Steppes Away: A Lawrentian’s Siberia

Adam Berey

A national Russian holiday last weekend gave me a much-welcome day off and an opportunity to reach Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia.
Centuries ago, the Buryats were a northern group of Mongol tribes. They were united with other Mongols by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Despite political boundaries, Buryats and Mongolians are still quite similar, with a shared religion and mutually intelligible languages.
Now, Buryatia is an autonomous region of Russia, with a local government that still answers to Moscow on national matters.
A Saturday walk around downtown Ulan-Ude showed that the city displays its native heritage proudly. Statues of Mongol horsemen and princesses tower gloriously in the distinctive Soviet monumental style.
The city’s best-known piece of statuary, however, remains their prized sculpture of Lenin’s head, at 25 feet tall the largest in the world.
In the evening, my hostess, a kind Buryat grandmother, set out the regional specialties of heavily salted, almost-raw fish and chilled pork fat. “Muslims don’t eat this stuff, you know,” she said, “but we Buryats eat everything. When it’s so cold out, if it’s meat, you eat it.”
And eat meat they do. One of the most popular Buryat foods, even sold back in Irkutsk, is “pozi.” Picture meatballs the size of a child’s fist, wrapped in dough with a little opening at the top and steamed. Sounds harmless, right? But then there’s The Juice.
Inside that dainty, noodly shell, the water and the grease mix together and well up. The trick to eating the dumpling without getting a lapful of salty meatwater is to take a big bite at the top and, holding it like a little bowl, suck the juice out.
The extra challenge is that you have to do it before the grease cools and charmingly solidifies into fat. The cafes of Ulan-Ude are loud with Buryats slurping up the secretions from their pozi. I, meanwhile, miss being a vegetarian.
Not far from the city stands the Ivolginsk datsan, a temple complex that is the center for Buddhist worship for all of Russia and the residence of the Xambo Lama, the nation’s leading Buddhist authority.
Until recently, Ivolginsk was also the resting place of the “precious imperishable body” of Pandito Xambo Lama Dasha-Dorzho Itigelov, the twelfth Pandito Xambo Lama of Buryatia.
Itigelov was a legendary figure – they say he was a miracle worker who could walk on water. He died in 1927 in a state of deep meditation after promising to return to his disciples.
The lama’s body was exhumed for study in 2002, when it was discovered that the body had not decayed even after 75 years in the grave, and the tissue is in fact alive. Perhaps the Xambo Lama will indeed reanimate to instruct his followers once more.
Buddhism is the dominant religion among Buryats, and accounts for the cultural differences between them and other indigenous Siberians, many of whom adopted Islam or retained the shamanism introduced by the khans under the Mongol Empire.
Buddhism has been one of Russia’s official religions since the 18th century, but Soviet repression during the 1930s saw the datsans closed and the lamas imprisoned.
Buddhism – and Buryat culture – began to come back after WWII, but the loss of relics and knowledge meant that the surviving lamas had to go to Mongolia and Tibet to reconstruct the tradition, and likely lost some of the old local flavor in the process.
Just before catching the train home Monday evening, I went to a concert showcase of young performers, featuring recent contest winners performing Buryat music, dance, poetry, and comedy in the Buryat language.
These sorts of contests have become vital for the minorities in Russia as a way to revive their cultures for the coming generation, although it’s developing in a new way.
The songs at the concert, with their pentatonic, distinctively Asian melodies, showed some traces of chromatic Western harmony and performers sometimes used accordions and guitars.
The dance forms also have roots in different regions, combining graceful, complex gestures similar to South Asian dance and the energetic leaping of horsemen from the wild north.
As I rode an overnight train back to Irkutsk, the full moon shone on the steppe, glinting off the frozen creeks that run between the gentle hills. Thoughts of drippy meatballs, undead lamas and Mongol hordes galloping through my head, I pulled shut the curtain and slept.