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Part I: The Invitations
"Yanzhima, Sveta asked me to give you her wedding invitation," I said.
"Here is Aryuna's wedding invitation for you." (Yanzhima's niece)
"They are both for the same day," I said comparing the two invitations, "and about the same time."
"Yes, except Sveta's is a traditional Russian wedding and will last one day, and Aryuna's is a traditional Buryat wedding and will last three days."
"It will start with the party in Ulan Ude, then at midnight we drive to the Akinsky region, 1,000 kilometers, so she can register the next day at 3:00 PM, then a party, and Sunday morning we drive back to Ulan Ude for the concluding dinner."
"Well after driving to Orlik and Alkhanay, what's another 1,000 kilometers? I see they start about the same time on Friday, Aryuna's at 4:00 P.M. and Sveta's at 5:00 P.M., except I know Sveta's and Slava will register at 3:00 P.M. I think earlier Slava is suppose to come to her home an attempt to purchase her from her friends and answer questions to demonstrate he understands what is important to her."
"Yes, that is traditional."
"Then, after registering, they climb into taxis and drive around getting their picture taken at several special sites."
"Yes, that is traditional. Open Air Museum, Lenin's Head, by the river, at the Datsan of Khambi Khure, and so forth."
"And then the party starts at 5:00 and continues until it ends. Will Aryuna's be the same?"
"No, she registers in Akinsky. The parties will be similar."
"How far apart are the two parties?" I said getting out a bus map of Ulan Ude and looking where she pointed. "Hmm, not so far apart. We can dash back and forth."
"Then leave for Akinsky at midnight. Nicholi (her husband), Bier (son), Ayna (daughter), you and me in the car, yes?"
"Sounds like a plan," I said. "You know Dan and Tsermaa are also renewing their vows on the same day, they are having an American wedding in Keene Valley."
"Three weddings in one day."
"We'll make two and attend the other in spirit."
"Three is a good number. Very important."
The Day Before the Weddings (two weeks later)
"What are you wearing?" said Justine, a Fulbright Hays scholar and friend of Sveta's.
"Jacket and tie," I said. "What I wear for teaching."
"I'm trying to get Rob to purchase a pair of those black patent leather pointy shoes," said Justine laughing.
He glanced at us over the top of his computer, balanced on an inflatable airline headrest pillow perched on his stomach, from where he was slumped in one of their chairs with no bottoms. He said nothing.
"Sveta said she realizes that we may not have come over expecting to attend a wedding thus it is OK for us to dress American," said Justine.
"In other words, we should do our best."
Part II: Travel Permits
"Naj, if you are planning to travel anywhere outside Ulan Ude you need a special permit," said Inessa following my first class the next day, Friday morning - the day of the weddings. "Do you have any travel plans?"
"Travel plans? I need what?"
"To have a special permit. First a letter of where you are going, where you are staying, when you will leave and return, and the purpose of the trip. This letter has to be signed by our director giving her approval. Then it is taken to the visa office for a special stamp of approval.
"I have a wedding today, one of two, that includes going to the Akinsky region."
"Aginsky is very far away. You must have a permit, but you have little time as the office closes at noon."
"You are telling me this now?"
"I tried telling you last week that you need such permits."
"I don't think that I heard or understood what you said."
"You need to have stamped approval for any time you travel."
"Even to Baikal?"
"Yes. There is a new director of the office and he is very strict."
"Probably wants to let people know he is in charge."
"The director cannot sign your letter as this trip is for personal reasons. It is not for Academy work. Her hands are tied. Those are the rules," said Inessa.
"We should try calling Yanzhima again."
"She is at the datsan with the Khambo Lama. I spoke with her son and office. They say she doesn't know where they will stay, or exactly where they are going."
"She is probably taking her niece out to see the Lama before the festivities begin this afternoon. The wedding is in the groom's home village. I don't think she knows exactly where or with what families people will be staying."
"Have you finished your wedding presents?" said Olga an hour later.
"No. I got one finished but all this running around about travel permits ate up the time, besides no one has a key to the woodworking shop except a student and he is not here."
Sveta and Sasha, and their core party of family, close friends, Maid of Honor and Best Man, poured into the city's wedding registry building located on the east side of Soviet Square in the center of Ulan Ude at exactly 3:00 P.M. Tall and elegant, Sveta was dressed in a flowing white wedding gown with a star-like lace long-sleeved top. Her long dark hair was done up with white flowers, beads, and lace, and she carried a bouquet of flowers wrapped with pink cloth. Sasha was formally dressed with a white shirt, black tie with white pin striping, and a distinguished black suit with black pin striping and a white rose in his lapel. Erzhena, the Maid of Honor in a black skirt and pink on pink blouse with a wide collar, and the Best Man, in a black suit, flanked them. Both the Best Man and Maid of Honor wore a long diagonal red sash.
They and about forty immediate friends and family members gathered in the lower level waiting for the signal to proceed upstairs for the formal signing of the wedding certificate. Following a tradition established in Soviet Russia, marriages are not conducted in church, but at a city's marriage registry office, much like going to city hall for one's wedding, or so I am told having not attended such a ceremony. In contrast to city hall, say in New York, this space is set up for this purpose and is decorated with mirrors, lace curtains, off-white walls and other assets to give it a bit of a classy appearance and honor the events taking place. Once we were given the signal we walked up a wide curving grand staircase that took us up to the second level and a large holding room that contained large mirrors. We stood there about four minutes, many taking the time to adjust their ties and makeup, and then proceeded into another room that had a large wooden desk at the far end. Behind it stood a woman, dressed in a pale green suit, who bade us enter and stand against the far wall - Sveta and Sasah in the center and everyone else on either side or behind.
Once we were all settled in place, the woman began using many words common to a traditional wedding ceremony ("do you take this woman "). She pointed out that signing these papers would be their first act as a married couple and that entering a marriage was far easier than making it work. While one knew that every thirty minutes this woman was saying the same thing to another couple, she had a way of saying it that made everyone feel that she truly cared for Sveta and Slava, that this was an important day in their lives, and that she was doing her best to help make it special. She spoke slowly, clearly and with warmth. You got the feeling you had all the time in the world. First Sveta and Slava went up and signed, followed by the Maid of Honor and Best Man; then the four of them stepped back in line. The woman officiating came forward bearing a small dish containing two rings, giving the first to Slava to put on Sveta's finger and the second to Sveta for Slava. She said that she hoped that the purity and strength of the gold would remind them of this day and help them on their journey ahead.
Sveta, Slava, the Maid of Honor, Best Man and parents filed out into the entry room for a quick round of photographs; and then they and everyone else moved into a side room dominated with a large central table that included a couple bottles of champagne, glasses, chocolates, fruit and other small tidbits. While we were in there, another wedding party was filing up the stairs to the waiting room and, from there, in to get married. Once they were in with the official, the doors were opened in time for our group to have finished the beverages, food and another round of photographs. We went back down the large staircase to gather our jackets as another wedding party entered the building. This one I noted to Justine, was good foot shorter on average than Sveta's wedding party. Justine, who is about 5'11", said, "Yes. One of the things I love about Sveta, her family and friends is that I feel normal." (They being tall for Buryats).
Once outside, we hurried across the street and past lines of various wedding cars, some peeling off on their photo tours, some disgorging a new wedding party to cross over to the registry and others, like ours, waiting to be refilled. There, on the east side of the broad Soviet Square dominated by the world's largest head of Stalin, Sasha and Sveta let loose two white doves. My camera battery registered empty. While I missed that picture I was able to cover everything but drinking champagne on the second floor. But taking any more pictures wouldn't be possible. So I turned to Roberto.
"Sasha and Sveta will pose by the Head of Lenin for their picture, then go over the Buryat History Museum to get formal wedding photos. After the photos we get back into the cars and go out to the datsan and Outdoor Museum. Why?"
"My camera battery is dead, but I have another over at Yanzhima's."
"Where does she live?"
"Few blocks away over by the bowling alley. How much time do I have?"
"Maybe twenty minutes, better hurry."
I ran up the street crossing two intersections and an underpass and scaling a concrete sloped wall that left me on the backside of Yanzhima's building's parking area. Then it was up three flights to her door, opened by her brother. Yanzhima was out of the shower and finalizing her dress for her niece Aryuna's first wedding party.
"My battery died," I said. "Fortunately I had a spare one here in my bag."
"Lucky you. I left mine in St. Petersburg," she said. "What time will you be at Aryuna's wedding?"
"6:30. I think I can make a first appearance by then. It's located at a restaurant by Ayuna's school, right?" (her daughter)
"Between Ayuna's school and the blue hardware store, along the side of the building. You'll see the sign."
"I'll have my cell phone."
"I'll have Bier's." (her son's)
"See you later," I said and ran out, slid down the embankment, dashed down to the Soviet Square and over to the museum.
Outside the museum stood our wedding cars, the first, a hired silver sedan, featuring several gold rings - think of half the Olympic Rings - held to the top of the car by ribbons stretching to the front and back. Two more hired silver sedans, a private car and a van made up the entourage.
Once the photos were finished, taken in a studio so small the photographer had to stand in the hallway shooting into the room, their friends piled into the cars following the lead vehicle out to the Datsan at Khambi Khure. There we processed around the outer perimeter spinning the various prayer drums and, reaching the mid point, went in the main temple where, following the bride and groom, we processed through the building left to right bowing and leaving offerings as appropriate, and finally backing out as a means of showing respect. At the end Justine and I bought white hadaks to use in giving our wedding presents. Back outside we finished our procession around the outer perimeter dodging mud holes in the parking lot. Had there been more time, had Sveta and Shasha been able to book an earlier time at the registry, the preferred datsan would have been Ivolginsky, the home of the Twelfth Khambo Lama and seat of Buddhism in Russia. But it was a good twenty kilometers away, Khambi Khure is a growing and very active datsan, and conveniently located en route to the Open Air Museum, our next stop.
Some parties go in and pose next to various historical structures, such as traditional Buryat houses, Cossack houses or other buildings appropriate to the couple's heritage. It was raw day and we chose to hang out by the gates, have juice, champagne and vodka, cheese and sliced meats, and otherwise take a break. Another wedding group had chosen this spot as the place to release their white doves that, after a brief flight far shorter than the Wright Brothers first attempt, circled back and joined us seeking morsels to eat. We took this as a good omen for their marriage. After consuming most of what was available, posing for a group shot by the gates, and giving the doves a final handful of cracker crumbs it was back to Ulan Ude winding our way through the streets of one of the oldest neighborhoods. We passed a mix of ornate two-story wooden houses and attractive 19th century apartment buildings climbing ever higher to the crest of a hill dominated by a massive Stalin era building, the City Cultural Center, the former, and better known as, Train Factory Repair Workers Cultural Center. Featuring a circular drive and broad staircase that led down through a park to the busy streets below, the walls seemed thick enough to withstand an air strike or keep the neighbors from complaining about the noise, a dual purpose design no doubt. The only surprising element was the lack of cars out front and a lead wedding car that seemed to have gone missing.
Roberto, Justine and I ohhed and ahhed the view and structure, wondering where we were not to mention the location of the happy couple. Soon frantic arms from the door got our attention and we entered into a large entry hall near big enough to be a small ballroom packed with people. We were quickly relieved of our jackets handed rice, a nice juggling act for Roberto with his camera and camera bag to contend with.
"Nice shoes," I said noticing his footwear for the first time. "No pointy toes. Where and when did you find them?"
"He went out this morning at ten when the stores open and came right back with these," said Justine. "He wasn't gone thirty minutes."
"I didn't object to buying new shoes, but if I was going to get a pair I wanted ones I'd wear in the future. I'd been keeping my eyes open, had a hunch and there they were."
"Shhh," hissed a substantial woman giving me the bent eye. "Here they come."
Sveta and Shasha, leading the Best Man and Bride's Maid, exploded through the glass doors into the room. The room erupted into a hailstorm of rice, small un-circulated coins, and flowers. Handel's Royal Fireworks, performed the Canadian Brass, blasted over the speakers. Squeals, cheers, applause and popping champagne corks added to the din. Everyone was congratulating everyone else all at once. Only vodka seemed to be the missing element, not that we hadn't had plenty already and were about to have plenty more. People screamed at the happy to couple to kiss (they happily obliged) and again (they did) and again, each time accompanied to another trumpet blast. Camera flashes provided the stars arriving at the Academy Awards atmosphere. Into the din an announcer managed to steer Sveta and Slava towards the stairs letting loose a mini stampede as everyone rushed to get best seats (close the head table with a good view).
We went down to a large room on a lower level dominated by three long tables, covered in white with pink and white napkins, and crossed by a slightly raised head table. One outer table was reserved for Sasha's relatives and old family friends, the other outer table for Sveta's clan, and the center table for friends of the couple's with no family ties. The sidewalls were white. Large, near ceiling high windows, were covered in maroon drapery. At the head table, draped in pink, stood Sasha, on our left, and Sveta, on our right with the Best Man right of her and Maid of Honor left of Sasha. On Sasha's far left sat his parents and siblings. Sveta's large immediate clan spilled off to her far right. Behind Sveta and Sasha a large heart made of twisted red and white balloons arched over their heads affixed to a wall dominated by a floor to ceiling mural of dancers. The figures were painted in flat light colors, constructed of squares and, where intersected by diagonal lines, the background colors switched shades with seemingly little connection to the foreground forms; that Fifties 'modern' aesthetic that so defined the age and challenged contemporary party decorators. A five-foot tall maroon band ran across the back wall forming a base for the mural and, in a color sense, tying the back wall with the windows. Pink and white balloons floated above each table held down by small bags of sand. These decorations became prime targets and great sport for restive children who later zoomed about racing up and down the stairs with them, most likely to their parents' relief as they could give more of their own attention to the fun and food at hand.
Food, vodka, wine, and more food was in abundant supply - and all quite tasty.
"Sveta's sisters want to meet you," said Justine.
"You already introduced me to quite a few at the reception at the registry," I said.
"There are more," she said.
Indeed there were. Brothers too. Sveta's mother was powerfully built woman, a winner of a Russian award for giving birth to over ten children (something that Buryat women lead the nation in doing), and clearly a country woman in her dark blue and red head scarf, pale gray and gray patterned sweater, strong hands, weathered face and broad shoulders that shook deeply with the tears that poured down her face as she hugged her beautiful daughter. She and her husband, in his gray suite and white shirt, his country roots given away by his high felt boots, had produced a brood of beautiful, intelligent and towering children all carving out futures. They deserved ten medals for shepparding this flock into flower.
The party was lorded over by a professional singer, and friend of Sasha's, who served as MC. He had a list of everyone who was invited and was dashing about checking to see who had arrived so he could determine the toasting order and accommodate requests and surprises. The toasting began soon after we arrived, trumpets blaring each new toast that drove us to our feet. In this din my cell phone rang.
"Hello." I shouted. "Eh?"
"It's Ayuna," I made out. "Yanzhima wants to know when you are coming over."
"Soon as I make a toast," I said
"Who?" said Justine.
"Yanzhima's daughter. They want me to hurry over. You recall I have another wedding."
"Right, I'll signal the MC."
A few minutes later, "In twenty minutes he said."
"You tell him I have another wedding?"
"Yes. I think once you get over there it will be impossible for you to get back."
Forty minutes, much food and many toasts later, I heard my name called. I got up, unfolded a white hadak, which I held between my two hands and, in one, also held an Adirondack rustic-style (twig framed) mirror I finished the day before. I presented it to them as a way of connecting them to their friends in the Adirondacks and to the natural environment, which I knew was important to them both. The speech, translated by Justine, went over well. I did ad lib that I invited them all over to my home in the Adirondacks that was met by thunderous applause and several requests for my phone number before I eased out the door. Easing out the door was not to be simple.
I whispered to Sveta that I had to go over to the other wedding. She said she understood and was pleased that I was able to be with them from the registry through this moment. I assured her my plan was to come back, but it might be difficult as the other party had started an hour earlier. She understood. Who did not consider the idea of me leaving quickly was the MC.
"You must sing," he said.
"I can't sing," I said
"You must," said Justine.
"Tradition," said Roberto.
"An American song," said the MC as people started clapping in unison.
"You won't believe the only song I can think of right now," I said.
"Sing it," she said. "You're not leaving without a song."
I launched into "The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah."
"Oh my god," she said
"The ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah," I sang with the keyboard artist starting to add a tune.
"The ants go marching one hurrah, hurrah," she joined in. "The little one stops to look at the sun, and they all go marching down in the earth to get out of the rain. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. The ants go marching two by two."
By then the audience started joining in.
"Three stanzas is enough," I said quitting with a flourish. "Hopefully no one will know what we were singing about. Help me get a taxi?"
"You gotta learn another song."
"I was impressed you knew it."
"Hate to admit it, but its one of the few I know. Sveta will think it was really funny and a memorable moment."
"Sasha's a lucky guy."
A departing guest, overhearing my phone negotiations with a cab company that was trying to raise the rates twenty rubles because they said they couldn't find the Train Factory Repair Workers Cultural Center, offered me a lift. Turned out he was taking his car to a parking lot near my destination. Driving into the city I got another call from Yanzhima, and still another en route - an invitation to spend 1,000 rubles to attend the ballet the coming Monday, which I declined. By the time I finished with these two calls we were pulling up to the Café Achtamar, located in the same structure as a large modern hardware store - their version of Home Depot. Indeed the café took up a sizable portion of the basement and had a large upper level as well. The walls were clearly not as stout as the Cultural Center as the songs of music and laughter flooded out of the building.
Continuing the maroon, white and pink theme, with gold and white balloons on the tables and arching overhead, it was a posh and elegant space. Also jammed. On two sides were large deep booths that could seat a dozen. A small stage ran along one wall covered with a dark green cascading curtain. In front of this was an area set aside for dancing. The other half of the room was filled with long rectangle tables and a head table crossing the back. Behind them, to one side, was a well stocked bar.
Sitting at the center table was Aryuna, and Zhargal, she on the right as we faced them. The Maid of Honor was on her right, as was her mother, father and other close family members. To Zhargal's left were his Best Man, parents and close family members. Like the other wedding, both the Best Man and Maid of Honor wore large diagonal banners, in this case white instead of red. Zhargal and his Best Man looked elegant in their suits and Aryuna wore a wedding dress based on a traditional design. Especially noteworthy was her four-sided arched white headdress that came to point, featured a lace border, and included two strings of white pearls framing her face. Her dress featured a white choker, held together with a white pearl, and a lovely white on white pattern throughout.
The tables were again laden with food, vodka and other refreshments and my plate was quickly piled up as if I had been a shipwrecked mariner lost at sea for twenty days. Again there was a MC, this time a woman, who kept the toasts, singing and action going. I arrived none to soon. I was there barely fifteen minutes before I found my name called and was asked to make a toast. What I said at this point I can't remember, but how can I forget launching into "the ants go marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah." Least you think I am in a rut. I started with a brief melody of throat singing, by far the last thing anyone expected out of the mouth of an American. Fortunately for them, and any friends who have heard me rumble away, my repertoire at throat singing is limited. Long enough that the ants song may come as a bit of a relief.
This time the back-up band was an old sailor with enough tattoos up and down his arms to had kept two Singapore tattoo parlors busy for a week. Gold teeth flashing he was quick at figuring out a tune for anyone singing. He sang his own songs with great gusto from time to time, and tried to get me to sing a few Perry Como favorites but I wasn't biting. By far the best duo was Aryuna's parents, who sang their duet with such skill you could tell they had so performed many times before. By now the toasts were winding down as the partygoers, having started an hour earlier than the other, had had more time to get them in. The event was also slightly smaller in size than the other thus fewer people to recognize. Soon the DJ cut in and Nicholi was up in a flash dragging Yanzhima with him. At first they were practically the only ones on the floor dancing but he would dart from table to table snatching more up, me included, until a large crowd was going at a fever pitch.
A break between songs brought out the wedding cake to be cut at the head table. Neither here, nor at Sveta's, did the high jinks of stuffing the first slice in the other partner's mouth take place, just the cutting and serving of the cake to the guests. Naturally this moment without dancing music blasting forth inspired more toasts and singing. Up to this point the only real difference in the two weddings, aside from Aryuna's more traditional bridal gown, was that Aryuna and Zhargat were not married, while Sveta and Sasha were.
"You are not officially married yet, correct?" I said to Aryuna during a lull in the action.
"No not yet," she said. "That will take place tomorrow in Aginsky. As is traditional, the bride's family puts on this first party in their village. Tomorrow the groom's will hold a second part in their village. The official marriage ceremony will be held there."
About an hour and a half later, and two hours after we were to have left for Aginsky, someone turned all the lights on bright. The party was over. From my experience growing up in a bar, nothing can clear a space quicker than a semi dark room flooded with light. Out came plastic bags and any left over food and cake was quickly gathered up. Indeed Yanzhima and her sister soon had all the tables cleared and the bags placed in boxes and taken outside to several cars awaiting us.
Following a hubbub of hugs and shouted commands outside the restaurant, Yanzhima, Nicholi, Ayuna, Bier, Dena (Bier's wife) and I all squeezed into their station wagon, boxes of food filling the back, and took off for their apartment where we quickly changed into traveling clothes, packed our dress clothes and within twenty minutes were back in the car; two less as Dena and Ayuna stayed behind. We drove to a prearranged spot in the city and shortly four other cars joined us. I had been placed in the passenger seat with Bier to drive. At this second stop Nicolia rearranged the back putting down the seat to create a sleeping area. Shortly he and Yanzhima settled in.
As the cars started pulling out, Yanzhima thrust her face forward and said, "We go Aginsky."
Before the advent of trains, planes and internet dating, young Buryiats, who fell in love or otherwise had cause to be married, tended to live in the same or neighboring villages. Today greater distances can now occur between the two families, thus the logistics of maintaining a traditional marriage can require a fair amount of traveling at dubious hours to enable the families to carry out their responsibilities within three days. Aryuna and Zhargat's marriage had to be a bit of an extreme challenge. Their families lived on practically the opposite side of Buryatia, or so it seemed. We had 1,200 kilometers to cover, leaving at 1:30 in the morning, to attend an event that was rescheduled to begin at 4:00 P.M. (reflecting a delay of an hour) or thirteen hours later (one hour lost because of entering a new time zone); through, it turned out, a heavy snowstorm that closed a mountain pass to trucks as we drove.
Bier's first challenge, successfully negotiated against I'm sure great peer pressure, was not drinking vodka during the evening or, if so, in very modest amounts at key moments. The second was staying awake for the first leg while Nicholi and Yanzhima slept in the back. He and the other drivers did that by stopping every hour (at twenty minutes after the hour) for a ten to fifteen minute break. They would stand out in the bitter cold, smoke cigarettes, have some tea, answer nature's call if need be, and then take off. This pattern continued through the night. Because of the mounting snow and icy conditions, and length of the breaks, the amount travel for the time spent was modest. No plow, sand or salt trucks were ever seen. One just drove through passing several trucks pulled to the side that were unable to scale one hill or another. One of the breaks stretched up to thirty minutes just waiting for all five cars in the convoy to regroup. But as dawn approached the mountain pass had been cleared and the snow was behind us. Dry and open roads, albeit filled with potholes, cows and bumps, lay ahead.
With dawn came a switch in drivers and distance was covered with breaks now kept to a minimum. The vast steppes opened up and we flew by occasional small villages. At about 800 kilometers into the trip we passed the bustling city of Chita, one of the three main gateways into China and a site of a major military installation as well as a large power station that served the vast region. Around three fifteen our car and another arrived in Aginski a good half hour before the final three, the van having developed a flat tire that required a delay for its repair at one of the few roadside cafes.
Aginski is a very different community from most encountered. The first sign was the neat row of new houses being built on the outskirts soon followed by a small, but architecturally dramatic modern hotel. The Sapsan Hotel is considered by many who have stayed there as the finest hotel outside of Moscow and of quality that would do well anywhere. Most unusual is its location in a small community, about the size of Saranac Lake, NY, in a region with one of the most modest populations in a thousand kilometers in any direction; in a community that is not on a major trade route, and is not a major tourism or business destination. It was built by the Russian musician Joesph Kobzon largely in thanks for being elected to represent the region in the Russian Duma - from a community where he had no previous ties or had ever visited. Mr. Kobzon, a former Moscow performer of some repute, and Jewish as a number have been quick to point out, decided he wanted to enter politics, scoured the country for a rural community that had an election coming up with no entrenched representation on the national level, discovered Aginski, organized a lavish campaign extolling the potential benefits of his contacts if elected, and won the contest. Not one to forget the community's support, he has helped channel a fair amount of government funding their way, built the hotel, and, to silence those critics of his lack of community ties, has organized an annual concert drawing on his contacts in the music industry - an event that has become quite popular.
Driving through Aga, as it is called by many, one cannot help be impressed by the tremendous amount of public works being undertaken ranging from a new sports hall and well planned and built roads to refurbished schools and municipal buildings. The town is clean, neat and prosperous, and features many stunning public works of art, most especially at the entryways into the community, a beautifully designed bridge over the river, and one of the most attractive and well maintained datsans anywhere that features a colossal 50 foot tall stupa topped with wires of bells that tinkle in the slightest breeze. The Aginski Datsan also contains one of only three temples not destroyed during the Soviet era.
Is all this the result of Joseph Kobzon? Not at all people respond. We have 'great boss" they say, by that they mean the governor or lead administrator. He has the gift, the ability to attract a tremendous amount of government support and manage the affairs of his community, coupled with Kobzon's appreciation, resulting in a boom time for Aginski. At the same time much credit has to be given to the people who live there as the whole community reflects great pride. Empty vodka and beer bottles, broken glass and trash so common elsewhere are hard to find. People's yards are neat, houses well maintained, and many new ones are being built.
After cruising around and enjoying the sights, we eventually caught up with the final three cars, whose drivers frantically waved us to follow them to a small datsan. We were all given fifteen minutes to clean up and change into our wedding attire. About three dozen of us rushed into the house carrying our shopping and shoulder bags filled with our clothes. Men stripped to their waists while others poured water over the heads for quick shampoos. Small pots with hot water were made available for shaving. Numerous sponge baths took place and people changed as quickly and where they could with some women holding towels to provide a bit modesty for others. The lineup by the toilet, outhouse in U.S. terminology, served as a graphic monitor of our progress; those in back dressed in formal attire, those in front still in traveling attire with the increase in the former marking our progress. Shortly kitchen, outhouse and bedroom were cleared and we were ready to roll.
Those finishing first set to decorating the bridal car using long orange, blue and purple ribbons to attach two gold rings to the top on the white Toyota sedan. Not easy as a stiff wind had picked up making tying ribbons and knots no easy feat. As the last know was tied the bridal couple and their attendants rushed out and climbed into the cars. Shouts of devidavi, devidavi (hurry, hurry) filled the air and egged on the stragglers.
"Where are we going?" I said to Yanzhima.
"The groom's community," said Yanzhima. "About ten kilometers east. Then we turn right. That's all I know."
We followed the winding road out of town paralleling the river and eventually took a sharp right crossing a bridge and heading up through hills towards one of the largest factory buildings I had yet seen. It felt like a near dormant volcano as a half dozen naked light bulbs scattered across its vast surface were still on, a thin trail of smoke wafted out of one of the high stacks and, by the large icicles formed at a leaking joint, it was apparent that some steaming hot water was still coming out of at least one of the heavy municipal pipes leading out of the building. Never the less, a number of windows were broken and large black slag heaps lay heavily about. It appeared to be a once major mining facility now on its last legs.
To our right the forest opened up to a broad vista glorious in the late afternoon light and we pulled over. Photo shoot I thought. Not quite. In a small bowl, on the opposite side of the road between the mountainous building and us, a number of cars had been pulled over and a table set. It was the ritual meeting of the two families, of Zhargal's family welcoming Aryuna's clan. All of us, except the bride and groom, went out to share a toast and break bread in the freezing air. Who knows how long they had been waiting, but the temperature and wind inspired us all to keep it short while following all the expected rituals, slamming back a few full shots followed by eating pickles being one of them.
After piling back in our cars, and following our hosts, we drove straight toward the ever-looming giant taking a sharp left and running half the length of its face before taking another right up and around it following a winding road through the forest. Cresting the hill we paralleled a long slag mound on our left and entered a community that seemed to be having all its streets torn up at once. It was a mining town that had apparently been hit hard by the closing or near closing of the mine. In vivid contrast to Aga, streets and public buildings, as well as many homes, were in tough shape. We wound our way through fields and along temporary roads, switching back and forth through several neighborhoods only to be turned back by another ditch or pile of debris. Finally we reached the village center and turned into a schoolyard. The wedding party, including the immediate families of both sides, left us to go into the classroom section while the rest of us were led into a side door and into the gymnasium.
We entered in leaving our cloaks to the right. Three long tables had been built for the occasion running two-thirds the length of a basketball court with a head table running across the top at the far end. The two outer tables were filled with a sizeable percent of the population who all sprang to their feet and applauded wildly as we entered and continued doing so until we took our seats at the far end of the center table. Following us were many young people, friends of the bride and groom, who filled out the balance of our table. Our seats were long benches made from rough-cut pine boards wrapped in newspapers and nailed to logs used as uprights. Plates of beet and meat salads, roasted chicken, bread, sliced apples and oranges, sliced sausages and cheeses, and other traditional fare along with bottles of juice, vodka, beer and mineral water covered the table. As soon as we sat, the tops of vodka bottles were broken, welcoming toasts made and people dug in. Meanwhile the head table was and remained empty.
"Where are the bride and groom and their families?" I said to Yanzhima.
"Getting acquainted," said Yanzhima. "Very traditional. They are going through a process of introductions, welcome and sharing gifts."
About an hour later those of us in the basketball court-ball room were having a grand time. A sizeable amount of vodka had been consumed, a number started singing and soon the mic was being eagerly sought. One of Yanzhima's brothers, one of two sitting across from us, got up and sang a real rouser that did the Ulan Ude guests proud and was greatly appreciated by all. His powerful rendition inspired a Russian woman on the west side to get up an belt out a song that would have drowned out Ethel Merman or Kate Smith in their prime. Indeed so powerful was her blast and high the notes that several balloons along the walls popped. Whether this note was a call to arms or fear what might follow, the wedding party arrived as her last notes reverberated around the room putting a stop to our songfest and bringing us back to the real purpose of the feast at hand.
It was a blast from the sound system that grabbed our attention and heralded the soon to be in-laws lined up at the door. They flowed in walking up the east side, shaking hands with a few friends along the way and swung round behind the head table and, in so doing, filled all but one seat. After they were settled in came the Best Man and maid of Honor followed by the bride and groom, again bringing us to our feet. They too walked up the east side and stood ten feet from a small table, bridal couple in the center flanked by their attendants. Behind the table stood a woman, standing tall and straight. After the hubbub died down, she took Aryuna and Zhargat through the same words and ceremony used in Ulan Ude for Sveta and Sasha, although adding her own personal touches. One was to have the now bride and groom, after they affixed their names to the registry book, have their first dance half way through the ceremony. That done and the corresponding applause ended she went through the second part of having them place rings on their fingers and have their first kiss, again greeted with much enthusiasm.
My concerns as to where they would sit were soon answered. A place had been set-aside for Aryuna and Zhargat in the exact center of the room at our table in amongst all their contemporaries. Meanwhile I was interested to note that the woman who had conducted the wedding ceremony sat at the empty seat reserved at the head table.
"Yanzhima," I said.
"Very traditional," she said before I could put voice to a question. "A traditional marriage is more than a marriage of two people. It is a joining of two families. Therefore the two families sit together at the head table, attend a special meeting that was taking place while we have been in here, and the groom's family welcomes the bride's family at the border to their community. It is also traditional to put the young people in the middle of the room, instead at one end, centered amongst their friends with their families and larger community surrounding them."
"Why weren't you at the meeting of the two families?"
"Our older brother represented us. It is his duty."
From there, the MC kept the toasts and singing of songs moving. Quite different than Ulan Ude was the woman who conducted the marriage-registry service not only stayed for the meal, but sang a song and dancd for quite a while; one of the benefits of a small town with fewer weddings. Eventually I was asked to make a toast and Ayuna came up to be my interpreter. She asked me to speak slowly. I did my best first toasting the two families and then to all the friends and family gathered who I knew would stand by the couple through the ups and downs of life and give them the support they needed. Clamors for a song got nowhere as my voice was turning into a frog and I refused to sing, giving one small croak to prove the point. Sitting in a chill breeze caused by a constantly opening door on a far wall, little sleep in the past twenty-four hours and the previous nights activities had done in my vocal cords. My standing there was the first clear awareness by many that there was an American in their midst, for many the first so spied in the flesh, which later had me hauled around the dance floor nearly non stop for two hours, a marathon stimulated by Nicholi who can only sit still in a chair for so long.
Later I asked Aryunna, "Did Zhargat have to pass various tests before he could see you in your wedding dress?"
"Yes he did, on Friday the first day. He had to sing songs, remember things that were important to me, bring wine and chocolate and spend rubles. Then we went on a tour and to the party."
Towards the end as the older people faded home, the din grew louder as sounds bounced off the walls with fewer bodies to absorb the noise. Around midnight, or was it one, it got to be too much even for Nocholi, especially when the Russian woman once again grabbed the mic and let lose with a song so loud that paint started falling off the wall. She emptied the place nearly as effectively as turning on the lights full blast. We caught a ride back to Aginski where Nicholi and Yanzhima stayed up till five toasting and chatting with friends while I crashed at the home of a friend of Bier's. Never did a bed feel so good.
Around seven A.M., Bier's cell phone rang nearly non-stop for twenty minutes until he couldn't ignore it any longer.
"Yanzhima," he said groggily. "We go home."
And we did.