"We Are Still Young."
The Stories Under the Ground (Part 3)
Gornaya Maevka—Mountain Gathering—is a village neighboring the Tien Shan Mountains. It’s a space where snow almost blinds you and a lack of cars makes you feel deaf, a town far too disorienting for its modest size. It’s mostly made up of vacant summer homes, lined in such a way that only locals can really navigate it.
A main road divides the town in half, and it’s here that you can find the grocery store, the school, the abandoned factory, the local government building, and the old men who talk and drink. They’re standing near the side of the road, acting as if they are landmarks built into the landscape itself.
If you’re trying to find anything in this town, you’ll probably need to ask them. It’s likely that they will know where you need to go, and if they don’t know where you need to go, they’ll ask you to stay and enjoy their company. It’s what the old men do when they’ve made themselves landmarks, and it’s what you’re supposed to do when you find yourself lost in their village. Visit with the old men, ignore their invitation to drink with them, hear their stories about the village, and walk away knowing you’ve honored some old men, even if you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.
. . .
I show the old men a picture on my phone. “Do you know where this building is? I’ve been told it’s in this town.”
One of the men looks at my picture, then looks me up and down.
“I’ve never seen that building before in my life,” he replies, accentuating a lisp from a lack of front teeth. He motions to the other man.
“No, I haven’t,” the other man says. “No. Or maybe I have. It may be up that way. Go up towards the mountains. I know that there are holy rocks up there.”
“Don’t listen to him. I don’t think we have anything like this in our village. I’ve lived here a long time and haven’t seen it,” the first man says.
“Why are you looking for this?” asks the second.
“You know who you need to ask?” says the first with his toothless smile. “Go ask someone old. We are still young. We’re too young to know where this could be.”
“Feel free to stay—we have something to drink if you want,” the second continues. “Why are you looking for this? Are you Buddhist or something?”
. . .
The picture I show them—and show to countless other villagers after them—comes from an article published about three years ago. It describes a small dacha, located somewhere in the town of Gornaya Mayevka, that was converted into a Buddhist community center a few decades ago. It’s a place that has welcomed travelers from all across Eurasia, proclaiming itself as one of the only Buddhist centers to exist in this region of the world.
The building itself does not look like it’s trying to hide from anyone. The wall facing the street displays a prominent mural of a woman and an elephant, surrounded by a sprinkling of flowers on a teal-colored wall. Its design sticks out like a billboard, an announcement of the religion of the Far East to the Russian or Kyrgyz who may pass it by.
And yet, it takes me over an hour before I find anyone who recognizes the building in the photo. Everyone just shakes their head, or stares in confusion, repeating “I have lived in this village my entire life and have never seen this building once.”
. . .
A man named Rinat knows where this community center is. He tells me that he remembers when the center was first established and, though he is Muslim, he has become close friends with its residents.
“I could tell you where to go, but you probably would get lost, and then you would drive back and would ask me directions again, and so it will probably just be easier if I get in your car and show you the way.”
He gets in the car, and we ride through the narrow roads of the mountain village. He could show me this route with his eyes closed if he wanted to.
“I heard you talking with the old men on the main road,” he laughs, “there’s no way they would have been able to tell you where to go. They would have kept you wandering in circles like you have been doing. You should be lucky you found me. I see people like you come every once in a while, and I am always the one to tell them how to get to this place.”
. . .
Alexei is Altai, originally from southern Siberia. As an Altai he shares ancestry with other Turkic peoples, such as the Kazakh and the Kyrgyz, and with that common ancestry comes certain similarities in history and culture.
Yet unlike most Kyrgyz, or Kazakhs, or even most Altai, Alexei is also Buddhist. He is a newer convert, only discovering the belief system less than half a decade ago. But he claims conversion for him was not a difficult process.
“The Altai people have always believed in animism. And so it was easy for me to transition to Buddhism when I learned about it. Our beliefs were already very similar.”
A new convert he might be, but he has learned the practices quickly. He lights the incense, gets on his knees and bows, beginning the rhythmic hum of Mongolian chant.
. . .
In the late 1800s an archeological discovery was made on the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. Near the town of Tamga, a village intersecting the mountains and the lake, a stone was found with the following inscription: “Oh, the jewel is in the lotus.”
This a principal Buddhist mantra, one of the most common meditative sayings in the religion. Two other stones were found alongside this inscription, one dated between the 10th and 12th century, the other between the 15th and 17th. All three of the stones intended for the Buddhist, to call him to prayer and meditation.
These are not the only pieces of evidence we find for Buddhists in Central Asia. Turn to countless other villages in the region, and you may expect to find Buddha statues underground or Buddhist murals in nearby caves. Even Tash Rabat, a caravanserai in southern Kyrgyzstan, is believed to once have been a Buddhist monastery.
As Alexei explains, “we were everywhere.”
. . .
Now, however, there is only Alexei. He practices his chants alone, the only audible noise in this half-empty village. He is the only one to tell me of the past, how Buddhists could once be found in every portion of this region, how Uyghurs and Sogdians and other Turkic peoples worshipped and recited the mantras on the stones. He tells me that, now, people from all over continue to come and visit him, but the hour I had just experienced beforehand makes it hard for me to believe him.
After he demonstrates his ritual, we sit and drink tea with one another. Rinat is there, too, and he tells us his own stories about the village and of sacred rocks he has found higher up the road. He asks if I am interested in buying any off of him. And Alexei, meanwhile, sits there quietly, hosting us with a precise ritual commonplace in Central Asian meals.
. . .
As we drive back down to the main road I see the old men outside of my window. They are still talking with one another, unmoved since the last time I saw them. They are laughing to themselves, showing off proudly the gaps in their teeth and the wrinkles on their faces.
They consider themselves too young to know where this Buddhist landmark is. There’s a sort of irony here. When these old men brush off the unfamiliar and point us towards an older generation, we have to ask ourselves: how far back would we need to go? How long would it take us until we found the generation that saw this religion not as unfamiliar, but as commonplace as the stones beneath our feet?
Thank you all for patiently waiting while I pick this series back up. For a variety of reasons, my family and I have had to transition back to the United States, which put a major delay in getting these pieces published.
TMNE isn’t finished—I still have some more stories to tell. Please consider subscribing to keep up with the latest article. Thank you for your support!