A Name Untethered

LakeKhuntami

Lake Khuntami in the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve is not a place you’ll find on the map; not because it lacks the significance to be noticed by cartographers, but because it bears a name rinsed from history. The word—Chinese in origin—means The Mountain that Looks like a Buddhist Pagoda, and was a name once shared by the lake, the river that flows through it to the Sea of Japan, and the mountain itself. But “Khutami” became untethered from this place in the early 1970s; a casualty of declining Sino-Soviet relations. Incensed by border disputes, Russian officials at the time demanded that mapmakers hastily rename rivers, mountains, and settlements from the original Chinese, Manchurian, and native Udegei names to cement Soviet dominion over the southern Russian Far East. In doing so they severed ties between the land and the thousand years of Chinese and native history. Slide your finger along a map of Primorye today and at Lake Khuntami you’ll find the name Golubichnoe—Blueberry Lake—named in Russian for the vast bog of these berries that cushion its shores.

Khuntami was only one landmark among hundreds of others renamed across the region. Some rivers lost their historical significance in this nomenclatural transition, such as the Daubikhe—The River Where There Were Many Battles—which became the Arsenyevka River in honor of the explorer Vladimir Arsenyev. For other river valleys, names shifted as the resources of interest within also changed over time. The Tyutikhe River valley, for example, formerly the Valley of Wild Boar, became the Rudnaya (“Ore”) River valley. This new name reflects the expansive mineral deposits that led to intense mining and eventual degradation of what was once a productive expanse of pine forest teeming with wildlife. Some rechristenings defied logic, such as the Panchasegou, the River that Twists like Intestines, which is now quizzically known as the Pryamaya, or Straight, River.

Although many locals in the nearby village of Ternei still reject “Golubichnoe” in deference to “Khuntami,” over time the original name will likely be diluted from the oral lexicon in the same way it has faded from regional maps. In my fifteen years in Ternei I’ve noticed the word “Golubichnoe” being used more and more with reference to this body of water, and “Khuntami” less and less. Eventually, when people think about this place they won’t imagine the swooping angles of the mountain looming above, but rather the stunted blueberry patches that line this secluded lake.

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