Ulan Ude: Familiar Faces from 1995
David and I spent one more night in Galtai, and then Buyanto drove us to Ulan Ude, where he and Tsypelma planned to help their children settle into their dormitories at the technical institute. Bayarma, who was a pigtailed nine-year-old in 1995, is studying dairy technology. Beligto, who as a 10-year-old helped his father slaughter the sheep for us, is now 20 and studying economics.
Bayarma was in class when we arrived, but we got to see Beligto, who still has the same boyish smile despite having grown a couple of feet taller. We also met Buyanto's mother, who lives in Ulan Ude with her youngest daughter. When David asked to photograph her, she proudly put on the Soviet-era medal she won for having given birth to ten children.
After a snack of tea and some leftover mutton Buyanto had brought from Galtai, it was time for us to go. Buyanto and Tsypelma walked us to a nearby bus stop, and I found it difficult to say goodbye -- especially to Tsypelma, as she seemed tired and sad, and still not fully recovered from her cancer treatment over the summer. She began to cry as the bus approached, and we hugged each other tightly before David and I had to hurry onboard. As the bus pulled away, I waved out the window until I couldn't see them anymore.
We made our way to Dom Pechati, the "house of publishers" where most of Ulan Ude's newspapers are based. There, we met with Tsyren-Dulma Dondogoy, who is now 73 and retired, but still occasionally goes in to her old office there. I'd been happy to learn that she was still living, and also that her friend Baldama Shagdanova, who had originally introduced us to Buyanto, is still living as well, though we didn't manage to track her down in time for a photograph.
In fact, only one person we'd met in 1995 had died, and it was someone I would never have expected. Zhymbe, the 45-year-old lama at the Kharyasta Datsan, had died of heart failure just a month or so before we arrived in Galtai. Zhymbe and Buyanto had been classmates in school, and Buyanto was still upset about his friend's death. "He didn't have a wife, or children," Buyanto told us. "He had been healthy, no problems. Then one day his heart just stopped." The day after Zhymbe was buried, Buyanto told us, his house had mysteriously burned down.
In bright red traditional Buryat dress, with her long white hair braided into a ponytail, Tsyren-Dulma looked radiant. She still has the same air of serenity, the same way of weaving together gestures and words to paint verbal pictures as she speaks. She said I hadn't changed since 1995, then told me the secret to never aging:
"If a person can find happiness wherever they look," she said, "he will not get old. You can find happiness in anything, even the tiniest grain of sand, if you know how."