The Republic of Buryatia, population 1,049,000, is an autonomous republic in the South-Central region of Siberia along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal.
The 351,300 sq. km area was first colonised in the 1600's by Russians in search of wealth, furs and gold. In 1923, the republic was created through the union of the Buryat-Mongol and Mongol-Buryat Regions.
The republic's economy is composed of important agricultural and commercial products including wheat, vegetables, potatoes, timber, leather and textiles. Fishing, hunting, fur farming, mining, stock raising and food processing are also important economic generators.
The Buryat Republic's capital, Ulan Ude, rests at the junction of the Uda and Selenga Rivers. Its current population is 386,000.
The Buryats, numbering approximately 350,000, are the largest ethnic minority group in Siberia, and are mainly concentrated in their homeland. Buryats are of Mongolian descent and share many customs with their Mongolian cousins including nomadic herding and setting up yurts for shelter. Today, the majority of Buryats live in and around Ulan Ude, although many live more traditionally in the countryside.
Buryatia have not always been a part of Russia. As far back as 1625-1627, the Russian tsar sent an expedition to explore Buryatia. This first boat expedition, underestimating the ferocity of the Angara River's rapids, never completed the journey, but nevertheless heard that Buryat farmers were eager to trade. Reports continued to tell of an infinite number of horses, cows, sheep and camels and rich crops of barley and buckwheat.
Unfortunately, later when the first Russian units arrived, armed conflicts occurred, the Russian's built a small fort at Bratsk.
Trade picked up, as groups of Russian peasants, hunters, fishermen and handicraftsmen began migrating to the area, and the conflicts between Buryats and Russians settled down. The Buryats and the Russians were mingling, both professionally and socially. Intermarriages occurred and the mixed population began growing.
With the cultural mixing, the traditional Buryat customs began to give way to modern practices. As closer relations flourished, not all Buryats were pleased with the notion of becoming Russian subjects. Some Buryats, dissatisfied with the proposed tsarist rule, fled to Mongolia, only to return to their native country saying, "Mongolia's Khan beheads culprits, but the Russian Tsar just flogs them. Let us become subjects of the Russian Tsar,"
Buddhism occupies an important space in the hearts of many in Buryatia. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been a religious renaissance and many people in the region follow the teachings of Buddha. This includes the time-honoured natural healing practices passed down from ancient times. Tibetan buddhist medical practices that are still widely practiced provide one of the most important links to the past.
Buryatia holds a special place in the history of Buddhism. The first missionaries appeared there back in the 5th century A.D. However it was only in the 17th century that Buddhism began to win its place on the banks of the Selenga. In 1741, the first wooden temple or datsan was built. Over the next 150 years, at least 44 additional datsans were constructed in Buryatia where between 15,000 and 18,000 men served as lamas.
Buddhism evoked the interest of the tsar's government, in particular Indian-Tibetan medical treatment of herbs and acupuncture. Curious about this new healing practice, Tsar Alexander III called to his court, S. Badmayev, one of the doctors from the Transbaikal region, and requested his treatments. The new medical practice astonished St. Petersburg, as well as the European public.
In a short while, this modest Buryat doctor from the shores of Baikal became a celebrity. S. Badmayev and his brother, P. Badmayev, opened a pharmacy and a clinic and soon earned a fortune. Their nephew, Zhamyan Badmayev graduated from the Military Surgical Academy, became a colonel of the medical service and was greatly admired by his men. It may be said that thanks to the efforts of the Badmayevs, the European public has radically changed its ideas about Buryatia, "the lost corner of Siberia" populated by ignorant and uncivilised aborigines."