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Tsugol datsan

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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Tsugol datsan; Set just 2km from the ‘holyOnon River, Tsugol village is not particularly pretty but the perfectly proportioned Tsugol Datsan is surely the most memorable Buddhist temple in Russia.

Built in 1820, it is just four years younger than Aginskoe Datsan and even more photogenic, with gilded Mongolian script-panels, wooden upper facades and tip-tilted roofs on each of its three storeys.

The interior is less colourful than the Ivolginsk temple, but clinging to the front is a unique, colourfully painted wrought-iron staircase.

Getting to/from Tsugol is a pain – it lies 13km from Olovyannaya, reachable by a single morning bus from Chita.

From Olovyannaya take a taxi (at least R500, more if asked to wait) or hike along the river.

On the return journey, you could ask around in Olovyannaya for an unofficial marshrutka back to Chita (or Aginskoe) – otherwise it’s a long lonely wait for the overnight train (as this leaves at 2am this may be an opportunity to test your hitchhiking skills).

Alternatively, ask around at hotels in Chita for excursions to Tsugol.

Tsugol Datsan is undoubtedly the most magnificent Buddhist temple in Russia.

Even a splendidly rebuilt equivalent in Aginskoe that I'd seen earlier in the day can't compare with this 1820 edifice whose gilded Mongolian script gleams magically in the pure, dry air set off against the Tibetan style facade.

As I was photographing the scene flecked with scuttling whisps of cloud, a monk came bounding up to me barking questions.

Who was I?

Why was I photographing?

Who were the photos for?

I talked in vague, not totally untrue terms about a friend of mine being a Buddhist monk in Scotland which sounded better than admitting I was a tourist.

I was expecting to be charged a camera fee as at Ivolginsk (the most famous but far less interesting temple complex near Ulan Ude).

In fact the monk was simply keen to take my photo for me. When discovering I wasn't Russian, he called his fellow lama who wanted me to stay and teach him English.

But I'd had to hire a taxi to get here and the meter, invisible as it may be, was running in the driver's mind.

So reluctantly I returned to Olovyannaya to await the train back to Chita.

Despite its setting in quietly attractive grassland hills on the River Onon (sacred to many Mongols) Olovyannaya is not a lovely town.

And as the daily train passes through at 2am I had plenty of time to sit around in the utterly deserted station looking at the imaginative bark collage mural and wondering when the little buffet would open.

'Tomorrow' said two bakers who appeared flour-dusted out of nowhere from the chocolate-box wooden building that was originally the 1898 station, now long superseded.

So, watched by half the town, I ventured across the tracks into the dreadfully decayed 'centre' where a handful of cabin-shops huddled around a tank and plane-on-a-stick WWII war memorial.

'You alone?' asked one chap, incredulously. 'Aren't you afraid?'

'Why? Should I be afraid?'

'Certainly! Many bandits and robbers here!'

To make the point he mimed a punch to my head, doing so so realistically that I ducked.

Inside a shop the server asked without looking up

'You a tourist?'


'It shows'

A second customer opened the door

'and here's another tourist' said the server giggling and jokingly fending off the regular with a mop as though jousting.

Back at the station, the six hour wait should have been ideal for writing up my notes. But things are never so simple.

First was the challenge of getting a ticket - the ticket window would only open in a couple of hours time, but with the train already liable to be 98% full of traders coming from the Chinese border town I needed to be first in the queue to be sure of getting out tonight.

Then there were the drunk policemen.

Every now and again the silence would be broken by a trio of cops scuttling through the waiting room to some back office. As the evening wore on so the vodkas were clearly being imbibed and their interest in me grew.

Although my note taking is for purely touristic purposes, that's not always easy to explain in my broken Russian to drunk, suspicious officials... as I have discovered on numerous occasions.

Having spent many an hour in KGB interrogations for drawing maps of apparently harmless towns, I was not too keen on having my sketch maps of the area examined.

There's nothing worse than having one's notebook confiscated as has happened in similar incidents.

I had pointedly NOT marked on the little town of Step whose secret military airport I was probably not meant to have known about anyway (indeed when the taxi driver had pointed out the camouflaged humps of half-buried hangars I had been consciously keen to avoid showing any interest whatever).

But the area is a tad sensitive so it was worth being prudent.

Inevitably one by one the cops come up to me, each demanding my documents (ie passport).

The second is officious but seems human and is not quite as paralytic as the last one to have asked me 20 minutes previously.

That guy was so sloshed that when eventually leaving me alone, he walked smack into the facing wall.

Now the new cop is thumbing suspiciously through the pages of my passport with fat, dirt-blackened fingers that seem liable to stain the pages.

His eyes can't help but light upon the plethora of Islamic visas which don't help me look like a passing tourist. Nor do they give credence to the assumption that I'm a Buddhist.

'Who are you? Why are you here?' ... the usual questions...

I tell him frankly that I'm a travel writer, though taking my trusty precaution of speaking in very exaggeratedly bad Russian.

I effusively shake his hand, ask his name and act like his appearance is a delightful courtesy that I'm grateful to receive.

To the kindly Russian inner soul, this approach rarely fails to get beneath the harsh venire of officiousness.

Before long his accusative demeanor has been transformed. I now face an altogether more challenging problem. Hospitality.

He's now calling me Mark, he's Sasha (like 50% of Russian men!), and I'm invited to join him on a two day adventure into the wildest back-woods of Chita province.

Some such offers are purely perfunctory but Sasha seems totally, implacably genuine. It's exactly the bizarre random trip that as a traveler I'd be fascinated and inspired by.

But I am working.

I simply can't spare what could easily stretch into many days once the inevitable hangovers have finally cleared. Sasha refuses to be put off. For half an hour he insists, trying to pick up my bag to carry it off to his place and thus drag me with him.

"At least come for a vodka" he whines. I smile slapping his back like a chum while quietly changing the subject - speaking in non-sequiturs is a very handy tool at parrying drunken invitations or accusations.

"Come and have a cigarette" he starts again... "You smoke?"


"Nor do I, but lets go anyway!"

We both break into gales of laughter.

The scenario goes on and on. He tries ordering me.

"I am like, what is that name, your Sherlock Holmes. I'm a cop. So you have to obey me."

He is looking serious but I smile back broadly refusing to see it as more than a joke and again he can't keep up the serious façade.

Eventually he has to admit defeat.

"You're really English, aren't you" he concedes "Any Russian would have been at my vodka by now. But you! You really are English. Unbelievable"

At last the train is here and I scamper off through the frozen night onto the dimly lit carriage full of snoring Chinese traders.