architecture · no recipe · on USSR / Russia · travel

Trans-Siberian Trip Part 8: Breathing in Steppes in Ulan-Ude

Ulan-Ude

My idea was to take a train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude which will join the Circum-Baikal Railroad, to see Baikal from the other side too. And not by night but in the morning. So we had to wait for the train in Irkutsk at the station and then had some time to sleep before we would see this:

Ulan-Ude
I’ve made several bleak attempts at capturing Baikal from the train window, so don’t mind the wires. I woke up just on time when the train was getting closer to the Lake. The sun was rising, the water gleaming. you don’t see it in the photo but the colour was silver! I woke my friend up. Then we passed through a tunnel. We fell asleep for a moment. And then the Lake appeared once more. The train was following the winding road along the coast, sometimes we would see some village, sometimes abandoned and ruined agricultural constructions.

Ulan-Ude
Where does the sky end?

Ulan-Ude

I even took photos right from the open window in the WC 😉 And each time the road would pass through a tunnel I was thinking – this is our last chance to see Baikal, please don’t turn away from the lake now, not yet!

Ulan-Ude
Last glimpse of Baikal at the station justly called Povorot, the Turn, after which the road runs away from the shore:

Ulan-Ude

Irkutsk – Ulan-Ude

distance: plus 456 km

total distance from St Petersburg covered so far: 6865 km

local time: Moscow time + 5 hours

train: our last train Moscow – Ulan-Ude; takes you to Ulan-Ude from Irkutsk in exactly 8 hours.

Somewhere close to Ulan-Ude and already we could sense the steppes and the piping-hot day that was awaiting us:

Ulan-Ude

The landscape was truly impressive, with the river and the villages and the mountains in the background! And the road itself would keep on turning here and there. I think those 8 hours the train takes from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude are due to this turning and turning.

Ulan-Ude

Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic. Which is a part of Russia. And it’s not in Mongolia though Mongolia is very close. I mean it, even some of my Russian acquaintances asked me if I went to Mongolia when I said I was in Ulan-Ude. The name does have a similarity with Mongolia’s capital Ulan Bator, both having this Ulan word which means Red (hence Ulan Bator = Red Hero). Both names appeared thanks to the Communists: Ulan-Ude used to be Udinskoye first, then just Udinsk, followed by Verkhneudinsk and finally Ulan-Ude in 1934. All these names contain the name of the river – Uda – on which the city is located. Just as many Soviet cities, Ulan-Ude used to be a closed city for foreigners until 1991. But now that’s it’s open we didn’t see much tourists around apart from Chinese.

Voila, theeee steeeepppeeee right in the city – can you feel it?

Ulan-Ude
The door to the Buryat Republic History Museum:

Ulan-Ude
We we glad to get inside air-conditioned exhibition halls and forget about the heat for a moment. As in a true Soviet museum we were issued several tickets for every hall and in each hall they would check them (and first they would open those halls for us as we were not many in the museum). Thanks God the museum was just several buildings away from our weird hostel (which turned out to be an apartment managed by a young girl. In that heat there was no fan so I won’t even mention the name!), same street. I cannot say that the museum was particularly entertaining (or was it just the heat? or a modest amount of exhibits?) but we saw some curious stuff. And that’s tea there to the left:

Ulan-Ude
Boy was it hot! The city just pressed us down with the heat. The air was hanging there without any movement.

Ulan-Ude
Hot hot hot

Ulan-Ude
Though apparently not that hot enough for these newlyweds!

Ulan-Ude

We were amazed that with such a heat people would walk with no hats, no sunglasses. Kids were running here and there and their parents seemed to be unmoved by the sun and the absence of air. They are just used to that steppe climate! By the way, Buryat people represent 20% of the population in the city. And you can see that this is truly so. Like in Kazan you instantly realize you are in a different setting so to speak. And people speak their language, you see signs written in it. You can also sense that China is definitely close by. There is a traditional boozy (not boozy but bo-o-zy) dumplings offered at every corner. My friend tried some in this super tiny one-room cafe run by a woman who would take the order and go to the kitchen and get it done with another woman. It felt like we were somewhere in another country!

Stalinist heritage on the main square of Ulan-Ude:

Ulan-Ude

Lenin’s head. The only thing that is interesting about it is that this is the largest Lenin’s head in the world. Yes it is. And that’s all about it.

Ulan-Ude
And a sample of the nowadays architecture (this is the local theater):

Ulan-Ude

It’s funny that the modern part of Ulan-Ude is quite limited. And I mean it – there are so many log houses left and inhabited! Whole districts of them. This is an embellished old Siberian house (upper-class, probably a merchant’s house) in the center:

Ulan-Ude

Moving a bit off the city center to the Uda river (which was dirty and certainly NOT refreshing):

Ulan-Ude
A local take on Art-Nouveau-ish windows:

Ulan-Ude

Auuuuthentic:

Ulan-Ude

Mum said this one in particular looks just like her native Rossosh in the South of Russia:

Ulan-Ude

It was so hot and stuffy (or rather – there was just no air to breathe!) that our minds were boiling. We wandered from shade to shade, resorting to shops and cool commercial centers (cool in terms of the temperature and very 90s / Asia-cool too). We got so dizzy with all our energy squeezed out that we went back to the apartment (aka hostel) and stayed there until the evening (helping the host assemble the fan which she finally bought – one for all her guests). Then when we felt we had regained some strength we got on a marshrutka (commercial bus) which took us up  up up to Lysaya Gora (Bold Mountain) where they have their datsan, the Mongolian for the Buddhist university monastery. It was the first time I ever visited one (I know there is one in St Petersburg but I never went inside) and thus could discover for myself another facet of Russia. Ulan-Ude is considered to be the center of Tibetan Buddhism, they say.

Ulan-Ude

Everything felt very unusual in that place – silent and full of some uncertain feeling at the same time (probably because we felt we didn’t belong here?). Local people would ruin the silence a bit with their loud shouting but when we moved away from the parking lot where the city could be admired from above (quite a view)…

Ulan-Ude

…we entered some unknown territory. The monks would walk from one building to another and say Hello to you. The sun went down and there appeared that steppe wind on top of the mountain – but at first it brought almost no change to the stifling air!

Ulan-Ude

These reminded me of Robert Plant’s Heaven Knows video:

Ulan-Ude

It was getting late so we took our marshrutka back (and down) and there it was, Lenin’s head again! Looking quite menacing but at the same time – so lonely and ugly, don’t you think? Poor old Lenin, who would believe back then that his head would become a selfie point of the city…

Ulan-Ude

There were many people in the streets, children included. Everyone was gathered round the fountain as if waiting for something so we went closer to see what’s going on. But nothing was, they were just looking at the fountain.

Ulan-Ude

And then the rain started and we could finally breathe again. We fell asleep to the sound of rain and the railway station.

Ulan-Ude highlights:

Buryat History museum to try to understand the region, its religions and peoples

Lenin’s head to wonder why it is so special apart from being the largest in the world (7.7 meters and 42 tons) and built in 1970 for Lenin’s 100th birthday

Baikal is farther from Ulan-Ude than from Irkutsk but you can see its other ‘side’ if you have time to travel

beautiful nature around the city

view over the city from the datsan on Lysaya Gora (or go to a farther Ivolginsky Datsan)

local food for meat-lovers

Ulan-Ude in a few words: City where you will breathe in the steppe, learn about Buryat’s culture and discover Buddhist Russia.

The next morning we had to part with my brave companion. We took separate planes: one went back to St Petersburg via Moscow and mine made an unexpected stopover in Blagoveschensk and finished in Vladivostok. We flew over China by the way! More about it in my next and last Trans-Siberian post. This is the airport of Ulan-Ude called Baikal airport:

Vladivostok - 1

Goodbye to Baikal! And here’s the reverse of the air ticket. And of coooooourse they take the beautiful part of it and leave you the smaller one to the left:

Vladivostok - 1

My plane took me to the ultimate stop of the trip: Vladivostok.

This post goes to my On Russia and Travel series.

G.

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