Ulan-Ude and the main Buryat datsan (Buddhist monastery)

Last updated: 21.4.2002

Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Buryatia, which extends from the southern shores of Lake Baikal to the border with Mongolia. Ulan-Ude, an ancient trading post like Irkutsk, can be reached from Irkutsk by an overnight train in about 6-7 hours. It lies on the northern edge of the steppes that remind the Canadian prairies.

Buryats are the largest ethnic minority group in Siberia. They are close relatives of Mongols, and their language is a dialect of Mongolian. Buddhism of the Tibetan Lamaist variety is the most widespread religion of Buryatia. But shamanist traditions also survive, see The Buryat Home Page: Shamanism, Folklore, and Poetry. Buryatia also has interesting music.

Buddhist monasteries are called datsan (dacan) in Buryatia. The largest one, in Ivolginsk about 30 km south-west of Ulan-Ude is the centre of Buddhism in the Russian Federation. It can be reached by a route-taxi minibus from Ulan-Ude's central bus station. This datsan was the first place I went to visit in Ulan-Ude. Accompanied by Sergey, a biologist working at the Ulan-Ude branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, who was showing me his city.

It was rather cold in the morning, close to -30°C (-22°F), and the side windows of the minibus were all covered by ice. I managed to maintain a tiny hole in this ice layer through which I was recording what we were passing. Later on, when we were approaching the datsan under the mountains, the front seat next to the driver got freed and I moved there.

The monastery is a large fenced off compound containing many buildings of various types. At least one half of them are houses in the traditional Russian style that serve as residences for monks, who are both Buryats and Russians. Then there is the main temple and a number of smaller religious buildings and pagodas, a museum, a little greenhouse with the sacred fig tree (Buddha is said to receive enlightenment under a fig tree), and close to hundred (or more?) of prayer mills of various sizes (most of them much smaller than the one shown above) arranged around the circumference of the compound. The purpose of each mill is to pray for something else, which is often spelled out on the larger mills. One is required to go about the prayer mills in the clockwise direction only. Also to view the interior of the main temple, only walking in the clockwise direction along its walls is allowed. It seems that The clockwise direction seems to be the only right one here.

There were entry fees for the compound, main temple, and museum, and a separate fee for using a video camera within the compound.

One of the landmarks of the city of Ulan-Ude is the largest Lenin head in the world. There are also some fine old merchant 19th century buildings. Buryats and Russian seem to share the city in a harmonious way.

Sergey has remained true to science throughout the whole difficult period of decreased funding. His research specialization is spiders. In recent years, he discovered three new genders of spiders previously not known to science at all. And he found in the Baikal region several other spiders which were not known before to live there. His wife Olga, a plant biologist, gave up science when the difficulties came. For a few years she first worked in the city greenhouses, where she was able to put to some use her scientific experience. Then she started a private florist shop, and now she even employs several young girls.

When we were shopping for food for supper, I was surprised that Sergey preferred chicken drumsticks imported from the far away USA to the more fresh local chicken (Siberian, from the city of Angarsk, about which I heard from other people that there were good). Russians acquired the taste for US chickens some 10 years ago when they started to come as part of the US food aid during the term of president George Bush senior. They call them nozhki Busha (Bush's leglets, or little legs). Now their import earns the US between $600 million and $800 million a year, and Russia wants to ban them on health grounds (March 5, 2002). Sergey told me that two years ago, their local economy still was not working very well, and that at that time the only soft drinks available in Ulan-Ude stores were those imported from the US.

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