Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia. It is located 6.5h by train from Irkutsk – “next door”, as a Russian would say. The closer we got to Ulan-Ude, the more the landscape changed and finally looked like an outpost of the Mongolian steppe. Again, Mongolia is “just around the corner”, a couple of hours by car away.
For the first time, we felt like we were experiencing real Russian culture. As before in Irkutsk, we had the opportunity to stay with friends of our Russian friends in Germany. They lived in a small village next to Ulan-Ude. The people there produced most of the food in their own backyards, e.g. honey, jam, vegetables, and fruits. Our home was guarded by a dog, and we were blessed with the simplicity of an outhouse. The roads leading to the house had never seen a bit of bitumen. In short, a typical Russian village, quiet and peaceful.
One of the most thrilling experiences that we’ve had during our stay was a hot shower in a wooden Russian banya: this basically is a combination of a sauna and a showering facility. You sit and sweat, and whenever you feel like it you pour cold or hot water over your head. If you like, you can also dip a branch of a eucalyptus tree into the water and wipe it across your body so as to add some nice aroma. We came out sweating, but 100% refreshed!
Most of the Buryatian people are Buddhists. This surprised us since we had thought of Russia as an Orthodox country. We visited some of the Buddhist shrines in which Mahayana Buddhism was practiced. In total, there are three Russian states where Buddhism plays a major role: Buryatia, Tuva (between Irkutsk and Mongolia), and Kalmykia (near Volgograd in western Russia). Each of them has their own leader who, in turn, is lead by the head of the Russian Buddhist community. The current leader of all Mahayana Buddhists on earth is the Dalai Lama the 14th.
In Buryatia, cultures clash and mix. In addition to Russian, Buryatian is an official language. A number of minorities live scattered across the state. Also, many Mongolian tourists visit the region. We got to know that most cars were second-hand imports from Japan and, thus, had the steering wheel on the right side. You see that Russian identity is much richer than commonly portrayed by stereotyped news reports.
In fact, all cultural “maps” – or realities – differ from those maps or realities that foreigners bring with them.
It is not the food or the architecture that distinguishes one culture from the other – it is the belief about the food and the architecture, why they have to be the way they are.
What we came to understand was that beyond all the museums, sights, habits, and cuisines existed a making of reality that may be described as Buryatian culture in the first place, and Russian in the second place.
Jan & Gratsi
P.S.: Check out our route map to see where we are!