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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Hidden behind the Soviet-style excesses of Ulan-Ude are living communities with unbroken traditions of spiritual and moral values that stretch back to the 17th century. Neil McGowan reports from the capital of Siberian Buryatia.
Text and photos Neil McGowan

There’s a big head.” If people know anything at all about Buryatia, it’s that the world’s largest bust of Lenin glowers over the town square of Ulan-Ude. Werner Herzog’s legendary film Fitzcarraldo told the story of an opera fan’s audacious plan to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon basin. Surely the Soviet plan to build an opera house in the middle of the Siberian steppes so that nomadic horsemen could enjoy Aida is no less bizarre. The extraordinary art deco opera house faces Lenin’s stony stare and is still operational despite an extensive, badly needed refurbishment that is just getting under way.

Buryatia is one of the country’s regions in which ethnic Russians have always been a minority. Buryats themselves are distant cousins of the Mongolians and have been the indigenous population to the east of Lake Baikal for time immemorial. In contrast to the deserts of neighboring Mongolia, Buryatia is full of rich, green pastureland and forest. Native dwellings include both the traditional framed yurta, which is lined with camel felt, and the wooden aul, which is more suited to the fi erce local winters when temperatures can drop to – 45 degrees Celsius.

At Ivolginsky Monastery

During Soviet collectivization, most nomads were settled into towns and villages. As a result, very few yurt-dwellers remain in Buryatia today (unlike Mongolia, where 75 percent of the population still live as nomads). Ulan-Ude sprang up from the Buryat tea-trading center of Verkhneudinsk, where camel caravans that had crossed Mongolia were unloaded and transferred to barges that would sail across Baikal and continue on into Russian Siberia.

Shamanism is the most ancient of the many beliefs practiced in Buryatia. Although today the shamans have mostly gone — the full wrath of Soviet anti-religious fury fell on them, and they were singled out for especially harsh treatment in the gulag — some vestiges of their beliefs endure. Sacred groves and other sites still attract visitors, who tie ribbons and scraps of cloth to the trees as prayers and off erings, and you may still pass the occasional ovoo, a mound of stones by the roadside left as an offering to the local spirits. If you come across one, walking around it three times and leaving a gift (coins or a splash of vodka on the stones) is said to bring luck to your travels.

The Gelugpa sect of Buddhism (known as Yellow Hat) spread to Buryatia from Tibet in the 17th century. The sect flourished in this part of Siberia because full tsarist control ended at Baikal; order beyond the lake was kept by Cossack Law — so, provided you didn’t annoy others, locals had broad latitude to live as they wished. Today, visiting the monasteries and stupas (Buddhist spiritual monuments) is one of the most popular activities for visitors.

Making poozy

The small Atsagat Datsan monastery, for example, was founded in 1811 and in 1891 received its most celebrated visitor — the young tsarevich Nicholas, who later became Tsar Nicholas II. Some years later he would again meet the monk who befriended him in Siberia, now Abbot Dorjiev of the same monastery. The far-thinking Dorjiev became a private adviser to the tsar, persuading him to support plans to build Buddhist monasteries throughout Russia. Dorjiev later promoted the idea to Vladimir Lenin on the basis that “Buddhism worships no God.” A grim photograph on display at the monastery of Dorjiev being led away by Stalin’s NKVD in 1924 illustrates that Lenin’s successor was not so easily convinced and hints at how Dorjiev’s “accidental death” occurred. Atsagat receives few visitors today, but those go who oft en stop at a nearby village to get a taste of traditional Buryat life. You can learn how to make poozy (steamed pot stickers stuff ed with aromatic lamb) and try some local fare, after which you can learn the nomadic skills of archery and yurt-building.

The other principal monastery in Buryatia, Ivolginsky, is at a magnificent site an hour’s drive from Ulan-Ude in the opposite direction. A major center of Buddhist learning, previous dalai lamas came to study here despite the huge difficulties this caused in the Soviet era. If you just want to wander and photograph, no one will stop you, but they’ll appreciate it if you follow the custom of making a clockwise circuit around the monastery’s boundaries and around the individual temples within it. If you would like to know more, English-speaking monks will introduce their place of worship with no attempt to proselytize.

At an Old Believer village

There is no greater contrast to this conspicuous grandeur than the delicate traces left by the most secretive of the many beliefs that have been drawn to this remote area. The Adepts of the Ancient Rite, more commonly known as Old Believers, first arrived in the area when their leader, Avvakum, was deported and then executed as a heretic here in 1682. These Old Believers refused to accept a charter of religious “reforms” demanded by the “official” Orthodox Church, including changes in the liturgy, observance, and, most significantly, the calendar (correcting centuries of timeslip due to omitted leap years). For the Adepts, this was “stealing time from God himself.” Catastrophic misunderstandings stirred up by Avvakum’s execution led to the Khovanshchina incident of 1682, which bears horrifi c similarities to the 1978 events in Jonestown, Guyana. Convinced of persecution by a fiery preacher named Dosifei, the Old Believers fled to Siberia, where Dosifei convinced thousands that the tsar’s forces were about to pounce and that self-immolation was the only answer. Contemporary accounts described the young “helping the elderly into the flames.” When an immediate ban on the entire Old Believer movement followed, the remaining few sought out Siberia’s most sequestered corners in which to practice their banned creed.

Building a yurt

Their religious ethic of simple food and hard work continues today, but the need for secrecy is over. Their warm hospitality and hearty home-cooked recipes, unchanged for centuries reward the visitor who braves the bumpy ride to the painted houses of Tarbagatay. Father Alexei, pastor of a tiny church he literally built himself, wouldn’t take a penny for a personal tour of his private collection of artifacts from the community’s history. “Do me this favor instead: Tell people in your country we are here, we are alive, and we welcome you.” And how could I say no to a priest?


How to get there: S7 Airlines fl ies daily to Ulan-Ude from Moscow Domodedovo (overnight flight). Ulan-Ude is a sixday journey from Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Where to stay: The preferred hotel for foreign visitors is the modest but comfortable Hotel Geser, whose central location at 11 Ulitsa Ranzhurova (200m from Lenin’s head) and good management (with English-speaking staff ) put it ahead of rivals who may be spiffier but fail to deliver on service.

Sightseeing: The monasteries and villages are the main attractions. If you didn’t come through a travel company, Hotel Geser has an excursion bureau that can organize visits to most area sites.

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