Leaving Baikal was a wrench made easier by the fact that it was freezing and I wanted sensation in my fingers again. Early one morning a band of us bundled into a bus, packed in with bags and a pug dog. Pauline got chatting to one gent who was travelling with us, Maks, who was half-cut and holding a bottle of beer when he got on the bus, gave her a grouse foot and showed her a video of him killing a chicken. When we stopped for lunch on the 6-hour minivan journey we took the opportunity to exchange emails. ‘Mojna?‘ asked our drunk Russian friend, not wanting to be left out.
Then he drew this:
Back in the big smoke of Irkutsk I took one last turn of the town and then sorted myself out with a ticket onwards to Ulan Ude. I settled myself into my bunk on the night train and introduced myself to my compartment companions who were among my favourite yet. Baba, as she called herself, was petite with beautiful laughter creases around her almond eyes and was dressed in a twinset with 20s style bonnet hat; her husband was wearing a leather flat cap and neat jacket and grandad trousers, blinged up by his dazzling gold grills. They laid out their little table cloth decorated with cartoon pigs and hearts and prepared themselves a late evening supper of bread, cured sausage and super milky, Buryat style tea. I was smitten just to look at them.
Then we attempted conversation. Less easy. Luckily I knew the two middle-aged gents in the next compartment as we’d been in Nikita’s together at Olkhon. I drafted Cuno and Chris in for a three-way translation from Russia into German and then into English, and back again. Baba asked me if I had enjoyed Olkhon island, if I had found it beautiful. ‘Yes; ochen krasevi‘ I gushed in my finest Russian. ‘And did you drink vodka with the Buryat?’ she asked, with a twinkle in her eye and a nod to the one and only can of beer that I drank on all the many trains that sat guiltily in front of us on the table. ‘Why yes of course!’ I laughed. She hooted with laughter.
The Buryat are famous for their particular fondness for a tipple. Elias, the couchsurfer who I accidentally trailed across the landmass, did a fair bit of hitching along the way and each time he reported getting a lift with Buryat people, fellow Russians would immediately ask if they got him drunk. The answer was always yes.
There are many groups of down-and-outs on the streets of Ulan Ude, more than I’ve seen in any other city. Mostly men, but sometimes women with distinctly Asian features cluster in groups in doorways and on benches early in the morning to start drinking the cheapest grog they can get their hands on. I got the impression, knowing the tribe’s reputation, that these were often Buryat folk and that the tribe’s social drinking problem is parallel with that of the Aborigines in Australia. Very much focused on one group but largely ignored.
I tried to delicately ask my host, Elena, but I think it’s a bit of a sensitive topic so I didn’t get a straight answer, although there are some scholarly articles on the subject to be found on the internet. Instead, we moved to safer ground, talking about our different travel and work experiences as we dined on pozi at the simple neighbourhood cafe next to the Buddhist temple. These are sheets of pasta filled with meat and onion, sealed with a twist at the top and steamed. You eat them by nibbling a small section of the side off, sucking out the hot juices from inside then chewing the rest smothered in your favourite sauce.
Elena is a super-interesting character who speaks English more fluently than I do as well as her native Russian and Chinese. She spent three years working in a bank in Mongolia before studying for an MBA in Italy for a year. Now she works back in Ulan Ude and lives in happy harmony with her Mum and 90-year old Granny. Granny is fit as a fiddle for her age and spends her days cooking, gardening and pottering relentlessly, saying that it is important to stay busy to stay healthy.
As we sat down for a supper one night, after Mum had come home from her table tennis club, we traded family stories. ‘Would you like some chocolates?’ she asked. ‘We’ve got so many boxes of them!’ Sure, but why so many I wondered? Victory Day, was the answer. Granny had served in the war for three and a half years on the Mongolian front and had the medals to prove it. On cue, they fetched the jacket and a photo of her in her wartime uniform for me to see.
During the day I looked around Ulan Ude itself. This was to be my last stop on my Trans-Siberian journey as the next natural stop is Ulaanbaator, the place where my attempt ground to a halt last year…
Ulan Ude is close to the border with Mongolia and close to Baikal. The culture here genuinely appears to straddle Russian and Mongolian, taking strands from both and mixing them wonderfully with local tribal customs. It is the Russian centre of Buddhism, with Ivolginsky Datsan acting as the epicentre, famous as it contains the preserved body of Khambo Lama who died in 1927 and is still upright in the lotus position. This is remarkable as dead bodies cannot normally do this for more than two weeks. Although the body has decayed a little (ewww) since exhumation and testing, he basically self-mummified. Now the temple, just outside the city, is seen as a place of healing power.
I went for a wander around the city to soak up the vibe that some people so rave about. Naturally the big Lenin head in the Soviet-style square struck me and as the first thing I saw after the train station, it was hard to beat. One year they made it a giant fur hat which is brilliant.
The Opera that stands near this square is a beautiful building of elegant proportions with a lovely statue out front of a dancing couple, distinctly Asian-looking. By day they pump classical music out over the tanoy and people gather to lunch, drink coffee and watch the intricate fountains.
I walked down through the city centre, past all the drunk clubs for a look at the oldest architecture and the cathedral. The streets are much more like I expected from Irkutsk – often unsealed and a bit more weather-beaten. Traditional architecture is mixed with Mongol ornaments, Stalinka buildings and grand stone buildings from the turn of the century. Proper hodge podge.
Interestingly (for me anyway) Elena had told me that contrary to my impression that Russian people were still into communal-ish living, contentedly living in small studios in large housing developments, suburbs of detached houses are growing up quickly as Russian people stake their claim on privacy. ‘People don’t want to hear their neighbours any more’, she said. It’s not like space is an issue.
Nipped into the cathedral which is pretty but, meh. How many cathedrals do you need to see? Dropped in on the City History Museum which offers an interesting story of how the city came to be as well as an avant-garde photographic art exhibition. I was going to go into the Nature Museum too, as it is supposed to be most illuminating about the wildlife of Baikal, but it smelt of farts and the nice, helpful man on the desk burped in my face.
Instead I contented myself with wandering around the market admiring the chapkas (fur hats) and unty, reindeer fur boots which look awesome and are apparently the only way to keep your tootsies warm when the mercury plummets.