The final city on our transiberian adventure was set to be Ulan-Ude. Ulan-Ude is a city east of lake Baikal and is the largest Buryat city. Our stopover was mainly planned to visit the centre of Buddhism in Russia. Other than this Ulan-Ude has a few Buryat restuarants and a momument to Lenin (what a surprise). The monument is fairly monumental, as it is a bronze head weighing in at 42 tonnes, aptly placed in the centre of Communist square.
We enjoyed trying the Buryat cuisine a lot more than visiting a giant Lenin head (the biggest in the world). The Buryats are just one of the many different people in Russia and to be honest they are more Mongolian in appearance than Russian. Their traditional food is also welcomely different to the rest of Russia with more spices and a few specialities including Buuza (giant meat dumplings). Eating Buuza is a little challenging as they are full of meat juice which can squirt all over if you take a bite before slurping it out of the hole in the top.
Our main destination was Involginsky Datsan, the buddhist temple not far from Ulan-Ude. Getting there involves two minibuses but is fairly easy as the drivers know exactly where tourists are going and will point you in the right direction. Once at the temple there are two options; wander around the grounds and open temples alone or take a guided tour. We opted for a guided tour with a fantastic English speaking guide. We paid 500 rubles together and this included a full 90 minute tour and free prayer shawl.
Our tour group consisted of two Russian ladies, a small group of Germans and their interpreter. Our guide spoke both English and Russian and was thrilled that Zoë came from England as she doesn’t meet many English people and loves the queen. We started our tour at the Buddhist university where up to 60 students learn medicine, prayer, tantra and lots of other subjects. Our guide showed us the stupa and the greenhouse which holds a tree directly descended from the tree Siddartha Gutama sat under when he achieved enlightenment. Aside from this we visited several temples dedicated to different buddhist deities including one called the White Tara who resembles Catherine the second of Russia (one of the Tsarinas who allowed Buddhists to practice freely in Russia. The temples are all beautifully painted and covered in rich materials representing the colours of the Buddhist religion; white, yellow, red, green and blue.
Probably the most famous tale from this monastery is about the twelfth chief lama of Russia who was the most senior buddhist when Stalin came to power. He predicted the religious opression that was to come and renounced his title urging Russian buddhists to flee Russia. Unfortunately many did not and were placed into Gulags where they lost their lives. The tweflth lama opted to go underground and meditate asking to be brought back to the surface after 35 and 75 years. Impatience meant he was first exhumed after 33 years and found to be in the meditating position. After 75 years he was looked at again and remarkably seemed to be in exactly the same condition as before despite never being embalmed. Today he is brought out on special holidays and has been declared to be still living and conscious. Apparently his body is still warm (between 18 and 34 degrees celcius) and his hair and nails are still growing. Its possible to receive his blessing for a small donation of 250 rubles. Whether or not you believe this it still makes for an interesting story.
Back in Ulan-Ude and with more knowledge of Buddhism we only had one more night in Russia. The next day we got the bus from Ulan-Ue to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. The bus ride was far too long to be fun. The journey had some very nice scenery but 10 hours on a coach and two hours at the border made for a pretty long day. When we finally got off the bus we found ourselves in a fairly smoggy very busy Ulanbaator and still had to negotiate our way from the bus station to the city centre.