SOLAR WINDS (excerpt)

The Moon rose over the ancient citadel on top of the hill. The fortress was flickering. One moment you see its massive stone walls, round jagged-top towers and black loopholes against the night’s starry sky, another you don’t… a real magician performing its ‘disappearing act’. Judy kept watching, enchanted. Gradually, she noticed a motionless, shadowy figure by the Eastern wall of the castle. It was standing still but wouldn’t vanish with the citadel. Judy realized the figure was watching the ‘performance’ too. The girl liked the idea of sharing this moment with a stranger. She was curious what that person was seeing and feeling. It would be a little different from her own sensations. She knew that. But how different? She wondered. The figure shifted and blended with the dark wall that had just reappeared. A few moments later the wall dissolved, and Judy noticed the shadow’s outline move closer. She could even tell that it was a young man, tall, with broad shoulders and long dark hair. She couldn’t see his face. A strange feeling. Was she being carried away by her imagination, or did the man look familiar? She even imagined one of the children from her memory suddenly growing up and coming up to say “hi.” Judy stood still, watching the stranger approach. The man noticed her and slowed down, as if trying to remember her as well. No, she has never seen him before. She would never forget a pale stern face and dark eyes like that. The young man passed and the girl felt a cold shiver running down her spine. Where did it come from? The feeling slowly subsided. It was time to go home.

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How to Achieve a Perfect Body

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Did you think this post would be about diet and exercise? Well, think again J… First of all, let’s establish a definition of what exactly a Perfect Body is. Is it a thin, (young?!) athletic one- something that our mass culture rigorously pushes on the public making most of us feeling to various degrees inadequate? The best definition of a perfect body I’ve heard was from my Body Dynamics teacher- “the perfect body is the body that feels perfectly.”

Now think about that… We come into this life to interact with the environment through our senses, to acquire experiences that are our own, and our body is an invaluable tool for our perceptions and reaching self-awareness. But as we grow up, most of us are taught that in some shape or form our body is not good enough… Well that “not good enough” theme runs rampant through every area of our lives but that is a topic for another discussion.

The arrogance of our mass culture and constant pressure form advertising companies had many of us convinced that a fashion magazine editor knows better what is beautiful than the creative force that has conceived this world. If that is what you want to believe that is your choice, but I personally don’t like the idea one little bit. I am an artist and whenever the person is centered and self-accepting, very “comfortable in their skin” I (always!) perceive them as beautiful.

(People also call it “self-confidence” but for those who have none, self-confidence is a very abstract term, so I’ll break it down.)

By the way, you can also see a young model who is very insecure about her appearance and all you’ll see is her “flaws” not because they are real, but because that is what she is focused on.

Our bodies are not this chunk of meat that needs to be beaten into obedience through rigorous exercises or brutal diets. They are very sensitive and very complex tools of perception and awareness that we, through our ignorance and often abuse endured in childhood and teenage years severely damage throughout our lives. And yet, this amazing mechanism is so perfect that even having endured a lot of abuse, it has a great capacity for regeneration…

Now to the practical steps of how to treat our body properly, so it would once again become our friend rather than our source of frustration and disappointment.

First, we must acknowledge having treated our bodies poorly and apologize, and don’t worry- it will forgive you as soon as you apologize- your body ALWAYS wants to be on your side. It will be your best friend in the whole world if you only make an effort to reach out to it.

Second, you need to listen… Make it a habit to listen to the needs of your body and treat them as the needs of your favorite child. And don’t be surprised if your body will start “chatting” all the time. It is like a neglected child that sits in the back of a classroom quietly when nobody pays attention to him or her, but as soon as a teacher takes a notice of that child and shows sincere interest in him/her, the child opens up and starts showing ALL of his/her talents: “Look, I can also do this, and this and this!!!”

Third- acceptance. Make it your daily practice, each time you look in the mirror, notice what you are telling yourself- how you are observing your body. Are you critical of it? Are you finding parts or all of it unacceptable? There is an excellent exercise offered originally by Nathaniel Brandon (I think)- the mirror exercise. Set aside a few minutes of every day, stand in front of a mirror, look at your self and breathe. No need to think thoughts of how to improve yourself, to criticize, to avoid looking at certain areas- just look and breathe (for 10 min). Do this every day and notice the difference in how you feel, how this exercise affects the rest of your day, etc. Accept everything that comes up for you without judgment, without thought- cry if you want to cry, get angry if you feel like it, even wanting to stop or something so drastic as to commit suicide. Notice and accept it all and just breathe through all of it.

Next point for people who believe they have “weight issues…” And it’s not to negate the need for proper dies and physical activity, but first get to the core of the “issue.” Often times the reason we gain weight has to do with feeling very sensitive and unsafe in the world, and the worst thing you can do to your relationship with your body is to blame and punish it with diets and exercises for simply trying to protect your nervous system from over-exertion.

(It is a very large issue and I am not trying to make light of it.)

If you feel that you gain weight much too easily even without overeating and with exercising, look at your emotional state first. Do you feel too vulnerable in the world? Are you a very sensitive person, whose “weight issues” make you even more so? If the answer is yes, congratulate yourself- sensitivity is a great gift- it is your guidance system, and you must acknowledge it as one.

Take it in, feel the immense pleasure of knowing that about yourself.

Having done so, think of the ways you can consciously take care of your vulnerabilities-

  • avoid abuse whenever possible,
  • make your feelings a priority (you don’t have to make scenes and demand from others to be gentle with you- just be gentle with yourself; even a simple act of setting an intention of caring for your own feelings will go a long way).
  • Make your communication with your body a daily practice and notice the incremental differences.

(All of these steps have to be very small, very incremental; they require a lot of patience and a lot of attention. If you find it difficult in the beginning to listen to your body or to accept something- notice your resistance and accept that as a first step…)

The most significant shifts (in my experience) happen through taking small steps consistently.

The early phases of creating a rapport with your body start with appreciation- acknowledge the great work this amazing mechanism is doing for you and you will be on your way to KNOWING that you already have a Perfect Body- it is your perception that need to be adjusted… Keep a journal if you can and takes notes of your progress- you might find them inspiring, and enjoy the journey!

MONGOLIA: Visiting Friends

After about a week of camping out in the military field campsite and enjoying all the running around the steppe, collecting crystal rocks, colorful lizards and wild carnations, we had a surprise… My father summoned us in the middle of the day and we set out for a short trip.

“Where are we going? Where are we going?” My sister and I kept asking intrigued.

“You’ll see,” he would reply evasively.

We drove for about forty minutes in our field truck and reached a ger settlement in the middle of nowhere. It was a small village with several yurts. There were adults around but my eye caught the fact that there were a lot of children, most younger than my sister and I, roaming freely from ger to ger and playing in the field. As soon as we parked, they quickly surrounded our truck and were shamelessly gawking at us as my sister and I sat inside trying to comb out hair into braids. I even tried to close the truck’s door only to see a few tiny hands slipping into the gap and opening it wide again. We felt very uncomfortable for a while.

But as my father explained that a car, let alone a huge truck, stopping by the village was a major event for the settlers, we felt a little more at ease. We realized that they didn’t stare at us because they thought there was something wrong with us, but because we were a new occurrence in their lives. I could understand that.

As my fear of the locals had subsided, I began seeing them in a different light. I suddenly noticed how beautiful and full of vitality they were. They were dressed in mixture of colorful clothes- some in traditional Mongolian silk frocks, some in modern clothes with dominant colors of bright pink, purple, turquoise green and yellow. They had big smiles revealing bright white teeth, strong and perfectly even. Their black thick hair was braided and tucked under pointy hats and gaudy scarves. A strange thought occurred to me as I was watching these free, happy people enjoying life in the middle of harsh and seemingly empty land. “This is what humanity was meant to be like. These are the ‘original humans’…”

It turned out that we came to the settlement to meet our old friends. My mother had worked in a student dormitory as a manager in Irkutsk where she met a Buryat woman named Ghita, who later married a Mongolian citizen and moved out to the Dornod aimag, a far eastern Mongolian province. Ghita’s ger was one of the biggest around. It was open, just like all the others’ and anybody could come in and out as they wished. We were seated to the right of the entrance.

Mongolian yurts are traditionally set up with the entrance always facing South. As in a Miniature-Universe, everything inside the ger revolves around tits central axis, the wrought-iron fire stove. All those entering the yurt move in the direction of the sun- East to West. Men are seated on the western side and women and guests opposite of them. The northern area is reserved for the Spirits of ancestors with an improvised altar, photographs and keepsakes.

As we sat on the colorful bed we were offered to feast on the plate of candies laid out in front of us on a low table. As soon as my sister and I, squinting cautiously at the half-melted caramels covered in flies, politely declined, a fireball of a little girl flew into the ger, grabbed a handful of sticky sweets and rushed out stuffing a few of them into her mouth. Interesting idea, I thought to myself, maybe it isn’t really necessary to only eat things that are clean?

While my parents were having conversations with the locals, using my father’s limited Mongolian, the men’s limited Russian and Ghita’s translations back and forth, I was gawking around the ger and taking in everything that was challenging, contradicting or expanding my knowledge of the world. I loved the feel of the black, soot covered stove that exuded warm coziness and generosity. It seemed to say- I know I am the center of attention but only because I give so much livelihood- I feed you, I keep you warm, I entertain you with my flickering blaze and crackling fire wood, and I bring you all together. The beds along the round walls seemed to agree and, blending in with the colorful rugs on the walls and on the floor did not challenge the stove’s claim to the spotlight. Toono, the top opening in the middle of the tent’s roof, protruded by the long stove pipe, was the main light source aside from the opened door. It showed the movement of the sun, tracing the light like a sun dial and was said to be the “Window to Heaven,” through which the spirits of the Upper world could enter and bring people luck and prosperity. There was not one thing, I thought, in Ghita’s yurt that was just an object, a dead item… no- everything inside the felt covered tent was enlivened and constantly interacting with its inhabitants- a never-ending flow of exchange and communication. I felt so good and so right in this small model of the Universe that I didn’t want to leave.

I understood why the Mongolians, especially the older generation, were having such a hard time adjusting to the “civilized” life style. My father had told us a story of a man who received an apartment in Ulan Bator from the government as part of the program of moving people from the rural areas into the cities. That Mongolian man did not object to the gift and happily accepted it, but used it in his own way… He set up his ger on the front loan of the apartment building and treated the second-floor flat as a drinking well for his sheep. Thus every day, in the morning and in the afternoon, one could see a sheep herd running up and down the staircase, leaving traces of dung and dirt along the way. What was the government to do? Not much. I in turn could not blame the man for not wanting to give up his cozy, living, breathing womb of a home in exchange for a cement box…

Eventually we had to leave, bidding our warm and polite farewell and setting on our way. As a gift exchange, we received some fresh Mongolian food and gave a lift to five village men to the nearest town.

There was just one little mishap worth mentioning related to Ghita’s delicacies. When she asked my parents whether they preferred sour cream thinner or thicker, my mother and father in unison declared:

“Thicker, of course,” remembering the thin sour cream sold in Soviet stores, which looked and tasted suspiciously buttermilk like. It was a common knowledge that store workers would routinely steal parts of the original product replacing its quantity with something less valuable and more abundant such as buttermilk.

When they opened Ghita’s container however, my parents rolled with laughter. Inside the tin box was sour cream so thick that it was one step away from becoming butter. “Thick” in the local language apparently meant “thick.” That was Mongolia in my experience, a country of vast spaces, harsh weather and very real people living very real lives…

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My father and his soldier-driver unanimously decided that setting up a camp on the island would probably be safer than out in the steppe where wolves were “visitors most common.” The truck had no problem crossing the shallow, couple of feet deep, waters on its high four-by-four, central tire inflation system wheels

We were all set and ready to go. Yes, we did have a great big truck, but the roads… well there weren’t any. The sound name “road” in rural Mongolia was given to any tire tracks left on the ground by a pair of wheels. Actually, the dry flat steppe would have been perfect for driving if it wasn’t for the desert rains. Paraphrasing a famous Russian proverb, “it rained seldom, but hit the bull’s eye”: it seemed as if a solid wall of water would suddenly connect the sky and the earth, and when it was over, the desert would turn into an ocean.  Just before the land dried up, it turned into soft mesh and any vehicle that drove through the steppe at that time would leave deeply imbedded ruts, sometimes as many as thirty running parallel to each other.  Once dried completely, those tracks would become as hard as ceramic tile. And through that “furrowness” we had to get in the GAZ 66 army cargo box truck, or more precisely in its box…

The truck inside had two benches set up along its windows and some handles on the side walls for infantry transportation. I suppose when the benches were filled with twenty adult people cladded in heavy ammunition, it was a different story. But as soon as we left the premises of the base, the Mongolian wilderness quickly let us know how little those handles mattered for the three of us- one delicate woman and two lighter than feather kids. The truck was driving about 60 km/hour and we were flying about the cabin like lotto balls in a bingo blower, losing all distinction between the floor and the ceiling. We had to stop and rearrange the benches into the sleeping position, which meant laying the long top seats across the box and putting as much soft stuff on them- blankets, pillows, etc. as we had. That slightly reduced the “crowd” in a “bruise department,” and made it possible for us to survive the rest of the journey.

Eventually we reached our first camping sight. It was a small island in the middle of the Kerulen river. The river itself is very full and long, one of the largest in Mongolia, running from the Hentiyn Mountains all the way into China with many sorts of fish in its waters and lush green pastures along its banks. The part of the river we reached, however, was not so picturesque. It was just a shallow stream of fast running mud.

My father and his soldier-driver unanimously decided that setting up a camp on the island would probably be safer than out in the steppe where wolves were “visitors most common.” The truck had no problem crossing the shallow, couple of feet deep, waters on its high four-by-four, central tire inflation system wheels. We parked our GAZ 66 in the middle of the island, had a quick supper of canned meats and veggies, warmed up on the campfire, and crushed exhausted at the sundown- the soldier-driver in the truck’s front cabin and the four of us in the box…

As we woke up the next morning and crawled out of our warm cozy box, we realized that apparently… APARENTLY during the night, one of those famous desert rains passed by and left us on an island much smaller than we first entered. The shallow muddy stream that was so easy to cross yesterday today turned into a proper river, wide and roaring. What to do? We all stared at the landscape around us dumbfounded, our minds drawing blank. There was no chance of crossing the river now; we had no radio or telephone with us to call for help; and there was no human soul around for as far as we could see. After we regained our ability to think, my father’s solution-oriented mind came to the only logical conclusion:

“We’ll have to wait until the river tides down.” He said.

Everyone agreed.

So, great, now we were on a real desert island, trying to survive a real natural disaster. My sister and I looked at each other- this is not fun at all, we both noted silently. The island, unlike in our imagination, had nothing, and by “nothing” I mean NOTHING on it. It was a flat patch of clay land with minimal vegetation- no berries, no trees, no animals, no flowers not even one interesting looking rock. It was the most boring square-footage imaginable. Lucky for us we had food provisions enough to sustain us for a while but we were running out of water. The last drops in our flasks went to the making of instant coffee for breakfast, and now we were nervously glancing at the rolling brown river that surrounded us…

The russet water looked as bad in our enamel bucket as it did in the stream, and having tested it after it had been thoroughly boiled and the dirt particles settled to the bottom, my sister and I unanimously agreed that only severe dehydration will compel us to drink it. Having some food concerns though was good for us. It temporarily distracted the five of us from having to figure out what to do with all the pastime, but soon enough we were faced with that dilemma. My father who rarely had the luxury of extra-time on his hands just wanted to stretch out in the sun and do absolutely nothing. My sister and I, who were well acquainted with the abundance of “free time,” however, were more concerned with creating activities and entertainment for ourselves. It was interesting how uninteresting being stuck on a real desert island turned out to be. There wasn’t a lot of places one could go to, nor see many different things. So, unless one would learn to renew one’s perspective and look at his or her surroundings with “new eyes,” one could very easily go mad in this situation, I thought.

After a little while our eyes and minds adjusted to the seeming emptiness of our surroundings, and we began to see variety. Suddenly every little stone and rock had a bit of a different shape then all the others, a bit of a different shade of color and had a bit of a different “character.” I was beginning to understand what my father meant when he told us that the natives orient themselves in the steppe very easily. Not only are they consistently aware of their position in relationship to the four spatial directions- East, West, South and North, but they see the steppe as we see streets and roads in our world. Everything, every rock formation, every little valley, ravine or a slope has as distinct characteristics for the Mongolian locals as for us our bus stops, streets and house addresses. Not only that, but the various areas of the steppe feel differently to the native population. I was finally seeing the country wilderness a little bit more through the eyes of those who lived here and who loved its austere vastness. I could sense the pulse of the land, the energy of the river. The river was no longer a muddy stream in my mind but a powerful and defiant Spirit that, like blood through the veins, was pushing the vital nourishment through the harsh terrain and keeping it alive. Everything was harmoniously cooperating in nature- constantly negotiating and re-negotiating its push and pull, its flow and its dance of what to be “important” in the moment. It felt to me that being trapped on that island was not a mere coincident, nor a miscalculation. It had a greater purpose, and greater powers were at play here, as if the land itself was saying to us- “stop rushing about, slow down enough to see me for what I really am.

As soon as that realization dawned on me (it felt) the water began to tide down. The sun was still high in its zenith when the stream became shallow enough for my father to cross it. He walked cautiously with a rope tied around his waist in case if he were to slip and got carried away by the fast running river, and we watched breathlessly from the island. Finally, he was safely on the other side. My father and his soldier-driver constructed a temporary emergency waftage with a rope and a spare tire so that we, the civilians, could sit in the tire and be transported across the river by the two men pulling and slacking the rope. Eventually our whole family re-united on the “mainland.” The only thing left to do was for the driver to take the truck across the stream. By my father’s tense posture and sparse speech, I could appreciate the risk of the venture. What if the truck gets stuck in the mud or fills with water so much that it becomes disabled? What would we do then?

I’m not sure why but as I was watching the truck emerging into the brown rapids I remembered a story my father had told us about the Mongolian customs. He described his experience in one of the ger settlements where they worked with the cooperation of the locals. There was a rapid river nearby and one of the little kids got caught in its stream and was drowning, screaming while the entire village passively watched on the side. It took one of the soldiers diving into the stream and pulling the child out for the situation to be resolved. Later someone explained to my father that Mongolians believe in destiny and would not interfere, especially when it comes to water. They believed that the powerful Spirit of the Underworld, Bur khan, was claiming the child, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. At first upon hearing the story I felt infuriated by the seeming cowardice of the people but standing there in the middle of the Mongolian steppe I felt the power beyond one’s reason and understanding. I could see why they might have felt so much awe in the face of it. Though unlike the village folks I didn’t feel subdues by that mighty spirit. In some way, I realized, felt united with it.

The truck slowly but surely passed the midpoint of the rapids and was emerging out of the deep waters. The worst was over. Everyone breathed a little more freely now… Half-dipped in mud with the dark water draining out of its every orifice, our beloved GAZ 66, along with its driver, finally joined us on the safe side.

The rest of our journey went quite smoothly, and we arrived to the military campsite before dawn. Nobody talked much about the flood but I felt that it had changed us all a little bit. Maybe it allowed some of us to feel more respect for the natural powers of the steppe; maybe it made others think beyond everyday concerns; as for myself I felt that in that flood we were all “baptized” by the mighty Spirit Bur Khan, and now we belonged to this land, just like the natives did. We surely got our feet wet here…


MONGOLIA: The Project # 5, the Apricots and the Karate

The base was a square asphalted “oasis” in the middle of the east-central Mongolia. There were several five-story apartment buildings, children’s playground, a school, a kindergarten a store and a movie theater within its premises; in a word your typical military settlement. Only this one seemed different than all of the other settlements I’ve lived in. There was a feeling of something fragile about it, something unsure in the feet. It was a mask of Russia, covering up the fact that it was built in the midst of a very foreign land, a land our learned understanding could not comprehend. It wouldn’t have been surprising to me at the time if the entire settlement turned out to be a mirage and dissolved into thin air as soon as we’d approached it. In fact, it would make more sense.

However, my first impressions quickly dissipated as I began exploring the place and finding new friends. My sister and I met a girl at the playground who was of a “between age” for the both of us. She was two years older than my sister and two years younger than me. So we felt her to be a welcome little member in our “team.” She was an only child in her family and was very pleased to play with us. Our games were rarely traditional. We were usually either running away from mean powerful villains or surviving some impossible circumstances like a deserted island or the North Pole. Thus, yet again “running away” from some fictional characters that expressed itself in rattling the public swing set to the point of squeaking and whistling, the three of us were immersing into the world of the local oddities and gossip. It was normal in my life for the military kids to become friends easily and quickly. We understood each other much better than the “local” kids, who tended to regard us as “strangers,” with a degree of reserve and suspicion.

The new girl was just too happy to let us in on all of the details of the settlement’s life. As she was telling us about the movie theater and how to sneak into the R-rated flicks without being caught, about her favorite delicacies at the base store and other matters, she kept mentioning the word “project.” She would say something like: “this person from the project #1” or “that swing from the project #4.” I’d never heard that term used in an everyday language and became utterly fascinated with it. It soon turned out that the word just meant the apartment building number such and such, but said in a different vocabulary, it fused magic into an ordinary object.  The commonplace square concrete buildings suddenly acquired an exotic allure and I could no longer see them as less than special. Life in those buildings had to carry a new layer of meaning and a new flavor. It was Russian and yet, it was not.

Our new friend who lived at the base since she was very small, was excitedly and a bit nervously sharing her anticipation of traveling back to Russia after her father’s five-year term of service was to expire (in about six months.)

“They won’t understand me if I start talking about our ‘project #5,’ will they?” she asked.

“Probably not,” my sis and I agreed contemplatively.

We kept rattling the swing back and forth, reaching higher and higher and wondering if it would be possible to rotate the old thing around it’s axes. Luckily for us, it wasn’t…

The first trip to the local shopping center was very much anticipated. I personally liked going to the base stores, especially in a new city. They were all different in terms of the assortment of goods as opposed to the regular shops that seemed to offer the same old nothing. This store was doubly exciting because it was in a sense a “foreign place.” It had items I’d never seen or heard of before. There were beautiful ornate rugs, sheep coats, various sweets colorfully packaged and all kinds of canned food. I have to mention that aside from my grandmother’s place who had her own garden and lived in a prosperous Southern region, the best selection of foods I had been exposed to was mostly of a canned or dry variety. And this time was no exception.

In the settlement’s store we had discovered something very appealing. It was a relatively inexpensive jar of conserved apricots. They looked oh so yummy- whole golden fruits in the transparent juicy nectar! We had to have them. Surely, our entire family feasted on the honey golden deliciousness, spitting out the almond shaped pips and letting the juice run down our faces and our hands. All four of us were in ecstasy. Needless to say that we bought those coveted jars for the duration of our stay in Mongolia, to this day, tying the taste of sweet flavorful apricots to my memories of the sand filled military base in Choir…

My dad was not a permanent citizen of the base settlement and therefore did not live in the “projects.” Instead, he stayed at the military quarters, in one of the wooden barracks, and we were accommodated in his large furnished room. It had a great big window covered by a colored sheet for privacy and to keep the harsh sunlight out in the day time, a few chairs of various sizes and levels of sturdiness, a table, a hot plate, a proper bed for my parents and a couple of folding beds for us, kids. Though the furnishings were spare and plain, we were delighted. The room smelled of movement and new adventures. Besides, we were spending very little time in it- just eating and sleeping.

Sometimes, when we all gathered for lunch and my father would come to get his portion of borsch that my mother concocted out of available ingredients and dry potatoes that she would soak in water over night (which still made them taste like saw dust but much better than what my father was used to at the time) we would overhear their conversations and learn about some local troubles. The military life in Mongolia must have been rather hard for some people, especially lower ranking officers and soldiers, maybe due to their youth and lack of experience, or due to abuses they would endure in their respective divisions. My father was the highest ranking officer in his settlement and therefore had complete command and control over the situation at the base. He had been educated in a Moscow Military Academy during the time when all the great generals and army leaders of the World War II were still alive and teaching from personal experience and integrity. His choice of profession was not accidental and he faithfully believed and identified with the Red Army code of honor. He also didn’t drink. However, many of his colleagues were not so vigilant at obeying the same “code of honor,” which was often the source of his great frustration.

As far as I remember this never took place at my father’s base but happened quite regularly at other settlements- now and again we would hear about soldiers breaking into an arsenal, stealing guns and escaping from their divisions. My parents speculated what could have caused them to do such an irrational thing, and they often concluded that it must have been the isolation, the harsh conditions or the cruel treatment by their superiors or some combination of the above. They also wondered where those soldiers were from originally, and my father assumed that at least some of them would have been from Moscow. For some reason he had especial disdain for the Muscovite recruits.

“They are such whiny mama’s boys,” he often complained, “can’t do anything by themselves, in shape only for lifting spoons but have mouths like gossipy women.”

Though the disciplinary mishaps were rare at my father’s base, we wondered how the order was maintained in such an isolated place. One night we got a glimpse of it. We were all woken up by some noises in the barrack’s hall. My father dressed up and went to check out what was happening.

“Be careful,” my mother whispered.

My sister and I tensed in alert. What could be happening out there? Our imagination sprinted into a million tracks, generating scenarios one more terrifying than another. As my father left, we heard screams and shouts that were very strange.

“Ki-i-iya-ya-yah!” someone yelled out there in the hall. “Ki-i-ya-ya-yah!”

There were rackets of furniture braking (or so we thought), of someone stomping and jumping, and overall hullaballoo of imminent chaos and destruction. The noises kept getting louder and louder but we never heard a pip from our father, concluding that he must been lying there unconscious, beaten by this karate-monster who was finishing him up and about to come for us. Our mother was picking through the sliver of our open door, and, not being able to withstand the mystery any longer, we finally peeped as well…

What we saw quickly restored our sense of safety, and we let out a sigh of relief. In the large empty hall, lit up by a single electric bulb, we saw the following: a junior lieutenant, dressed in his dark blue field uniform, drunk to such a degree that he was barely standing up, was yelling the “Ki-yah’s” while haphazardly throwing his limbs about, hitting chairs, empty air and pictures on the wall. We assumed that he was trying to fight with our father but could hardly see him through his drunken fog. Perhaps the Karate officer’s mind was playing tricks on him and he saw his opponent in multiple places at ones, which would explain his “fighting shadows,” but in any case we realized that he presented no danger. Our father, in a defense boxing position was mostly avoiding the officer’s “gesticulations,” only hitting him once. That one blow threw the drunken junior lieutenant to the floor skirting and we never heard any noise from him again.

The next morning, getting ready for a field trip, we overheard our father’s explanation of the incident:

“I guess this junior lieutenant decided he was a martial arts’ expert after a couple of bottles of vodka and wanted to prove it.”

“Do you know him? Where is he from?” Asked my mother.

“From Moscow, where else,” my father replied contemptuously.

MONGOLIA The Clock, the Ice Cream and the Marmots


When we lived in Irkutsk, my father had a seasonal assignment job in various parts of Mongolia. He was spending six months out of a year working abroad. When I was around twelve years old, my family went to visit him. It was my first time traveling out of the country, and even though I had been traveling “domestically” since I was a toddler, the world “outside the boarder” seemed like an unfathomable reality to imagine. Each time we would receive letters from my dad, they were always reeking of that “otherworldliness” only a foreign country could evoke. The envelope was of an unusual size and proportion, made of a bluish, different quality paper with the colored edge markings, suggesting that it was an air mail, not the ground post, printed on all four sides and not just one like on the domestic air envelopes. And the post stamps were sheer masterpieces- colorful pictures of the legendary Mongolian heroes, famous sights and works of art. Every letter was bringing a piece of that mysterious foreign land into our living room.

So, finally, we were to visit the remote country ourselves. The level of anticipation was beyond what we could bare- constantly giggling and jumping around to release the excessive energy, we finally packed and headed to the train station. Our train was leaving early in the morning, before the public transportation was available, and we walked all the way to the station, carrying our heavy plastic suitcases. It was the beginning of August and the weather was slightly chilly in the morning but very warm and pleasant in the afternoon. The trees were heavy with the green foliage that was starting to turn yellow here and there. We walked along the Angara river bank, enjoying the fresh morning air and the calm scenery in the pearly glow of dawn. Even though we had to stop and rest a few times along the way, it was probably a good thing that we didn’t get a taxi and boarded the train somewhat fatigued. Otherwise, our enthusiasm and exuberance would have had us bouncing off the walls all the way to the boarder.

The last stop in Russia was a small Buryat town, Kyakhta. Since the early seventeen hundreds the town has been a trade point between Russia and China due to its location- direct across border to Mongolian town Altanbulag. There, in Kyakhta, our train was detained for several hours for passport and luggage checkup. As we stepped out on the platform, I felt something shift in the air. Was it just my imagination or did I really sense something different about the place? It was as if all of us suddenly walked into another dimension where everything outwardly seemed to look the same but felt different. There was something added to our everyday perception- something very significant but impossible to see with a naked eye.

Everyone from the train was asked to leave their compartments and register their tickets and visas at the station. As the crowd of a hundred people gathered by the regular ticket windows, my younger sister and I followed our mother to the separate room with a very small queue, the ticket room for the military personnel and their family members. As a child I was used to these privileges and to the doors opening and everything being accessible to us because of my father’s position, and I took it quite for granted. My mother joined the queue, striking up a conversation with the officer who was ahead of her, and we sat on a bench by the large arched windows of the old-fashioned vaulted colonnaded building of the station. I stared at the big clock on the opposite wall. It had Roman numerical and ornate hands. I knew the clock was working and showing the right time, but for some reason it seemed to me that it stood still, as if time was an irrelevant concept to the reality at hand. I could almost see the clock winking at me as if saying: “look I’m pretending to show time. Do you think I’m doing a good job?” I eyed the surroundings and saw everything as if in a movie, shown in a slow motion.

When we strolled out on the platform, having completed all the formalities, our train was still there with the border patrol looking through the compartments and the passengers’ luggage, but the destination title was changed from “Irkutsk-Kyakhta” to “Kyakhta-Ulan-Bator,” and the name “Nairamdal” was added to the car. Nairamdal means “friendship” in Mongolian, and I felt a sunny welcoming wave of friendliness, like an openhearted handshake extended from the country we were about to enter.

The last thing we did in Russia that day was to buy crunchy waffle cups of vanilla ice cream from an outdoor kiosk nearby. There must have been crowds of people surrounding us but I remember that walk along the platform, relishing the delicious dessert, as a solitary experience- as if I were there all by myself, surrounded by the shifting and moving air and the heavy linden leaves trembling in the breeze. We walked to the end of the paved stand, observing the trains being reassembled by the dedicated rail road workers in orange jackets. Watching the busy tech personnel doing their job at airports and train stations had always instilled a sense of security in me. There, at the end of the platform, the railway trails were braiding together and branching apart, receding into the distant unfamiliar land…

Finally, the crowd of travelers who were already feeling like a family to each other- that happened very often in my experience with long distance trips, especially in trains and buses when the spirit of comradeship developed among people sharing the communal venture into the unknown- were boarding the newly reassembled train cars, radiating the sense of excitement and anticipation of wondrous adventures. The last warnings of the radio announcer declared the parting of the train. The locomotive hissed its farewell puff, something metallic clanked, and the platform floated away from the direction of our destination, leaving the motherland soil behind. As the train crossed the invisible border line with the huge Russian letters spelling a foreign word “Mongol Uls,” (Mongolia), I felt the mood of the entire car change. I knew that everyone around me shared in the same feeling of no longer being where we “belonged.”

The next morning, the landscape behind our windows changed dramatically. Instead of the tall evergreens of Siberia and the spare vegetation of Buryat Republic we were presented with the boundless brownish bareness of the Mongolian steppe. The hordes of sheep, horses and the occasional exotic rarity in my experience, camels, replaced the sights of cityscapes. The steppe was so vast and so austere in its expression that hours would pass but it wouldn’t feel like we moved anywhere, as if the train were riding on a treadmill next to the miles and miles of foreign emptiness.

Only when we approached the state capital, Ulan Bator, did we start seeing the hints of human presence. In the middle of the night, half-asleep, we changed trains once again to the cars marked “Ulan-Bator-Choir,” the final point of our destination where our father would pick us up. The next day, late in the afternoon, my slightly exhausted and unsteady in the feet family finally re-united with my father at the small train station in the middle of a desert. He picked us up accompanied by a solder-driver in the military jeep from his division.

We drove away from anything that contained brick, concrete or asphalt toward the world of round felt yurts, spare wooden fences, horsemen and horsewomen. Though utterly beat by the never-ending trip I was eagerly staring out the window, absorbing everything that was new, and new was everything- the smells, the sky, the flora, the fauna…

Against the setting sun, I noticed a strange occurrence- here and there across the steppe, there were peculiar beasts the size of a rabbit standing up on their back feet, still as if frozen in hypnosis, all facing West. At first I wasn’t even sure if they were alive.

“What are those?” I asked my dad, pointing to the immobile stump like little figures.

“Uh, those are Marmots,” replied he with a casual smirk of a local who was used to the land and its inhabitants. “They are very common here.”

“Why are they standing like that?” My sister asked.

“It’s their habit. They always watch the sunset.”

My father told us about the Mongolian Marmot hunters who used that trade to hunt the animals for their fur and meat. I felt such deep sympathy and compassion for the poor creatures who suddenly appeared as very spiritual beings to me. I thought I was one of the Marmots, halted by the reverence of the mighty, ever-generous Sun-god, risking my life by paying my homage.

The jeep proceeded to the Military base…


angara (2)

It is said that over two hundred rivers flow into the Lake Baikal, nourishing its crystal clear arctic waters, and only one flows out… the deep, affluent Angara. The legend has it that the old mighty Baikal had many daughters but his favorite was his youngest and the most beautiful of all- Angara. She was the apple of her father’s eye, talented in everything she undertook, magnificent and hospitable. One day, she met the young knight, Yenisei, and the two of them fell in love. Angara knew her father’s possessive nature and agreed to run away with Yenisei. Under the covers of the night, she collected her things and headed toward her lover’s distant land. The old Baikal was alerted by a gossipy bird, woke up and saw his favorite daughter getting away. Enraged, he broke off a piece of the nearby mountain and threw it toward her. That piece of rock, known as the Shaman’s Rock, to this day remains in the lake, marking the outflow of the Angara River who does reach her lover and falls into the Yenisei, the largest river in Asia.

I believe I have heard this legend very soon after arriving to Irkutsk, perhaps on one of our school trips, exploring the city’s history, and it deeply affected my view of the area. I could see the power and the generosity of the river and it always had a feminine Spirit for me. The feminine power was present in the air itself it seemed. The river affected not only the regional economy by providing electricity to the entire metropolitan area with its massive Electric Hydro-Station, but it affected the microclimate as well. The winters in the city were much milder than the Siberian chill would have had them. Angara’s fast natural flow makes it difficult for the ice to set in completely and throughout the winter, parts of the river remain liquid, warming up the temperature along its banks and casting the white sparkling frost on the buildings and trees. Very often early in the morning, while it was still dark outside and I was walking to school through the quiet, sleepy streets, I felt immersed into a magic kingdom where trees were no longer trees but large intricate white corals, shimmering their florid crowns against the opal winter sky.

The presence of the river’s spirit followed me everywhere I went. Like a strong and loving mother, she enveloped the city and its children with her loving care without ever being smothering of suffocating. She looked after them but would not impose on their free will and would not curb their growth, would not fear their independence. She had learned that lesson with her own father and would not prevent her children from becoming strong and flying free. You could see the strength of the feminine spirit in the beauty and grace of the Siberian women. Only the strong would be able to withstand the harsh climate and the traditional scarcity of food and yet still have a smile on their faces.

The city was built on the adventurous life-force of the first explorers, the roots and wisdom of the Native Buryat population and infused with the Enlightened education by the Decembrists, their wives and other political dissidents who were exiled into the Siberian land. I still remember visiting the log houses where young aristocrats, the ladies of the court who were used to the finest furnishings and ballrooms, were relegated to spending nights under rough felt covers only to find their hair frozen to the wall in the morning. And yet they wouldn’t leave their husbands, their friends in life, sharing their passions and their fate. Some stayed in Irkutsk even after having been pardoned by the Tsar and opened libraries, schools and established a University. And all of it, I felt, was generously protected and watched over by the powerful forces of nature that were ever present in the everyday life of the town, even without people consciously thinking or knowing about it.

Life in a big city can become very hectic, stressful and disconnected at times but during the quieter moments, when the day is over or has barely began, one can feel the Nature’s Spirit “breathing,” watching, loving and waiting for a gesture of contact. For me, it was not a big leap of imagination to see that Spirit as a living being, a grand source of strength, power and inspiration- the true ruler of the land. Yes, Angara, the free spirit of Siberia and the rebellious daughter of the old mighty Baikal, you go girl!