The worldwide network of Russian cultural centres, Rossotrudnichestvo, held a photo competition on their social media pages in July, on the theme of #ВзгляниНаРоссию (‘Take a look at Russia’). One of my photos, of a friendly camel in the Siberian republic of Buryatia, was the entry chosen from the United Kingdom – and won the overall prize.
The photograph isn’t one of my best; but looking at it again has stirred memories of one of the most enthralling and wild places I have ever been to.
In winter 2018, in the middle of two weeks of work meetings in Moscow, I flew to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia – a land between Lake Baikal and Russia’s border with Mongolia – for two days.
I had a feeling it would be my last trip to Russia. If this was the end, I reasoned, then my goodbye had to be spectacularly reckless. And so, on a Friday afternoon I flew six timezones east of Moscow on Pobeda Airlines, in the middle of a Siberian winter, to a hilly Buddhist republic known only for an enormous statue of Lenin’s head. I had a meeting scheduled in Moscow on Monday morning.
About half an hour outside Ulan-Ude is a vast forest park, dotted with model villages, representing the traditional cultures of the peoples who live in this part of Siberia – the Buryats, Evenks and Old Believers. The park is called the Ethnographic Museum of the Peoples of Transbaikalia, but it is more than a museum: Buryats from the city of Ulan-Ude come here to ski in the forest, or just have lunch and warm up in the complex’s tea room. There is a new village of dacha cottages just outside the grounds.
I didn’t make it to any of the villages. After a few hundred steps towards the forest, legs wading through a meadow of thigh-high snow, body euphoric from inhaling the pure and phenomenally cold Siberian air, I stumbled into the museum’s wild animal park.
On the edge of the forest, in very spacious enclosures, were red Siberian foxes, owls, grey wolves, and two Siberian tigers.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the tigers; as they lounged in their pen, I stayed almost face-to-face with them for what felt like hours.
When I finally turned to wade back through the snow to the entrance to the ethnographic museum, I came across the camel, in a paddock on its own, grazing on some hay that one of the museum’s staff had brought for it. My frozen fingers were just able to hold my camera and photograph the moment.
The scene won me the Rossotrudnichestvo prize – but the man in the photo had the better view.
I write all about this trip to Buryatia in a Letter from Ulan-Ude. I had another, less tranquil experience involving a camel last year in Kazakhstan.
The photo of the camel is available to buy as a print from my photography store, along with my other photographs from Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.