On first hearing, it came across as a “beginners” attempt at an April Fools Day joke, something so obviously false that no one could take it seriously: “Russia sold Alaska to America.”

Imagine today’s geopolitical map and then speculate upon an alternative history of the 20th Century. A fascinating topic of discussion.

Speculation, Condemnation

The exchange was made on 30th March 1867; the sum of 7.2 million USD in return for 1.52 million square kilometres of picturesque wilderness, plus a large reserves of untapped wealth. Russia, under Tsar Alexander 2nd, entered into the deal aware of the stakes involved, indeed it was some on the American side that failed to grasp its potential.

Although the purchase was received positively by most; some deemed the new land “useless”, and referred to the purchase as “Seward’s Icebox” or “Seward’s Folly” – William Seward being the American Secretary of State who negotiated with Russian diplomat (and envoy in Washington) Eduard de Stoeckl, throughout the process.

Ellis Oberholtzer (historian) balked at the cost of maintaining such a region without a population to fill it, and the New York World considered it a “sucked orange” whose only worth was measured in the furs of animals already hunted to near extinction. Time would reveal otherwise, of course. There were dissenters too, on the Russian side, with press indignation at the thought of giving away land that had already seen so much development and effort expended upon it.

The setup

Russian-controlled Alaska was initially established by the eastwards movement of trappers and traders across Siberia, into Alaska’s western-most regions in 1732. By 1821 Tsar Alexander 1st had declared sovereignty and the Russia-America Company had been established (1799) to exploit the new land’s potential wealth under the direction of Alexander Baranov, a successful Russian merchant (more on whom next time).

Alaska was a vast resource for the fur trade. Sea Otter fur was highly prized – resulting in the near extinction of the local species. Walrus ivory too was a desirable commodity, comparable in value to that obtained from elephants.

The company’s folio extended to mineral wealth and the trade of commodities with local tribes. Russia-America could also import and supply desirable tea and Chinese silks for example, establishing the region as a major financial hub. Over 20 settlements appeared and started to grow – most situated on Alaska’s western coast or on nearby islands, ready to facilitate the shipment of goods ‘back home’.

Looking good

Other, smaller outposts were established inland for valuable furs and to maintain trading connections with local tribes. Even the orthodox church was involved, as missionaries arrived to build churches and convert native tribespeople. The financial endeavours were backed by investments from Russia’s elite, including the Tsar himself and prominent Russian nobility. In spite of such progress, Russia’s hold on the massive territory was not as solid as the above description suggests. History.com reminds us:-

“No permanent colonial settlement would pop up until 1784, and there were never more than a few hundred Russians living in Alaska at any one time. Far from self sufficient, the colony depended on native tribes, the British and the Americans for supplies”

So what went wrong (and right)?

Let’s take a look next week.

For the time being, we’ve regrettably had to put up the shutters.

The Russia Experience is currently not open for business until June 1st 2020.

We sincerely hope that in the not too distant future we will, once again, be able to offer trips on the world’s greatest railway journey, when we’ll be delighted to help you plan a trip of a lifetime.  Meantime please feel free to browse our website, and if you’re interested in talking to us once the current situation passes, please email expert@trans-siberian.co.uk and one of our experts will be in touch when we re-open.

In the meantime, stay well, stay positive and look after yourselves and each other.

If you are travelling in July 2020 or beyond and require assistance please email covid19help@trans-siberian.co.uk

Seeing giant pandas is one of the many reasons people visit mainland China. These magnificent creatures are as iconic as the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army.

Despite habitat destruction, China remains the best place to see this wildlife wonder of the world. There are less than 2,000 giant pandas left in the wild, which makes every baby panda an extra special addition to its endangered population.

Panda centres throughout China are working hard to conserve the species through breeding and release programs. The Chengdu Panda Reserve in Sichuan Province, along with the Dujiangyan Panda Base and Wolong Panda Centre, is one of the best places to see pandas and view these conservation efforts in person.

You’ll also get to see lots of cute and cuddly baby pandas. To get you excited about your visit, we’ve put together some lesser-known baby panda facts…

Newborns weigh as much as a lemon

Despite remaining in the womb for a period of between 3 and 5 months, baby pandas are born extraordinarily small. A newborn panda weighs just 100g on average – that’s the same weight as an average lemon.

Moreover, the lightest panda ever recorded weighed just 36g whilst the heaviest tipped the scales at 210g. This average weight makes newborn pandas the world’s smallest mammal babies relative to their mother’s size.

Why baby pandas are born so small has been a mystery that has puzzled researchers for a long time. Here Medical News Today reveals one theory:

“The prevalent theory for explaining small birth size relies on the fact that pregnancy occurs at the same time as winter hibernation in some species.

During hibernation, pregnant mothers rely on fat reserves to survive, so they do not eat or drink. They also break down muscle mass to feed protein to the fetus… In other words, the energy resources are limited, so the babies must be born prematurely, resulting in small cubs.”

Pandas are born pink and hairless

The giant panda is renowned for its distinctive black and white colouring. But those lucky enough to see a newborn panda during their visit to China may be surprised by their appearance.

Baby pandas are born pink and hairless and remain that way for approximately three weeks. While their fur may have grown at week three, baby pandas don’t open their eyes until around 6 to 8 weeks. Their limbs are also so weak that they are virtually immobile and entirely reliant on their mothers until they’re three months old.

Baby pandas stay with their mothers for at least 18 months and aren’t fully weaned until they reach 8 to 9 months of age.

Nine out of 10 pandas now survive

According to recent research, nine out of 10 pandas born at breeding centres in China now reach adulthood. This is despite the challenges faced by vulnerable baby pandas during their first few months of life. Survival rates have grown dramatically in the past 60 years, with no more than 30% of baby pandas surviving during the 1960s.

Baby pandas are still heavily reliant on their mothers, but the facilities provided by breeding centres mean mothers are better prepared to deliver the warmth, milk, and protection their babies need.

Half of all baby pandas are twins

Giant pandas giving birth to twins is particularly common in the wild. Despite the rising survival rate in breeding centres however, it is still extremely rare for both twins to survive in the wild.

Panda mothers are only equipped to raise one cub at a time, with mothers not having the milk or energy to care for them both. In the wild, the stronger cub is picked and the other left to perish.

Panda breeding centres are transforming twin survival rates for the better, however. In centres, staff are on hand to rotate the two cubs, meaning they both get the time they need with their mother. Twin cubs are rotated every few hours and whilst one spends time with their mother, the other relaxes in a cosy incubator.

Discover more fun, family-friendly activities to add to your itinerary here.

We ended last week’s episode with Russia’s TV-psychic boom of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. AM is guiding me on this bizarre exploration. Who would have thought that Western-style TV showmanship, stoic Russian Orthodoxy and Slavic Paganism would produce such a bizarre chimera? Yet it did, and the audiences loved it.

How times change

There are echoes of our own dubious history in AM’s description of practices, “Carried out by a traditional, old, wise woman or (rarely) man. It was often a combination of mysticism and natural herbal healing.”

Also, interestingly: “Mixed with Orthodox prayers and pagan rituals.” Yes, some were persecuted as witches, although -AM tells me: less harshly within village communities.” Some were tolerated, others not,” indicating that dearly held traditions and beliefs would not be easily relinquished by those who followed them.

The Communist issue with such gifted people was the apparently Divine origins of the abilities in question. AM continues. ”They (the authorities) would consider these to be achievements of mankind, and not gifts from God.”

Such a distinction was especially important during the profoundly anti-religious days of the early Soviet Union, the years of Lenin and Stalin.

A twist and a paradox

Stalin did ultimately accept Christianity in 1943; a development that would likely have been dismissed as ridiculous if presented in a work of fiction. Only 12 years earlier he had demolished the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour!

Even more surprising, is the fact that he trained as an Orthodox priest for 5 years, ultimately abandoning the seminary at the age of 20 (1899). Fellow revolutionaries even jovially referred to him as: “The Priest” -no doubt before he became a figure of terror. Not only did Stalin meet with Orthodoxy again -after taking the most nightmarish and circuitous path to arrive, he also took profound mental abilities seriously.

Away from the domain of parlour-tricks, Stalin could accept the existence of something ‘else’, particularly when demonstrated by an individual whose life seemingly embraced the metaphysical.

Metaphysician

The last of the Romanov dynasty had the Grigori Rasputin as their intermediary between flesh and the beyond. Stalin had Wolf Messing, a man who had also abandoned the seminary (Jewish rather than Orthodox). Both changed their paths to follow other callings – though here the similarity ends. Tales of Messing vere from the impressive into the fantastical, seamlessly and without warning.

Some of his escapades demonstrate a powerful -though not supernatural- prowess with the art of suggestion. Others defy rational explanation (to us); ostensibly offering mind reading, telepathy and clairvoyance as principal components within Messing’s toolset.

Assorted miracles

Reportedly, he could persuade his target to “see” official documentation on the blank card or paper that he presented as credentials, he is said to have commanded strangers to perform his desired requests; to which they would comply.

He is said to have predicted the start of the second world war (to within one week), the fall of Berlin and even the death of Stalin himself. Poignantly he even saw his own demise, the ultimate curse to complement a psychic’s gift.

In fairness, it is inaccurate to compare Messing with Rasputin, because “Stalin’s Magician” never shared the familial closeness that the “Mad Monk” enjoyed. It is doubtful that Stalin would have kept anyone around him who could, genuinely, read his mind.

Nonetheless, they did meet on several occasions, and in a flash-forward to the media-performance-psychics of Russia’s late 80’s: Messing did captivate whole audiences with theatrical demonstrations of his unique abilities.

Various futures

The topic of psychic ability within (and without) the Soviet system was never taken more seriously than during the infamous psychic-warfare experiments of the Cold War.

This is worthy of a separate series in itself, and involved both superpowers military commitment of time, money and expertise, -in an attempt to gain a usable psychic “edge” over the would-be enemy. It’s a field that is often derided though some claim research (and practice) continues today. In 2019  Jason Deheart of  War is Boring, quoted Colonel Nikolai Poroskov:

“Russian soldiers trained in ‘metacontact’ can provide interrogation information from the minds of captured enemy soldiers, upset enemy supply lines, destroy crystals in generators, eavesdrop on conversations, jam radio communications, and more.”

It even appears that the Soviet authorities were old-hands in the field by the Cold War era, having researched telepathy since the 1920’s, (forcing the Americans to play catch-up). The link between Stalin and Wolf Messing is therefore not surprising.

By contrast, our vague and impotent newspaper horoscopes are a whole world away from such earnest military and governmental sponsorship: the opposite end of a sliding scale. Today’s practitioners benefit from the New Age boom of the 90’s both in the East and the West -when alternative systems of belief moved closer to the mainstream. Whilst you can still find a witch for hire in the small ads, we now also have suits, brands, book deals and gloss. AM compares the two camps:

Business practices

“White or even black magic is plainly advertised, it’s often claimed to be an ancestral gift (for  credibility). They (the practitioners) plainly offer many spells or rituals that require personal items such as photographs of yourself or of the intended target. These may be used for good or ill.”

The span of the modern ‘alternative’ service industry is vast; embracing psychics and life coaches, merging modern settings and convenience with ancient, familiar arts. AM continues:

“Most commonly they advertise today as Yasnovidyashchiy (clairvoyants), also as healers         (tseliteli). Some of them are very helpful, really. Some of them are pretenders -charlatans, however. They can offer the same things but just take money from people. It’s very difficult to distinguish (between the two).”

For one of the ‘good guys’ she cites Rami Bleckt, a man of Russian parentage who studied psychology in Russia and who also lived and studied in an Indian Ashram.

Such modern exponents can skillfully offer science and mysticism in a seamless blend of western-style coaching and traditional Indian beliefs rather than simple good-witch/bad-witch delineations.

“In modern times, it’s a little different.” AM considers. “We have many ‘gurus’ or ‘coaches’ connected to the astrological, Vedic and Ayurvedic traditions. They offer courses in astrology, self-awareness, business success, life success, psychological help, self development, social and familial development etc.” AM summarises the field. In short: “How to find yourself and your way in life.”

Whatever time of the year you choose to visit, Mongolia is a land of opportunity. It’s a country where you can truly go off the beaten path and be heavily rewarded for it.

In Mongolia, you can immerse yourself in unspoilt nature, experience culture at its most authentic and unleash your inner adventurer with a range of exciting activities. These are just some of the reasons why a trip to Mongolia should be on everyone’s travel bucket list.

If you’re busy organising a trip to Mongolia, you’ll want to fill your itinerary with the following travel experiences – trust us, they’ll change your life!

Live with nomads

Experience a lifestyle far away from your hectic regime back home by staying with a nomadic family during your Mongolia trip. A homestay experience with a nomadic family will give you all you need to get back to basics.

As well as staying in a traditional ger, you’ll get to experience a way of life that has remained unchanged for many centuries. You can even join the family during a migration for the ultimate nomadic experience.

You’ll quickly become a part of the family and will help out with all manner of daily tasks, from looking after livestock to making those delicious Mongolian delicacies you’ve read so much about. Here Roamscapes reveals more about what to expect from your time with a Mongolian nomadic family:

“Pastoral nomads in Mongolia live a lifestyle not unlike that of livestock farmers: early to bed, early to rise, and a whole day tending to the herds of cows and yaks and horses. In addition to cooking and caring for the kids, Mongolian women are responsible for tasks like sewing clothes (including heavy winter coats), milking (two to five times a day), and making dairy products out of all that milk (butter, cheese, airag fermented horse milk, and yoghurt).”

Go eagle hunting

Eagle hunting is an ancient art that’s been relied on by nomadic communities for many, many years. Experience local customs and traditions at their most exciting by observing the noble eagle at work for yourself.

In addition to appreciating the power of the eagle, the strong bond between an eagle and its master is fascinating.  You’ll find the best eagle hunters, the Kazakhs, in the Altai Mountains.

Ride horses

Horse riding is such an important part of Mongolian life, with children as young as 5 years old able to ride horses skilfully. Venture out on a horse trek across the open steppe or watch a Mongolian horse racing event – the Naadam Festival boasts the best horse racing in the Mongolian calendar –  and gain a fantastic insight into the country’s passion for horsemanship.

If camels are more your thing, Mongolia offers the best of the best in that department too. Camel riding and racing are popular here, with some parts of the Gobi Desert (including Khongoryn Els or the ‘Singing Dunes’) only able to be explored by camel.

Look to the skies

Take advantage of Mongolia’s sparsely populated status by looking up to the night skies. The lack of built-up areas makes many parts of Mongolia perfect for a spot of stargazing. The Gobi Desert, in particular, is a great place to see a never-ending canopy of stars.

Travel the Trans-Mongolian

See Mongolia by rail by booking your trip on the Trans-Mongolian. It may be the Trans-Siberian smaller and less famous cousin, but the Trans-Mongolian railway offers an eye-opening and unforgettable rail experience like no other. Book your Trans-Mongolian trip today with us.

Last week we took a cursory glance at Russia’s magic-related small ads, with the help of AM – someone who knows about these things. Now it’s time to delve a little deeper.

AM has a marked scepticism concerning the motivation and integrity of those fellow Russians proffering magical fixes for life’s woes. Her fundamental distrust is not limited to her own nation of course, there are charlatans and their victims in cultures the world over.

Of particular disgust to her are those falsely offering healing to the impoverished. If there is a hell, there surely must be a special place reserved there for those who rob the sick with such tactics. AM knows how the scenario plays out.

High priest of something?

It’s something of a cottage industry -though without a single cottage in sight. Hope is for sale in the front rooms of city apartments across Moscow and bought by the poor and the desperate. Perhaps they arrive because of an advert or perhaps through the recommendations of a family member.

AM believes that some psychic traders have a gift, others only gall, a superficial charm -and no conscience. It’s the latter group that causes concern.

Well meaning kin can just as easily be fooled as anyone else. In some respects they may be the inadvertent ally of the fraudster – a trusted voice, now extolling the virtues of this or that brand of snake-oil.

AM tells me that in return for a sum of money, the recipient receives a Q and A session and a mish-mash of “Folk and Christian ritual involving group prayers, holy oil, and holy water.” They are then sent away after their “treatment” with the encouragement that their condition will likely respond favourably to further sessions -at a price, naturally. Disconcertingly AM adds: “Some of them work by themselves, others for criminal organisations, some even believe in what they do”.

Wheat and chaff

That’s not to say that that AM disbelieves in miracles; only fraudsters. She explains her position on such healers whether genuine or otherwise:

“Even now we may go to the Babushka (grandmother) in the village for a combination of Christian prayers, paganism and herbal remedies. Usually the good ones do not take money but will accept food or help around the house …

They believe that they have a gift from God, whether inherited and passed through the family -or not, and that it would be wrong to accept money. They believe that they would lose their gift (by doing so). It’s a principle from the Bible, that if you receive something for free then you must give it for free also.”

AM continues: “Sometimes she (the healer) can help -I know this for a fact- but sometimes she can’t. The most trusted come by verbal recommendation.”

This is in spite of the scenario outlined  at the start of the article, but AM’s reasoning is sound: “The most gifted never advertise themselves, they already have enough people visiting them. The con artists have no one to recommend them and so rely on such adverts.”

Boom time

Although the notion of a supernaturally gifted individual, proficient in magic or simply “psychic” predates Christianity, there was something of a renaissance in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s within Russia, through a decidedly modern medium – television.

AM remembers a boom time following the appearance of western-style, showman psychics on Russian TV. “We’ve always known about such matters but this style was something new”. Psychic healers such as Anatoli Kashpirovskiy and Allan Chumak caught the imagination of the viewing public. Their dramatic broadcasts included the former’s audience-based live-psychic shows and the latter’s ‘fireside-chat’ style “seances” direct to camera, where he even “charged” water through the TV screen.

“It was fun,” AM remembers, “but many believed, many claimed that they had been helped.” These people even included a close relative of hers who claimed that scars on her head and hands had disappeared after viewing Mr Chumak in action.

The general public were not the only ones interested in such esoteric artistry. We’ll look at that in some detail next time.

Previous post

Known for its extreme climate, Mongolia is a destination that many adventurers get excited about visiting. Offering vast areas of wilderness, this ancient land provides something for everyone.

Visitors are able to experience the urban flair of its capital Ulaanbaatar one day and observe stunning scenery in its rural areas, which range from the sprawling desert of the Gobi to never-ending grasslands and picturesque, snow-capped mountains, the next.

Whatever your unique itinerary has in store for you, travelling to Mongolia at just the right time is the key to ticking everything off that travel to-do list.

Whilst you can travel on the Trans-Mongolian at any time of the year, each season offers its own perks when travelling to Mongolia. Here we take a closer look at why you should organise your trip for spring, summer, autumn or winter to help you discover the best time to travel to Mongolia.

Spring

With wildflowers just popping their heads through the snow and the arrival of newborn animals, spring is no doubt a great time to visit Mongolia. With a varied itinerary, you can actually experience all four seasons during your springtime trip, with the usual joys able to be observed as well as many winter, summer, and autumnal scenes able to be appreciated across its many scenic places and attractions.

Running from March to May, springtime temperatures can drop to -3°C and climb to 12°C to provide a comfortable climate for exploration. Be prepared for windy and often stormy weather, however, particularly if you plan to visit the Gobi Desert. The infamous Eagle Festival also takes place during spring so you can experience local culture and customs in person.

Summer

Summer may be the season to experience Mongolia’s biggest and best national festival, Naadam. But travelling during this time, particularly to its congested cities and towns, can be uncomfortable.

The hottest month is July, and temperatures can surpass 45°C in the Gobi Desert during this time. In most of Mongolia however, summer sees temperatures of between 20 and 25°C.

Despite the high temperatures, rainfall is at its highest from June to September, which paves the way for some stunningly lush natural scenes in rural Mongolia.

If you are planning to travel during the warmer months, packing the right essentials will be the key to a comfortable and enjoyable trip. Make sure you’re prepared with our Mongolia summer packing list.

Autumn

The transition from summer to winter brings a varied climate, with average temperatures ranging from 15°C to -15°C. After Naadam, nomadic communities will be preparing for the coming winter with crop harvests, the preservation of livestock and the storage of fuel top priorities for locals.

Nevertheless, autumn remains a great time to visit many parts of Mongolia with the harvest providing much cause for celebration.

The Gobi Marathon and Camel Festival take place during autumn, so does the ‘One Day in Mongolia’ nomadic festival, also known as ‘The Nomads Day Festival’. Here Mongolian eco-camp Steppe Nomads explains more about what to expect from the festival:

“This fantastic cultural event is one of the biggest and most colourful festivals of Mongolian nomads and gives the best chance to experience the true Mongolian nomadic culture, traditions and customs within only 2 days. You will meet real nomads in their traditional costumes and competing with their incredible knowledge on nomadic traditions, witness young nomadic kids showing off their mental capacity, see the contest of traditionally dressed beautiful nomadic couples, see a thrilling folk concert of various nomadic groups and will be treated with mouth-watering steppe delicacies.”

Winter

Winter in Mongolia isn’t for the fainthearted, with temperatures ranging from 0°C to -30°C. As well as being the coldest season, it’s also the country’s most incredible. Landscapes are covered in glittering snow, making Mongolia’s already stunning scenes even more mesmerising.

When visiting Mongolia in winter, remember – preparation and planning are your friends. Find out more about how to plan a winter adventure in Mongolia for inspiration.

The removal of Russia’s Soviet government was a catalyst for far-reaching change, the results of which are still felt today, for better and for worse – depending upon whom you ask.

I’m interviewing AM, a woman with special sensitivities who witnessed the chaotic boom-time of the 1990’s –The Wild East– and who now lives with its legacy.

Services rendered

The Communist system regulated, controlled, and often restricted many aspects of Russian life – although the extent of its overbearing nature varied across its 70 year history. The most draconian regime existed under Stalin, and the least (ultimately resulting in its disintegration) under Gorbachev.

Personal enterprise was declared illegal, as all business was subject to control by the state. Any attempt to garner private wealth was considered exploitative, selfish theft that robbed the citizenship. Worse (and most dangerously for the perpetrator) it was anti-communist and a crime against the state itself.

So did this force everyone into line and create a uniform top-down economy? Of course not; the grey and black economies thrived (and still do), party membership bestowed personal privileges  and corruption boomed. Communism finally accepted religion – after failing to eradicate it, and after the Communists left; even older, more arcane practices rose into full view once more.

Now, that’s magic

“People present themselves as a Kaldun or even a Ved’ma!” AM tells me, of those offering specialist services via the small-ads. We’re talking about magic here, not stage sleight-of-hand, but practices and rituals whose roots predate Christianity. Communism would not have not tolerated these either, of course – but similarly, could not eradicate them.

A Kaldun (or Kaldun’ya if female) is a witch or sorcerer that practices white or black magic. The term is broad enough to also encompass wise woman: someone to consult for insights or even healing during times of difficulty. A Ved’ma is a term that is much more specific: an evil witch -and female.

Out of the woodwork

It’s a form of private enterprise that started to appear once the Communist watch dogs had left. AM relates: “Advertising services as magic was more common in the 1990’s, before then it would never have been allowed.” That’s only because of the self-employment aspect, incidentally, not the nature of the business itself. She continues: “Usually there were a lot of adverts in magazines and newspapers. Today, it is also advertised online, especially through social media.” We’ll look at Russia’s supernatural boom-time, plus the paranormal’s relationship to officialdom in the next article.

AM then sends me a link to a dedicated site offering numerous magical services for hire -and no, I won’t be posting it here. She advises me against ever using any of the services listed and is very doubtful about the motives behind (at least some of) the advertisements.

Sure enough though, miracles are ostensibly available at a price; a variety of options, some sold plainly as magical spells to resolve a variety of issues. Common issues that believers seek supernatural help for are “alcoholism, drugs, family issues and love spells” according to AM.

Customer demographics

Those purchasing supernatural assistance are usually ordinary people, pure and simple it seems. AM notes a bias away from those living modern, relatively sophisticated city lives.

Magic and superstition is more common out in the wilds, in villages and small towns where traditional ways are more likely to survive. It wasn’t so long ago that such beliefs were more prevalent however, as Marc Bennetts of New Humanist discovered:

“Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sinyavsky detailed a pervasive Tsarist-era belief in superstition, magic and pagan gods, as well as the widespread popularity of sorcerers and faith healers. ‘In Old Russia, almost everyone resorted to elementary magic help,’ wrote Sinyavsky. Magic was used on a daily basis.”

“Of course, a lot of those people move from such places to the city” AM tells me. They still have a desire for such familiar services in spite of their modern surroundings. This in turn allows providers to exist, or even flourish within a ‘sophisticated’ setting. Not everyone that lives in a city embraces modernity wholesale.

AM continues: “The people that go (to witches etc) are usually those with a weak faith”. She is referring to faith in Christian Orthodoxy -or rather the absence of it. It is, after all, an institution that wholeheartedly opposes such occult practices.

“Those with a strong faith would go to their priest and ask for help from God. Atheists would not go (to a witch) either” AM concludes: “As they don’t believe that anything supernatural exists!”, so the customer base is apparently composed of a low-faith, relatively unsophisticated middle-ground? That seems a little unfair, maybe the desperate are there too; those who have exhausted all conventional options and who only have extremes remaining.

The treatment of such customers is a particular bone of contention for AM, as we will discover next time.

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The Naadam Festival is one of the biggest cultural celebrations in the Mongolian calendar, a fact that makes July a popular time to visit this amazing yet mysterious country. The festival offers a chance to experience Mongolian culture at its best, with locals and visitors alike able to immerse themselves in all things Mongol.

A combination of arts and sports, Naadam delivers a powerful insight into everything from local food and drink to age-old customs and traditions. It is also a national holiday and a celebration of national independence.

The most popular place to see Naadam in all its glory is in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The Naadam of Ulaanbaatar, also known as ‘National Naadam’, is a huge celebration that starts a day or two before the official opening ceremony, with ankle bone shooting and horse racing typical warm-up events.

Naadam is however celebrated in every town and village throughout the country, so there are plenty of opportunities for travellers to celebrate the festival with the locals.

But why should you avoid big, city-based Naadam events and travel to a local event to enjoy Naadam on a smaller scale?

Local Naadams run from June to August

Whilst the Naadam of Ulaanbaatar takes place in mid-July, local events run throughout the summer months from June to August.

By going local to celebrate Naadam you can avoid peak travel times and still enjoy an authentic Naadam event.

Local Naadam events are generally more relaxed than the mainstream celebration in Ulaanbaatar, which can mean smaller events aren’t as precisely planned. Generally, dates and details of local Naadams are announced in early summer.

Mix with local people properly

In Ulaanbaatar, Naadam celebrations are conducted with the same planning and precision as any mainstream events and with this, you may not be able to mix with the locals as much as you’d like.

By going off the beaten track with a town or village Naadam Festival, you can experience something highly authentic and mix with more local people.

Experience Naadam at its most authentic

The Naadam of Ulaanbaatar is no doubt on a grander scale than smaller, village or town based events, but this only adds to their authenticity.

At a smaller scale, less crowded Naadam, you’re more likely to have the opportunity to participate in events, if you’re feeling up to the challenge! Get involved in wrestling, archery and other games and enjoy Naadam just as a local would.

Murun is recommended as a great place to experience Naadam minus the chaos of the capital as Town & Tourist describes:

“If you want less hustle & bustle with a more intimate celebration then head down to Murun. Located in the Khuvsgul region in northern Mongolia. Expect a scaled-down version of the Ulaanbaatar Extravaganza, but with a great ‘up close and personal vibe’ bringing you even closer to the action!”

You don’t need a ticket for local Naadams

Unlike the ticketed Naadam of Ulaanbaatar, which is held at the National Stadium, you generally don’t need tickets to attend Naadam events outside the capital. This is great news if you’re looking to enjoy Mongolia on a budget.

Can’t travel during Naadam? There are many more amazing festivals and events to enjoy in Mongolia. Discover 5 must-see Mongolian festivals that aren’t Naadam right here.

In this final examination of Kizhi Pogost, we return to the recollections of AN, who inspired this mini series, but first…

Fire and time

As we established last time,  Kizhi’s compound does not contain the island’s original structures. Those medieval creations are now lost to history and referenced only in ancient texts.

Perhaps it’s best to think of the site in terms of a collective lineage, rather than monolithic structures, especially considering vulnerabilities inherent in the construction materials.

The current version of the compound was constructed during the 18th century, considerably more recent than we may have initially expected.

The larger, Church of the Transfiguration (for summer use) dates back to 1714 and was constructed after it’s immediate ancestor burnt to the ground following a lightning strike. Its companion, the (winter) Church of the Intercession was constructed in 1764. The current bell tower was constructed in 1862, and would experience two major reconstructions before the end of the 19th century!

Finally, a wooden fence was added in the 1950’s to delineate between holy and secular ground. The whole compound is in a state of slow flux, under time’s glacial pace, with ongoing repairs modifications and restorations undertaken both within and without.

Visitation

“I’m sure that I have visited Kizhi at least four times” AN tells me. “The first time was in 1966/67. I was already aware of it because this is a very famous local memorial and also famous across the whole world.” I asked him how he perceived Kizhi at the time, being only 6 years old.

“I just knew that not far from my home is a very great, precious wooden memorial church. In our primary school, our teachers told us about our local land. Karelia, Petrozavodsk, and its surroundings.”

Being a local wonder, Kizhi was the local go-to destination for work-trips and celebrations of various kinds. It’s also the heart of a broader tourist industry, attracting visitors from across the world. AN continues:

“The 1st visit was with my parents. I lived in a military base – like a small village, where the fathers worked and families socialised. One person on the base organised family activities out of work – people not only worked together but also shared their free time. The organiser arranged a group trip to Kizhi for several families – approximately 20 people in total.”

AN tells me that the group was chaperoned and given a guided tour around the compound; an awe-inspiring experience for his young eyes. He reveals:

Exploration

“I looked at the old wooden log walls and thought: ‘How could they build this?’. They were huge and made a great impression. It was normal to see hangars and barns that were 2-3 metres high and made of boards, but this was different!” The occasion held more surprises too; a different kind of ‘unusual’.

“When we arrived there were a lot of foreigners present. In that time, the mid 60s, European foreigners were very rare. They were very strange and interesting to me. Kizhi was (and still is) a place where they come to see part of Russian history.”

Times were vastly different then, compared to now: especially where foreigners were concerned.

“At that time Soviet people were not permitted to have contact with foreigners. Groups were kept separate. The authorities were very suspicious. Adult Russians wouldn’t talk to them as they feared being reported.”

The fact that AN’s group consisted of military-base personnel made such an endeavour especially risky. It’s preferable not to end a pleasant-day trip with hours of detention and interrogation, of course.

Prestige

Kizhi still remains a remarkable, impressive and important historical/cultural location not only for Karelia but for Russia as a whole. In recent years it has become even more precious, with the addition of rescued wooden buildings, transported and reassembled on the island to form a living museum: The Kizhi Federal museum of culture and architecture.

Kizhi’s architectural wonders are an absolute must-see, especially now that external scaffolding, essential for several years of recent renovation, has been removed from around the Church of the Transfiguration (at the time of writing).

Due to the precious nature of the compound, a few basic rules are imposed upon those visiting the island, as Tripsavvy points out:

“Smoking is strictly prohibited on Kizhi Island except in certain areas. This is due to the delicate nature of the wooden structures – fires have wreaked havoc in the past. In addition, do not expect to stay on Kizhi Island overnight, as this, too, is forbidden.”

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