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A Gate to God - 9/18/05

Naj's pilgrim companions.

“The Khambo Lama agrees with Dr. Aleksey's suggestion,” said Yanzhima. “We are going to Alkhanay, not Baikal.”

“OK,” I said. “Where's Alkanay.”

Yanzhima's husband Nicholi pointed west, “Baikal,” he said. Pointing east he said, “Alkanay.”

About two hours later, having briefly visited the East Siberian Academy where I am to teach arts administration in less than a week, we were rapidly bouncing along in Dr. Aleksey Azheyev's white Toyota SUV heading east on the road to Vladivostok. In the car were Dr. Aleksey, a slight, fit, very talkative man; his sister Lena, who speaks English quite well and is a librarian at the Academy of Culture, Yanzhima Vasilieva, director of the Institute of Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov, and myself, a Fulbright Scholar.

From the front right, where the driver's seat is located, Dr. Aleksey said, “Are you fine with the decision to go to Alkanay?”

“Of course,” I said. “I trust the judgment of my friends. But I have no idea where we are going, what Alkanay is, why it is special, or how long it will take us to get there.”

“It is a very important sacred site,” said Yanzhima. “It will takes us at least ten hours to get there (this as we hit another bone jarring pothole) and it is about 1,000 kilometers from here.”

“Ten hours? 1,000 kilometers?” I said thinking that less than 24 hours earlier I had returned from Orlik, 1,000 kilometers to the southwest over some of the worst roads I had ever experienced. These didn't feel much better.

“What do we say are the two worst things about Russia?” said Lena.

“In our country we'd probably list politicians as one of them,” I said.

“Foolish men and roads,” said Lena. “Some think that our bad roads had more to do with stopping the German advance on Moscow in World War II than anything else.”

The city of Chita.

Many pounding miles and hours later, having left the spectacular Selensky River Valley and driven through landscapes of vast wide open steppes dappled with large mounds of recently harvested hay and rolling deep forests scared by many forest fires, and passed over two small mountain ranges, we reached Chita, a city 350,000 that serves as one of the three main ports into China. We were now on the east side of Mongolia. At a service station we were met by Dr. Sergei Volikov, his wife Irina and their nine year-old son Ilya. They had pulled in behind us in their dark green Toyota station wagon, also with the driver's wheel on the right a result of purchasing cars designed for Japanese roads where, like England, people drive on the opposite side as those of us in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. I learned that Sergei and Aleksey had been classmates in medical school, met sharing the same bench, and been close friends ever since. Sergei now teaches at the medical academy on Chita, his hometown, and has a car part business with his brothers-in-law. Pays better than medicine he said.

“Much further?” I said.

“Four hours, I think,” said Yanzhima, ever the optimist.

Hard to imagine being grateful for turning off and changing from a paved to a gravel road, but it was smoother though slicker and required Aleksey to drive a bit slower. It was now about 11:00 P.M. After thirty more minutes of driving through tiny villages and a few wrong turns (street names, highway numbers and directional signs being few and far between, and many times nonexistent, i.e. there is no route number for the main highway to Vladivostok) we stopped before a gravel path that led to a white stupa, ghostly in appearance in the darkness and lit only by the Milky Way brilliant and vast in the sky above.

“His Holiness the Dalai Lama landed here in a helicopter in 1991,” said Yanzhima. “From here he traveled up the road to Alkanay. The stupa honors his presence. Very sacred.”

“Why here?” I said.

“Alkanay is one of the sixth most sacred sites in all Buddhism, “said Yanzhima. “It is known to Buddhists throughout the world and is a very important site for pilgrimages. The mountains are filled with many springs. People come here to heal in the water. It is very cold. There is no radon in the mountains. Scientists agree that the mountains are very unique. Alkanay is also a national park and protected by the state.”

Alkany Park gate.

Sure enough, after our prayers and leaving the stupa, our road soon lead into a campground filled with tents, fires, cars, laughter, sounds of singing and the ambiance of Fish Creek State Camp Grounds on the Fourth of July. It was packed. The big difference is all the buildings, including the park headquarters, have a Buddhist architectural flavor, and people's tents are made out of tan canvas with nary a motor-home or camper trailer in sight. Getting in first requires passing through a gate proving one has a reservation (we didn't, but we had Yanzhima, who is a master at passing through such barriers), and then going to park headquarters, where Yanzhima secured housing in a building used for staff and visiting guests. Not far from park headquarters, Aleksey found an open two-table cafe and there, at one in the mourning, we had a delicious mid-night feast of soup, posies and tea - the only food items they served no matter the hour we were to learn.

“How did it get to be one A.M. so fast?” I said.

“You are in a different time zone,” said Sergei.

“You want to go swimming?” said Yanzhima a half hour later after we had unpacked and decided who slept where.

“Now? In cold water? At one thirty A.M.? Not on your life,” I said.

The next morning, late morning, after using the outhouses, washed our faces and hands, and had a breakfast of soup, tea and poses, we all set off to go swimming - for Yanzhima, Sergei and Alexsey the second such venture as they had hit the healing waters that first night. We drove about three kilometers to a parking lot, walked through a Buddhist style gate and up a two-kilometer path filled with people walking either in bathing suits or, like us, sporting bags with towels and such garments. We passed through a second gate, containing a large hexagon drum each side with information about the history of the park and its special features, and entered a small compound of little huts that included a rest and dining facility for Buddhist lamas, a shop, two small cafés, restrooms (out houses), an information booth, a massage booth and a building that seemed like a private space one could rent to cook ones own food. A woman had her own table and sold all sorts of information about the 12th Khambo Lama, ribbons to affix to trees and, as we were to learn, she operated a guide service with herself as lead guide. Seeing Yanzhima, pictured in one of her books, was a thrill for her - and a bit cautionary as it was clear that Yanzhima was listening carefully what she was telling others.

Alkanay is fanned out around a central brook coming down off the main mountain - a bowl feel not unlike Whiteface Mountain, but on a smaller scale. There are four main trails colored red, yellow, blue and white (although no corresponding trail markers or trail lengths on the main sign or trail heads). Not marked was a fifth trail of about 20 kilometers that lead around the circumference of the mountain and considered an important pilgrimage. The red trail went up to a large out cropping to the left, and then on to three others; one forming an arch within which a stupa had been constructed. This route, leading to most sacred sites including the all-important Gate to the Gods, we would follow in the footsteps of his Holiness the Dalai Lama. First on the docket was swimming and then attending a fire ritual.

The easy wide-open path soon turned into a rugged heavily used trail paralleling small tumbling brook. All along it sat people in bathing suits and some, sat, with whoops and hollers, in small pools within the brook. From their grimaces, and rapid leaps out, the water looked cold. Very cold, as indeed it was.

Sergei shows how it's done.

After a two-kilometer hike up the trail, stopping a couple times to say hi to colleagues of Sergei's, we found a spot recently abandoned by another party. We scaled a high bank on the far side, men heading up stream and women down to change into our bathing suits. Four straight poles, from two to four inches thick, were laid out to frame a pool. Sergei demonstrated the technique of climbing out over the pool (somewhat spread eagled) with back to the water, heals hooked over the lower bar, one hand on each bar that paralleled the streams flow, and slowly lowered himself into the water head eventually resting against the upper cross bar. The range of expressions going through his face indicated that this was a chilling experience. The ideal next step was to raise ones feet and tuck them under the bar, hands as well, until everything but the head was underwater and to stay that way for 30 seconds. He did, but not a second longer.

I turned to Yanzhima. “You three came up here last night in the dark and did this?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “Very good for the spirit.”

You're mad, I thought. You're all mad. I'm mad. Talk about foolish people.

Next Aleksey popped in an out well under the required thirty seconds. Three might be more like it. Then Yanzhima went in, meeting the thirty-second requirement but no more. Then me. Personally, I hate getting wet. Getting cold and wet even more so. Slipping into water still more so. Best way to get into water is a mad dash off a dock and launching into a shallow dive and swimming as close to the surface as possible, although I do like swimming distances underwater and have set several distance records in my youth. In fact I learned to swim under water well before on the surface, a feat I think owed to my older brother Gerret who couldn't float and walked around on the bottom of Mirror Lake when but a tad. Following his lead I thought that was right and proper. My parents initially panicked, but seeing how we didn't drown and Gerret, eyeglasses and all, seemed to enjoy counting fish, eventually let us be and got us ducks for pets - I think as a way of inspiring us to spend time near or on the surface.

Naj out-Russians the Russians.

Still, over time, I have developed a distaste for cold water. Whether it was days spent frolicking in Alcohol Brook off the Loj Road, freezing with Elsworth Jackstadt on the Schroon in April, or near drowning in the Hudson with Mike Devlin (not his fault), I wasn't looking forward to this bath. Given no choice, I hung my butt over the icy pool, let go and plunged in. While it had quite a bit more snap than a few brooks I've been in, I had been in more frigid waters longer, and found it not as fearsome as imagined. So I pretended it was rather warm and had a grand old time lying with my head and torso under for a bit over a minute and did my best to out do the Russians at being Russian. I felt proud of myself until after emerging I learned that there was a required three emersions. Staying in for just 30 seconds seemed like a good idea. I envied Yanzhima and her timing.

Fire Ceremony

Now well chilled, but also invigorated by the flush that comes with ones blood pounding to the skin seeking to fend off the cold, and a bit light headed, we gamboled down the trail to go to a Buddhist Zhensereg Fire Ceremony, or purification ceremony. In daylight we found a fairly modest, but still substantial, Buddhist temple, the Mambo (healing) Datsan near the entry. Outside a large crowd had gathered to watch and participate in the ceremony used to purify the region held when determined necessary by the lamas, now at least once a year. The ceremony is, in effect, an effort to make an agreement between the lamas and the spirits of Alkanay to solve the problems identified, keep the waters pure and healing, and protect the space from the energy of so many visitors, many seeking cures for troubled emotions, energies and bodies. Thus part of the ceremony is to help protect the space from the energy of so many coming through. The ceremony can only be performed people of very high vows, a lama who has met at least two hundred and fifty-three restrictions, and complied with all the necessary training requiring years of instruction and apprenticeship.

Lama Blaine's assistants tend the fire.

On a raised dais behind a small square brick wall sat the Lama Baine of the Ivilginsky Datsan in Ulan Ude. He had two assistants who alternated between putting wood on a fire that blazed in front of the fire wall, filling a shallow spouted pan with what appeared to be a mix of vegetable oil and melted butter used to stoke up the fire as necessary, and passing him various bowls of grain (wheat, rice, barley, etc.), cut up salad items, or stalks from which the grain got harvested, that he, in small handfuls, tossed into the fire as offerings to the gods and spirits all the while chanting, ringing a bell, and shaking other instruments. Seated so close to the fire, while sitting in the sun and wearing layers of garments, had to be hot.

Lamas chant from the sutras.

There was about twenty bowls lined up on a table next to the fire and quite a stack of wood. Another lower table lay nearby filled with bowls of food, bread and bottles of milk brought by the observers to be included in the blessing. Facing the fire and Lama Baine, was a row of lamas praying. Initially it seemed like a form of droning until it was clear that they were reading from texts - long narrow books comprised of loose sheets that they turned over from time to time while hitting on a drum, clashing cymbals, or ringing bells. We sat there completely transfixed and carried away by this ceremony to call the gods and purify the site.

Lama passes out incense to participants.

As the time went along Lama Baine's handfuls of grain got larger and tossed in quicker. At one point he stopped, and another lama got up and addressed the crowds. We were asked to participate in a chant and response, which we did, and then asked to walk in a circle around the fire. The circle of people easily stretched completely around and we all walked around three times before they sent us back to our seats and the fire ceremony continued as before. Three times while we were present small-lighted sticks of incense were passed out from lamas and from one participant to another. Several times the fire nearly went out smothered in the grain being tossed into it by Lama Baine, but added wood and oil kept ahead until everything had been used up. People then gathered the offerings they had placed on the other table, tossed the milk, vodka, and other offerings into air, and bundled the rest to take home. We were told that ashes from the fire, if placed around ones home, would help protect us and our loved ones from illness for the next year.

Naj with Lama Blaine.

After completing what had to be a tremendous physical as well as emotional effort, say nothing of the heat, Yanzhima and I spoke with Lama Baine. He was pleased to see us having met us at the café the night before. He had heard about me - the American who had met (and physically touched) the Most Precious Body of the 12th Khambo Lama, now twice, visited the 12th Khambo Lama's three datsans, been blessed by the clothing of his teachers, was now photographing the creation of a stupa for the current 24th Khambo Lama, had met his Holiness the Dalai Lama, and was now here, at one of the six most sacred sites. He welcomed us to the calling - the opening of the Gate to God - to be held tomorrow morning. He was pleased that we had all been cleansed in the waters and was glad to know that we now would walk the pilgrimage and follow in the footsteps of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

First we had lunch, which consisted of the same meal we had at mid-night and again for our late breakfast. It was now 4:00 P.M. At least our erratic eating habits had us avoiding any lines for meals.

The Gate and Trail of Pilgrimage

We headed up the red trail crossing the chill brook and following a steep incline for about two kilometers coming to a tall outcropping rising several hundred feet sheer above the forest. At its base was a large hallowed out area - nearly a den facing a small narrow slanted slope that formed a kind of amphitheater. We were at The Gate or Portal. It was here in 1852, that the Lama of the Aginsky Datsan, who had come to this spot to pray, was visited by and heard directly the voice of the god Dimchik. This gate, is one of twenty-four such portals in the galaxy, and has continued as a gate since, a significant reason why this place is the sixth most sacred site in Buddhism.

A pilgrim performs prostrations on a prayer board.

In the trees and affixed to the rocks were attached many ribbons and mostly blue, but occasionally white hadak, about three foot long satin ceremonial sashes, the blue, in part, reflecting the sky, and the white an offering of peace. Towards the back of a hollow sat a small-framed image of Buddha surrounded by many offerings, most small coins. A smooth prayer board faced the image. People would kneel down, place their hands on two small blocks of wood, stretch out full length, pull themselves back, stand up, bow waist forward with hands above their head in prayer, and then repeat, generally making three prayers in all.

Stupa under the arch.

Leaving the gate, our trail swung around an up a very steep climb to the top where we gained a sweeping vista of the valley to the East, the sacred brook below, the parking area, where we were housed, and the distant stupa where the His Holiness the Dalai Lama first touched down. Catching our breath, we followed the trail swung east and then south coming to the height of land and a series of outcroppings until we reached the highest point and could see west. There on a distant lower ridge was another outcropping, this forming an arch where underneath had been built a white stupa. Our trail had dropped sharply down, and then headed along a long descending diagonal slope. A feature especially strong on this side was the Buryat practice of picking up any loose stones and piling them on either site of the trail. On the previous side we encountered several cairns and small rows but on this side the buildup of stones along the side of the trail added up to thee and four feet in height stretching for hundreds of yards, most especially when crossing rock slides.

Our trail eventually led to another small brook, this again with a frame of poles for bathing. Only Yanzhima took a dip, the rest of us drinking heavily from the stream and filling our water bottles. Up a few hundred yards from here was a mediation hut, where monks have stayed for months, some even years, at a time in meditation. I was a tiny small rock and concrete building, impossible to stand up in, with a single opening, sans door, that had to be deathly cold on a chill night. It again was surrounded by prayer flags and contained a letter from the current Khambo Lama.

The trail started sharply up and soon came out to an open slope leading to the arched out cropping with a stupa built underneath. The Temple Gate Arch, our third sacred site, had a strong sense of presence. Looking around I could see many small stupas formed of balanced rocks created by people to honor others. They were built all over the slope, tucked under ledges and into crevices. After photographing a few, and watching a ceremonial lighting of incense by Aleksey and Sergei while Yanzhima stretched out on the prayer board, I found myself quietly building one on a small ridge within the arch.

“Who is the stupa for?” said Yanzhima.

Naj's stupa for Adirondack storyteller Adrian Edmonds.

While I hadn't his name consciously in mind, I said, “Adrian Edmonds. He died a couple days ago. He was 97. He was a dear friend, a soul brother, and a storyteller - a person who told the stories of the many people who created our community of Keene. He kept their contributions, work and lives alive.”

“He lived a good life. He is not dead. He is alive in another place,” said Yanzhima.

“Our community will celebrate his life today,” I said.

Pointing to the sun, low on the horizon, she said, “The sun leaves us to join them. We will soon all be together.”

We left the Temple Gate Arch and climbed to the base of a nearby outcropping.

“Have you sinned?” said Sergei.

“Not recently,” I said.

“So you say, we will soon find out. Do you see that small hole,” he said pointing up at a crevice above our heads through which a small window of light filtered down.


“Only those without sin can wiggle through that crack. I'll show you the way.”

And with that he pulled himself up and side way and slowly inched away until just his feet hung there for five minutes, and then they popped through.

Dang, I thought. This could be tricky. So it was as it required a full 180 degree twist and reaching up with one hand while pushing down with another. A person with a fear of tight or closed spaces could certainly have problems. Getting one's body around and finding a bit of leverage took some doing. I gave an extra shove at the end popping through and hitting my head on a rock I didn't see.

“Ah hah,” said Sergei. “You have sinned in your thoughts.”

Naturally the others made it through; Irina not chipping a nail or rustling a hair; Yanzhima a tad slow but showing remarkable ability for a full figured person slipping through a narrow space; Lena the slowest allowed for handling so many impure books at the library; Aleksey with alacrity giving a running commentary all the while; and Ilya, zipping through a half dozen times, he too young to have sinned and slippery as an eel. Yanzhima told me the purpose of the tunnel was to harmonize the body and spirit, obviously my brain had been a bit out of tune and I hoped that it was now aligned.

The next sacred site was the Mother's Womb, the place for childless couples or people wishing to help others who are childless. This required the three bows on a prayer board, slipping headfirst into a small cave and leaving something new, and then reaching under a rock and seeing if any stones come up in your hand. Irina pulled out a whopper of a stone so all assumed Ilya was about to have a young brother or sister; Yanzhima refused saying the last time she came up with a stone she forgot to give it to her sister for whom it was intended, and, when going to a doctor complaining about stomach cramps, learned she was pregnant; Sergei decided to leave well enough alone fearing if he came up with either none or more than one stone it could lead to difficulties at home; Aleksey begged off saying that three children was enough as far as he and his wife were concerned; and his sister Lena was very pleased to have bagged two as did I which caused Aleksey to start giving me concerned glances.

Ever upward we went passing a very old ranger's cabin that had seen better days, finally reaching the height of land where an eight-foot pile of tiny stones, gathered by thousands of hikers, graced the spot. The trail then plummeted straight down an ever-steeper grade made slick but countless people slipping and sliding and packing the ground hard as a rock and free of the slightest pebble to slow ones way. I pointed out to Sergei, he and I well ahead, that in America such trails switched back and forth rather than take such a ruthless direct approach. He felt that this trail illustrated a difference between Americans and Russians, wherein Russians tended to pound their way directly through any obstacle.

The trail finally ended at the very pool where we had earlier chilled ourselves. It was now getting dark and Yanzhima's question of “swimming?” was ignored by everyone. Instead we went down the trail, had our tea, posies and soup, washed down with beer and vodka, and went to bed - after a round of Russian and Buryat songs and a few extra bedtime toasts. We had hiked for a good five hours over often rugged terrain, baked in the sun for two hours attending a fire ceremony, and given ourselves a case of mild hypothermia; all in all had a full day.

The Gate to the God

On Sunday Aleksey crashed out of bed. Noting the time he rustled everyone else up as we had only 45 minutes to get dressed and ourselves up the four-kilometer trail to the first outcropping and Gate of the God for the Buddhist prayer. Bashing into one another we made it into the car and were heading up the road when Yanzhima pulled rank and refused to go anywhere without at least a cup of tea. We stopped at our favorite café, held off on the posies and soup, and settled for tea and sugar cookies. Back on the trail, it seemed a bit quiet and sparse of people. Where were the crowds from yesterday's service? We reached the spot and it was empty as was the outlook above. I offered to dash up to the very top and look out to see if the crowd was over at the Stupa in the Arch. Yanzhima said that something must have happened, but this was the gate and we would wait. We did. The minutes ticked by.

Forty-five minutes later the tour guide came along leading a large contingent and informed us that the lamas from Ulan Ude forgot about going to a different time zone and thus the ceremony would begin an hour late. Sure enough, the lamas soon appeared dropping their bags near us, shaking our hands, and settling down along the back wall. The result was that I found myself less than five feet from one of the lamas and even less when two more appeared. Meanwhile more people steadily arrived until the small bowl and slope was quite full, although far less than the previous day.

Lamas invoke Dimchik.

Lama Baine spoke to the crowd telling them the importance of the site and the nature of the service. He then began his chant tossing offerings of grain lightly around. Then all, reading from their individual books, began the prayer to invite the god Dimchik to come again and speak to them. Meanwhile various individuals used the prayer board, not for just three times but as many as fifty or as long as they could last. Some were quite old, one near ninety, another in her teens, and the rest ranged in between. I didn't dare or wish to move sitting inches away from a lama. I was swept away lost in a meditation hearing the occasional ringing of a bell, beating on a small drum, the rhythm of the people on the prayer board, and the chant of the lamas - the very vibration of their voice - the soft flutter of leaves. As time slipped by a few songbirds with gaining boldness came in and picked away at the grains earlier tossed and food items set out to be blessed. Grasshoppers churred.

About ninety minutes into the service I felt a gentle tug on my sleeve. Our group was slowly backing away in prayer. I followed.

“Time to swim,” said Yanzhima quietly.

Sergei takes an icy shower.

This time we walked a further two kilometers up the trail to a spot with several pools and the river tumbling down over high rocks. Hallowed out logs had been fitted in creating tubes from which water jetted onto Russians seeking a cold water massage. They would place their arm, leg, head or back against the full force of the water. We joined many gathered there. As often along the trail, and within the park, I found myself a person of curiosity. Some people would walk past me saying a few words in English hoping for a response, others wanted to pose next to me and have their friends take our picture, and some tried conversations. Sergei said that few westerners, indeed few non Russians ever came here, thus they were very interested to see how I reacted to this special place of healing for Russians, be they Buddhist or not. Indeed though this park encased and protected a place sacred to Buddhists, it was equally sacred to Russians for the power of the healing waters. Many had been coming here for years, some two and three times a year, to immerse their bodies in the icy brook and drink from the many springs. When I took the plunge, Russians had fun counting to thirty as slowly as possible, or telling me I had left an ankle unexposed and had to start the count again, and in general seeing if I could be as stoic as they which included drying in the sun and not toweling off. I had fun with them pretending I was standing under a hot shower when my turn came for the jet stream. This was greeted with howls of laughter, many pats on the back and offers of vodka or beer.

The Final Stupa

On the trail down, lamas coming out of the woods greeted us warmly. They had bushwhacked down from the morning ceremony, and, learning about our morning swim, laughed at our adventures while pleased we had participated in both ceremonies as well as the healing waters and pilgrimage. Yet, as full as they day had been, we still had one stupa to go.

After packing up, loading our car, and checking out, we drove out past the Mambo Datsan and entry gate and, shortly after the stupa to His Holiness the Dala Lama, turned onto a modestly used and unmarked farm lane that bumped over the fields and into the woods. We followed it up to the top of a small hill and there, nestled in the woods, was a very large concrete dome painted white surrounded by several smaller domes from one to four feet high.

The Dome Stupa marks an important "power point."

We had come to the Dome Stupa - the Spirit of Alkanay, considered an important power point on the earth - a scared site kept hidden from the authorities during Soviet Times and used as a place to help keep the faith of Buddhism alive. Built in the mid-Nineteenth Century, it is a place of powerful healing energies. Laying ones hands or embracing the stupa is a means of using that energy to heal oneself or another.

In comparison to any other stupa I'd seen, it was very simple. Just a thirty foot tall white dome in the woods around which one walked and prayed at each of the four directions three times; yet powerful and elegant in its simplicity. A calming place. After all our driving, hiking, attending ceremonies, immersions in cold water, never ending meals of soup, tea and posies and dashing from one activity to another, to be at the dome came in many ways as a relief and wonderful end of our journey. We just leaned against the warm white sides and took in its heat.

After being there about forty-five minutes (it's hard to know as time seemed to stop), several cars of people we had met along the way pulled up providing us with a sign that this part of our journey was at an end. It was time to go out on the highway and head home. A woman, a leader in their group, questioned me getting my name, date and place of birth, and similar information from others in our group. "We will add you in our prayers," she said.

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