-dozen wool coats hung from wooden pegs along one wall, with a neatly paired series of shoes lined up underneath. Outside, two vicious dogs stood guard – I wasn’t allowed to go into the yard alone, or else they might have attacked me. There be horse rustlers in them thar hills.

One brother, Merguen, took Ayan and me for a horse ride. Now, I’ve ridden plenty of horses before. Tourist horses. These were definitely not tourist horses. My mare immediately sensed my lack of confidence. She first tried to brush me off her back by walking along a fence. Then she sneaked out of the yard while the brothers were still mounting their horses and started wandering away, completely ignoring my entreaties and my amateurish yanks on the reigns. Merguen quickly caught up, took her lead rope, and I spent the whole ride being led along like a child. Sigh. At least she didn’t take off at a canter and try to break my neck.

After the ride and having some tea, Ayan and I drove down to a BBQ spot on the lake to make shashlik – shishkebob – for lunch. While the meat was cooking he took out his flutes and played – for me, but also for the lake and his country. He loves coming back to the farm, to where his ancestors lived, but his work ( in addition to Alash, he plays for the Tuvan National Orchestra) and his family (wife and two kids) keep him in Kyzyl.

I could say so much more about Ayan, throat-singing, the Tuvan countryside, and the whole day, but I would go on for hours. I’ve fallen in love with Tuva. I’m not even gone, and I already want to come back.

[By the way, Alash is touring the east coast of the US this summer. They’re playing in Boston, New York state and New Jersey. Sean tells me they might play Brooklyn, too. I encourage everyone to go see them if you can! Tour schedule here.]

Mojo: from bad to good

Greetings from the local radio station in Tuva.

Krasnoyarsk, my first stop in eastern Siberia, killed any mojo I had built up in Tomsk. After arriving on the train on Sunday at 11 am I spent the entire day looking for a room – all the inexpensive places were full. I even took a bus ride 20 minutes outside of town to a hotel near the nature reserve I wanted to hike the next day, but it was closed until summer. In the end, I overpaid $115 for a night in a boutique-style hotel that didn’t quite cut it. (The shower, for instance, was more warm-ish than hot.)

The next day I had arranged to meet the Aussie cousins I had met on the train for a hike in the Stolby Nature Reserve. Finally! Nature! But alas, it was raining – not quite pouring, but more than drizzling. I begged off to go the museum (I had decided to take the train out that night, and didn’t want to be wet and muddy) but they soldiered on to the reserve.

A mere 2 hours later the three of us sat consoling ourselves over cheap beer in a deserted but pleasant basement bar. Krasnoyarsk, it seems, is closed on Mondays: the museums, the parks, the zoo. So while I saw nothing of Krasnoyarsk, I did have a nice time chatting with native English speakers (yay) about life, travel and Russia.

Here in Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic, my mojo is back in full effect. I took the overnight train south from Krasnoyarsk to Abakan in the neighboring republic of Khakassia, arriving around 6:15 am. That’s where I found the marshrutka – a sort of minivan shared taxi – and took it 6 hours over the Ergaki Mountains to the steppes of Kyzyl.

While checking in at Hotel Kottedzh (Russian transliteration of “cottage”) I met Marina, a lawyer who works in some office here doing some sort of administrative paperwork (not clear what). She speaks excellent English, and offered to the next day (Wednesday) off to show me around. I also received a text message from Sean Quirk, an American who lives here (he’s married to a Tuvan). On the advice of Lonely Planet, I had sent him email inquiring about throat-singing performances.

So on Wednesday morning Marina and I went to the local music school to see Sean’s throat-singing ensemble play for a graduation ceremony. It was beautiful. The orchestra played a few traditional Tuvan guitar-like instruments, a harpsichord-looking thing, and xomye, these twangy instruments that look like an extra-long saxophone reed that they flicked with a finger and held to their mouth. There was some normal singing, and during one song some of the band whistled like songbirds. And then there was the throat-singing. How to describe it? It’s a deep, almost inhuman sound that vibrates in the singer’s throat. It’s like a very talented baritone frog, chanting. Amazing.

Afterwards I spoke with Sean briefly (he had to run). I’m supposed to meet with him again today. He also says he’ll arrange for a bandmate to take me to his brother’s horse farm out in the countryside. So more on Sean and throat-singing later.

After grabbing a Tuvan pelmenyi lunch Marina and I went to the local museum. The 200-ruble ticket seemed like an outrageous sum to pay for what amounted to snapshots of locals (including the builders of the new, just-opened museum building), some stuffed animals and crappy local art. That is, until we met Radju. I had just made a snarky comment to Marina, like “I’m glad we paid 200 rubles to see the curators’ diplomas” when suddenly Radju, a museum guide, came up to us and started explaining things for free. (He didn’t speak English, but maybe he overheard my tone and felt guilty?) It was clear that Radju loves his job. His eyes sparkled as he told us all about the nearby Arzhaan archeological digs, where scientists had unearthed Scythian burial sites (called kurgany). In colorful, energetic detail he told us about the burial rituals, the history of the area, the scientists who worked on the digs (including the archaeologist who had found the site and started the dig, who had been sent to a gulag during Stalin’s purges before he could finish), and so on.

Interspersed in the explication were questions about myself, Marina and about US politics – he’s Obama’s #1 fan in Tuva. He studied history here in Kyzyl, and says he knows the history of the whole world. He was quizzing me on US history, showing off his knowledge of Native American tribes. His name, he says, means “tsar” in Indian (India Indian, not Native-American “indian”.). He wants to learn Spanish and go to Central America. In fact, he says, he wants to travel the world. But, like Marina, he loves Tuva and wants to live here, despite the general lack of opportunity in this economically insignificant corner of Russia.

After the museum Marina went home and I went for a walk along the river Yenisey. As luck – or my Kyzylian mojo – would have it, I happened upon preparations for a shaman ritual. I had noticed the shack with the yurt and the “shaman” sign out front on an earlier walk, and assumed it was a Disney version of real shamanism, which is still practiced and believed in the area. Naturally I stuck around to watch – evidently you can pay a shaman a few thousand rubles to see the spectacle, so I was getting a show for free. (I gleaned from a brief, broken conversation with a local that some Norwegians had indeed paid the shamen (women, actually) to perform some sort of rite.) Dozens of Tuvans had come out, whether to see the show or participate, I couldn’t tell. Once the performance (I hesitate to call it a ritual) got started, I found that my suspicions were valid. It really did look like a bunch of women in silly costumes banging drums and twirling amid incense. A tourist attraction.

But Marina’s aunt is friends with a “real” shaman (another woman). Last year Marina and her family went to see her, and now Marina is convinced of the shaman’s power. She says she’s going to try to help me meet the shaman in Abakan. We’ll see.

So you see, all of a sudden I’m having some ad-hoc, interesting experiences. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m away from the normal tourist track, or that I’m not meeting with officialdom (businesspeople, others I met via Esther), or what. But there’s something about Kyzyl – an architecturally awful, Soviet purpose-built city in the middle of beautiful rolling hills – that appeals to me. Marina has convinced me to stay until Monday, and has invited me stay with her and her mom over the weekend.

I’m not even perturbed by the fact that the hot water is out in all of Kyzyl until Friday. I just took a “shower” by heating 6 liters of water (in three batches) in the electric kettle provided by the hotel, pouring it into a plastic tub the maid gave me, and doing a combo of cold-water shower and hot-water splashing to get clean.

UPDATE: Looks like I am going to go to that horse farm/yurt camp about 100 km south of Kyzyl tomorrow. Exciting! Will post more when I can….

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.