PLATE 2: WE REACH THE FRONTIER OF THE BURYAT TERRITORY AND DISCOVER A PYRAMID OF PRAYER FLAGS. Well over a month since we parachuted onto the Siberian Steppe. Flat, featureless country still; it is impossible to judge scale and distance, havoc is wreaked with depth perception. Last week Bindon strode excitedly towards what he thought was a “bloody enormous oak, all the way out here, imagine that”, only to mysteriously lose sight of it and trip over a thorny shrub towering some three feet above the ground. Yesterday several hours were wasted stalking a tundra Grizzly that turned out to be a marmot.* I am reminded of accounts of fabulous Arctic mirages in the journals of early explorers, shimmering images of urban city skylines or distant mountain ranges caused by inversions in the lower atmosphere. So today, when we spot a pyramid of prayer flags on the distant horizon, Bindon insists on approaching it with abnormal caution, constantly reaching out to see if he can touch it. Our sense of awe, when we finally reach the object, is palpable – we appear to have arrived at the Buryat frontier.
*A Swedish explorer travelling in the Arctic in the late part of the 19th century recalled sketching in his journal a craggy headland with two unusually symmetrical glaciers, the whole of it being part of a large island, only to discover he was looking at a walrus. However, the most disorienting optical phenomenon in the Arctic regions is surely the white-out. It occurs most frequently during periods of blizzard or fog, when every perspective yields an unvarying, all-pervasive whiteness.
PLATE 43: WE ATTEND THE FUNERAL OF A SHAMAN KILLED IN THE BATTLE WITH THE NKVD. We put off our search for Westcott to attend Tusput’s funeral. The other world, Balog tells us, is an inverted image of this world. Everything that goes on here is reversed after death. Day on earth is night in the other world; scarce game here means plentiful game in the hereafter; there, the rivers flow backwards to their sources; what is broken here is made whole; Tusput, sad in life, will be happy in the beyond.
The Buryat believe that if certain privileged persons, especially their shamans, are placed on a platform above the circular river, and fire is set to them and their trappings – their drum, mask, quiver, etc.- they will ascend quickly to the heavens with the smoke. It is not so much death as an initiation. All those who die a violent death will mount the sky. Tusput is fortunate not to have died from disease, for disease is provoked by the hungry spirits of the dead.
The top-hatted sect, as masters of the dead, stage the funeral, set Tusput’s sled on stilts in the river and lead the great procession with his coffin. It is their job to lead the dead to their final abode, their faces daubed with soot and guano into a rude skull to convince them into forsaking the land of the living. The top-hats hold a great banquet by the banks of the river, and for this alone many come from far and wide to attend Tusput’s funeral. Much fermented mare’s milk is offered, and the seance gradually becomes more lively, almost grotesque as all the Buryat in their finery take to quarrelling, but Balog assures us that the fighting is only to insure there would be calm and peace to greet Tusput in the beyond.