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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Festive Buryats Paint Siberia Red

For MTCompetitors at the Altargarna festival taking part in a parade Saturday in Aginskoye.
AGINSKOYE, Eastern Siberia -- Buryats from around the world descended on this small eastern Siberian town over the weekend to celebrate Altargana, a biannual festival originating in Mongolia that crossed the border into Russia for the first time this year.

For three days, festival-goers gathered in Aginskoye, the capital of the Aginsk Buryatsky autonomous district, to watch sporting and cultural competitions between Buryat people from countries including nearby Mongolia and China and various regions of Russia. Among an enthusiastic audience were State Duma Deputy Iosif Kobzon and several popular musicians, including Lolita, A-Studio and Alexander Marshall.

The festival began Friday and kicked into gear Saturday morning with a colorful ceremony of Buryat song and dance held at the town's athletics track.

Lamas from a nearby temple, wearing long burgundy robes, began the ceremony with a low, rumbling religious chant. When they had finished, the competitors circled the track dressed in flowing, colored silk robes, called dels, that were tied at the waist with an orange sash.

The marchers were led around by wrestlers dressed in black boots or tennis shoes, skimpy blue, maroon or red briefs and matching short embroidered jackets, which left their broad chests and lower backs exposed. Around the stadium, couples in traditional dress held out blue, white and yellow sashes, representing the sky, purity and Buddhism.

The Altargana festival is named after a flower of the same name, which grows in the steppe and survives under severe conditions. At the ceremony, young girls dressed up in shimmering orange, green and yellow outfits to symbolize the flower and danced as young men simulated trampling over them. Despite the difficulties they face, the flowers in the dance survive and retain their grace and beauty.

The Buryats themselves have also overcome the odds to be where they are today. Descended from Mongol warrior Genghis Khan, the Buryats lived primarily as cattle breeders until the Russian Revolution reached this part of Siberia in the 1920s, destroying their traditional way of life. The Buryats were subsequently dispersed by the communists, but they still attempt to preserve their language and maintain their long-standing Buddhist traditions through events like Altargana.

After the main ceremony, visitors turned their attention to the festival's competitive elements, which included wrestling, archery and horseracing, the three Buryat national sports. Spectators also had the chance to sample the Buryat national food, buzi -- steamed dumplings filled with meat.

The Aginsk administration, which organized the festival this year, said Sunday that about 8,000 people attended the festival, including official delegations from Moscow, the Ust-Ordynsky Buryatsky autonomous district, the republic of Buryatia and the Chita region, as well as Mongolia and China.

Batotuks, a prize-winning wrestler in the previous Altargana who traveled to Aginskoye from Mongolia, said he was enjoying the festival.

"It makes my soul feel good to be with so many Buryats from all over," he said before his competition Saturday.

Kobzon, the Aginsk district's representative in the Duma, said the festival was an important means of promoting Buryat culture.

"It's a pity that in central Russia many people don't know very much about Siberia," he said. "At a recent exhibition in Moscow about the Chita region and the Buryat culture, many people were very surprised to see the achievements and the culture in the region. They didn't know that such people live in Russia."