An unforgettable experience in the Republic of Buryatia
Untypical Russia: Buryatia
Have you heard about the Republic of Buryatia region before? To locate it on the map, you need to turn your head right to the Eastern Siberia, find Lake Baikal and spot a dot with the name Ulan-Ude next to it. It’s to the southeast of Baikal. Found it? Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia. It’s a unique place close to the deep waters of the cleanest lake in the world (so far) and to the border with the land of sand dunes –Mongolia- at the same time.
One of the first pictures you might want to take in Ulan-Ude will be with a giant monument of Lenin’s head. It’s enigmatic and rather unusual to see this reminder of the October revolution at the main square of the city. History is respected by locals despite all the confusion it produced. We should assure you it’s not the last surprise that the Republic of Buryatia brings to you. It’s a region of traditions which is so far from epicenter of Russian politics that even Russian people hardly follow local Buryat news.
Geographically close to China and Mongolia, the region speaks its own language and practices Buddhism. Therefore when you’re on the Trans-Siberian Railway route and see that Orthodox churches disappear from the horizon and instead Buddhist temples rise from behind pine trees, you know – you’re in the Republic of Buryatia.
Coming to Ulan-Ude
There are three common ways to get to Ulan –Ude and the whole Republic of Buryatia region.
The easiest is by plane. A direct flight will take you six hours. Simple, right? During the season the flight may cost you a fortune.
If you’d like to have more extreme, you can travel to Mongolia first and then cross the Mongolia-Russia border by bus. Why extreme? Just because road trips are more adventurous than fast boring flights. Please be careful with the visa permits, though. Check several months before you travel if you need a visa to Russia and a visa to Mongolia.
Finally, the most eye-opening travel experience will be a train ride from Moscow to Ulan-Ude. It’s a four-days- journey along the classy Trans-Siberian route with a possibility to make stops in Kazan, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and other cities that you favor.
Buryat culture has evolved as a diverse mix of many cultures. The Buryat people trace their origin to several ethnic groups including Mongolian and indigenous Siberian. It seems that there are more common traits with Asian cultures in the Republic of Buryatia than with European traditions.
Tibet and China also influenced the development of Buryat folklore and literature. For example, first books came from Tibet. They were translations of Buddhist studies and medical and philosophical tractates. Translators were educated people who lived in datsans. As in many other places, religion and education came hand in hand.
Classical Buryat literature was about shamanism and the glory of shamanistic deities. Buryat still believe in natural powers. They are primarily an agricultural society, which makes care about nature logical. Crops depend on how well people treat the earth. Some literary works of Buryat tell us about rivers and forests as of living beings. Perhaps the most famous legend is about a hero Baikal and his daughter Angara. Ask a local to tell you the legend and try to follow the narration with all the seriousness you can. Lake Baikal is indeed a powerful source of great significance to the local people.
Lakes and rivers also feed Buryat. Buryat food is predominantly meat and fish. They drink dairy products and hot tea with milk. Neither coffee no strong alcohol is popular, especially in Buryat villages where inhabitants abide by old rules. Buryat cuisine combines Siberian and Mongolian recipes. For Siberian cuisine adored meals are smoked fish, salted meat with brown bread and home-made pickled cabbage, cucumbers and mushrooms. For Buryat cuisine this is nourishing beef broth with home-made noodles; traditional buzy (mince in dough cooked on steam, similar to Georgian khinkali, they are steamed and eaten with the left hand); salamat – mixture from fried sour cream and dough.
Things to do in the Republic of Buryatia
Spend a day or two in Ulan-Ude
If you started your Russia trip in Moscow, for sure you thought of visiting the Bolshoi theatre. In Ulan-Ude, you will find one more remarkable theatre – Buryat Opera and Ballet Theatre that operates its own dance and music school and prepares dancers for brilliant careers on stage. Make time for watching a play on one of your evenings in Ulan-Ude. The Theatre shares the same Square with the giant Lenin’s head- Soviets Square. This monument is officially the biggest of all Lenin heads ever put as a monument. It weighs 42 tons and, with the pedestal, is 7.7 metres high. A gray building from the decade of late constructivism is the Soviets House, once it was the biggest building in the city. It still looks pretty impressive, isn’t it?
As in most of the Siberian towns, Lenin’s street is one of the main streets in the city. It’s populated with cafes and shops and is a nice place to stretch your legs after a rich lunch.
Bring yourself to the edge of the city and discover an Ethnographic museum. It’s the only open-air museum in the Republic of Buryatia. Its vast collection demonstrates life in the Trans-Baikal region. Evenki, old believers, cossaks, Transbaikal Buryats and pre-Baikal Buryats lived near the lake in different times. Archeological sites that were found at the territory near Baikal Lake are now all in the museum. Take a look!
Another 30-minute car ride will bring you to the Ivolginsky datsan. It’s a Buddhist temple, one of a kind. Its full name is “The cloister of the Wheel of Doctrine that brings happiness and joy”. If you’re a spiritual person, this visit might be a ritual of luck. If not- then you can study the Buddhist history of the region, visit a museum of Buddhist art and see what a local Buddhist university looks like.
Observe the nature
Every second tourist who wants to go to Lake Baikal will be visiting Irkutsk, which is great. But in reality, the most magnificent pristine corners of nature are closer to the Republic of Buryatia than to Irkutsk. Travel to the Republic of Buryatia gives a chance to see Lake Baikal from the southern-eastern side. That’s why if you want to feel like a pioneer of Baikal trips, you should definitely choose the least visited paths. Take a local guide with you to show you the most unforgettable views of the Republic of Buryatia.
Some points of interest are Barguzin valley, Warm lakes and Goryachinsk.
Barguzin valley was called one of the most prospective eco- territories by World Bank experts. Indeed, it’s a picturesque valley surrounded by mountains with treasures nature resources. It is home to eco-tourism and agricultural tourism, mineral spa complexes and skiing tracks in winter. Baragkhan Mountain, a shrine of the north Buddhist world, is also in the Barguzin mountain range. The legend says that every man who climbs the mountain will be protected by special magical powers for the next year. Religious people daily carry out rituals and ceremonies at the top of Baragkhan. Unfortunately, women are not allowed to climb it.
The Warm lakes are three lakes next to the lower border of Lake Baikal. Emerald Lake, Dead Lake and Fairytale Lake are definitely not the biggest lakes in Russia. But they’re charming enough for a morning trekking. On the entrance to the lakes, you will see the relic forest and the Snowy River. Sports fans would like climbing to the Monomakh Mountain that rises from Dead Lake. The mountain got its name from the Golden Monomakh’s Cap, the Russian Tsars regalia.
For relax you can spend an overnight in Goryachinsk. That’s a rural area where they have thermal baths. Due to unique climate, winters in Goryachinsk are milder than in the rest of the region and summers on the opposite are fresh and less dry.
Make friends with a traditional Buryat family
ExploRussia representative in Ulan-Ude is Tumun. Tumun has been living in the Republic of Buryatia his whole life and he is always glad to lead a Buryatia tour for you.
Tumun can guide you in the city and beyond to all of the natural wonders of his homeland. During a July visit, Tumun will take you to Sur-Harban. It is a Buryat national holiday with horse races, buryat archery competitions and buryat wrestling. All these competitions take roots from shamanism, they are a little wild but it’s hard to take you eyes off the skillful athletes.
The most authentic way to know a traditional Buryat family is to be their guest. In Buryat tradition, if the person accepts an invitation to come over to Buryat house, it is the sign of utmost respect to you and your family. Locals try to entertain and feed the guest at their best.
When ExploRussia guests visit Tumun, he introduces them to his wife Elena and their three kids, his son Bator (translated from Buryat as bogatyr, the main hero of Russian tales, a very strong man) and their daughter Subadi (translated from Buryat as Small Perl) and another son Maksar ( translated as General).. Elena cooks delicious local food for tourists. Tumun answers questions and makes a tour of the house. After meals and green tea with milk everyone enjoy the conversations.
To hand you a tip, if you’d like to listen to traditional Buryat singing, ask Tumun to introduce you to his aunt. Tumun’s aunt is a professional musician in the Buryat ensemble of national instruments. Buryats are famous for loud long songs, where each syllable is extended as long as possible, and also for throat singing. When the party goes on, don’t hesitate to be engaged into playing musical instruments. Take a picture in traditional Buryat costume to remember this wonderful time in the Republic of Buryatia.
Many tourists confess at the end of their visit that it felt like being in a different country, but such is Russia – very diverse!
Don’t miss Ulan Ude tour on your Trans-Siberian route, the eastern side of the lake Baikal!
If you are looking for more information to be inspired, check our Essential guide for Trans-Siberian Railway trip.