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Fallen Kyakhta

June 4, 2012 at 10:09 am
By Mary Begley
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Kyakhta was once great and prosperous. Today, only decrepit remnants of that past remain. Located in the Southernmost part of Buryatia, on the Mongolian border, Kyakhta has a population of 18 thousand today and none of its former wealth.

Founded in 1728 as part of the Russo-Chinese trade treaty, Khakhta was one of two points on the border where trade with China was legal. Much like El Paso in Texas, with Ciudad Juarez across the border, Khakhta’s Mongolian twin was named Maimaichen-Mandarin for “Buy-Sell.” Khakhta acted as a port for exporting fur, leather, woolens, iron, glassware and hunting dogs and importing silk, spices, porcelain, lacquerware, tiger skins, and-most importantly-tea. In the 1780s, one million tea chests passed through Khakhta a year. Less than a hundred years later the number had doubled.

This lucrative trade brought wealth to the people of Kyakhta. In the early 19th century, a magazine titled “The Large Village of Siberian Millionaires” was published, proclaiming the riches of the city. A year and a half after cinema reels were invented, Kyakhta residents were going to the movies. In the town’s museum hangs a pictures of Kyakhta women wearing camellia flowers in their hair. Dostoevsky’s The Idiot tells us that “camellias were all the fashion. Everyone inquired for them, everybody wanted them” in St. Petersburg and apparently Kyakhta too.

Today, Kyakhta is no longer the village of Siberian millionaires. Many buildings stand vacant, or hardly stand at all, crumbling into piles of trash and debris. I have a passion for photographing and exploring abandoned buildings. Kyakhta was prime territory. I had no problem getting into the buildings and they were unoccupied save for trash and a dead dog. I know this is a strange and dark photography subject, but in Kyakhta the abandoned buildings tell a story of many bigger historical events.

Kyakhta’s fall started in 1869 with the opening of the Suez Canal and the Transsiberian railroad. The Transsiberian passed just to the west of Kyakhta. With the new, faster system of trade, Kyakhta’s roads-at the time only fit for horses and camels-became obsolete. The Suez Canal brought new meaning to the Treaties of Tientsin, signed in 1859 after the Second Opium War. The treaty opened up ten more Chinese ports for trade and gave Russia the right to establish diplomatic embassies in Peking, thus opening a sea-route for trade with China.

As the traders went elsewhere, so did the wealth. The town fell into disrepair. But that wasn’t the end of Kyakhta’s woes. In 1921, the town of Maimaichen across the border burned to the ground during the Russian Civil War. Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, “the Mongolian Mad Baron” and an independent warlord, helped secure Mongolia from Chinese control. After many bloody losses, in March of 1921 Chinese troops tried to retreat from Maimaichen. The Baron thought this mass mobilization was an attack strategy and violently forced the Chinese out of the region…and burned Maimaichen to the ground. The Baron also opposed the Soviets and wanted to restore the Russian monarchy.

In the meantime, Kyakhta had become a town of administrative and military duties for the Soviet Union. Useful for its prime location, the town saw a lot of action for the next few years. Our friend the Baron’s army was bloodily defeated there and he was captured by the Red Army. Furthermore, a squashed uprising in the Ural mountains brought 1,200 political prisoners to Kyakhta. They, along with 400 Kyakhta residents who sympathized, were shot near the town center.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kyakhta suffered further. Without the Red Army’s garrisons and the formerly great trade route, Kyakhta’s industry didn’t have much else.
I photographed four buildings in Kyakhta. One was the former Gostiny dvor. Built in 1842, this building was a space for merchants and trade during the heyday. A rectangular maze of trash-filled rooms encloses a large open space. It was easy to imagine this open space filled with merchants bartering. A now-faded painting over the entrance shows cheerful men and women hard at work under a red sun. The entrance proclaims of perfumes, electric goods and candy from Moscow. Presiding over this stands a silver Lenin statue.

Another building I entered was a very rickety house. It towered over its modern neighbors but I was unable to go to the second floor, due to rotten stairs. Kyakhta’s history tells of many opulent merchant houses, visited by Decembrists and other famous Russians of the late 1800s. This house did not have much to tell other than empty vodka bottles and the slight suggestion of former grandeur in its size.

Blocked off by twisted fences and surrounded by guard towers, this white building seems to have been one of the military or administrative buildings built in early Soviet times. Its square, utilitarian architecture evokes some Soviet elements and the high security suggests importance. I’m merely guessing at its former use but its current use seems to be a trash dump.

The final building was located next to a bunch of rusty machinery, leading me to think it was once a factory. In 1862 the town had factories that made soap, candles, tissue-paper and leather. I was unable to determine what sort of factory this was, not being versed in 19th century manufacturing, but it was certainly very old. The walls and roof had nearly all fallen in and concrete remnants hung precariously by steel wires. There was even a tree growing on the roof, evidence of long disuse.

While Kyakhta may seem like a dump to many visitors, it stands as a reminder of a once great past and a terrific photo opportunity for me.

Works Cited
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. New York: Modern Library, 1962.
Grek, Alexander. "Слобода Миллионеров." National Geographic Russia (2010): 66-87. Online.
Kyakhta Museum of Local Lore of Academician V.A. Obruchev.
Reid, Anna. The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia. New York: Walker &, 2003. Print.
"Tourism and Recreation in Buryatiya." Tourism and Recreation in Buryatiya. Baikal Travel. Web. 01 June 2012.