In April-May 2016, My wife Beena and I, traveled from London to Siliguri (India), mainly by trains. We crossed ten countries, 17,500 km, crossed under the English Channel, crossed the Aral mountains, the great Siberian plains, lake Baikal, the Gobi desert, the great wall of China and lastly the Himalayas to reach home. This is the third leg of the journey - across the Lake Baikal and on to Mongolia.
To know more till here, read about the outline of journey. You can then read the first part - London to Moscow and about the Trans Siberian part of our journey.
"Shall I make some tea?" I asked.
"Sure!" – Beena’s face lit up with a broad smile. Well, who can say no to a cup of tea on board a Russian train?
So I picked up the fancy railway glass, in its fancier glass holder, filled it up with hot water from the boiler (In an earlier time they used to have samovars on these trains), dipped the Lipton tea bags in it. Then we sat down by our window - that opens up to a marvelous world outside. The semi frozen lake was passing by, ever so slowly, to the west. There were snow-capped mountains on the other side and pine trees all around us. A man was ice-fishing on the lake, sitting on his unfolded chair. A couple of kids were running after each other in front of a log hut. It was April 28, 2016, and we have been on the move for almost two weeks now.
Lusud-Khan literally translates to “Water Dragon Master” – have lived for a long time in the folklore of the Buryats, the people who live in the Buryat Republic. Buryatia is a federal subject of Russia, in the area surrounding the Lake Baikal. Buryat people has always believed that a monster lives in the depth of the deepest lake in the world. On the bank of the river Yenisei, near the village of Askiz, an ancient stone plate was discovered. This had carvings of a creature having jaws with a forked tongue and had long claws. It sits in an upright position. On the back, the creature had a plate-Armour. Seems like every deep lake has a monster myth, just like Loch Ness.
This lake was formed 25 million years ago, making it world's oldest freshwater lake. Many mythical monsters live in the deep waters, tell the folklore from the past. Many manned and un-manned missions have been carried out into the deeps but none of the monsters have been seen in real life. The wildlife they discovered deep down the lake is fascinating anyway. There is a simulator in the museum which provides a fascinating deep dive experience!
Russia, as always, is big on Propaganda. Instead of the communist party, they now feature their beloved leader - the President. Moreover, ever since the US sanctions were imposed, posters as the one above have propped up in various places! This one was on a window of a Pub by the lake Baikal!
I am (not) a Disco Dancer!
Those who grew up in the 80's USSR had an unusual icon - Mithun Chakraborty. After Raj Kapoor movies became famous, the Soviets embraced Bollywood as their prime source of entertainment. As Hollywood (along with denim/jeans, coke, KFC etc) - the brand evil from the capitalistic west was banned, USSR drew their dose of fun from Bombay. Then came a shocker - a movie that became ever so popular, that it is still in the heart and minds of people of the region! Even today die hard fans imitate the Disco Dancer that brought about a resistance in the youth of the USSR. The communist regime was quick to ban the dancing parties that gripped the nation, but the songs and the dance lived on - till today. As I share the same name, it was a privilege to travel through the region, all I needed to do was to show my Visa with my name written in Russian - and I got a VIP treatment everywhere! One man took a selfie with me - "I will show this to my mother, she is a very big fan of Mithun" - he thanked me and left.
Time had come for us to move from Irkutsk around the lake. We chose to take a very slow passenger train that took nine hours around the lake to take us to Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Federal Subject of Russia – Republic of Buryatia. In the centre of the town square lies a Gigantic head of Lenin with features that look Asian. This was the most amazing stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway journey. The lake was frozen at places. Pine forests and snow capped mountains provided a gorgeous backdrop.
In the region we found a Russia similar to the books from my past. Soviet trams, farmer’s markets, Babushkas (wise old lady) selling fish and vegetables. Most Russian villages are filled with old women, but not many old men are seen. If you wonder why, the answer is they never got to get old. The two world wars have seen them disappear young. In Buryatia, some areas lost 98% of their young males!
By the evening, we reached Ulan-Ude, capital of the Republic of Buryatia, a federal subject of Russia. The Buryats are Mongols, but their land was occupied by the Cossacks in the 17th century. They remained with Russia ever since, through the rule of the Czars and later on during the Soviet era.
Our place of stay was next to the President's office and the parliament. This was the main square of the city, with the giant head of Lenin in the center. The preparations were on for the May-day celebrations. Ulan-Ude was a very small settlement long ago, but it became a major Railway hub and also a center for Aviaiton industry. There are many factories of the flagship Sukhoi fighter jets in the area.
There is a English pub named Churchill's facing Lenin's head now. A favourite hangout with foreign backpackers. It is also a new custom to take funny pictures with comrade Lenin. Acceptable and in no way a derogatory act. All travellers are encouraged to be creative!
Communism to Buddhism - from Stalin to Dalai Lama
As we crossed the lake Baikal, the primary religion changed from Christianity to Buddhism. Most Buryats are Buddhists and some still practice Shamanism, the pagan religion of the region from the Pre-Buddhist era. I am not someone who would usually write about religion or politics, but on this occasion I decided I have to speak up!
There was a time when all religious teachers were massacred in this area. All Buddhist monasteries and Orthodox churches were destroyed and religious artefacts destroyed. Which in turn made me think of Communism as another fanatic religion. The silver lining to the story is that these are all history now. Though not very distant past. Religious institutions are back. Churches that had buried their artefacts deep under the ground, have dug them back up and restored some churches. Coming from someone atheist like me, this is restoration of freedom as we enjoy today! Most of the people in Mongolia and Buryatia follow the Dalai Lama, and his sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is allowed to display pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama, and worship him. But we were told that the Russian government doesn't allow him to enter Russia, due to the pressure from China.
One of the most fascinating event of the entire journey was our visit to the Ivolginsky Datsan (Monastery). This is the only monastery of the region to have survived the communist regime of the USSR. We heard the story behind it from our guide Galdan Victorovich. We were made to feel at home by the monks in the middle of the inhospitable landscape of Buryatia.
A few monks we met have travelled to India, and one of them exclaimed – “Even now, when I sleep, I dream of India, it is so colourful and magnificent!” Some of the Lamas spoke in fluent Hindi that they have learnt in Mysore.
The head of the institution is known as the “Hambo Lama”. The 12th Hambo Lama, Dashy Dorzho Itigelov, died in 1927 and seventy-five years later his body was exhumed from the grave. The phenomenon is that his body never decomposed and is now kept in a new temple called “Etigen Khambyv Ordon” inside the monastery. Not everyone is allowed inside, but we were given more than 30 minutes to spend. The Lama who looks after it explained everything to us.
“He is not alive, he has left this body and he attained Samadhi. His body even sweats on a hot day. He will come back to his body 2500 years from now” he told us.
“That is the time when Maitreya Buddha will be born again as a human” he added.
Seeing is believing, and we cannot deny what we saw! The dead monk stares at you and even seems to be smiling. Never in my entire life I have seen anything like this!
The Ivolginsky Datsan itself is historic. In the WWII the Buryats fought the war for USSR, and 98% men of the region died. The 17th Hambo Lama Lubsan Nyma Darmayev travelled to Moscow after the war got over. He met Stalin and asked for permission to establish a monastery! It is not a widely known fact that Stalin agreed to this and in 1946 the monastery was established. It was the only one in the entire USSR.
“Is it possible to meet the Hambo Lama in person?” we asked humbly. The current head is the 24th Hambo Lama - Damba Ayusheyev.
“Only with appointments, but it is not easy” the lama smiled as he said “He is a busy man with a lot of important friends. President Putin comes here often. A lot of helicopters land here, we don’t know who comes and goes, but they must be important people to travel in Helicopters!”
Saraswati - Yenzima!
A lot of Hindu deities found their way into Buddhism and they are widely worshipped in the world that follows Tibetan Buddhism. What caught my eye is a souvenir being sold - of an image of goddess Saraswati. Once I asked around, I heard an amazing story.
Hambo Lama Itigelov - whose body is preserved in the temple now, was a big follower of Yenzima. Yenzima is none other than Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge. Itigelov travelled along the shores of Lake Baikal to a pristine valley called Berguzin - and meditated. He then saw image of Yenzima on a large rock. Many have travelled to this rock (and on my wish list too) but not many have managed to see this image! The idea of visiting Berguzin in the winter, on the 5th day of the first Quarter (termed as the Vasant Panchmi in India, the day of goddess Saraswati) to see the rock is now something I am toying with!
We left the monastery and went on to explore the countryside. Scattered around the hilly terrain we saw a lot of relics from the USSR time, mainly dilapidated community farms and factories.
We got to see the way of life for the Orthodox Christians. We were treated with traditional food, a family dressed up in traditional dress treated us for lunch.
We even tried out their attire - each one more than 200 years old, passed on from one generation to another. It was time for us to leave Russia and move on to Mongolia.
We left the sophisticated electrified trans-Siberian railway for the rustic trans-Mongolian railway. It was an emotional goodbye to the new friends we made - bubbly young Ivan from the hostel and Viktor the retired engineer / software developer who was now driving a taxi as he decided not to retire!
We were on a rickety old Chinese train (with their flagship dirty toilets) being hauled by an even older Mongolian Diesel locomotive. We were in the soft sleeper class though, so the cabin was a bit luxurious (International trains do not offer third-class / hard sleepers).
The next morning was magical as we woke up in a snow covered Mongolia.
A country that had ruled half of Eurasia, whose empire was spread till Hungary, is now left with three million people. They have been ruled by the Chinese and the Russians. Most of its population is now in the capital Ulan Bator. Once you get out of the tangled mess of skyscrapers of Ulan Bator, the roads are endless. Cutting through the vast grasslands. Only 15% of Mongolia's roads are paved, making it the Mecca for SUV lovers. There are sixty million animals around - wild and domesticated.
We spent a few days living the nomadic life and offroading to find the wild horses.
Everything was covered in snow when we left Ulanbataar on a small car. The landscape was fascinating, and soon we were in the hilly terrain of Terelj. By the road side we saw lots of Nomadic camps. There were people buying and selling animals - mainly sheep and horses.
We spent a day with the local nomads. At night, we had a Ger to sleep in. A friendly sheep dog became our best friend here. We climbed some hillocks and hiked up to one of the most picturesque monasteries of the region. It seemed right out of a Kung-Fu movie!
We next moved to the vast grasslands of Khustai mountains. This is the only place in the world where wild horses roam free. It was a delight to see the majestic animals, living a free life in the wild.
It was a day of driving off road. Khustai is a huge region and one can keep driving for days, stay in Gers or in tents. However our time was limited and we had to turn back and get to Ulan Bator.
Horses has been central to the Mongol history. They formed the basis of the Mongol empire, and their invasion of Europe. Not only they provided a fast mode of transport, an edge over the enemy in a war, but they also provided the necessary food for the army. In the winter the Mongol army was unstoppable with their dried horse meat, which would last forever and provide for the army!
Ulan Bator is a modern metropolis now, with the great (Chingiss/Genghis) Khan sitting on his throne on the main square of the city. Reminiscence from the Soviet past is just too evident. Along the square Soviet buildings are lined up. But the skyline is dominated by modern looking tall buildings.
Not far from the center, we visited the notorious Naran-Tul market - complete with its band of pick-pockets! It is a great place to bargain and hunt for relics though. Just be careful with the money!
Central to the city is the Genghis Khan square - complete with a throne, a huge statue of the great Khan, and his officers on horses.
Sitting on his throne on the square, Genghis still rules the country he created for his nomadic race. As our days in Mongolia was over, we were getting ready to move to China. It was rather funny at this point of time, how empires have risen and fallen over time. Russia, China and Mongolia have been playing around and gained control over each others territory for thousands of years!
As the great Khan looked on, the square was rather busy. Children on model cars were having a Gala time. On one side, there was a statue of the great traveller - Marco Polo. After paying our respect to one of the greatest, we got busy packing for our next leg of the Journey!