The Long Way Home (Part III)

Yubanaswa Chakraborty: Soon we realised that times have changed post the fall of communism. Even while May Day parades were on full swing under the gigantic head of Lenin, there is an English pub named Churchill’s right across the square. A favourite hangout with foreign backpackers.

(Part II)

Buryatia: Bollywood, Buddha and Saraswati

Lake Baikal from the train

Lusud-Khan literally translates to “Water Dragon Master” – have lived for a long time in the folklore of the Buryats, the people who live in the Buryat Republic. Buryatia is a federal subject of Russia, in the area surrounding the Lake Baikal. Buryat people has always believed that a monster lives in the depth of the deepest lake in the world. On the bank of the river Yenisei, near the village of Askiz, an ancient stone plate was discovered. This had carvings of a creature having jaws with a forked tongue and had long claws. It sits in an upright position. On the back, the creature had a plate-Armour.

Seems like every deep lake has a monster myth, just like Loch Ness.

A station in Buryatia

Lake Baikal was formed 25 million years ago, making it world’s oldest freshwater lake. Many mythical monsters live in the deep waters, tell the folklore from the past. Many manned and un-manned missions have been carried out into the deeps but none of the monsters have been seen in real life. The wildlife they discovered deep down the lake is fascinating anyway. There is a simulator in the museum which provides a fascinating deep dive experience!

Side bunks on our train

Time had come for us to move from Irkutsk and move around the lake to the eastern shore. We chose to take a very slow passenger train that took nine hours around the lake to take us to Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Federal Subject of Russia – Republic of Buryatia. In the centre of the town square lies a Gigantic head of Lenin with features that look Asian. This was the most amazing stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway journey. The lake was frozen at places. Pine forests and snow-capped mountains provided a gorgeous backdrop.

Lenins head Ulan Ude

On the train, I picked up the fancy Russian railway glass, in its fancier glass holder, filled it up with hot water from the boiler (In an earlier time they used to have samovars on these trains), dipped the Lipton tea bags in it. Then we sat down by our window – that opens to a marvellous world outside. The semi frozen lake was passing by, ever so slowly, to the west. There were snow-capped mountains on the other side and pine trees all around us. A man was ice-fishing on the lake, sitting on his unfolded chair. A couple of kids were running after each other in front of a log hut. It was April 28, 2016, and we have been on the move for almost two weeks now.

In the evening we reached the city of Ulan Ude. And at first it felt like time has frozen in the Soviet Era.

Ancient Mongol Prayer Wheel

In the region we found a Russia like the books from my childhood. Soviet trams, farmer’s markets, Babushkas (wise old lady) selling fish and vegetables. Most Russian villages are filled with old women, but not many old men are seen. If you wonder why, the answer is they never got to get old. The two world wars have seen them disappear young. In Buryatia, some areas lost 98% of their young males in the WWII!

Ivolginsky Datsan

Those who grew up in the 80’s USSR had an unlikely hero – Bollywood star Mithun Chakraborty. After Raj Kapoor movies became famous, the Soviets embraced Bollywood as their prime source of entertainment. As Hollywood (along with denim/jeans, coke, KFC etc) – the brand evil from the capitalistic west was banned, USSR drew their dose of fun from Bombay. Then came a shocker – a movie that became ever so popular, that it is still in the heart and minds of people of the region! Even today diehard fans imitate the Disco Dancer that brought about a resistance in the youth of the USSR. The communist regime was quick to ban the dancing parties that gripped the nation, but the songs and the dance lived on – till today. As I share the same name, it was a privilege to travel through the region, all I needed to do was to show my Visa with my name written in Russian – and I got a VIP treatment everywhere! Our manager of the hostel in Ulan Ude took a selfie with me – “I will show this to my mother, she is a very big fan of Mithun” – he seemed visibly excited.

The Buryats are Mongols, but their land was occupied by the Cossacks in the 17th century. They remained with Russia ever since, through the rule of the Czars and later during the Soviet era.

Orthodox Russian food in Buryatia

Our place of stay was next to the President’s office and the parliament. This was the main square of the city, with the giant head of Lenin in the centre. The preparations were on for the May-day celebrations. Yes, you heard it, May Day is still the largest celebration in this part of Russia. Ulan-Ude was a very small settlement long ago, but it became a major Railway hub and a centre for Aviation industry. There are many factories manufacturing components of the flagship Sukhoi fighter jets in the area.

Orthodox Russian Villages in Buryatia

Soon we realised that times have changed post the fall of communism. Even while May Day parades were on full swing under the gigantic head of Lenin, there is an English pub named Churchill’s right across the square. A favourite hangout with foreign backpackers. It is also a new custom to take funny pictures with comrade Lenin. Acceptable and in no way treated as a derogatory act. All travellers are encouraged to be creative! Our manager of the hostel also pointed out that the face of Lenin has oriental features, it was deliberately done by the Soviets to make him even more popular in the region.

Orthodox Russian Villages in Buryatia

Communism to Buddhism – from Stalin to Dalai Lama

Stories of travel must touch upon the history of the people of the region. For me, history is utterly boring when it is printed on paper. It is extremely exciting when I see it with my own eyes and hear stories from older folks. That is why, in this travelogue, there will be mentions of facts that I got to know first-hand, things I have not read in detail before. Some of these, will be, very uncomfortable stories from the past.

Shamanik traditions can still be seen

As we crossed the lake Baikal, the primary religion changed from Christianity to Buddhism. Most Buryats are Buddhists, and some still practice Shamanism, the pagan religion of the region from the Pre-Buddhist era. I am not someone who would usually write about religion or politics, but on this occasion, I decided I had to include them here!

Practice for May Day Parade

There was a time when all religious teachers were massacred in this area. All Buddhist monasteries and Orthodox churches and religious artefacts were destroyed. Which in turn made me think of Communism as another fanatic religion. The silver lining to the story is that these are all history now. Though not very distant past. Religious institutions are back. Churches that had buried their artefacts deep under the ground, have dug them back up and restored some churches. Coming from an atheist like me, this seemed like restoration of freedom as we should enjoy today! Most of the people in Mongolia and Buryatia follow the Dalai Lama, and his sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It can display pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama, and worship him. But we were told that the Russian government doesn’t allow him to enter Russia, mainly due to the pressure from China.

The iconic Lada from the Soviet Era

One of the most fascinating places we visited of the entire journey was the Ivolginsky Datsan (Monastery). This is the only monastery of the region to have survived the communist regime of the USSR. We heard the story behind it from our guide Galdan. We were made to feel at home by the monks in the middle of the inhospitable landscape of Buryatia.

The head of the institution is known as the “Khambo Lama” (K is silent). The 12th Khambo Lama, Dashy Dorzho Itigelov, died in 1927 and seventy-five years later his body was exhumed from the grave. The phenomenon is that his body never decomposed and is now kept in a new temple called “Etigen Khambyv Ordon” inside the monastery. Not everyone is allowed inside, but we were given more than 30 minutes to spend. The Lama who looks after it explained everything to us. “He is not alive, he has left this body and he attained Samadhi. His body even sweats on a hot day. He will come back to his body 2500 years from now” he told us.
“That is the time when Maitreya Buddha will be born again as a human” he added.

Seeing is believing, and we cannot deny what we saw! The dead monk stares at you and even seems to be smiling. Never in my entire life I have seen anything like this!

Soviet era relics

We learnt about the history of Ivolginsky Datsan. In the WWII the Buryats fought the war for USSR, and 98% men of the region died. The 17th Hambo Lama Lubsan Nyma Darmayev travelled to Moscow after the war got over. He met Stalin and asked for permission to establish a monastery! It is not a widely known fact outside this region that Stalin agreed to this and in 1946 the monastery was established. It was the only monastery in the entire USSR.

Monastery in Ulan Ude

The current head is the 24th Hambo Lama – Damba Ayusheyev.
“Is it possible to meet the Hambo Lama in person?” we asked humbly.
“Only with appointments, but it is not easy” the lama smiled as he said “He is a busy man with a lot of important friends. President Putin comes here often. A lot of helicopters land here, we don’t know who comes and goes, but they must be important people to travel in Helicopters!”

A few monks we met have travelled to India, and one of them exclaimed – “Even now, when I sleep, I dream of India, it is so colourful and magnificent!” Some of the Lamas spoke in fluent Hindi that they have learnt in Mysore.

Saraswati a.k.a. Yenzima!

Yenzima the Russian version of Saraswati

A lot of Hindu deities found their way into Buddhism and they are widely worshipped in the world that follows Tibetan Buddhism. What caught my eye is a souvenir being sold – of an image of goddess Saraswati. Once I asked around, I heard yet another amazing story.

Hambo Lama Itigelov (whose body is preserved in the temple now), was a big follower of YenzimaYenzima is none other than the Hindu deity Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. Itigelov travelled along the shores of Lake Baikal to a pristine valley called Berguzin – and meditated. He then saw image of Yenzima on a large rock. Many have travelled to this rock (and on my wish list too) but not many have managed to see this image! Legend has that Yenzima only shows herself to chosen ones!

We left the monastery and went on to explore the countryside. Scattered around the hilly terrain we saw a lot of relics from the USSR time, mainly dilapidated community farms and factories. We got to see the way of life for the Orthodox Christians. We were treated with traditional food, a family dressed up in traditional dress treated us for lunch. We even tried out their attire – each one more than 200 years old, passed on from one generation to another.

Orthodox Russian dolls

We wrapped up our short visit to the Republic, with much left to be seen, it was time for us to leave Russia and move on to Mongolia.

Words and photos: Yubanaswa Chakraborty

About the author: Yubanaswa Chakraborty is a software developer based in London. Born in Siliguri, India, he has a degree in engineering and has been a techie for almost two decades now. A passionate traveller and biker, whenever time and money permits, he travels to faraway places to experience new cultures and make new friends.


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