The Ultimate Travel Guide to Ulan Ude: Why This Siberian City Will Surprise You
In the middle of Russia just east of Lake Baikal is one of Siberia’s coolest cities, Ulan Ude. A smallish city of some 400,000, Ulan Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic, a federal subject of Russia with a decidedly Mongolian flavor.
Here are five of our favorites found in this captivating Siberian city:
- Buryats, Siberia’s largest ethnic minority group
- Buddhists (in Russia??)
- Old Believers: Living 17th century traditions
- Stellar Photo Ops
- Remote International Ecological Center
The Ultimate Travel Guide to Ulan Ude
1) Buryats, Siberia’s largest ethnic minority group
Ulan Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic, or Buryatia. The Buryats are an indigenous people who have made their home around the Baikal region for hundreds of years. Close cousins of the Mongols, they pre-date Genghis Khan, and some believe that their homeland is actually the place of origin of the Mongol people. Buryat traditional dress is very similar to Mongolian, with vivid embroidered satin robes making their appearance on holidays.
Unlike most Siberian cities, you’ll see many Asian faces on the streets of Ulan Ude; more than 20% of the urban population is Buryat, lending an international air to the place.
After ongoing struggles for autonomy, including a doomed uprising against Stalin’s collectivization of their herds in 1929, the Buryat government declared sovereignty in 1990, as the Soviet Union weakened. Ultimately, Buryatia voted in 1992 to remain in Russia as a sovereign member of the Russian Federation rather than declaring itself a separate nation.
Here are some of the experiences you can have in Ulan Ude, due to the strong influence of Buryat culture.
Dine at local Buryat restaurants
One of the outstanding features of Ulan Ude is the presence of tiny tucked-away restaurants called posnaya, where they serve the delicious Burytat dumplings called posy. A Russification of the Buryat/Mongol word buuza, posy are as big as eggs, stuffed with savory ground meat, and steamed in salted water. You eat them out of hand, biting them and letting the soup-like juice run down your throat before finishing them off in another bite or two. You can choose to accompany them with Buryat green tea laced with milk, the main drink served at a posnaya.
Experience the other-worldly sounds of throat-singing
Mongolian and Tibetan Buddhist lamas began making their way to the eastern shores of Lake Baikal in the 17th century, infusing the local Buryat culture with their unique blend of Buddhism, shamanism, and khoomei, or throat-singing.
Throat-singing is practiced in Buryatia, Tuva, and Mongolia. This unique musical technique is more than an exotic novelty; it is part of a rich tradition. Throat-singing may have evolved from human efforts to duplicate natural sounds, such as a breeze blowing across the steppe or a rushing river. In throat-singing, a single vocalist produces two, and sometimes three distinct tones, or overtones, simultaneously, making an eerie buzzing sound overlaid with bird-like whistling tones. There’s nothing like it on earth.
Celebrate Buryat New Year
Buryat New Year, celebrated in accordance with the Mongolian lunar calendar, is a joyous spring holiday that reflects the Buryat culture. The “white month” holiday (or Sagaalgan in Buryat) symbolizes purification and the beginning of a new life. Celebrations begin on the first morning of the White Moon (in 2018, it begins Friday, February 16) and continue for almost a month. On these days the people are given a chance to take part in old rituals.
On the eve the tradition is to burn old clothes and household items, symbolizing release from the sins of the past year. People visit their relatives, eat traditionally-made Buryat white dairy food (milk skins, homemade cheese, sour clotted milk, buns, dairy cookies, posy, milk-based vodka, tarasun), and attend solemn services at the Buddhist temple in Ulan Ude. It is believed that a joyful and happy Sagaalgan celebration will be followed by a happy and successful year.
Dip into the history of Buryatia
Ulan Ude’s Buryatia History Museum was originally founded in 1919. The museum features a floor of costumes, weapons, tools and adornments of the Buryat people, and a floor dedicated to Buddhist art and artifacts. Included in the collection are discoveries from prehistoric times, Orthodox icons and Tibetan Buddhist thangkas, or fabric banners painted with Buddhist deities. The museum also houses one of two original copies of the Atlas of Tibetan Medicine, a beautifully illustrated treatise of herbal and spiritual treatments for illnesses.
The Ethnographic Museum of Transbaikal Peoples, a 90-acre open-air museum, was founded in 1986 to show the lives of the peoples living on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal from the 2nd century BC until today. The original dwellings are set in the same landscape the tribes used to live in. Here you can see a Hun burial place, a shaman ger, Buryat rugs made of horse hair, a fermented milk vodka distillery, an old style “black” banya without a chimney and the only wooden Old Believers’ church preserved in Eastern Siberia.
2) Buddhists (in Russia??)
Buddhism arrived at the eastern shores of Lake Baikal in the 17th century. The teachings spread among the indigenous Buryat people, and either superseded or existed alongside the shamanism that had been prevalent earlier.
By 1741, Empress Elizabeth decreed Buddhism to be an officially sanctioned religion, and it enjoyed a fair amount of freedom until Stalin’s campaign to uproot religious activity in the 1930s. Monasteries and temples were razed all over the country, and lamas sent to the gulag or executed.
In a preponderantly Orthodox Christian country (one that officially espoused atheism during Soviet times), Russia has two regions where Buddhism is a strong force. The main one is in Uan Ude.
Here are some of the experiences you can have in Ulan Ude, due to the strong influence of Buddhism.
Visit the Center of Russian Buddhism
Ivolginsk Datsan Buddhist Monastery, just outside of Ulan Ude, is the center of Russian Buddhism. The temple was rebuilt in 1946, after Stalin’s severe restrictions on religious practice were loosened. Services were allowed, but no teaching was permitted, and a Soviet-style “Central Buddhist Board” was installed.
Today the datsan is a place of teaching again, and young lamas from all over Russia live and study here. The main temple, every square inch decorated with beautiful silks, precious stones, and painted woodwork, is crowded every morning with chanting monks, townspeople and pilgrims. Prayer wheels mark the perimeter of the complex, and small log cabins house the lamas and their families.
The datsan’s library protects hundreds of silk-wrapped ancient scrolls and sacred thangkas, large silk banners painted with deities or aspects of Buddha. In the greenhouse grows a sapling purported to be from the bhodi tree under which Buddha sat when he was enlightened.
Meet, and meditate with, Buddhist women and nuns
Lamrim Buddhist Women’s Center is the Buddhist cultural and educational center for women. Founded in 2013, Lamrim (meaning “stages of the path”) is meant especially for women to talk, consult, learn about Buddhism, and meditate.
Encounter ancient alternative medicine
Ulan Ude’s Oriental Medicine Center was built in 1989 to meet the demand for alternative medical therapies. Acupuncture, leech therapy, bleeding, aromatherapy, massage without touching and Tai Chi are offered as treatments, and there is a pharmacy for herbal remedies. Russian and Buryat scientists here have studied the pulse method of diagnosing illness, and worked to create a computer program that reproduces the results of Tibetan practitioners.
3) Old Believers: Living 17th century traditions
Outside of Ulan Ude, you can find several villages founded long ago by communities of Old Believers. Rebelling against Patriarch Nikon’s 1652 reforms of the Orthodox liturgy and ritual, the Old Believers fled or were exiled to Eastern Europe and then to Siberia. In their isolated Siberian villages, these groups were able to preserve their 16th and 17th century traditions, clothing, architecture, language and style of singing.
The Old Believers were repressed and sometimes imprisoned during Stalin’s purges, and were forced to hide their spiritual practices. Today a percentage of the Semeiskie consider themselves an ethnic group rather than a religious sect.
Whether or not they continue to be Orthodox, the Semeiskie chants, lyric songs, and folk prayers, transmitted intact from 16th and 17th century, are considered priceless. UNESCO has inscribed the cultural legacy of the Semieskie onto the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Visit an Old Believer Village
Visitors to Ulan Ude are often escorted into the countryside to meet and share a meal with a family in a village of Russian Old Believers. On these visits you can hear their old songs, handed down by ear, bring them together each time they sing.
Sample Siberian delicacies
And the food is fabulous, too. Siberian food is much like Russian food elsewhere, but with even more of an emphasis on home-grown and locally foraged. Dishes of poached home-grown tomatoes, wild mushrooms picked in the surrounding fields, clear soup with mutton from the neighbor’s backyard sheep, and mixed berries from wild and domestic bushes might grace the table of an Old Believers’ banquet, along with vegetable salads, meat pies (piroshky), Siberian tortellini (pelmenie), sweet buns (bulochki), smoked and fresh Baikal fish, and tea with home-made jam. Local, home-grown and home-made is the rule in Siberia.
4) Stellar Photo Ops
For a smallish city, Ulan Ude likes to go big. In addition to the opportunity to capture photos of cultures your friends have never heard of (such as Buryats and Old Believers), Ulan Ude has a couple of items that won’t need a zoom lens to capture.
Kitschy Claim to Fame
The Biggest Lenin Head in the World is here, floating over the main square like the Wizard of Oz. The bronze head was unveiled in 1971 to mark the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, and ever since he has made a great place to meet up with people. (“I’ll be under the Lenin Head with a pink carnation.”) And a great place for photos ops.
Even if this were to be the only thing you saw in Ulan Ude, it would still be worth your time. At 25 feet tall and 42 tons, it is awe-inspiring.
A 16-foot gilded statue of the Buddha
Located on a hill on the north end of Ulan Ude, the Rinpoche Bagsha Datsan was built in 2000. Within the temple is a 16-foot gilded statue of the Buddha. The views over the city are some of the best in the region.
5) Remote International Ecological Center
The Selenga River is the largest tributary entering Lake Baikal. The wetlands at its delta, some 60 miles northwest of Ulan Ude, are included in the Ramsar list of “Wetlands of International Importance” because of the abundance of migratory waterfowl nesting here. Peak migratory season is late August/early September.
See rare and endangered animals
Here the international ecological center, Istomino, supports research and monitoring of Baikal’s ecosystem for signs of anthropogenic impacts. The subarctic climate zone includes areas of permafrost. 31 species of rare and endangered animals, including the White Swan, can be found here, along the outlet of the undammed Selenga River.
Travel to Ulan Ude with MIR
MIR has more than 30 years of travel experience in Russia, with an affiliate office in Ulan Ude, as well as in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Irkutsk, offering on-the-ground support. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
There are a number of ways travelers can spend time in Ulan Ude, learning about its Buryat traditions, its Buddhist heritage, and its communities of Old Believers:
- Travel on a small group tour:
- Travel the Trans-Siberian Railway on a rail journey by private train
- Travel on your own dates, at your own pace on our Essential Siberia independent trip
- Let us handcraft a custom, private trip, personalized to your pace, budget and interests
Contact MIR today at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-424-7289.
Top photo: Greeted by music and song in the Old Believers village. Photo credit: Helge Pedersen.
PUBLISHED: March 13, 2018