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Future Prospects for Buryatia's Cultural Wealth and Economic Stability

June 3, 2009 at 12:54 pm
By Ben and Shane

Ulan-Ude is a unique place in many ways – the capital of Buryat culture, home of the largest bust of Lenin in the world, the focal point for redevelopment of Buddhism in Buryatia in the post-Soviet era - but like most other areas of the world, it is struggling in the current economic conditions.  A far cry from the Land Rover-filled streets of Moscow, Ulan-Ude is a city in need of a new economic engine. While a more pure practitioner of the dismal science might stop here and let market forces decide the fate of the town, Shane and I (Ben) are going to posit that preservation of culture is an intrinsic good, and that economic depression is among the greatest threats to cultural wealth.

Lenin's Head

(If Lenin looks pensive, it's because he's thinking of a way to preserve culture without sacrificing economic potential...)

Nearly all of our time in the city was spent with people heavily invested in Buryat culture, such as theatre, music, and dance. Thus, from our limited perspective, there did not seem to be an immediate threat to the Ulan-Ude’s role as a repository of local traditions and art. However, if the local economy continues to stagnate, cultural organizations will likely begin to lose out to more immediate or practical concerns - when city planners are looking to shrink budgets, the city theatre is likely to lose funding before the police department.

In this blog, we’ll discuss possible ways to maintain both the economic health and the cultural wealth of Ulan-Ude. One idea that seems to have traction in the area is the development of the city (and by extension, Baikal’s shores) for tourism. Given the incredible natural beauty of the region, this would seem a logical means of economic growth, and significant work towards attracting tourism has already been occurring on Olkhon Island. In Sacred Sea by Peter Thomson, one of the books we read for the trip, he discusses the various efforts to attract traditional as well as “eco-tourists,” who camp and participate in ecologically low impact activities. Such low impact tourism was touted there as one of the main possibilities for the Baikal region economy.  Thomson presents it as a means of creating an economic incentive for local residents to care for the environment, while leaving the regional ecology relatively unharmed. A third proposition was ‘cultural’ tourism, of the sort that attracts art lovers to Paris – Buryat culture has a wealth of traditional music and dance.

However, we believe that tourism of any kind is not an effective means for longer-term growth. Even if Buryatia is assumed to be an ideal tourist location in terms of attractions and accommodations, the choice of that industry as a central one leads to great sensitivity to the global economic situation – given the remote location, there are few means of reaching Ulan-Ude that are both cheap and comfortable (the cheapest route, a 4 day train from Moscow in a non-sleeper car, is about 80 euros, while flights run substantially more). This implies that money only reaches the area when other economies are hugely successful.

More damaging is the highly limited audience for Buryat region tourism. Given the cold climate, traditional ‘holiday’ tourists are unlikely. Further, the area lacks a main drawing factor for people who lack a strong desire to see Buddhist temples (datsans) or cultural museums. Baikal is relatively distant (as well as very, very cold), and the taiga/steppe is a fairly foreboding place for non-hikers. Eco-tourists are less likely to be concerned with the weather and lack of non-natural attractions, but the omnipresence of encephalitic ticks in the forest similarly restricts eco-friendly tourism prospects.

Sky & Steppe

       (Welcome to Buryatia... keep an eye out for encephalitic ticks)

A tempting solution would be cultural tourism. With its combination of Russian and Buryat culture, its Orthodox and Buddhist influences and its long and dynamic history, couldn’t Buryatia draw tourists to explore this rich culture? This would provide an economic stimulus in the town and help to preserve culture by giving its preservation an economic value.

There are, however, several important problems with cultural tourism. Perhaps the greatest problem is that the “Cultural Tourist” doesn’t necessarily exist, and certainly not in great numbers. Our time in Buryatia was spent visiting datsans, small cultural museums and local groups that performed for us, often while feeding us. We had a great time, but it was a learning trip, part of our academic term. To regular tourists, who ordinarily seek either adventure or relaxation, this itinerary has little appeal. Is there anybody who would be sufficiently excited by that itinerary to come out of pure curiosity, without academic reasons? We suppose that there aren’t all that many. So before we get excited about the prospect of cultural tourism, we need to ask whether the “Cultural Tourist” is a significant enough demographic to warrant consideration.

Cultural Tourists

                                          (Cultural tourists?)

The second problem with cultural tourism is that it can modify the local culture. Just as Heisenberg showed us in the realm of physics, you can’t observe culture without fundamentally changing it. To demonstrate this, let’s consider a hypothetical situation. Suppose that there are two Buryat families in a small town that earn their livelihood by singing traditional songs and preparing traditional meals for the groups of cultural tourists, whose existence we’ve already questioned. Traditional Buryat meals, as it turns out, may not be so appealing to a western tourist. They may involve extraordinary consumption of all different parts of a recently slaughtered sheep. One day, one of the two families serves chicken patties.  Perhaps they ran out of sheep? Strangely enough, our noble cultural tourists prefer the chicken and all of the groups start frequenting the chicken-serving family. The first, sheep-slaughtering family has to choose between continuing with the sheep or switching to chicken, between preserving the integrity of their cultural experience or their economic livelihood. They’ll most probably pick the latter – you don’t educate and introduce culture into your family if you can’t feed them first. In this way, economic influences and cultural tourism can end up sanitizing and modifying the culture that they were supposed to be preserving.

Buryat Table

            (A strictly hypothetical situation… Pass the chicken patties.)

If standard tourism and ecotourism are unlikely to develop to a great degree, and cultural tourism is either nonexistent or detrimental to the preservation of genuine culture, what is the best manner to achieve our stated goals of preservation of culture and stimulation of the economy? We have two ideas.

An obvious solution would be the further development of agriculture. While Buryatia’s soil may not be the most fertile in the world, there’s certainly a lot of empty space in Buryatia and a rather significant water source (Lake Baikal). The economy is already dependent on agriculture, specifically wheat and livestock, but there’s certainly potential for further growth. In an ideal scenario, Buryatia could create an agricultural brand based upon the purity of their agricultural products – as Diane points out, even if Buryat farmers wanted to use pesticides, the wind would just blow it away. While infrastructure in Buryatia is still lacking to support a regional agricultural revolution of sorts, limited investment in roads and irrigation could promote development.

The second idea is not truly ours, but rather Diane’s. At first both of us were very skeptical about its chances of success. However, after further explanation from Diane, we’re somewhat convinced that the idea might well have legs. Very talented students from all of Russia converge on Moscow and St. Petersburg to continue their education at the university level. This, explains Diane, need not be the case. She points to Hungary’s establishment of an international university system that was made possible by the Bologna Declaration of 1999, in which European countries, Russia included, agreed in broad terms to recognize education received in other countries. If Ulan-Ude were to copy this model and set up an internationally-minded university with classes in multiple languages and adequately trained faculty to lure students who might otherwise have gone to Moscow, this could be a boon for the regional economy. Such a university could become not just a hub of Siberian education, but rather of Northern Asian education in general. Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital, is so focused on developing its tourism (which does have more potential as Mongolia can draw tourists through the sheer exoticism associated with its name) that its education system is not primed to compete with a strong regional competitor just north of the border, in Buryatia. Diane even mentions North Korea. If North Korea ever opens up, won’t its brightest minds flee to greener educational pastures? All of this considered, the educational model, though strange sounding at first – when you walk around Ulan-Ude, the place doesn’t exactly scream “potential educational hub of Northern Asia” – seems feasible.

Or maybe they’ll just find oil under Buryatia. That would work too.