The 17th-century city of Ulan Ude, straddling the trans-Siberian railway east of Lake Baikal, is rarely visited by tourists. Yet a mix of Buddhist monasteries, shamanist shrines and churches of Orthodox old believers makes the republic of Buryatia a unique corner of Russia, writes Lucy Jones.
There isn't much choice of travel when you decide your destination is Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia. I travelled on the trans-Siberian railway, squeezed into a compartment with two enormous, wedding-bound sisters and an acrobat from Vladivostok. But one stop before reaching Buryatia the carriage suddenly emptied.
My new companions were Buryat traders returning from China, having bought clothes to sell. Instead of vases of hyacinths and boxes of radishes, the aisle was now filled with canvas bags bulging with clothes.
Being a gateway to the east, Ulan Ude was a commercial hub before Stalin cut it off from the world. The city owes much of its graceful architecture to the merchants who traded here in the 19th century, and it is currently reclaiming its mercantile past in today's commodities of ghetto-blasters and flip-flops. But it's not just Ulan Ude's bustle as a trading-post that makes it more Asian than Russia. The Buryats are Buddhists and, after years of persecution, are flocking to the monasteries. Since 1991, more than 30 monasteries, known as datsan, have been built from locally donated money.
The Ivolginsk datsan, set against indigo mountains, is the focal point of the revival - and reason enough to visit this vast land. Sitting on the sandalwood steps of a temple, watching monks hurry by while prayer wheels creaked in the breeze, I found it almost impossible to believe that I was in Russia.
In the morning, monks chant Tibetan mantras in the vividly-decorated main temple, crammed full of statues of Buddha, pictures of the Dalai Lama, tantric sculptures and musical instruments. Some of the monks then retire to the wooden houses clustered around the datsan to offer health horoscopes, astrology readings and herbal medicine, for "as much as you can afford". Soon though, the cash tills will be ringing. A large Buddhist complex in the centre of Ulan Ude, providing Buddhist medicine, philosophy courses and Buddhist instruction, is nearing completion; it will attract visitors from Europe to this oasis of peaceful living.
But then, Buryatia has always been a refuge for outsiders. The Old Believers, rebels of the Russian Orthodox Church, fled here in the 17th century to escape persecution. It is still possible to see their brightly painted homes, and the houses of the White Army officials for whom the city was a base while they fought the Bolsheviks during the Revolution. All this coexists with the indigenous shamanist sacred shrines - ancient rocks, with carvings of abominable faces to scare away evil spirits.
The timid visitor could do with some spiritual help. The hotel industry in Buryatia has taken on market reforms only in the price department. Aggressive security guards demand to know where you are going as you head up to your pounds 40-a-night room, while a little old lady slops a wet and dirty rag around in the name of cleaning. At first I stayed in the Hotel Odon, near the railway station, where the sachet of shower gel and towel seemed somewhat superfluous given that there was no hot water, shower or toilet seat. Drug-dealing in the foyer provided regular entertainment. I switched to one of the hotels around the central square, where the sex shop in the entrance seemed a comparatively minor inconvenience.
Buryatia is distinct from the rest of Russia, yet the city is home to the world's largest sculpture of Lenin's head, towering precariously over the three-storey municipal buildings in the main square. Made for a Canadian exhibition in 1972, it ended up in Ulan Ude when nobody else wanted it. It now has supports coming out of Lenin's ears, because it the statue was in danger of toppling over. Perhaps the citizens of Copenhagen, where the cranium of the Little Mermaid was stolen this week, could buy it..
A train ticket from Moscow to Peking, with a stop in Ulan Ude, costs pounds 420 including two nights' accommodation in both Moscow and Ulan Ude, visa and transfers through The Russia Experience (0181-566 8846).
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