Endless ice-bound winters, kiln-hot summers, a history of imperial exile and Stalinist savagery – Eastern Siberia (Восточная Сибирь) may not sound like everyone’s first choice of holiday destination, but there’s much more to this vast region than blood-craving mosquitoes and blizzard-lost Gulag camps.
Focus is given to the map by glorious Baikal, the world’s deepest lake. Only Siberia could possess such a phenomenon with its crystal waters, mind-boggling stats and long list of outlandish endemic species. The lake presents a major obstacle to the Trans-Siberian Railway, which cradles Siberia in a string of intriguing cities such as architecturally grand Irkutsk, exotically Asian Ulan-Ude and youthful Krasnoyarsk.
But the trick to enjoying Eastern Siberia is in escaping the cities – hit the Great Baikal Trail, go hunting for Tuvan standing stones or seek out far-flung Buddhist temples in Buryatiya – the possibilities are endless, almost as endless as the immense sweep of geography they occupy.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Eastern Siberia.
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 attractive two-storey timber building of the Centre for Tuvan Culture was founded in 2012 by legendary Tuvan musician Kongar-ol Ondar, who was its first director until his untimely death in 2013. The government-funded institution brings together all of Tuva’s ensembles, the amazing National Orchestra, traditional costume-makers, metalworkers and sculptors in a single one-stop shop and makes accessing the extraordinary culture of Tuva much simpler than before.
If you’re on the Decembrist trail through Siberia, this small but comprehensive museum is one of the best. It’s housed in the 18th-century Archangel Michael log church, an unexpected sight amid the neighbourhood’s shambolic apartment blocks. Inextricably linked to the Decembrist story, this was where they came to pray, where Annenkov married his French mistress Pauline Geuble and where the Volkonskys buried their daughter Sofia. Signs are in Russian only, but an English-language audio guide is available for R70.
One of Tuva’s ‘must sees’, the National Museum’s huge modern home contains the usual arrangements of stuffed animals, WWII artefacts and dusty minerals, as well as more impressive halls dedicated to shamanism, Buddhist art and traditional Tuvan sports. However, all of this is just a teasing appetiser before the main course: a single, atmospherically lit and well-guarded room containing kilograms of Scythian gold jewellery, unearthed at Arzhaan I in the Valley of the Kings.
Russia's most visited national park is located right across the river from Krasnoyarsk's city centre. Its highlight are the fingers of volcanic rock called stolby poking above gently sloping wooded mountains. To reach the most spectacular of them (as well as the newly opened visitors centre), follow the track (7km long) near Hotel Snezhnaya Dolina (bus 50). Alternatively, you can take the year-round chairlift (Фуникулёр; R250) at Bobrovy Log Ski Resort and hike about the same distance through the park.
Roosting high above the city’s far north, the inside of this new and unexpectedly modern Tibetan temple looks like a kind of Buddhist-themed bus terminal, though the 6m-high gilt Buddha is pretty impressive. However, the real show-stealer here is the panoramic view, the smog-hazed city ringed by rumpled dust-bare peaks. Take marshrutka 97 from outside the Hotel Baikal Plaza on pl Sovetov to the last stop (right by the temple entrance).
Housed in an incongruously attractive 1912 art nouveau Egyptian temple, this is one of Siberia’s better museums. Arranged around a Cossack explorer’s ship, surprisingly well-presented exhibitions across the two floors examine every facet of the region’s past, from Cossacks and gentlemen explorers to the Tunguska explosion, local fauna, prerevolution institutions and religious art.
Listvyanka’s best viewpoint, overlooking the source of the Angara, is named after Jan Czerski, a 19th-century Polish gentleman explorer. It is best accessed via the cable car of the mediocre Eastland ski resort (R300 return). To reach the resort, take a taxi or walk uphill along the road that starts near Baikal Museum.
Ulan-Ude’s main square is entirely dominated by the world’s largest Lenin head that creates an ensemble with the grey constructivist government building behind it. The 7.7m-high bronze bonce was installed in 1970 to celebrate Lenin’s 100th birthday. Oddly, UU’s bird population never seems to streak Lenin’s bald scalp with their offerings – out of respect for the great man’s achievements, bark diehard communists (but perhaps due to the barely visible antibird spikes, groan the rest).