Old Believers

On Thursday, August 13, we were driven to the town of Erzhey, Kaa-Hem district over what the Lonely Planet calls an “appallingly muddy road” and they mean it.  Erzhey is a town of “Old Believers”, a religious sect which broke away from the Orthodox in the 18th century because they wanted to cross themselves holding two fingers together rather than three, which the Orthodox had decided was the way to do it so God would let you into Heaven.  We are not making this up.  Anyway, they got persecuted by everybody and moved far into the forest, where they still live.

One does not actually get to talk to the Old Believers, at least not when the whole village of Sisim is out making hay. Sisim is the most personable village, by report.  Erzhey, across the river by a motorless cable ferry which is built as one big rudder that holds a car, is shy although not hostile, but the third village runs and hides if camera crews show up.  The Old Believers don’t have roadside stands selling jam like the Amish — actually they do have a store, but it’s in Kyzyl,  But there is a cabin camp near Erzhey and we walked into town with our guide  who remembered that she had had a teacher six years ago who lived there, and we went calling on him.

Sergey is an Old Believer by genealogy, but his house is the most personal and modern expression you can imagine.  Belief in one’s own aesthetic never gets you into social criticisms such as travel guides, under the name “Believer”.  It’s only when you believe in somebody else’s system, that you are called a Believer.  Interesting.

Anyway, with Sergey, forget the 18th century, or any other.  He is a retired architect and he has placed together a collection of souvenir tourist kitsch from all over the world — OK, stop what you’re thinking, don’t visualize a “highly personal” clutter of stiffy baskets in a trailer park in Florida, or any kind of Victorian drawing room of elephant foot umbrella boxes.  Think sleek, think minimalist kitsch.  The souvenir plates from India and Singapore hang in spare squares over the fireplace on a whitewashed wall.  The ceiling lighting is mounted on white squares over recessed blue squares of a shade Donna Karenina won’t think of for four years.  The sofa is perfect functional modernist not bizarre at all until you realize you haven’t seen anything of that shape ever, it’s about as close to existing sofas as it is to a rumble seat.  Crazy textured blue plastic wallpaper.  Sergey likes blue.  Jesus appears once, as a modernist silhouette in a deep frame, almost a shadow box.

We didn’t get back to camp until 8.  Our driver had come out looking for us and the translator — cell phone service is promised for Erzhey within the next week.  The camp people had caught some fish and put them, whole, into soup.  Yum.

Afterwards it was time for our contractual obligation banya.  A banya is a traditional Russian bath, I think it’s one of the things the exit police will check at the border so you have to do it but I thought it was kind of like heterosexual sex, it’s like, why isn’t this the greatest thing ever, am I doing it wrong?

It started with great hope; as our driver, a handsome young Tuvan with about the best sideburns you can get on an Asian younger than Ho Chi Minh invited us out to the bath, accompanied by about a twelve-year-old blond Russian whose scowl hadn’t congealed yet so he still looked like pecan divinity.  So I thought, well, here is at least the promise of inter-racial -cultural -generational -affectational social consternation.  But after they had demonstrated to us that mixing boiling water with cold water made warm water, they left, and Dave and I were standing in a warm room facing what is essentially a shower with a bad user interface.  There were also some dead branches that I think you are supposed to hit yourself with but I’d feel pretty dumb doing that.

It took me a while to get used to my own hot tub, too.  Hedonism is kind of boring.  But my hot tub at home is now fun, what with the memories of naked target practice through the loquat tree and so forth.

The Perseids were good that night.

In the morning, tomatoes and cucumbers with freshly soured cream, and single-cow milk in the tea.  Tomato Tourism report: the tomatoes we’ve encountered here seem to be of the same general kind as what you get in Safeway, which is to say, bred to be firm, but they are picked ripe and so have a much more developed flavor.  Everything which can, has dill in it, which is to say, everything which is not physically anti-matter or dark energy.  The gardens are full of dill, cabbage, and potatoes.

Our driver is given to picking up hitchhikers.  I don’t think they are really hitchhikers; I think he’s related  or friend to everyone in Tuva and is just doing favors.  After breakfast, it was announced that three Old Believers would be going into the Big City with us (not Kyzyl; a hamlet at the end of the paved road some 32 km from camp).  So they got grimly into the back seat and anticipated the joys of Heaven while suffering through everything earthly.

“Smile, God loves you,” does not translate into Russian.  The Old Believers make regular Russians look like Mary Tyler Moore.  Even for Christians they are sourpusses — not a hint of Mormon Prozac, just glowering stoicism.  The child seemed to have a swollen eye.  Child Protective Services doesn’t get out east.  It was a gloomy day with smatterings of rain.  Everything fit.