Last Tuesday, May 18th, we spent the whole day in Ulan-Udeh (Улан-Удэ), which is the capital of the semiautonomous republic of Buryatia. Buryats are ethnically linked to Mongolians, but they differ slightly in facial features and for the most part emigrated from what is now Mongolia hundreds of years ago. Buryatia has its own flag and its own “president”, but the governmental details are unbelievably complex (and maybe even vague). I will not pretend I understand them; essentially, it is best to simply think of Buryatia as a distinct part of Russia.
Our itinerary for the day included two busy hours interacting and playing with orphaned children at a detskii dom (“children’s home”), visiting an outdoor museum of Buryat structures and culture, and seeing a 40-foot-tall statue of Lenin’s head in the middle of town. At the end of a long busy day, we had dinner in a yurt with musicians. When I first heard we would be “eating in a yurt with artists”, I immediately and foolishly assumed it would not be in town, but rather in the middle of the country-side on “the steppe”. But in fact, it was right there among the Soviet-era architecture: a little Buryat restaurant composed of three yurts and occupied by folks with Asiatic features. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was already clear to me that in Ulan-Udeh, Buryat culture was quite comfortable mixing in with the more Western Russian culture, and here was a good example. One of our hosts and wonderful guides, Erzhena Zhambalov, had reserved a whole yurt for us. (Just the idea of “reserving a yurt” seems like a pretty good example of mixing East and West.) The yurt had a relatively low roof and the walls were covered with 12 pictures for the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac which correspond with the years. (Liz and Erzhena’s husband and I, we discovered, were all born in Years of the Horse: each 12 years apart.) We sat down around the perimeter of the circular space inside, opposite the door, in small chairs at low tables. I couldn’t help but feel like sitting cross-legged on pillows might have been even more comfortable, since the tabletops were about 18 inches from the ground. After a short time, a waitress brought a delicious carrot and onion salad. Later on, with impeccable timing on respective trips, she would bring noodle soup, beef dumplings called “pozy”, and delicious fried meat pancakes. I usually don’t each red meat on principle, but since red meat is such a staple for Buryats, and for Siberians in general, I loosened my usual dietary restriction during our 9-day trip to Siberia. I confess it was extremely delicious, especially the pozy.
So, seated around one half of the yurt around the perimeter, we ate and talked in Russian with our new Buryat acquaintances: our guides Erzhena and Rada, Erzhena’s husband Sayan, and his three young bandmates. After a short while, Sayan and his bandmates began to play some traditional music on traditional Buryat instruments; and, much to my delight, this music included some very skillful throat-singing. Since I was about 10 years old, I have enjoyed Tuvan-style throat-singing, and this was predictably very similar, since the Tuvans live very close by. There a few different types of throat-singing: one type is very low and gravelly, one is more middle-tone and throaty, and one is an amazing high-pitched polyphonic style that is honestly hard to believe is coming from human vocal cords. The instruments they played on were similar to cellos in that they were held between the legs, but they differed in that they were smaller and had only two strings. They were played with a bow in the right hand and fingers adjusting pitch up high with the left hand, just like any Western stringed instrument. The method in the left hand was more dynamic, however: placing the fingers under the strings produced a different sound than on top of the strings, and sliding the hand along the length of the strings was also a very common move. These three types of movement were combined to produce a dynamic variation of sound in addition to the impressive throat-singing. The rhythmic patterns of the music are unmistakably reminiscent to that of galloping on a horse. The music must have lasted a long time, but I felt like I could listen to it forever. It was apparent that the musicians were having a lot of fun playing for us, and the sounds were so rich and hypnotic that I would not have noticed if another hour passed. After they had played, Sayan and Erzhena sang some duets while Sayan accompanied on a Spanish guitar. Some of the duets were traditional Buryat, but some of them were traditional Russian. Even though we had been speaking in Russian all along, I had somehow forgotten we were still in Russia. When Erzhena and Sayan sang a Russian love duet, I snapped back into reality: all of this was happening in Russia. I was in a yurt, being entertained with throat-singing, among portraits of zodiac animals, in Russia. This may have been my very favorite moment of the entire trip: the strong realization that Buryats have a large presence in Siberia and for them, it was probably not very surprising to be playing their music in a yurt in Russia. For them, a mix of Russian culture and Buryat culture is what they are used to. And it was an unforgettable feeling to know that, however exotic the whole experience seemed, they love music just like I do.