“It’s funny” beamed Ivan, twisting round in the front passenger seat to address the four tourists squeezed into the back seat of the taxi “he tells me that this isn’t actually his taxi, he is borrowing it from a friend so he can visit the temple – but it’s fine he’ll drive us to the mountain for 300 roubles anyway.”
The day had begun smoothly. Rosanna and I had been invited to go on an excursion to a local Buddhist datsan in a place called Ivolginsky and then on to hike up a hill with supposedly excellent views of the surrounding area. Ivan, who worked at our hostel and also as a tour guide, would lead the group which comprised the two of us and two other hostel guests; Amir and Anatasia. The possibility to get out and see the local countryside (plus the very comfortable start time of 11am) was a very exciting prospect so we enthusiastically took up the offer.
We left the hostel at around 11:15. Two cramped but comfortable bus rides later* we arrived at Ivolginsky Datsan. It’s beautiful; a monastic complex in the middle of a broad valley where you can look across the steppe for miles in any direction. Our guide knew a lot about Buddhism and how to act properly in accordance with custom. When he advised us to walk clockwise around the Datsan and the interiors of the temples I nodded, everyone knows you should do that. He showed us the prayer wheels and explained that inside each one is a scroll with several mantras written on it. As it seen has highly beneficial to repeat a mantra many times, by spinning the wheel it is like saying that mantra many times over. Technical loophole to get around the tedium of repeating the same phrase over and over or useful tool from a time when very few people could actually read a mantra that was written on a holy scroll – you decide.
We had lunch at a small cafe on site (delicious local dumplings and a noodle soup) and then we set off to find Ivan who had finished faster than the rest of us an excused himself. We found him outside the temple, negotiating with a man who we believed to be a taxi driver. I mean, he was sat in a taxi and seemed quite willing to provide transport in exchange for currency. He happily let us put four people in the back, three of us sat down and Rosanna on my lap and then he set off. After Ivan discovered that this man was not from the area and in fact was only in town for a brief spell to consult the monks about a possible career change (maybe to taxi driver, I’m not sure) he took over navigation. It wasn’t that complicated as we were headed for a large hill with “Ом мани падме хум” written on it in large, clearly visible letters (those familiar with cyrillic letters or buddhist mantras should be able to work that out). I must admit that I was slightly on edge throughout this car journey, although it’s hard to feel too nervous when the stereo is pumping “Get Low” by Lil’ John and the Eastside Boys. Anastasia wondered aloud if the song was in German, I informed her that it was in English but politely declined to explain what its key message was.
The taxi wound through small dirt streets until there simply wasn’t any town left, just a slope of yellowing brush with a steadily increasing gradient. We said farewell to the mysterious not-taxi driver and turned to climb the hill, the sound of american hip-hop fading behind us. 20 minutes later we were rewarded with a view I will never forget. The ridge we’d climbed fell away on one side to the town and then further away to a small river. In the distance were the golden roofs of the datsan we had come from. On the other side there was a completely bare valley, save for a small homestead that looked abandoned. On this ridge and the peak that we then climbed were remnants of bonfires and the occasional bush laden with prayer flags. These flags are inscribed with messages of peace, compassion and hope – not for the gods to hear but for the wind to carry to all the people in the surrounding area.
I was given a piece of advice before I left to go to the places that are hard to get to, it hasn’t let me down yet and this time in particular it really paid off.
*A note on busses in Russia – they come in all sizes from people carrier up to coach and it’s hard to predict what size you’ll get. This journey was to another town and took around 40 minutes but the bus was only a twenty seater or so. Also depending on the region and type of bus the convention may be to pay as you get on, when you get off, or a precarious mid-transit transaction with the driver where they drive with one hand and compile your change with the other. If it is a minibus and you are stood near the driver it is your responsibility to pass fares and change back and forth from other bus passengers. If in doubt wait until you get off and then say the name of the place you got on, then the bus driver can tell you what you owe.