Buryat region shows Russia’s Asian culture

Posted July 18, 2009, at 3:13 a.m.

Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

One month ago, we approached an arduous seven- mile ascent up a precipitous mountain. Reaching the top, panting and exhausted, I pulled off the road. A large freight truck reached the summit and proceeded down the other side. As it passed, I heard my friend Ellery yell in surprise behind me.

“I think that truck driver just threw something at me!” he exclaimed. Leaning downward to inspect the projectile, found a large 10-ruble coin on the ground.

When I told people in the U.S. about our plan to bicycle across Asia and Europe, the common response was a pessimistic, ‘aren’t you afraid of being robbed?’ Now that we are in Siberia, the chief concern is not losing the possessions we have, but what we will do with numerous trinkets given to us. Russians love travelers, and constantly bestow us with countless offerings of knives, key chains, jewelry, food and, despite our protests, even small amounts of money. Speeding down the mountain, I wondered if the 10-ruble coin was another donation.

Several weeks later, we solved the mystery. Hitchhiking back from the city of Chita after repairing my bicycle, a young couple named Alex and Victoria gave us a ride to the town where we left off. They were both practicing Buddhists, part of the large Buddhist population in eastern Siberia. As we came to the top of a small mountain, Alex reached into his pocket, rolled down the window, and tossed a coin outside into the breeze.

“Throwing a coin at the top of a mountain is a Buddhist tradition,” Victoria explained. “You do it to make an offering to the mountain for good luck.”

Ellery and I looked at each other with sudden understanding, immediately recalling the incident with the trucker and the 10-ruble piece.

Traveling in Siberia, a land where Russian Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion and many of the inhabitants are of European descent, it can be difficult to remember that you are actually in Asia. But proceeding toward central Russia, the culture and people become more diverse. Colorful Tibetan prayer flags strung along tree limbs and blowing in the wind begin to adorn the tops of each mountain. In roadside cafes, small images of the Buddha hang above counter tops.

After pedaling nearly 2,300 miles, we enter the Buryat Autonomous Republic, an independent part of Russia located just north of central Mongolia.

The Buryat people have lived here since time immemorial and today are the largest minority ethnic group in Siberia. Their roots are Mongolian and they are still considered the northernmost Mongol group, numbering nearly 500,000 people. Most Buryats live in the Autonomous Republic; the territory was annexed from China to the Russian state in the early 18th century.

The Buryat were originally a nomadic people who herded animals and often lived in yurts, cylindrical tent-like dwellings covered in felt or skins. During the Soviet period of Russia, the Buryat Republic was industrialized and nomadic ways of Buryat life began disappearing. Today, most Buryats live in the Republic’s capital Ulan-Ude.

Several days after reaching the Republic, we enter Ulan-Ude and I re-experience the chaotic sensation of navigating the busy roads of a city on a bicycle. Amidst whirling traffic, I notice a change in the Russians walking along the sidewalks. Here, blond women and rosy-cheeked children are replaced with ethnic Buryats. The people here are beautiful. Their olive skin accentuates the natural hues in their deep eyes; the long black hair of Buryat women seems to shine luminously in the sunlight.

Nearing the center of town, a brand-new and distinctly Asiatic building comes into view next to a shopping mall. It is one of those iconic Asian buildings, like the kind you expect to see on the cover of tourist brochures for trips to China; the edges of the roof curl upward like the corners of old linoleum. The building was finished so recently that the yellow tiles on the rooftop still gleam freshly in the afternoon sun. In a Russian city, the building looks out of place, and appears tawdry at first glance. Judging by its gaudy exterior, I mistake the building for a cheesy overpriced Asian restaurant; but it is actually a brand-new datsan, a Buddhist monastery.

Like their Mongolian counterparts, most Buryats follow the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, which in 1741 was first recognized as an official religion in Russia. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Buryat Buddhist church grew extremely large and 48 datsans were built in and around Ulan-Ude. After the Russian Revolution, when Soviet power sought to turn Russia into an atheist state, many Christian churches and Buddhist monasteries were destroyed.

Buddhism is an integral aspect of Buryat culture. Since the Soviet Union’s end, practicing Buddhists in this part of Russia have steadily increased. Today, the surrounding hillsides around Ulan-Ude gleam with the curved roofs of newly constructed datsans.

In Ulan-Ude, we are taken in by a young Russian girl named Maria, whose family came to Russia from Germany several generations ago. One afternoon, we visit the Ivolginsk Datsan, a large complex inhabited by Buddhist monks, outside the city. The datsan is situated in a beautiful valley ridged by high mountains covered in mist.

When we arrive, a light rain falls. We enter the premises and visit the datsans by walking along a small pathway. Between each building, prayer wheels, cylindrical wheels on spindles often made of wood or metal, stand in a row. In the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, spinning the wheels as one walks by has the same spiritual effect as reciting a prayer out loud.

As I stop to study the Sanskrit images on one wheel, I almost jump in surprise as a monk clad in a burgundy robe passes by me spinning the wheels. Watching him in the pouring rain, I feel like I am really in Asia for the first time.

The next day, we tour the Open Air Ethnographical Exhibition, a large outdoor museum in a field near Ulan-Ude with displays of reconstructed traditional Buryat dwellings. Strolling along a wooded path, we observe a small tepee made from bark. The construction reminds me of learning about Native Americans in Maine during the fifth grade. I remember going into the woods and gathering bark to make a diorama with tepees. Recalling how our teacher taught us that it is believed the first people who arrived in North America might have originally crossed on a now nonexistent land bridge from northern Asia, I look at this tepee here and the theory seems more plausible than ever.

In the Buryat Republic, you can sense the migratory patterns of humans over time. Europeans who moved to remote sections of Asia live alongside Buryats whose distant relatives may have populated North America. As humans move, their ideas and ways of living spread. I find ethnic Russians here who practice Buddhism, and native people whose descendants could also have inhabited America living nomadic lifestyles in tepees.

Even as a traveler, it is impossible to move through the world without acquiring new habits.

Leaving Ulan-Ude, we begin a long climb on our bicycles up a steep mountain. Arriving at the top, I reach into my pocket, grab some coins, and throw them behind me. The jingling of several rubles on the pavement faintly echoes behind me as I speed away into the valley below.

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