Notes in Kyzyl
As a kid I played games such as: pretend you are dead as you drift around the crabapple tree in the back yard; pretend that the stone footpath in the front yard is a walkway through outer space; we ‘ordered’ groceries off a 250-year-old stone post that doubled as a TV screen from the future in our minds. Indoors, we imagined that we were on a boat in a cave while only on a bed. I wanted to roam the world to find a true flying carpet.
As a tree worshipper in my art school ‘Religions of the World’ class, I was fascinated to read about Siberian Shamans who traveled into inter-dimensional space through the roots of trees. Years later, when invited to a month long writers fellowship in St. Petersburg, Russia, I thought to continue my travels further east to meet shamans in Siberia. The idea of traveling on to meet shamans appealed to my desire to go to the edge of Western civilization and then jump off that edge. I thought of Russia as strange not only from what I knew about Russian art and history, but from my own familial Russian ties. I still do not know enough about my Jewish great-great grandparents’ pony express in Russia that was closed down after one relative had printed political tracts against the czar.
From what I had read online about meeting Siberian shamans, I was under the impression that they would require me to sing… to help them decide if they could trust you or possibly as a way to read about your life for you. To prepare, I practiced a few songs and wondered what song might pop into my head at the moment, possibly a Beatles or a PJ Harvey song.
|Homage to Shepherd|
I contacted someone named Mergen via email at tuvatravel.com while still in New York. Mergen would host me in Siberia and told me about one route to get there, with a flight to Novosibirsk, then a twelve-hour train ride from Novosibirsk to Krasnoyarsk, after which you catch an overnight bus, then take a 6 hour taxi ride. This route would all together add up to a three-day journey. An online advertisement suggested there was a non-stop flight from St. Petersburg to Tuva. However, the airline’s only airplane, a Yak, was out of commission. My friend Dan had traveled to meet shamans four years earlier to Kyzyl, the Dr. Seuss-ian named Siberian city in the Republic of Tuva. He said the shamans helped to heal his serious illness. Dan suggested that I would find my way there once I was inside the Russian Federation. He gave me prints of his photographs of the shamans to deliver to them.
I found Siberian Airlines in the last week of my time in St. Petersburg, with flights over the Ural Mountains to Novosibirsk, which is half way to Tuva. I tried to get a seat on an overbooked flight on Tuvaskya Airlines from Novosibirsk to Tuva. I suggested that they ask for a jump seat, where the stewardess puts her luggage. On my way from their office, I stopped in front of the St. Petersburg Ethnographic Museum, to talk with a guy in a coat made of a familiar yet unrecognizable material. He told me it was salmon skin leather. I dropped by Siberian Airlines a few hours before I was to take off and they had found a seat for the second leg of my trip. They said over and over again, “You must transfer to another airport once in Novosibirsk, to connect with the flight to Kyzyl, Tuva. You must transfer to another airport. You must transfer.”
Do you know the way to the Republic of Tuva
Every time I closed my eyes on the 11 pm Siberian Air flight, I drifted back to another late night party with the other writers in St. Petersburg. Sounds and lights blurred together with my friends’ smiles in close up, then all disappeared as in a dream or on an astral projected tour. The flight arrived in several new time zones, which brought the 4 hour flight to land at 7 a.m. in Novosibirsk. I collected my luggage along with 300 other travelers who pushed and shoved. The cab drivers on the street didn’t understand my broken Russian question about the connecting airport for the flight to Kyzyl.
I let that go and sat on a bench away from the crowds and relaxed for a moment and breathed deep. From a distance, I noticed one person in the crowd that I was certain would know how I can get to the other airport. I walked up to a black haired woman and asked, “Kyzyl? Do you know how I can get to the other airport to catch a flight for Kyzyl?” Then I moved one hand as if it was an airplane that took off from my other hand.
The woman said, “I am from Kyzyl.” She was shocked that I found her among the throngs and gestured to imply: that she waited for the plane from “Moscow” to arrive with someone expected. She would drive this person to the next airport for a flight to Kyzyl and I could go, too. At least that’s what I thought she said.
From behind me, I heard English spoken. I turned around to find two conservatively dressed Americans from Utah who said, “We do not speak Russian but you could borrow our NATO translator.” They pushed a man in a suit towards me, I read his name tag that included the words ‘NATO Russian Translator.’ He translated the black haired woman named Olga: “I wait for my niece. Once she arrives from Moscow, you can join us as we drive to my apartment, eat breakfast, and take naps. Around 1 pm, we will drive to the other airport for the plane to Kyzyl. My niece must get on the same flight.”
While we waited for Olga’s niece to arrive, I talked to a 6’2” white haired NATO guy from the Czech Republic, who had also arrived on an overnight flight. He complained that he had to give a speech at 9 that morning. I talked to him about how to conserve energy. He appreciated my advice and as the NATO group gathered to leave, he said to me, “Let’s go. Come on, now.”
I said, “I’m not in NATO. I’m on my way to Kyzyl, Tuva to meet shamans.”
He waved his arm insistently and said, “That doesn’t matter. You are with us now. Let’s go!”
I was at a crossroads: Do I continue on to meet shamans in Kyzyl or go to a NATO meeting in Novosibirsk? NATO or Shamans. Shamans or NATO? I chose the Shamans.
At Olga’s place, we had a conversation and passed her Russian to English dictionary back and forth, and with her kids, who attended summer school to learn English.
Olga asked, “How do you feel that you are a woman who travels alone, aren’t you scared?”
I said, “Yes.”
Olga said, “Though, you must be magic. How else would you find me, the one person from Tuva in the crowd of hundreds at the airport.”
I explained, “That was only the magic of observation since you were the only Asian woman in the crowd.” We laughed. Later, her husband drove us to the other airport for the connection of the Tuvaskaya Air flight to Kyzyl.
On this flight, I did have a small seat that the stewardess used for her luggage. I met my internet contact Mergen at the airport in Kyzyl, Tuva. Mergen was slight at 5’7” with a large dark circle over the cheekbone below one eye, which I thought was a bruise from a barroom brawl. With a tape of Abba’s Greatest Hits blasted through small car speakers, Mergen sped through solitary highways that curved through the Steppes, then over and along the Yenisey River. Stretched thin from my travels, I inhaled the vastness of the Steppes.
The Russian government shut off public hot water during alternate summer weeks, so Mergen offered to drive me to a banya. I expected to go a bathhouse with hulking sweaty Russian women in towels, somewhere within the tall buildings of downtown Kyzyl. But instead, we drove to a nearby village with one-story houses and stopped at a brown house with green shutters where his large brother-in-law lived. In a shack in the backyard, the brother-in-law had built a fire under a water barrel, where they left me alone. My mind wandered back to Olga who said, “Aren’t you afraid to be a woman who travels alone?” For a moment, I wondered how anyone would know what happened to me if I was murdered in that little shack in the middle of Siberia. Tired and sweaty ~ I disrobed. I found pots of cold water to mix with the heated water, soap, and shampoo. My fear and stress were washed away. Once dressed, my feet found the mud and grassy back yard. Mergen invited me into the main house for tea and cookies.
Some things had been lost in translation online in my dialogue with Mergen. Mergen wrote that the local hotels sucked and that I could get an apartment with internet and breakfast for $20 a day. Which turned out to mean that I would stay with him and his family. Their living room was simple with blank walls, a hand painted table, a couch, and bookshelves. Mergen’s wife put together huge breakfasts with blinis, fresh fruit, cucumber salad, and tea. Russian gangster rap blasted out of Mergen’s adolescent daughter’s room. She came out to watch the grrrrrl superhero Sailor Moon, from Japan, on TV dubbed in Russian.
Mergen’s wife showed me a photo album that included a photograph of his foot where he’d lost two toes from frostbite. The ‘bruise’ on Mergen’s cheekbone that I thought was from a barroom brawl, was also from frostbite. His wife and kids laughed when they saw the photograph of his foot. They laughed at each other’s suffering, which unnerved me. The average winter in Siberia is minus 27 Celsius. Mergen acted as my translator. Whenever Russian police were nearby, Mergen whispered, “Pretend to be a Russian person and do not speak English.”
Shamans Nadya and Oolya Ool
I showed Mergen my friend Dan’s photographs of the shamans. He phoned a few people who led us to find Nadya at the Dos Deers/The 9 Stars Shaman Center that had a few rustic brown wood one story blue trim and dirt floor buildings, a yurt, and a banya. Nadya had a long narrow nose, broad cheeks and black hair in the photographs. But her hair had since turned white. The three of us sat at a table inside of the yurt. Kind and open faced, Nadya told me that one of my grandmother’s was a shaman, even though she didn’t know it. She also told me that I am a shaman. She offered to teach me how to make a shaman’s coat.
I read Nadya’s palms outside, as we sat on a log. As a palm reader, I get visions over physical reality, then translate these visions.
Nadya gave me a jaw harp as a gift, which she didn’t know how to play. I tried and couldn’t make music either, as a rugged wiry guy with sensitive eyes walked up to us. His head was shaved except for a long braid in the back. His name was Oolya Ool. Oolya put out his hand and took the jaw harp, and then played a very fine, clear song. Oolya played a resonant rhythmic melody that vibrated in his throat, chest and head. Nadya looked deep into my eyes, then pointed upwards to the sky to one hawk. Then several hawks joined that hawk and made wide circles above us. The group of hawks floated close above. Two of the hawks sped into the center of the flock, then gently smashed into each other in a joyful dance. When Oolya stopped the music, the hawks flew away.
The next day, Mergen and I met the Republic of Tuva’s figurehead shaman: Kenin Lopsang, in his office behind the local Ethnographic Museum among 3000- year-old moustachio-ed carved stones. I waited outside of his door for the right moment, since Kenin had a reputation as temperamental from several journalists that wrote about him online that he yelled at and chased away. He welcomed me in. I gave him the photographs of himself in a green robe taken by Dan Asher. He invited me to take more pictures of him and to choose what he would wear. I picked a purple silk robe and a purple hat decorated with snakey shapes. He flirted with me and flashed a triumphant smile, and asked if I would be his young girlfriend.
Kenin stood in front of a bookshelf full the volumes he wrote on shamanism. Also on the bookshelf was a sculpture of a tiny horse and a demon; a bottle of vodka; a tape recorder; letters; and other papers and a calendar. He gathered shaman’s stories and songs in secret while he survived interrogations by the secret police of Stalin.
Over 700 shamans died in Gulag prisons. Buddhist Temples in Tuva were destroyed and broken hearted Buddhists fled the city, some lived in caves.
After 1989, Kenin organized the usual solitary shamans into a supportive Shaman’s Society. Kenin suggested that I work with a specific shaman. Mergen called that shaman on the phone to set up a time to meet at the Shaman Center.
The next morning, we met the shaman, who turned out to be Oolya Ool, who I’d met a few days before and played the jaw harp.
(more about Kenin Lopsan: http://www.shamanism.org/fssinfo/livingtreasureKenin-Lopsan.html, and another Shaman site: https://thepowerpath.com/)
Oolya spoke of how he first met Kenin Lopsan. He walked down Lenin Street outside of the Ethnographic Museum, with his son. Kenin ambled towards them with his head down, until he stopped right in front of Oolya. Then Kenin popped his head up with a startled expression in recognition and surprised Oolya, too. They hugged. Kenin invited him into the Shaman’s Society to get shaman assignments.
Oolya Oon told of how as a nine-year-old, he had climbed up an invisible ladder. He climbed in mid air in front of other children, who were frightened and ran home.
Soon after, he fell ill and was untreatable by medical doctors. Oolya described a busty shaman with deep-set eyes, dark thick eyebrows and a prominent nose, who took him home to heal. She returned him fully recovered to his parents after three days. She told them if he practiced shamanism as a young man, then he’d have a short life. She predicted that he would be safe only if he waited until he turned 36. He said could read auras at 24 but didn’t fully become a shaman until he turned 36, which coincided with Perestroika.
In 1620’s, the Russian government fought over territory near the border of Mongolia. Miles long tea caravans and herders dominated the then dirt roads that connected Mongolia with Siberia. After Perestroika, former herders picked up where their ancestors left off, to herd horses, yak, cattle, and reindeer. Soviet’s claim on Tuva melted away, Tuva’s newer officials chose to stay part of Russia. Around 2005, the Russian government defunded Tuva’s local television news and tourist board without explanation.
Oolya Ool read my future with stones. He arranged stones into sets of twos and threes and then into rows in a square. He invited me to go with him on a road trip to take care of a recently deceased shaman’s tree. But I had to pass since this trip would start the day after my rare flight home. Instead we set a date before my departure to have a ritual so that I could learn how to read the stones.
I had one more photograph to deliver to a gray haired shaman with delicate eyes and hands named Goncherov. Goncherov had a reputation as a great storyteller and said he would tell me some of these tales on my next trip to Tuva. We were invited inside of his scrappy house, where he constructed shaman’s drums that were sold in Sweden. We drove Goncherov for a ritual to a sacred site called Beaver Springs. Tough bulky men exited as we arrived. Goncherov put on his shaman’s coat made of animal skins, strung with bells, ribbons, a bear claw, multi-colored woven strands, and a dark blue wool panel in the back dotted with stars. A felt and feather headdress was on his head. He laughed loudly on that summer day about how hot it was inside of his shaman’s coat and boots. A Russian family’s disapproving gaze let us know that they considered us a freak show(that I was happy to be a part of). A healthy and cheerful elderly man bowed with obvious immense reverence for Goncherov.
Goncherov built a fire and offered cheese and flour to the spirits. The flames danced into shapes of spirits. We hiked up a hill to a tree at the source of Beaver Spring. We tossed milk in the four directions, just like some Pagan and Native American rituals. I tied a prayer silk on a tree branch and meditated on my father who’d died a few years before. Back by the fire, I removed my glasses and Goncherov relayed messages from spirits with helpful information such as that I should wear a little bit of red daily to put off aggressive people. After I placed my glasses on again, colors and the landscape appeared to be more vibrant and clear.
I rested in the passenger front seat as Mergen drove us up to the Shaman Center door. Nadya met our car and with a sliver moon smile, reached in the car window and gave my arm a squeeze and pressed her fingertips on my heart center right after I thought about how much I liked her. Nadya had other work to do before our visit and introduced me to another shaman who was from ‘Tiger Mountain’. While other Tuvans share eight of nine kinds of DNA with Navaho. The people of Tiger Mountain have DNA completely in common with Navaho.
Nadya was ready, I followed Nadya inside of the yurt for my lesson in how to make a shaman’s coat. Nadya had a wand that she gently slapped against all of her joints counted 13. She told me these points are also open chakras that are connected to the heavens, too, not just the crown center(on the top of your head). She also said that 13 is a great number.
Nadya drew the details of a shaman’s coat and explained that the 9 metal stars correspond with the planets in our solar system and that Tuvans have been aware of astrology and astronomy for centuries. There were eyes on the coat as well as on a shaman’s hat. She told me about various skins, fur and feathers. Braided fabrics and ribbons represented pathways to the spirit-world, as well as water, fire, air and earth. I remembered a bundle of ribbons in thousands of colors used for divination by a witch that I met years ago.
Nadya had invited Dan, my photographer friend, to stay year round, but he didn’t want to experience the intense Siberian winters. He mentioned that a patient of Nadya’s hunted and brought to her a bear in the middle of one winter. When I tried to confirm, there was a communication breakdown between Nadya and Mergen, and her answer implied that she did not do anything out of the ordinary, or illegal.
My last days in Tuva
Oolya Ool requested that I go out to a remote area of the Yenisey River to find 41 stones to read. Instead, Mergen wanted to go to the big park in the center of town. We wrestled with words for a while, exasperated, until I figured out that he wanted more money for gas to get to the remote area, which totally made sense, and I agreed.
On a gorgeous day, I collected smooth black stones along a remote area of the Yenisey River. After, Mergen led us up to the top of a nearby mountain with sage plants that grew next to miniature gold bark birch trees straight out of the Arabian Nights. We could see horses that grazed on the summer greens and nomads with a herd of sheep on the foothills miles away by the Yenisey River.
On my last day, Oolya Ool taught me how to read the stones. We performed rituals in four locations, north, south, west and east. Before we left Kyzyl, we shopped in a large indoor and out door market for thin Buddhist scarves to tie on branches of a sacred tree, small bundles of dry cedar.
Mergen drove to us out of town to a nine-foot round boulder that marked the center point of Asia. Oolya found sparkled sugar cookies shaped like like Russian dolls from a nearby tea stand. We prayed and then tossed milk on these doll cookies on the boulder.
Oolya said to think of my immediate circle of family and friends and to say a prayer for them. I prayed for everyone that I knew. Oolya told me to increase the circle, saying a prayer for my neighborhood, which I did, and felt my heart expand. We drove in the opposite direction, and performed a ritual at Beaver Springs. The final location was in a delicate grove of trees where horses and a colt grazed quietly. I was asked to include everyone in my city and my country. And then similar to a Sufi meditation, to extend prayers to this galaxy and to whole the universe. I tied a yellow scarf on a tree branch next to other’s slips of cloth, some with prints of horses or flowers, and some, rags with prayers handwritten in pen.
Oolya suggested that energy and spirits inhabit the stones. He said the spirits approved and that I could learn to read them. We took into consideration the shapes of the stones, which stones sat together, and what these relationships mean. Mergen and I took fast notes and then Oolya performed other rituals so that people would believe me when I returned home.
As we drove on a bridge, Oolya Ool thanked the river below. None of the shamans had asked me to sing, as I had expected. But the windows were open and I sang into the wind and looked up from the car window. Again, several hawks circled closely above us, then crashed softly and easily into each other in an elegant dance. The hawks followed the car for a long time.
This piece originally appeared in the St Petersburg Review, issue 3, 2009.
All photos by Shelley Marlow except the portrait of Shelley Marlow by Alice O'Malley.
All photos by Shelley Marlow except the portrait of Shelley Marlow by Alice O'Malley.
© Shelley Marlow
Shelley Marlow is the author of Two Augusts In a Row In a Row (Publication Studio, Portland) 2015. Marlow's writing and visual art is found in several publications including LTTR (Lesbians To The Rescue), alLuPiNiT, an environmental magazine, Drunken Boat, saint-lucy.com, and the St. Petersburg Review. Marlow’s paintings were recently exhibited at Artmarket Provincetown and Valentine Gallery, NY. Marlow wrote the lyrics to the musical, UnKnot Turandot, La Mama Theater, NY; and presented an interactive project, International Witch Stories in the Italian Pavilion for the 48th Venice Biennial.