Ulan-Uday & Buryatia
Ulan-Ude is a regional capital in its own right – of the substantial region of Buryatia, one of the Siberian regions where the original Asiatic community remain the majority population. Buryats are ethnic cousins of the Mongolians, and share a border with Mongolia. However, their culture is significantly different to Mongolia in many ways. The languages are related but not the same. Mongolians mostly live in camel-felt ger-tents and migrate with their flocks around the country – Buryats prefer to live in wooden huts (called auls) and generally don’t migrate. However, Buryats share Buddhism with their Mongolian cousins as a prevailing religion – in fact the Buddhist lamasery at Ivolginsk (1.5 hours drive from Ulan-Ude) is considered such a major centre of Buddhist learning that Dalai Lamas are sent to study there. (The previous Dalai Lama spent four years studying there – this was during the most intensive period of the Cold War, so it can be easily imagined how difficult this had been to organize). Ulan-Ude is a small city but has a few points of interest. However, for most visitors the real interest lies beyond the city, in the outlying areas of Buryatia.
Don’t miss in and around Ulan-Ude…
The world’s largest Head Of Lenin
This is situated on a massive plinth in the centre of the City Square. Although probably intended to be impressive, the result is so unintentionally comic that visitors are naturally drawn to this incongruous object, and there are no plans to remove it.
The Ulan-Ude Opera House…
… is a surreal construction around the corner from the City Square and within site of the Head. Only the USSR could dream of bringing grand opera to a nation of shepherding nomads. There are regular performances, mostly of ballet.
There is a pedestrian precinct with some shops, several ATMs, an internet café, and a few cafes. There are even two “seattle-style” coffee-shops.
The day trip
It’s quite feasible to drive to the Eastern shores of Lake Baikal in 2.5 hours. There is a fish smokery that offers visits (including tasting their wares with the chance to buy some), and a ruined Russian Orthodox monastery at the lakeshore which is being rebuilt by some determined builder-monks. Visits are allowed if arranged in advance. The monastery dates from the times of the first Russian settlers in Siberia, although their first mission here ended in tragic failure.
It’s possible to head off into the tiny villages of Buryatia to visit the Old Believers. The Old Believers were a breakaway sect of the Russian Church who split over doctrinal issues in the C17th. Membership of the sect was outlawed, so the members headed into small villages in Siberia where official Tsarist rule was impossible to enforce, and where, in fact, they could legally practice provided they bothered no-one else. They have been compared to the Amish communities in N America. Pre-arranged visits can be made – the Old Believers are well-known for offering a hearty welcome to their simple life of hard work and prayer. This is a view of Russia which virtually no foreigners ever see – even many Russians have no clue that such communities exist in their country.
Atsagatsky Buddhist Lamasery
You can visit the Atsagatsky Buddhist Lamasery. This tiny and remote community was home to Atsav Dorjiev – the most influential monk of his era. He successfully persuaded the Tsar (Nicholas II) to support Buddhism and allow monasteries to be built even in St Petersburg (it’s still there). However, Stalin ordered Dorjiev’s arrest and he was soon liquidated under Communism. Nearby there is a Buddhist family who offer a unique insight into the life of Buryat villages… everything here is authentic and untouched – you eat traditional meals, and have a chance to help make them… you can also try practicing Buryat archery, and listening to some Buryat singing.
The Ivolgsinky Lamasery is the largest centre of Buddhism in Russia. The monastic community developed when Buddhism was brought from Tibet to Siberia in the C17th. Although reduced to as few as five monks under the worst ravages of Communism, the community has now reestablished itself, and has trained monks for vocations in reopening monasteries destroyed during the Communist era. There are several large temples and stupas to visit. The enthusiastic can climb the Sacred Hill opposite and earn extra karma.