Siberia is probably the only Russian region that is solely so widely recognised outside of the country. Still, it remains fairly unknown and mysterious to the majority of foreigners. Albeit today one of the eight Federal Districts of Russia, Siberia used to be under the big influence of several nomadic civilizations. Once occupied by the Mongols, it was later explored by the Russian Empire. Constantly attracting various expeditions from the European part of Russia for fur hunting, gold mining, and vast natural resources, Siberia developed a unique mixture of cultures assimilated together. Almost a synonym for the eternal frost and solitude at the present day, Siberia, the land of the unknown, though has plenty of historical landmarks and cultural heritage sites to discover.
As the 18th century playwright and satirist Denis Fonvizin once said, ‘even the whole of Siberia is not enough to accommodate all the whims of one person’, so vast it is.
With the total territory of about 5, 000 km2, Siberia sits right in the middle of Asian Russia. To the west, it borders with the Ural Federal District, whereas to the east it adjoins the Far East, a land of Amur tigers and Kamchatka geysers. Siberia is also a gate to nearby Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia, so it’s not for nothing that the far-famed Trans-Siberian railway can take you either to Beijing or Ulaanbaatar. The Siberian Federal District consists of ten federal subjects among which you find five regions (oblast in Russian), two territories (krai in Russian), and three republics. Interestingly, if you come across those people who are native to the Republics, they often put it the way as if they are from a separate country. The reason behind is that every Russian Republic has its own legal system and local government, state language and constitution, as well as national symbols such as the flag and the anthem.
If you look at people, you might be surprised by the astonishing tangle of cultures and beliefs. Nowhere else Europe and Asia are fused this way. The ethnic Russians of different origins, Buryats, Mongols, Kazakhs, Evenks, Koryak, Tofalars, all live in peace under one roof in Siberia. Such a diversity intensified by historically various areas bred an entirely new population. Not only you meet here Russian people but also all types of indigenous people / ethnic minorities that were primarily settled in these geographic areas and are hardly known outside of Russia.
Even among the Siberian Russians, there is still much of unknown hidden here. Thus, the Tarbagatay village, that is located in the Republic of Buryatia, is home to somewhat 18, 000 of Old Believers. Semeiskie, or Starovery in Russian, are very distinctive Eastern Orthodox Christians who refused to accept the new ritual practices introduced back in the 17th century. Being sent into exile to the Transbaikal region, the Old Believers made this land its second homeland.
In this remote area, they have preserved elements of their respective culture, forming a distinct group identity (UNESCO, 2001).
Today, almost every second travel agency will offer you a tour of this village as the Old Believers are truly noteworthy to see for anyone arriving from abroad. Not only you can look at their traditional bright costumes and handicrafts, but also listen to their polyphonic choirs that are of outstanding universal value, and thus belong to the global heritage. The locals’ characters are truly diverse and authentic. But it is also a harsh environment that significantly affected these personalities. As Siberia mainly enjoys the extremely continental climate, people are used to nature extremes and ills of life. Somewhat straightforward but very honest and hospitable, people here are real.
Although Siberia is known for its harsh environment and severe climate, the Russians have always revered it as the country’s gem for natural wonders. If generally you expect nothing else than unending flatness of the Netherlands or intimidating fjords of Norway, then Siberia’s biodiversity will leave you filled with awe. Home to five different natural zones from tundra to forests, Siberia, the land of the unknown, accommodates hundreds of endemic plants and animals. Not to mention a phenomenal range of temperatures and unusual precipitation regime that preconditioned such a natural diversity. Though the foreign visitors are mainly flocking to discover Baikal Lake aka unofficial carte-de-visite of Siberia, there are so many more sights to see and get a good taste of local nature. From the pristine taiga in the spectacular Putoransky State Nature Reserve located in the northern Central Siberia to the languorous steppe landscapes of Dauria that are stretched around the Siberian-Mongolian border.
Mount Belukha (4, 506 m), the highest point of the Katunsky Range, and at the same time the Siberia’s highest peak, is a top destination for hiking and spiritual tourism. As a part of the Golden Mountains of Altai, Mountain Belukha, along with Altaisky Zapovednik and Ukok Plateau, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998.
The site displays the geological history of Asia, a variety of landscapes and ecosystems and contains excellent examples of glacial features. It is also an important habitat for endangered animal species, such as the snow leopard (UNESCO, 1998).
Besides, many locals believe that it’s here, where the religious powers still live. Altai people name this mountain ‘uch-sumer’ (where ‘uch’ denotes three and ‘sumer’stands for chief (holy) which means a three-headed holy mountain. They say this is how the ancient nomads saw this mountain from the Ukok Plateau, a place of an important caravan track from Mongolia to Kazakhstan that united people of three main world religions such as Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity.
Many have found their home in Siberia, the land of the unknown. Not always was it a place of exile, it also lured those who desperately longed for the adventure. Thus, Siberia was often a resort for scientists, explorers, geographers who came in their chase of knowledge or discovery and never left.
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