Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ulan Ude and an Eastern Medicine Clinic

This is the first in a series of essays entitled Travels in Siberia. These are various journeys I made here, starting in 1986. © Boyd Norton

Ulan Ude and an Eastern Medicine Clinic
            The journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Khabarovsk and Ulan Ude is a trip backward in time. It takes two days, more or less, to travel between those two cities. For me it has the feeling of journeying back decades to the 1940s and 1950s of my childhood in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
I’m not suggesting that Rhode Island has the climate of Siberia. Nor does it, today, resemble this part of Siberia at all. However, during and immediately after World War II there was a certain look and feeling to my childhood surroundings that are nearly replicated today in many Siberian towns and cities. I still remember in Pawtucket those abandoned textile mills with broken windows, woodlots, grassy meadows, dirt streets (the street I lived on was not paved until the early ‘50s), weedy vacant lots, old but charming houses in need of painting, rundown wooden fences, and victory gardens in everyone’s backyard. Horse drawn wagons were not at all unusual then. Once a week the Ragman used to drive his horse and wagon down our street yelling in a sing-song voice, “Raaaaags.” He bought old clothing from people. I never understood how anyone could make a living doing that. There were others that delivered ice for iceboxes, also with horse and wagon. We got our ice from a nearby icehouse, probably because it was cheaper. Refrigerator? What’s that?
The factories around Pawtucket that remained open were two or three story buildings made of brick darkened by age and pollution and with windows consisting of rectangular mosaics of many small panes whose glass was forever dirty and grimy and, occasionally, broken. Not at all unlike the Soviet era buildings found in Siberia. There were no shopping malls. There were no Safeways or Wal-Marts. Most people walked two or three blocks or more to small neighborhood groceries. Sidewalks, what few there were, had shaggy weeds growing up through the cracks. There were streetcars and electric buses that had spring loaded poles on the back to ride along the electrical wires overhead. There were trolleys that ran on rails imbedded in many of the main thoroughfares. Traffic jams were unheard of because very few people owned a car. Those that did kept and maintained them for many years. A brand new car was cause for gaping.
It was a simple time. And not unpleasant, though for adults I’m sure it was a worrisome period after a major economic depression and a world war. Today American towns have become too slick and neat. No weed is allowed to spring up in a vacant lot. In fact, there are no vacant lots – they’ve long since been developed and turned into condos. (In my Pawtucket of old, certain parts of the city had many streets lined with tenements. Condos today are just a modern day equivalent of tenements.) No sidewalks today have cracks for weeds to sprout up through. No street remains unpaved and no lawn remains uncut. There are no more vegetable gardens in the backyard. The trolley cars have been replaced by multitudes of shiny new cars jammed bumper to bumper on streets lined with sterile shopping malls. No one walks. There are no horse drawn wagons.
Street in Irkutsk
Except in Siberia. There’s a nostalgic simplicity here. I think it’s part of the reason that I’m drawn to this strange and wonderful land. In Khabarovsk and Ulan Ude and Irkutsk there are still trolleys running on rails set in the streets. There are electric buses with poles reaching up to draw power from overhead wires. There are weedy lots and sidewalks with grass poking up through cracks. Old buildings in these cities are reminiscent of those rundown textile mills of Pawtucket. (Like the designers of those American mills, Soviet architects had no sense of aesthetics.)
Gardens in Villages from the Trans-Siberian
In the countryside life is even simpler. Standing in the narrow hallway of the compartment car of the Trans-Siberian train, I stare out the open window for hours as we pass through lovely countryside. The train slows for small villages and towns. There I see old log homes and yards filled with lovingly tended gardens of potato plants and tomatoes and cabbages and carrots and beets. These are like our Victory Gardens of World War II years. For most people here those vegetables are vital for survival in long and bitter winters. There are rundown fences, houses in need of paint, dirt streets, and weedy lots. And yes, horse drawn wagons and carts.
I feel at home here.

            Ulan Ude is a city of 380,000 people lying more than 5000 kilometers (and five time zones) east of Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It was founded as a Cossack outpost in 1666. The city sits astride the Selenga River whose origins are in Mongolia 200 kilometers to the south. The Selenga empties into Baikal about 100 kilometers west of the city.
Were they to return today, I’m afraid the Cossacks would be in for a bit of a shock. Strategically located on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Ulan Ude was transformed into one of those ugly Soviet industrial cities that sprang up in the Stalin era, from the 1930s through the 50s. With its belching factories and rows of sterile high rise apartments, the city could serve as poster child for the Ministry of Really Ugly Architecture in Moscow.
            Many of my trips to Lake Baikal have been through Ulan Ude because it gives easy access to some fascinating parts of the lake along the east shore.  On some of those excursions I’ve stayed at an Eastern medicine clinic in Ulan Ude. It’s kind of a combination hospital and hostel, run by a wonderful Buryat gentleman named Baer Balzhirov. The clinic is located in a forest, typical Siberian taiga, on the eastern outskirts of the city. It’s a place to relax, away from the noise and traffic of Ulan Ude.
Buryat Singers at Eastern Medicine Clinic
            On one of my first visits Baer made arrangements for some of us to have a medical diagnosis made by one of the Eastern medicine practioners. I must admit that I’m something of a skeptic about certain alternative forms of medicine and some modern day folk remedies. Perhaps it’s my scientific background, but when I read wild claims made for certain herbs and treatments I’m suspicious. Good scientific testing of the effectiveness of these medicines seems to be lacking. I’m equally suspicious of various alternative medical treatments.
On the other hand, I realize that in the natural world there are still some amazing substances awaiting discovery, complex derivatives from flora and fauna that may yield cures for many human maladies. On my many trips to Peru I discovered that the tea made from coca leaves actually does help acclimatization to high altitudes. So when Baer asked me, I agreed. What the hell, I thought. I’m game to give it a try and see if he diagnoses something interesting.
            The practitioner looked the part of a Buddhist monk, with shaven head and maroon robe. Rather than sandals he wore an ordinary pair of street shoes. The wingtips seemed to clash with the rest of his outfit, but I suppose this footware made more sense in the climate of Ulan Ude. His dark eyes had a piercing quality, giving the impression he could use his vision to penetrate skin and bone to root out sickness. He was introduced and we shook hands. He bowed slightly and I awkwardly bowed to him. With a sweep of his hand he asked me to be seated. I sat in a straight-backed chair and he seated himself opposite me on a sofa.
            I had been briefed on the procedure. The practitioner had been trained over many years to detect slight variations in the human pulse on each wrist and at different specific positions. According to the Eastern medicine theory there are something like twenty eight different pulse variations that can be detected by skilled practitioners. By understanding the meaning of changes in these pulses one can make diagnoses of certain illnesses or afflictions. I tried not to let my skepticism show.
            He leaned forward, grasped my forearms and rotated them so that my palms were facing upward. He placed his fingertips on my wrists in much the same way a doctor or nurse might when checking a pulse. However, rather than a fixed position, he moved his fingers to different spots and applied varying pressure. Also, he used both hands, one on each of my wrists. Sometimes his fingertips barely touched my skin, giving a tickling sensation. At other times the pressure was firm and hard. He spent several minutes doing this, moving his fingers from place to place on my wrists and forearms. All the time there was a look of intense concentration on his face and he cocked his head in such a way that it appeared he was listening for something as well.
            Suddenly he looked up at me and asked if I had any particular medical problems. The question took me by surprise – Hey, I thought, he was supposed to root out my problems on his own. I mulled over his question for a moment. I’m in pretty good health and, aside from an occasional cold or bout of the flu, I’ve had almost no medical – Oh, wait a minute. Yes, I explained to him, I do have one problem. You see, I went on, I’m a photographer and often I carry a lot of camera equipment, up to 15 kilos (over 30 pounds) - sometimes more. On days when I do a lot of walking while carrying that camera gear, well, at the end of the day my hip joints ache. Sometimes I cannot sleep well at night because of that pain.
            He nodded in understanding and once more grasped my wrists. Again he used his fingertips to probe my pulses. His brow was furrowed in concentration. Then he looked up at me about to speak.
            I must admit I got excited. Even though I was skeptical about this procedure, I recalled articles I had read about various new medicines derived from old, traditional herbs and remedies from ancient cultures worldwide. Maybe there is something to this. Siberia is noted for its ginseng and other herbal medicines. Surely he is about to prescribe some ointment or salve or tea made from the extract of leaves or bark or roots of a hitherto unknown but magical Siberian plant. And this would cure my aching joints. He cleared his throat and then spoke.
            “You’re getting old,” he said.
He didn’t even crack a smile.


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