Chapter 6: Ice-Cold in Irkutsk

Ice-Cold in Irkutsk

Volume 3, Chapter 6

January 23 – 24, 2001, Irkutsk, Siberia.


Early in the morning we arrived at the train station in Krasnoyarsk to catch our train to Irkutsk, a 24-hour journey further east into Siberia. The black night and freezing temperatures combined with the lack of lights on the platform to make for an eerie atmosphere. As we stood there old speakers blared out passionate instructions to passengers waiting for their train. People moved quickly through the cold air. No one smiled and few talked. The station was old, nothing having changed much since it was constructed. It could have easily been a scene from the 1940s. After a while our antiquated train lumbered into the station and we boarded. The devotees had again kindly reserved us first-class compartments. They were OK, but mine had first-class fleas who enjoyed my company immensely. We shared a common interest, my body, and as the day wore on they outnumbered me and became the actual proprietors.

From the early morning into the evening I worked on my correspondence. By a stroke of fate, my compartment had an electrical output that worked and I was able to plug my computer in. I worked diligently answering the 132 letters in my inbox. By 11pm I had succeeded in answering all of them. I considered it a great achievement; as I had been working on those letters since November.

Falling asleep I had another interesting dream. I overheard the conversation of some thieves as to where they had hidden a valuable treasure chest of jewels. The next day I ventured into a forest with several devotees to find it. There was myself, Vara-nayaka and Gaurangi dasi.

We came across an abandoned house and went inside. I pried up the floorboards and found a huge chest of jewels.

The dream was in full color. We lifted the jewels out and were amazed by the strands of pearls, emeralds and rubies. Gaurangi was saying that we would never have to worry about collecting funds for the Polish tour again and that we should run with the treasure chest. But Vara-nayaka said that it was dangerous – that perhaps the thieves would find us. To Gaurangi’s astonishment, I closed the treasure chest and said, “Let’s not take the risk.” Then I woke up.

As the train rolled through the Siberian countryside, I lay on my bunk thinking about the dream. Perhaps I had it because of the pressure I am under to bring in enough funds to run the Polish tour for five months a year. There is only myself and one sole disciple, Rasamayi dasi, collecting. It’s another responsibility, on top of being a traveling preacher.

We arrived at Irkutsk at 2am. A group of devotees were waiting on the platform to receive us. I didn’t have to speculate why they weren’t chanting – the neon sign outside read 32 degrees below zero! The men entered the compartment, collected our baggage and helped us off the train. As we drove to a house outside the city, I asked the local devotees what Irkutsk was famous for? They smiled and said in unison, “Cold weather!” They told me that a few days ago it was 54 degrees below. I asked them what it was like to be in such cold weather? They replied that it’s so extreme that people have to take special precautions. When walking outside, one has to be especially careful with one’s eyes, they can be easily damaged by the severe cold. Exposed skin starts to bleed. One even has to be careful while walking in the forest, because at those temperatures tree branches explode! The people here have learned the art of survival. There are three planes of glass on all windows in the houses and many homes have underground tunnels to a neighbor or friends’ houses to avoid the extreme cold. When it gets that cold the whole city closes down, public transportation doesn’t function, people don’t go to work and kids don’t go to school.

We are only 200km from Mongolia. Because that’s one place I have never been, I inquired from the men if it would be possible to visit there and preach. They replied that it was possible, but a special visa is required. They said that Laksmi Narayana prabhu, the regional secretary in Siberia, had recently been there and had made several devotees.

We arrived at Bhakta Andre’s home, a beautiful house just outside the city. He’s a successful businessman and an active member of the local yatra. When we entered the house I sat and discussed with some of the devotees, although it was 4am. At one point they eagerly brought forth my disciple, Guna Avatar das, who had recently won the Christmas Marathon. They were obviously proud of him, and rightly so for he had distributed over 500 big books on the streets of Irkutsk in the wintry conditions. I thanked him for his service and talked with the boys about the glories of book distribution. I mentioned that I had distributed books for almost 10 years, and that if I had the opportunity I would gladly return to that service full time.

Guna Avatar seems to be of Eskimo origin. We are getting closer to the east coast of Russia, near Japan. Northwards is where the Eskimo tribes live. They have perfected the art of living in these cold lands. Their ice-huts are well known throughout the world. Later in the evening, Uttamasloka told me that one of Prabhavisnu Maharaja’s disciples, Vicitravirya das, comes from the Eskimo tribes. His local tribe had selected him as the best candidate to send to the big city to educate with the aim of one day returning and helping the tribe. They collected funds for years and when he was 18 they sent him to Vladivostok to attend the university. He was the pride and joy and the future hope for the tribe. But soon after arriving in Vladivostok he met the devotees and joined the movement. He eventually returned to visit his village in dhoti and tilak. It was quite a surprise for his people, but through his preaching they appreciated his new-found faith.

We took rest at 5am and rose at 8am to perform our sadhana. We took some extra rest in the day and at 3pm went to do a hall program in Irkutsk with the local devotees. Driving into the city from Bhakta Andre’s we passed by Lake Baikal, the Pearl of Siberia. With a depth of almost 10km, it’s the deepest freshwater lake in the world. It is a tourist spot here in Siberia, but I didn’t have a clue as to what attracts people. All we could see was frozen water covered with meters of snow! One thing that did catch my attention was a number of cars on the lake! The weather is so cold here that the lake freezes to the point that you can park a car on it. People drive out, drill a hole in the ice and fish through it. The devotees told me that every year in the spring, several cars sink through the melting ice with the fishermen inside. That’s what I would call instant karma.

Entering the city we passed several areas with wooden houses more than 200 years old. Many have intricate woodwork carvings on the fronts, an opulence that is rarely seen in Russia. During the communist era, when many of the present buildings were built, the rule was to make everything as modest as possible.

When we arrived at the hall I was once again taken aback by the large number of devotees waiting for us. More than 400 devotees had assembled, a number of them journeying 1200km for the program. Because Jananivasa had previously noted these hall programs consist of many intellectuals, I decided to speak on the scientific basis of Krsna consciousness. One by one, I brought up Srila Prabhupada’s arguments on the existence of the soul, emphasizing that life comes from life. I also spoke on the existence of God and the origin of the universe. The ideas came easily and sastric verses flowed forth. Establishing Krsna as the source of everything, I said that we, as His parts and parcels, are duty-bound to serve Him. I concluded the class in my favorite way, by glorifying the holy names as the easiest and most sublime method of understanding the Supreme Creator, God. At the end of the class, the audience applauded.

Inspired by hearing the glories of the holy name, Sri Prahlad led one of the best kirtans I’ve ever heard him perform. He started out slowly, gradually bringing in his beautiful melodies and developing the kirtan to an ecstatic crescendo. The devotees were in bliss. In particular,

  • noticed a 10-year-old girl dressed in blue chanting very enthusiastically. She had initially caught my attention because she had sat throughout my entire lecture without moving, listening to every word. As the kirtan started, she closed her eyes and chanted attentively. Each time I looked over at her she was fully absorbed in the kirtan. After half an hour, I was startled to see tears rolling down her cheeks, as she chanted with obvious feeling. I thought to myself, “Perhaps she’s just a sentimental kid.” But I began to doubt my judgment, as she remained there for the whole two-hour kirtan chanting from her heart. When the kirtan reached its peak her arms were raised, her teary eyes looked upward, and she chanted with abandon.

At the end I thought to myself, “Who is this young girl. A demigoddess from a higher planet?”


Little girl in blue

One day I want to be like you

Weeping as I chant the names

Oblivious to name and fame

I saw you from the very start

Chanting with love, from your heart

For hours you remained the same

Fully absorbed in the holy names

Why can’t I cry when I chant too?

Why don’t I raise my arms like you?

The answer must be my lack of surrender

The truth must be that I’m a pretender

But seeing the tears streaming down your face

Has once again given me faith

That the holy names are all that be

That the holy names can save even me

Little girl in blue

I pray someday I’ll be like you

With tears in my eyes and arms to the heavens

Chanting with love, chanting with blessings.