Find the rain and bring it home
Sat, 1 Jun 2002
It seems that just a few weeks ago I was still complaining about the cold and now I’m sunburned. Here’s how it happened:
The thaw was a little late in coming this year, but it made up time once it came. As a result, the new taiga grasses didn’t have time to develop before the weather got hot enough for forest fires. During May, Kyzyl was again covered by a layer of smoke. This time, instead of the black soot of winter, we had a great cloud of wood smoke that came down from the taiga north of town. All over Tuva the forests have been burning. Thankfully, in most places the fires are just ground fires, which is still bad news for those people who rely on the wild berry harvest for economic and dietary sustenance, but which at least leaves the trees standing. In a few places the fires have been larger and in the Tes-Xem region the entire village of Shuurmak has been burnt.
A couple of weeks ago, I went with my host family back to the family farm south of Erzin. All along the way we could see fires, and we drove through Shuurmak just a few days before it burned. The purpose of our trip to Erzin was to visit some of the local sacred sites: canyons and badlands overlooking Mongolia. At that time, the weather was still cool enough that jackets could be worn outside. The sunburn began on Wednesday the 22nd.
One of the most important things I’ve learned about Tuva is where to sit if you want something unexpected to happen. Perhaps the greatest such spot is the bench in front of Tos Deer, the shamanic organization by the river. On Wednesday the 22nd I wandered down to Tos Deer to say hello to the shamans and to see what would happen. I was sitting outside on the bench when Natasha, one of the shamans, told me that a group of shamans and half of Changy-Xaya were getting ready to go to Mongun Taiga, the south-west corner of Tuva. After a bit of uncertainty relating to how many people we could fit into the van, it was decided that I could go along and sing a piece or two at the concert that the boys were to give.
On Friday afternoon we all met again at Tos Deer: four shamans (Ay-Churek, Xerel, Ayda, and Natasha), three of the boys from Changy-Xaya (Ayan, May-ool, and Bady-Dorzhu), and me (Stefan, later re-named Xuragan-ool, or ‘lamb-boy’). The purpose of the trip, I learned, was related to the forest fires. Tuesday the 29th was the beginning of a century of predomination by the water spirit and we were on our way to Mongun Taiga, the highest point of Tuva, to welcome the water spirit and to send rain to the rest of Tuva. We got underway around 7, planning to drive all night and arrive in Mongun Taiga the next day.
If our scientific expedition back in September did its fair share of stopping at ovaas to make offerings to the local spirits, you can imagine what it was like traveling with four shamans on the eve of a new epoch with such an important mission as the protection of the Siberian taiga. At every ovaa, as well as the sacred site of Xayiraxan blessed by the Dalai-Lama, we stopped for prayers, chants, and offerings. At midnight we stopped for dinner and a pattern was established of everyone trying to overfeed the American. At 2 we stopped at a particularly sacred spot for a prolonged ritual, so that the driver could catch a few hours of sleep.
I have long believed in the efficacy of shamanism as a sort of psychotherapy: that, if nothing else, shamans are incredibly adept at reading a person’s character based on the way that person moves and speaks. Also, a belief in local creates a greater respect for the land among people. Beyond that, I have remained skeptically agnostic. Growing up in a severely rational society where religion has become property of the mind, it is difficult to break habit and accept a belief in animistic spirits. On the other hand, when you’re standing on a windy mountain pass with a group of shamans, and when you watch the clouds come in when they chant, the thunder rumble when they beat their drums, the lightning flash when they blow their conch shells, and the rain fall when they make offerings of milk and grain, it’s almost a little frightening not to believe. Either way, the day after we left the rains came to Kyzyl and the air now is much clearer than it has been for a while.
In addition to the shamans, though, we had three xoomei singers and one singer in training in the van, which meant that there was usually someone singing. The Changy-Xaya boys passed around the guitar, everyone took turns on my harmonica, and we all had a rousing, if bumpy and dusty, sing-a-long. Most memorably, I joined in my first (rather successful) round of kozhamiktar --- Tuvan refrain verses sung in turns to a common melody. On the way, it was decided that, in addition to a solo number, I was to play a few pieces and sing a round of kozhamiktar with the boys at the concert, and that I should also do a number on the harmonica.
With all the ovaa stops, and with a vehicle that was having more and more trouble the farther we went, we managed to cover the 12-hour drive in just about 28 hours and arrived in the village of Mugur-Aksy late Saturday evening, just in time for a round of tea, yak oremi (which is far tastier than the cow oremi I had back in Bay Taiga), and, of course, han and boiled sheep meat.
The next day was a day of rest. I went with the boys down to the Kargy-Xem river and we recorded a few of their songs, accompanied by river water, a herd of cows, and the screams of young village girls running up and down the bank.
On Monday our work began. Our first job was to open a new family ovaa for the Dongaks, our hosts in Mugur-Aksy. We all drove out of town in two vehicles --- our entire party plus the Dongaks and several of their relatives --- to a spot that Ay-Churek (the head shamaness) deemed appropriate. The ceremony began with Ay-Churek walking from the place where we parked up the shoulder of a ridge to the site of the new ovaa, sprinkling rice along the way. She was followed by Xerel, carrying the ovaa pole, and then the rest of us, toting buckets of food, thermoses full of tea and milk, and digging tools (no, the digging tools were not in the thermoses, the way that ‘Mary, Joseph, and a baby lying in a manger’ does not require an overly large manger). While the shamans prepared the area and while two guys dug a hole for the pole, the rest of us gathered large rocks to pile up around it. Once the ovaa was built, it was offered food, beads, cigarettes, and coins and then we all gathered around a newly built and consecrated fire ring to hear Ay-Churek’s explanation of the significance of the ovaa. She talked about the importance of the site for the family and exhorted the Dongaks to observe the proper reverences while a half dozen or so of these black kites dive-bombed the cookies and sweets on the ovaa ten feet behind her. The fire was lit and the shamans performed a purification for all people present. Then we had a small meal and headed back into town.
Before we could have our concert, though, we had to stop for a much larger meal. Once the concert got underway we were at least an hour late; not too bad, I suppose, since the previous day’s 4:00 concert hadn’t started until 6:30. I joined the boys for about half of their set and did a little solo number along the way --- great fun, but still a bit nervous to play for the crowds.
Our original plan was to leave that evening, but our vehicle was late in coming, so we decided to spend one more night and leave ‘early morning’. As I was the only person to wake up anything close to what might be considered early morning (8:00), I figured that we wouldn’t get out of Mugur Aksy until at least 2 PM. Not that I minded. Mongun Taiga is spectacularly beautiful: steep, rocky mountains separated by what the Tuvans call ‘narrow steppe’, a term I have come across in songs but that I didn’t understand until now. Behind the closer hills, one gets an occasional of the snow-covered mass of Mongun Taiga mountain, Tuva’s one 4,000 meter peak. The air was always crystal clear and the sun absolutely sincere (hence the burn). Best of all, the mornings were full of that smell of agriculture that I love and that I never get in Kyzyl: a mix of milk, manure, wool, and straw that is absolutely organic and clean, like mature compost.
By 2 PM a group of Tuvan guys had removed the rear axle from the van we were to return in and were busy working on the back end of another van to find a replacement part. The rest of us sat around and chewed the fat. I learned a great Russian card game using the same method I used to learn Tuvan: you just start playing and you know that you’ve played incorrectly when people laugh. The difference is, of course, that in cards you don’t get the same type of Freudian slips that you get while learning a language. As of yet, I still haven’t accidentally said anything to offend anyone, though it was great fun when I told the Tos Deer receptionist that I was just out taking a walk and she understood that I was just out getting drunk.
We finally left Mugur Aksy at around 9:30, just as the sun was beginning to set. I’m still trying to get used to these 18-hour days. Even in the middle of the night, there’s a definite glow in the north and you can follow the course of the sun all the way to sunrise. The ride back was much quicker than the ride out: even the shamans were tired and our mission had been accomplished. Besides, the moon was just past full --- a time of rest for the shamans.
Back in Kyzyl, life goes on its crazy erratic Tuvan course. I’m beginning to learn the Tuvan squat. Any of you who have seen a Tuvan squat will know what this means and any of you who have tried to squat like a Tuvan will know what I’m up against. While playing igil the other day, I had an interesting experience. My upstairs neighbors have been renovating their apartment and I was fiddling around on my igil when one of them started drilling into the concrete wall with a power drill --- perfectly in tune with my instrument. I’m trying to recreate the sound myself now, a sort of ‘power drill kargyraa’.
The Xun Xurtuu tour schedule is finally up on the web (www.huunhuurtu.com, then the link to ‘tours’). It includes a few summer shows in the states and a November tour of the west coast, including a rather long visit to Alaska. As if they felt guilty for missing so many Tuvan winters . . .
Only six weeks left here in Tuva. The ‘Ak-ool’s Igil’ xoomei and instrumental competition that was supposed to take place in May and that I though had been rescheduled for the 20th of June will take place this Friday. Wish me luck. After that, everyone will be preparing for the big Dembildey Festival. And somewhere among all that there’s still a whole lot of Tuva to see. I’ll keep y’all posted.