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Trans-Siberian Journeys: The Buryat of Ulan Ude, Siberia

Visiting the modern descendents of Mongol and Siberian Tribes

sunny -25 °F


After my goodbyes to Ulan Bator, Mongolia I embarked on the Trans Mongolian to hook up with the Trans-Siberian train that would arrive from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude, Siberian Russia. The train ride was an adventure in itself since it was a local train heated by hot water with the conductor shoveling coal into the furnace of each compartment. Most of the travelers were ethnic Mongolian Buryat who were either living in Mongolia or in Russian Mongolia. Since Mongolia was under the Soviet sphere, families were spread between the two lands.
The rickety train was packed with heavy set people and I was in the company of 3 Vodka drinking Buryat women with additional visitors coming into the third class coach to share sausage and Vodka with a very popular lady travellng with me who spoke good English. One of the women was selling soaps and toiletries from South Korea to her other buddies probably from the seized bounty of her customs officer son who came to wish her good bye at the border. The first Buryat tradition I learnt on this trip was to dip ones ring finger in Vodka and spray it in three directions to say cheers and as a thanks. It was Vodka shower all night.

The trains going from China to Mongolia have to change track gauges. The complete retrofit of each coach, wherein the entire coach is lifted hydraulically 10 feet from the ground and the wheels removed and replaced with a new set. This transforms the narrow gauge Chinese Railroad to the broad Gauge Mongolian/Russian Railroads ; an unforgettable experience that merits an entire article on its own.

This exchange happened in the border town of Zamyn-Üüd/Erenhot at temperatures sinking to -20 F. The Mongolian customs and immigration officers collected all our passports and returned them two hours later after the train’s tracks were changed over and the entire train relocated to the Trans-Siberian tracks of Ernhot. On the Russian side customs and immigration were managed efficiently by smartly dressed female officers who used electronic scanners to get the job done instantaneously; this was helpful since we could disembark and wait and stroll about for the Trans-siberian Train to arrive from Vladivostok an hour later. The Russian side looked like the first world after traveling through Mongolia. The Station was clean, there were pay toilets with attendants (since I did not have rubles the Slavic lady kindly winked me in) and small food items sold were being hawked by Babushka clad women from the border town of Naushki; mainly Periogies and homemade sausages. My heavyset Buriyat friends purchased them for me.

I have been interested in native peoples for a long time and was always aware that Stalin had destroyed the Shamanistic cultures of Mongolia. Colin Thubron’s “Siberia” which I was reading on Kindle en route was informative. From Shamans to Stalin’s Gulags to modern research labs of the Soviet Union this book exposed the tumultous history of Siberia. If one sees old pictures of the ancient Sioux and the Dakota Plains Indians, one can see the similarity of cultures that was spread to the North America by the natives of Siberia through the Bering Strait. Ironically the Russians ended the Shamanistic culture around 1930 while we had eliminated it much earlier.


The Buryat people are descended from various Siberian and Mongolic peoples that inhabited the Lake Baikal Region. It is believed that , Jochi, eldest son of Genghis Khan, marched north to subjugate the Buryats in 1207. The territory of current Buryat Republic was part of the Mongolic Xianbei state (93-234), Rouran Khaganate( Turkic –Mongol /330-555), Mongol Empire (Genghis Khan and his descendants/1206-1368) and Northern Yuan (1368-1691) until 1691. Yuan Dynasty was the Chinese Dynasty whose famous emperor Kublai Khan another Mongolian welcomed Marco Polo into his court and saw his grandmother convert to Christianity. My travels through these areas revealed the superiority of medieval Mongolians in the areas of warfare, craftsmanship and statecraft.
The Buryats lived along the Angara River near modern day Irkutsk and its tributaries in the 1500s. When the Tsarist Russians expanded into Transbaikalia (eastern Siberia) in 1609 in search of fur and minerals, the Cossacks( Outcast /bandit horsemen of the Steppes who challenged the rule of Tsars but were subsequently used by the Tsars to explore and brutalize new colonies) found only a small core of tribal groups speaking a Mongol dialect called Buryat and paying tribute to the Mongolian Khalkhas- descendents of Genghis Khan. The ancestors of most modern Buryats were speaking a variety of Turkic-Tungusic dialects at that time. Eventually with the help of Buryat translators the territory and several local peoples like Samoyed, Kan and Kalymk were formally annexed to the Russian state by treaties in 1689 and 1727.


After Buryatia was incorporated into Russia, it was exposed to two traditions – Buddhist and Christian. Buryats west of Lake Baikal and Olkhon (Irkut Buryats), are more "russified", and they soon abandoned nomadism for agriculture, whereas the eastern (Transbaikal) Buryats are closer to the Khalkha(Mongols), may live in yurts and are mostly Buddhists. In 1741, the Tibetan branch of Buddhism was recognized as one of the official religions in Russia, and the first Buryat datsan (Buddhist monastery) was built. This article mainly. deals with the Buddhist Buryats east of Lake Baikal, where Ulan Ude is located.
The arrival of the Trans-Siberian train was received with great joy since our rail coach had been removed from the main track and shunted to a siding. We were attached and we were off to Ulan Ude.

On a cold Siberian evening, I was received by my guide and I was off to another new adventure tried only twice before in Tajikistan; Homestay. I was taken to a soviet style block apartment where I stayed with a fine couple Sergei and Elena. Sergei was a truck mechanic who has lately been driving a tourist taxi between Ulan Ude and Lake Baikal. Elena was a speech therapist in a local school.They had packed off their 8 year old son to Grandmas to house me in their kid’s room which was also the living room of the apartment. Since they receive foriegn guests such as I , the room was clean, warm and adequate despite the Russian looking Mickey Mouse and Donald Ducks that adorned the room. After a hot shower , dinner and small talk I slept soundly after a noisy train ride with 3 women.

The next morning we were off to visit the oldest Buddhist monastery in Buritya built in 1945, The Ivoginski Datsan. Located 30 km outside the city, the tranquility and spirituality found there was a truly Asian experience 3500 miles east of Moscow. The locals were dressed in traditional Buryat costumes and were excited to see an Indian, a symbolic progenitor of Buddhism from India. A group of 16 pilgrims traveling from various parts of Buritya was very excited to see me and to be photographed with me. After seeing the complex I met some of them in the compound, who through my interpreter expressed their desire to invite me for lunch and asking me to give a congratulatory speech on the auspicious occasion of Sagaalgan, their New Year ’s Day. Since I’ve never experienced anything like this I readily agreed. Toasts after toasts with Vodka were followed by their leader respecting me by adorning me with a silken scarf. I spoke about our great countries, our people bounded by similar religion and values even though I was not quite sure where the similarity began. I was like a living representative of Buddha that afternoon. Steamed dumplings were brought to my table while everyone videotaped and photographed me like I had just emerged after 500 years of mediation. It was certainly Nirvana to me!


Setting Buddha aside, I wish to report that Ulan Ude has the largest Lenin’s head in the World. Every year the locals build beautiful ice sculptures and caves in front of the plaza with Lenin staring down rather benevolently these days. That evening I bought some local Vodka and partied with my local hosts.
The next day my program consisted of visiting an Old Believers village. Old Believers are descendants of a group that rejected Russian Orthodox Church reforms enacted in 1654 to reconcile differences between Russian and Greek Orthodox texts. They broke away from the Orthodox Church because it objected to changes in Russian Orthodox traditions, such as ceremonies, icon painting, and book writing. Shortly after the schism, the Old Believers were persecuted; some were imprisoned and others were burned alive. Many Old Believers fled to remote villages in northern Russia or to Siberian wastelands and established tiny settlements.
Since I am focusing on the Burayats, I will try to elaborate about this amazing community in a future article. It was the Burayats who helped the hungry Europeans who fled from all over Poland, Baltic States and European Russia. Siberia was a waste land of no interest at that time. The two communities lived not too far from each other and even to this day the relationship has been synergistic.


The second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was a time of growth for the Buryat Buddhist church (48 datsans in Buryatia in 1914). Because of their skills in horsemanship and mounted combat, many were enlisted into the Tsar's Amur Cossacks brigade. During the Russian Civil War most of the Buryats sided with the White forces against the Bolshevik Red army of Lenin. After the Revolution, most of the lamas became loyal to the Soviet power. In 1925, a battle against religion and church in Buryatia began during Stalin’s period. Datsans were gradually closed down and the activity of the church was curtailed. Consequently, in the late 1930s the Buddhist church ceased to exist and thousands of cultural treasures were destroyed.
In 1923, the Buryat-Mongol Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was formed and included Baikal province with Russian population. The Buryats rebelled against the communist rule and collectivization of their herds in 1929. The rebellion was quickly crushed by the Red Army with loss of 35,000 Buryats.[ The Buryat refugees fled to Mongolia and resettled there. Fearing Buryat nationalism, Joseph Stalin had more than 10,000 Buryats killed. Moreover, Stalinist purge of Buryats spread into Mongolia, known as the incident of Lhumbee.

Later that afternoon after visiting yet another Buddhist monastery, I visited a nearby spirit shrine built on a hill where Shamans over the millennium had offered their prayers to the elements. It was a powerful moment. En route I climbed onto a snowy bluff to see the panoramic view of the Selenga river valley, a 900 mile river that feeds into Lake Baikal. As a part of my “Homestay” program put together by Monkey Shrine Tour Operators of Beijing ( but run by Aussies and Belgians), I spent a few hours with a farmer and his wife. Sergei and Lyudmila were wonderful hosts who were well in their 70s. She was the local school Librarian and a part time seamstress. He served in the army and drove a milk truck for several years.
She made us tea and some sweet bread with berry jams that her husband had canned in summer. It was a traditional home showing the lifestyle of a traditional Buryat family. They had several grandchildren in town that dropped by and played video games in a very old computer. The reader must understand that visitors like me have added to their comfort level. I played a “board” game with the family and the game tokens were vertebras of goats. The house was very traditional with the 75 year old man chopping wood to feed the furnace on a regular basis.


I concluded the wonderful visit to Ulan Ude by spending a lovely and fortunate evening at sunset on Mount Lysaya which offers a spectacular view of the city. On the ground where Buryat tribes once held their pagan Sabbaths, there now stands the Rimpoche Baghsha Buddhist Center. Here for Sagaalgan, Festival of the white month, harbinger of spring and the Buryat New year a magic ritual of an evening bonfire “Dugzhuba” was held. It is a ritual of purification from bad thoughts and diseases. Believers and their family members after wiping their bodies with pieces of fabric or paper, pieces of dough take them to Dugzhuba and burn in the fire to get rid of past year's disease, problems, sins, and offenses and to gather inspiration to perform good deeds in the coming year.


With great thoughts, happy moments, improved knowledge and new friendships I left this wonderful land to reach the western reaches of Lake Baikal by train later that night. The End
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:04 Archived in Russia Tagged buddhism trans-siberian trans-mongolian siberia ulan mongol ude buryat salgaalgan

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Ramdas -- you have outdone yourself in this article -- I felt I was there with you (instead of in Beijing trying to get to sleep)

by BHarat

Hi Bharat. I understand you have been in Chengdu for a while. If you want a glimpse of Madras Railway station times 50, in terms of people milling around, try the Beijing Central Station!! Looking back, Siberia was an awesome place to visit in winter. I am glad I did it.
Thanks for your comments.

by Ramdas Iyer

Great article on the Trans Siberian Ramdas and some super photos. One small point, isn't the changing of the bogeys done at the Chinese/Mongolian border, not the Mongolian/Russian border?

by yesmaybe

You are correct. Yes it is done in the Chinese -Mongolian border. To clarify this for other readers; the change of tracks is from the old Chinese system to the modern European/ Russian system. Mongolia was a Soviet satellite state and was developed in the Soviet model.

Thanks. When did you travel this route and what was your impression.

by Ramdas Iyer

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