Hitchhiking Siberia: Four Buryat Men
After spending some time in the city of Ulan-Ude, I decided to hitchhike to another city, Chita, about 700 km to the east, where another friend was waiting for me. I left Ulan-Ude early in the morning on a minibus and reached the main road in about half an hour. There were no suitable spots to start hitchhiking so I had to walk . Got a lift in 5 minutes. A Buryat family drove me to the Kyakhta junction. While in the car, we talked about Buddhist and local pagan traditions and beliefs of the Buryat people. After they dropped me off, I had to walk along the road for half an hour because there weren’t many cars passing by, and all of them had passengers. It looked like there was some holiday today, and people were rushing to reunite with their families. Chanting The Beatles songs and hoping to catch a ride as soon as possible it was pretty cold outside, I kept walking forward, occasionally turning back to see if there were any vehicles coming my way.
Soon, realizing that it might take long, I put down my backpack and took out the thermos filled with hot tea to warm up a little. But at that very same moment, when I was about to pour some tea in the cup, a van passed by me and stopped about 10 meters away. Then they drove back and stopped right at my side. There were 4 Buryats sitting inside. One of them opened the window.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m hitchhiking to Chita. Can you give me a ride?”
That’s how I found myself inside the van, surrounded by four Buryat men. We had a lively conversation. I told them about my journey from Moscow to Ulan-Ude, they were telling me stories about their lives and jobs, sometimes also sharing information about villages we were passing through, quite often using the word “semeyskiye”. Semeyskiye is the word Buryats use for Old Believers of Russian Orthodox church.
“Do you see these wooden houses with carved windows? These are the houses of semeyskiye. They live in such closed communities. We are strangers to them. See, you go and ask them for a cup of water, right? They give it to you, but after you drink the water, they throw the cup away, because it’s defiled by a stranger.”.
In one of those villages of the Old Believers we stopped by a roadside store. Two of the Buryats left the car, but soon came back with two bottles of klyukovka, a strong alcoholic drink made of cranberries. The driver started the engine.
“Yeah, I remember, last summer we were like this, four of us, driving to our datcha. We picked up a hitchhiker like you, and he spent three days with us. We were drinking a lot that time. That poor guy had to drink with us. On the fourth day, apparently, his liver gave up, because he packed his belongings and left. He was brave though! It’s not easy to drink vodka with us three days in-a-row,” said the driver. After a little pause he continued, “So, what I wanted to say is… would you like to join us? We’ll heat up the banya for you, come rest for a few days. There’s nothing to do in Chita, anyway.”
I thanked them but refused as I had no wish to drink vodka three days in-a-row.
A bit later, while driving up the mountain road, we made another stop. All of them left the car, took one of the bottles and some food they had in a plastic bag with them. I thought the guys are probably hungry and want to have a lunch, so I stayed in the car, waiting for them. But one of them called me:
“Hey! Why are you sitting there? Come on! Come here! Why are you acting so strange as if you’re not one of us?”
I got out of the car and joined them. The youngest of them opened the bottle and while moving clockwise, dropped a little bit of klyukovka on the ground. Then filled the cups. One of the cups was for me.
“Oh, thank you. But I don’t wanna drink, sorry. Still have a long way to hitchhike.”
“What? Take the cup! This is a burkhan! It’s a holy place! You must follow our traditions.”
Without saying a single word I took the cup and emptied it. Here’s to health and to wealth.
They explained that burkhan is a deity of the land. Each place has its own burkhan. The alcohol is an offering to the deity to please him so that the deity doesn’t make any troubles. Tea can be used, too. The custom is that you have to stop at the holy place and make an offering, but when drivers are in a hurry they drop coins or rice as they pass by the burkhan. Buddhism in Buryatia is mixed with local pagan beliefs, and as a result of this mix you get the unique Buryat culture.
When we were done with offerings, we drove further. But after 10 km we stopped at the roadside again. Another holy place. Another circle of offerings.
“New place – new bottle,” said one of them, getting the second bottle of klyukovka.
We drank again. This time they toasted to my safe trip to Chita. I was filled with joy (I guess, the alcohol was doing its job). Standing at one of the many of holy places on the Buryat land, together with four Buryats whom I knew for about an hour only, I was drinking klyukovka as an offering to a local deity, and Buryats were drinking to my safety.
We parted as old friends. We shook hands warmly. They wished me the best of luck on my trip. I thanked them and wished them all the best. One of them then said:
“See, if you take this road (we were on a junction, he pointed to the right) and walk about 3 kilometers, you’ll get to a little village. Our car is easy to find there. If you get stuck and no one give a lift, come and join us without any hesitation. We’ll be happy to host you. Ok?”
“Take care then.”
I closed the door and they left. I still had a distance of 500 km to hitchhike to get to Chita. There was no one around me. No humans, no animals, no cars. I walked forward along the road. The sun was bright. The air was cold… and I was drunk.