Among the Shamanists In the Hills of Buryatia

As we set out to cross the mountain pass before us, leaving below the meager sanctuary of our previous night's campsite on a windy knoll above the tree line, my pulse quickened at the sudden gusts blasting down from the wall that loomed ahead, topping out at 3,000 meters above sea level.

Man and horse alike hunched forward, bodies pressed against the chill wind. As the first drops of rain hit us, ponchos and rain gear appeared, hoods pulled up over hats and warm woolen sweaters. Looking up through the wind and rain at the steep, rocky slope, I could see the stick-thin alters erected atop it, dedicated to the gods of Shumak Pass by modern-day shamans.

We had begun our horse trek through the Sayan Mountains, located in the Republic of Buryatia about 200 kilometers west of Lake Baikal, almost a week earlier. Five of us were taking part in this event, two of whom had never ridden a horse. But although the narrow, rocky trails at first wore on our nerves, everyone quickly became relaxed in the saddle and sat back to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

Our guide, Konstantin, was a 23-year-old self-described "bureaucrat" from the republic's tourism department who spent his vacation time leading excursions in the area. His wife, Tanya, and good friend, Sasha, accompanied us and did most of the cooking. We were also joined by three Buryat horsemen, who provided us with our mounts and cared for the horses and our gear throughout the trip.

Buryatia, a republic the size of Germany sandwiched between Lake Baikal to the north and Mongolia to the south, is a quiet backwater where farmers subsist in small villages tending wheat and other crops and practicing a unique religion that combines shamanism and Buddhism. The Buryat people are Mongol descendants and they are known for their horses -- large, solid animals that remain dutifully still, even while a bunch of city slickers scramble awkwardly aboard.

Our route took us from the riverbank near the small town of Khoito-Gol, up a steep river basin and into the Sayans. Birch and pine surrounded us as we plodded up the trail, made muddy by two weeks of almost solid rain that had cleared shortly before our arrival. We passed through a section of forest damaged when fires swept through the area last spring. Four months later, the forest already was reclaiming its own, and the damage was scattered, as if the fire had been blown from patch to patch by the wind.

We cleared the fire-damaged region and stopped for lunch in a field, then proceeded upward, passing the tree line at about 5 p.m. The landscape became rocky and barren, and we crossed several fast-flowing streams. As we neared Shumak Pass, the route became much steeper, zig-zagging its way among the undulating knolls and saddles and forcing us to lead our tired mounts the final 100 meters or so.

The view from the pass was stunning, our perch nearly as high as the peaks that surrounded us. The route dropped steeply down the opposite side, where two lakes lay in stillness and the valley fell away into the distance. Scattered along the crest of the pass were three shaman alters; a horse's head forming one, the others formed by collections of sticks covered in the traditional white strips of cloth that symbolize deference to the gods.

Gifts had been left by previous travelers: carved dolls, wooden plaques and broken sunglasses. One of our crew, Domdin, gave a small monetary offering on behalf of our only Western female companion, that she might soon find a husband.

After lingering atop of the world for 45 minutes, most of us headed down on foot to the lakes below to begin scrounging twigs and dead roots among the lichen, in hopes of gathering enough fuel for a fire. Konstantin and the Buryats brought the horses down the most treacherous part separately, finally reaching the valley floor just as darkness settled over our magnificently barren, windswept campsite.

That night we were treated to a meteorite shower against a panoply of stars such as one can only see far from heavily populated areas. There were no planes, no roads, no powerlines -- none of the rumbles and hums of civilization.

The next day we followed a small stream which, just meters from where the pine and birch resumed their watch over the lowlands, spilled hundreds of meters off a cliff and into a craggy pool below.

Our trail meandered over the river's rocky shore and finally entered Shumak Hot Spring, a makeshift summer resort where some locals drink from the more than 20 medicinal springs believed to cure everything from ulcers and bad eyes to heart disease and impotence.

Our first job was locating an empty cabin -- a smokey, odoriferous, low-ceilinged structure that we later came to appreciate enormously. Next, Domdin set about appeasing the local spirits.

He started by lighting a small fire at an alter that stood before a tree on the hill behind the cabin, the high-ground belonging to the god Shumak. He tied the obligatory strip of white cloth to a branch, then began burning in a bowl on the alter the first of all the food we'd brought -- the first slice of cheese, the first slice of bread, the first slice of sausage, fruit, vegetables, kasha. Even the first shot of vodka.

He mumbled a chant as he did so and spooned liquid from the bowl, tossing it ceremoniously on the tree. Afterward, he repeated the ritual at a tree below the cabin.

According to Konstantin, Buddhism-shamanism dominated Buryatia's religious life into the 1930s and the community had almost 50 Buddhist temples, called datsans, as of 1931. Some of the datsans housed as many as 1,000 lamas, or Buddhist religious leaders, but within six years all were gone, thanks to the Soviet Union's fervent anti-religiosity. Shortly after World War II, Joseph Stalin allowed a datsan to be built outside Ulan-Ude, but it was not until perestroika in 1985 that the locals began building their temples again, a process still underway.

The only downside to the valley was the Shumak Hot Spring, which was meant to be therapeutic but seemed to be just luke-warm water bubbling up into a rickety bath house. It also was supposedly filled with "good" leaches, creatures we thankfully never saw.

We stayed in the valley for about a day and a half, enjoying a banya by candlelight, hikes around the camp, swimming in the freezing Shumak and playing cards in the hut when it rained. The food throughout the trip was good, hearty fare -- eggs or kasha for breakfast, coffee, tea, fruit and vegetables, and a variety of stews, borshch and shishkabob for lunch and dinner. Soon it was time to head back the way we came.

The weather seemed fine until we reached the lakes beneath Shumak Pass. As we set up camp, the wind gathered pace throughout the night and by morning the weather was pretty bleak. As we headed up the winding path that led to the pass, buffeted by wind and rain, I could only laugh at the elements. The nonchalance of our Buryat horsemen, coupled with the knowledge that our guides had climbed most of the neighboring peaks, had a bolstering effect.

The situation started to look more dangerous when we had to dismount and lead our beasts through a light but unexpected summer snow. A horse fell 2 or 3 meters down the steepest part of the trail, cutting his leg, rolling onto his side, teetering on the brink of the abyss, and only then catching himself and struggling upright.

Nonetheless, with just a few meters to go before reaching the top, fear seemed pointless. Also, I kept thinking of the mantra, recited throughout the trek by our guides and just about every other Siberian we ran across: Ni bydem zagadivat (We will not guess.)

Will it rain? We will not guess. Will we make the plane? We will not guess. Can you fix the bus? We will not guess. Will we lose one of our party crossing the pass? We will not guess.

Although the weather cleared as we reached the top, no one tarried long, and soon we descended back into the scattered mountains and intersecting valleys of the Sayan range.

Ahead and all around us, the clouds hung at eye-level, hovering in nooks and crannies and meandering slowly across the ranges. Rain hit us again, but most of us were prepared for it.

Finally, we galloped into a clearing at the trail head, frantically setting up our tents as the storm that had hounded our group throughout the day crawled over the range behind us and prepared to douse us once again.

The Buryats seemed indifferent to the weather, walking around, shackling their horse, then chopping firewood. Sure enough, the storm passed us, instead etching a giant rainbow in the clouds above.

Getting there

There are seven flights a day from Moscow to Irkutsk, one by Transaero and the rest by Aeroflot or the babyflot Baikal Air.

Aeroflot and Baikal Air offer economy tickets for $300 and business class trips for $350. Transaero is more expensive at 3,965,000 rubles.

Tour Operators

There are a number of tour operators working in the area who can line up trips in either Irkutsk or Buryatia. I can vouch for ours, Konstantin Anglichanov, 30122/2-21-25, at Buryatia's tourism department.

We were linked to Kostya through another guide, Andrey Suknev, 30122/5-36-32, and e-mail

The five of us paid $600 each, for a grand total of $3,000 for eight days, which included being picked up and dropped off at the airport, meals, nights at the bed and breakfast in Irkutsk and all transportation.

It could probably be done much cheaper by anyone with the time and energy to make arrangements upon touching down in Irkutsk.

We finished our tour by spending time on the stunning waters of nearby Lake Baikal.

It's worth spending at least a couple of days exploring Baikal -- or even longer if you have the time.