President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin visits Ivolginsky Datsan in the village of Verkhnyaya Ivolga.
Last winter I visited one of the most enigmatic and unusual areas in Russia: the Republic of Buryatia. What’s so remarkable about this remote region in the Russian Far East beyond Lake Baikal? Why travel there? Where did President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev stay when they visited, and what did the local chefs cook for them? We have all the answers.
TEXT: ARTYOM SVETLOV
It was early December. Ulan-Ude, Buryatia’s capital city, welcomed our team, which included representatives of the TUI tourist agency and journalists, with an invigorating 27°C below zero (-16.6°F). Buryatia’s endless steppes get no lasting snow cover thanks to the incessant, biting winds, so we felt the freezing air in our bones. We put on all the warm clothes we had with us, including thermal underwear, scarves and fur hats. We needed all the help we could get.
Architecturally, Buryatia’s capital looks a lot like many other Siberian cities.
Its main square is the site of the world’s largest sculptural head of Vladimir Lenin, which
weighs 42 tons and stands almost eight meters high!
In Buryatia’s Capital
The purpose of our trip was not only educational, it was also commercial. The major international tour operator TUI Group Russia and the CIS, had decided to expand its operations to this region of Siberia and begun developing package tours. Since nothing like this had been previously available on the market, TUI’s plans were of particular importance for the region. We met with Alexey Tsydenov, the official head of the Republic, who was happy to share his vision of Buryatia’s future. More than 1.5 million tourists come to Buryatia every year. Naturally, the main attraction is Lake Baikal. There is a lot of interest in it, especially among Chinese investors. However, the local government would rather work with our own Russian investors.
In October 2019 Ulan-Ude will be hosting the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships. Last year women boxers from Buryatia took two gold and two silver medals at the Russian Women’s Boxing Championships; and now it appears they will have to prove that they are the best in the world.
Architecturally, Buryatia’s capital looks a lot like many other Siberian cities. Its main square is the site of the world’s largest sculptural head of Vladimir Lenin, which weighs 42 tons and stands almost eight meters high! The giant head looks a little scary, but the locals have long grown accustomed to him and hold all the city’s main celebrations on the square. We soon got used to him, too, taking selfies with the great revolutionary.
Another “monument” to Soviet rule is the spectacular Buryat National Opera and Ballet Theatre, which was established in 1939. The building, which is famous for the enormous fresco adorning its auditorium ceiling, is an example of the so-called “Stalinist Empire style” in architecture and is considered a cultural heritage site. We were given a guided tour of the theatre and even allowed to go backstage and attend a rehearsal.
A visit to the Lamas
Ivolginsky Datsan (Buddhist monastery), the centre of Buddhist spiritual practices in Russia, is located 36 km away from Ulan-Ude. Most of the temples here were built in the 1970s.
In 2002 the incorrupt body of Hambo Lama Itigilov was transferred to Ivolginsky Datsan. The Lama’s body, which was retrieved from the grave 75 years after his passing, did not show any signs of decay.
In 2002 the incorrupt body of Hambo Lama Itigilov was transferred to Ivolginsky Datsan. Hambo Lama Itigilov died in 1927, having instructed his followers to exhume his body after 75 years. When the monks performed the ritual, they discovered the Lama’s body intact, with no signs of decay. Many a scientist, including some from other countries, has tried to unlock this mystery: cells taken from the Lama’s dead body are the same as the cells of a healthy living person.
There are three functioning Russian Orthodox monasteries in Buryatia today. The Posolsky Transfiguration Monastery, located on the shores of Lake Baikal, is quite remarkable. It was founded in 1681 on the site where eight members of the first Russian diplomatic mission to Mongolia were murdered and buried. The monastery has been under reconstruction since 2000. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides assistance to the Posolsky Transfiguration Monastery through its Board of Trustees.
Today the Lama’s body is seated in a large armchair behind a protective glass, and at set intervals during the year, any visitor can approach him to bow and pray. An exception was made for our group, and we were allowed to visit the sacred site outside of the normal schedule. By the way, before going into the temple you are required to let go of all dark thoughts and worries in order to enter in a positive and happy mood — otherwise, you run the risk of spoiling other people’s karma.
The monastery also houses a Buddhist university (with 100 students currently studying there), a hotel that is open in the summer, a museum of Buddhist art, and a visitor center.
I was drawn to the souvenirs sold at stalls inside the monastery. There was a great selection, from slippers and belts made from camel hair in Buryatia and neighbouring Mongolia to incense and portraits of the Dalai Lama. I purchased a pair of cute “inseparable” elephant figurines. According to Buddhist tradition, the elephant is one of the most revered animals; indeed, Buddhist teaching tells us that before she gave birth to Gautama Buddha, his mother dreamt of a white elephant entering her body, and even though she was married, her vision was seen as a portent of the appearance of a divinity on earth.
Respect for tradition
The Buddhist spiritual tradition and Buryatia’s traditional culture and customs are quite fascinating. And right now Buryatia is experiencing a renewed interest in its national traditions. For example, after a baby was born, Buryats used to bury the placenta and umbilical cord, which were thought to represent another, unborn human being who must be committed to the earth to avert misfortune and sorrow. The newborn’s parents were to remember the place, as it was thought to be the birthplace of their child. This was the place where a Buryat came during hard times to pray or ask for something. Today this tradition is enjoying a revival, and local hospitals are finding ways to accommodate new parents.
Another difference between Buddhist and Christian traditions is that Buddhists do not visit cemeteries. Since they believe in reincarnation, they see the body after death as an empty shell, not something to worship — to do so is to invite trouble. Some of the indigenous people practice shamanism. Long ago, the Buryats looked to their shamans to tell them where and how to bury their dead: sometimes in wooden coffin-like boxes, or simply in clothing; sometimes they left bodies lying above the ground for wild animals to tear apart. Naturally, these customs are not practiced today, and the authorities work to combat such tendencies.
There are many mixed marriages in Buryatia between ethnic Russians and Buryats, who have lived together in harmony for centuries. Nonetheless, every Buryat knows the story of their family seven generations back. A written ancestral record with the names of all relatives is kept in every house and yurt.
One of the most interesting places we visited was the Steppe Nomad ethno-tourism center. Here we learned to play checkers/dice Buryat style and dance the yohor, the traditional Buryat round dance. The locals even recreated for us an entertaining and joyful Buryat wedding. Most of us ended up taking part in the ceremony, playing the roles of the groom, his friends, the bride, and the relatives. We tasted the traditional Buryat beverage called “milk vodka” — with 9 to 11 % alcohol, it tastes a bit like Japanese sake.
Yet another popular tourist destination is Tarbagatay, an ancient Russian Old Believers’ settlement. A delicious meal and a full-fledged folk performance welcomed us to the village.
The Old Believers of Transbaikal, also called “Semeiskie”, meaning “of the family”, have preserved their unique culture through centuries. They got this nickname when entire families were resettled in Buryatia by special order of Catherine the Great. Today their descendants welcome tourists with traditional Russian dishes and show them their age-old way of life, their ceremonies, songs and dances. “The Cultural Space and Oral Culture of the Semeiskie” is included in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
On the way to Lake Baikal, Buryatia’s ultimate natural wonder and tourist attraction, we stopped to bathe in local hot springs. We really enjoyed the large pool with mineral water springs — all year round, the water temperature here reaches +37-38°C (about 98-100°F.) None of us will ever forget relaxing in hot water with the air temperature at -27°C, or trying to run up the frozen steps of the pool as our wet slippers stuck to them.
Lake Baikal belongs on everyone’s bucket list. Even in the winter, the vast, sea-like lake was an astonishing experience. It was already beginning to freeze over, but the waves were still breaking at the shore. Storms even form over the lake. Around the lake, the snow-covered trees and shrubs looked so beautiful that all the photographers reached for their cameras, and all tourists got their phones out.
We also went for a remarkable hike on a new ecological trail through the snow-covered forest of the Baikal Nature Reserve. We saw the tracks of wild animals and birds, and ancient dwellings of Transbaikal’s indigenous people. We also saw a stuffed Siberian musk deer at the Baikal Nature Reserve museum. Who’d have thought that the area was also home to a sabre-toothed deer?
The Baikal Reserve visitor centre, which was opened just a few years ago, is modern yet fits seamlessly in the surrounding landscape. The centre offers guided tours that tell visitors about this unique, endless lake and its wildlife. We were quite surprised to hear that it has recently been prohibited to fish the lake for its famed Baikal omul, the signature component of the region’s cuisine. Today, only one local business holds the permit to fish Baikal omul, so there is a good chance that the “Baikal” omul you buy in a store was caught in, say, the Yenisei or Lena Rivers. We purchased some smoked omul at a local store, and I honestly cannot tell you where it came from. We were told it was “local”. What I can tell you is that it was absolutely delicious — I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything so good.
A Presidential dinner
Buryat cuisine is dominated by meat dishes, and the locals’ preference is for lamb. The most popular dish is called buuz. Buuz is best described as steamed meat dumplings in the shape of a yurt, with a small opening at the top of the dough to gather up the juices. It is a bit like the Georgian khinkali. Naturally, all kinds of fish from Lake Baikal are also a staple, including whitefish, grayling and omul.
Artyom Kuriksha, head chef at the Baikal Plaza Hotel’s Tenghiz restaurant, prepared a real feast for our dinner. It is worth noting that Vladimir Putin has stayed at the Baikal Plaza several times, and it was Artyom and his co-workers who created a signature dish for Mr. Putin, calling it “Fish à la President”: baked Baikal omul stuffed with porcini mushrooms and pine nuts.
As for us, we dined on Baikal whitefish with fried button and shitake mushrooms and bell pepper jam, as well as yak tartare and venison.
Naturally, we absolutely had to ask Artyom what our President eats when he stays at the Plaza.
“Vladimir Putin likes simple food. For breakfast, he always has syrniki (traditional soft cheese pancakes), oatmeal, fresh fruit and berries. Also, we offered him pirozhki (small pastries) stuffed with bird cherries, cabbage, pine nuts and honey. He enjoys blini with caviar as well. Lunch for the President and those who accompany him is prepared by the Kremlin cooks who travel with the group. We begin preparations for his visit a week ahead, as the President’s party usually comprises seventy or so individuals. The party arrives with two trucks of food supplies.”
“Do you feel anxious when the President comes?”
“First time he came, we were really nervous, but after that it became easier. Now we know what to do. We don’t get any sleep, because everything needs to be done at a certain time. Let’s say the plane leaves at 6 am. That means that we have to start preparing all the food they take with them at 3 am. It is not like you can put it all in the fridge!” Artyom laughs…
By the way, Prime Minister Medvedev has also stayed at the Baikal Plaza twice. According to the chef, Dmitry Medvedev’s taste in food is quite similar to President Putin’s.
Folk songs, music and dance created a wonderful atmosphere for our excellent dinner, a dinner that was, indeed, worthy of a president.