There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Ulan Ude (1), Buddhists, Old Believers and an Enormous Head of Lenin: Part 6 of the Trans-Siberian Railway

Back to Part 5: Irkutsk

It’s not much of a city, Ulan Ude: three hundred thousand people huddled on a grassy slope where the River Uda joins the much larger Selanga on its way to Lake Baikal. If Irkutsk retains the feel of a frontier town, then Ulan Ude (pronounced Oohlan-oohday) is the town beyond the frontier, the step beyond the certainties of civilization. The central Soviet Square sports the city’s only item of note – a giant head of Lenin. From there a wide pedestrian street called, inevitably, Lenin Street descends some 800 metres to the half-restored Cathedral. Lenin Street has fountains and modern sculptures and is lined with some of the town’s less dowdy shops; elsewhere there is little but rattling trams, soviet-style apartment blocks and soviet-style industrial dereliction. So soviet is the town, in fact, that in cold war days Ulan Ude was closed to foreigners - more, one feels, in a spirit of Stalinist bloody-mindedness than because it had anything to excite a western spy.

Lenin Street, Ulan Ude

Andre met us at the station and drove us the short distance to a dingy courtyard behind a forbidding apartment block. In the semi-darkness of the stair-well we lugged our cases up to the third floor and Andre knocked gently on a heavily armoured metal door. Had we been met by a nervous, shifty-eyed dissident and passwords been hissed through clenched jaws I would not have been surprised. In reality, we were welcomed by a smiling, diminutive old lady who introduced herself as Svieta and ushered us into her equally diminutive apartment.

Andre left as we chose one of the two basic but clean guest rooms. The third room, which contained a television as well as a bed, was Svieta’s. It seemed she either lay down or stood up, sitting in chairs was not part of her repertoire. There was a tiny kitchen and an even smaller bathroom with an ancient shower. We made good use of this pleasingly efficient antique while Svieta bustled about in the kitchen preparing breakfast.
Rattling soviet tram - the view from Svieta's apartment, Ulan Ude

Clean and relaxed we sipped black tea, nibbled equally black bread and enjoyed a mound of scrambled egg lurking beneath the inevitable carpet of dill. As we finished, a tap on the door signalled the return of Andre, who was to drive us to the Ivolginsk Datsan some thirty kilometres from town.

“Have you heard of the Old Believers?” Andre asked as he piloted his Lada out of the courtyard, which seemed a little less dingy and forbidding now the sun was fully up. I had been reading about them and found them a strange, even lunatic bunch, which, fortunately, was not what I said as Andre’s next remark was: “My mother was an Old Believer.”

I could think of no appropriate reply, but Andre did not seem to want one, and anyway we were on our way to a Buddhist temple.

Once beyond the urban sprawl, we were in rolling open grassland with a big sky and low hills on a distant horizon; steppes which stretch all the way from Lake Baikal to the fringe of the Gobi desert.

The highway was narrow, but well surfaced and more than adequate for the small volume of traffic. At one junction a sign pointed 450 km back to Irkutsk, a journey which had taken us twelve hours. The Trans-Siberian Railway is real enough, but the Trans-Siberian Express exists only in fiction.

A distinctive low hill became a prominent landmark. From a distance it resembled a breaking wave, but closer to we could see it was more of a cone with a shattered apex. The hill stood above the small wooden town of Ivolginsk. In a circle below its peak stones spelled out Om Mane Padme Om in Cyrillic.

Om Mane Padme Om, Ivolginsk

It was strange visiting a Buddhist temple in Russia, particularly in the company of Andre, a local man of obvious European descent. Ulan Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic, a constituent republic of the Russian Federation, and the Buryats, like their Mongolian cousins, are traditionally Buddhist. Very possibly, the Mongols are not so much cousins as exactly the same people. Buryatia has been Russian since the seventeenth century and whilst Inner and Outer Mongolia suffered under imperial Chinese rule, the Buryats traded with the incoming Russians and enjoyed comparative freedom and prosperity.

In the early twentieth century, Sukhbaator’s communist-inspired rebellion freed Outer Mongolia from the Chinese, although Inner Mongolia remained, and still is, a province of China. The Russians liked having a buffer state between them and the imperial giant to the east, particularly after they had murdered Sukhbaator and installed their own man to lead the new Mongolian Republic. Realising that Russia’s Mongol population might be glancing enviously at an independent Mongolia run, ostensibly, by Mongolians, Stalin set out to create a distinctive Buryat identity as dissimilar as possible from Mongolian culture. The policy has been partly successful. Buryats still have a love of archery and an insatiable appetite for mutton, just like Mongolians, but while many Mongolians remain nomadic herdsmen, Buryats are settled, living in Ulan Ude or one of the many typically Russian villages of wooden houses and grassy streets. The policy has been aided by the influx of Russians, which has continued unabated since the seventeenth century so that today Buryats are out-numbered two to one in their own country.

Before the revolution, there were hundreds of Datsans in Buryatia and thousands of monks, but by the 1930’s the Datsans had all been closed and the monks dispatched to the Gulags. In the 1940s Stalin decided it was time for more religious tolerance and Ivolginsk was among the results.

The Datsan, which opened in 1947 on a site carefully chosen by astrologers, is a large, flat rectangular compound surrounded by a low wall. We paid our photography fee and entered. A couple of lack-lustre stalls selling trinkets, fridge magnets and religious gewgaws guarded the entrance, but little effort was made to sell us anything. The officially post-communist Russians have taken to petty capitalism with far less flair than the still officially communist Chinese.

Ivolginsk Datsan

Inside the compound, the structures were largely wooden; the style of the temples and stupas reminiscent of Tibet, whilst other buildings are clearly Russian.

Monk and stupas, Ivolginsk Datsan

We ambled in the approved clockwise direction, wandering in and out of temples inspecting statues of the Buddha, thangkas and libraries of tantric texts. Compared with other Buddhist temples there is little special about Ivolginsk and the most sacred and perhaps the strangest sight is not for general viewing. In 1927, Dasha-Dorjo Itigelov, the 12th Khambo Lama (the head of Russian Buddhism) died whilst at prayer. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried in the lotus position and dug up at regular intervals, in the belief that the physical bodies of those who have attained Nirvana do not decay. In 1955, 1973 and again 2002 he was found to be remarkably well – for a man of his age and condition. After the most recent exhumation, the current Khambo Lama decreed that Dasha-Dorjo should henceforth sit in a glass case in an upstairs room. Devotees may pay their respects on one of the seven sacred days in the year. He was not open for business the day we visited.

At Ivolginsk Datsan

Temples are a reflection of those who use them. In materialistic Hong Kong, where spirituality lies well hidden, temple visits are a way of assuring good luck. An act of devotion is followed by a visit to the fortune-tellers who pronounce on the likely success of their latest venture. In Beijing, years of state atheism have made temple-goers unsure of what they are supposed to do, and there is much giggling and confusion. By contrast, pilgrims in Lhasa form a sweeping clockwise tide encircling palaces and temples, twirling their prayer wheels. Inside, among the jostling throngs, the atmosphere is of intense spirituality, the pilgrim’s belief as powerful as the odour of wood smoke and yak-butter they carry with them.

At Ivolginsk, however, atmosphere seemed absent. The monastery is of the same Yelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect as the Tibetans; the Dalai Lama himself has made several visits, but still I felt we were seeing not so much a living temple as a museum. Buryatia is, allegedly, undergoing a Buddhist revival but at Ivolginsk there were few visitors, no tourists except us, and the monks kept a low profile. In Lhasa the prayer wheels turn incessantly, the bearings are always oiled and the handles polished by the devoted grasp of generations of pilgrims. Here we could have been the first to turn the creaky wheels that day, or maybe even that week.

Turning a prayer wheel, Ivolginsk Datsan

Seeds from a sacred Bo Tree – the tree under which the Buddha sat and meditated – were brought from Delhi in 1956 and the result is carefully enclosed in a glasshouse. On a summer’s day it might well have felt comfortable, but the Siberian winter is not the winter of northern India so it needs the protection. It looked well enough, for a plant so far from its natural habitat. Buddhism, on the other hand, has been in Buryatia for millennia and was once well acclimatised; now it too seems in need of the glasshouse treatment.

As we left Ivolginsk Lynne remarked how peaceful and spiritual it had been, so my take on it is clearly not the only one. We drove westwards for a while, then, as the road swung left to by-pass a village of wooden houses Andre swung right and took us down the main street.

“This is an Old Believer’s village,” he informed us, although it looked like every other village we had seen on the five and a half thousand kilometre journey from Moscow. Confidently navigating the maze of streets he parked beside the churchyard.

Old Believer's Church, near Ivolginsk
The Old Believers split from the Russian Orthodox in 1667 over reforms instituted by the Patriarch Nikon. The Patriarch had set up a commission to examine the drift of Russian Orthodoxy away from its Greek template, and so claimed the weight of scholarship behind his reforms as well as the support of Tsar Alexis I. The real driving force was Alexis’ ambition to become the liberator of all Orthodox lands then under Ottoman control. Sweetening the near-eastern patriarchs did no harm to this ambition, nor to Nikon’s chances of becoming the new Patriarch of Constantinople.

Among the reforms were an alteration in the spelling of Jesus from Ісусъ to Іисусъ (effectively Isus to Iisus), a change in the direction of processions from sunwise to counter-sunwise and the use of three straightened fingers instead of two when making the sign of the cross. These were not the most trivial of the modifications.

It may seem incredible that the Slavonic spelling of a name already far removed from its Hebrew original, or the precise way of holding a hand when making the sign of the cross should be deemed to affect one’s chance of eternal life. If God was that petty there would be little hope for Catholics, who cross themselves backwards (at least to Orthodox thinking), or Protestants who do not cross themselves at all – not to mention the Buddhists of Ivolginsk. However, such issues mattered to many thousands of simple believers who had no interest in or knowledge of Alexis’ Byzantine machinations. They mattered enough for thousands to die for them, and, predictably, many Old Believers eventually found their way to Siberia where their faith was strong enough to endure centuries of persecution and survive through the communist era.

The church itself was a small, elegant, whitewashed building. To a foreigner the Russian crosses on the tiny domes spoke more of the continuity of Russian symbolism than of schism. Andre found the pastor’s wife, the pastor himself was away on business, and she unlocked the church for us.

To my inexpert eye, the interior was like any small Russian Orthodox church. The iconostasis separating the nave from the sanctuary was relatively new but incorporated a number of much older icons. In Stalin’s time, the pastor’s wife explained, many icons and churches were smashed or burnt. She remembered the Young Communists arriving, intent on destruction but the most important icons had already removed and hidden. In these, more stable times, they have been returned to grace the new iconostasis. She also showed us two bibles, lovely illuminated works in Church Slavonic that had similarly survived. 

Andre and the pastor’s wife chatted as we looked round, they were obviously well acquainted. After we had seen enough of the church, she took as across the road to a building resembling a large church hall.

For years her husband had been collecting obsolete rural artefacts, and had assembled them into a private museum. What was surprising was how similar many of the old farm and household implements were to those in museums at home – though no British museum would have had such an extensive collection of samovars.

The pastor's private museum

Back on the main road, we stopped at a roadside café, a drab but not quite dilapidated building with a concrete floor, metal chairs and functional Formica topped tables. It might have been a transport café, but for the absence of frying. Indeed, there was something of an absence of menu – at least in the sense of choice - as the entire clientele, largely Russian but a good mix of age and gender, were all tucking into the same Buryat sheep fest. We joined them, and after our potato and lamb soup we found ourselves sitting behind large steaming bowls of lamb and potato. We had come a long way, I thought, to eat something that was, in everything but name, Irish stew.

As we ate, Andre told us of his scheme to build the Baikal trail, a venture bringing the youth of Russia and the USA together to work on projects to serve the community, and of the visit of the Dalai Lama in 1991. “I am not a Buddhist,” he said, “and I only came within fifty metres of him, but I could feel the energy radiating from him.” 

Back in the city we explored a little and took some photographs of the enormous head of Lenin. On the Mongolian border we met three Spanish students who had been beaten up for not showing the head sufficient respect. That, though, happened late at night; in the afternoon sunshine there was nothing more threatening than Lenin's half smile.

Lenin's enormous head, Soviet Square, Ulan Ude

Svieta provided an evening meal of stuffed cabbage leaves with cheese, aubergine slices and a dill laced salad, followed by ice cream and jam. Not wishing to cause offence, we consumed it all, despite being still full of lunchtime sheep.

The beer's okay, but I wouldn't trust the pizza
Lenin Street, Ulan Ude

We joined the rest of Ulan Ude in a stroll up and down Lenin Street in the evening sunshine, stopping for a beer at a pavement café. It was fortunate that we were not interested in eating, as the only food available consisted of unidentifiable triangles of greasy mush served on paper plates. As we left I saw that I had been sitting in front of a large picture of a gondolier and the Rialto Bridge. Only then did I realise the greasy mush was pizza. In the course of our travels we have seen some sad things served up in the name of pizza, but never anything quite as dire as that.

Back to Part 5: Irkutsk
On to Part 7: Ulan Ude (2)

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