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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Foreigners, Once a Rarity, Are Everywhere

I avoid foreigners when I'm on the road. Frankly, they don't interest me much, and I tend to limit my contact with them to eavesdropping on their conversations in airport lounges.


But during the last year, avoiding foreigners has become increasingly difficult. Once confined to Moscow or St. Petersburg, they have spread across Russia like missionaries bringing the gospel to a new world.


I have encountered them in jeeps on the Siberian taiga, in a cafe on the Caspian Sea, with guns slung over their shoulders in a forest near the Urals, delivering a sermon in a Siberian market, teaching capitalism near Lake Baikal and wearing tailor-made suits in hotel lobbies and airport lounges from Vyborg to Vladivostok.


I like this trend. It reflects a growing appreciation in the West of the breathtaking diversity of the Russian empire, as well as a pent-up curiosity in this once-closed land.


There have been occasions when I have made an exception and actually sought out foreigners.


The most memorable such instance occurred about a year ago when I was in Ulan-Ude, 4, 500 kilometers from Moscow near Lake Baikal. I was on the grounds of the Ivolginsky datsan, the seat of Buddhism in Russia. In an interview with a lama who taught Old Mongolian, I learned that a Californian was among the students. I looked at the student's course schedule and prepared to ambush him outside the classroom.


Right on schedule, my American strode toward the classroom. He was bean-pole thin, with blond hair pulled back in a pony tail and a shaggy beard. He wore blue jeans and a beaded vest with a peace symbol sewn into the collar.


I introduced myself. He shook my hand and said his name was Dadum.


"It's easy to remember", he said jovially. "Just think of the beginning of the Pink Panther theme".


We did our interview at the datsan, a magical setting with its brightly colored temple and Buddhist sculptures framed dramatically by the snowy peaks of the nearby mountain range.


It soon became clear that the most interesting thing about Dadum's story was simply that he was here in a city that was closed until 1988, studying a religion that was suppressed in varying degrees until 1989. Dadum, I decided, was the archetypal drifter, trying on religions like shoes.


I gave him a ride back into Ulan-Ude where he introduced me to his Buryat wife and baby daughter. They, it turned out, were the real reason he had settled here.


As we said goodbye, I looked back at him outside his squalid apartment and lamented how ordinary this extraordinary situation had become. It was not, I decided, worth writing then.