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Republic of BURYATIA
The mountainious Buryatia has an area of approximately 350 000 square kilometers and is located east of the lake Baikal. The buryats are one of the minorities in Siberia and of mongolian origin. Today they are about 420 000, half of them living in Buryatia, where they represent about 25 % of the total population.
Buryatia has an old and interesting history. Already more than 3 000 years ago it was mentioned in a chinese chronicle that there were "long-eared" people living on the banks of Baikal. These "long-eared" people are supposed to be the Kurykany tribes who were settled in the Priolkonye region, before the more recent buryats. The mother of the great warrior Ghenghis Khan was born in the village of Barguzin, on the eastern shores of lake Baikal. His conquests had big impact on many people. The colonisation of Buryatia started in the beginning of the 15th century when the first russian cossacks arrived. The buryats offered great restistance, but had no chance against the well armed cossacks. After the cossacks the farmers arrived. The colonization of the buryats resulted in, that the ones living in the west began living in a more settled way. The ones living in the eastern part, continued their nomad life. The transsiberian railway arrived to Buryatia in the beginning of the 18th century.
Buddhism and shamanism were the dominating religions before the russian revolution. The buryats had the most complicated and advanced shamanism in Sibieria. Buddhism was introduced in Buryatia by tibetan monks in the early 16th century. During the Stalin period many monks were imprisoned or killed, and most of the monasteries destroyed. Since 1991 the buddhism is gaining power again and Buryatia has become the center of the buddhism in Russia. Also the shamanism is still strong.
The buryats were put under hard pressure by the soviets from 1931 and forward to become more russian. Since the independence on October 11, 1990 activities are going on to find back to their own identity.
The first stop during my Siberian roundtrip was in the capital Ulan Ude, with its large, russian designed main square, ploschad Sovietov. Here you also can see the largets Lenin head in the world, a statue looking out over the square. The main street is named after Lenin. The eastern athomsphere is significant in Ulan Ude.
Ulan Ude was founded by russian cossacks in the 15th century and became a strategic tradepost to China and Mongolia. The population of today is approximately 400 000.
Buryatia has become the center of the russian buddhism. The main lama at the Ivolginski Datsan is the highest of all lamas in Russia. The datsan is located 30 kilometers west of Ulan Ude. Here are several temples and beautiful wooden hoses, in which the lamas live. The main temple is built in 1972. The russian buddhism is following the "Yellow Hat" branch of the tibetan buddhism. Dalai Lama has visited The Ivolginski Datsan several times.
I was able to participate in a longer talk with one of the lamas from the temple. He was very modern in his thinking, or looking upon the present world and used both mobile telephone as well as e-mail.
Just outside Ulan Ude is a nice open air museum, showing beautiful siberian wooden buildings. There is also a small zoo in connection to the museum. Regretfully it seems to be very run down and the poor animals are suffering in their too small cages.
From Ulan Ude my trip continued with the transsiberian railway to Irkutsk. This was a nice ride through the siberian night.
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Irkutsk has about 600 000 inhabitants and is one of the major administrative centers in eastern Siberia. The city was founded by cossacks in 1652 as a fortress. During the 16th century Irkutsk was the starting point for russian expeditions to Alaska and California. By the end of the 17th century gold was found in the area and a siberian goldrush started. The city grew rapidly and became very rich. Many beuatiful buildings were constructed and the city was called "Paris of Siberia". Regretfully many of these buildings were distroyed during the Sovjet period.
You can still find several ancient wooden houses in Irkutsk, even if the majority of them were destroyed during the big fire in 1879. Many of the houses built after the large fire has a very nice architechture. Irkutsk has several beautiful churches, now under restoration. The lively central market is an interesting place to visit with its buzzy life. Everything needed for the daily life is sold here.
Do not forget to visit one of the "Decembrist houses" when strolling around in the city. The "Decembrists" were a group of young officers who tried to stop the coronation of tsar Nicolaij II in 1825. Their operation failed, and several of the officers were executed, other were sent to Siberia together with their wives. After completing their term of labour near Chita, many of them settled in Irkutsk. Here they had to restart their lives, and some of them were very successful. I visited the Count Sergey Volkonsky house with its original furnishings and pictures of the family.
There are also several old and interesting churches to visit. I managed to visit "Raisining of the Cross church", a barock church built in 1758. The church was one of the few open during the Soviet period.
Irkutsk is located at the Angara-river. From here you can take the hydrofoil, a speed boat, to Lake Baikal. This nice trip between Irkutsk and Listvyanka, at the lake Baikal takes about 4 hours.
The small village of Listvyanka has many stalls selling smoked fish and souvenir vendors. You can imediately see that they are used to tourists here. The smoked fish offered is superb. It still is hot when you buy it, and absolutely fresh.
The Lake Baikal is consindered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and is called "Siberias Blue Eye". It is the deepest lake in the world, the deepest point is 1 741 meters, with 730 meters as an average. Lake Baikal is also the oldest lake in the world, approximately 70 million years old. The surface of the lake is 31 500 square kilometers, the length 640 kilometers and the widest point is 80 kilometers. The fauna is rich. You can find almost 1 200 different species here. One of them is the nerpa, the world´s only freshwater seal. There are 336 rivers floating into the sea, but only one out of it - the Angara river.
My time at Lake Baikal was too short. Nevertheless, I managed to make a stop over at the small village Nicolaj, a bit upstream the Angara river. Here I stayed in a small private hotel. The owner Igor is a friendly and service minded person. The food in his place was superb and the russian sauna he offered an interesting experience; swetting in the humid sauna with Igor scrubbing your body with branches of larchtree, and finishing the sauna with whipping your back with a big bunch of nettles! "This is very healty" he said. You feel the burning from the neetles until the next day.
Unfortunately it was both raining and mist during my visit at the lake, why it did not stand up to my expectations. Better luck next time!
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Republic of TUVA
The republic of Tuva, with an area of 170 500 square kilometers, is one of the least known regions in Siberia, and maby one of the most remarkable.
It is located in the transition zone between the mongolian steppes and the taiga, the siberian wood. Nature is very beautiful with snow topped mountains, large woods of larch trees and endless steppes. Tuva is the only country in the world where you can find wild reindeers and camels within its borders. Here you also find bear, wolf, wildboar and ibax.
The first traces of humans are considered to be at least 40 000 years old. The turks ruled the region in the 6th century after Christ. From 1758 until 1911 Tuva was under chinese adminitration. During the Middle Ages "The big silkroad" crossed the region. In August 1921 the tuvans declared their independence and called the country Tannu Tuva, known among stamp collectors for its big and beautiful stamps. Josef Stalin deprived Tuva its independence in October 1944 and the country was integrated in the Sovietunion. In 1990 Tuva had riots and protest actions against the russians. They resulted in killings and that many of russians left the country.
The tuvans, originally of mongolian heritage, accepted the tibetan lamaism already in the 14th century, which resulted in a big cultural change. Shamanism remained strong Tuva also after the arrival of the buddhism. During the Stalin era both lamas and shamans were persecuted. Many of them were prisoned or killed. In the recent years the shamanism is gaining followers again. Presently there are more than 300 active shamans in Tuva.
The tuvan language belongs to the group of turkic languages.
From the beginning the tuvans lived a nomadic life as hunters or cattlebreeders, nowadays the majority are domiciled.
The tuvans are one of the largest minoritypeople in Siberia and count more than 200 000. In Tuva they represent about 75 % of the total population of 300 000 inhabitants. Tuva is sparsely populated. There are only about 2 persons per square kilometer, Sweden has about 20 per square kilometer.
For people interested in nature Tuva has much to offer. Here you can find 1 500 different plants, 15 of them are endemic. Also the fauna is very rich. In Tuva you find 72 different species of animals, 240 different birds and 7 different reptiles.
During my visit in Tuva I explored the young, but not very beautiful capital Kyzyl, which was founded by russians in 1914. Kyzyl means "Red" in turkish. The city is located at the confluence of the two rivers Kaa-khem and Bii-Khem, The Great and Minor Yenisej rivers. From here the river flows on as a one of the great Siberian rivers, the migthy Yenisej, more than 4 000 kilometers long.
The interesting daily life of the tuvans and the monument "Middle of Asia" are two of the main attractions in Kyzyl. The monument was built by a brittish explorer in the 19th century, who calculated this to be the midpoint of Asia. He missed the midpoint with only about 75 kilometers!
Other interesting experiences you can make in Kyzyl are to visit a shaman clinic or to go to a concert given by the famous throat singers.
There is one shaman clinic down at the shore of the Yenesi. Here are about 10 active shamans. You can visit them for different consultations, to be cured from some sickness or just to get blessed. To see them in action is very interesting, as well as a little shocking, if you not have met shamans before.
To listen to a consert by throatsingers is something very special. Their songs are so different from our western songs. This technique of singing can be found also in Mongolia and Tibet, but the tuvan singers are the most scilled. They sing with two voices at the same time and their song is called "khoomei".
For lovers of soviet architecture there is much to see in Kyzyl. The gigantic, often ugly living-houses can be found all over the city. Even if this type of architecture mostly don't look nice, it is fascinating to study the large buildings.
In Siberia you can find "Old believers" , people who wants to live a strict life without higher material standard or greater comfort, their believe is of most importanance. Also in Tuva you can find villages with "Old believers".
I visitied the small, but very beautiful village Sizim for three days. Sizim is located approximately 200 kilometers east of Kyzyl on the shores of the river with the same name, not far away from the Kaa-Khem river.
In Sizim several "Old believers" are living, and it is possible to get a glimpse of their common life.
Early in the morning they come through the village with their cattles. During the day they work in their gardens or out in the fields, cutting grass for winter demands. During the severe Siberian winter they hunt for meet or furs.
The majority of the tourists visiting Tuva comes for trekking, here are several fine opportunities.
I trekked in the beautiful area of Ush-Mongulek in the Western Sayan mountains for 9 days. It is not possible to trekk without local support. You need a guide and horses carrying the equipment. It is easy to trekk here compared with the Himalayas or the Andes, as you are on lower altitudes all the time. You trekk mostly on an altitude between 1 600 to 3 000 meters. If you climb the Ush-Mongulek you reach 3 450 meters.
The nature is very similar to the one in northern Scandinavia, although the mountains are higher. You treek most of the time on trails. The terrain is sometimes rather hilly, you ford rivers and cross passes. The views are splendid. In the forests there are mainly larch trees. In June/July you find different flowers all over. Many of them are similar to the one you find in Scandinavia. The area is sparsely inhabited. Sometimes you come to places with a small number of yurtas, tents, inhabited by nomads. If you are lucky you can be invited to visit a family. They offer you bread, tsampa and araka, liqour made of horsemilk. The nomads live mainly on cattle breeding.
So far the Western Sayan mountains are visited by few tourists and are sometimes called "Russias best kept secret".
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Republic of KHAKASSIA
The Republic of Khakassia, dominated by mountains and steppes, is considered as one of the cradles of Siberian civilisations. Everywhere you see kurgans, big stones marking an ancient grave. They create a mythic athmospere. Khakassia is often called "an archeological Mecca". The visitors will meet beautiful nature and friendly people during their stay.
Khakassia is a small country, only about 61 900 square kilometers large. Two thirds of the surface is covered with mountains. The rest with steppe or hilly steppes. The larch- and cedarwoods are covering about 40 % of the area.
The climate is typical continental, with severe winters and pleasant summers.
Also the khakass are a turkic speaking minority and are supposed to be decendents to the so called "Yenisey Kyrgyz", mentioned already in the 7th Century in chinese chronicals. In the 11th Century the khaskass were defeated by mongolian troups under the lead of Ghengis Khan. The first traces of humans are dated back to the younger stoneage. The first russians, cossacks, arrived during the 15th century.
Shamanism has always been strong among the Khakass, but in 17th centrury many of them became christian.
The present population is about 600 000, of them only about 80 000 are khakass, representing about 11 % of the total population. The russians represent more than 80 % of the total population. Abakan, the capital, has a population of about 200 000.
The khakass were originally cattlebreeding nomads. Today they all are domiciled and most of them works within the agricultural sector.
The last week of my Siberian roundtrip I spent in the captial Abakan, which is a modern russian dominated city. Abakan became my base for exploring Khakassia. Three times, with support from Abakan Tour and their very nice and serviceminded staff, I made longer daytrips.
There is not much of interest in Abakan besides the common russian life. The major attraction is the Khakassia Local Studies Museum with intersting archeologichal exhibitions. The Abakan Zoo, owned by the local meat combine, has Siberian animals, including a siberian tiger and camels from Tuva. Regretfully the animals live in very small and dirty cages. You really feel sorry for them when walking around.
An interesting daytrip goes to Shushenskoe, a small town with about 20 000 inhabitants. It is located about 85 kilometers south of Abakan.
Shushenskoe was founded by immigrant peasants in the 18th century. Nobody should ever come here, if it was´t for the reason that Lenin was exiled here from St Petersburg from 1897 to 1900. Here he married his fellow revolutionary Nadezhda Krupskaya, who had followed him here with her mother in 1898.
In 1970, on the centennial of Lenins birth, the whole village centre was reconstructed to look as it had in the 1870:s.
From Shushenskoe you can continue to the village of Sizay, with its new church built in marbel. The church is located on a hill overlooking the village and the Yenisej river.
During the Soviet-period Russias biggest hydroelectric dam, with a capacity of impressing 6 400 000 Twh, was constucted in the Karlovy Gorge of the upper Yenisey. Construction began in 1975 and took nearly 20 years to finish.
The Sayano-Shushenskaya dam is located 150 kilometers upstream the Yenisey river from Abakan.
The interesting 18th century town Minusinsk, with a population of 75 000 inhabitants, is located only about 20 kilometers east of Abakan. It is easy to jump on a local bus or private taxi to come here. The ride takes maximum 30 minutes. The old part of Minusinsk, located on an island in a branch of Yenisey, has well preserved old woodenhouses and brick- and stonehouses built in the 19th century by Siberian gold merchants, who travelled the world. Here you also find the beautiful old church. There is a museum with well preserved collection featuring archeology. The library is still as it was when Lenin used it.
In the modern part of Minusinsk you find many of these "fascinating" "soviethouses".
As I like to stroll among people I liked the market along the Abakanroad. There is also a big monument honouring the killed from Minusinsk during World War II.
Another interseting daytrip can be made to Askiz, the capital for the Khakass. From here you can continue to the beautiful and hilly Kazanovka area.
The market in Askiz is small, and mainly frequented by khakass. The wooden houses in Askiz are of traditional Siberian style.
In Kazanovka there are fine trekking possibilities among the green mountains. There are some wooden yurtas where you can stay over nigth. Abakan Tour can help you with reservations. The small village offeres an interesting walk among the houses. People were rather shy here. Around Kazanovka many kurgans, ancient gravestones, can be found. There is also an archeological area with several ancient graves, 3 - 4 000 years old. The site can be visited.
"The Valley of Kings" is located on the large steppe about 60 kilometers west of Abakan, which is an ancient burial mound from the Ding Ling imperium. Here you find "Siberias Stonehenge", a huge ancient grave, once 11 meters high. It is now explored, and you can see the findings from the grave in the museum in Abakan. Today only the wall of stones is left. Some of the huge stones have a weight of 50 tons!
Before you are allowed to enter "The Valley of Kings" you have to sacrifice some bread, a pieces of meat and a beverage to conciliate the spirits. After your visit you must make a fire and hold your hands towards it, to get rid of the evil forces who are all around. (According to our guide Olga.)
After the week in Abakan only the trip back home, via Moscow, remained. Regretfully the flight from Abakan was delayed more than three hours why my possibilities to travel around in the capital of Russia were limited. The only places I managed to visit were the "Red Square" and Arbat-street, the artery of Moscow. The metro, with its beautifully decorated stations, was another interesting experience.
One thing is fore sure. I will go back to Moscow and Russia.
There is much of interest left to discover!
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