Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Siberia Story Part I

The final part of the Russian film Andrei Rublev is set in a post-Tatar invasion lull. A group of horsemen trot into a levelled village in search of a master bell-caster, to find a blonde teenager with a stutter the only one left alive. The boy persuades the horsemen that they need look no further, that he himself possesses the secret of casting a great bell. He’s lying, but it’s his only chance of survival. They believe him, and the boy proceeds to bluff his way through a series of mishaps, beatings, and minor triumphs under the watchful eye of a foreman who will put him to death as soon as look at him if he doesn't come up with the goods.

Yet one problem persists. It is vital that just the right consistency of molding clay be found, otherwise the bell will crack. Days, weeks are lost as an advance team search in vain for the cherished substance and legions of workers sit idle. We finally see the boy alone in a waterlogged field, kneading useless clods of dirt in his palms, hurling them down in disgust. The skies open and sheets of rain soak the boy and the earth. He kicks at the ground in frustration, loses his balance and slides down a sheer riverbank at breakneck speed. He judders to a halt atop a large deposit of alluvial clay, where his fingers grope instinctively for the soil beneath. It’s a miracle - he has found the very substance his life depended on. He yells out his discovery to the sky and flops onto his back in convulsions of ecstasy between the slime and the torrential rain.

Cut to a long shot of the boy lying on one of a series of clay deposits layered atop exposed groundsoil, like giant dandelion leaves.

I saw such deposits on the shore of Lake Baikal. And a blonde boy at their base. But more of that later.


It all started in a meeting at work, just before the summer break. For months, we had been slogging away, trying to beat back the ill effects of the worst recession in a generation, and, having steadied the boat somewhat (or at least shifted enough water to make out something that looked vaguely like a horizon), we could finally dare to be relaxed, even playful. I was spending my holiday in Russia, a trip years in the planning and now due to begin a few hours hence.

“I think that covers everything. But just in case, can we communicate by text?”

“Might be difficult,” I replied. “I’ll be riding a horse in Siberia.” I mimed a ludicrous version of stabbing at a cellphone keypad at full gallop. No-one laughed, but smiles began to appear. Their amazement at discovering I was going to Siberia eclipsed their amusement (which was there - I’m not THAT bad a mime). I looked across the table at the editor, a brilliant woman whose trust was not easily won. Her smile was gathering, growing from some deep place, like the swell of a wave.

“You’re going to Siberia?!”

I talked about my trip. I reeled off the famous statistics of Lake Baikal, which I was visiting for the first time, and talked of shamans and their shrines.

“Can you make an offering for the company?”

I said sure. The editor asked me not to leave until my charge had been delivered. For the offering, she settled on a book of photographs and two tiny tablets with reproductions of magazine covers. The book she gave to me immediately, but the tablets needed to be custom-made.

Half an hour later three junior employees - who would normally be beetling away at their distant computers, on tracks quite separate from mine - were rushing up to me with unprecedented urgency.

“I heard something about you going to Siberia?”

“When are you leaving?”

“Is it okay if I get you the images by four?”

“You’re going to Siberia?!”

I had been to Siberia twice before, and had forgotten how exotic it could seem. Certainly my experiences there have always been profound. But they also contained some element that was downright scary.

Every time I went to Siberia I experienced some discordant event, some existential fracture that left me feeling deeply conflicted, however awestruck I may have been about whatever else was going on around me. On my first trip - to join a colleague who was directing a play - it was a scandal into which I was unwittingly plunged on my last day. The night before, as my colleague’s farewell party was winding down, I had na├»vely acquiesced to the request of a pretty young actress to spend the night at my apartment in a Soviet-style high rise, which was used for theatre guests such as I. She pleaded lack of space at home and domestic problems, and I had a couch in a separate room. It seemed downright churlish to refuse. Of course sex was implied, but I dismissed that out of hand - one nighters are just not written into my DNA.

The next day, she left early. When I finally arrived at the theatre, I was confronted immediately by Rita.

Rita was the sister of one of the theatre’s star actresses. My director colleague had arranged for me to stay with her and her daughter in a cosy apartment in Moscow, en route to Omsk. Rita had met me at the station.

“How will I know it is you?” she had said over the phone a week before I arrived, in halting but determined English. The call had begun awkwardly, and I had had to repeat myself several times.

“I will wear a blue hat.”

Sometimes a single early moment can cement a friendship - the hilarity that sprang from the notion of an American arriving at Byelorusskaya Station wearing a blue hat as if it were one of those “Hi, my name is...” tags was one of them. This shared sense of the absurdity of life also, paradoxically, gave rise at the same moment to Margarita’s self-appointed role as my Russian moral guide and protectress.

“Ah!” Rita said icily as I appeared at the theatre the next morning, with more emotion than made sense to me then. “So how was the beautiful woman of Russia?” This was a reference to what had become my trademark toast, when, to a roomful of still sober and skeptical Russians I would list three or four amazing experiences I had had in their country, then declare that there was one experience next to which they paled in comparison, and, after a dramatic pause big enough to fit a fleet of Ladas, I would raise my glass “to all the beautiful women of Russia”, and the sombre faces would unfailingly crack into gales of laughter.

Having delivered this withering verbal slap, Rita promptly disappeared.

I soon discovered that the young actress had been boasting to anyone who would listen that I had slept with her. And, as it turned out, she was married. I felt like an animal in a trap. It was a theatre - rumors such as these traveled like wildfire. I could barely string together a Russian sentence, let alone defend what was left of my honor. It was my inexpressible word against hers, which had clearly been a very expressive one. Whatever happened, the extraordinary warmth and kindness I felt from the actors, whether we understood each other’s language or no, would be forever marred.

Thankfully, the damage was partly undone and some sliver of redemption achieved when Rita finally re-appeared and asked me, her eyes burning, “Did you make love to this woman?” and following my desperate denial, she looked at me searchingly for a long time before pronouncing, “I believe you.”

On my third trip, almost twenty years later, seeds of discontent were also being planted on my penultimate day. This one happened to involve a trip to Cape Khoboi, where I stood at the edge of the world and gazed down across an endless sea of impossibly blue water towards what I can only describe as heaven. Yet, perhaps at the very instant I fell under the spell of this miracle of nature, part of my life was being ripped from me by an unseen force.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Holy Spring on Lake Baikal

Powers of the water, we come to live in harmony with you. We bless your shores, we bless your depths. Please bless us with your bounty. Please help us to live, so that we may live with you.
-Ancient Buryat Song, quoted from Siberian Dream by Irina Pantaeva

In the morning, the mountains are a particularly luminous blue. The sky reflects from the depths of the lake through the crystal clear water onto the mountains. Later in the day, you can make out the outlines of the mountains, which seem to be offering the lake back to the sky like curved, furrowed palms.

Looking northwards along the coast, the mountains are pale and ashen and deeply furrowed, like immense piles of finely ground white pepper. A short way up the forested mountains to the west is a holy spring which was established by a shaman longer ago than anyone can remember.

A long thin log was split in half, and the two pieces carved with a central niche down their entire lengths. They are positioned together at the water source, from which they emerge at a slight angle above the waterbed, carrying two distinct streams of water. One is only for men, and one only for women. We were told this, and that we should abide by this rule out of respect for the shaman, even though, says our guide, no-one remembers why it should be so.

The water contains traces of silver, and is celebrated for its healing properties. Some people come for two weeks just to drink the water.

To reach the holy spring, you walk along a rocky dirt road meandering up through meadows and pine forests in the low hills, until you reach a small clearing at the foot of the mountain. There is a simple open gateway built of thin pale logs through which the path leads up to a shrine under a tree. The tree is festooned with ribbons of many colors, mostly blue and white, tied there by pilgrims in homage to the shaman. Beneath the tree is a square stump, on which offerings are placed - coins, cigarettes, a deck of playing cards, a hairclip.