The Honey Trap Part II

No way could this be Natasha, she wouldn’t waste any more of her time, plus didn’t she have a job to do??? This time it was ANOTHER food services girl by the name of Tatyana! Tanya was about eight years younger than Natasha and was prettier in my eyes. She had no real reason to come to my cabin except she probably had heard from her colleague about the American in Cabin number 2 who spoke really great Russian and was traveling alone.
Tanya and me

We talked some and after about ten minutes she started asking the same question Natasha did, “can you buy us some champagne”? She said it’d be fun, we could talk and get to know one another and besides what else was there to do, we had two more days on the road. She explained that life on board the train for them was very boring. They worked a few hours during the day but the rest of the day was spent watching the scenery go by and sleeping. So, what better entertainments than try to swindle a nice American guy like me into buying champagne? I politely declined, but she kept pushing and pushing hard. Finally her beauty and charm broke me wide open and I agreed! She was overjoyed, so she went back to get Natasha.

A few minutes went by and who should walk into my cabin but Natasha looking pretty smug as if she’d just pulled a huge coup, she’d gotten the “foreigner” to buy them champagne!! I gave her my credit card knowing in my heart I should’ve just kept saying no. You’d’ve thought I’d’ve learned my lesson after being swindled out of $60 or 400 Chinese RMB back in Shanghai for a “tea festival”, see “Teachable Moments”.
I opened the bottle and pop, the party in my cabin had begun!! The girls loved every moment of it, toasting to our "friendship" and talking about all types of different things. Their Russian sometimes was hard to understand as they spoke very fast. I was pretty disappointed in the alcohol, I thought it was going to either make my Russian perfect or get some type of romantic action from one of the girls, neither of which happened. Tanya asked what I would be doing once we arrived in Novosibirsk, a 45-minute stop (the longest of our two-day stops and Russia’s third largest city). I said nothing really! She proposed we go walking together around the city. I was super excited!!
Novosibirsk railway station

Eventually after swindling me out of about 1,300 rubles or $20 worth of champagne the girls went back to the restaurant car. Once the train pulled up to Novosibirsk I disembarked and saw Natasha on the platform smoking. She said Tanya was doing something and it was best for me to go walking by myself. What little result of our champagne party in my cabin quickly melted away like snow flurries in the middle of April!

Left to right: Natasha, me and Tatyana
Eventually I saw Tanya in the dining room that night and she made up the excuse that suddenly out of nowhere she met up with her aunt on the platform of Novosibirsk station. Who knows……..maybe she did, but it sounded like a bit of a lame excuse to me. If I hadn’t already felt taken advantage of I really felt it after that. Hopefully as the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” will hold true! Only time will tell!

The Honey Trap

Honey Trap, the official definition from is: “a strategy whereby an attractive person coerces another person into doing or revealing something; also, a person employing this strategy to entrap another”. This definition summarized my 2 ½ day trip to Moscow from Tomsk in a nutshell! And oddly enough I’d never heard of this term until my Russian friend from Rostov-On-Don pointed this out to me regarding Russian women.

But before I launch into the honey trap I fell into, I wanted to wrap up my time in Tomsk. Tomsk was magnificent and I finished my time off with more sightseeing of wooden homes just off the main street of the city center. The last day also came with a bit of a surprise. That afternoon I received a text from Dmitry, the guy who was friends with Natasha and had offered to meet with me. He texted me and advised me to visit the well known local gift shop, Tommy’s Gifts saying a pleasant surprise awaited me there. I thanked him immensely and said I’d be sure to stop by.
Tomsk walking tour postcards

I walked into the building where Tommy’s Gifts were located and saw very little except for two clothing stores and a small kiosk with gifts outside in the common area. Could this be the famous Tommy's Gifts? I was expecting something large and grand like Дом Книги (Dom Knigi) or Book House in St. Petersburg, which has a giant gift shop. I double-checked my phone to make sure I was in the right place. Apparently I was and then to confirm I texted Dmitry. He told me I was in the right place and to tell the girl behind the counter that I was “Steve from America.” And with these three magic words I was handed a whole book of Tomsk postcards!! WOW!! Thank you Dmitry!

The next morning came and it was time to bid a fond farewell to the beautiful city of Tomsk! I felt bad I never connected with Dmitry but knew this served as an excellent excuse to return to Tomsk next time. I got to the station with no hassle and boarded the train for Moscow, which would be a 2 ½ day journey. 
The Tomich train pulling in

I settled into my cabin and suddenly there was a knock at the door. I’d already checked in with the train attendant and bought a nice cup holder from her so it couldn’t be her. I opened the door and it was a familiar face, the food services girl, Natasha (not to be confused with Natasha of Seattle who gave me all sorts of excellent info about her native Tomsk). Her first words to me were, “you again………what….did you not like our city”? I explained I had to get to Moscow and only had a few days in Tomsk.
My beloved compartment
She had come to my compartment to discuss my food options for the next day. Shortly thereafter she turned on the flirting big time saying, she would love to sit around with me and watch the scenery go by, but she had to get back to work. This was music to this lonely traveler’s ears!! A fairly good-looking Russian girl in my compartment, wanting to spend time with me, had my dream come true? I quickly said I wish she could too. I guess there’s a saying “don’t wish too hard or it’ll come true”. And it did come true!

Not too long after our brief exchange I heard a knock at my door. I said «да»/da or yes and who should it be but Natasha! She came back to talk and wanted to know what I was doing. I said I was just sitting watching the scenery go by. She looked over and saw my zip lock bag full of my favorite cereal Count Chocula and she quickly asked “what’s that………cookies”? I tried to explain in Russian that it was breakfast cereal, but she didn’t get it, but wanted to try some. Me, Mr. Nice Guy, let her try some. Instead of simply trying a bit, she put her whole hand in and scooped up a lot putting a large dent in my supply.

She then caught a glimpse of my beautiful new glass holder that I bought from the РЖД/RZD (Russian Railways) attendant with its beautiful gold trim. She picked up and said “Steve, give me this as a present please”. I said no. She then begged and even begged some more. I continued to say no. Knowing she wouldn’t get my glass holder she turned on the flirting even more saying it’d be nice to have some champagne together. 
I said no that I didn’t drink and it was too expensive. Natasha responded, “doesn’t matter, I’ll drink it and we can get to know one another”. You’d’ve thought I would have learned from the last time I bought a bottle of champagne for a Natasha. That turned out rather badly. In that situation my girlfriend at the time ended up drinking the entire bottle, getting rather drunk and totally hung over the next day. It would not have mattered much except it was during a special vacation to The Oregon Coast I’d planned for us. 

Anyway, back to The Tomich train, Natasha kept begging and begging saying it was a tradition for men to buy the women drinks to get better acquainted with them. Again for the fifth or so (I lost track) time I said NO, НЕТ/nyet! She flirted a bit more and we talked and then she said ok that she’d catch me later.

I felt rather proud of myself that I had turned her down because usually I’m always Mr. Nice Guy and say yes. This time I’d stood my ground. Around a half hour went by and suddenly there was a knock at the door again! To be continued……………..


I Love Tomsk!
Besides hitting a few snafus along the road like being told by a hotel in the small city of Tynda that they don’t accept foreigners, overall my trip had been pretty stable. But when I booked a European like hotel in the center of Tomsk called The Hotel Bonaparte all I could think of was Napoleon and Waterloo. I was hoping that Tomsk would not be my Waterloo! For a moment it looked as if that “Waterloo” I’d been talking about was about to come true when upon presenting my passport to the front desk girl she promptly wanted to see all evidence of where I’d been staying since April 9th, my date of entry.

I had learned my lesson to keep registration papers in order after a horrible situation six years ago while trying to leave Kazakhstan where I was denied leaving due to a small piece of paper I did not receive upon entering the nation. In Kazakhstan everyone who flies in is given a piece of paper that gives them seven days registration free, except I had come by train. So luckily I had all the papers in order and handed them over. When you arrive at hotels in Russia they make a copy of your visa and passport front page and at the end of your stay issue you a small piece of paper noting your full name, how long you’ve been there, passport info, visa number and an official stamp from the hotel with the manager’s signature.

I’ve been to college towns and actually lived in one, but no town could quite compare to the mammoth scale of Tomsk!! Tomsk is home to nine plus universities, all of which are quite large, not exactly a one-university town. By far one of the best things about Tomsk being a university town was the knock out gorgeous women! Sure Russia is full of beautiful women, but Tomsk women were in a special realm of their own! Maybe it was because everyone was young or maybe it’s those harsh Siberian winters? Who knows….all I know is how amazing Russian women are! Every moment, no matter how mundane is a chance to look beautiful down to even taking out the trash. This is in sharp contrast to Seattle where women dress down for everything and anything!

After settling into my room I figured I better hit the pavement running, as I had no time to rest since I was only in Tomsk for about three days. Besides the plentiful amount of universities and beautiful women, Tomsk was famous for another thing, their unique Russian wooden architecture! Each wooden building I would see was like a person with its own unique color, personality and character. The only place I’ve seen where architecture can come close to touching Tomsk is St. Petersburg, which in my opinion and a lot of others serves as the gold standard for not only Russia but also the world!

The House with Dragons
However unlike in St. Petersburg where the architectural highlights are concentrated basically in and around the immediate center, Tomsk’s beauty was scattered throughout the city. This is where my awesome friend, Natasha, from my Eastside Russian Language and Culture group came in handy. Natasha is a native Tomsk resident. Upon learning of my plans to visit Tomsk, she was kind enough to create two very, very thorough walking tours on Google maps of her city, making sure to include all the important sights and beauty of Tomsk! I am incredibly grateful to her for putting together these maps as without them I would’ve been stumbling around and only seen at most half of what I saw. So….THANK YOU Natasha! Оргомное спасибо!

The House with Firebirds

With my smartphone and Google maps in hand I set out to take in the sights of Tomsk. Many of the beautiful wooden buildings were churches, individual houses, and businesses. The houses were amazing in their color and shape! I’ve never witnessed such incredible beauty in houses. Even better were some of the names like: House with Firebirds, House with Dragons and House with Pavilion otherwise known as The German-Russian House. Although I had a lot of favorites, The German-Russian House was either my number one favorite or tied for first. The colors were a light blue and white pastel with light pastel blue being the predominant color.

The German-Russian House

Luckily these houses were registered on the national registry of historic buildings but I’m not sure that brings them much more than a nice name and recognition. It is my absolute hope that the government or whomever will maintain these beautiful works of arts for Russians and guests of Tomsk to see for decades to come! They are too precious to let rot away!!

At the end of the day I’d walked nearly ten miles and was exhausted. A friend of Natasha’s, Dmitry was kind enough to invite me to meet him for a round of beer at a local restaurant. However, I politely declined due to my utter fatigue from my near 10-mile walk that day and inability to even walk outside my hotel. So instead I settled for the local cafeteria restaurant on the bottom floor of The Bonaparte. I glanced over the menu and saw peperoni pizza, yes I thought……..comfort food, just what I needed.
I anxiously awaited my “peperoni pizza” and finally after a wait it came. But wait………….this wasn’t peperoni pizza this was pepper pizza…. NO, I told the girl I ordered peperoni pizza, not pepper pizza. She said this was peperoni. I remembered from past experiences in Russia and in Germany that peperoni pizza meant pizza with peppers not the peperoni sausage meat we are used to in America. I ate a few slices and decided I didn’t want to invest the calories so I went next door and had a good ole juicy steak dinner.

Many people stick to the beaten path of Moscow, St. Petersburg and anything and everything in between. But, if you have the chance to get off that path, I highly recommend Tomsk, it is a unique city even amongst its Siberian peers! The daily train, “The Tomich” runs from Moscow and takes 2.5 days. So, what are you waiting for, skip that next tropical sands vacation and head to Tomsk, Siberia! You won’t be sorry!!!!!!!!!!!


As I sat on the train in Krasnoyarsk awaiting my imminent departure to Tomsk, I started to reminisce about my time in the beautiful central Siberian city. I thought about Krasnoyark’s own Red Square with its huge red column and then started thinking about the giant Lenin statue on Revolution Square in the middle of town with his hand out pointing to God only knows where! Supposedly he is pointing forward to the future, but my Russian Language 401 professor, Zoya, claimed he was actually pointing toward prisons. 
Just as I was in the final countdown to leaving my phone rang……….who could be calling??? Only taxi drivers who are pissed off at me because I’m not in the right place are the ones who called me. I hadn’t ordered a taxi and it couldn’t be any of my friends in Moscow. I picked up the phone and it was Tolya, my guide for my day in the mountains outside the city. He wanted to come by and say goodbye in person and wish me a pleasant trip. But the problem was the train was leaving in ten minutes (and Russian trains leave right on the dot) and he was still in the city. I waited and waited, but unfortunately Tolya was too late, arriving just at the very moment the train pulled away from the station. Oh well…..yet another reason to come back to Krasnoyarsk………..that and a chance to get to know the front desk girl at my hotel, Galina better!! Galina if you’re reading this, you’re beautiful and I’d make the perfect match ;) !!

My next stop would be Tomsk, probably the most famous of all Russian college towns due to its numerous universities and beautiful wooden architecture. Unlike most of my destinations, which were direct routes, Tomsk was about 100 miles off the mainline making it necessary for me to make a three-hour stopover in the small town of Taiga. Eventually I’d pick up the “Tomich” train from Moscow. Because it was a short overnight train I did not get much sleep having to get up at around 5 am. The train would only stop there for two minutes meaning I had little time to spare and needed to be right there at the carriage exit with all my stuff ready to jump off the moment the train came to a stop. Otherwise I’d be going onto Russia’s third largest city, Novosibirsk about three hours down the line, which would really blow up my plans.

Taiga served as an important stop for Western Siberian trains as it served not only Tomsk, but also other cities throughout the region. I entered the station and like all stations the interior was gorgeous with beautiful chandeliers and incredible decorations. I was rather surprised at how crowded the waiting hall was. It seemed a lot of people were waiting for trains to Tomsk and beyond. I found a nice place right in front of a sleeping soldier and put down my stuff and made myself at home. About an hour went by and most people cleared out. So, I put my feet up on the seats and curled up to try and get some sort of sleep. Within seconds I heard this loud mumbling next to me. I thought it was just another waiting passenger talking to another. But when I opened my eyes it was the security guard mumbling at me sternly to get my feet off the seats!! Never mind that everyone else in the station was doing this, but I was low hanging fruit and easy picking since I was an иностранец (inostranits) or foreigner.

At that point I figured there was no use sticking around the station and decided to go to luggage storage to store my stuff. Unlike in other stations where they have big lockers and you just buy a pass from a kiosk, this was a bit more complicated. I had to hand over my passport, my onward ticket and have the woman record all my info, which then subsequently led us to a small coat closet near the entry where I would store my luggage. She gave me a token to retrieve my things and now that I was free from my stuff I was ready to get out and explore Taiga. To “explore” is a generous word for Taiga, more like exit the station, go a few blocks, look at Soviet era block apartments, see some socialist realism artwork on the sides of the buildings, take a few pictures of the beautiful station from the outside, look at the giant stationary locomotive that stands outside every Russian station and go back in and try to find something to eat before finally retrieving my stuff.
The Taiga security guard

After three long hours the train finally came! I hardly remember much about the two-hour ride up due to my extreme fatigue. The only real recollection I have was a brief conversation with one of the server girls, who will play a crucial role in future blog entries, about what I would have for breakfast.

Finally I arrived in Tomsk and my long night and morning was over! But, once again there was drama with the taxi I ordered! I ordered the taxi and instructed them to pick me up at the main entrance. A few seconds later I got a phone call from an angry taxi driver wanting to know where I was. I really didn’t understand what was so hard about finding me at the main entrance…….after all I was standing right at the entrance below the sign that said ТОМСК (TOMSK). Luckily after a lot of drama my Maxim driver and me were at long last united!!


Being from the Pacific Northwest I’m rather spoiled when it comes to nature! With two mountain ranges, an inland sea, two beautiful giant lakes, countless alpine lakes and the Pacific Ocean all within two hours who wouldn’t be? And that does not even include the nature just north of us in Canada. So you can understand why when I booked a tour to the mountains outside of Krasnoyarsk my expectations were pretty high. But they were soon to be exceeded.

My day would encompass a half-day trip out to the Russian national park, Stolby. Unlike a lot of cities I’ve been to where you have to devote a half-day just to getting there and back, this beautiful park was only 30 minutes from town! And what a difference that half an hour made!! It was amazing how clean and crisp the air was and how you felt as though you had entered a whole another world, a world where suddenly all the stresses of the city just were lifted from you and you felt like you were walking on air!

As we were driving out of town I noticed a huge shuttered, burnt out factory. This was nothing new, as it seemed the entire Russian/Siberian landscape was littered with old burnt out factories just like this one. My guide, Tolya, told me this particular factory used to be one of the largest suppliers of penicillin during World War II, but shut down around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. This subsequently led to a loss of many jobs. But on the upside the air around Krasnoyarsk has become more breathable. A friend of mine in Moscow told me this was the case around most of Russia where other factories had shuttered and led to a drastic improvement of air quality.

Tolya, my guide
Tolya was a young dude who I would describe as a deep thinker and was only weeks away from finishing his college studies. As we were going up on the ski lift he told me about how the usual life routine of car, house or apartment, marriage and kids bored him and desired something different like extensive world travel. Since I have adopted that path as my own, I basically told him he was talking to the right person!

As our ski lift ascended higher the scenery kept getting more spectacular with lush green trees dominating the scenery. It was amazing how we were just 30 minutes removed from the big city and it was as if you had entered an entirely different world. When we arrived at the summit the temperature difference was pretty noticeable. Up at this elevation the snow had not completely melted. It was that springtime thaw out mix of dirty snow and mud. This was no big deal as I’d walked on this type of terrain many times before and never really had much trouble except for a few slips here and there.

Krasnoyarsk from above

But just as I was feeling pretty good, getting a bit cocky I suddenly felt my feet slipping and then before I knew it my ass met the hard snow/mud packed ground!! Tolya looked pretty shocked and was rightfully pretty concerned! He really didn’t know what to do! Luckily he didn’t need to anything except give me a hand to get up and help me wipe off my clothes, which were absolutely saturated in mud. He was pretty amazed that within a minute of falling hard on my ass I was able to get up off the ground, wipe myself off as if somehow meant to do that! It reminded me of the scene from the great 1980s cult film, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, where he tries all these crazy bike tricks only to fly off his bike in front of all the cool kids brushing himself off and saying very smugly “I meant to do that”. To say the least my sudden fall and ability to get right back up and keep hiking really elevated me in his book!

I was feeling pretty good that I had dodged a bullet in terms of falling until I saw the point we were aiming to reach. He pointed out to me these large boulders that sat there hovering above the horizon like giant mountains!! It appeared like it was at least a million kilometers away. But to use an oversimplified term, slowly but surely, step by step, inch-by-inch we made it! And, was it ever worth every single scurry, every last step forward, and every last breath!!!! The view was incredible, you could see the city way, way below as if it was a tiny ant farm and just below us was a valley of endless beautiful trees and boulders.

Just as I had arrived at what I thought was our destination I took a deep sigh of relief as if I had just accomplished an awesome feat! Just as I was about to take another deep breath of fresh Stolby air, Tolya pointed out we had some more hiking to do. We were at a bit of a crossroads! I was like, “wait, what, haven’t we reached our goal”?? Nope! We would need to get around to the other side of the boulders to get an even more incredible view! This would encompass scurrying down some slippery boulders. Seeing the blue sky quickly turn to dark gray and black clouds, having survived one slip and carefully examining the terrain, I figured I best not tempt fate and told Tolya I thought it'd be better to head back.

Before we turned back we stood there looking in awe over the beautiful tree lined valley. Tolya told me all sorts of stories about the myths and legends of Stolby and how these giant boulders that surrounded us in all directions got here. All the stories were fascinating and followed the general pattern of other folktales around the world that try to explain their general surroundings. Eventually after standing there in awe it was time to head back to the ski lift and back down the mountain. As we headed back the weather started to really turn and temps started to drop making me feel even better about our decision not to proceed further.

As we were hiking back Tolya was pleasantly surprised to learn that his hiking partner/client was an English as a Second Language teacher. He thus asked if he could practice his English with me. He had studied English in school and some in university but was still shy about speaking. He gave it a good try and did a great job. I tried my best to listen carefully and not use too many American slang words. Being a foreign language speaker myself I know the pain and suffering when you can’t understand someone or they don’t understand what you’re saying. I am my own worst enemy when it comes to criticizing my own language skills. If someone is speaking to me in Russian and I have to ask them to repeat and then they switch to English, it feels as if the phrase “GAME OVER” in big letters may as well be written across me!! I realize it’s just the give and take of foreign language, but I prefer perfection!

As we were descending down to the car park, I got the sense Tolya saw me as a big brother of sorts, a person he could turn to for advice and questions about life. Half way down he asked me the deep philosophical question, “what do you think Steve, is the world generally full of good people or bad people”? I said that was a good question, but that I didn’t really know. I hoped there were more good people than bad, but said my opinion depended upon the day and how I was feeling.

After thinking over my answer, he launched into another question. This time he was wondering whether he should stay with his girlfriend of several years or breakup with her and travel the world. I told him that’s a tough question and that maybe he should wait and see whether his girlfriend either gets a job that allows her the time to travel with him or simply quits her job to travel with him. I told him I even struggle with that question. Often I debate whether I want to settle down a bit and actively pursue a relationship or continue my crazy world travels. I guess only time will tell! 
Pointing to where I hiked in Stolby National Park

Catching Up is Hard To Do

When I was in school and went away on a long trip or was sick for a long period of time I always had a lot of homework and exams to catch up on. It used to feel overwhelming as if I’d never complete everything. Since it’s now been over a week since I’ve written an article in this blog, I’m having déjà vu all over again! It’s as if I’m back in 9th grade and I just returned from a two-week cruise in The Caribbean and I am trying desperately to complete all those missed assignments in English, math and all other subjects. But I know that just like in 9th grade I will eventually get up to speed….it’ll just take some time! So….here goes my attempt to update you on what I’ve been doing out here in Russia!

I last left readers in Ulan Ude where I finished an incredible trip to The Ivoglinsky Monastery and was blessed by a monk who depending on who you believe is either dead or in a deep state of meditation. Late that evening I boarded the train for another long ride to my next destination, the city of Krasnoyarsk in Central Siberia. I’d passed through Krasnoyarsk last year but only long enough to see the letters “oyarsk” written as we were pulling away from the train station.

I’d heard a lot about Krasnoyarsk since it is a key player in the energy sector of Russia and is a hub of activity for Central Siberia. The scenery along the way was nice, nothing too out of the ordinary for Russia, lots of birch trees with tiny villages and lots of abandoned factories scattered throughout the vast, vast territory. Although I’d bought out the cabin out and thus did not have a neighbor there still were times when I went kinda insane due to the long stretches of time without a stop. When we did stop it was like an oasis in a large desert and gave me time to stretch, breathe some fresh air, and buy some deep friend piroshky and Coke (sounds like a winning dinner doesn’t it!).

Because of the change in time zones and the fact all trains run on Moscow time, you are in a sort of gray zone where you really never know what time it is, where you are and what day it is. So when I arrived in Krasnoyarsk it came as a feeling of surprise. Usually, I’d use my favorite car hire service “Maxim”, but this time, I was able to order a taxi through the hotel and have the driver waiting for me on the platform.  This came as a relief since often when I’d hire cars I would have extreme difficulties finding the driver and where he was parked, inevitably leading to the driver calling me and angrily asking me in fast Russian just where I was.

The hotel I was staying at was nice, but just was too far from the centre and felt too small. So, in an attempt to find somewhere better I scoured for a good place. After a lot of looking, I came up with a hotel called Business Hotel Kupechisky, which had large suites for a great price. So in the morning, I packed up and dragged my stuff out the door and to the Kupechisky. When I walked in the door I noticed two things, the things Russia is famous for……a large giant stuffed bear (not a stuffed animal though) holding a box and a beautiful blonde Russian girl sitting behind the desk! What would Russian be without beautiful women and bears???? Like many in the service industry, the beautiful blonde greeted me in English. I responded in Russian much to her surprise. It’s always fun to play the game of native Russian speaker speaks English and me the language learner responds in Russian!

After unpacking and getting things in order I headed up above the city to a tiny orthodox chapel that sits above the city called “Paraskeva Pyatnitsa Chapel”. Just as I was about ready to walk out the door I heard a huge boom, explosion-like sound. I thought, was Krasnoyarsk under attack, had another meteor hit Russia, had the Americans decided to bomb Russia, what was going on? Eventually, when I got to the top of the hill and to the chapel I noticed a small cannon sitting next to it. I later learned that this cannon was what set off this sound! Every day at noon they blast this cannon, which echoes, throughout the city. I was relieved to know there was no war, no serious explosion just a time old city tradition!
The canon fired every day!

The 90 Year Old Monk

I like to think that things happen for a reason in life. Maybe there’s a plan? Possibly. Or it could be that life is all about coincidences. Whatever the answer, I felt like there was a reason I wound up back in Ulan-Ude.

The day started with a wonderful buffet breakfast, the fuel that drives me through lunch and beyond. Shortly thereafter I met my tour guide in the hotel lobby,
a nice lady with a distinctly Mongolian/Burytian look to her. We would drive 30 minutes to reach our destination, The Ivoglinsky Monastery, a monastery that is a rare exception. It was quite rare in that it opened in the 1940s at the height of Stalin’s reign of terror. Most monasteries at this time had either been closed and/or destroyed!

The scenery on the way was nothing out of the ordinary, primarily rolling hills interspersed with lots of flat, colorless gray barren land. However, I really can’t provide any real detailed explanation since my eyes were constantly focused on my guide who did not stop talking for 30 minutes! I’ve noticed this is pretty par for the course for Russian guides, speak endlessly until the tourist absolutely want to scream, “ENOUGH, can I just have one minute to think, to breathe, etc.”! But I was much too polite to even think of doing that and knew she was just trying to do her job, so I tried to listen as carefully as I could in Russian without totally shutting down.

Just at the point where my mind was about to go totally numb we arrived at the monastery. The buildings on the grounds were so incredible, colorful and beautiful. Being the fiercely independent traveler I am I badly wanted to break away from my guide and be left to explore on my own. However, had this happened, I never would’ve been able to take part in the major holiday/celebration and never seen a 90 year old monk.  

But this 90 year old monk was no ordinary old monk! In 1927 he told his disciples that he felt it was time for him to die. Thus he instructed them to prepare for his death. For days he sat in the lotus position chanting the prayer of death and eventually died midway through his meditation. Once he died, they buried him in a specific place, but over the decades his body was moved and exhumed several different times in order to keep him safe from the Communists. Amazingly enough each time they exhumed his body they saw there had been little to no change in his body composition. Eventually he was dug up for good in 2002 and examined. It was determined to the shock of many that his body appeared to resemble a person who had only been dead for several days. And even more amazing is that he never was mummified. But his followers believe he is NOT dead, but still very much alive and in a deep state of meditation.

This holiday, which I’m not sure exactly the name or the purpose of, attracted hundreds of pilgrims coming from all parts of Russia and as far away as Mongolia. One thing I do know that was important about the holiday was the role scarves played in it. Buryatians have traditional scarves they use in ceremonies, to offer as gifts to Buddha and for traditional holy decoration. In fact, last year I partook in a ceremony where I entered a temple with a scarf. It wasn’t easy to enter into since I was a westerner and not Buddhist. But after a series of questions about basic spirituality I guess he figured I was kosher and let me in to offer my scarves as gifts to the Buddha of the temple.

At the entry to one of the temples there was a lady selling these specific scarves. My guide told me to buy one to bring into the temple. So, we entered the temple, scarves in hand, and it was amazing!!! The atmosphere was electric, the insides were innnncrrrreddible with colorful paintings and stunning decorations! One of the highlights was walking through and watching a whole line of monks sitting in the lotus position on pillows reading and chanting from 2x3 notes in traditional Tibetan. It was out of this world stunning and you could just feel the energy vibrating through your body!!!
My hadag scarf

 After looking at the artwork and decorations at the front of the temple we joined a line with all the other people with scarves. Neither did I realize everyone was in line to be blessed by someone. But who was going to bless these people and their scarves? When I got to the front of the line I looked up on a pedestal and there was this kind of odd-looking figure that looked as if he was from a Hollywood movie sitting there with a long scarf hanging down. It was none other than, the 12th Pandito Hambo Lama of the Ivolginsky Datsan, Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov. The monk standing below him would take the scarf, have it touch your scarf and then rub THE scarf on your head for a second or two. The blessing is supposed to bring the receiver good luck and grant them their wish. Supposedly people have been healed from this ceremony. Call it the placebo effect but I felt great after being blessed like all things were possible and my wishes could come true! As I left the temple I tried my best to walk backwards as is tradition in Buddhism, so not to turn your back on Buddha. As I was walking backwards(ish) I must’ve somehow turned a few degrees forward toward the exit as a woman scolded me saying I mustn’t turn my back on Buddha. So I turned around backwards again and successfully was able to reach a safe spot where I would not offend worshipers.

Since I’d already received a blessing from the 90 year old deceased or “in a deep state of meditation” monk, I decided I’d try my luck at the “good luck stone” (not sure what the name of it is, so I’ll just call it this) also on the monastery grounds. The stone sits on a pedestal underneath a little wooden shelter and if you touch it you will receive good luck. If you think this sounds easy………think again. In order to be the recipient of this luck you must walk a medium distance from a certain point with your eyes closed and touch the stone. There is no set amount of times you can try, but after each time you must go to the back of the line and then try again once your turn is up. So, it can be a time consuming process. Last year I spent a good half hour or so trying to blindly navigate my way to the stone. Eventually I found it, but not without lots of failed attempts. This time was different!!! It took me only……….ONCE, one time to get to the stone! I guess as the old saying goes “practice makes perfect”, so all those failed attempts last year must have prepared me well for mastering the art of finding the stone with my eyes closed.

In the end I really felt the events of that day were a huge blessing and maybe one of the key reasons why I was not supposed to be on The BAM railway. It was like it was dharma (the plan of things in life)!

When we arrived at the hotel my tour my guide and driver got out to say goodbye. My driver, Dima, a devout Buddhist, shook my hand and thanked me for coming on the tour. He told me that had it not been for me they (him and the tour guide) also never would’ve been able to take part in the blessing ceremony/holiday. His last words to me were “you have good karma”! Let’s hope!!!!
My guide and my driver, Dima