Ulan Ude: Heart of Buryatia
Upon arriving into this quaint little city, travellers who have embarked on a 5,627 km overland adventure from Moscow, might for the first time recognise just how incredibly vast Russia truly is. It might also be the first time that one appreciates the unique Asian influence that has seeped into Russia from the East and with significant Buddhist and Mongolian influences, Ulan Ude is certainly no exception to the rule.
Approximately 100 km south-east of Lake Baikal and nestled between the Selenga and Uda Rivers is where you’ll find Ulan Ude, an ethnic and spiritual melting pot of European-Russian, Buryat Buddhist and Mongolian cultures and an unquestionable hub between Russia and the East. Closed to foreigners until 1991, Ulan Ude is surrounded by vast, wild nature, boundless steppes, alpine and taiga forests, the landscapes are truly breathtaking and offer a plethora of opportunity for fans of the outdoors to enjoy horseback riding, hiking, trekking, boating and fishing. Decorated with Buddhist temples, nomad’s gers and a sprinkling of shamanism, this incredibly unique city offers a diverse landscape of culture, cuisine, religion and custom to the lucky few who choose to venture to the less travelled roads of Ulan Ude.
A bit of history about Ulan Ude
One must not visit Ulan Ude without pausing for a moment to consider its colourful history, which is what makes Ulan Ude so unique. In the interest of sharing some insight, we’ve listed some key ethnic groups and moments in history that have largely shaped Ulan Ude into the culturally diverse city that it is today.
Ulan-Ude and its surrounding lands form part of a greater region known as the Republic of Buryatia, home to the Buryat population. This unique culture were and still are a small population of a Mongolian Buddhist subgroup from the north of the Russian-Mongolian border near Lake Baikal. As nomadic people, the Buryat’s share a strong affinity and dependence upon Siberia’s natural abundance and they practise a unique combination of shamanic and Buddhist religious traits. Approximately one-fifth of Ulan Ude’s population of over 400,000 are Buryats and it is these modern day Buryats who are responsible for maintaining a strong Buddhist presence in the fabric of the city today.
The Old Believers
Between 1652 and 1666 reforms within the Russian Orthodox Church were met with incredible opposition, resulting in the split of the Russian church into many subgroups. Those who refused to accept the new ritual and textual revisions (made to achieve uniformity between Russian and Greek Orthodox practices) became alienated. As a result, these groups were forced to separate from the hierarchy of the Church of Russia and were dubbed the “Old Believers”. In order to practice their religion, the Old Believers were given little choice but to flee their homes into the depths of Siberia and practice their religion faithfully in the way they knew and loved it to be. Those who arrived to Buryatia built new villages, and were quickly nicknamed “Semeiskie”, which in English translates to “Family”. Today, the Old Believers still reside in Buryatia and visitors are welcomed into their village, just a 40 minute drive outside of Ulan Ude by bus or car.
In 1666, the Russian Cossacks arrived and founded UIan Ude as Udinskoye. The city would serve as a winter outpost for the Cossacks and become a trade hub between Russia, Mongolia and China due to its more than favourable geographic location. From 1690, Ulan Ude quickly became the administrative centre of the Trans Baikal region and so the city continued to develop, with eastern and western influence contributing to the city’s unique facade. In 1900, almost 200 years after being founded, Trans Siberian Railway was reached the city, connecting Ulan Ude to larger Russian cities by train. As a result, the Ulan Ude experienced a population boom and finally, in 1934, the city was renamed Ulan-Ude and in 1958 became recognised as the capital of Buryat ASSR (Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic).
Today, Ulan Ude boasts more than three-centuries of history, diverse culture and incredibly unique architecture, combining ancient and modern features of the European west and Asian east. It is also the scientific and cultural centre of the Buryat Republic with research institutes and a number of state universities and colleges. Ulan Ude serves as an important political and business centre continuing to link Mongolia, China and the Asia-Pacific with far-east Russia. Despite being at the confluence of trade and experiencing much growth in recent years, Ulan Ude still holds a firm grip on the unique ethnicities and wonderful cultures that have peacefully coexisted with one another for hundreds of years.
What to see and do in Ulan Ude
With more than 200 monuments of history, culture and architecture in Ulan Ude, you won’t be hard pressed to find something to do. Here’s our ‘do not miss’ list for travellers visiting Ulan Ude.
The Village of Old Believers
The Old Believers village is an approximate 40 minute drive from Ulan Ude through the Siberian countryside. Head there to discover the way of life of the Old Believers, learn of their history from the locals and be transported back in time to quintessential village life in Siberia. The village is approximately 50km out of Ulan Ude. There are tours that venture out to the village , otherwise you can catch a bus or organise a taxi to take you.
Ivolginsky Datsan – The Buddhist Monastery
The Ivolginsky Datsan (Buddhist Monastery), built in 1945, is the main active and most important Buddhist religious centre in Russia. It is the chosen residence of the leader of all Russian Lamas and is also home to the preserved body of the Khambo Lama, who died in 1927 and remains sitting upright in the lotus position. Just 23 km from Ulan Ude, near Verkhnyaya Ivolga village, Ivolginsky Datsan is easily accessible from Ulan Ude.
Ulitsa Lenina (Lenin Street)
Ulitsa Lenina is the Merchants Quarter in Ulan Ude. This pedestrian shopping strip known as the Arbat as it is reminiscent to the historic Arbat district in Moscow boats beautiful 19th century architecture. In the shops You’ll find various pieces of merchandise on display up on shelves of old mansions whose architecture reflects the various ethnic groups that have occupied Ulan Ude in centuries past. You certainly shouldn’t leave without picking up a small statue of Buddha from the main shopping street, Ulitsa Lenina, a popular Buryat keep-sake for tourists.
Vladimir Lenin’s Head
Built to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth, one must not leave Ulan Ude without having set sight on the world’s largest statue of Lenin’s head! Make your way to Ploshchad Sovietov to view the 7.7 metre tall and 42 tonne monument which was unveiled in 1971.
Ulan Ude boasts five theatres for opera, ballet, youth performances, Russians and Buryat drama and the popular theatre of dolls known as Ulger. Depending on what interests you, there are a number of theatre performances held during the week.
List of Theatres in Ulan Ude:
1. The Buryat State Opera and Ballet House
Address: 52 Lenin St., Ulan-Ude
Tel: +7 (3012) 214 454, 212 795
2. The Khotsa Namsaraev Buryat Drama Theatre
Address: 38 Kuibyshev St., Ulan-Ude
Tel: +7 (3012) 222 546, 222 451
3. The Nicholay Bestuzhev Russian State Theatre
Address: 1 Tereshkova St., Ulan-Ude
Tel: +7 (3012) 232 606
4. The Youth Artistic Theatre
Address: 46 Lenin St., Ulan-Ude
Tel: +7 (3012) 218 037
5. The Ulger Buryat State Puppet Theatre
Address: 46 Lenin St., Ulan-Ude
Tel: +7 (3012) 218 037
How to get to Ulan Ude…
From Irkutsk: 453km…
Ulan Ude is accessible by train, plane and bus. Travelling overland by train is a comfortable way to enjoy a long journey as there is space for you to move around the carriage and it is also wonderfully scenic. Train travel also ensures that you don’t miss out on all the scenic sights along the way or the opportunity to meet wonderful locals in the dining car on board! Generally there is a train departing from Irkutsk at 11pm and arrives in Ulan Ude at 8am the following morning, completing a nine hour journey.
From Ulanbaatar: 581km…
You can also get to Ulan Ude from Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar as the city is connected to the Trans Mongolian Railway. The train ride from Ulaanbaatar will generally take 20 hours, departing either early morning or late afternoon and arriving the following morning or afternoon the next day. There is an approximate 12 hour stop over at the Mongolian/Russia border during the day. Passengers are able to leave the train during this time. It is important to check all information with your cabin attendant so that you are back on the train in time for departure as the train will leave without you. From Ulaanbaatar you can also catch a shuttle bus from the front of Ulaanbaatar station to Ulan Ude which takes around 10-12 hours.
Travel to Ulan Ude with Vodkatrain!
Vodkatrain’s The Cossack journey offers a 23/24 day journey from Beijing to Moscow and vice versa! Travel through Russia, Mongolia and China on this epic adventure of a lifetime. Stop in unusual and interesting destinations including Suzdal and Ulan Ude and spend more time in Mongolia, enabling you to travel to Kharkhorin, the remote ancient capital of Genghis Khan. Click here for more details on the The Cossack.
Want to check out Vodkatrain’s 2014 brochure? Visit our website to download a copy.