Buryatia: A Spiritual Journey Across Russia 23

Two of the best kinds of travel experiences are coming across something which genuinely surprises you, and stumbling upon something which you had no idea ever existed. On a trip to Russia's second city, Saint Petersburg, I hit the jackpot and had both of these experiences at the same time. This is the story of how a chance visit to a Buddhist temple in Saint Petersburg inspired a journey all the way across the Urals to Kyzyl, on to Buryatia and down into Mongolia in search of the magic and mysticism of Northern Asia's almost forgotten shaman.

Saint Petersburg

Feb 20 2012

Before leaving for Saint Petersburg, I had geared myself up for a crash course in Russian history and an interest in the country's imperial dynasties and its revolution had put the city's iconic sights high on my hitlist. My original plans were set in stone but a walk through the city's Primorsky district soon brushed aside the gold and blue spires of the Church on Spilled Blood, the Winter Palace and the Field of Mars as I chanced across one of the last things I expected to find in Saint Petersburg. Image Date: 05/30/2011

Datsan Gunzechoinei, Saint Petersburg

Feb 21 2012

Heading south from Staraya Derevnya metro station along Lipovaya Alley in the Primorsky District, I walked the couple of blocks towards the Bolshaya Nevka River. At the end of Lipovaya Alley, there is an archway with multicoloured flags draped across it. This is the entrance to Datsan Gunzechoinei, the northernmost Buddhist temple on earth and on Saint Petersburg's icy winter nights the temple almost radiates a glow of gold and chocolate brown, with electric blue Dharmachakra wheels and Sanskrit sutras studded along the top of the doorways. Image Date: 02/07/2016

Prayer Hall of Datsan Gunzechoinei

Feb 22 2012

In 1909 a Russian Buddhist monk named Agvan Dorjiev received permission from Tsar Nicholas II to build Datsan Gunzechoinei. Dorijev was a Buryat, an ethnic group from the area around Lake Baikal far to Russia's east in Siberia, descended from the Mongols. A group of Tibetan Buddhist monks, themselves from the modern Republic of Buryatia in Siberia, continue Dorijev's legacy at Datsan Gunzechoinei to this day. Image Date: 02/07/2016

Buddhist Prayer Wheels, Datsan Gunzechoinei

Feb 23 2012

Outside the temple, colourful rows of Buddhist sutra prayer flags and 'choskhor' prayer wheels are inscribed with the Sanskrit characters for 'sacred', 'jewel', lotus flower' and 'enlightenment'. An hour at Datsan Gunzechoinei, seeing something which I would expect to find in the sticky humidity of southern China or in a mist-shrouded cloud forest in Japan instead of on a sub-zero February night in Russia's second city, had taken me completely by surprise and ignited a desire to explore the story of Buddhism in Russia. Image Date: 02/07/2016

Buddhist Prayer Flags on a Steppe Road to Kyzyl

Mar 26 2012

From Saint Petersburg and Datsan Gunzechoinei, my quest to explore Buddhism in Russia went all the way to the other side of the Urals to the province of Tuva, just to the west of Dorijev's homeland in the Republic of Buryatia. In Tuva, the closer you get to the capital city of Kyzyl the more the roads along the steppe begin to look increasingly like Central Asia as Buddhist Prayer flags begin appearing at the roadside. Image Date: 07/25/2011

Kyzyl Square & Prayer Wheel Wide Shot

Mar 30 2012

Arriving in Kyzyl's central Arat Square the first thing you notice is a fountain encrusted with Chinese-style 'Shī' lion guardian statues and a Buddhist 'mandapa' pavilion in front of the Tuva Government Building. Buddhism was introduced to Tuva, including what is now Kyzyl, during the region's time as part of three different Chinese imperial dynasties at different points over two millennia and it was only after the revolution that Tuva officially became part of Russia. Image Credit: Oschtan Image Date: 09/27/2010

Tuva Shaman Centre, Kyzyl

Mar 31 2012

Siberian and Mongol Shamanism is indigenous to what is now southeastern Russia, where the belief system has fused together with Buddhism to create the unique culture showcased in Tuva and Buryatia today. Tuva Shaman in Kyzyl have turned their rituals into a money-making venture and clients pay them for spiritual healing and fortune telling. Twigs from juniper trees are lit and as smoke clouds the room the Shaman begin chanting and placing magic charms and gemstones onto a table in front of them to communicate with the spirit world. Image Date: 09/07/2010

Tuva Shaman Ritual outside Kyzyl

Apr 1 2012

On the banks of the Yenisei River, just outside the main part of Kyzyl, Tuva Shaman gather for the 'Kamlanie', a ritual which involves weaving magic in front of a ceremonial fire to communicate with the astral and spirit worlds in order to purify illness and diseases as well as for fortune telling. The ritual takes place at night, when the spirit energy is said to be at its most powerful, and the Shaman chant, beat their drums and dance themselves into a frenzied trance to interact with the spirits. Image Date: 01/02/2013

Lake Baikal

Apr 10 2012

Reaching depths of almost 5500 feet in places, Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. The lake is roughly banana-shaped as it zig-zags its way through a rift valley fringed by snow-capped mountains along its two thousand kilometres-worth of shoreline. Image Date: 10/16/2008

Lake Baikal in Winter

Apr 11 2012

Containing almost twenty percent of the world's fresh water, Baikal is affectionately known as the 'Pearl of Siberia' and is fed by some three hundred rivers with only the Angara River flowing out of it. In winter the lake becomes completely frozen and the locals use it as an ice road. Image Date: 02/27/2014

Shaman Rock, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal

Apr 13 2012

Roughly half an hour's walk from Khuzhir on Cape Burkhan, a natural rock formation known as 'Shamanka', or 'Shaman Rock', is one of the most auspicious places on Olkhon Island. Legend speaks of a group of thirteen revered cosmic spirits called the 'Enizens' who live in a cave on Shamanka and thirteen totem poles, each one honouring a specific Enzen spirit, also line the small beach which leads to the rock. Shaman from as far as Central America, West Africa and Oceania also gather at Shamanka, such is the rock's high concentration of spirit energy. Image Date: 03/30/2011

Buryati Shaman Totem Poles, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal

Apr 14 2012

Virtually in the middle of Lake Baikal, Olkhon Island is the fourth largest lake-bound island in the world. For the Buryati Shaman Olkhon Island is most spiritually charged place on earth and accordingly the island is considered to the epicentre of Buryati Shamanism. The island is 72 kilometres long with a small settlement named Khuzhir halfway up its its northern shoreline and clusters of Shamanic totem poles draped with colourful flags and textile scraps can be seen along cliffs and beaches at the water's edge all the way around the lake. Image Date: 07/20/2014

Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist Temple

Apr 17 2012

In Verkhnyaya Ivolga, 25 kilometres east of Ulan-Ude - Buryatia's capital city, Ivolginsky Datsan is a Buddhist temple which opened in 1945. As with Datsan Gunzechoinei in Saint Petersburg, the vibrant and explosively colourful decoration of Ivolginsky Datsan make it seem more reminiscent of the kind of Buddhist temples found in China, Thailand and Vietnam. Despite seeming out of place, Ivolginsky Datsan presents travellers and Buddhist pilgrims alike with own completely unique and fascinating story. Image Credit: Flickr - Jason Rogers Image Date: 09/13/2008

Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov

Apr 18 2012

Without doubt the most fascinating part of a trip to Ivolginsky Datsan is exploring a story which can genuinely be called a miracle. In 1927 the leader of the temple, a monk named Dashi Dorzho Itigilov, suddenly died after crossing his legs in the lotus position and beginning to meditate. His followers promptly buried him according to his wishes and after exhuming his body after thirty years they found him almost exactly as he was when he died - completely frozen with little to no sign of decay and almost perfectly preserved. After burying Itigilov again, the monks exhumed his body for a second time 75 years after his death in 1927. Once again, they found him in a near perfect state of preservation with hardly any decay or putrefaction. After close examination by monks from all over Buryatia and after autopsies conducted by scientists from both Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Itigilov's preservation was declared a miracle. Today, Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov is back at Ivolginsky Datsan and Buryati Buddhists believe that the 'frozen miracle' has allowed him to attain nirvana. Creative Commons: Public Domain Image Date: 09/09/2012

Offerings at Ivolginsky Datsan

Apr 19 2012

Offerings are left at the altars outside Igolvinsky Datsan as well as inside the building and money, precious stones and food are the three most common offerings I had seen on my travels around Asia. Igolvinsky Datsun continued that trend in Russia as grains of rice and pieces of black onyx stone are offered up alongside the local currency. I was used to seeing Chinese Yuan, Japanese Yen and Sri Lankan Rupees left as offerings at Buddhist temples, but this was the first time I had ever seen Russian Rubles being offered up by visitors. Image Credit: Flickr - Jason Rogers Image Date: 09/13/2008

Ulan-Ude, Buryatia

Apr 21 2012

Located just over sixty miles southwest of Lake Baikal and famed as the birthplace of Agvan Dorjiev, the monk who took Buryati Buddhism to Saint Petersburg, Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia. Throughout its history, Ulan-Ude has been an important trade centre between Siberia, Russia, Mongolia and China and this is the reason that the city became the largest settlement of the Buryati Mongols indigenous to Siberia. Image Date: 07/01/2013

Buryati Wooden Houses, Ulan-Ude

Apr 22 2012

Immediately noticeable in Ulan-Ude, especially in the residential areas around the city's main railway station, are the rich and vibrant colours used to paint the traditional wooden houses. Among all of the colours used to decorate Ulan-Ude's houses a striking shade of electric blue is especially prominent as this colour is highly auspicious in Buryati Shamanism and said to represent the concept of purity and the nourishing properties of air and water. Image Date: 07/05/2014

Alkhanay Mountains, Buryatia

Apr 26 2012

To the east of Ulan-Ude, the 5500-foot high Mount Alkhanay is the holiest place in the world for Buryati Buddhists and second only to Lake Baikal's Olkhon Island as having the most highly-charged spirit energy for followers of Buryati Shamanism. Today Mount Alkhanay, its foothills and surrounding forest are collectively known as Alkhanay National Park and the site encompasses a total area of 534 square miles. Image Date: 07/05/2013

Temple Gate Rock, Mount Alkhanay

Apr 27 2012

Along with four other mountains in Mongolia and northern China, Mt Alkhanay is one of the 'Five Sacred Peaks' of northern Buddhism. The rocky ascent to Mt Alkhanay's summit is home to a total of twelve shrines and the most revered of these is 'Uuden Sume', or 'Temple Gate Rock'. For Buryati Buddhists this natural stone arch is a portal to Shambhala, a mythical ancient Buddhist kingdom, and under the arch is a Buddhist shrine built in 1864 and known as Suburghan. Image Date: 09/04/2006

Kyngarga River, Arshan, Buryatia

Apr 29 2012

The Kyngara runs down off the Sayan Mountains and onto the grassy plains of the Tunka Valley in southwestern Buryatia's Tunkinsky District. The river holds special significance to the region's Buddhists as well as its followers and practitioners of Shamanism, as its mineral-rich waters are considered to be holy and possess special healing properties. Image Date: 06/29/2012

Khoymorski Datsan, Arshan

Apr 30 2012

On the banks of the Kyngara, the river's magnesium and silicate-rich, ice cold and supposedly 'sweet-tasting' waters have given rise to the Buddhist spa village of Arshan. Arshan literally means 'natural spring' in Buryati and 'nectar' in Sanskrit', and people afflicted with conditions and diseases come to the village from all over Buryatia for the healing and regenerative properties of the Kyngara's water. The village dates back to 1894 and its main spiritual and religious centre is a colourfully decorated Tibetan Buddhist temple called Khoymorski Datsan. Image Date: 09/05/2013

Arshan's Sacred Grove

May 1 2012

In a wooded area of Arshan is a sacred grove where Buddhists and followers of Shamanism tie scraps of coloured material around tree trunks in gratitude for the healing properties of the Kyngara River's water. The ground of the sacred grove is studded with stones and, as is the case all over the Buddhist world, believers also stack these rocks and pebbles on top of one another for luck and good fortune. Image Date: 06/29/2012

Lake Khovsgol Nuur, Khovsgol, Mongolia, Central Asia, Asia

May 6 2012

Shamanism and Buddhism are inter-connected in Buryatia, with both belief systems inspiring and borrowing rituals from each other and the road leaving Buryatia to the south soon crosses the border between Russia and the Far East. Across the border the road continues down onto the grassland steppe and sandy desert of northern Mongolia before arriving at the settlement of Türt on the north-eastern edge of Khövsgöl Nuur, Mongolia's largest freshwater lake. Even today, the connection between the shaman and the Buddhists of Buryatia and the ancestral Mongol heartland remains clear as Khövsgöl Nuur is affectionately known as 'Lake Baikal's younger sister'. Image Date: 01/30/2007

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