Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Russia | Kalmykia | Elista

Back in 2002 I attended the Kalachakra Initiation given by the Dalai Lama in the Austrian City of Graz, hitherto known mainly as the birthplace of numerous distinguished personages, including Archduke Franz Ferdinand II, whose assassination in 1914 touched off World War 1; Baron Ungern-Sternberg, the psychopathic warlord who in 1921 had briefly reigned in Ulaan Baatar as the uncrowned King of Mongolia; Heinrich “Seven Years in Tibet” Harrer; and Arnold “The Terminator” Swartzenegger. Over 10,000 Buddhists of various degrees of persuasion had descended on the this small Catholic-dominated town in the south of Austria to take the initiation, including a contingent of a hundred or so people from the Republic of Kalmykia, part of the Russian Federation. These Kalmyks were descendents of Western, or Oirat, Mongols, who in the early seventeenth century had migrated from what is now western Mongolia and the Chinese province of Xinjiang to the Caspian Steppe straddling the Volga River north of the Caspian Sea where they become the only Mongols to nomadize in the continent of Europe. They had brought Tibetan Buddhism with them from their homeland and after being stomped out during the Stalin-era repressions in Russia the religion was now enjoying a resurgence.

The Kalmyks in Graz were certainly enthusiastic, and they quickly drew attention to themselves for their total disregard for queuing, assigned seating, and other attempts to impose order by the autocratically minded organizers of the initiation. I was able to strike up conservation with several of these Kalmyks in my rudimentary Russian and went out to eat with them a few times. On the last day of the initiation three of them, one a woman in her fifties, approached me and asked a favor. It seems that they had overspent their allowances and not did not have enough money for the bus fares back to Kalmykia. Would it be possibly to lend them a few hundred Euros? Since they were clearly in distress, and in keeping with the theme of compassion being stressed in the Kalachakra teachings, I loaned them the money they needed. “When I come to Kalmykia you can pay me back,” I told them. “No problem,” they said, “we will be waiting for you.” At the time I had absolutely no plans to travel to Kalmykia but then again one never knows.

For six years I can’t say I gave the Kalmyks or the money I had loaned to them another thought. Then in the Fall of 2008 and Winter of 2009 the world-wide financial crisis struck and I myself, even in far-off Mongolia, began to feel the consequences. In addition to the world-wide systemic problems in the economy, the Mongolian tögrög took a stomach-churning fall against the dollar, wiping out any income and then some from tögrög-based accounts in Mongolia. In these troubled times my thoughts naturally turned to the money I had loaned to the Kalmyks back in 2002. Unfortunately, I did not remember the names of the people I lent the money to, nor had I found out where in Kalmykia they lived. Added to that it was quite hard for Americans to get Russian visas in Ulaan Baatar, and travel to Kalmykia, while apparently possible, was described in all available sources as problematic.

At this juncture I got a call from Ulaan Baatar-based translator, author (Fourteen Dalai Lamas: A Sacred Legacy of Reincarnation, among Many Other Titles), Dharma practitioner, tour guide, and Irrepressible Gadabout Glenn Mullin. It seemed that the Telo Tulku Rinpoche, the current incarnation of the Diluv Khutagt, one of the most prominent lamas in pre-revolutionary Mongolia, was in town and he had invited Glenn to a luncheon he was hosting. Glenn was allowed to bring one guest and wondered whether I would like to accompany him.

At the time I was living in semi-occultation in Zaisan Tolgoi, a out-lying district of Ulaan Baatar right beneath the shadow of Bogd Khan Uul, the enormous massif which overlooks the city on the south. I had no idea the Telo Tulku Rinpoche was in town, nor that he was accompanying a delegation of Kalmykian officials meeting with the President of Mongolia. I had long been aware of his previous incarnation, the Diluv Khutagt, however. The Diluv Khutagt had left Mongolia in the early 1930s to escape the repression of Buddhism and the arrest of monks which at that time was just starting to pick up steam. After various peregrinations, including a stint in Lhasa as an advisor to the 13th Dalai Lama, he migrated to America, eventually finding a home among the community of Kalmyk immigrants who after World War II had settled in New Jersey. Here he had penned two books, his Political Memoirs, and his Autobiography. These had been translated into English by Mongolist Owen Lattimore and published together in one volume in 1982. In the mid-1980s I had stumbled upon a copy of this book in the Library of Congress in Washington, and after unsuccessful attempts to buy the book returned to the library and made a zerox copy. This copy I carried with me for the next two decades and indeed I still have it. Intrigued by the life of Diluv Khutagt, in 1998 I had traveled to Gov-Altai Aimag in western Mongolia to visit the ruins of his former monastery, Narobanchin Khiid, which had been destroyed by the communists. I cannot say, however, that I was then aware that his current incarnation had been recognized, and that he was dividing his time between the United State, India, and Kalymkia.

Then in the summer of 2008 I made a pilgrimage to Otgon Tenger, one of the four sacred mountains in Mongolia which by law the President of Mongolia must visit and make an offering to at least once every four years years. I hired horses and in six days did a complete circumnavigation, or khora, in Tibetan, of the perennially snow-capped 12,811-foot peak. We visited the main ovoo of the mountain where the Diluv Khutagt had himself come to perform ceremonies in honor of Otgon Tenger, according to his autobiography, and camped that night nearby. The next morning we rode on in what was at first drizzling rain and what soon turned into a downpour. By noon it was still pouring and there was absolutely no chance of getting a fire going from dried dung—there was no firewood in the area—so we stopped at a ger inhabited a man his wife in their seventies and asked if we could make soup and tea on their stove. They readily agreed and we quickly took shelter from the rain and began preparing lunch. For an half hour or so the old couple had almost nothing to say. Then I asked if they knew about the Diluv Khutagt, who had been born in what is now Zavkhan Aimag, in which Otgon Tenger is also located. Yes, they knew about the Diluv Khutagt, even about how he had migrated to the United States. Then they mentioned that in 1991 the current incarnation of the Diluv Khutagt, the Telo Tulku Rinpoche, had made a pilgrimage to Otgon Tenger and that they had met him. Looking back, I think this is the first time I heard about Telo Tulku Rinpoche.

Now Glenn Mullin and I were going to met him in the Indian Restaurant in the Imperial Puma Hotel just off Sukhbaatar Square. The luncheon was scheduled for 1:00 but the Rinpoche was delayed first by with some lamas at Gandan Monastery then by some government panjandrums. He finally arrived at three o’clock with his sizable entourage and we all retired to one of the restaurant’s private dining rooms. The entire Indian staff of the restaurant appeared briefly to get a glimpse of the famous incarnation who had once lived and studied in India.

Speaking impressive Hindi, he quickly ordered a bevy of Indian dishes and then settled back in his chair. The first thing that struck me about the Rinpoche was his very informal manner and his pure American accent. He had been born in Philadelphia of Kalmyk immigrants and at the age of seven had gone to India to study and had eventually began a monk. While in India he was recognized by the Dalai Lama as the current incarnation of the Diluv Khutagt. He eventually gave up his vows as a monk and got married, but nevertheless he was finally recognized as the head of the Buddhist Faith in Kalymkia. He was currently in Mongolia to discuss the restoration of Narobanchin Khiid and meet with the organizers of a committee which has been set up in Mongolia to represent his interests here.

I had made another copy of Diluv Khutugt’s book from my Library of Congress copy and now presented it to the Rinpoche. He admitted that while he had glanced through the book in libraries he had never read the whole thing. I pointed out the chapter in the Diluv’s autobiography about the Notorious Ja Lama Dambijantsan, who had been born in Kalmykia and about whom I was currently doing research. Somewhat surprisingly, the Rinpoche had heard of him; in fact; he is a Dörböt, the same Kalmyk tribe to which Damijantsan belonged.

To my right was sitting a man who now introduced himself as Khongor Elbikov. His business card revealed that he was the Vice-Chairman of the Parliament of the Republic of Kalmykia. I was a bit embarrassed that I had up until now ignored this rather important personage. “I heard you mention Dambijantsan,” he said. “How do you know about him?”

I replied that I had been doing research about Dambijantsan on-and-off for several years. Were people—besides himself obviously—in Kalmykia still aware of Dambijantsan? I wondered. He said that he believed someone at one of the research institutes in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, had done some research about Dambijantsan. I should come to Kalmykia and do some research myself, he said. I replied that I would love to, but that it was bit difficult to get a Russian visa in Ulaan Baatar. I had already been turned down three times before. “I will give you an official invitation from the Kalmykian Khural [Parliament],” he said. I don’t see how they can refuse to give you an invitation when you have an official invitation.” The Telo Tulku Rinpoche, who had apparently overheard this conversation, chimed in, “Yes, you must come visit Kalmykia We will sent you an invitation. Don’t worry about it.” Well, I thought, here is my chance to visit Kalmykia and get my money back. And as a bonus, I can delve further into the life of Dambijantsan.

In due course I received the invitation signed by an official in the Kalmykian Parliament. At the Russian Embassy the attaché studied it long and hard. It was clear he did not want to give me a visa but to refuse to honor an official invitation might have repercussions for himself. With obvious disgust, he finallty threw my application and passport into a bin on his desk and barked, “Come back in five days for your visa. Pay $170 now.” Pressing my luck, I asked, “Can I go to St. Petersburg also on this visa?” “No!” he snapped. “Your invitation specifies travel to Moscow-Volgograd-Elista on official business. You must stick to your itinerary. If you want to go to St. Petersburg you must apply for a tourist visa.”

The Aeroflot flight from Ulaan Baatar to Moscow leaves at 7:35 a.m. I hadn’t flown on Aeroflot in years, and was a bit taken by the spiffy new Airbus A320-200 they use on this flight. I flew Aeroflot back in the glory years of the late 1980s when Russian businessmen put down their tray tables the moment they sat down and got out liter bottles of vodka. A flight attendant would come through and tell everyone to put up their tray tables for take-off but of course no one paid the slightest attention to her. Now Aeroflot was just like any other airline. They did not even serve alcohol on the flight. The plane was not more than one-fourth full. I could remember when there was a waiting list of a month for the Mongolia Airlines flight to Moscow. Apparently the economic meltdown was affecting air travel.

Six and hour half hours later we were in Moscow. I was in the front of the plane and was one of the first to reach passport control. Only two windows were open and there was no one in line. A woman gave my visa a cursory glance and stamped it. Wandering out into the airport lobby I was surprised to find the place almost deserted. There was literally no more than a dozen travelers wandering around the shabby run-down premises. This was the airport of the capital of a country which once was and now again aspires to be a world power. The contrast between this and Beijing’s huge and spectacular new world-class airport is nothing less than staggering. And even Ulaan Baatar’s airport was a beehive of activity compared to this deserted place. I had read on the internet that the world financial crisis had curtailed air travel; now I was seeing the effects first-hand.

I had to transfer from the International Terminal to Domestic Terminal #2. For the four mile or so trip cab drivers wanted $60. Luckily I had lots of time, so I took the bus. The domestic terminal was small, maybe the size of the airport in a small city in the American mid-west, and even more shabbier than the international airport. The restaurants did not look appetizing. I did check out the book kiosks. There were big stacks of a book entitled Kak Perezhit Krisis (How to Survive the Crisis) with a big pile of 100 dollar bills going up in flames on the cover.

There are direct flights to Elista from Moscow three days a week, but they are on some small regional airline which does not sell tickets outside of Russia. Not wishing to waste time, in Ulaan Baatar I had bought a ticket on the one hour and forty minute Aeroflot flight to Volgograd, one hundred and eighty miles north of Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. Telo Tulku Rinpoche had said he would send a car up from Elista to Volgograd to pick me up. In addtion, the road from Volgograd to Elista goes right through the old Malo-Dörböt district where Damibjantsan was allegedly born, so I would get a chance to see this region at first-hand.

I was met at the airport by a young Kalmyk man holding a printed sign with my name on it. In all my travels in this world I have walked out into the reception hall of airports hundreds of times and seen people holding signs with the names of expected arrivals but this is the first time I ever saw anyone holding up my name. “My God,” I thought, “I have finally arrived!” I was a real traveler, with someone actually waiting for me, and not just some nameless badarchin wandering alone down the endless corridors of time and space.

This guy lead me outside to a spanking-new Toyota Corolla driven by a big hulking Kalmykian who looked like a Mongolian wrestler. Neither spoke English, and I was forced to resort to my rusty Russian. Neither seemed to understand a word of my forays into Mongolian. They did not even recognize my Mongolian for “What’s your name,” although the driver did finally recognize ner, the word for name. The Kalmykian version of the of the Mongolian language, I would quickly discover, is quite different from the Khalkh dialect spoken in Mongolia. Anyhow, speaking Russian I soon determined that the guy who had met me was named Genan and the driver’s name was Savr. Although I directed my Russian to Genan, it turned out it was the Savr who understood me best, and he often repeated what I had said for the benefit of Genan. I finally discovered that Genan was student of Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language at the State University of Kalmykia. The Telo Rinpoche had asked him to come along with the driver to met me.

Volgograd is of course the former Stalingrad, where on the vast plains surrounding the city the Soviet Red Army had cornered the Germany army during World War II and dealt it a defeat from which Nazi Gerrmany never recovered. The name of the city has been changed but no one has been allowed to forgot what happened here. Billboards in the old—and now newly popular—Socialist Realism style proclaim the upcoming celebration of the anniversary of the Soviet victory. One large billboard announces: ”Volgograd: City of Heroes.” Apparently we missed the city center but the environs extend for miles. It took a good hour to drive through the suburbs and small villages surrounding the city. At the outskirts we stop for gas and bottled water. As we leave the gas station we pass by a dozen or so blonde-haired and heavily made-up mini-skirted tarts lined up along side the road, clearly soliciting business. “Russian girls,” mutters the driver in disgust, one of his few forays into English.

Beyond the villages lay vast cultivated fields, the horizon disappearing beyond the curvature of the earth. The road is straight, flat, and in reasonably good condition, and the lead-footed driver soon has the Corolla barreling along at ninety miles an hour. Almost imperceptibly the cultivated fields start grading into mixed farm lands and pasture until finally the countryside turns to unbroken steppe. Perhaps not by accident, the border of Kalmykia is near where the steppe take over completely. Somewhere on these monotonously flat steppes, broken only the on occasional pond or small like ringed with tall reeds, Dambijantsan was supposedly born. Apparently there are no speed limits in Kalmykia since going over ninety miles an hour we blew past several police cars without consequence.

We arrive in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, about three hours after leaving Volgograd. The city is located in a depression in the otherwise level steppe. Its population is said to be just over 100,000. My first impression is of surprisingly clean, tidy, tree lined streets backed by modest two and three story apartment houses. Telo Tulku Rinpoche’s monastery has a guest apartment but at the moment it is unavailable, so I am taken to small three-story hotel on quiet side street lined with trees and lilac bushes in full bloom. Here a young maroon-robed monk meets us as we step into the lobby. He greets me warmly and I think I must have met him before, but I cannot remember where. When meeting people I am often overcome by the strong sensation that I already know them, even when this is clearly impossible. In this case there is an explanation; he was with Telo Tulku Rinpoche at the luncheon in Ulaan Baatar. I had not spoken to him but I must have noticed him. His name is Andzha.

The hotel, called the White Lotus (the symbol of Kalmykia), is decidedly up-scale, newly refurbished with sleek Scandinavian furniture, all blonde wood and chrome, very clean, and possessing awesome water pressure, although I must admit the same quality hotel in China would cost a half or one-third of this one and would almost invariably have internet connections and certainly a hot water kettle, neither of which this place has. And the restaurant serves only breakfast. Andzha offers to take Genan and me to dinner at a café nearby named Tsagaan Sar: “White Month” in Mongolian, one of the first touches of Mongolia I have seen here. What is called manti on the menu turns out to be the beloved Mongolian buuz—steamed meat dumplings. “Kalmyk tea” turns out to be the equally beloved suutai tsai—milk tea. By the time we finished dinner it was nine o’clock local time, one in the morning UB time; since I had already been up twenty-two hours I decided to wait until the next day before launching my quest for the people who owe me the money.