I had no internet contact here so I arranged to be met at the station by Sergei Prikslavskie who operates a reasonably priced homestay. Sergei spoke no English nor French and his German was as poor as mine but he got an "A" for effort and we got along fine. He took me for a tour around town and showed me how to get here and back by tram from his place in a distant suburb of Ulan-Ude. Sovietov Ploshchad has probably a new name now. It might also have lost its Lenin head, reputed to be the largest in the world.
I had chosen to visit Ulan-Ude because I wanted to learn something about the Buriat people who are closely related to today's Mongols. I saw very few Asiatic faces in town. The urban majority appear to be descendants of the Cossacks who arrived here in the 17th century and of the Russian peasants that followed. The older part of town still has several beautiful, but badly in need of repair, 19th century houses like this one.
I was delighted to see that some effort is being made to restore some of the architectural treasures of the city. I have had a weakness for old houses ever since I finished the ten year restoration of an 1829 stone farm house near Quebec city. Unfortunately, most of Ulan-Ude's old houses will be lost for lack of public funding to restore them. The people who occupy them cannot afford their maintenance so they run down and rot. What a pity!
The once proud 18th century Hodigitria Cathedral is also run down. It was closed in the 30's and now serves as warehouse for a huge collection of confiscated Lamaist religious articles, Buddha figures, tantric sculptures, ancient scriptures and such artifacts. The big funny face in the foreground is part of a playground installed by the previous regime for children to play in.
Now that religious freedom has been proclaimed, it will be interesting to see what the resurgent Orthodox Clergy will do with these articles if and when the Cathedral is restored. Will they be returned to the Buriat monasteries? The precedents of religious tolerance are few and far between with the Orthodox Church!
Sergei's homestay consisted in an apartment shared with this Swiss couple, Mathias and Catherine. Here we are shopping for food to bring on a day's outing to visit a Lamaist monastery the following day.
Stalin put thousands of monks in gulags and destroyed almost all temples and monasteries in the 30's but allowed this one to be built during World War II. The Buriat are now a minority. Their asiatic features and Lamaist religion distinguish this ancient people from the Russian majority.
There are about 30 Buriat monks here. The Buriat trace their ancestry to the glorious past of the great mongol empire. Ghengis Khan's mother came from the Barguzinsky area on the north-east shore of Lake Baikal.
Lamaism was introduced to the mongol ruling class when Kubilai Khan's supported Tibet's Red Hat sect for political reasons in the 13th century. Shamanism and the mongol cult to Tegri (heaven), nevertheless remained the main religion of the people until Altan Khan embraced Tantric Lamaism and allied himself to Tibet's Yellow Hat sect in the 16th century (also for political reasons).
There were 46 high monasteries (datsans) and 150 temples when the communists took power. Due to persecution, Lamaism had almost disappeared during their regime but there has been a renewed interest for it since the break-up of the USSR in 1991. There are now a dozen or so Lamaist establishments in Buriatia.
This is the main prayer hall where the six principal ceremonial religious meetings called "hurals" are celebrated every year since its dedication in 1972.
These children being trained to become monks represent the future of Lamaism in Russia. Lamaism held considerable political power for many centuries in this part of the world but now it barely survives as a cultural symbol of the Buriat minority who also maintain some shamanist practices.
The following day, the Swiss couple continued on their way back to Europe. It was cold and muggy but I went to see the ethnographic museum anyway. It featured about two dozen buildings brought here from various locations to be preserved as testimony of the cultural past of the province. It was empty. I was alone but I found it very interesting.
There was no guide, only a one page map with numbered references to indications in Russian only. The church and this house were part of the "urban complex", they had probably been moved here from Ulan-Ude.
There was only one felt yurt (under a protective cover) and several of these round structures labeled Buriata something. It was interesting to see how the Buriat, living in the wooded taiga, adapted the round felt yurt of their grassland Mongol cousins to their colder northern environment.
This ensemble represents the contribution of the "Old Believers" to the area's architecture. When the Metropolite Nihon reformed the Orthodox Church to increase its power over civil affairs in the 17th century, those who rejected the reforms were persecuted as heretics. Some of the fleeing Seymeyski (old believers) settled in Buriatia at a time when it was still a frontier land far from central power. The blue painted village gate dates only from 1906 but it is in pure Semeyski tradition.
Houses and walls formed a protective enclosure required for safety. In those times the siberian East was as lawless as was the wild american West. It was much colder here than on the american prairie and the brick stove naturally occupied a key position. This is a small one, most were much larger and has a raised platform where the elderly had the privilege to sleep.
I was the only visitor that day apart from a group of school children with their teacher. There were some Buriats living there, mostly old women, but they vigorously refused to be photographed. One toothless old lady with a face wrinkled like a raisin must have been a hundred. She would have made a great photo but as she retreated into her lair, I took a shot of the house instead.
The next morning, Sergei came to the apartment, put on a white waiter's vest and quite formally served me the hearty breakfast he had brought as he had done every day. He was really a character, but a nice one! We settled our accounts and he drove me to the station just in time to catch the train to Mongolia. Going south, the taiga thinned out and was replaced by grassland such as this on the shores of deep blue Gusinoe Lake.
Naushki is the last Russian town before Mongolia. The train stopped here for more than two hours with no reason. Luckily there was a small market nearby where some travellers stocked up on various provisions. I preferred to spend that time exchanging sign language mixed with a few Russian, German and English words with these locals. Lamb shashlick with raw onions and vodka made the time pass very quickly indeed!
This austere train station would have left me with a very cold and bureaucratic last image of Russia had it not been for the friendly bunch in the market. That about sums up my impression of that country; fine warm people crushed by an unfeeling bureaucracy. Its a pity they can't get their act together!