Sacred in Siberia


July 22, 2014 | BY Hong Kong Tatler

Our heritage columnist Hing Chao travels to the distant lands of Siberia to experience the region’s religious revival

Prior to this year I had never set foot in Siberia, but it is a place that has for long held my fascination. Far from the vast, frozen wasteland that dominates popular consciousness, Siberia, and more specifically, the Trans-Baikal region in Eastern Siberia, represents a spiritual home. It is the native place from which the Orochen, Solon and Daur people have migrated to China over the last few centuries. It is also ever present in their mythology, remembered as the sacred place where men learnt the songs of nature at the beginning of time.

Since the 1990s I have heard quite a bit about a supposed religious revival in Siberia. Apparently, new shamans were springing forth like budding flowers in spring's full bloom. However, it was not until my first trip to Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia Republic, this past winter that I realised the magnitude of this rebirth, or indeed the strength of the spiritual heritage that lies within the veins of Siberia.

My initial encounter with the sacred in Siberia began with meeting a shaman and was only magnified by my journey from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude by helicopter. Flying over the frozen expanse of Lake Baikal, the largest fresh water lake in the world, the pulsating heartbeat of Baikal pounded like a sleeping giant. The multifarious colours of the frozen ice below commanded wonderment and a sense of awe.

Inspired by the awesome nature of my first trip, I was determined to return to Baikal again to explore the relationship of the Orochen people with the Evenks of Baikal region.

Through the kind organisation of Elizaveta (Liza), a renowned Evenk linguist and scholar, I embarked on a journey of discovery. On July 1, my first destination was the Kurumkan region in northern Baikal, about 400 kilometres northeast from Ulan Ude. What I did not expect were the many sacred sites dotted along the way, which were mainly created by the Buryats. Some sites were of rather modest magnitude, often times being not more than a tree with a few ribbons or a pile of stones. There were also Evenk sacred sites, particularly after crossing into the Kurumkan region, which was historically and remains largely Evenk territory.

Nature-worship in the form of shamanism looms large in Siberia's spiritual landscape, but what many aren’t aware of is the intense competition between Tibetan Lamaism and shamanism in claiming sacred places. Along our journey, Liza pointed out the many old Evenk sacred sites that have been taken over by Buddhism, which often involves the building of new shrines or temples at old shamanic sites. This happens, for example, when the Evenks abandon an old village, leaving newcomers not only to occupy the territory, but also to take over the sacred sites.

Equally notable is the creation and multiplication of new religious sites throughout Buryatia. One of the most impressive is the new Yenzhima site in the Barguzin Mountains, which was only created a few years ago but quickly gathered momentum. It is now a popular pilgrimage site for Buryats near and far. Yenzhima is the name of the Buddhist goddess who is a patron of children and childbirth. Apparently, a prominent lama saw the face of this goddess in a dream and shortly after discovered this rock, which is said to resemble the deity. I was astounded to see the forest surrounding the rock covered in rainbow-hued wish ribbons, a testament to the deity’s popularity.

I was also impressed by the readiness of the local people, regardless of nationality or religious persuasion, to pay homage at sacred sites. For example, my driver who was an apparent anarchist and atheist shocked me by taking every opportunity to turn a prayer wheel and make ritual offerings at every sacred site we passed.

I find it hard to explain the experience of the sacred in Siberia. On the one hand, I feel the power of an ancient spirituality that springs from deep underground and inhabits the landscape. At the same time, there is promiscuity about the construction of sacred sites that may cast a profane light on them in general. For me, this speaks of the spiritual vacuum in the heart of the Siberian people after years of religious persecution and suppression. Inevitably, this phenomenon also reminds me of China, whose 'cultural revival' is undermined by a cynical commercialism that threatens to derail it, and exhibits the same tendency to go over the top in its insatiable hunger to reclaim the past.

On my travels through Siberia I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between China and Russia. The one redeeming quality that Siberia may have in its favour is the lack of population, which has given nature the space and time to heal from man's industry, activities and thoughtlessness.

I believe in nature's power to restore balance and perhaps it may even bring spirituality back into the world in spite of human’s efforts to abolish faith.