The Republic of Buryatia (Russian: Респу́блика Буря́тия, tr. Respublika Buryatiya; IPA: [rʲɪsˈpublʲɪkə bʊˈrʲætʲɪjə]; Buryat: Буряад Республика, Buryaad Respublika) is a federal subject of Russia (a republic). Its capital is the city of Ulan-Ude. Its area is 351,300 square kilometers (135,600 sq mi) with a population of 972,021 (2010 Census).
Buryatia is already recognized as an international tourism destination. Most of its visitors either arrive by the Trans Siberian from Mongolia or from Moscow or by train or flight from Irkutsk. There is also a once a week flight from Vladivostok.
Ulan Ude the main city in Buryatia is interesting and offers a number of sightseeing options, the Ivolginsky Datsan, located actually outside of the city, the Open Air Ethnographical Exhibition, probably the best in Russia and a visit to the small village of Turbagatay, where there is an opportunity to visit with the Old Believers.
Buryatia though has a much greater potential based on its cultural assets highlighting the Buryat, Even and Evenk cultures. The Buryats numbering approximately 350,000 are the largest minority group in Russia. They are mainly concentrated in their homeland - the Republic of Buryatia. The ancestors of Buryatia were Mongols who made their home near Lake Baikal long before Genghis Khan swept through Asia in the earliest thirteenth century and have remained in the area until today. Sharing land, as well as cultural traditions, political structure and certain norms of interrelations wit other cultures of the Baikal region, the Buryat people developed their own culture in which centuries of traditions are interwoven in today's realty. After 1990 there was a rapid revival of shamanism.
During our stay in Buryatia we spend most of our time with the Buryat people. Buryats are very much connected to their homeland, which they call "totnto". It is not unusual to see people who have lived in the city for years to return to their home land when they are retired, so strong is their connection.
The Buryats enjoy a strong cultural life. There are many famous Buryat opera stars, dancers and other artists. Almost every night there is a performance in the Buryat Theater. Also not much known is the fact that not only does throat singing take place in Tuva; it is also a Buryat tradition.
Oriental medicine came to Buryatia in the 1800's and is popular today as it was then. The Center for Oriental Medicine is the center for Tibetan medical treatment in the region and prescribes medicine, teaches prevention and scientific renewal and produces medicine for export.
Lamas diagnose illnesses using the pulse and iris of the eye, and the specialists at the clinic prescribe medicine, including restorative massage, healing baths, herbal treatment and acupuncture. Most of the doctors at the Oriental Institute are Buryats.
There are various Buryat villages that can be part of a Buryat experience. These villages are Arbizhil, approximately 80 km from Ulan Ude and Khartun. In Arbizhil it is possible to have lunch with local Buryats, attend a folklore performance or meet with a Buryat shaman. A similar experience can be found in the small village of Khartun, which can be reached by car on the road to the Mongolian border.
One can find the Buryat people everywhere in the region, but there are high concentrations in the Okinsky, Tunkinsky and Zakamensky regions. In two of the regions, Tunkinsky and Zakamensky we enjoyed our chance to work with local people on ecotourism issues in the Tunkinsky and Zakamensky regions, which lie in between the Khamar-Daban range and the Sayan Mountains. Although agriculture is widely practiced in these areas, the landscape is diverse and includes steppes and alpine meadows. The area is one of the most scenic in Buryatia and it is the favorite place for Buryat people to take their vacations. Tunkinsky State National park was established in 1991 with park headquarters in Kyren. The park includes almost the entire region and offers a number of recreational activities and an ancient Buryat heritage sites. One of these sites is the Arshan Resort where one can visit the Shuman Hot Springs. This site is a sacred site of the Buryat and is extremely overcrowded in summer. There are, however, several hikes to sacred sites in the nearby mountains, which offer dramatic sights. One can also go by horseback. These tours, however, can only be undertaken from June through late August.
The Zakamensky region is similar to the Tunkinsky region except that is has fewer tourists and therefore less damage caused by overcrowding. We spend to days in the region visiting various villages. It is an attractive region and far less crowded than the Tunkinsky region. The region's administration is eager to develop its ecotourism potential. We had a chance to experience a local performance at a community center where at least 80 people gathered to learn about the basics of ecotourism. In the next village, we met an enthusiastic mayor who when he could not get the key to work to enter their very worthwhile museum, broke the lock, because he was so excited about its contents. Much has been done in the region to support tourism potential. There are also hot springs in this area, which are much less visited and the area is extremely well kept. Access routes to Mongolia over the mountains are being considered which would make this region an excellent entry point for travelers.
There are also three very interesting nature preserves located in Buryatia. The first state preserve, Barguzinsky was established in 1910 and is one of the oldest in this region. The preserve borders Zabaikalsky Park and is fairly difficult to access. Beautiful mountains occupy much of the preserve. The preserve management is extremely interested in practicing ecotourism and offers several routes for hiking, trekking and visiting the small Evenk settlement. Tours need to be operated by a tour operator and permission is needed to enter the park. The Preserve's head quarters are located in Davsha, which can be reached by boat or by plane from Ulan Ude and Nizhni Angarsk. Accommodations in the park are in tents, but lodging in a small hotel or home stays can be provided in Davsha.
Baikalsky State Zapovednik is located near the center of the Bolshoye Khamar-Daban Range. The northern boarder runs along the Irkutsk-Ulan Ude highway, while the eastern border lies against the Mishikha and Ubur-Han Rivers. The Khamar-Daban range is still a very wild area and is the home to birds of prey and the rare black stork as well as deer, wolves and boars. The range holds diverse and rich flora, including rare plants, such as the blue spruce and giant poplars. The zapovednik's office is located in Tankhoy, which is a station on the train from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude. The park requires you to pay a daily fee.
Zabaikalsky National park was founded in September of 1986 and includes the Ushkaniye Islands, the Svyatoy Nos Peninsula, the lower regions of the Barguzin River, Chivyrkuysky Bay and the mouth of the Chivyrkuysky River. The northern region of the park has mountains towering almost one kilometer high.
The Ushkaniye Islands consist of four islands: Tonky, Bolshaye Ushkaniye, Koltygey and Lokhmaty. An interesting geological fact is that the islands rise at a rate of 2 meters per 1,000 years, eventually to form one island. Tonky located near Koltygey, is reportedly the best place to see the fresh water seals or nerpa. During good weather, the seals can be observed on the nearby rocks sunning themselves.
One can take a bus from Ulan Ude to go to Ust Barguzin to enter the park. The park provides each visitor with a brochure outlining various eco routes. Payment to enter and stay in the park is $10 per person, per day.
Severobaikalsk. We spend four days in Severobaikalsk this spring hosted by the School for Ecology Training. They brought us up to date about different ecological activities around the northern end of Lake Baikal and we shared with them our marketing resources.
Severobaikalsk can be reached by plane to Nizhne Angarsk from Ulan Ude (about 50 minutes), by boat and by the BAM. The city offers plenty of opportunities to hike, kayak, fish, ice fish, trek and ski in the winter in its surrounding areas. There are plenty of low priced small hotels and B & B's offering excellent accommodations and tourist services. There is also a hydrofoil that operates in the summer from June through September, it takes approximately 12 hours, and but frequently breaks down.
The Akikan Gulag was a camp operated in the late 1930's for mining mica, which was used as electrical insulation. It was closed just prior to the Great Patriotic War. Today the ruminants of the place are clearly visible and consist of several collapsed wooden and stone building, towers and barbed wire fences.
The small village of Baikalskoe is located about 40 km from Severobaikalsk. About 15 km out is a sacred spot for the indigenous Buryat. From this particular spot you can observe, the fourth largest Island in Lake Baikal, Bigachan Island, famous for its bird watching opportunities. Baikalshoe is an ancient Russian village, and contains the only seal pelt collective on Lake Baikal. This collective buys seal meat and skins from the indigenous people and makes hats and boots.
The great Baikal Trial is one of the most publicized projects in Buryatia. Andrei Sukhov from Ulan Ude and Gary Cook from the US (Baikal Watch) have supported this project from its beginning. Basically they are reconstructing the old trail around lake Baikal in an ecological manner. The trail goes through several parks and local communities. Year after year volunteers come to build the trail although it will take some years to be completed.