The capital of nowhere

Ulan-Ude is an isolated city in the middle of Siberia. Or is it really that isolated? Only in distance from other cities, being 7 hours by train from Irkutsk, the same time by plane from Moscow. In its own world, Ulan-Ude is a centre, for it is the capital of Buryatia - the Buryat Republic - located at a junction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and a trade port, near the confluence of two rivers, the Uda and the Selenga.

For the visitor, Ulan-Ude offers a calm resting spot in the vast borderland between Europe and Asia (while technically in Asia, it has a lot of Western influence). It is a good starting point for a visit to Lake Baikal, or for anyone curious about a culture most people know very little about. An outdoors ethnographic museum shows the various buildings of the region: The wooden yurts of the Buryats, and the safe homesteads of the Russian pioneers in the region, who fled religious persecution or poverty. The old houses of Ulan-Ude itself are also wooden, with intricate carvings above windows and doors. There are also inevitable, grey communist box-buildings, and the world's biggest Lenin head is displayed prominently in the central square, unless someone has managed to take it down.

The population of the city is about 370,000. It is a harmonic mixture of the original inhabitants of the area and descendants of Russian and Cossack colonists, who founded it. The tribes who used to be the sole occupants of the region are the Buryat and the Evenk. Many of them have settled in the city, but others have retained their nomadic lifestyle on the surrounding steppes, as well as their breath-taking horseriding skills.

    From the beginning

The Buryat were a peaceful people who mainly lived from herding cattle. Always threatened by the Mongols to the east, they may have welcomed the Czar's pioneers - although another story says they were weakened by the rich gifts of vodka from the newly arrived strangers. Be that as it may, the Cossack soldiers successfully entered Siberia and began its colonization. One of their forts, which later became a thriving town, was founded at the mouth of the river Uda. Originally a winter camp, first used in 1666, it became Udinsky ostrog in 1680. It lay well protected between the two bordering rivers and the tall mountain ranges of Khamar-Daban and Ulan-Burgasy, and common people as well as soldiers made their home there. The climate was pleasant, for Siberia, and it still is. Temperatures may go down to -27 degrees Celsius in January, but reach the twenties in the summer months, July and August.

In the 1730s, the fort had grown into a town and was now called Verkhne-Udinsk. This town became a centre for the region because of its annual, later bi-annual, country fairs. In 1790, Verhneudinsk was given its own coat of arms to symbolise its importance as a trade centre. When the railway reached it at the end of the 19th century, industrial growth in the city really took off. In addition to tanning, food processing and sawmilling it began to manufacture glass, bricks, and of course railroad equipment.

The town was renamed once more in 1934, to Ulan-Ude. Ulan, which also occurs in the name of Mongolia's capital Ulaanbataar, means red.

    Religion and anti-religion

A meeting place of two religions, Ulan-Ude houses the Russian Orthodox Hodigitria Cathedral which during the regime of the Soviet was used as a storage house for confiscated Buddhist artifacts. The city became a refuge for the so-called Seymeyski, Old Believers, or people who were opposed to and therefore had to flee Patriarch Nikon's church reforms. They met a native people that was already mostly Tibetan Buddhist. Although their religion was officially recognised by the regime, many Buddhists were forcefully converted to Christianity by over-eager missionaries.

Later on, all religion was prohibited, clergy of all creeds was persecuted, and their religious symbols taken away from them. Many such articles were displayed in an "anti-religious" museum in Ulan-Ude, which actually worked more as a preservation place for these materials. When the wind of change sounded again, and religion became free once more, the place was simply renamed Museum of History. The beautiful works of ancient devotees were never destroyed, and now visitors can enjoy wooden and bronze sculptures, icons, and illustrated parchments.

A medical atlas, copied from the Tibetan original by Akvandazhiz, shows among other things "the development of the embryo before birth. It's like a comic strip. The first scenes show the soul of a person in the 49 days between death and life, it has the form of a six year old transparent child. He is there when a man and a woman make love and he tries to penetrate the man's mouth. If all goes well, if there's good karma, the woman becomes pregnant. She is then depicted with an embryo inside her stomach. It develops in three phases: fish, tortoise and pig. Some sentences accompany the schemes telling for example that the inner organs of the child are given by the mother and that the skeleton comes from the father."¹

Outside the city, the monastery of Involginsk Datsan serves as a major centre for followers of the Buddha in Russia. It was the only monastery allowed to keep running during the militant atheist time of communism, and now houses about 200 monks, both Buryats and ethnic Russians. It is a grand building painted in red, yellow, green, and white, greatly contrasting the grey-green colours of the nearby landscape. The monastery offers a school for novices, accommodation for visitors, a library of Buddhist texts, and an ornate temple with a mostly empty seat for the Dalai Lama - he last visited the monastery in 1997.

Today religions are promoted and studied rather than banned, and especially the shamanistic traditions are receiving a lot of newfound attention.

So if you ever happen to be in the area, most probably riding the Trans-Siberian, why don't you jump off it for a couple of days to explore what Ulan-Ude has to offer? I know I would.

¹ Quote from