My main reason for wanting to stop off in Ulan Ude was the nearby Ivolginsky Datsan – a Buddhist monastery. When thinking of Russia, the religion that I [and probably most people] associate with the country is Russian Orthodox Christianity, and so I was interested to learn that in the Eastern part there was a sizeable Buddhist population. I suppose, given the size of the country and the fact it stretches from Europe across Asia it shouldn’t be that surprising to find ethnic groups that are primarily Buddhist – Russia is definitely not as homogenous as I’d naively imagined.
Ivolginsky Datsan [Иволгинский Дацан], a Buddhist monastery complex about 23km from Ulan Ude, is the centre of Buddhism in Russia. Another rather surprising thing is that the complex was opened in only 1945. This is surprising not so much for the relative youth of the complex but for the fact it was opened under Stalin’s rule. Stalin wasn’t exactly known for his religious tolerance; nor was the USSR in general, and Buddhists tended to be treated even worse than other religious folk. While I was unable to find any definite information regarding why this complex was allowed, there were instances in Soviet satellite states where religious centres were opened or allowed to remain ‘in use’ to ‘prove’ that they practised religious tolerance. I’m imagining that this could have been the motivation, but I could be mistaken.
It’s quite easy to get to the monastery complex. There are regular marshrutkas, or minibuses, that run to the nearby town of Ivolga, and at the drop-off point other minivans wait to ferry passengers to the monastery. Arriving at the bus stop in Ulan Ude we met an older French man called Francois who was being assisted by two local language students who are part of a new tourism campaign called ‘Ask a Local’. We discovered quickly that Francois was a little crazy, although rather entertaining. We were chatting with the three of them on the first marshrutka and Francois was telling us about how he’s a musician and a writer and none of it made a whole lot of sense. When we got out at Ivolga and the marshrutka left he suddenly started to panic as he thought he’d lost his hat. He had the young couple helping him call the company who called the driver and got him to come back. He searched the bus and couldn’t find it. He was freaking out about how someone stole his hat and how it was a €50 hat and now he’d have to find a new hat. After huffing and puffing a bit he opened his backpack to get some water and, lo and behold, there was his hat. He’d made all this fuss about it for nothing. He wasn’t even embarrassed, although I was embarrassed and the couple helping him didn’t seem too impressed.
Still, we got into another van and were off to the monastery. There’s no charge to enter however there is a fee of 50 руб for photography. Entering the complex we were both a little surprised at what we saw. It was basically a big square of land with a series of wooden temples and far, far more ramshackle wooden houses. It was a little bizarre.
There’s a well-trodden and semi-paved path around the complex and you’re expected to walk it in a clockwise direction. It’s both bad luck and disrespectful to walk around it anti-clockwise, and we’d been informed by someone who did it accidentally that she was subjected to many disgusted looks and remarks. Along the path are sets of prayer mills, basically painted barrels on vertical poles that you spin around. You put small coins in them, and the number of the coins in them strengthens your prayers as each spin flings the prayers out into the universe. There are a lot of prayer mills, all different sizes and colours, some requiring the effort of two people to get them moving. Others required barely a touch.
The shrine in the photo below held a stone that was apparently sacred and granted wishes. We were told you were supposed to walk up to it with your eyes closed and touch the stone to make a wish; you then walk clockwise around the stone three times and touch it again. I made a wish. We’ll see if it comes true!
We stopped in a few of the temples, although photography inside the buildings was not allowed. The Buryat people practice Tibetan Buddhism and so the temples were quite colourfully decorated. We had to be careful not to turn our backs on the Buddha statue at the altar when leaving, walking out the doors backwards. However, we didn’t have to take of shoes which I found a little weird. In front of the altars people had laid out offerings. In one temple all the offerings were of milk products – bottles of milk, rounds of cheese, chunks of butter. Another seemed to have a sweet tooth with lollies and chocolates and candies, while another had fruit and bread. Each had a tiered bowl of sorts with rice mixed with fragrant seeds and coins, and you were supposed to take a handful from the bottom and pour it gently over the top. I rather enjoyed it, although John wasn’t so keen – particularly about the walking backwards thing.
We visited most of the temples that you could access and when we were almost back to the entrance we came across some kind of ceremony that was taking place in a grassy patch between buildings. We’re not entirely sure what it was, as by this point we’d sneaked away from Francois as we were getting a little frustrated, and his local guides/translators didn’t have the sneaking off option. Monks in deep crimson robes sat behind some form of rostrum, while another chopped wood and another threw it onto a small fire. They poured libations of oil onto the fire. A small crowd sat watching them. Black smoke rose up from the fire and there was chanting. It was fascinating.
They caught back up with us as we were waiting for the minivan back to the bus stop. Unfortunately the marshrutka waiting at the bus stop only had three seats left, so we packed them all into that one and assured the two locals that we were more than capable of getting onto the next bus. We didn’t think we could manage more of Francois’ crazy questions and conversations all the way back to Ulan Ude!