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Trip 18 -- Northeast Asia

Part 4: Ysyakh with khomus and kumiss
10 July 2016

Yakutsk is a lonely dot on the map cradled by the Lena River in eastern Siberia. Its temperatures range from a summer high of near a hundred Fahrenheit down to minus seventy in the winter -- probably the widest spread anywhere on earth. It can be accessed by three bumpy roads, none reliably passable year-round, the shortest of which runs up 700 miles from a junction near China's northernmost point at the appropriately named town of Never.

I flew. I expected this remote outpost to feel like the end of the world, a dusty cluster segueing into the taiga.

So imagine my surprise to arrive -- via a jetway off the plane, not a bus! -- at a gleaming airport terminal soaring with glass and tile. It even contained an aviation museum with funky old instruments and dioramas of the daring approach paths in some of Russia's mountainous regions. The arrivals board was flush with names of cities I'd never heard of -- Nyurba, Neryungri, Srednekolymsk, Suntar, Olekminsk, Zyrianka, Mirnyj -- places promising even more remoteness. Clearly I had barely scratched the surface of Siberia's vastness.

My flight arrived at 2:45 a.m., so I slept a few hours at the airport before catching one of the first buses into the city. I had booked three nights at the "Mini-Hotel Vesta," a sparkling-clean building I approached by awkwardly ducking under a utility pipe. Mentally playing the "How early is too early to attempt checking into a hotel?" game, I noticed a staff member asleep under the reception desk, so I sat in the lobby on one of the plush red couches and pondered the stuffed giraffe in the corner.

The staff member was soon roused by a woman checking out, so I presented myself. I was to have her room, and they apologized for it not being ready -- this was at 8 a.m.! It had a single bed and a bathroom with a toilet and a sink; the communal shower was across the hall, which was convenient as it enabled me to clean up while they prepared the room.

After I checked in, I asked the receptionist, "There is a festival today, right?"

My main purpose in Yakutsk was to see the Yakut summer-solstice festival, Ysyakh. The largest of several such festivals in the region, Ysyakh Tuymaada, is held in a giant field around 12 miles north of Yakutsk. In researching the trip I'd determined that it was held on the first weekend after the summer solstice, but I'd never found confirmation of the exact dates this year. I hadn't had any trouble finding a plane ticket or a hotel room, and the streets in the city center had been deserted at 7 a.m. So I was never really sure I would get to party with the Yakuts.

"Yes," she said. "Ysyakh." And she told me where to get the bus.

I'd heard the opening ceremony started at noon, so I caught a bus at a little after ten from the main road through town. If there was any doubt about the existence of a festival, it vanished when I saw the traffic. These sleepy streets were now filled with cars and buses cramming the single-lane road up to the field at Us-Khatyn. It took us over two hours to cover the 12 miles, and it would have been longer if the driver hadn't sped along for short stretches in the opposing lane or on the dirt shoulder.

Tens of thousands of people attended Ysyakh Tuymaada. From the parking lot a pathway led through a gate -- to the left for women, to the right for men -- past vendors and food stalls to the Aal Luuk Mas, a kind of tree of life central to Yakut spirituality. The grounds contained a few dozen large permanent theme tents and hundreds of tents put up by attendees camping for the night. There was no admission fee.

I walked up the central path to the giant arena to catch the last part of the opening ceremony. Women and children wore brightly colored dresses, many in vivid greens and yellows, with silver, beaded headdresses. Men's clothing was more subdued, with gray coats and reindeer boots. This applied not just to the performers, but also to many of the spectators. The performers danced to a combination of freeform chant and rhythmic passages accompanied by drums, strings, flutes, and Jew's harps, sometimes with playful glissandi and grouped into counts of 14.

After the ceremony I explored the food stalls. Most were grouped together in a line, but it seemed anyone could set up a chair and sell. A man caught my eye and sold me a skewer of colt meat: three large cubes of fat and four of meat. I skipped over the fat but tried the meat, which was cold and ranged in toughness from tender and tasty to "I'm sorry, dentist; I'll never attempt this again!"

It was better to go to the fixed food stalls, I discovered, where the food was more reliably hot. A few offered "kharta" and I asked what it was. No one could give me a straight answer, but all put their hands to their bellies and assumed a kind of mournful smile. One woman responded with the word "zheludka," which I didn't know. I looked in my dictionary: indigestion. "I don't recommend it," she said.

Well, of course that meant I had to try it. I grabbed a skewer and it was excellent, slightly crunchy and a bit sweet and seasoned. It turned out to be horse's stomach.

The festival was family-oriented. There were pony and reindeer rides and kids' carnival rides and shoot-'em games. Alcohol was officially banned, except for the one drink I was keen on trying: kumiss, fermented mare's milk. I even attended a kumiss tasting in one of the back tents, where I was able to sample various brands from different animals, the way one might have a wine flight with different grapes. I decided I preferred the richer, sweeter flavor of cow kumiss to the thinner, somewhat sourer flavor of that from a horse. I also enjoyed byyrpakh, kumiss's fizzier, sweeter cousin.

I was intent on seeing the sunrise ceremony. It never really gets dark in June in Yakutsk; instead, the sun sort of barely slips behind the horizon, then thinks better of it and comes back up a little before 3 a.m. It didn't rain at Ysyakh, but it was mostly cloudy the whole day. The result was that my usual keen perception of time was shot. The fact that I hadn't had a proper night's sleep in a hotel for two days didn't help. It seemed perpetually 6 a.m. When I looked at my watch, thinking we were well into the evening, it was only four in the afternoon.

I thought about going back to the hotel for a nap, but considering the traffic, I didn't want to risk missing the sunrise as well. So I stayed. I saw part of a kumiss competition until it became clear they were going to spend the whole day introducing the contestants, from different parts of Russia and the ex-Soviet Union, rather than have people drink. I watched a few horse races. I walked around the tents and saw sporting contests, including a kind of touch-wrestling and a one-on-one tug-of-war.

Around dinnertime I sat down in one of the covered food stalls for some plov, Uzbek rice pilaf with meat and carrots. I shared a table with a young woman named Marianna and her parents. She offered to show me around the grounds and explain some of the traditions.

Over at the main arena, the dancing continued: everyone in a circle moving clockwise, leading with the left foot in front and putting the right foot behind. So easy even I could do it! As we danced, a leader sang four beats at a time, which were then repeated by everyone. The dance was called the ohuokhai and the text, Marianna said, often contained hopes of peace.

She took me over to the Aal Luuk Mas and we lined up to go inside. A woman greeted us by ringing a bell and waving a konskiy khvost, a horse-tail amulet (also the common term for a ponytail hairdo). We walked around the the interior of the Aal Luuk Mas clockwise and touched nine mandala-like wooden circles, representing the protectors of health, family, and profession; the creator of destiny; the creator of all; and the patrons of the order, the future, wealth, and knowledge. As we touched each, we thought a prayer, hope, or wish on behalf of someone who could benefit from that specific protector, creator, or patron. After exiting, we circled the outside and slotted coins into the Aal Luuk Mas near its carvings of birds, people, and horses.

We wandered over to the sports area and had a look at the wrestling, trying to find a place to sit among shouts of the Yakut equivalent of "Down in front!" Spectators were serious about their khapsagay, a kind of wrestling in which the loser is the first to touch the ground with anything other than his feet.

Marianna headed home with her parents and I still had a few hours to kill before the sunrise. I found a gambling game in which the player had to pick the concealed case containing the die showing the higher number. Simple enough, but when I found out all ties went to the dealer, I backed away: horrible odds!

At eleven I watched a horror film in the Yakut language. It had Russian subtitles that were flashing by too fast for me to comprehend fully, but it didn't really matter with a horror film. When objects move on their own and the woman's beautiful face suddenly turns to smithereens, it's pretty easy to figure out what's going on.

After the film I stood near the stage and saw a concert of pop music with dancers and Jew's harps. Called "khomus" in Yakut (and "trump" in English, according to the Yakutsk museum on the instrument), Jew's harps feature prominently in Yakut culture, and I witnessed them played with great dexterity. Their history is longer than I imagined -- Peter I, Abraham Lincoln, and Galileo all played it -- and they've been made all over the world. There's even an International Jew's Harp Congress dating back to 1984, when the first convention was held in Iowa City.

The overcast sky looked exactly the same at 2 a.m. as it had at 4 p.m. But to my amazement, the clouds began to lift, revealing a clear orange predawn band. Was there really something magical about this setting?

I walked over to the sunrise ceremony and perched myself on the wooden fence, joined by the rest of the onlookers. White-clad women tossed water into the crowd. Horses reared and men performed an energetic dance to drums and horns. A man in a white robe performed a ritual with fire and ash. The music became free-form and atmospheric, with flutes and chanting. The female dancers moved their arms slowly. I may not have understood a word, but I definitely felt a connection to what was happening around me.

Finally the sun broke through, and we all stood in concentric circles, raised our hands, faced the sun, and joined in the unity cheer I heard all over Ysyakh: "Uruigh aikhal!"

I was asleep on the bus before it left the parking lot.

Ysyakh Tuymaada was two days long. I was pretty much Ysyakh-ed out after that first day, but I returned for the closing ceremony. It was a calmer affair than the opening, with the crowning of the sports victor and more chanting accompanied by dancers in white. The leader bestowed on us good wishes for the coming year, and we lifted our voices in a final cheer.

Ysyakh aside, Yakutsk was a pleasant place to hang out for a few days. Its old town consisted of restored wooden buildings and a large church. At one of the restaurants I grew fond of the dish called indigirka, a dish of peppered cubes of raw, almost-frozen whitefish with onions. The fish gained flavor and lost its firmness as it thawed in my mouth. I also enjoyed the horse-meat version, especially with a glass of cold vodka.

An hour's walk out of town, the Permafrost Kingdom was delightfully kitschy. A series of four doors led me to neon-lit tunnels carved into the perpetually frozen hill. The tunnels were lined with expertly chiseled ice sculptures on local or world themes of nature, science, spirituality, or pure whimsy. There were ice sculptures of Picasso's "Guernica" and the Venus de Milo. There were a Buddha and a pharaoh, a woolly mammoth (including some actual mammoth bones -- this was their territory!) and an ice Aal Luuk Mas. I donned the coat provided at the entrance but missed the boots, which might have provided more traction and warmth; my toes were freezing up after an hour in there. Still, I enjoyed lying on an ice bed, padded by fur, and near the exit another visitor and I shared shots of vodka, served in cups made of ice.

I flew to Moscow and spent one night on the way home. I'd last been there in 1999, and on my first trip, in 1990, I'd stayed with a Russian student as part of a high-school exchange program. Rustam lived near Kievskiy Station, a mile or two west of the Kremlin and all the other center goodies. I took the subway there and emerged from Moscow's ornate metro tunnels, glad to arrive at my de facto home base in Moscow. Only I had no idea where I was.

Everything had changed. There used to be a park in front of the station, where women sold meat and cabbage pastries for a few cents each. Now there is the modern Evropeisky shopping mall. Cabs and pedestrians vie for space. In the distance was Moscow City, a new complex of twisted glass buildings that wouldn't have been out of place in Dubai.

This was not the Moscow I knew. I remembered the address I'd called home 26 years ago, but I couldn't even find Bolshaya Dorogomilovskaya Street, a thoroughfare with seemingly as many lanes as letters in its name. Finally I put the mall behind me and got oriented.

Moscow avenues have buildings with their storefronts facing the street and the entrances to the apartments above around the back. The doorway leading to each cluster of apartments was secured with a three-digit code. Back in the '90s, the code was always written on the wall near the door; there were usually a bunch of numbers that had been crossed out when the code changed, and you had to search for the current one. But you could always find your way in. Now, of course, the door is fully electronic and no one writes the code on it as an invitation to strangers.

Apart from the door, the building looked the same. I imagined going up the open-shaft elevator inside and being welcomed by Polina, Rustam's cocker spaniel. I stood there for a few minutes, wondering whether his parents still lived there and hoping they'd emerge just as I was staring.

I walked up to Kutuzovsky Prospekt, which most certainly didn't have a Porsche dealership and a sushi bar in 1990. I had booked into the Radisson Royal, which used to be the Hotel Ukraina and most certainly didn't have a Mercedes-Benz dealership in 1990 or require a cursory metal check at the entrance. It did then have a Beryozka shop, where foreigners could use hard currency to buy souvenirs and products not generally available in the country.

"Have you stayed with us before?" the receptionist asked.

This was a difficult question to answer. Technically I had booked a room there in 1999, if only because back then it was the easiest way to get the required accommodation confirmation to obtain a Russian visa. I'd checked in and looked at the room, and then gone and stayed with Rustam. This time I wanted to enjoy the full experience of the marble lobby with its sculptures and ceiling paintings and the international diplomats walking around with earpieces -- or at least that's what most of the guests looked like. Besides, I had a Radisson free-night certificate that was going to expire soon.

"Well, yes," I said. "But it was seventeen years ago."

She put me on the 20th floor with a glorious view of the gardens in front and the thick traffic across the Moskva River. I could get used to that.

I took a walk into the city center along Novy Arbat, a shopping street with both sides under construction this summer, making it impossible to proceed at a satisfying pace. I passed the new Lotte hotel complex -- a touch of Seoul in Moscow -- and ducked into a high-end supermarket. I turned onto the pedestrian Arbat street proper, had lunch, and sampled from the ice-cream festival going on that week. I arrived at Red Square and rested a few minutes, remembering the time in high school when 30 of us had walked there after midnight to watch the changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb. Behind the square, I browsed a bit in GUM, formerly the state shopping mall and now a very attractive one with good food, a fountain, and overpasses with views of the activity two floors below.

I had plans to meet Rustam in my lobby at 6:30, and time was getting on. I rushed back to find a housekeeper in my room, preparing a turn-down service; I hadn't bothered to invoke the "Do not disturb" sign for a single night's stay. I booted her from the room a little awkwardly, had a quick shower, and threw some clothes on. I rode down the elevator and there was Rustam.

"Right on time, as always," he said.

Rustam has a quick wit and a casual, noncommittal demeanor. It's hard to do wrong by him; he always feels like your pal. After years without contact I'd found him on Facebook and told him my Russia plans with the hopes of seeing him; I didn't even know if he still lived in Russia.

He wrote back, "Reading through this itinerary I recognize Seth. You picked the right places to come to."

We established a meeting time and place and I jokingly wrote, "I look exactly the same as 17 years ago, maybe."

His response: "I, instead, look two boys older."

I didn't meet the boys, Sasha and Fedya, who were at their mother's parents' house for the summer. I had met Katya, his wife-to-be, on my last trip, when we'd all scaled the fence into the botanical garden at Moscow State University. But she enjoyed a night on her own, leaving Rustam and me to ourselves.

Rustam had booked a table at a Georgian restaurant, Khachapuri, named for that country's famous cheese pastries. In a breathtaking coincidence, his father, Anvar, was having a school reunion at the same restaurant at the exact same time. Anvar still has the same comforting, fatherly voice from the 1990s. Sadly, Rustam's mother passed away ten years ago.

Khachapuri was hopping. It had the atmosphere of a beer garden, with lots of outdoor seating and a combination of small and long tables. It was a good thing we had a reservation.

There were, of course, several things Rustam said I had to try. We ordered heaps of food, much of which we shared, though he was on a two-week cleanse and abstaining from meat and alcohol. My favorite was the satsivi, a cold, creamy walnut soup with chicken. I also enjoyed the lobio, a red-bean salad, and perhaps the most common Georgian foods, the signature khachapuri and khinkali, large dumplings. They're a little like Chinese soup dumplings, but whereas with the Chinese version you eat the doughy knob on top and then slurp out the soup, with khinkali you eat from the side and then discard the knob. Either way, you have to be careful to avoid scalding yourself with the oily liquid inside.

Rustam was vague about how he spends his days, but it has something to do with freelance graphic design for biology-related publications. He's fond of automobiles, but not in a fancy way; he's perhaps the only person to have traveled to Belgium, bought a Russian Lada, and driven it back to Moscow. He also has an affection for vintage cars.

"What do you drive now?" I asked.

"I drive a Ford."

He's also learning to fly a plane. He loves spontaneous trips; once on a whim he took a two-day bus trip to Paris to visit a friend for New Year's Eve, and then, already there, decided to head north into Scandinavia. He hopes someday to drive all the way to Uzbekistan, his dad's birth country. He'd be the perfect participant in the Mongol Rally, an annual charity-raising trip in which teams drive from Western Europe to Mongolia in the most unfit cars they can find.

After dinner we took a walk to Kievskiy Station, a grand building I'd seen dozens of times. He pointed to the bas reliefs of the archangel Michael and George the Conqueror high up on the station building. His grandfather had created them; the Soviets had covered them up in the 1920s and they would have been lost to history if his mother hadn't insisted on having them revealed. We walked along the river and he took the bus home.

I rode the metro to Tverskaya and stumbled upon Malaya Bronnaya, a leafy, quiet street with several modern bars and restaurants that gave no hint that it was in the middle of a congested city. I stayed a while and then finished up the night at the Mercedes Bar at the top of my hotel, contemplating the panoramic views. It didn't quite get dark in June in Moscow, either.

Before flying home, I had the morning free to check out Sokolniki, a grand park northeast of the city. It amazed me how many parks there are in Moscow. This one had a large fountain and a forest with hiking trails, a pool, and an aviary. The ice-cream festival had made its way there, too, but none of the stalls were open. I had lunch near Belorusskiy Station and tried to find someone to take the remaining 14 rides on my subway card; I'd gone for the 20-rides-for-13 deal with the intent to use them on a future trip and then discovered that the card expired after 90 days. No one wanted it.

My Russian teacher in high school had told us wonderful stories of riding Aeroflot and being one of the privileged few to get on early only to bake on the sweltering plane while others boarded, and then to watch the unoccupied seats flop forward upon landing when the pilot hit the brakes. Well, I'm sorry to say that my first Aeroflot experience provided none of that intrigue. The seats were comfortable, the food was good enough, I watched two Russian movies and one American one, and the views of northeast Canada were awe-inspiring.

When we landed, I asked a Russian speaker if he was going back to Moscow.

"In a month," he said.

"Would you like the remaining rides on my subway card?"

"OK," he said, and he took it. Success! "But I don't ride the subway very much."

Well, don't tell me that, I thought. Still, I was happy it had found a home.