My Little Siberian Exile: Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude

Siberia was once Russia’s wild frontier, like the American West, and Irkutsk its center of trade, culture, and administration. Relics of this past are still a major part of the city – to an extent. Many old wooden buildings are scattered across the old part of the city, but Irkutsk has taken a different approach to its history than the options of development or preservation found in most of the rest of the world. These buildings, primarily former homes of merchants, are kept in the city, but as private real estate instead of a park. But since these homes have no running water or central heating (essential in the Siberian winter), they are unattractive as residences, and as a result most are slowly rotting away. Between this and the Soviet factories and decaying apartment blocks that ring the outer parts of the city, Irkutsk looks like an interesting cross between Tombstone, Arizona and Gary, Indiana. Irkutsk nonetheless possesses a range of attractions that represent the different periods in its history – trading outpost, frontier capital, place of exile, Civil War conflict zone, and modern metropolis, which display the complexity of Russian history – while the main streets are named after Lenin and Marx, the city nonetheless possesses prominent statues of the tsars and White Army commander Admiral Kolchak. Irkutsk is called the Paris of the East, which adequately captures its numerous cafes and historic character, but is a long way from having the same caliber of attractions – its main virtue is its proximity to Lake Baikal.

I visited Lake Baikal at Olkhon Island, the lake’s largest island located near the western shore. Once and still an extremely holy site in the shamanist traditions of the indigenous inhabitants, a ferry connection to the mainland and growing profusion of guesthouses and tour companies have made it a popular tourist destination for Russians and foreign tourists alike. Still, I came early, and despite arriving on Russia’s national holiday (Russia Day), I did not feel the island to be crowded, even in the one town and center of tourism, Khuzhir. Perhaps this was due to the fact that despite its popularity, Khuzhir has retained a very rustic character, with scattered wooden buildings, dirt roads, and farm animals wandering freely. No hotels, amusement parks, or nightclubs are to be found here, nor even stores selling anything beyond the most basic amenities – a sign of the importance in maintaining a sustainable lifestyle for the native people, or a reflection of the small amount of money from tourism that ends up going to locals? Given the rough terrain, Olkhon is best explored by foot or off-road vehicle. With my limited time, I chose the second option, and took a tour along the northern coast of the island, stopping at several scenic vistas and the tip of the island, Cape Khoboy, while enjoying a traditional meal including a soup of the famed local whitefish, omul. While Baikal is smaller in surface area than Lake Superior, it holds more water than all the Great Lakes combined, and the mountains and plunging cliffs that ring the lake make it incredibly scenic. I also explored around my guesthouse in Khuzhir, hiking in the forests that cover the uninhabited southern half of the island, and spending time at Shaman Rock, located in town. This site and many others on the island are still used for religious rituals, and poles and trees decorated with colorful ribbons are commonplace. Despite the Soviet suppression of shamanism and the conversion of most local people to Christianity or Buddhism, these practices are still an important part of local culture.

Religion also formed an important aspect of my third stop in Russia, the city of Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia. Buryats, which are an ethnic group closely related to Mongolians, are one of the largest native Siberian groups, and while they are only a minority even in their home territory, there are large populations in Ulan-Ude and Irkutsk, and they form the main ethnic group of Olkhon Island. They are primarily Buddhist (despite the Soviet persecution of the Buddhist clergy), yet this Buddhism coexists peacefully with the Shamanist rituals they also practice. My major excursion in Ulan-Ude was to the Ivolginsky Datsan, the center of Buddhism in Russia, and a small piece of Tibet in the midst of the Russian steppe (Buryat and Mongolian Buddhism are descended from Tibetan practice, and revere the Dalai Lama, who once visited this datsan). This temple complex consisted of multiple temples and stupas more traditionally associated with East Asia, but also the log houses of old Siberia, and even in this Buddhist holy site Shamanist ribbons are visible. So, over my short time in Siberia, I prayed at a Christian cathedral, made offerings to shamanist nature spirits, and meditated in a Buddhist temple. While religion has become a greater part of Buryat life as new national identity develops in a (slightly) freer Russia, as has cuisine and drama, the Buryat language is still dying as younger generations speak only Russian (even my guide, who was studying translation at university, spoke no Buryat and knew no one who did). With the traditional languages of many of the native groups of Siberia at risk, if even this largest group seeing no reason to hold onto their language, extinction may be inevitable (to be fair, it was hard enough to communicate in Russian, it certainly made it easier for me not to need to learn Buryat).


In the West, Irkutsk is mostly known for three things: the territory in RISK, Lake Baikal, and the Trans-Siberian railway. While my original plan of taking the Trans-Mongolian route from Irkutsk to Beijing (the most interesting of the three main routes, no offense to Harbin and Vladivostok) was adapted because of price and timing concerns (I am currently writing this from a bus across the Mongolian border, which takes half as long and costs half as much as the train), I did take the Trans-Siberian from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude. This section was only 8 hours, was relatively comfortable, and provided some great views over Lake Baikal and the taiga, but I did not feel that experiencing that for an entire week on the train would be a worthwhile trip – the cities and sights off the train are more interesting and comfortable than those which can be viewed from it. And seeing how long it took just to get between to relatively close and developed cities makes the true massive scale of Siberia very apparent – the southern, built-up portion I spent all my time in barely deserves to be lumped in with the vast deserted stretches of the northern tundra. But it was still a great experience to try such an iconic voyage for even a small portion. Now my trip is over halfway done, but there is still a lot to see and do, especially in my next stop, Mongolia.

The Trip Begins: Tokyo and Urumqi

This blog has been dormant since I returned from Turkey, but I thought the trip I am currently undertaking was worth some explanation.

I have long been fascinated with Siberia and Central Asia, and viewed this last ever summer break (even a brief one) as the best time in my life to go through the challenge of visiting part of this region, which is either very expensive or time-consuming to explore. I chose time-consuming, and viewed it as efficient to add in some surrounding areas as well – thus 31 days following the extremely long itinerary Appleton-Chicago-Tokyo-Chengdu-Urumqi-Almaty-Novosibirsk-Irkutsk-Olkhon Island-Ulan Ude-Ulaanbaatar-Chengde-Beijing-Chicago-Appleton, with a few day trips to other sites likely thrown in for good measure. This post will cover the first two cities I actually visited, Tokyo and Urumqi, two very dissimilar cities (though in some sense an interesting content), but in neither did I spend enough time to devote an entire post to it.

I started my trip in Tokyo, which while due to extraordinarily pointless flight change rules ended up being a very costly excursion (it was originally just a layover), it was a good spot to catch my bearings and explore a little before moving on to much less developed regions of the world. I will not write too much about Tokyo, others with far more experience than me have done that already. But I can say that I was struck both by its incredible cleanliness and orderliness, as well as how empty it appeared for being the largest city on Earth. Architecturally, too Tokyo is interesting. Despite its current importance, Tokyo is a relatively new city by Japanese standards, and earthquake, fire, and American bombing have forced it to rebuild time and time again. Today, much of Tokyo looks like it was entirely built in the ‘60s and has not changed since – this is not unattractive but is fairly bland, though I must say I saw only a small portion of the city, which is very spread out.

Luckily for the tourist, Tokyo does have a variety of traditional temples, museums, and other sites interspersed throughout the central city – I visited some of the most prominent ones, the Imperial Palace, Senso-ji temple complex, and Ueno Park, all of which were quite beautiful and a welcome escape from the modern city (though these sites were far more crowded than the areas surrounding them). The imposing presence and deep cultural value of these temples show the interesting role of religion in Japanese culture – while few people are very devout, Buddhism and Shintoism have deep roots, as are other traditional practices (I walked down multiple blocks devoted purely to shrines for ancestor worship), and temples to both religions are often found in close proximity. I do think it would have been fun to spend some more time in Tokyo to go deeper into the many unique experiences one of the world’s most high-tech and creative cities can offer (I did get to visit an owl café, where a visitor gets to sit and play with dozens of owls), but still felt I hit the top parts before flying off to Urumqi (after an overnight in the Chengdu airport).


Tokyo skyline along the Sumida River


The skyscrapers of Tokyo’s financial district form a neat contrast with the serenity of the Imperial Palace and Gardens


Me at the owl cafe

Urumqi is a city that is not described charitably by many guidebooks, and they are not completely wrong. It is a chaotic sprawl of modern high-rises and wide avenues, not the historic, vaguely Middle Eastern desert city I had somewhat imagined (and also somewhat hoped for). It has evidently rapidly changed in recent years, and its limited attractions are buried behind this selection of buildings and infrastructure similar to any city in the developing world. It is too far from anywhere to be worth a separate trip, and (located in the middle of the desert) uncomfortably hot at least at this time of year. Yet despite all this, Urumqi was still quite an interesting city, and one that is certainly off the tourist trail.

Urumqi is the most landlocked city in the world, located in the center of the Taklimakan desert and bounded on the South by the soaring peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains. Flying into the city made it evident how much of a challenge it is to maintain such a metropolis here, surrounded by deserts that looked from above like the surface of Mars that suddenly are turned into farmland show that even the most inhospitable parts of our planet can become centers of settlement – in this case because of the Silk Roads, and later the border conflicts and claims of various Chinese governments. Seeing Urumqi, thousands of miles from anywhere else of importance, now boasts more skyscrapers than almost any American city, and has traffic so bad that the government just decided to replace crosswalks with elaborate underpasses (this could also be due to the recklessness of pedestrians there), shows the true scale of the Chinese economic miracle. Urumqi, however, despite appearances, is not traditionally or truly a Chinese city. It is the traditional home of the Uighur people, a Muslim Turkic group that once alternated between raiding and allying with Chinese dynasties before being finally incorporated forcefully into China during the Chinese Civil War. Uighur culture is still prominent, at least in portions of the city. Their language (a variant of Turkish with Arabic script, though my knowledge of either language was no help in communicating) is found across the city, while many Uighur women still wear traditional dress, making them an obvious contrast to the modernly-attired Han Chinese migrants who now make up the majority of the city. Mosques are common, a unique sight in a Chinese city, and one that made me think of Turkey (though that could have also been the rapid development and tawdry commercialism). Urumqi has also been the site of a long-running violent separatist movement that aims for an independent Uighuristan (aka East Turkestan). While violent attacks are rare, the police checkpoints every few blocks, the metal detectors to even get on a city bus or enter a public park, and the military units stationed around the city, definitely show that the Chinese government views this threat seriously. This overreaching military presence, however, may have inspired the expression of Uighur culture that seems so out of place in the modern city, as well as religious faith. For someone with an interest in ethnography, Urumqi is a fascinating study – there are over a dozen other ethnic groups besides Chinese and Uighurs, and at least from my brief observation they seem to keep separate. Chinese is a certainly a difficult culture to adapt to, but Chinese control has brought an unprecedented geopolitical and economic clout to this once isolated region, and it is different to see an independent Uighur state maintaining this power.

Little I did in Urumqi deserves mention – a few parks (attractive but hot and crowded), the regional museum (disappointing, but had a few interesting exhibits on Uighur mummies and the cultural groups of the region), and the Erdaqiao Grand Bazaar (only useful if one likes traditional Uighur clothing and medicine). One factor that contributed to my lessened enjoyment with Urumqi was the complete isolation I felt – the city does not feel particularly exotic, but absolutely no English is spoken, and with Chinese characters I cannot even guess at a meaning enough to order a dish or understand a sign (pointing at various foods and sign language got me through, I should at least come back a better charades player), and I cannot tell the difference between someone approaching me to be helpful or to sell me something so it is difficult to interact in any way with the locals. I was also probably the only Westerner in this city of three million, something that all those who passed me certainly noticed, making it hard to pass unobtrusively. I doubt I would recommend Urumqi to anyone who is not set on visiting the region, but I still am glad I came – it is a fascinating cultural and geographic contrast, and not a terrible stopover point before a miserably long bus ride to Almaty, Kazakhstan, from where I will write next (assuming I can make it without being stopped by the border guards).