The confident epicentre of Russian Buddhism owes its existence to none other than Josef Stalin, who reversed the Bolshevik policy of destroying temples and allowed it to be built, in a plot of marshy land 35km from Ulan-Ude, in gratitude to the Buryats for their sacrifices during WWII. The first temple was a modest affair, but today the datsan has grown large and is expanding fast. Pilgrims and tourists flock here on half-day trips from the Buryat capital.
The Ivolginsky datsan was one of only two working Buddhist temples in Soviet days (the other was at Aginskoe); most of what you see today has been built in the last two decades. A clockwise walk around the complex takes in countless monastery faculties, administrative buildings, monks’ quarters and temples, but the most elaborate of all is the Itygel Khambin Temple honouring the 12th Khambo Lama, whose body was exhumed in 2002. To general astonishment, seven decades after his death his flesh had still not decomposed. Some ‘experts’ have even attested that the corpse’s hair is still growing, albeit extraordinarily slowly. The body is displayed six times a year, attracting pilgrims from across the Buddhist world.
To reach the monastery, first take marshrutka 130 (R45, 40 minutes, four hourly) from pl Banzarova to the last stop in uninteresting Ivolga. There, another marshrutka (R25, no number, just a picture of the monastery or the word Дацан pasted to the front windscreen) waits to shuttle visitors the last few kilometres to the monastery compound. Otherwise contact agencies in Ulan-Ude, which offer private transfers and tours with well-informed guides.
The daily Gunrig Khural Ritual, which is said to protect participants from bad reincarnations and black magic, is held at 9am.