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Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia and gateway to Lake Baikal, our first civilization in days, is a city famous for its vacuum cleaners. It also has the world's largest Lenin head—12 tons of cement in the main square—and a factory that once made the strongest locomotives on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. According to our de facto guide, Darima Nomoeva, a 22-year-old manager of a tour company whose office was in the lobby of our shabby but expensive hotel, the locally built vacuums worked for decades (her mother's had lasted 30 years). But now the factory, along with the locomotive plant, was closed. Like the Lenin head, they were relics, and Buryats were embracing another identity.

Tibetan Buddhism has been here since well before 1741, when it was recognized as one of Russia's official religions, and lately, like their Mongolian cousins, locals are reconnecting with the old beliefs. On our first day, Darima took Aaron and me to a monastery, the Ivolginsky Datsan. We wound out of town through rust-colored fields—this was still big-sky country—and she admitted that she didn't speak the local language. Though a full-blooded Buryat, mistaken for Japanese when in Moscow, she'd spoken Russian growing up—part of the confusion of being a young Siberian raised by old communists. She was finding her way. Her previous job, at a TV station owned by the mayor, had been "boring": They reported the mayor's successes while their rival station, owned by a political opponent, reported failures. In her new position with tourism pioneer Svetlana Timofeyevna, one of the first to bring foreigners through Buryatia in the early '90s, she'd gotten in trouble for quadrupling the office Internet bill. Darima had a picture of Che Guevara on her $400 Nokia phone, and she liked Hubba Bubba gum. She was a fan of Mongolian alternative rock and Chinese hip-hop. But she was also religious, or at least newly traditional. When we passed a set of prayer flags, she borrowed a few coins from me and tossed them out the window as an offering.

The datsan was observing one of six annual holy days: the celebration that marked autumn and the Buddha of the Future. The grounds were swarming with novices in maroon robes and local worshippers in jeans and leather jackets. In the main temple, two dozen senior lamas were praying; loudspeakers carried their chants throughout the complex. Everywhere were Dalai Lama photos, along with prayer wheels, stupas, and Buddha statues. There were visiting monks from India, Tuva, and Mongolia. In a room in the datsan's brick schoolhouse, novices made thangkas (paintings) for three new temples now under construction.

In the 1930s, Darima told us, Buryatia had 37 major datsans and a hundred country temples, and all were razed by Communist authorities. She said 400 lamas, Orthodox priests, and Old Believers were put on a boat and sunk to the bottom of the Selenga River, and 10,000 monks were killed or sent to the gulags. A nearby factory turned religious icons into furniture. In 1945, after an appeal to Stalin by a delegation of Buryats, this datsan was reopened as the only legal Buddhist site in the Soviet Union. For the last five years, it had been in the midst of a tremendous rebuilding.

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