Hitchhiking Siberia: Four Buryat Men
The city of Chita wasn’t really on my itinerary. I had no intention of traveling far past Ulan-Ude from when I started my hitchhiking journey to Siberia. But I received an invitation to visit Chita from one of the bloggers who was reading my travel stories who offered to travel to a famous Buddhist monastery together. That sounded like a great plan, so after spending some time in Ulan-Ude, I chose a sunny day to get back to the road again. Chita lay some 700 km to the east, which was going to be a full-day journey. I left the Buryat capital 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 until there was a wide enough roadside. A Buryat family then drove me to the Kyakhta junction who kindly introduced me some some of the local Buddhist and shamanistic traditions and beliefs of the Buryat people. After they dropped me off, I had to walk along the road for half an hour; there weren’t many cars passing by, and the rare vehicles that drove past me were full of people. It was some holiday, and people were rushing to reunite with their families. Although it was a clear and sunny day, it was very cold, so 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 lowered the window.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m hitchhiking to Chita. Can you give me a ride?”
It felt good to finally be inside a warm vehicle, so I made myself comfortable and got ready for another around of all-the-same questions, asked by every driver offering me a ride. Where are you from? Why are you here? Isn’t it cold? Is it difficult to get a ride? How long have you been on the road? In exchange for my answers, they also shared stories about their lives and jobs, sometimes also giving 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 whose communities are scattered around Siberia.
“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 bring you a cup of water, but after you drink it, 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 a few 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 dacha. We picked up a hitchhiker, just like you now, 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 the offer as I had no wish to drink vodka non-stop for several days.
A little later, while driving up the mountain road, we made another stop. All of them left the car, taking one of the bottles and some food they had in a plastic bag with them. I thought the guys were probably hungry and wanted to have lunch, so I stayed in the car, waiting for them. But one of them yelled at me:
“The hell are you doing in the car?! Get over here! Why are you acting like 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. There’s still a long way ahead.”
“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 cause 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 the offerings, we drove further, only to make another stop after 10 kilometers. “Not again,” I thought to myself. “Another burkhan,” said the driver, which meant another round of offerings.
“New place – new bottle,” said one of the men, getting the second bottle of klyukovka.
We drank again. This time they toasted to my safe trip to Chita. Then to our friendship. The smile on my face was getting wider with every next shot of the klyukovka. That moment was the pure manifestation of why I loved hitchhiking. One moment you’re freezing on the road, the next moment you’re joined by four Buryat men and together you’re offering cranberry vodka and food to a local deity, guardian of the land. By now, I was already feeling the effect alcohol had on me.But we still had another stop by the burkhan to please the spirits.
Alcohol’s a great tool to bond with strangers. 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 gives a lift, come and join us without any hesitation. We’ll be happy to host you. Ok?”
“Got it! Thanks!”
“Take care then.”
I shut 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.