‘May’ from a Pilgrim’s Pages Ongudai Region 2006

We were certain that spring had finally arrived when there was an unexpected drop in temperature and all the spring flowers and buds huddled up in a white blanket for a while, until the green returned. In Altai, of the last melting snow they say: “When flying – silent, when lying down – silent, when dying – in song”, – “Учканда – унчукпайт, jатканда – унчукпайт, őлőр тушта кожондойт”, or: “it lay and lay and then jumped into the river and away!” – “Jадып, jадып алала, Суу jаар ууланды”.

The most remarkable thing when the snow has all finally melted is the sound of running water. For six months the stream that runs through Ongudai has been silent and still and now the volume and sound of its current demands attention and rings in the ears. The river runs fast, and you understand that it is time to make plans and to act. The shift from deep winter to full blown summer takes place over a period of a few weeks only. In May, everything ‘springs’ into action; a bushy plant called ‘maralnik’ covers the hills in beautiful shades of pink and mauve.

The ‘suslik’, a type of ground squirrel, begin diving in and out of their little holes. The suslik are curious creatures. They dash everywhere and when they need to cross a road they wait, hesitating, unsure whether it is safe or not to cross. At the last moment, when crossing the road is certain death, they panic and make a dash for it in front of the wheels. They always seem to make it. There are those who say a monument should be erected in honour of the suslik whose meat and fur saved the lives of many in harder days gone by. Other times, they can be seen standing motionless on their back legs, fixing a point on the horizon, meditating. Curiously, in the valley, they meditate facing the mountain!

‘Sakman’ the lambing season has started. I went to help my friend running around the meadows keeping the sheep that had lambed separate from those that were still due, coding them with brightly coloured ribbons.

May has also seen the first of the season’s electrical storms. Previously the festival of ‘Dalkin’ held late May – early June was the celebration of the first storm. Lightning is said to cleanse ‘Kangiy’ (the sky/ether) of dark substances, and of lightning it is said: “the golden staff flashed, startling all Altai” – “Алтын тайагы jалт этти, Алтай jер силкине берди”.

The greatest event this May has been to feel that time has changed. Ongudai is no longer the place it was. It is hard to be specific about such things and explain wherein the change lies exactly. It’s as if before, Ongudai was separate from the rest of the world, a time capsule that distils allowing one to come and reach deep into one’s past; I can’t imagine how on earth I really got here. Now the stream of contemporaneity can be felt. Ongudai is opening up. What will it bring, this new era?

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