The third stop on our Trans Siberian Railway adventure
ULAN UDE, EASTERN SIBERIA
(WRITTEN ON THE TRAIN FROM ULAN UDE TO IRKUTSK)
Our next stop was Ulan Ude in Siberia. Ulan Ude is the capital of Buryatiya, where Russian, Soviet and Mongolian cultures co-exist and we were looking forward to leaving Ulaannbaatar behind, although we would miss the friendly Mongolian people we had met in the desert.
Our bus journey from Ulaanbaatar took around 10 hours in total, including the visa inspection at the Mongolian-Russian border. The journey wasn’t a particularly enjoyable one, as the coach was cramped and hot, and crossing the border meant having to unload all our luggage to pass security twice over. Luckily, I had a spare seat next to me so was able to stretch out and catch up on sleep. As we crossed into Siberia, the landscape changed. There were trees again! We had missed trees in the desert. There were also definitely less roadside skeletons here. To reach the city centre, we drove through suburbs of shanty towns where children were playing all along the river. Siberia has a population of 500,000 and 150,000 of the inhabitants live in these shanty towns.
We also met an American lady called Linda, who was travelling with one of her sons. Her husband worked as a Christian preacher and they had nine children (all of whose names began with ‘A’!). They had moved from the States to Russia about eight years ago, settling into Russian life by buying a small two-bed flat and getting rid of their car. When we arrived in Ulan Ude, Linda insisted on escorting us to the UU Hostel where we staying, so we wouldn’t get lost. Our hostel was situated literally in the middle of the city, a few steps away from the main city square (which is dominated by the enormous, bronze head-statue of Lenin). There we met Ayur and Sylvia, the lovely young people who worked alternate 48 hour shifts at the hostel.
We spent our first day in the city finding our bearings and enjoying our first experience of Russia. Compared with China and Mongolia, here, the traffic was more civilised, the women were more glamorous and the people were more friendly. Painted arrows on the pavements marked out the best route to walk around the historical centre of the old town, which was certainly a worthwhile way to see the main sights of Ulan Ude by foot and for free. We then continued through the pedestrian Arbat Lenin Street, where we window shopped the souvenir shops and bought banana ice cream from a stall.
In the afternoon, we caught the bus to the highest panoramic spot in the city, at the Rimpoche Bagsha Dustan. The Tibetan temple houses an impressive 6m high gilt Buddha but, more impressively, presents beautiful 360 degree views over the city, mountains in front and dark-green Siberian forests behind. There was also a colourful display of flags which were somehow satisfying to stand under and look back at the city from up on high. The Datsun is easy to reach – just catch bus 97 from Baikal Plaza at the Soviet Square and wait for the last stop (buses are really more similar to taxis in Ulan Ude; each journey is a fixed price of 70 rubles, and you can hail the bus from wherever you fancy and get off in a similar way).
When we arrived back at the hostel, we had a message from Sylvia that Linda had sent her son round to invite us over for dinner the next evening. In the knowledge that we would be eating good home-cooked food the following day, we ventured out to one of Ulan Ude’s cheap, buffet-style restaurants called Appetite. Although our dinner literally only cost the equivalent of 30p, it was truly terrible and we had to head next door afterwards, to a British style pub called the Churchill where we filled up on cocktails instead.
Back at the hostel, I started the path to one of my long-held life ambitions – learning how to play chess. Ayur challenged me to a game, teaching me as we played. In the end, we drew – which is apparently very rare and Ayur got an twitchy eyebrow which he said was a sign of stress from thinking too much (i.e. having an extremely skilled and talented chess opponent..!). As I embarked on my chess adventure, we spoke to a Russian couple who described how Siberia can get as cold as -60 degrees in the winter, a temperature I can still barely comprehend. However, it is hot in the summer; while we there, the temperature was 30 degrees and expected to rise to 40 degrees by the end of the week.
For our second day, we had planned a trip to visit the famous Ivolginsky Datsan. This monastery is located around 30km from Ulan Ude and represents the centre of Buddhism in Russia. The three of us set off with Clemen, our tour guide, and Dimon, our driver. Both men were devoted Buddhists and on our way to the monastery, we stopped off on a picturesque hill to visit Siberia’s equivalent to Stone Henge, dating back from the Bronze Age. We climbed a small mountain to reach the top, where large rocks lay side by side to look like a man and woman, as well as a long sloping staircase of rocks. Before we continued our journey onwards by car, Clement asked us to thank the spirits of the hills for allowing us to be their guests.
We drove through miles and miles of Siberian forest – named taiga – which is made exclusively of four species of trees: pine, spruce, larch and birch. This forest runs the entire way around the world. Throughout our trip, we tasted the Russian equivalent of chewing gum – a brown, hard substance that is formed from stripping the bark off birch trees. It is served in crystals or flat sheets, and is essentially tasteless and not very enjoyable. However, it can be found at every street stall for pennies, so I bought some to take home.
After an hour or so of driving, we arrived at the Ivolginsky Datsan which is located in a picturesque steppe valley. As soon as we entered through the gates, there was an immediate sense of the peaceful Buddhist atmosphere within the complex of temples that we now found ourselves wandering around. Clemen explained the monastery collects unique samples of old Buryatiya art, as sculptures and ritual art are gathered and preserved here.
This included a collection of old Buddhist manuscripts written in Tibetan on natural silk, and a sacred Bodhi tree. This monastery is also where the ‘miracle’ preserved body of the Khambo Lama Ittehilov is kept (who ‘consciously’ died in 1927 mid-meditation, and whose body was exhumed in 2002 – supposedly still entirely intact). There was also a large stone placed in the middle of the courtyard, which people were walking up to with their eyes closed and arms outstretched. Clemen explained that if you managed to reach out to the stone without seeing it, you may make a wish. We all took turns to walk up to the rock and, happily feeling the stone under my fingers, I made my wish.
After the monastery, Dimon drove us to some picturesque landmarks on the route back to Ulan Ude. We stopped at a lake that Clemen had unfortunately forgotten the name of (though, after telling us that we were the first ever English people to reach the lake to his knowledge, we christened it ‘Not Charlotte Lake’). We paddled in the lake and watched a scene play out as though it was featuring on Planet Earth – a kite was flying close to the lake, then dipped down and caught a fish. Next thing we knew, a crow began chasing him through the sky and knocked the fish from the kite’s claws before diving down and stealing it. The kite had lost his lunch and had to go back to skimming the lake for food.
We continued on a little further until we reached the source of the Selenga River, where it was possible to drink the pure water. It turned out that women were forbidden to enter the little wooden hut where the source of the spring was, but the boys went in and hoisted the water up in a bucket from the well, so we could siphon the water into our bottles. As we drove home, we passed through the mountains and into a beautiful old village by the river, which was first founded in the 1600s. Here, we stopped the car and climbed to the highest point of the mountain for gorgeous views across the river and the huts.
That evening, we had dinner with Linda and her family. Her son, Aaron, came over to collect us at 8pm and we caught the bus to their apartment. As soon as we walked in, there were five of her children sat in the living room waiting to greet us and they were all lovely. Linda had originally planned to give us a taste of America and was making hamburgers but, after finding out we were vegetarian, had laid out a huge Greek salad and pasta dinner. It was great to finally have some proper food and, for dessert, one of the sons brought in popcorn and her daughter, Ashley, had made delicious brownies. They told us about their lives, which sounded very interesting, having uprooted from the US to Moscow and then Ulan Ude. It was a lovely evening and we left around 11am, walking the mile or so back to our hostel.
I was in bed when Peter came in and asked if I would come to buy vodka from the only shop in the city that sold alcohol after 9pm. I agreed to walk out in my pyjamas, and after finding the shop to be a strange place where you had to do a shot from the bottle at the bar before you left, we went back to the hostel. Peter and I ended up staying awake until 5am with Sylvia, playing card games and a Russian board game called Crazy Families (which I found hilarious). It was such a fun evening and Sylvia wasn’t able to go home after her shift finished the next day because she needed to sleep off the effects before she could see her mother again.
We had nothing planned for our third and final full day, so I thought I would take advantage of the beautiful weather. Although Ulan Ude is a lovely city, there are sadly no public parks or green spaces to relax in. The new square has a water fountain display which is synced to a classical musical tannoy, but you will only see people sitting on benches. Another problem with trying to relax outside in the city is the flies. We were half bitten to death by the mosquitos both outside and inside. I spent half my night swatting them away. But it was 35 degrees outside and, as the boys went to have a rest indoors, I was craving some relaxation time in the sunshine. In the end, I walked through a huge gust of Ulan Ude’s ‘summer snow’ – the white fluffy pollen which blows from the poplar trees and fills the air – and ended up right by Lenin’s large head. My red face will probably turn up in tourist photos for years to come, but I had one of my favourite afternoons of the trip so far, just lying on a marble ledge in the sun, listening to my music and taking some time alone to enjoy my situation.
That evening, after I got in, I played another game of chess with an English guy from the hostel while the boys watched Pans Labyrinth. A Swiss boy had just arrived, who had driven the last two months from Switzerland, via Moscow to end up in Mongolia. He had been planning the trip for seven years and had bought this car especially for the journey, which he was planning to give away once he finished his trip in Mongolia. He told us how one day in Russia, he had returned to his car to find the number plates had been removed and just a note, with a telephone number on, had been left behind instead. He had to call the number and transfer money over, before the thieves would tell him where the number plates where – and after he had transferred the money, it turned out that the number plates were hidden just 20m away from his car the whole time.
Later, Peter showed me an email that Linda had sent following our visit. One of the lines read: ‘our lives are all a little richer for having met each other on the bus’, and I thought how lovely and true that was. You may meet people, see something, or experience a feeling only very fleetingly – but just that one moment is enough to create a memory, which you can look back on and know it’s made a positive impact on your journey through life.