From Russia With Love
At the summit of a Siberian stobe
With nomads and their yurt in Tuva, near Mongolia
A herd of sirta in Tuva
Outside of Red Square, Moscow
A rehearsal in Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow Conservatory
From Russia With Love
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
September 12, 2003
"Fortunately, Life offers a single moment that both fulfills a youthful dream and unveils a future quest: as it occurs but once, its magnificence cannot be doubted." -La Rochefoucauld
Last Wednesday, I stood at the geographic center of Asia, the world’s most remote spot, farthest from any shoreline: the summit of the Hundredth Hill of the Sayan Ring, on the border between the Republics of Abakan and Tuva, near where Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan meet. Beyond this craggy peak unfolds an alien landscape of infinitely receding mountain chains, windswept valleys, and barren wastelands. Below us, spring-fed rivers begin their epic journeys to the Arctic Ocean. These are the fabled lands of history, where the hoards of Genghis Khan once stormed west to conquer Asia, endless nomadic caravans streamed east to trade for the treasures of China, and fortitudinous hunters plied north to plunder the riches of Siberia.
Together with a teenage pianist and a Kazakhstani guide, we ascend the Hundredth Hill and prepare for the ritual of the Tuvinian Sacrifice. We each select a flat stone from the rough ground, turn it over in our hand, and utter a Muslim prayer. By placing the rock on the centuries-old pile of accumulated offerings, we leave our troubles on the desolate mountain and depart with a purified spirit.
As we begin our descent, our guide stops and points to an approaching Mongolian horseman. He carries himself with the pride of the truly independent, and is clad in the splendid regalia of a nomad: sturdy leather boots, thick fur hat, and heavy handmade clothing. He asks for our help in welcoming his newborn son into the world and invites us to his family’s yurta. Our guide explains that this is an honor we cannot decline.
Soon we enter his nomadic tent, and are amazed to find exquisite furnishing which belie its squalid exterior. Persian carpets, silver saddles, and delicate chinaware of past generations fill the room. The sleeping mother beams with the universal joy of a new parent, while the excited relatives vie for the chance to see Westerners inside their yurt. I want to meet the son, visiting from college to help his family, but the hushed atmosphere discourages speech.
The father takes us to his herd of sirtas, a mythological-like animal on which the head, mane, and tail of a horse grows from the massive torso of a horned steer. The sirta is unique to Tuva, for its breeding is a nomadic secret which has not been replicated anywhere else. I cautiously approach a big bull, trying to stare it down, but suddenly the calf separating us bleats and darts off. As the bull leads the herd towards me, I realize in a flash that even if I had owned insurance, it would never cover the victim of a stampede of impossible beasts in a fairytale land. I wave to the Mongolian cowboy and run away.
We walk back towards the camp through a light tundra forest of pines and spongy lichen, looking for grazing reindeer. I ask our guide what might happen to the newborn son, or the teenage boy. Traditionally, she tells us, male Tuvinians go to the capital, Kyzyl, for college. The girls, however, announce their intention of becoming a bride, retire into a tent, and invite all the young men to court them. After an indefinite period of her choosing, she selects the best lover and takes him as her husband. I am surprised, and tell her that this is the same custom in New York.
Before we reach the campsite, Anna, my crazy Siberian pianist from Krasnoyarsk, runs and jumps into a frozen spring-lake. Not to be outdone, the fearless Californian audaciously follows her—only to be stunned from the ice-cold water, hauled out, and taken straightaway to the Russian banya. I awaken to the supposed pleasure of being flogged by birch branches, sweating profusely upon the hot wooden planks. Following another dip into the ice-cold river, I am wrapped in a bearskin, placed next to a roaring fire, and descend into a peaceful slumber under the full Siberian moon.
That night, I dream once more of my greatest childhood ambition as a pianist—to tread upon every last corner of the globe in search of romance —and realize, from the Yukon to the Andes, from Cairo to Capetown, from Tokyo to the Tasman Sea, from Brazil to Bhutan, and now from the Highlands of Scotland to here in the Steppes of Asia, that my dream has been unquestionably fulfilled.
TOP TEN MOMENTS IN SIBERIA
Like Peter the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Van Cliburn before me, I set out to conquer Russia through its exotic capital of Moscow. Bursting with excited anticipation, I sought to explore Russia’s mysterious Cold War clandestines, gleaming Czarist palaces, and inexhaustible artistic wealth.
Alas, my Russo-romance was passionate but brief: after a Kodak drive-by shooting of the Kremlin’s spectacular St. Basil’s Cathedral, and a brief appearance on the stage of Moscow Conservatory’s legendary Great Hall, practicality forced me to negotiate the airport. Accustomed to the civility of America’s Puritan crowds, I almost missed the plane, for no respectable Muscovite stands in line—you have shove your way past determined old women who grew up in communist bread lines. Despite the important-sounding announcements in Russian and strategic signs in cryptic Cyrillic, I soon found the plane and was finally on my way from Moscow to Siberia!
2. KRASNOYARSK AIRLINES
The food wasn’t all that bad, but that was the best part. I sat between two depressing men on a crowded, dingy plane, and watched the flies drop dead from the poisonous atmosphere which intensified with each flight. At least there was no need for those annoying safety lectures, since the seatbacks flopped all the way back, the non-adjustable seatbelts were sized for Bavarians returning form the last day of Octoberfest, and the luggage bins fell open without notice.
But, even then, I wasn’t prepared. I had long since gotten used to babies on flights, but not dogs, especially big ones who barked incessantly and periodically relieved themselves in the isle. Nobody else seemed to mind, so I just sank back (even further) into my steadily reclining seat and with wide-eyed wonder contemplated the possibility of adventure or disaster which the next two weeks would surely present.
It didn’t take long to find out. Upon landing in Krasnoyarsk, I discovered that hotel wouldn’t accept credit cards or convert my U.S. dollars (they were suspected of being counterfeit). After prepaying my 13-day stay, I wound up with 450 rubles ($15) with which to survive for two weeks in a foreign country that had few telephones, no credit card acceptance, and one Internet terminal with a Cyrillic keyboard.
Luckily, I was able to contact my friend Annie--an exceptional Russian pianist; we had met in a piano competition the previous year in Andorra--and she took me to Siberia’s stobe, a nature reserve which holds the World’s Biggest (everything in Russia in the World’s Biggest Something) Pinnacles: dynamic shears of rocks which shoot straight up, high above the surrounding boreal forests. We began to climb, but our ascent soon in peril, for we found ourselves stuck above a sheer cliff, below a slick rock face, and between two boulders. We were stuck... until-- like Omar Shariff in Lawrence of Arabia--there suddenly appeared before us a stobist, an expert in climbing these ridiculously steep rock faces. He showed us the seemingly impossible technique of walking straight up the vertiginous cliffs, and we soon stood atop a Siberian peak overlooking the entire taiga forest below.
5. TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILROAD
My entire excuse for visiting Siberia was prompted by an oblique invitation of becoming the first American pianist to perform in Mongolia (according to a diplomat whom I had met earlier that year during a tour of South America). With this end in mind, I settled down to the task of deciphering Russia’s notorious railway schedules for a trip from Krasnoyarsk to Ulan Bator (Mongolia’s capital), with a change of train in Irkusk. After meticulous scrutiny (these schedules are licensed to MENSA for testing material) I discovered that the Trans-Siberian Railway departs Moscow every Odd Day, except for the first three Odd Days of each month. It arrives in Krasnoyarsk on the Fifth Day of its Twelve Day trip (this is all true, not counting the Mensa part). It arrives in Irkusk on the Seventh Day. Furthermore, the Trans-Mongolian train leaves Beijing every Thursday. It arrives in Irkusk on the Ninth Day of its Thirteen Day trip. It arrives in Ulan Bator on the Thirteenth Day.
I finally worked it all out: if I left Krasnoyarsk on Saturday, I’d get to Irkusk on Monday, where I would wait for the train until Friday, and finally get to Ulan Bator on the following Thursday—by which time my whole two-week trip would have been lost. Or, I could fly all the way back to Moscow (an entire day on the dog airplane) and then fly to Ulan Bator. I opted to cede the honor of being perhaps the first American pianist to play in Mongolia, and understood why this prestigious distinction may remain unclaimed.
I spent the next few days in Siberia acclimatizing myself to Russian culture. I tried to fit in by not smiling and not saying hello to everybody, California-style (although most of the time I forgot) and fantasized about becoming a Russian folk hero: Instead of St. Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes, I’d be St. Michael of Mongolia purging Siberia of their incessant flies; instead of Johnny Appleseed planting apple trees I’d be Johnny JohnnySeat installing clean, functional restrooms throughout the length and breadth of Russia (and many other countries as well, come to think of it). Most of all, I indignantly try to persuade people that there is more to America than Hollywood, McDonalds, and Coca-Cola, but couldn't think of anything.
It turns out Russians have only two pastimes: playing piano and drinking vodka. I visited the Krasnoyark conservatory and was amazed at the level of pianism. It really is true that Russians have a special affinity for music. I felt like the captain of Uruguay’s Basketball Team facing the Dream Team, except here Michael Jordan was a little thirteen-year-old boy practicing Rach Third.
To explore their other national pastime, I offered one night to buy a table of Russians a few rounds of drinks. I expected an American-style shot glass, but in this country a ‘drink’ is an entire bottle of Vodka. In no time at all, this big Russian bear of a bass was on stage singing “New York, New York” for his new best American friend, while I fended off a brood of Siberian beauties vying for a chance to dance their way towards a possible ticket out of Russia.
That weekend, Annie invited to her family's country dacha for a homemade dinner. Although the family is well off, there were flies everywhere in the cottage, breeding in the food and crawling all over the table. Noticing my agitation, they explained that such multitudes of flies are normal in August outside of cities, and that they themselves have long since forgotten to notice. I tried, but involuntarily grimaced and really couldn’t eat their kindly-prepared food.
However, I had come prepared, and presented my gifts of Western delicacies: German wine, English crackers, and French blue cheese. They asked what the dark spots in the cheese might be. Taken aback, I explained that this is gourmet French cheese, and that the impressionistic colors were actually formed from molds and bacteria. They politely listened to my explanation, but involuntarily made a face and couldn’t eat the cheese.
With no more money, a mild cold from the first breezes of winter, and little progress in learning Russian, I surrendered to Siberia’s invincibility and retreated home. After everything—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—I almost cried upon landing in JFK. New York City, which had always seemed so depressing and ugly, suddenly felt as clean and chirpily happy as Disneyland. I couldn’t help but to marvel at the bus driver, who seemed to work with an infectiously joyous spirit; I actually hugged him on the way out. He looked at me knowingly, and asked if I had just returned from Russia.
Over the next few days, however, I felt changed.
How does Russia’s virile soul thrive in a land of such sparse immensity? In Siberia, snow-white forests of slender birches spring from soft soils of lichen and mushrooms, endless horizons of mountains and rivers cradle lofty skies of overwhelming spaciousness, and its people hide hearts of warm hospitality and deep passion behind thin shells of ennui jaded by an unforgiving history. One can understand Russia’s inescapable sense of nostalgia and melancholy by reading Tolstoy or by listening to Rachmaninoff, but such sensorial voluptuousness can only be felt by breathing Siberian air or by contemplating Russian eyes.
Like Peter the Great, who attempted to Westernize Russia, Napoleon, who tried to defeat Russia, and Van Cliburn, who briefly inspired Russia, I now realize that Russia epitomizes an idea too vast, too enormous to challenge: it only engulfs and haunts you forever.
(From Russia With Love has been adapted from letters I wrote in 2003. Don't worry--my opinions have become more sophisticated since then!)
MICHAEL FENNELLY, PIANIST: Born To Play
A Passionate Classical Musician
At a statue of Lenin in Moscow
"From Russia With Love" is based upon letters I wrote home during a tour of Russia in 2003