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.