(Re-posted from my physical travel journal):
I departed Ulan-Ude this morning. Now on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Irkutsk. I felt sad to leave Petr (my couchsurfing host). My heart is swelling now now thinking about it. What a beautiful soul. A true diplomat for the human race. Petr and his wife Marina’s hospitality was unparalleled to anything I’ve ever experienced before. They took me in and treated me like family. They gave me the royal Buryatia treatment. (Buryatia is the region of Siberia we were in, with majority Buryat people living there. Buryats are known for their hospitality.) Perhaps it’s a product of their living within Buryatia or perhaps it’s part of Russian culture, but they seemed to me, through their actions, to have an expanded view of family. Treat the stranger as though they are family. It is a beautiful, sacred way of living.
Petr responded to my couchsurfing request and invited me to stay with him and his wife. He insisted on picking me up from the airport upon my arrival, despite my insisting not to trouble himself, that I can find my way over there. He linked me up with his friend Sasha who took me around the city. Petr fed me over and over again, always had a fresh pot of coffee brewing, showed me which mini-buses to take when I wanted to go somewhere on my own, and helped me navigate the ticket purchasing system to buy my first ticket on the Trans-Siberian Railway. On my last full day there, he drove me out to the Buryat sacred site, a high overlook on the outskirts of the city, speeding to make sure we made it there before sunset. He explained the significance of the site: a place where the Buryat mythological hero Gecer tied his horses so he could rest.
Petr shared some history of the Buryats and their way of life. The tips of Buryat footwear are angled slightly up. Why? Because in Buryat traditional nomadic culture, it was forbidden to wound Mother Earth. So they took precautions even with their footwear to avoid wounding the Earth Mother. They didn’t farm. They lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They didn’t bury their dead. Instead they placed their deceased on carts drawn by horses, kicked the horses into a wild gallop to take the body off at high speed, and wherever the body fell off the cart, from being tossed around by the speed, there it lay for the buzzards and other scavengers to feast on. That was the Buryat way.
According to Petr (one-eighth Buryat), the Buryats, in the 17th century, fearing take over and assimilation by the encroaching Chinese empire, sent a delegation to St. Petersburg to make a case for Russia to annex Buryatia as a Russian protectorate. They wanted the protection of the Russians from the Chinese, believing there was less risk of complete take-over and assimilation by them. In return they paid taxes to the Russians in the form of their prized rare furs. Petr claimed that this a great example of how two nations/races can co-exist peacefully and cooperatively with each other. He said they’ve had good relations ever since, save for a few radical Buryats, the vast majority are happy to be Russian. Some articles I’ve read on Buryat history paint a different picture, with raids and terrorization of the locals by Russian “settlers”, large land expropriations, and anti-Russian revolts by the Buryats. The Stalinist times were even darker and bloodier for the Buryat population. I wondered if Petr would have the same sentiments that he shared with me if he had more Buryat than Russian ancestry.