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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part IX) – Ulan Ude and towards Mongolia

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The old stories have a life of their own. Leaving Baikal, we discover the old Mongol myth that suggests the grave of Genghis Khan is on a lake Baikal island. His mother came from the local Buryat tribes who believed that they should be buried as close to the lake as possible.
Archaeologists speculate that this really could be the case, so the search continues, most recently through satellite imaging from outer space.This “virtual exploration” particularly coordinated by the University of California San Diego may lead to unimaginable treasure being found…

Before turning towards Mongolia however, the Golden Eagle makes a longer stop at Ulan Ude, a city whose name means the “Red(river) Ude”(while Ulan Baatar means “Red Warrior”). It was, like Vladivostok, closed to foreigners during Soviet times until 1991.Today it is “twinned” with Berkeley, California.
On the main square of the city is the world’s largest Lenin monument. It is a head 7.7 meters (yes, 25 ft !) tall, created using 42 tons of bronze, to celebrate the centenary of Lenin’s birth. This Lenin portrayal, unlike that of the handsome hero we saw on our visit to Kazan University, is closer in intention to the preserved figure in the mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow. It seems to confirm the appraisals of Lenin by Pasternak as the worship of narrowness, or Ossendowski in his 1931 Lenin biography describing him as a “God of the Godless (which made Ossendowski a man high on the wanted list of Stalin’s NKVD secret police). Of course for our UK English travelers, the way the head dominates the rather featureless government buildings on this otherwise empty square, recalls a powerful sonnet by Romantic poet Percy Shelley entitled Ozymandias, which several of our group mention :
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my works ye Mighty and despair !
Nothing beside remains.Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away…

Soon we leave the city for a trip back inIMG_1065to Russian tradition and a fascinating visit to an Old Believer community, exiled to Siberia centuries ago for refusing to accept reforms aligning the liturgy with that of the Greek Church. During the visit we have lunch, enjoy village songs and jokes, admire the colorful painted houses and their gardens. Soulful Russian poet Yesenin, once lover and husband of Isadora Duncan, came from an Old Believer peasant family. We hear about even more traditional Old Believer communities such as those in Estonia that still follow ancient prohibitions such as the one where men who die without a beard have to be buried in an unmarked grave or another about women who, unable to enter a church bareheaded, must have their scarves pinned under their chin for tying a knot is symbolic of the suicide of Judas by hanging. Otherwise the traditional icons are similar, the “onion domes” of churches still represent the flame of a candle, while the lower bar on the crucifix, at an angle to the cross, represents pointers signifying up to heaven, down to hell, a reminder of the choices made by the two thieves crucified on either side of Christ on Golgotha. Another window on the Russian soul.

Back on the Golden Eagle we have time to prepare our visit to Mongolia by considering its origins. A BBC series historical film on Genghis Khan arouses comparisons with earlier and more recent portrayals. “Mongol”, an award winning film by Russian director Sergei Bodrov, was filmed not long ago in Inner Mongolia and Kazakhstan. It was such an artistic and financial success, though thematically placed on the early life of Genghis Khan, that a sequel is being made. Some still remember Omar Sharif in the 1965 Hollywood production made in Yugoslavia. Maybe the closest in spirit, if not historically accurate and actually filmed in Spain, is the cartoon-like “Conan the Barbarian” series, which brought Arnold Schwarzenegger worldwide recognition. His Conan,
when asked how best to live, paraphrases Chinggis/Genghis Khan when he intonesIMG_0125 - Version 2

Crush your enemies
See them driven before you
hear the lamentations of their women.

We find out later that Mongolians ride ponies as soon as they can walk, an ancient tradition. Genghis Khan would lead an army of 100,000 horsemen to found, in 25 years, the largest empire in the history of the world, six times larger than the one it took the Romans 400 years to establish.
An interesting discussion followed, on how they managed to do it wether through superior organisation or the aid of magic plants.Those 13th century Mongol warriors fed Sea Buckthorn (see your local health food store !) to their little horses, to increase their strength and make their coats shine. In no time, their speed made the armoured knights of Europe obsolete. The warriors also ate this plant’s orange berries to give themselves strength for battle, and used them to treat their wounds. This gave them greater endurance and faster recovery than their foes. We were reminded that geneticists today are fascinated that 1 in 200 men carry the Y chromosome (that is some 16 million or 0.5% of the male population of the world) making them in direct line of descent from Genghis Khan, while his grandson Kublai Khan (and protector of Marco Polo) contributed by adding 30 virgins to his harem every year !

Maybe the aura of Mongolia is best conveyed in the words of the legendary Ferdynand Ossendowski in his Beasts, Men and Gods. Describing his escape from communist Siberia through Mongolia he feels that “Mongolia with her rude and terrible mountains, her limitless plains, covered with the widely strewn bones of the forefathers gave birth to Mystery. Her people frightened by the stormy passions of Nature, or lulled by her deathlike peace, feel her mystery”.

Wow, get those passports ready !

 

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On the Golden Eagle across Siberia (Part V) – Twenty minutes at Omsk!

photo211So it is an early morning run! Off the train and round the station, up the stairs and along the platforms, in and out of security. The Omsk stop is a brief interlude on a journey through the dense swampy forests of the “taiga” and the many scattered settlements of wooden houses. We have travelled 1400 kms from Moscow. It took Dostoyevsky 25 days to cover the same distance by winter sleigh when transported from St.Petersburg.

Having been spared  execution for his utopian socialism, Dostoyevsky was sentenced to four years hard labour in one of the Omsk mining prison camps. These provided coal, silver, iron and gold for Imperial Russia. He later remembered “…in summer intolerable closeness; in winter unbelievable cold”. Although the production of minerals and the fur trade dominated, yet it is the image of the salt mines that became notorious. From these times a painting such as Ilya Repin’s famous Realist depiction of “The Volga Boatmen”(1870) gave a fearful picture of penal slavery. Upon return to St.Petersburg, Dostoyevsky went on to write The House of the Dead about life in the camps. Now, in Omsk, there is a commemorative Library/Museum of Literature named after him.

Another exile whose death sentence was commuted to hard labour, was the scientist, journalist, explorer Ferdynand Ossendowski. He described his stay in Russian prisons in a novel entitled “In Human Dust” which Lev Tolstoy claimed to be one of his favourite books. At Omsk, although considered a “left socialist,” he joined Kolchak’s “Whites” after 1917,then escaped to Mongolia. His epic survival adventures are recounted in his memoir “Beasts, Men and Gods” that some have described as being “…like Tolkien, but for real !” (it is available online as a free eBook, due to the efforts of the Gutenberg Project ). It also gives a great inside view of revolutionary period Siberia and inspired what Publishers Weekly called one of the world’s great adventure strips. Created by the Venetian Ugo Pratt,  “…possibly the greatest artist working in the comic world”, the hero Corto Maltese is modeled on Ossendowski, particularly in what is considered asIMG_1482Pratt’s masterpiece “Corto Maltese in Siberia“, a full length graphic film (see You Tube) that adds a different dimension to our Golden Eagle journey, while teasing that “an adult who enters the world of fables, cannot leave it”.

So Omsk, once the “wild, wild, East” with its pickpockets and prostitutes, is today transformed into a city of over a million people where Gazprom oil refineries are the largest employer. The Prof. and I try to get a glimpse of the city from around the train station, but the stop is only 20 minutes and we barely make it back before the scheduled departure. Our relieved train attendants grin upon seeing us, wag their fingers and refer to us as “hooligani!”.photo-3

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