Buryatia is a mountainous republic that covers 351,300 square kilometers ( (135,600 square miles) and occupies the north, south and east side of Lake Baikal and embraces a 880-kilometer-long "panhandle" that stretches to the north-central border of Mongolia. Buryatia is a republic set up for the Buryats, the largest indigenous group in Siberia. The Buryats are a Mongolian people that practice Tibetan Buddhism and animism. Buryats make up about 30 percent the population of Buryatia. About two thirds of the residents are Russians. In the early Soviet era, there were 46 monasteries (datsans) and 150 Buddhist temples. Stalin shut most of them down and sent many lamas and monks to gulags. After Stalin's death, Buddhism was tolerated. It has experienced a rebirth since the break up of the Soviet Union. Shamanism is also still very much alive among the Buryat. There are also some Old Believer communities in Buryatia. Website: www.visitburyatia.ru

The Republic of Buryatia, formerly the Buryat ASSR and known until 1957 as Buryat-Mongolia, it is home to about 985,000 people and has a population density of 2.8 people per square kilometer. About 58 percent of the population live in urban areas. Ulan Ude is the capital and largest city, with about 360,000 people. In 1989 the Buryats constituted only about 24 percent of the republic's population; Russians made up about 70 percent. The total Buryat population of the Soviet Union in the 1980s was about 390,000, with about 150,000 living in the adjacent oblasts of Chita and Irkutsk.

Buryatia possesses rich mineral resources, notably bauxite, coal, gold, iron, rare earth minerals, uranium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and tungsten. Livestock raising, fur farming, hunting, and fishing are important economic pursuits of the indigenous population. The main industries derive from coal extraction, timber harvesting, and engineering. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

See Separate Articles on LAKE BAIKAL


The Buryats are the largest indigenous group in Siberia. They are a nomadic herding people of Mongolian stock that practice Tibetan Buddhism with a touch a paganism. There about 500,000 Buryat today, with half in the Lake Baikal area, half elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and Mongolia. Also known as the Brat, Bratsk, Buriaad and spelled Buriat, they have traditionally lived around Lake Baikal. They make up about half the population of the Republic of Buryatia, which includes Ulan Ude and is located to the south and east of Lake Baikal. Others live west of Irkutsk and near Chita as well as in Mongolia and Xinjiang in China.

The Buryat language is similar to Mongolian and is a member of the Altaic family of languages. It is spoken by some Buryats at home and taught at some schools. Until they 1930s the Buryats used a Mongol-Altaic script which was written from top to bottom. The Buryats were forced to abandon their script in favor of Cyrillic by the Soviets.

The Buryats I met in 2005 in the Ulan Ude area were pretty assimilated into Russian culture. One night I went out drinking with a Buryat woman, who was part of cultural show I attended, and some of her friends. The woman had a college degree in mathematics but worked mainly at a gas station because it was the best job she could get. At the time I met her, her sister was off in China being set up in a mail-order marriage with a Chinese man she had never met.

Tourism in Buryatia

Buryatia, is considered by many to be the most rugged and beautiful part of Siberia. It is a treasure trove of natural beauty, ancient buildings and cultural valuables, with Old believers, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and shamans. To the west is beautiful Lake Baikal. To the south are Khamar-Daban and Sayan mountains. Genghis Khan is believed to have been a Buryat and perhaps his birthplace is in Buryatia. There are several sights associated with him. There are hundreds of healing springs and lakes with therapeutic mud, and large lava flows from extinct volcanoes.

There are more than 300 natural monuments in Buryatia. Sights including Kyakhta, considered the richest city in pre-revolutionary Russia; Buryat villages; sacred mountains; shaman retreats; Transbaikal Cossack villages; springs where Tibetan Buddhist gather to cleanse and purify themselves; places where the unique Semey dialect is still spoken; and Old Believer settlements that date back to the time they were exiled under Catherine the Great II and where some people still wear clothes that predate Peter the Great. In northern Buryatia you can visit Evenk settlements. There is even a separate Evenki Bauntovsky district. Although live in their traditional tents anymore but some still practice reindeer herding. Tourists that make it up here can feast on game, buy kumolans (carpets made of pieces of fur) and boots made of deer fur.

Getting There: Ulan-Ude, the main city in Buryatia, is a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway. By Plane: Baikal International Airport, formerly Ulan-Ude Airport, is an international airport located 12 kilometers west of Ulan-Ude. The flight there from Moscow takes about 5-6 hours. Air fares varies depending on the airline, from 5500 to 25,000 rubles and above one way. By Train: Because Ulan-Ude is on the Trans-Siberian railway, Buryatia is linked with all regions of Russia and the CIS. There are also trains to Beijing, eastern China and Ulaanbaatar. The approximate cost of a berth in a compartment from Moscow, started at 15,000 rubles. The journey takes five days. By Car: A trip to Buryatia by car from Moscow also takes about five days of almost straight driving.

Zaudinsky (kilometer 5655 on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, in the suburbs of Ulan Ude) is near where the Trans-Mongolian line to Beijing breaks off. According to to the Siberian Times, a woman was beheaded while having sex on Trans-Siberian railway track near here in July 2016. Her partner survived but Russian Railways warned people to be more careful close to busy railroad tracks

Traveling East of Lake Baikal by Car

On traveling by car eastward away from Lake Baikal, Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “We spent the next day climbing out of the Selenga watershed through hilly country of mixed taiga and steppe. The many hilltop vantage points revealed one view after another, with endless uplands and ridges and low mountains; Sergei kept stopping and getting out to sweep the video camera slowly across the scene. Many trees in this part were dead and gray, I assumed from some infestation or disease. At first, I thought the cause might be the pine beetle, as in similar forest die-offs in North America, but I saw many dead birches, too. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“Now we were passing fewer cars, people, or villages than at any previous stretch of the trip. I had rarely seen country this unused and empty anywhere. At midday, we stopped in a village called Desyatnikovo to buy potatoes. An old woman there told us that this was an Old Believer village, but it was dying. (Old Believers are dissenters from the Orthodox Church; many of them have sought refuge in Siberia since the seventeenth century.) She said that houses with the shutters closed meant that no one lived there now and the people who used to live there had died. The woman showed us her own house, a bright-painted cabin of trimmed logs on the central street with shuttered houses on either side. She seemed to be in permanent mourning and told us she was very sad. A somewhat younger guy we bought potatoes from said that only old people lived in the village nowadays. There is no work, so young people move away, he said.

“We kept climbing, descending, climbing again. One hilltop overlooked a span of the Trans-Siberian Railway on which a train consisting entirely of black oil-tanker cars stretched as far as one could see, west to east; it must have been four kilometers long. At about three o’clock in the afternoon, Sergei informed me that, according to the map, we had just crossed the divide between the watershed of central Siberia and the basin of the Amur River. The M55 highway goes over this divide near the village of Tanga.”

Ulan Ude

Ulan Ude (100 kilometers east of Lake Baikal, 550 kilometers west of Chita, kilometer 5647 on the Trans-Siberian Railroad) is an industrial city with about 360,000 people in the heart of Siberia, not far from Mongolia. Located on the right bank of Selenge River about 120 kilometers upstream from where it enters Lake Baikal, it is the capital of the Buryatia. There are a lot of Buryats living here and its has some Buddhist monasteries. Even so if has a very Russian atmosphere.

Ulan Ude began as a Cossack fortress called Udinskoe established at the confluence of the Selenge and Ude Rivers. By 1745 it had a cathedral and was an important center for the tea trade between Russia and China. The Trans-Siberian Railway showed up in 1899, which facilitated trade but the city remained a small outpost until the 1930s century when it was heavily industrialized by the Soviets and made into a major train making and repair center. For many years access was restricted because of strategic location near Mongolia. The city was originally called Verkhneudinsk. In 1934 it was renamed Ulan-Ude, which in the Buryat language means "Red Uda", with the Uda coming from the Uda River. One of the biggest businesses in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union was selling scrap metal.

The Dalai Lama has visited Ulan Ude several times. The city has several Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and temples. There are also nice wooden houses, a handful of onion-dome churches and some nice places to walk in the center of city with too much traffic. Homestays and horseback rides can be arranged. Sights include the Merchant Quarter, with some faded old mansions and merchant inns; a fine art museum; the Museum of Oriental Art & Buryat History; the Buryatia Literary Museum and the Nature Museum.

Local Lore Museum Evenki is dedicated to the Evenki ethnic group and contains archival materials on the history of the Evenki, household items, costumes, women's jewelry, fur, beads, wood and other cultural patterns. Among the exhibits is a replica of a traditional dwelling, a plague, with mannequins of an Evenki family. Visitors to the museum can get acquainted with the rites of the Evenki, for example, the rite of purification through the sacred Chichipkan — "the Gate of Heaven." It is an ancient rite that marks the beginning of summer. Usually through a special frame Evenk families gather together with their reindeer to celebrate a successful year.

Museum of the History of Buryatia is one of the largest museums in Siberia. Founded in 1923, the museum contains many items related to civilizations of the Huns, ancient Turkic-speaking groups and the Mongols. The are blood vessels from the Ivolginsky Hun settlement; jewelry made of precious and semi-precious stones; many archaeological objects; and shaman vestments and paraphernalia. There are also numerous Central Asian and Tibetan Buddhist curiosities such as the "Atlas of Tibetan medicine", Buddhist canonical treatises, a collection of Buddhist literature and ritual with the philosophical writings on ethics and morals, medicine, poetic writings of Indian, Tibetan, Mongolian and Buryat authors. The museum's pride and joy is the "Cautious Bible", published the first printer Ivan Fedorov in 1580. The ethnographic collection of the museum has women's jewelry made of coral, turquoise and jade; and men's jewelry made of silver.

Ethnographic Museum of Transbaikal Peoples

Ethnographic Museum of Transbaikal Peoples (in Ulan Ude) is an excellent open-air museum with traditional buildings, yurts, Buryat cabins, Old Believer settlements, Even bark-and-skin tepees, and a Buddhist Temples. In the shaman area there some of fish, moose and bear deities. Hodigitria Cathedral, despite its abandoned appearance, houses the collected remains of Buddhist art from Buryatia's monasteries. There are thousands of Buddha figures, Tantric sculptures, tankas and banners.

The Ethnographic Museum was opened in 1973 and is now one of the largest open-air museums in Russia, with an area is 37 hectares. It has more than 40 architectural monuments and over 11,000 exhibits. The museum territory is divided into several complexes: 1) the City complex with building from the old Verkhneudins; 2) the Buryat complex with wooden houses, felt yurts, and Buddhist constructions; 3) The Old Believer complex, with houses of Semeyskiye Old Believers exiled to Siberia in the 18th century; 4) the Old Resident complex, with houses of peasant farmers and Cossack ataman.; and 5) The Transbaikal complex, with a three-chamber grainery transported from Kulsky Stanok village.

The archaeological complex of the museum consists of a closed pavilion and an open area. There are stone brick graves, stone pillars, “watchdog” stones and other archaeological objects in the open area. Make sure to check the farmstead of the Buryat-Cossack, the winter house of the wealthy Buryat S.B. Safronov and demonstrations in the pre-Baikal complex. One of the first exhibits of the museum was the St. Nicholas Church from the Nikolsk village. There is also wildlife corner and the as “From the History of Transbaikal Old Believers”, “Arts and Crafts of Transbaikal Old Believers”, “Buryat Taars and Gobelins Made of Horse Hair” and “From the Transbaikal History of Exile and Hard Labor”.

St. Nicholas Church at the Ethnographic Museum

Saint Nicholas Church(Ethnographic Museum of Transbaikal Peoples in Ulan Ude) is a a wooden church originally built in Nikolskoye village, located in Tugnui intermountain valley on the border of Buryatia and the Trans-Baikal Territory. This area was a homeland for thousands Semeiskie — Old Believers, resettled in several stages during the 18th century.

The church was built in 1884 and is a wonderful example of Old Believer wooden church architecture. The main part of the building features a veranda and porch, a refectory and prayer room that was gradually expanded and an apse with five walls, lower relative to the prayer hall. The belfry built over the refectory and crowned with an octagonal dome.

Like most Old Believers churches in the 1930s, Saint Nicholas Church was was closed, and used as a warehouse. In 1971, the temple was dismantled, transported to Ulan-Ude Ethnographic Museum and reassembled. Restoration works were largely completed in 1977. The church is part of the museum display, on a particularly important religious holidays it is opened to Old Believers Church who come to worship in it.

Museum of History and Culture of Old Believers

Museum of History and Culture of Old Believers (in Ulan Ude) was opened in 2006 and is based the private collection of Father Sergius, priest of a local Old Believers church who began collecting Old Believer stuff and knickknacks in his childhood, beginning with coins, religious books and icons. Mnay of the items such as old axes and scrapers were found in dumps and storehouses. According to Father Sergius, "the most interesting thing was to dig into the barns at Piatra (shelves)” where “unnecessary junk " was thrown.

Items in Father Sergius’s collection include paleontological finds such as a skull of a woolly rhinoceros, a buffalo skull, mammoth teeth, tusks and a hip bone. There is also an interesting collection of 19th century Tula samovars. Such samovars were an indicator of prosperity, wealth and pride among the Semeiskie (Old Believers). From the Urals there are stone and iron cannonballs from the time of the Pugachev uprising and old mail.

In the collection of pottery and pots are Krynki, pitchers and one Father Sergius most treasured objects — a ceramic colander with holes to drain water made from clay. There is a lot of Old Believer Zabaikalye clothes: sundresses, apron, shirt, Kichko, kokoshniki and shawls, coats, fur coats, kurmushki. In the tools exhibit are plows, harrows, sickles, threshing flails and hand mills. The Semeiskie were skilled gardeners, who not only grew vegetables, but also salted them for future use. Among the treasures here are dugout wooden troughs and metal cabbage slicers.

Selenga River

The Selenga River (emptying into central eastern Lake Baikal) is a major river in Mongolia and Buryatia, Russia. It is about 1,000 kilometers long and accounts for almost half of the riverine water that flows into Lake Baikal. The rivers forms a wide delta covering 680 square kilometers (260 square miles), when it reaches the lake. Its source rivers are the Ider River and the Delgermörön river in Mongolia. The size os the river’s basin is 447,000 square kilometers.

The Selenga River is the longest river in Central Asia and collects water from many rivers. The wide, picturesque Selenga valley is connected with the history of many peoples of Asia. It is mentioned in ancient Chinese chronicles and medieval Muslim travelers and scholars. The Selenga connected the Mongol tribes and served as a corridor for some of their conquests. Some tiled graves along are 3,000 years old. Some are surrounded by stone fences of various shapes and sizes, including squares, circles and intricate loops. There are also Hun-era monuments and mounds belonging to Xiongnu tribes,

Much of the Selenga Valley is covered by steppes. Cities grew out of Cossack forts and trading settlements inhabited by Buryat ulus and zaimok Russian peasants.. There are suburgans Buddhist temples, Orthodox churches and worship crosses. The first Russian settlement in the Selenga Valley was Selenga fort founded by Cossacks in 1665. Pad Zharchiha in the north-west features picturesque rocky outcrops ans is sometimes called the "Selenga Dauria." On his journey to Sakhalin, Chekhov called "the Selenga Dauria" the most beautiful place in Russia.

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “Of the four hundred and thirty-seven rivers that are said to flow into Baikal (only one, the Angara, flows out), the Selenga is the principal stream coming from the south. Its origins are in the steppes of Mongolia. Genghis Khan made his capital, Karakorum, near a Selenga tributary called the Orkhon. The Selenga was the most authentic-looking Siberian river I’d encountered so far. Up to now I’d seen swampy rivers and ones bordered by mountains and trees; the bare hills along the banks of the Selenga and the wide-screen vistas of river and open country spoke of Asian steppes expanding to the southeast. Again, the fencelessness of the land amazed me. At a place where wheel tracks led through the sparse brown grasses beside the highway we drove down a hillside and stopped beside the Selenga to make that evening’s camp. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

Khamar-Daban Mountains

Khamar-Daban (south and southeast of Lake Baikal) is a mountain range that stretches from east to west over 350 kilometers and is 50 to 60 kilometers, stretching along the southern shore of Lake Baikal from the Selenga midlands along the Tunka valley to the Munch-Sardyk ridge. The northern part of the range adjacent to Lake Baikal receives a fair amount of rain and is in rich vegetation, with some relict plants from the Tertiary period. The southern side is drier and is dominated by tundra vegetation.

The highest point in the Khamar-Daban is 2396-meter-high Utulikskaya Horseshoe (or Subutuy). Cherskogo peak (2090 meters) is visited by thousands of tourists. There are many lakes in the Khamar-Daban. One of the largest and most popular is Sable Lake. Among the smaller lakes visited by tourist are Stalemate Lake, Heart Lake and Devil's Lake..

There are a wide variety of hiking and skiing trails. The most popular runs from the city of Slyudyanka to the weather station, where there are a variety of options: Cherskiy Peak, Heart Lake, waterfalls, and Devil's Lake. Dress appropriately and be prepared for changing weather conditions. Destinations in the foothills of the Khamar-Daban include Warm Lake, "Cap of Monomakh" relict poplars, Stone River Snow Valley, Taltzy Peak, Sobolinoye Lake, Fairy Tale Waterfall and waterfalls on the Gramotuha River.

Peak Rapids is a popular mountain in the Khamar Daban. Located in the upper reaches of Babhi River, it is 2025 meters high and is clearly seen from the Utulik station area of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The top of the peak has a regular trapezoid with a horizontal ridge. The peak crest breaks in all directions with steep and rocky ledges. Among the popular tourist routes are ascent along streams. The first option is in Babhi valley. This route is relatively straight forward. More extreme path runs along the small Harlahty River and continue along the Harlahtinskogo char ridge. Along these routes there are many small but picturesque waterfalls. From the top of the Peak Rapids is clearly visible in the northern direction is the Babha river valley and the town of Baikalsk; to the ast is Osinovsky Golec; to the south is Dead Lake.

Ivolginsk Datsun

Ivolginsk Datsun (32 kilometers west of Ulan Ude) is a monastery at the base of the Khamar-Daban Mountains. Built in a Tibetan style, it contains colorful interiors adorned with hundreds of Buddha images, handmade manuscripts and tangkas that were taken from the other temples and monasteries in Buryatia and elsewhere — many of which were destroyed by the Communists — and placed here for safekeeping.

Ivolginsk (also spelled Ivolginsky) Datsun has traditionally been the main center for Buddhism in Russia. The Dalai Lama has visited four times since 1992. Ivolginsk remained a working monastery in the Soviet era. The lama who resides here is the spiritual leader of Russia's Tibetan Buddhists (most Buddhists in Russia are Tibetan Buddhists). There are about 50 lamas and monks, most of them trained in Mongolia. The ficus tree found here is thought to be a cutting from the tree under which Buddha experienced the enlightenment. Remember when you visit to walk around the facility in a clockwise fashion.

“Tuges Bayasgalantay Ulzy nomoi Khurdyn Khiid,” the name of the monastery in the Buryat language, means “The Monastery, where the Wheel of Teaching Turns, Filled with Joy and Bringing Happiness.” In the Tibetan tradition, a “datsan” is a department of faculty of a Tibetan Buddhist universitiy, where philosophy and medicine are taught. However, in Russia, the term is applied not only to Buddhist universities but also to monasteries, probably because of the long isolation of Buddhism from external influence. Today there are about 3 million Buddhists in Russia; it is the third largest denomination in the country.

The Ivolginsky Datsan monastery complex consists of eight buildings, including the main temple, minor temples, the library, monks quarters and Russia’s only Buddhist university where students study philosophy and traditional Tibetan medicine. There are a number of stupas and prayer wheels scattered around the grounds. The home of head lama is identifiable by a stone lion. The best time to visit is in the morning when the monks are praying. Atsgat Monastery (65 kilometers from Ulan Ude) is a less well known monastery. It was the home of the important lama, Agavan Dorhiev.

History of Ivolginsk Datsun

Founded in 1945, Ivolginsk Datsan is the largest Buddhist complex in Russia. Its founding marked the beginning of a revival of Buddhist tradition in Russia, following its almost complete annihilation in the first decades of the Soviet era.

More than 150,000 Buddhists lived in Russia at the turn of the 20th century; there were more than 150 sume (smaller temples) and 30 datsan. However, after the revolution of 1917, all religious denominations, including Buddhism, were persecuted.

Surprisingly for many people, after the end of the Second World War, the authorities made a number of concessions. Although the Buddhist community was not allowed to restore the old temples of the 18th century, authorities in the Ulan Ude area provided Buddhists with a plot of land in a swampy area near the village of Verkhnyaya Ivolga. A wealthy Buryat family donated their own small house to the temple. It was maintained and developed by volunteers and lamas, who were also unexpectedly allowed to practice their faith after Japan World War II. From this building Ivolginsky Datsan began to grow.

Incorruptible Body of Lama Ivolginsk

Ivolginsk Datsan is famous outside of Russia, not only for its temple and contemporary spiritual education, but also because of its association with Dashi-Dorzho Itygelov, the leader of Russian Buddhists in the early 20th century and an associate of the 14th Dalai Lama. The monastery is named after him.

If you get to Ivolginsky Datsan during a big religious holidays, you can see the body of the famous Lama Itigelova with a huge crowd of people. His incorruptible body has been haunting scientists for seconds. Pilgrims from all over the world to worship him as a great teacher. On a a normal day you can make an offering at the main temple and go into the Palace of Itigelov.

Before his death in 1927, Itigilov asked the monks to do two things for him: to read a special funeral prayer and “visit his body in 30 years”. The monks didn’t dare read the funeral prayer when the teacher was still alive. Then Itigilov assumed the lotus position, started reading the prayer himself and passed away. He was buried in the very same position, in a cedar sarcophagus in Khukhe-Zurkhen, not far from Ulan-Ude. In 1957, when he was examined for the first time after his death, there was already a small sume temple and several houses for lamas at Ivolginsky Datsan. There were no signs of physical decay on the exhumed body. They completed rites and changed the clothing on the body and reburied him. The next time the incorruptible body was exhumed and reburied once again was in 1973.

In September 2002, the sarcophagus was dug out again. Scientists, who are always skeptical about stories of miracles, suggested an expert examination of the body should be performed. Analysis showed that Itygelov’s joints had not lost their flexibility and his skin remained soft. Experts could not explain the phenomenon. The monks knew the answer. They carried Itygelov’s body to the Datsan and, together with volunteers, erected a new building for it, which proved to be the most beautiful building in the Datsan. Pilgrims come to the Datsan from near and far to see the incorruptible body of the 12th Pandido Khambo Lama Itygelov. It is said the lama assists those who ask him for help.

Ivolga Archaeological Site

Ivolga Archaeological Site (15 kilometers from Ulan-Ude) is one of the biggest and most important Hun (or Xiongnu or Hsiung-nu) sites in Russia, and the world. The Huns under Attila in the A.D. 5th century conquered huge swaths of Asia and Europe and almost defeated the Romans.

The Huns (the word means "people" in Altaic) were a confederation of steppe nomadic tribes, some of whom may have been the descendants of the Xiongnu (Hsiung-nu), rulers of an empire by the same name in Mongolia. The Huns were an illiterate nomadic people who probably spoke a Turkish language, most likely worshiped natural spirits and gods with shaman and fortunetellers who foretold omens by examining the shoulder blades of sheep. The military exploits of the Huns were chronicled in some detail by early European historians.

The Huns originated in the Altai regions. Scholars believe they were descendants of the Xiongnu (See Mongols). At first they were merely groups of raiders and bandits. Around A.D. 100, the Huns were driven westward out of eastern Asia by the Chinese. They settled in the valley of the Volga River and emerged in the 4th and 5th centuries to cause havoc in Europe.

Some the Huns and their empire originated in Buryatia. There are more than 100 unique monuments in Buryatia linked to the Huns, including about 40 cemeteries and 10 settlements. Ivolga Archaeological Site Hun is the largest settlement. The fortified town, or proto, was erected in the the 3rd century B.C. Excavations there, which have been carried out for more than 70 years, indicate that this fortified settlement was the capital of the Northern Huns and it supplied weapons to nomadic warriors and was home to at least 4,000 people.

Situated on the banks of the Selenga and Uda rivers, the proto-city extended for 12 kilometers to the center of present-day Ulan Ude. The Gibel Ivolginsky settlement dates to the middle of the A.D. 1st I century. Its inhabitants were subjected to a surprise attack and were killed or forced to flee, leaving behind much of their property. The fire appears to have brought an end to the city.

A large burial mound at the site is an irregular rectangle measuring approximately 350-x-200 meters, and is surrounded by a belt of fortifications with the shafts and four to three ditches with a total width up to 40 meters. Excavations at the site have revealed over 50 houses, huts, ground dwelling. There are a large number of bones of domestic animals: sheep, cattle, pigs, horses, goats, camels, yaks and dogs. Close to Ivolga archaeological site is a burial ground used sedentary Hunnu Chinese (defectors and prisoners of war). These people — the Hunnu slab grave culture — engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing, and various crafts.

Zabaykalsky Krai

Zabaykalsky Krai is a a Russian state-like entity (a krai) created in 2008 as a result of a merger of Chita Oblast and Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug, after a referendum held on the issue in March 2007. Formerly part of the Siberian Federal District, the Krai is now part of the Russian Far East as of 2018 in accordance with a decree issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Zabaykalsky Krai covers 431,500 square kilometers (166,600 square miles), is home to about 1.12 million people and has a population density of 2.6 people per square kilometer. About 66 percent of the population live in urban areas. Chita is the capital and largest city, with about 325,000 people.

Getting There: The Chita Railway Station is also an important landmark in Chita The Chita Kadala Airport is 18 kilometers away from the center of Chita. Shuttle buses 14 and 12 can take you from the airport to the Chita Railway Station, located near the center of the city. Shuttle bus fare: RUB 24. By Plane: Plane tickets to Chita from Moscow are rather expensive and the flight is 7 hours long. A round-trip ticket can cost anywhere from RUB 12,500 to 30,500. By Train: Depending on the travel dates, a train from Moscow to Chita costs between RUB 4,500 and 8,000 for a third-class ticket and RUB 10,000 to 13,000 for a second-class ticket. The journey takes 4 days and 11 hours.

Traskaya (kilometer 6312 on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, 108 kilometers east of Chita) is where the Trans-Manchurian line to Beijing breaks off. Almost exactly four days after leaving Moscow the Trans-Manchurian heads down towards Harbin and Beijing here.

Traveling in Chita Oblast by Car

On traveling in Chita Oblast, Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “We kept climbing, descending, climbing again. One hilltop overlooked a span of the Trans-Siberian Railway on which a train consisting entirely of black oil-tanker cars stretched as far as one could see, west to east; it must have been four kilometers long. At about three o’clock in the afternoon, Sergei informed me that, according to the map, we had just crossed the divide between the watershed of central Siberia and the basin of the Amur River. The M55 highway goes over this divide near the village of Tanga. From that point, the road began to descend until it dropped into the broad valley of the Ingoda River—a familiar name. When the Decembrists were imprisoned in Chita, they bathed in the Ingoda.” [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“In late afternoon, we found a good place to camp on its banks. The Ingoda is a pleasant, small river with a brisk flow and a bottom of sand and gravel in the parts I saw. Some boys near our campsite who came by to check us out told Sergei you could catch plenty of fish in it using crickets. I set up my fly rod and tied on an all-around attractor fly. Casting into slack water below some riffles, I got a lot of splashy strikes, but the fish were too small to fit their mouths around the fly. Finally, I hooked a flipping and flopping six-incher. It had delicate yellow markings on its side, like little reef fish I’d caught in Florida. I don’t know what kind of fish it was.

“I showed it to Volodya and he said he’d fry it up for an appetizer before supper. Then I waded back into the river and cast some more. Far downstream, I knew, the Ingoda joined the Onon to make the Shilka, which joined the Argun to make the Amur, which eventually emptied into the Pacific, which extended all the way to Dockweiler State Beach, in Los Angeles, where my sister-in-law brought her children to swim. In theory, from here I could take the all-water route home.”

Krasny Chikoy (650 kilometers southwest of Chita, 200 south of Ulan Ude) is village where Old Believer culture and traditions are very much alive. Visiting the village is like stepping back to the past: sturdy houses with brightly-painted gates and mouldings, beautiful 19th–century-style clothes, and delicious food prepared from backyard vegetables. Since 2012, Krasny Chikoy has hosted the “Semeyskaya Krugovaya” (Old Believers) festival. Getting There: Take bus 505 from Chita to Krasny Chikoy. Travel time: 9 hours 30 minutes; bus fare: about RUB 900. The Favorit and Persona hotels are located in the village, as well as the hotel of the Agricultural College. Lodging costs: RUB 500–800. You can also rent a room in one of the local houses.


Chita (kilometer 6204 on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, 900 kilometers east of Irkutsk) is a city if 325,000 located on the confluence of the Chita and Ingoda Rivers. Founded in 1653 as a Cossack fortress, it came to life in the early 19th century when the Decembrists set up a community here after they served a term in windowless prison reportedly designed by the tsar himself. The city today is an important transportation hub and economic center for the region. Among the sights are the Military Museum, the Decembrist Museum, the Regional Museum and Art Museum.

As the capital and largest city of Zabaykalye Oblast, Chita boasts numerous landmarks. Among these are the impressive merchants” mansions, most notably Shumov Mansion (Shumovsky Palace) and the quaint Lopatina-Gantimurova Mansion. The Chita Railway Station was constructed in the early 20th century and is one of the most beautiful buildings in Chita and is located near the Cathedral. You can reach the railway station by trolleybus, bus, or shuttle bus. These modes of transport can get you almost anywhere in the city. Trolleybus fare: RUB 22; shuttle bus fare: RUB 28. See all of Chita spread out before you from the Titovskaya Hill. There you can also find the Alexander Nevsky Chapel and a number of archaeological sites.

Chita’s religious landmarks are some of the oldest sites Siberia and the Russian Far East. The Decembrists” Church — the Church of the Archangel Michaelis — houses a museum. The oldest building in Chita, it was constructed in the 18th century through local donations on the former site of a burned-down prison chapel. Nowadays, it houses various exhibits depicting the lives of the Decembrists exiled to Siberia.

Chita's Congregational Mosque was the first mosque in Siberia. It was built in 1904–1906 through the joint efforts of the Tatar community. This red brick two-story building with a high minaret was designed by the city architect Fedor Ponomarev. Chita Cathedral — the Church of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God — was completed in 2005. The turquoise building was designed and constructed in the neo-Byzantine style, which is a traditional architectural style for churches in Russia. The Cathedral can be found on Privokzalnaya square in the center of the city near the railway station. Chita's Lamaistic temple — the Chita Datsun — was completed in 2010.

Accomodation, Food, and Shopping in Chita

A one-night stay at a hotel in Chita costs you RUB 900–6,000. Staying at a hostel tends to be much cheaper, usually just RUB 500. The daily rent for an apartment usually ranges from RUB 1,300 to 2,200. Chita Central Market sells a variety of goods, including basic foods and necessities and souvenirs such as high fur boots made from deer skin, Siberian pine nuts sold in sacks and plastic cups, Mongolian tea bricks and ground bird cherry.

Gift shops can be found at the airport, bus, and railway stations, as well as in almost every major hotel in Chita. There are also a number of shops located in the center of the city. The Zabaykalsky Khudozhestvenny Salon is by far the most famous. It offers souvenirs featuring images unique to the region, including wild rosemary, the Cathedral, the Decembrists” Church, the coat of arms, and beautiful landscapes. Ethnic Buryat-style products and local handcrafted goods are also available for purchase. Local products can be found in many supermarkets, offering goods like Siberian pine nuts, pine cone jam, beautifully packaged willow herb tea, and local chocolate.

There is a wide variety of Russian, European, and Buryat cafes and restaurants. Moreover, many establishments offer Chinese and Japanese food, as well as tradtional meals from the Caucasus. A more thorough search will even yield vegetarian, fish dishes, and deli meals. Average bill: RUB 500–1,500.

Tourists from western Russia who are traveling to the remote areas of Siberia for the first time should take advantage of the wide selection of Buryat cuisine. Many cafes and restaurants serve popular local dishes, such as buuzy, buchler, mutton liver in stomach lining, sharbin, and khushuur. To find the very best restaurants in the area, refer to local city web pages. A list of the top 20 cafes and restaurants is updated every year. (https://www.chita.ru/light/122867/).

Near Chita

The Chita area is home to a number of picturesque lakes. The locals believe that lakes Arey, Arakhley, and Kenon are the most fascinating. Lake Arey is famous for its healing properties, due to a radon spring that emanates from its bottom. The brown sand at Lake Arakhley delights tourists, while the lake's abundant fish are a treat for amateur fishermen. Lake Kenon is located in Chita and is the most popular holiday destination among locals looking for a trip to the beach.

Getting There: Lake Arey: Take a bus from the Chita's Bus Station to Arey. From there you'll need to walk just 500–600 meters to the beach. Lake Arakhley. Take the Chita–Beklemishevo bus 219, which leaves Chita's Bus Station everyday at 5:30pm The trip takes just over one hour. There are many tourist villages and guest houses located along the shore of the lake, with prices ranging from RUB 600 to RUB 2,000.

Alkhanay National Park (150 kilometers south of Chita) is known for its unique wildlife and Buddhist shrines that are scattered throughout the park. Alkhanai is a picturesque mountain range that majestically dominates the vast steppe and forest-steppe landscapes of southern Zabaikalsky Krai. The national park includes the Alkhanai mountain range, the only place in Russia where unique natural monuments and sacred relics of the Buddhist religion coexist in harmony; narrow canyon-like ridges; large and small waterfalls; peculiar stone “rivers” on the sheer slopes of mountains; residual outcrop cliffs of strange shapes, each bearing its own name; and wonderful volcanic mud fountains

In 1991, the Dalai Lama made a special trip to the ceremonial places in Alkhanai. There are many naturally-made stone sculptures here that are objects of worship by Buddhist pilgrims. Worshiping at Demchog Sume, the home of the guardian of Alkhanai (the deity Demchog), is said to bring a person uncountable merits in this life and in future incarnations. The Gate Shrine is a majestic cliff with a hole through the center, on which a stupa has been constructed, capable of pacifying and healing people. The Mother's Womb grants women the gift of childbearing. Naro Khazhod is a place of meditation for Buddhist clergy.

Getting There: Take bus 512, which runs from Chita to Duldurga. Bus departures: 07:30, 14:00, 17:15. To the Alkhanay springs from there, you'll need to take a taxi, which costs you approximately RUB 800. You can get a taxi at Duldurga.

Aginsky Datsan

Aginsky Datsan (in Amitkhasha village, 100 kilometers south-southeast of Chita) is a Tibetan Buddhist temple founded in 1811 in the Bulaktui area opposite Mount Ulirtui and the Agi River. Built between 1811 and 1816, the original temple had overall design of the single-domed Orthodox church with an arch adapted to the small Lamaist temple. When it was finished, the Agin Buryats invited Rinchin-lama to the consecration of the arch. The consecrated temple was called “Dachen Lhundubling” (Tibetian for “Abode of Spontaneous Realization of Great Bliss”). The chief deities of the datsan were Jamsaran, the Mongol-Tibetan God of War, and Lhamo, the glorified female goddess in Buddhism.

Initially, the datsan consisted of a central temple and four small temples: Choira (Dara-Ehe and Duinhor were built in 1811, Manla and Gunrig — in 1816). The architecture of the first building of Aginsky Datsan was distinguished by the influence of the traditions of Russian church architecture: separate elements of Tibetan, Chinese and Russian styles were combined in the structure. The eastern appearance was created by architectural features of the roof, cornices and frieze. The construction of a new building began in the middle of the 19th century. In 1897, datsan roofs were repaired, and angular and wooden ornaments were renewed in 1915.

In the last 19th century,Aginsky Datsan became the largest Buddhist monastery in Transbaikalia and by the end of the same century it became famous far beyond the Transbaikal area for its medical, philosophical and astrological schools. Its library (Barai-sume) was famous for storing more than 40,000 woodcut blocks with Tibetan and Mongolian texts, as well as wooden blacks with drawings for books and iconic images. This allowed the datsan to print basic textbooks from the Cannid, Manba, Zhud and Duinhor Buddhist schools. Other datsans of the Transbaikalia developed educational literature only from the Cannid and Manba schools. Aginsky Datsan also published alphabet primers, grammar books, Tibetan-Mongolian dictionaries, and ritual texts for household rituals in Tibetan and Mongolian languages for lamas and laity as well as popular literature in Mongolian.

In the Soviet period, the Lama clergy of the datsan was subjected to repressions. The arrests began in 1930, and at the end of the 1930s the datsan was closed. Most of the buildings were dismantled, and the surviving ones were used for tuberculosis and drug treatment clinics. Religious objects and works of religious art that belonged to the monastery were carted away and placed in museums of Moscow, Leningrad and Ulan-Ude. Other property was looted. In 1940, a military unit was placed in the datsan.

The Aginsky datsan was reopened in 1946, but only in 1990, at the request of the inhabitants of the Aginsky Buryat Autonomous Region, did it regain its historic building. A statue of Maidari and about 250 Buddhist liturgical objects were returned from St. Petersburg. In 1991, the datsan was visited and consecrated by the Dalai Lama. In 2004, after a 70-year break and 10-year restoration, the first khural was held there. A year later, the 22-meter Yundum Shodon stupa was completely restored. Zug's arch and Eight Sacred Stupas were built. The highest spiritual professional educational institution, the Aginskaya Buddhist Academy, is working on the datsan territory.


The Daurian forest steppe ecoregion (beginning about 200 kilometers southeast of Chita, where Mongolia, Russia and China come together) is large band of grassland, shrub terrain, and mixed forests that follows the course of the Onon River and Ulz River. The region has been described as a “sea of grass that forms the best and most intact example of an undisturbed steppe ecosystem and is also one of the last areas in the Palearctic that still supports stable herds of larger vertebrates” in a semi-mountainous area. The area also has flat wetlands that are important to migratory birds. The ecoregion is in the Palearctic ecozone, with a Cold semi-arid climate. It covers 209,012 square kilometers (80,700 square miles).

The Daurian steppes are a vast region and stands out among the Central Asian steppes for its unique weather conditions, relief, flora and fauna. Tens of millions of years ago there was a subtropical sea, as evidenced by the frequent finds of fossilized corals and mollusks of the time on this territory. Later the terrain changed, and the warm reservoir changed into a “grassy” sea. [Source: Russian Tourism Official Website]

Today, Dauria is meadow steppes, steppe pine forests, picturesque hills and many small warm salt lakes, the largest of which are the Toreys on the border of Russia and Mongolia, Dalainor in China and Buir Nur on the border of Mongolia and China. Most of the steppes of Dauria, located at an altitude of 600-800 meters above sea level, are mountainous. Located in the center of the Eurasian mainland, they are “sheltered” from the influence of the oceans by the mountains of Hentei, the Yablonovy and Borshchovny ranges and the Greater Khingan. Significant spaces of the steppe Dauria are depressions confined to the lake basins. They are replaced by valleys flat as a table or small hill ridges. Individual peaks can reach 1500 meters above sea level.

Dauria is one of the most arid and cold regions of the Central Asian steppe belt: the annual rainfall here ranges from 150 to 400 mm, and the annual temperature difference can exceed 100°C. The largest waterways of the region are Onon, Argun (Hailar), Kerulen and Uldza. The first three rivers are in the upper reaches of the Amur basin and are its sources together with Ingoda and Shilka. Uldza floods the inland Torey Lakes. The change in wet and droughty climatic periods, causing significant changes in spreading and look of the vegetation and the animal population of the ecoregion, is particularly important for Dauria. The most significant intrasecular cycles have a duration of about 30 years.

History of the development of these lands by man is interesting. Suffice it to say that the name of the great Genghis Khan is connected to the Daurian steppes. He was born and raised here, he gathered his army here, and, according to legend, his grave is here as well. Scientists are still arguing about when people first came to Dauria. The remains of Stone, Iron and Bronze Ages encampments are often discovered in the steppe. Encounters with traces of the so-called “culture of tile graves” are also frequent.

At different times Dauria was inhabited by Daurians, Evenks, Mongols, Buryats, Chinese and Slavs. Each nationality introduced its features into the local culture, absorbing, in turn, the unwritten laws of the steppe hospitality, mutual assistance, moderation and patience. Rich pastures and snowless winters contributed to the development of cattle breeding here, primarily sheep and horse breeding. This direction of the economy is still the main one in the region.

Daurian Steppe: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Dauria was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2017. According to UNESCO: “Shared between Mongolia and the Russian Federation, this site is an outstanding example of the Daurian Steppe eco-region, which extends from eastern Mongolia into Russian Siberia and northeastern China. Cyclical climate changes, with distinct dry and wet periods lead to a wide diversity of species and ecosystems of global significance. The different types of steppe ecosystems represented, such as grassland and forest, as well as lakes and wetlands serve as habitats for rare species of fauna, such as the White-naped crane, Great Bustard, Relict Gull and Swan goose, as well as millions of vulnerable, endangered or threatened migratory birds. It is also a critical site on the transboundary migration path for the Mongolian gazelle. [Source: UNESCO]

“Shared by Mongolia and the Russian Federation, the Landscapes of Dauria is a transboundary serial World Heritage property of four component parts. It is an outstanding example of the Daurian steppe ecosystem, which covers over 1 million square kilometers, extending from Eastern Mongolia to Russian Siberia and into North-Eastern China. The serial property covers a total of 912,624 hectares and comprises several protected areas in the northern part of the Daurian steppe ecoregion which occupy large areas of the transition from taiga to desert, including various steppe ecosystems. The inscribed property includes the nationally designated core and buffer zones of most of the Daursky State Nature Biosphere Reserve and the Valley of Dzeren Federal Nature Refuge (Russian Federation), as well as the core zone and a large part of the buffer zone of the Mongol Daguur Strictly Protected Area and the Ugtam Nature Refuge (Mongolia). Most of this property is surrounded by a World Heritage buffer zone of 307,317 hectares, which overlaps with Ramsar sites and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in both countries (Mongol Daguur in Mongolia and Torrey Lakes in the Russian Federation).

“The main natural value of the property resides in its intact steppe systems (including forest steppe), interspersed with wet meadows and floodplains, at the convergence of three floristic provinces belonging to three floristic regions. This exceptional ecological context results in a diverse combination of ecological complexes which derive from the cyclic climatic and hydrological variations over the year. The property provides key habitats for rare fauna species such as White-naped Crane, Great Bustard and millions of migratory birds of other species, including vulnerable, endangered or threatened species. The property is also an important area of the migration routes of the Mongolian Gazelle (Dzeren) and the major known place where this species breeds in the Russian Federation at the present time. The property also provides sanctuary to endangered Mongolian Marmots (Tarbagan), as well as to the near-threatened Pallas Cat.

“The property provides key habitats for rare fauna species such as the White-naped Crane, the Great Bustard and millions of other vulnerable, endangered or threatened species of migratory birds. The property is also an important area on the migration route of the Mongolian Gazelle (Dzeren) and the only place where this species is known to breed in the Russian Federation. The property also provides sanctuary to both endangered Tabargan and Mongolian Marmots, as well as to the near-threatened Pallas Cat.”

Dzerena Valley Reserve: Helping Mongolian Gazelles

Dzerena Valley Reserve (the east of the Daurian Reserve) covers 2,139 square kilometers and was set up to help the recovery in the Russian Mongolian gazelle. Work on the creation of the reserve began in 2008 when there was mass die off of the gazelles in the spring — the first in many decades — caused by a severe drought. By the autumn of the same year and in the subsequent winter, the bulk of the antelope population came back, but about 2,000 gazelles, including their young, who were born in this area, moved to the area now occupied by the reserve).

The reserve is located in a steppe zone. Open landscapes cover the southern part of Nerchinsk ridge, represented by low mountain ridges. The rest of the hills and ridges alternate with wide hollows, partially occupied by lakes and salt marshes. The northwestern part of the reserve crosses the middle part of the floodplain Borzya River. In the south is An intermittent stream Sharasun, which flows into the lake Shara-Usny Gorhi in the border region of Mongolia. The southwest border of the reserve includes the southeastern part of Lake Zun-Torey — one of the two largest lakes in Trans-Baikal.

Within and in the vicinity of the reserve are plant species such as the short-leaved asparagus, Mongolian cotoneaster and compressed besshipnik. These help produce an environment friendly to gazelles — a "valley of the gazelle" if you will — that will these ungulates, who occppy a relatively narrow ecological niche, survive. T he reserve is also home to other endnagered animals as well as birds.

Chernyshevsk: End of the Road

Chernyshevsk (389 kilometers north-east of Chita) is an urban type settlementat the unction of railway lines. The village is located on both sides of the river Aleur at its confluence with the river Quang, It used to be where vehicles were loaded onto and taken off the Trans-Siberian Railway because the stretch of road to the east was so bad. The road was improved in the 2010s and not as many vehicles are loaded onto the Trans-Siberian Railway as they were in the past.

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “The following afternoon, we reached Chernyshevsk, an important point on our journey. I had been half dreading Chernyshevsk, because beyond it the road became undrivably bad for the next eight hundred or nine hundred kilometers. Owing to the swamps and the lack of local population and the difficulty of maintenance, from Chernyshevsk to the town of Magdagachi, a long way to the east, there was in effect no vehicle road. Therefore, all cross-country drivers had to stop in Chernyshevsk (or, if westbound, in Magdagachi) and load their vehicles onto Trans-Siberian car- and truck-carriers in order to traverse the roadless stretch by rail. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“This situation had created a bottleneck at Chernyshevsk, where traffic backed up like leaves in a storm drain. The place was really just a village beside a large TransSiberian Railway train yard, and it offered travellers—who routinely had to wait forty-eight hours before an available transport appeared—almost no lodgings, no bathroom facilities you would want to enter without protective gear, and almost no restaurants. Meanwhile, the trucks and cars kept arriving.

“Late in the afternoon, a train hauling vehicle transports arrived from the east. The transports carried used Japanese cars, most of them Toyotas, with their front ends covered in masking tape, like bandaged noses, to protect from flying gravel on the road. So far, I have not described this important aspect of Siberian trade: throughout the year, but especially in the summer, guys ride the TransSiberian to Vladivostok, buy used Japanese cars there, and drive the cars west across Siberia for resale. Cargo ships full of these vehicles arrive in Vladivostok all the time. A used car bought in Vladivostok for two thousand dollars can be resold farther west in Russia for three times that much. The guys who drive this longdistance shuttle tend to wear muscle shirts, shiny Adidas sweatpants, and running shoes, and their short, pale haircuts stand up straight in a bristly Russian way. On the road, they are easy to recognize by the tape on their vehicles and by the fact that they speed like madmen. The faster they finish each round trip, the more trips they can do and the more money they can make.”

Waiting for a Vehicle-Carrying Train in Chernyshevsk

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “One of the drivers debarking in Chernyshevsk told Sergei that this load of cars and drivers had had to wait five days in Magdagachi for transports, and then spent forty-eight hours on the train. In Chernyshevsk, the unloading was done one car at a time. Some of the drivers, when they finally did emerge with their vehicles onto the cracked pavement of the Chernyshevsk parking lot, shifted into neutral and raced their engines in automotive howls of liberation or rage. The emergence of each vehicle caused a crowd of begging children to swarm around it. Some drivers honked and yelled at the kids to go away; others rolled their windows partway down and held out little pieces of leftover food. I saw a girl with large hoop earrings trot to a window and snatch the back end of a kielbasa that a driver offered her. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009 ]

“At about ten-thirty that night, the stationmaster, a blocky woman with dyed red hair, a Dalmatian-spotted blouse, and an orange workman’s vest, appeared among the vehicles and told us all that there would be no train tonight. Nor would there necessarily be one tomorrow, she added, with keen enjoyment disguised as nonchalance. The quiet way she savored giving out this disappointing news was a wonder to see. Maybe a train would come along tomorrow night, she speculated; but, then again, maybe it would not.

“As we considered the prospect of spending the night in Chernyshevsk in the van, Sergei again showed his mastery of difficult situations. By distributing a small amount of cash to the drivers immediately in front of and behind us, he held our place for tomorrow. Then he backed out of the queue, sped away from Chernyshevsk, and found us a place to camp beside a quiet and clear and relatively un-trashed stream a few kilometers outside town. We set up the tents, ate supper by lantern light, and turned in for a good sleep. In the morning, I took out my fly rod and caught a couple of little fish in the stream. Volodya made breakfast, then drove to Chernyshevsk to monitor what was going on. He returned in haste, saying the train was about to leave and we must get back there begom—“at a run.”

Catching the Vagon in Chernyshevsk

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “The train was not about to leave, as it turned out. To my surprise, though, it did seem to have arrived. We spent another afternoon in the vehicle queue waiting to load. I had understood that we would be going on a vehicle transport, the usual open-air affair, where we would just sort of hang out like train-hopping hoboes until we reached Magdagachi. But Sergei had something better in mind. He had heard about a guy who had his own train car. The guy, a short, dark-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, villainous-looking party, appeared at the loading ramp surrounded by a small entourage. Yes, he did have his own vagon—a long, windowless boxcar with room inside for four ordinary-sized vehicles. The guy’s vagon represented the high end of Chernyshevsk vehicle transports. Sergei negotiated with the guy to insure that our van would be one of the lucky four, and the guy agreed, for two hundred dollars. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“Then our van was locked in the guy’s vagon for a few hours while the train made up its mind about leaving, and we had to fend for ourselves in the Chernyshevsk train station with no vehicle to retreat to. I just kept moving, strolling and taking evasive action so as not to be swarmed on. Finally, we were let into the vagon and it somehow got hooked up to the train; and later, hours later, sprawled in the van, I felt the first few blessed inchings of forward motion. When a conveyance you are riding in fails to move and fails to move, and you hope and pray and apply all your mental powers in an attempt to get it rolling, and it finally does move, that’s one of life’s sweetest feelings. When the train at last left the yards after all that time in Chernyshevsk, I relaxed as if the sedative had finally reached my veins.

“The vagon’s luxuries did not include interior lighting. Small planes of daylight came through narrow slots at the top of what might once have been windows; otherwise the space was completely sealed. Once darkness had fallen, everything in the vagon grew dim, except at the front end, where a glow came from an open door. Inside the door, the guy who owned the vagon—its khozyain, as he repeatedly instructed me to call him—occupied a sort of stateroom.

“Past his room was a small between-cars passageway with doors on either side that opened at the top so you could look out. This place was great for fresh air, an antidote for the claustrophobia of the vagon. The khozyain kept his stateroom door open, and as I went by he would hail me, “Hey, comrade writer!” Sometimes we had short conversations. Generally, he was drinking vodka from a large bottle while lying on a bed that fit into the stateroom’s corner. Beside him lay a blond woman so large and rumpled she seemed to be part bed herself. A TV sat on a shelf opposite them playing a Russian movie, and they were passing back and forth a sunflower blossom the size of a party pizza, pulling seeds from the blossom’s center and chewing them and spitting the shells into cups.

“On every trip there is a hump that must be got over, a central knot to be worked through. For us that knot pulled tight in the Chernyshevsk-Magdagachi part of our journey.

“Being sealed in the vagon soon got to me. I mean, here were four vehicles parked inches apart in a closed space, maybe twenty gallons of gas in each vehicle; and there were no windows, no fire extinguishers on the walls, no “Exit” signs, the vagon’s back doors secured tightly from the outside. . . . Safety is never the Russians’ primary concern. Meanwhile, the guy in charge of the vagon is drunk and watching TV. Of course, I understood that there was no point in mentioning any of this to anybody.

Catching the Vagon in Chernyshevsk

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “ “Besides our van, the vagon carried two Japanese-made S.U.V.s driven by families on their way back to their home cities in the Sakha Republic, in northeastern Siberia, after their summer vacations. One family consisted of a hard-drinking dentist and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Kira. The other family was a mother and father, a young son, and a fourteen-year-old daughter named Olya. The two girls lived far apart and had never met. They hung out together in the passageway and talked, and when they found out I was from America they had a lot of questions for me, mostly about Jewel (the singer), Sylvester Stallone, and the Hard Rock Cafe. Both girls said that Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic, was a really boring place. Olya gave me a piece of paper with her address and wrote “Write to me!” all over it; naturally, I lost it soon afterward. At one point, I was sitting in the van and I took a nervous look behind us—making sure no wisps of smoke were rising, signs of coming inferno—and Olya happened to sit up in the front seat of her car where she’d been napping, and she smiled at me so beautifully that all my malaise lifted for a while. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“The guy in the fourth car, a Russian vehicle right in front of the van, was a scuba diver. He said that he worked on oil platforms and also gathered shellfish off the coast of Sakhalin Island, to which he was returning. He was wiry-haired and ruddy and he wore a vest of black leather. With other people and by himself, he drank vodka night and day. Our first morning in the vagon, after I’d slept pretty well on the front seat of the van complicatedly propped between the door and the steering wheel, I woke, sat up, and rubbed my eyes. The scuba diver woke at the exact same moment and got out of his vehicle rubbing his eyes. He saw me, broke into a huge grin, and made the “Do you want a shot of vodka?” gesture, tapping his throat below the jaw with a flip of his fingers. From his car he pulled a half-full bottle of vodka to show me. I shook my head no politely; it was about eight in the morning.

“ “I’m happy to answer your question as soon as you stop asking it.” Quietly, I slid from the van and went to the passageway for a look outside. The sun had risen on a cool, clear day in early fall. Our train was making a steady thirty kilometers (about twenty m.p.h.) through taiga mixed with hay fields. During the night, a heavy frost had covered the countryside. It rimed the leaves of the birch trees, some of which had already turned yellow, and made the needles and knobby branches of a tree I took to be a larch a soft white. At this speed, I could see the trackside weeds, curved like shepherds’ crooks by the spiderwebs attached to them, the frost on the web strands glistening in the sun. When the tracks went around a bend, the rest of the train was revealed extending far ahead. Our vagon was the second-to-last car. A broad hay field we passed had just been cut. The short stubble, all frost-white, lay like carpet among the haystacks spaced regularly across it. In the cool morning air, the top of every haystack was steaming, and each wisp of steam leaned eastward, the direction we were going.

“All day the train moseyed on. During stretches where the track was really bad, it slowed to walking speed. It stopped, it started, it waited on sidings, started again, stopped. In the vagon, a temporary lobotomy seemed to have levelled everybody. Sometimes as the train sat awhile at a station I got out and walked around, never wandering too far, from fear of being left. Every station I observed was dark, cracked, in the process of being colonized by weeds, and with the lights of its platform broken.

“People thronged the stations nonetheless—old ladies selling pirozhki (small pies of cabbage or meat or mushroom), skinny guys with big bottles of foamy, off-color beer, girls displaying boxes made of birch and carved wooden shoes on pieces of carpet, vodka sellers with their bottles lined up in rows on folding card tables. Here and there, black electrical wires drooped above the assembly. The khozyain and the scuba diver, hopping down for quick vodka runs, were the only ones in our car who got off besides me.

“The day went by, and again the twilight in the vagon dimmed to almost-darkness. I ate an energy bar I’d brought along and experimented with new sleeping positions in the front seat. If I hit upon a workable one, I could get an hour or so of napping time, provided the train kept up its regular motion. When it stopped, I grew restless and thrashed around.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website russiatourism.ru ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

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