Tea dance in Kyakhta
Russia’s historic tea capital uncovered at its Eastern corner
Ever heard of Kyakhta? Buryatia? No? You will soon - it's the latest undiscovered jewel in Russia’s tourism crown, now scheduled to be developed for up market cultural tourism.
Buryatia (351,000 sq km) is a country the size of Germany (357,000 sq km) with a population of less than a million - in itself that indicates quite a lot of space and masses of wonderful peace and quiet. Not content with these extreme statistics - the country also has some 60% of the shore of Lake Baikal. Formed at least 25 million years ago, it is the world’s deepest, clearest and oldest lake.
And that’s not all, the country has tourism assets in spades - including friendly people that are unbelievably warm and hospitable and very keen to share with visitors their country’s unique heritage and peerless beauty. After years of repression, the quartet of religions - Tibetan Buddhism, Russian Orthodox Christianity, Shamanism plus a group of ‘Old Believers’ - are brushing up their places of worship. Their tolerance and integration with each other was never in doubt - hence, maybe such nice hospitable people!
So, what assets has Buryatia got that would attract tourists?
Firstly, as Russia’s centre of Buddhism, the country has always been a major pilgrimage destination - the temples are now beautiful and very well-kept. This steady flow of pilgrims for learning and reverence has been dramatically increased recently: Dashi Dorzho’s body, buried since 1927 was exhumed in 2002. The leader’s body still shows no signs of decay. The body, which scientists say may even be in hibernation, is now on show to pilgrims, who are set to arrive in their droves.
Not to be outpaced, an Old Believer Village has set up an extremely successful community tourism initiative and welcomes guests each day - displaying an authentic picture of Russia in the 17th century.
The country also has a range of nature-based tourism opportunities ranging from hot therapeutic volcanic springs through soft adventure opportunities to the much harder and more challenging variety. There is a humorous recent account by a young American Fulbright scholar of his first Buryatia mountain experience
But, of course the massive tourism asset Buryatia has is the UNESCO World Heritage site Lake Baikal.
Rightly revered throughout the country, the lake is quite astonishing. The water is cold, clear and clean - there are not many lakes in the world where you would draw water and drink with impunity!
Unbelievably, the lake has at least 25% of the world’s fresh water. It is the deepest lake in the world (1.7km) and hosts some 1,700 varieties of plant and animals - 70% of whom can be found nowhere else in the world - including the Baikal seal, a variety of salmon called Omul and the Baikal sturgeon - all swimming in the crystal-clear water.
No wonder a great deal of delicious fish is consumed in barbeques around the lake!
There are a few tourist villages around the lake full of weekend dachas for residents of Ulan Ude, Buryatia’s capital; but apart from that there is little tourism development in this pristine area - thus far.
The most exciting tourism opportunity that has recently emerged is Kyakhta. Given that Russia is known as one of the greatest tea-drinking connoisseur countries in the world (where would a Russian story be without at least one samovar?) it is another astonishing Buryatia fact that almost all tea consumed in Russia was transported through and traded in Kyakhta - which, given the massive profits that tea offered, must have been the extraordinarily wealthy gold-rush city of the 17th century.
Luxury by Lake Baikal
Maybe it will be again. Mother Russia has taken an interest in the area and providing funds to renovate the city and develop the ‘Great Tea Road’. A recent workshop in the area hosted speakers from China, Mongolia and Russia plus experts from the UNWTO to find ways of developing the nascent tourism heritage route.
Given the fact that the Trans-Siberian express already traverses Lake Baikal; that the Chinese have committed to a cross-Europe route for high-speed trains; that the burgeoning tourism source market of Beijing is less than 1,000 miles away and Tokyo less than 2,000; that Buryatia offers a quality of pristine environment rarely nowadays found; that the UNWTO is assisting with the development of the Great Tea Road alongside their Silk Road Project …
You can be sure that the Great Tea Road will soon be hosting flocks of tourists drinking tea, visiting historical Kyakhta, taking saunas and splashing in Baikal discovering that it’s just their cup of reviving, invigorating aromatic tourism experience!
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