Untypical Russia: Buryatia Region

Untypical Russia: Buryatia Region

17.07.2019
Ivolginsky Datsan, Russia
 

Travelers going to Russia on Trans-Siberian tours often have no idea about what they'll actually be lucky to see, experience, and discover while there. Is it only narrowed down to balalaikas and matryoshkas? Certainly, not! The biggest country in the world has many one-of-a-kind corners in stock, as such, the enigmatic Buryatia Region is among the most off-the-beaten-path destinations in Russia, boasting the combination of unique cultures, breathtaking landscapes, and pure nature with glorious Lake Baikal as icing on the cake.

 

A melting pot blending centuries of intertwining cultures and religions, a place to be fairly classified among “the world’s paths less traveled”, a destination that was once home to a “lost” city which wasn’t on the maps and closed for foreign visitors, a region with unparalleled nature... Buryatia will surely surprise you!

This ancient and magnificent place has everything for nature enthusiasts: the untouched beauty of the Siberian taiga, the worldwide famous freshwater Lake Baikal, crystal-clear rivers and waterfalls, majestic snow-covered peaks of the Sayan Mountains, and fresh air filled with the scent of wildflowers and herbs. What’s not to love?

 

A Few Facts About Buryatia

Many people wonder if Buryatia is actually a country (small spoiler: it’s not). The Republic of Buryatia is a subject of the Russian Federation and is part of Russia’s Siberian Federal District. Its administrative and cultural center is Ulan-Ude.

So where is Buryatia exactly? Speaking about the Buryatia location, it is beneficially placed on the crossroads between Russia, Mongolia, and China, explaining the region’s rich natural, historical, and cultural heritage. If you take a look at the world map, you will see that according to its size Buryatia can be easily compared to Germany.

The Buryatia climate is sharply continental with cold, dry, and frosty winters and hot summers with heavy rainfalls in July and August. The average temperature in summer is +18,5 ℃ (+64,4 °F), in winter -22 ℃ (-7,6 °F). Sudden weather changes are not typical for this region, so you can easily plan activities during your Trans-Siberian trip.

In eastern Siberia, between the Irkutsk Oblast to the northwest and Buryatia to the southeast is located another wonder of the planet, the world’s oldest (20 million–25 million years old) and deepest (1637 m or 5370,7 ft) freshwater lake, the Baikal.

Baikal
 

The origins of the name are unknown, but people from different regions created their own versions: rich fire (Mongolian), rich lake (Turkic), deep water (Yakut), northern sea (Chinese). One thing’s certain: this UNESCO World Heritage treasure is absolutely well-worth visiting!

 

Unbelievable Ulan-Ude

During your trip to Buryatia paying a visit to its heart, Ulan-Ude, is one of the absolute must-dos! It is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia and home for the Buryat, Evenk, and Russian people. Being the major hub of the region, Ulan-Ude is one of eastern Siberia's most likable cities which has a distinct Asian-like vibe, perhaps because of the cultural mixture and proximity to Mongolia. Here you’ll definitely feel more of Asia than Russia as half of the people living here are Buryats.

Ulan Ude

Did you know that just a few decades ago Ulan-Ude was closed for all foreigners? Let's delve into the history of the city and solve this mystery together! Founded as a Cossack fort called Udinsk (later Verkhneudinsk) in 1666, the city prospered thanks to its title as the most important stop on the tea-caravan route from China via Troitskosavsk (now Kyakhta).

After being renamed to Ulan-Ude in 1934, it was a ghost city all the way up to the 1980s because of its secret military plants. Even now there are still mysterious blank spaces on the maps of the city. Are you ready to discover the lost pearl of Russia?

Today with its unique Asian spirit, fascinating architecture, and unique Mongol-Buddhist culture the Buryat capital, Ulan-Ude, welcomes tourists from all over the world with open arms! It is the perfect place for you to experience the wonders and mysticism of Siberia’s east.

 

Without a doubt, Ulan-Ude has a special atmosphere that differs from any other Russian city, as well as boasts its own ethnic holidays, festivals, sports, folklore, and style of life. It is still a significant commercial and industrial center and the third most populated Siberian city, located on the 5640th kilometer (9076th mile) of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

In fact, Ulan-Ude attractions are literally met at every step. Among the places worth a stop here is the Ulan-Ude Ethnographic Museum, an amusing outdoor museum with more than 11000 exhibits. In the downtown area, tourists can experience the enchantment of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Smolensk, while this cathedral was used as an anti-religious center during the Soviet Union, it has now been restored to its original purpose.

Moreover, prepare to see the top brand-maker of the Republic of Buryatia, one of the stark Soviet remnants - the largest Head of Vladimir Lenin statue which creates an unusual and interesting contrast against the heavily eastern influences.

Furthermore, the city is surrounded by a vast forest which is usual for the Siberian region and perfect for nature lovers. So whether you wish to explore the old town or go for a hike, Ulan-Ude is a wonderful addition to any vacation to Russia!

Lenin Head
 

The Buryats and Their Unusual Culture

Although most foreigners who’d see a Buryat would most probably not even guess that he or she is a Russian, the Buryats are especially warm-hearted and vibrant people who are one of Russia’s most ancient indigenous clans and among the largest Siberian nationalities. Integral to the culture of south-central Siberia, the estimated Buryatia population is over 500 thousand people.

Buryat Religion

The Buryats treasure their historical heritage and carefully pass down their unique customs from generation to generation. Interestingly, the Buryat people are the descendants of Mongolian tribes, inhabiting the area for over a millennium. Many local traditions were created by Mongolians, including vertical writing script and the nomadic lifestyle.

The first distinctive feature that strikes the eye of foreigners is the fact that the Buryat culture is full of colors. They are actively used in their religious practices and every color has its special meaning, even the fabrics used for a Buryat traditional costume are also very bright and vivid.

The Buryats believe that everyone has their own color which is assigned to a person according to his or her birth year. During your Russia trip to Buryatia, you also have a unique chance to find out about your special color! You can do it in the most famous Buryat Buddhist temple, Ivolginsky Datsan, about which we tell you a bit later. So stay tuned!

 

Traditional Siberian hospitality is also worth mentioning. You can see all cultural peculiarities yourself during a visit to an ethnic Buryat village and the Russian Old-believers’ Village which are absolute “musts” for all guests of Buryatia.

Don’t miss the opportunity to get an insight into the fascinating character and lifestyle of the local people, treat yourself with delicious organic Buryat food (cooked according to ancient recipes), and let yourself be enchanted by unusual Buryat music, filled with sounds of the wild wind and singing of the Russian Old-believers’ choir, accredited by UNESCO as a part of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

 

Buryatia Language

Buryatia welcomes everyone with a warm “Mende!” on the lips, it is the equivalent of the English "Hello!". See? You already learned your first word in Buryat, let’s collect even more during your journey to this unusual part of Russia! The Buryat language is another wonder of the region which you can’t experience anywhere else in the world!

It's important to mention that the territory was colonized in the 17th century by the Russians who were looking for wealth, furs, and gold. This had a consequential impact on the way of local life and led to the formation of the Buryat ethnos. Moreover, the Soviet ideology had a significant impact on the traditional culture, religion, and of course language of the Buryats too. The Cyrillic script was adopted as the Buryat literary language and though Buryat as a language is still in use, can you believe that it is classified as endangered by UNESCO? The Soviet government restricted its use during the USSR, and as a result, the number of speakers has dropped, despite lifting the restriction at the end of the Soviet Union.

 

Religion in Buryatia

The events that took place in the history of Buryatia left a deep mark on the fate of its people, their system of social relations, culture, and, of course, religion. The whole region is thrown a cloak of legends and stories about local magical spirits and their mesmerizing spells. Want to learn more about them?

Buryatia is the place where numerous different religions and cultures have developed side by side for centuries, including Buddhism, Shamanism, Russian Orthodoxy, and Old-Believer Christianity. The Buryats' religious systems were led by shamans and were originally based on the deification of nature, belief in spirits, and their magical powers. Shamanism and Buddhism play the most important role in the present-day Buryat belief system. The Buryats from the south part of the region are mostly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism while Shamanism is more developed in the west.

However, over the course of history, these two religious systems adopted many features and aspects of each other, such as colorful ribbons and material tied to branches and sticks symbolizing prayers. Going to Lake Baikal, you are surely going to encounter trees covered in multicolored ribbons, so now you know that this is more than just an element of decor.

A true miracle in the Buddhist world is the phenomenon of Pandito Khambo-Lama Dashi Dorzho Itigelov whose imperishable body was lifted to the surface of the Earth after its burial and remained intact for over 80 years!

This phenomenon was widely discussed in the mass media, many round tables and conferences were held, even a film was created and a lot of materials were collected about Itigelov’s life and activities, but even now nobody can give a clear explanation of this mystery. Wanna try to unravel this secret too? You can pay a visit to this great teacher and see his precious imperishable body in the most famous Buddhist temple of Buryatia – the Ivolginsky Datsan.

Buddha
 
Ivolginsky Datsan

The Ivolginsky Datsan (or Khambyn Sume) is a large Buddhist monastic complex and the center of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia which is the biggest Buddhist community in Buryatia.

This temple is a unique monument of history and architecture, located in the Republic of Buryatia in the village of Verkhnyaya Ivolga, 36 km from the center of Ulan-Ude.

This landmark is visited by many pilgrims and tourists from different countries every year. Nowadays, held in the Datsan Khats-services are dedicated to the most important events of Buddhist history.

You can become a witness of daily rituals that are organized in honor of the protectors and guardians of the teachings and ancient rites that protect believers from various negative forces.

 

On the territory of the monastery, visitors can find the residence of Khambo Lama, the library building, the academic buildings of the Buddhist University Dashi Choinhorlin named after Damba Darja Zayaeva, and a museum of Buddhist art monuments.

All in all, Buryatia is a unique place and real symbol of Eurasia, representing the colorful mix of European and Asian cultures, with its special history, bright mentality, and special atmosphere which will take a part of your heart forever. All the mentioned above is far from being a complete list of what makes a visit to Buryatia during Trans-Siberian travel worth it, do you already feel like adding it to your bucket list?

 
 

Related Content