Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Tsagan-Aman and the Volga River

Since returning from Dagestan, I have been working on conducting interviews and gathering information on Buddhism in the Soviet period from the republic's archive.

Tsagan-Aman is one of the places that stands out in this research. It's a small town on the banks of the Volga River--the only Volga River town in a 13-km "finger" of riverfront territory that is part of the Republic of Kalmykia. Other river lands that used to be part of the Kalmyks' territory were given to Astrakhan oblast after the group's deportation in 1943 and not returned when the Kalmyks were officially rehabilitated by the Soviets in 1957.

During the Soviet period, Tsagan-Aman was home to a man named Ochir Mandzhievich Dorzhiev (also known as Tugmuid Gavdzhi), one of the few practicing monks in the Kalmyk republic at that time. People traveled from all around to visit him and seek his guidance; when Valeriy was a few months old he was sick, and his parents brought him to see Tugmuid Gavdzhi to be cured. 

We traveled to Tsagan-Aman with Valeriy and his relative Arslan. The drive took three hours over the beloved Kalmyk roads--well, more a direction than a road. When we arrived, we were treated to a home-cooked meal of fried fish and tomato salad at Arslan's mom's house and then went to the khurul to meet the local lama.

He was quite a character, dressed in an embroidered maroon silk robe over sweat pants. The Friday service was still in progress when we arrived, so we took off our shoes and sat on the low benches as the monk chanted the names of the deceased relatives of the locals (written on scraps of paper for him to reference). After the service, we had a chance to meet privately with the lama; we talked about everything from Buddhism in the Soviet Union to U.S. police officers to the mosquitoes on the Volga in June.

The khurul at Tsagan-Aman

A close-up of the khurul's entryway

A view of the khurul through its gates

Dorzhiev's house at Tsagan-Aman. It was originally built in Astrakhan--a large city at the mouth of the Volga about 100 km downstream from Tsagan-Aman. At some point during the 1960s it was taken apart and rebuilt here.

The temple sits only about 100 meters from the Volga River. While the lama met with other visitors after the Friday service, we walked over to take in the view:

A panoramic view of the Volga at Tsagan-Aman

Upon returning to the temple, we were treated to a long and lively meeting with the lama that included tea and lunch. During lunch his pet peacock repeatedly interrupted us with a loud call and a cocky display of plumage from just outside his window. We were not allowed to record the monk's words or take his photo, so you'll just have to imagine it!

After saying goodbye, we made a quick stop at Dorzhiev's grave in the town's cemetery. Inside the domik (small grave house) we burned incense to honor his spirit - and to mask the odor of the rotting food offerings left behind by previous visitors.

The small house that was built around Dorzhiev's grave

The surrounding cemetery was also of interest. Each grave (or family plot) was surrounded by a low metal fence to demarcate the plot. The fences and graves are not on a grid but rather built at odd angles here and there, all facing in the same general direction.

To finish off another long day of travel, we were offered a boat ride along the river with Arslan and his friend, Sasha Gromko ("Loud Sasha"). I have a feeling that the nickname is intended to be ironic...

Loud Sasha and his boat

On the river with Arslan and Loud Sasha

Looking back towards Tsagan-Aman and the Khurul from the river

Representing the U of A and keeping warm

The Volga River is a popular destination for fisherman. They come and stay at all-inclusive resorts called tur-bazi (tour bases). There's a wide range in terms of quality and price--some cater towards rich clients from Moscow, while others are aimed at locals. Loud Sasha works at one of these tour bases, where rates for room and board run about 2,000 RR per person/per day (about $35 USD).

One of the more upscale tourist bases along the Volga

We ended our boat ride back at the jetty where the river level was high thanks to spring run-off further upstream. The watershed of the Volga River is vast; the river drains much of Russia's historic core and into western Siberia.

The Buddhist manta "Om Mani Padme Hum" is half-covered by the high river

The capper for the night was beer, vodka, and snacks out of a car trunk along the banks of the Volga River. I think this is a popular activity, as we weren't the only group and the police did a slow drive-by. The weather was perfect, the company was good, and the view was spectacular. Mackenzie said that her favorite moments of the trip have involved eating and drinking next to large bodies of water--first the Caspian Sea (see Dagestan: Day 3) and now the Volga River. 

The sun setting over the Volga
After the sun has set over the Volga

A candid of drinking adult beverages out of a car trunk
Siberian Corona is the least-worst beer in Russia - a ringing endorsement

After our "picnic," Valeriy went out to meet an old friend who now lives in Tsagan-Aman, and Mackenzie and I enjoyed another delicious meal at Arslan's mom's house. Homemade berigi (dumplings) are delicious after a long day--I recommend picking some up if you have the chance. After good food and good conversation, it was off to bed in preparation for an early-morning departure the next day. 

From right to left: Arslan, his mother, his son, and his sister

Our quarters at Arslan's mom's house

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