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Aginsky datsan: The house of ringing bells
Aginskoye is a small settlement in the south of Transbaikal Region (nearly 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow), overlooking Lake Baikal to the west and Mongolia to the south. If you ask locals whether they consider the locality to be a part of Siberia, they will answer with great certainty: "No, it's the Transbaikal Region."
The Transbaikal Region has a very strong identity and a pronounced eastern ambiance, sustained by such features as the silver chime of sacred bells that spread from the Aginsky Datsan and fly as high as the pine-tree tops; by the dusty wind with its aroma of dry herbs that roams the steppe; and by the aroma of freshly-made mutton buuz dumplings, a local specialty, which sifts into the streets of the settlement through the doors of cafes.

For most Siberians, Aginskoye is nothing but a dot on the map. However, for Buryats, who represent the majority of the local population, as well as for the Buddhists of the Transbaikal Region, Buryatia, the Altai Republic, Mongolia and Tuva, Aginskoye is a home where their ancestors' national legends and rites are preserved. It is a home where prayers come naturally and where you enjoy returning from long journeys.

The place beyond the pines
"Is it okay for us to be in the datsan?" I ask my guide upon entering the Aginsky Datsan. "It's a monastery, after all, a restricted area. Would the lamas want to speak to us?"

"I'm sure it's okay," answers my companion, Daba Dabaev, who is a lama, a photographer and a traveler. "In Buddhism, a lama is a teacher – that's how the word translates from Tibetan. It is believed that every person that approaches a lama with a question deserves an answer and a piece of advice. No matter if it's a Buddhist, a Christian or a representative of another faith."

We enter the territory of the 200-year-old Aginsky Datsan, one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in Siberia. Daba's father brought him here after he completed nine years of school. At first, Daba studied at the Datsan Academy at the Department of Buddhist Philosophy, but when he was in his third year, he changed his major to Pictorial Art and then started working at the datsan as a photographer. He is now 30 years old.

"I came here at the age of 14, without really understanding: What is a datsan? What is Buddhism? Who are lamas?" he says. "During my first year I wanted to run away. I had a lot of studies and a lot of work. I had to take orders from senior lamas, run their errands – that's the way it is. When I went home on vacation, I had a sense of freedom I will never forget and I thought: 'Home!' But just a couple years later, coming to Khakassia, I often caught myself thinking: 'Let the day come when I leave for the datsan!' This is my home."
We are sitting in the oldest and the most beautiful temple of the Aginsky Datsan – the Devajin Dugan (a dugan is a Tibetan Buddhist temple). It is framed by rows of pine trees and prayer wheels, containing from 100 to 400,000 prayers. Lay Buddhists and monastery lamas roll these wheels clockwise – a form of saying a prayer. The interior of the dugan features depictions of Samsara – the Wheel of Life – portraits of respected lamas that were repressed in the 1930s and a golden statue of Buddha. Tibetan traditions are strong here. Due to the fact that the first dugans were built by Russian stonemasons and carpenters, they incorporate elements of Russian traditional architecture as well. For instance, large barred windows, which let in the daylight to create islands of sun and warmth on the floor, bring about memories of a fairy-tale palace.
Daba is sitting on a sunlit bench, fiddling with his beads, which are called erkhi by Buryat Buddhists. He is wearing a casual wine-colored jacket, the usual color of jackets made from sheepskin that lamas wear. Daba often travels around Siberia, but remains spiritually and formally linked with his home, the datsan: Leaving the temple for the wider world, a lama never stops being one.
A roadside sunset
"Leaving Aginskoye or setting out on a journey doesn't mean breaking up with your roots," Daba says. "The Dalai Lama says that, in order to achieve inner peace and happiness, a person must visit a place where he's never been before at least once a year. Thus his mind will be able to develop."
Daba, his friend Bulat, a photographer and cameraman, and I are sitting in a roadside cafe, eating buuz dumplings with minced beef – the Buryat national dish. Daba and Bulat have spent a few years traveling around their home region, making video reports and films for their Travelman channel. Their latest work is a short film called Nyuusa, which means mystery in Buryat.

"Friends of mine who have left ask me: 'What are you doing there, stuck in Aginskoye? Leave as soon as possible, before you're all covered in roots,'" says Bulat. "But you can't run away from your problems, as it's all inside you. You should travel and explore the world around you, but at the same time you must be able to find inspiration for your work in Aginskoye as well. We do."
Text by Anna Gruzdeva.
Edited by Joe Crescente.
Design and layout by Yulia Shandurenko.
Images credits: Anton Petrov, Daba Dabaev / Siberia: Joining the dots.

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