From a Pilgrim’s Pages – March

In 2002 I was offered work teaching English at a private language school in Novosibirsk, Siberia. I accepted the offer because it brought me closer to the Altai Republic. I worked in Novosibirsk for two years visiting friends in Ongudai during the holidays. Finally I moved to Ongudai late December 2004 and have lived here since.

 

1st March I have been registered at the local passport agency at the address of my hut, Ongudai region, Altai. The hut has electricity but I draw water from a well which is just at the corner of the street. It also has a traditional Russian stove for heating.

3rd March The temperature in the hut is a problem. There are gaps between the floorboards several inches wide in places and an icy cold draft blows up from the earth. Even when the fire is roaring I am frozen up to my knees! Today I solved the problem by stuffing rags all along the gaps and lay various old rugs and mats on the floor. To my huge relief, the firewood is wonderful and seems to chop without any effort at all! My friend’s husband would ordinarily have supplied me with wood but tragically, his brother died in an accident in the autumn. According to tradition if a relative dies it is taboo to work the land and so he was unable to go into the forest for fire-wood. The brother of a friend procured me three and a half ‘kubiks’ – square metres.

5th March I intend to teach private lessons from home. I want to repair the stove before any students come for lessons. Large gaps have appeared around the top where the pots stand and whole pieces have fallen away around the door. To repair a stove you mix sand and clay together with a little water and then fill in the gaps. Then you mix ‘izvest’ which is basically lime, with water and a blue pigment together in a bucket and paint the outside of the stove. I felt very resourceful repairing it by myself and feel ready to accept students into this little home.

8th March In Ongudai 8th March is a bank holiday and celebrated by all like a second new year or the coming of spring. On 7th March, celebrations and banquets are held at work. The men make eloquent toasts to the ladies of their beauty and loveliness and express their respect and gratitude towards the fairer sex. The ladies were gifted boxes of chocolates, chrysanthemums and manicure sets…Such an event would be considered far too sexist ever to be held in the UK (Unfortunately for anyone needing a manicure set!) I lapped up the compliments and praise in favour of my apparent ‘beauty, loveliness and closeness to mother nature!’

I was driven home and when we arrived outside my hut one Altai friend turned to me and gave me a pen with a fluffy heart on top. Then the other passenger turned to me and said: The Altai people are dying out. We don’t really talk about it, but people know. Other people will come as they did in the ancient past. It is said that they will believe in our faith and the spirit of Altai will continue to live on….but the Altai people will become moribund. It’s ok though. It’s not now, maybe in a thousand years time— who knows. So, we shall pass things on to you and look after you. It was a sobering end to a tipsy day and at that moment I felt I would be glad to die out with them rather. Altai is beautiful beyond words with its unspoilt nature but the fate of the indigenous people is the key to everything here, although very few visitors, conservationists or project workers understand that.

17th March At about eleven o’clock in the evening there was a knock at the door. A friend had seen my light on and decided to pop in. We sat in the kitchen with the fire door open and talked. She told me how when she was young her mother had always fed the fire and that their job as children in the evening had been to slice thin splints off the logs to make it easier to light the fire in the morning. They didn’t use dirty old newspapers then to light the fire like people do now. Her mother told her how you could tell by the way the ash formed at the front near the stove door whether a guest would be coming. A little spirit called a ‘konokchi’ sat near the door in the ash. She would take a little splint and feed the spirit in the fire by pouring ash over it…the first scoop was tea and milk for the guest and the second scoop for meat and so on and the last scoop for a good night’s sleep so that the guest’s journey should go well.

18th March I caught a lift and went to Boochi village in the Karakol valley to see a friend. We were sitting in her kitchen drinking tea when a man from the next village walked in. He joined us and sat on a stool near the fire. He is a member of the ‘Ak Dyang’, white faith movement that was until recently totally against foreigners coming to the valley and protested strongly against the formation of the Nature Park ‘Uch Enemk’ that covers the territory of the valley. He began to talk of the Ice-Maiden and the importance of the return of her remains. Then he went on to talk about the fire. Why do you think years ago people here in Altai were so rarely ill? Because, he said, they linked everything with the fire. Food was passed through the smoke of the fire and blessings were made to the fire. Then he said that the wisdom of cultures at their peak such as the Pazyryk culture was of itself a kind of flame that was passed down through the generations, and burned in the blood of the people now inhabiting this territory. It amazes me, how the people who appear to be the simplest, the shepherds and herders, who come out with the pearls of wisdom. Here everyone is concerned for the preservation of their customs, not just the intlligentsia.

20th March I lit the fire yesterday morning and saw for the first time ever the little cinder ‘konochi’ at the door of my stove. I was delighted and fed and talked to it. Expecting a guest I washed the floors, brewed fresh tea and put some buck wheat on to boil. Then I forgot all about it and continued with my work. A little later a friend walked in who I hadn’t seen for weeks and announced that she was pregnant!

21st March Today I sat in on the UN, WWF and Ongudai park reps’ evaluation meeting of work carried out by WWF representatives in Altai. Various issues were discussed—illegal hunting, financing etc. One of the ‘experts’ on sustainable bio-diversity who had been invited deigned to tell one of the Altai elders that they should not overestimate the value of traditional knowledge in the determination of local hunting practise! It’s not the first time I’ve hung my head and studied my shoes in embarassement when visitors come and explain to the indigenous elders how it is. More on this next time!! 

 

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