Dusya showing us around the site
Last month I travelled to remote Kurumkan in Northern Baikal. The purpose of my visit was twofold: this was my initial foray into Evenk villages in Siberia and I was eager to see how people live, and how their way of life differs from the Evenks in China; but more importantly, I needed to collect Evenk stories and songs for a creative project I am working on. Since staging the ‘Swan Princess’ at last year’s Earthpulse dinner gala, I have been steadily developing the music-drama into a full-scale ballet. The libretto was more or less fleshed out since spring but elements are still missing for various movements and so, travelling with my friend and composer Bair, we were on an inspirational journey.
As our subject matter is about the indigenous peoples in northern Asia and Siberia, I felt the need to expand my knowledge beyond the northern nomads in China. After all, the Orochen, Solon and Aoluguya Ewenki (Evenks) all migrated to Great Khingan Mountains some time within the last four to five hundred years, but their original homeland was Siberia, in the expansive taiga stretching from the Transbaikal region to the Amur. In the case of the Aoluguya reindeer-herders, their history is even more recent, having moved to China circa 1930s in order to escape from enforced collectivisation under Stalin’s regime. But for all these people, Lake Baikal and its environ remains very much alive in their collective consciousness, as a lost paradise where their ancestors walked with the spirits.
Kurumkan was for me at once an unknown and familiar place. Though I never set foot there before this trip, I found much that was familiar about the place, the culture and the people. The landscape is a natural continuation of the steppe and boreal forest in Hulun Buir and the Great Khingan Mountains. While the mountains climb to greater and more precipitous heights, presenting a more dramatic view than the rolling hills of the Khingan Mountains, the local flora and fauna across the border are dominated by birch, pine, larch and other evergreen trees. Likewise, the speech and culture of the Siberian Evenks, though they differ in detail from their cousins in China, conforms in broad strokes to the cultures of the reindeer and horse-herding Northern Tungus in Inner Mongolia and northern Heilongjiang province. In fact, I was surprised to learn that the Evenks of Kurumkan are also horse-breeders, where in the past I expected all Evenks living north of the Amur to be reindeer herders. This means the Evenks there, known as ‘Murchen’ (from murin, meaning ‘horse’ in Evenk), share to a significant degree a common horse culture and economic foundation to their society as the Solon and Orochen, who were once horse-breeders and nomadic hunters themselves.
In Kurumkan region there are roughly four to five hundred Evenks living in two main villages, Ulyunhan and Alla. Ulyunhan means in Evenk ‘the river with falling shores’, which is an apt description of the place as it is situate on the gradually widening Barguzin River. There we picked up Dusya, a friend of the Evenk linguist and our guide Elizaveta Afanaseva. After making a couple of quick stops for provisions, and making libations to the main sacred place outside the village, we hastened to Umhey.
Dusya is in her middle age, of medium height and unassuming appearance. She is soft-spoken, of quiet disposition, but has an air about her that reminds me of Evenk elders of old. Like all Evenks Dusya is of pale complexion. She also has a crop of short hair, which is of light brown colour. The moment I met Dusya I felt she is someone I knew from the past, as so many things about her felt so familiar.
Woods in Umhey
Arriving in Umhey, once a sacred place known only to the Evenks, which has in recent times been turned into a private holiday camp, Dusya told us to pray to the local spirits. It was necessary to do so before the sun set, she said. I was both surprised and uplifted by this insistence, as the Evenks’ sacral legacy was broken long ago in China, particularly among the Orochen, and beside shamanic ceremonies memories of sacred rites are almost completely forgotten.
After pouring libations and praying to the spirits, Dusya took us on a short tour. Umhey is one of several natural hot springs in Kurumkan. The Evenks have always known about the curative properties of the springs and Dusya explained to us the different nature and healing power of each of the springs.
Settling into our cabin, Dusya started to tell us old Evenk tales from Kurumkan, including a haunting story about a group of female hunter-spirits who transformed into sacred springs after being tacked down and killed by intruders, greedy for their rich clothing and treasures; and the lady guardian spirit who resides in a rock and can be seen combing her hair. Such stories eloquently bespeak both the Evenks’ natural affinity with their surroundings, as well as the darker times into which the Evenks and their inhabited space have fallen in the past hundred years or so.
Lady guardian spirit of Umhey combing her hair on the rock
However, the story that rang the deepest chord with me was that of celestial swans bathing in the open-air hot spring in Umhey. Dusya said it was a story her grandmother told her. According to her grandmother, when she was a child herself she once saw a group of swans descending into the lake, taking on human forms as they took off their skins to bathe. After a while they put their skins on and flew back into the sky. This is a familiar and undoubtedly ancient story which I have heard from many sources – told by the elders of the Orochen, Solon, and other northern peoples – but never before did anyone claim to know it except as a myth. For a moment, I felt transported back into the distant mythic past, where time dissolves in the expanse of the Siberian forest, where humans once again live together with spirit-beings.
After the ceremony. From left: Bair, Liza, Dusya, Hing
Dusya opened my eyes to the presence of a sacred world, which had been cast firmly into the past since the Cultural Revolution, destroying a vital part of the Chinese Evenks’ memory and identity as a people. But here in the remote mountains and valleys of Siberia, it remains very much alive and part of a living tradition. Dusya’s final parting gift to us was a haunting melody about the rain and snow.
Like the gathering clouds Dusya has given me a sign into the Evenks’ sacred world; and just as the gentle drizzle at the end of our rite announced the spirits’ blessing, Dusya’s song has initiated us into the mysteries of the land.