New this week: Arielle sees dead people, joins a Moms Club, and perfects her moon-walk! (It’s a bit delayed because internet is not something I have anymore, apparently)
Seeing Dead People: For a Catholic, I sure spend a lot of time pretending to be Buddhist. Sadly, I still don’t feel like I understand much about this faith, so very different from my own. Of all the aspects of life here in Buryatia, Buddhism by far feels the most foreign to me. On Wednesday, I went back to Ivolginsky Datsan—this time not to play tourist but to actually participate in something religious. It was a truly fascinating experience because a) I was amongst some of the kindest, funniest people around, and b) it was my first time witnessing a miracle in any religion!
Ivolginsky Datsan, in addition to being the center of Buddhism in Russia, is also home to the phenomenon of Itigilov. Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov was a very prominent Buryat Buddhist Lama. When he died in meditation in 1927, he was buried in the lotus position. Through his last will and testament, and appearing to other lamas and monks in dreams, he instructed his followers to exhume his body years later. When they dug up his body in 1955 and 1973, they were surprised to find no sign of decay or corruption—but they placed him back in the grave out of fear of incurring the wrath of the Soviets. In 2002, Itigilov was finally exhumed for good. The body was examined by monks and scientists, and it was determined that the body was in the condition of one who had died days ago, not decades. Though never mummified or embalmed, it is incredibly well-preserved and un-decayed, still in the lotus position. A miracle of Buddhism! His body, declared one of the sacred Buddhist objects of Russia, is kept at Ivolginsky Datsan, and is put on display for worship a few times a year.
Wednesday evening happened to be one of those few lucky times. My student invited me to join her, her brother, and her boyfriend and his sister (both from Tuva) in a visit to see Itigilov. When we arrived at the datsan, we purchased some Buddhist prayer cloths (they seem to be the same ones that get tied on trees)—different colors mean different things. I got a white one (innocence and purity) and a blue one (“the sky” and “something else”), one to leave at the altar, and one for my home. Then we met up with my student’s other brother, who works at the datsan teaching Buddhist philosophy, and he showed us around and told us the history of Itigilov.
We went to the temple where the body was on display. Approaching the body and the monk attending him, I placed my white cloth on the pile of cloths and bowed my head to touch the chain of cloths coming down from Itigilov (as I’d seen everyone else doing). Then I presented the blue cloth to take home with me, and it was pressed to the cloth-chain then draped around my neck. Afterwards, we filled out some kind of family prayer card things. Honestly, I have no idea what was going on or what any of this is for or what it all means, but I’ve got a holy blue cloth, and the Neus have been prayed for, and maybe my white cloth will end up in a tree.
It was an evening of cultural, religious, linguistic, and logistical confusion, but I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it. My student and her brothers communicated primarily in Buryat (in which my vocabulary has grown to about 20 words), the Tuvans primarily in Tuvan (I know 2 whole words), and the brothers tried to practice their English with me, but Russian—the only language that everyone knew—seemed to be used rather sparingly. Even with the language barriers, I really enjoyed meeting these new acquaintances and talking with them—they were all so interesting, caring, and cheerful. On the way home, we were treated to a concert of beautiful Tuvan songs that I didn’t understand. And for the record, I learned that, when it comes to making sure you eat, a 23-year-old man can be every bit as doting and ready-to-force-feed-you as any babushka.
Moms Club: In other news, I’ve decided to forgo the hassle of the knight in shining armor and having children and just skip straight to joining a moms club. Kidding aside, I did join an English club for young mothers. They meet at playrooms in malls as an opportunity for young moms to get out of the house, spend time with other moms, and practice their English. It was a lot more fun than you’d expect a moms club to be for me. The women were not so much older than me, and they were all very interesting and fun to talk to. There was one father present, so for the first time, I talked to someone named after Genghis Khan (check that off my bucket list!). Also, lots and lots of adorable babies! Moms clubs rock.
The World Is My Slip-n-Slide (aka perfecting my moonwalk)… I have a confession to make: believe it or not, I did not officially go ice skating this winter in Siberia. This is not something that I lament, however. For one thing, it was far too cold to even consider partaking in such an outdoor activity. For another, I’ve spent the last five months walking exclusively on ice—who needs to go skating when Siberia is one giant ice rink?
Now that temperatures in the -30’s and -40’s are a thing of the past, but the weather still stubbornly refuses to actually be warm, my ice-walking skills have reached Expert Mode. This month, we’ve been blessed with about three or four glorious days that daytime temperatures climbed above freezing. Everything’s in a real hurry to melt—the world instantly transforms into massive slush pits and quickly flowing rivers. And then, of course, comes the flash-freeze, as temperatures drop back to the -20’s. The resulting landscape—even slipperier than the ice of winter— makes every venture out of your home an adventure, every step a tooth-and-nail battle against gravity. There’s flash-frozen slush, which makes for jaggedly lumpy ice, reminding me of the surface of the moon (if the moon were icy instead of rocky). And, more dangerous, there are flash-frozen, frictionless puddles that don’t even need a Zamboni to maintain their slipperiness. Someone up there must be getting some serious chuckles, watching us slip and slide around.