Ulan Ude: The Hangover and the Sheep

We woke up the next morning hung over. A bracing walk to the outhouse in the chill morning air helped clear my head a little, but not nearly enough. David was in pain as well, and Buyanto laughed as he recounted how David had paced around the night before until Buyanto had helped him to bed. David recalled none of this.

After breakfast, Buyanto drove us to a rocky hillside not far from Galtai. We hiked up a few hundred feet to a cave, and Buyanto pointed out ancient drawings of people, cows and sheep. "I had never seen these," he told us, "until two Swiss tourists came to Galtai with a map not long ago, and they showed us where it was."

Photo Gallery: A stupa, or Buddhist prayer monument, stands in a vast stretch of empty land near Galtai.(David Hillegas)

The land in this part of Buryatia seems to go on forever. The wind whistled down the hillside, through a lone tree with bright yellow leaves. A crow flew by, the flapping of its wings echoing against the rocks. I watched as Buyanto stood squinting against the morning sun, looking out over the land.

Ten years ago, Buyanto was something of a maverick; he was one of the first in the area to leave the kolkhoz (collective farm) and start his own private farm. In the early 1990s, he took advantage of government programs granting farmers free land and several years of tax-free operations, and he built an impressive business. Buyanto's farm, which also employed four of his seven living brothers, boasted 120 cows and 300 sheep as well as a bakery.

Today, Buyanto says, nearly all private farmers in Buryatia have gone out of business. "There were more than 200 private farms in this region," he said. "Now there are only five or six left. There used to be an official association of Buryat farmers. Not anymore. Agriculture is in a bad state right now."

"Electricity is much more expensive here than in the Irkutsk region," he went on. "We had to close the bakery because there was no way we could make a profit."

In fact, the only reason Buyanto's own farm has survived is because of an arrangement he made with a new school for orphans in Galtai. It opened a few doors down from Buyanto's house in 2000, and within two years he'd arranged to provide beef, mutton and wheat to the school, which serves 180 children. He also receives a salary from them.

"Without the school, we wouldn't have been able to keep the farm going," he told me. "Thanks to them, we can survive."

We made our way back down the hillside, and Buyanto drove us to a stupa, a Buddhist prayer monument. In 1995, Buyanto let Gary photograph him performing a prayer ceremony, and 10 years later he continues to practice Buddhism.

He prays at times for the health of his wife, Tsypelma, who underwent treatment for skin cancer over the summer and is still struggling with the side effects. She tires easily, and says her hair is now falling out. Tsypelma didn't recognize me on seeing me 10 years later, though Buyanto said that was because her treatment affected her memory. When I sat with her on their couch, and crossed my legs in a certain way, she suddenly remembered who I was. "I remember you sitting like that before!" she said. "Now, I can picture you."


Last night, Buyanto promised to kill a sheep for our dinner tonight -- an honor he also bestowed on Gary and me in 1995. Like he did then, Buyanto chases down a healthy young sheep, tackles it, ties its legs together, and then puts it in the trunk of his Volga. Last time, he prepared the sheep at his house. This time, we go to his brother's, where his niece will help him prepare it.

Buyanto cuts a slit down the animal's chest, then reaches in to pinch an artery near its spine. The sheep struggles, its internal organs poking out of the body cavity. Other animals nearby grow restless, until the sheep finally succumbs.

For the next 40 minutes, Buyanto works to separate the animal's skin from its body. He then ladles the blood out of the body cavity into a pail, and carefully removes all the internal organs. According to Buryat tradition, every part of the animal will be eaten -- including the stomach, blood, intestines and gleaming chunks of fat. Only the head is discarded, tossed over a fence for a ravenous dog to wolf down.

Photo Gallery: For the feast, the table is laden with heaping plates of sheep organs, blood pudding and meat. (David Hillegas)

Tonight, we will dine on heaping plates filled with the meat, internal organs and baked blood, and we will drink more vodka to wash it all down. I am touched that Buyanto has honored us with this traditional Buryat feast, but I only wish I weren't approaching it with a hangover.

At the table in the evening, Buyanto offers heartfelt toasts to our friendship, to our health and to seeing each other again. He seems more warm and expansive than I remember from ten years ago; I tell him that I now realize it was silly to have worried about whether he'd hold a grudge about the unsent photograph, as he's not that kind of man.

He asks me if I think he's changed, and when I tell him no, he says, "But I have, inside. I don't trust people anymore. People have changed, they only think about money and how they can help themselves."

I'm surprised and saddened to hear this. He goes on to say, "I've been deceived by people I thought were friends. I've even been deceived by my relatives." His face suddenly looks tired. "When you were here, 10 years ago, people were different. It's sad."

For a moment, the table is silent. Then, as though he can't stand the heaviness that's descended over his feast, Buyanto breaks into a big smile. He lifts his glass, and offers yet another toast to our health and happiness. "Come again to Galtai," he says, "but don't wait ten more years to do it."

By Lisa Dickey |  September 29, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: Ulan Ude: Seeing the Farmer, Ten Years Later | Next: Ulan Ude: Familiar Faces from 1995


Please email us to report offensive comments.

It has been very exciting to read about your travels as I just returned from Irkutsk. University of Maryland University College (UMUC) has a joint degree program with Baikal Institute, part of Irkutsk State University. As the manager of the program, I returned from our 2005 commencement ceremony a couple of weeks ago. If you wish to visit some of our partners there, please let me know and I will put you in touch.
Beautiful country and beautiful people. Enjoy!

Posted by: Victoria Peterson | September 29, 2005 01:20 PM

Did you get sick from eating that *fresh* of a kill? I got dangerously ill after my wife's family slaughtered a pig, and we later ate it that same day(Russians called it "svezhina"). Absolutely delicious. Positively wretchingly disgustingly sick all that night. Most Americans can't handle that *fresh* of meat I was told (our intestines).

Posted by: pectopah | September 29, 2005 04:35 PM

Wow! what an amazing string of posts, the 'photo' to the 'feast,' amazing! I admire and envy you Lisa. Doing this seems like a lot of work but the payoff must be extrodinary.

Posted by: Lane | September 30, 2005 07:59 AM

Hi, pectopah - No, we didn't get sick from the mutton, though it sounds like you had a pretty miserable experience! I'm just glad I read your comment after our feast, and not before...


Posted by: Lisa Dickey | September 30, 2005 10:34 AM

david, classic picture of the sheep organ feast. perfect for Bon Apetit Magazine.

Posted by: john lewis | October 7, 2005 01:56 PM

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