Exploring colourful Buddhist temples and finding a giant Lenin Head in Ulan Ude – sixth stop on the Trans Mongolia trains through Russia

The Buryat region is predominantly Buddhist and Ivolginsky is the largest datsun or temple complex in Russia

A half-day trip from Ulan Ude to spin the prayer wheels, attend a hural or prayer ceremony and receive a blessing from a Buddhist monk at Ivolginsky temple

Ulan Ude is 5,600km from Moscow and it’s taken us four train journeys to get here, with three overnight visits to cities along the way. We ate traditional Tartar snacks in Kazan, visited the site of the execution of the last Czar of Russia in Yekaterinburg and played on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal near Irkutsk.

View of lake Baikal from a Russian train window
View of Lake Baikal from the train

Our epic two week journey through Russia started in St Petersburg. It will end in Mongolia, where I’ll lose my travel companion (my mum, who will fly home to London) and strike out on my own for three weeks in the Mongolian countryside. I was expecting to be meeting my regular travel buddy Paula but her first flight from New Zealand via China was cancelled due to the coronovirus breakout and we’ve just learned that her new flight via South Korea is now also cancelled.

Train from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude

We arrive in Ulan Ude at around 4pm after a lovely train journey from Irkutsk, which for the majority of the eight hour journey ran alongside the shores of Lake Baikal. For the first time on the trains, we’ve actually had interesting scenery!

We gave third class a try for this daytime journey. For our overnight trains we stuck to second class, which is four berth compartments and a corridor running the length of the carriage. In third class, it’s open plan, with shorter bunks and two extra bunks in each section opposite the other four. So its a bit cramped but essentially quite similar to second class.

After checking into our hotel we made a beeline for the main attraction in Ulan Ude which is the giant Lenin head on the main square.

Giant Lenin Head, Ulan Ude

Among the folklore of Trans-Mongolia or Trans-Siberia travellers is the challenge of getting from the train station to Lenin’s head and back again during the 45 minutes the train is stationary in Ulan Ude. Luckily our walk over to the square was a lot more leisurely.

The largest bust of Lenin in the world is an impressive 7.7 x 4.5 m, with a weight of 42 tons. It was erected in 1971 in front of Government House to honor the centenary of Lenin’s birth. Allegedly the city’s residents once even knitted a huge hat with earflaps for it!

Day trip to Ivolginsky Datsun – the largest Buddhist temple complex in Russia

The next day I booked a tour guide to take us to the Ivolginsky Datsun temple. It’s about an hour journey from Ulan Ude and apparently easily done independently by taking two micro-buses or minivans. With our train to Mongolia at 3pm, we didn’t want to risk not being back in time and so splashed out for our second guided tour of the trip. The other time being at Lake Baikal in Irkutsk.

Alexander collected us at 9am and as we drove out of the city he explained about the Buryat region. The Republic of Buryatia, with its capital of Ulan Ude, is the heartland of the Buryat people who number around 440,000 in Russia with another 100,000 in Mongolia and China. The Buryats were traditionally nomadic herders, living in Gers or yurts, and moving on with the seasons. Over the centuries they’ve blended shamanism and Buddhism, resulting in Buddhist temples becoming commonplace in Eastern Siberia.

Ivolginsky Datsun dates to 1946, when Stalin surprisingly allowed a temple to be built as thanks to the Buryat soldiers who participated in World War II. As we approached the temple, which sits on a vast plain overlooked by mountains, trees full of prayer flags lined the road.

We parked by a collection of ramshackle souvenir shops and began our tour with the traditional clockwise walk around the outer perimeter. The route is lined with painted prayer wheels, containing mantras on scrolls. By spinning the barrels you release prayers into the air. Devotees also leave offerings such as rice or coins on top of the wheels.

The complex has several temples, as well as a university for Buddhism and a community of small houses or huts, where the monks who work and train here live. It’s a big ramshackle but I liked the atmosphere, with orange-robed monks in woolly mufflers coming and going and local families wandering around spinning the prayer wheels.

We entered one temple where a small hural or prayer ceremony was taking place. Inside two monks were chanting mantras and periodically drumming, while two families held out chocolate as offerings.

A small boy was sent over to us by his mother to share his chocolate with us. Apparently it’s important to hold up an offering each time the drum sounds in order to show your devotion. The monks then invited each person up for a blessing. He asked our names them touched a sacred book to our foreheads.

The preserved body of Khambo Lama

Being the second day of the Buddhist Lunar New Year, the temples were busy, with many devotees come to show their respects to the preserved body of Khambo Lama, the leader of Russian Buddhism.

Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov was born in 1852 and is widely credited with the resurgence of the Buddhist faith in Russia. He died whilst praying in the lotus position at the age of 75 and his will requested he be buried in the same position inside a wooden box, then exhumed some years later. This his followers did and were amazed to find his body looking remarkably life-like. He was hastily reburied, this being the Soviet anti-religion era, and it wasn’t until 75 years after his death that his unexplained well-preserved body was put on display.

We waited in line to see this miracle, clutching a blue scarf which Alexander instructed me to hold with two hands and lay on top of tens of others at the foot of the shrine. An article I read online says that in 2004 an institute called the Federal Centre of the Forensic Medicine used hair, nail and skin analysis to determine that the body resembled that of one who had only been dead for 36 hours.  To be honest, in his glass box, sitting in the lotus prayer position, the Lama resembled a slightly deteriorated statue that needed some touching up.

We shuffled past the slow line of devotees who were praying to Khambo Lama and touching their hands against his box. I decided to queue for another blessing from the monk looking after this temple. He took a white scarf, tied a knot in it whilst murmuring a prayer and handed it to me with two hands. Alexander said it was mine to keep and many people hang them in their homes or cars to bring good fortune and keep them safe. I’m sure my little Berlingo microcamper conversion will appreciate being decorated by a blessed scarf from the largest Buddhist temple in Russia!

Rinpoche Bagsha temple

Driving back into Ulan Ude, we had plenty of time before our train so Alexander offered to take us to Rinpoche Bagsha temple, on a hill high above the city. It’s far more modern, very shiny and new, compared to Ivolginsky but the panoramic views across the city are wonderful.  Inside the main temple there were mountains of boxed cookies donated by corporate sponsors as offerings.

Finally it was time to head to the train station for our overnight train to Mongolia. We had around fourteen hours to look forward to on the train, with at least four of them being spent stationary at border control. This would be our very last train on our ambitious 7,000 km journey from St Petersburg to Ulan Bator.

Next stop – three weeks travelling in Mongolia!

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