North to Siberia
Volume 3, Chapter 1
January 18, 2001, Barnoul, Siberia.
Today I am traveling by train through the vast desert region of northern Kazaksthan, in central Asia. I am alone in one compartment and Sri Prahlad and his wife, Rukmini Priya, are in another. We are heading north towards Russia. Our 34 hour ride will conclude in Barnoul, deep in the snows of Siberia, where we will have one and a half days of programs with the local devotees. It will be the beginning of a 4 week tour throughout Russia.
We have just left Almaty, the capitol of Kazakthan. There we participated in the Vyasa Puja festival of my dear godbrother, Bhakti Bringa Govinda Maharaja. Over 200 devotees came from central Asia, Russia and even Europe for the event. When we first arrived in Almaty we drove out to visit Maharaja’s developing farm project, “Sri Vrindavan Dhama”, 45 minutes outside of the city. Maharaja purchased land there 3 years ago. I was amazed at how much he has achieved in such a short time. Sri Vrindavan Dhama has a small but beautiful reconstructed house that serves as a temple, where the main Deity is a very large Govardhana Sila. They also worship a large Nrsimha salagram, that I sent them last year. He is probably the most terrifying Nrsimha sila on earth and Maharaja told me that since He arrived at the farm, our movement has met with little resistance in Kazakhstan.
The property has a very large barn, where they keep about 15 cows and bulls. It also serves as base for their small prasadam and candle making businesses. The property has a lot of land where they grow fruits, vegetables and grains. I also noticed a large lake, renamed “Radha Kunda” by the devotees – along whose banks are many “Dacha’s” or small cottages, used as retreats by the people of Altmay in the summer. Maharaja has purchased a number of them for housing his devotees.
Sri Vrindavan Dhama reminded me a lot of “New Vraja Dhama” in Hungary. The Hungarian farm project manifested over 10 years by the strong desire of Sivarama Swami and is already famous throughout Hungary. Obviously, Govinda Maharaja has started Sri Vrindavan Dhama in the same spirit and no doubt it will eventually achieve the same fame within Kazakhstan. I know, however, how much blood, sweat and tears go into starting and developing such a community. Men, money and capital don’t come easy in this world. But in Krsna consciousness we always have a special incentive; the mercy of Krsna. By His grace
alone we can accomplish the great tasks that our spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, has requested of us. Govinda Maharaja has shown his worthiness as a disciple of His Divine Grace, by developing New Vrindavan Dhama practically from dusty fields alone. Srila Prabhupada once said that a project is, “only as good as the man who is heads it up.”
We observed Maharaja’s 50th birthday anniversary in a medium sized hall on the outskirts of Almaty. We focused mainly on lectures and kirtans. Some of the kirtans went for as long as 3-4 hours. The devotees also did two excellent dramas of Krsna Lila. I have always noted that devotees from Russia and Central Asia are very talented in music, art and drama. In Bhagavad Gita, Krsna says that He is the “ability in man” and surely the Lord’s grace came through the beautiful dramas we saw at that festival. The dramas were actually taken from Rupa Goswami’s play, “Lalita Madhava”. They were done so well that we all had the good fortune to experience what may have been genuine sentiments of affection for the Lord. I saw many devotees crying.
A snow storm was raging as we left our apartment in Almaty to go to the train station yesterday. We just barely made the train. The devotees had reserved us 1st class compartments; although by ‘western’ standards they would have been rated much less. But they are comfortable and, most important, warm. Rumors have been circulating that in Siberia there is a record cold front of minus 47 degrees. A week ago I was in Sydney, Australia, where the temperatures were around 32 degree ABOVE zero. I find the drastic temperature changes one of the most difficult things about being a traveling preacher. Generally the body becomes accustomed to the heat of summer or the harshness of winter by gradually going through the temperature changes of Spring and Autumn, respectively. But preaching calls us to places according to need and we have to accept the austerity of facing the heat or cold head on.
As our train proceeds through the barren desert like area of northern Kazakhstan, the scene outside remains the same hour after hour; an endless horizon of snow. The land is flat and the monotonous view is only broken from time to time by a small settlements of old wooden houses. I can’t imagine how people live out here! I see them shuffling from house to house all bundled up in old coats and fur hats. The fur hats are typical of Russia and the countries that used to be part of it’s empire. Full fur coats are also quite common.
Sometimes the train stops at a station and a few people, waiting patiently in the snow and freezing wind, jump on. At that time, a few brave souls get off the train to buy refreshments from the old ladies on the platform. They mainly sell meat and vodka – and what appears to be a flat bread. The old ladies are the poorest of all, as seen by their attire, which sometimes consists of only an old coat and rags around their bodies. Their faces are red from the cold. Because Kazakhstan borders western China, the Kazakhstan people all have black hair and slanted eyes.
Because we don’t speak any Russian we can’t ask anyone when we will cross the border into Russia. I want to be prepared, because past experience has shown that it can be a real ordeal.
The border guards in the “outpost” crossings can be very difficult. They sometimes like to intimidate foreigners. They demand to see all the things in our bags, and create an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. But we can’t communicate with the lady in charge of our coach, so I place myself on “red alert” and have my bags and identity papers ready at all times. I also sleep with all my cloths on, so that I won’t be embarrassed by the border guards bursting into my compartment in the dead of night and shouting at me in Russian.
There’s not much more to report in a small cabin during 34 hours of riding up through Kazakhstan and into Russia. We finally cross the Russian border 27 hours into the journey. By some quirk of fate, the knock on my door was surprisingly soft and when I opened it the border guard was a rather shy young woman in military fatigues. She silently took my passport and came back a half hour later with it stamped. She then looked briefly into the cabin and without a word left. It was the easiest entry I’ve ever had into Russia.
We arrived in Barnoul at midnight in the midst of a huge blizzard. About 40 local devotees were having a rousing kirtan on the platform. My heart went out to them – it was 12 degrees below zero outside and the wind was raging! As I jumped off the train, the cold hit me and I zipped my jacket up to the neck. But when I tried to speak to a few devotees on the way to the car, my lips were so cold I couldn’t say the words.
As we drove to a devotee’s apartment, the temple president, Visnu Tattva das, a disciple of Prabhavisnu Swami, told me that the morning program the next day was to begin at 7 am. That meant only 4 hours of sleep! He had also scheduled a darsan with my disciples (who
haven’t seen me in 3 years) for the late morning, then Deity worship and japa, lunch … and a big evening program. Senior devotees rarely visit this isolated area, so devotees are really excited about the evening festival. They have invited many important people from Barnoul. Devotees from other regions of Siberia are also supposed to be coming, but Visnu Tattva says some may not make it because of the bad weather.
Then our next train leaves for our next destination and deeper into the Siberian winter. I almost fainted when Visnu Tattva told me the journey will take 27 hours!