Trips and Tales (Part 82)
On the map Buryatia caresses Lake Baikal as a scooping hand with its waters resting in the cupped palm. Around 60% of Baikal’s coast is part of the republic’s territorial land which at (just over) 350 square kilometres covers an area roughly the size (though not the proportions) of Germany.
The climate is dry, bright and sunny. Apparently very sunny, with over 300 days of blue-skied sunshine annually. That’s to be the envied here in the UK where it’s often provident to venture out with sun-cream in one hand and an umbrella in the other, just in case. Good grief, I can feel my serotonin levels drop through the floor at the very thought.
Down on the ground, Buryatia could well polarise the opinions of incoming tourists. In a world where a high degree of homogeneity caters for the “rich-western-tourist” (can’t you read a book by the pool in a great many identi-kit hotels, continents apart?), Buryatia (and upcoming Mongolia) makes many fewer concessions to modern convenience, and least of all: our convenience. It is mountainous across 80% of its territorial land and a great deal of it doesn’t even have roads – or at least anything resembling a road by our pampered standards. It’ll be time to break out the Jeep if you fancy a rugged bounce around the region. Much of the infrastructure, doesn’t appear to work or at least needs a good overhaul, all largely due to a combined lack of resources (at all levels) and political will. Reading between the lines I have to speculate: in a region where traditional values and lifestyles are still so prevalent; current even, is the pressure there to “get it fixed” anyway?, compared to say; a westernised nation?
Chances are that most venturing this far from their comfort zones are going to know-the-score well in advance and are here because of the nature (quite literally) of the region. You won’t have turned up expecting Brit themed pubs, beach-side fish and chips and a golden-mile of night clubs, for example. All good then.
It’s odd to talk about deeply held tradition in the context of a republic that only came into “official” existence in 1923 initially as the Buryat-Mongolian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. But of course, indigenous peoples have been living in their native regions long before Europeans turned up to draw rings on maps and give their contents names. It was formed from the merger of the Mongol-Buryat and Buryat-Mongol Oblasts. There was some reshuffling and renaming: peripheral territories were lost (reassigned to neighbouring regions) in 1937, “Mongolian” was dropped from its title in 1958, sovereignty declared in 1990 and the status of “Republic” adopted two years later. There’s definitely a sense of removal, of independent pride perhaps; its autonomous status survived the communist era and is still maintained within the Russian Federation today.
Aside from its relatively recent inception, another surprise is that the Buryats themselves only make up around a third of the population, the majority being Slavs, a good deal of whom are Old-Believer Russian Orthodox incidentally (and hopefully, interestingly). The other main creeds are traditional Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism, existing in a seemingly tolerant, even curious mixture. Someone I spoke to mentioned that his fellow Buryat Buddhist friend dropped by the Orthodox Church on Sundays, just because he liked the services. And why not? Yes, there definitely seems to be some pleasant surprises here. (Remember our chat with Igor, Buryat Shaman?)
The non-Buryat majority is due in no small part to Russian colonisation of the region since the 1600’s in a bid to exploit natural resources (essentially furs and gold) as the notion of expansion East started to become a tentative reality. This was all pioneer trail blazing two hundred years prior to the relative ease offered by the Trans-Siberian Railway. Aside from the two disproportionate main ethnic groups, there are also sub-percentile representations from Soyot, Georgian, German, Tartar, Armene, Uzbek and Azeri origins.
More next time.
[Photo by mikeemesser]