Ulan-Ude: Wind of the Great Steppe

After Irkutsk, the Trans-Siberian Railway continues on past Lake Baikal to the next major city: Ulan-Ude on the Selenga River. A direct road goes from here to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and the assonance of the names is not a mere coincidence.

In the 17th century, Russian Cossacks and Mongols met at Lake Baikal. These Mongols were nothing like the formidable horde of the Middle Ages, by then, they were a group of small tribes. The name of one of these tribes—the Buryats—was assigned to all Mongols who were then naturalized as Russian citizens. Today, Mongols and Buryats are closely related peoples; they understand each other’s languages and they both consider Genghis Khan to be their own (his native valley is located on the Russian-Mongolian border).
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Founded at the end of the 17th century, Ulan-Ude was originally called Verkhneudinsk. What was initially a Cossack outpost quickly developed into a rich merchant city. After all, it was located very close to the point where the Great Tea Route from China enters Russia. The snow-white church of the Siberian baroque style, the huge Guest Yard (Gostiny Dvor) of the Petersburg style, and the neighborhoods located in the lowland near the Uda River with their stone and wooden houses from the turn of the 19th-20th century are reminders of the city’s past wealth.

Having received its current name during the Soviet period, Ulan-Ude became the center of Buryatia, one of the national autonomous regions of Russia. The Communists destroyed the majority of the Buddhist monasteries, but they strived to emphasize the Buryat national identity. A vivid example of this is the enormous Buryat opera theater of the Stalinist Empire architecture style, marvelously interwoven with local ethnic motifs. Looking at the theater is the Head—perhaps the most peculiar monument to Lenin. The huge bust (7.5 m not including the base) is located in the middle of the square. A popular meeting place in Ulan-Ude is «near the right (or the left) ear».
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There are several Buddhist temples located on the outskirts of Ulan-Ude. In the city center, it’s possible to see equestrian monuments to bogatyrs (Russian folk heroes) and the heroes of legends. But the most relevant example of Buryat ethnic flavor are the pozniye. These are small dining rooms that serve pozy (buuz)—huge local steamed dumplings with a hole at the top from which it is possible to drink the broth like from a bowl.
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The nature of Buryatia, with its alternating steppes and taiga mountains, is fantastically beautiful. Especially beautiful are the shores of Lake Baikal, which, from this side, are wilder and more rocky and also warmer than on the Irkutsk side.
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There are a lot of ancient settlements, burial mounds, and petroglyphs here. At the passes and crossroads there are two oboo—altars to the spirits of the roads, where travelers leave ‘gifts’ like a piece of cloth or cigarettes.
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Shamanism coexists along with Buddhism here. Ivolginsky datsan, Russia’s main Buddhist monastery, which the Dalai Lama visited more than once, is located very close to Ulan-Ude. The local saint Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov went into nirvana a hundred years ago, and to this day you can still see him still sitting in one of the temples. The monastery itself was built during the Soviet period, when, after many years of persecution, the Buryats were finally allowed to re-establish their religious community.
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After the collapse of the USSR, several old datsans were restored, for example, in Gusinoozersk and Aginskoye.

There are other nationalities also living in Buryatia. These include the «family» Russian Old Believers, entire families of which moved here after the church schism and who went to Siberia not always at their own free will. They are the guardians of old Rus’, and, by the looks of their villages, not much has changed since the 16-17th centuries. In remote villages, they even wear folk costumes and celebrate their own holidays.
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The simplest way to learn about the culture of the «family» Russian Old Believers is in their ‘capital’, the large village of Tarbagatay, where there is a museum of the old way of life at the local church.
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Beyond Lake Baikal, the Trans-Siberian Railway begins to branch off: a direct route goes towards Vladivostok through Russian territory, and, in the south, two branches head to China via Ulaanbaatar or Harbin. Direct trains run between Moscow and Beijing each week.
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Related trips
Buryatia in Summer
Buryatia in Summer
  • 4 days
  • 1000 €
  • from May to October
  • Baikal

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