Buddhism in Siberia: the Ivolginsky Datsan

I was awakened around 6 by a flurry of activity as a bunch of people came to the hostel and crashed. When I got up some time later, I found that two groups of young American college students who studied Russian in Irkutsk had arrived. Over breakfast, I had a great conversation about science and grad school with one of them who was excited to hear I had just left Madison as he is from Wisconsin. He’s an interesting kid – I think he’ll do well.

Since his group planned to go to the Datsan, the center of Russian Buddhism, and that had been my plan as well, I asked if I could join them. It would be a relief to spend a day with people who spoke both Russian and English – in many ways I had had a rough time in Russia up to this point because of the language barrier, the isolation, and the perpetually getting lost on arriving in a city.

I spent the morning and afternoon with them, getting to the Datsan by a strange series of events that will happen when there is a group of 7 people. (They needed to get tickets to go to Ulan Bator in Mongolia but they were sold out, so I awkwardly tagged along as they worked out their plans. I’d have gone to the Datsan by myself but at this point they felt bad for having dragged me around and insisted I come with them.)

Eventually they worked out their plans and I joined them in a van heading about an hour out of the city. We headed out across the plain, towards the mountains. After our drive, we found ourselves outside a fenced enclosure. I popped into a yurt to buy a photography pass, and we headed inside, our guide (the hostel owner) explaining that we needed to go in a clockwise manner to be respectful of Buddhist practice. We walked around the complex, catching a glimpse of birch trees hung with prayer flags outside, turning prayer wheels, entering a few of the shrines. It was interesting but odd to see this complex in the heart of Siberia.

We saw a couple of adorably chubby puppies. The American girls commented on how cute they were while our guide chuckled. With all the stray dogs, I have to wonder whether people here keep dogs as pets, at least in an area like Ulan Ude.

I spent the evening by myself, having bought what I hoped were Buryat dumplings called pozhi but turned out to be Russian dumplings called pelmeni. Oh well, they were tasty.

I’d really appreciated the chance to speak English with the college group, and I was equally glad when they finally left early the next morning, after an hour and a half of blaring alarms and noisy packing. I spent a quiet morning chatting in French with three older French ladies who had arrived the night before and who invited me to join them. Had I not been heading out that morning, I would have taken them up on their offer.

As it was, I headed out to the train station, back under the underpass without mishap. I had scoped out the “faster” route the day before, which involved the highest overpass I’ve ever seen. I believe that I’ve mentioned not being a huge fan of heights. Well, picture a high overpass over the road, that then climbs a story over the railroad tracks, and combine it with the poorly maintained infrastructure so that there are holes in the concrete you can look through, and you can see why I didn’t go back that way. I went a different,abbreviated route (abreviated compared to getting lost on arrival anyway), and was thrilled not to get lost again.

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