The journey to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, was another overnight one. I and a Russian girl found ourselves sharing our compartment with a pair of drunken Mongolian men. One, who spoke really good English, explained that they were on their way home to Ulanbataar after a three-day bender with friends in Irkutsk. Eric would not let me go to bed, telling me how glad he was to have someone to practise his English with. He insisted on showing me a book about his father, who had had 10 children, all of whom he had managed to send to university. He had been a (Buddhist) lama, so he had had to keep his head down during Soviet times.
Eric was a perfect gentleman, interested in nothing more than a conversation in English, and what he had to say was all rather interesting. However, I really was knackered and desperate to go to sleep, not to mention concerned about how his loud slurring might be disturbing passengers in the compartments on either side of us (and probably the compartments beyond them, he was that loud). Eventually, his head slumped onto the little table between the bunks and I had peace, although not for long. Within a couple of hours we were pulling into Ulan-Ude. Passengers (me included) were bustling about getting off the train, new travellers were boarding, and the strident station announcements could hardly be heard over the shouts and calls of the hawkers on the platform. I said a cheery goodbye to Eric and his mate, but for some reason neither of them was anything like as jovial as they had been earlier on.
Like Yekaterinburg, Ulan-Ude was closed to foreigners until 1991. I wondered what doing the Trans-Siberian was like before then (if it were even possible, that is). Imagine the frustration, going through all these interesting-looking places and not being able to get off the train to explore them.
Although the official ‘border’ between Europe and Asia is in Yekaterinburg, it was only in Ulan-Ude that I actually felt like I was in Asia. Sure, Z, my host in Listvyanka, looked as though she might have a little Asian blood in her, but almost everyone else I had contact with around Irkutsk looked defiantly European. However, the indigenous people of Ulan-Ude, the Buryats, share the same genetic heritage as their next-door neighbours in Mongolia, and it shows.
Despite the Asian nature of Ulan-Ude, my hosts in the city were ethnically Russian: A, his wife S and their two young children. S took me for a tour of the Buryat countryside around Ulan-Ude. Our first stop was the Ivolginsky Datsan monastery. Like their Mongolian neighbours the Buryats are predominantly Buddhist, and the Datsan is the most important Buddhist centre in Russia.
As S and I ambled around the Buddhas, stupas, prayer bells and prayer wheels in this Buddhist monastery in the middle of nowhere, or rather on a steppe around 10 miles from Ulan-Ude and more than 5,000 miles from my home, we were engaged in conversation by two young trainee lamas. They, naturally, wanted to know where I was from. And their reaction when they found out? “Manchester? Manchester U-ni-ted!!!” (This was a novel experience for me at the time; later I half-considered renaming myself Alison-from-England-near-Manchester-yes-I-know-Manchester-Un-it-ed-!)
Our trip also took in an ethnography museum, an open-air village that wasn’t that different to the one K took me to outside Yekaterinburg. This one did, though, appear to be a popular venue for people having wedding photographs taken. On the way back to the city we passed a pretty cool statue, of a plane taking off. It was up a broad flight of steps at the end of a wide avenue, with the plane taking off towards us. S told me it was a monument to an aeronautics factory; Ulan-Ude is an important centre for the aviation industry.
Ulan-Ude is famous for another reason: the city centre is the home of the world’s biggest head of Lenin. I have no idea why the city fathers of Ulan-Ude decided to build it – whether, for example, Lenin had any special connection with the city – but it’s there anyway, 25 feet tall (7.7metres) and weighing 42 tonnes. I have to admit that it does look pretty impressive and dramatic, dominating the square around it.
S had taken me shopping in the city centre. I needed to change some money so S took me to the black-market moneychangers outside the market. Our moneychanger of choice was going to give me change for US$10 rather than the $20 I had given him, but S realised what he was doing and made him pay up properly. S told me that even now the Soviet era was over, the black-market was still the best way to change money. Until a couple of years ago, she said, she, A and the children had had to share the flat with A’s parents, until they had been able to find enough money to buy a separate flat for her in-laws. When they were buying the flat, S said, they had used black-market moneychangers, as the rate for US$1,000 was so much better than the official rate. I asked her why, in such a massive country, where land is so plentiful, families had to share (usually quite tiny) flats, but she said she didn’t know.
In the market – which was huge and chock-full of stuff – S bought me a treat: “Sirra”, or “Siberian chewing gum”. It’s basically pine resin and I think it’s fair to say it’s an acquired taste. That said, it started disgusting but after I’d been chewing for a while, it improved a little. But then a new problem emerged: it sticks your jaws together! I think it’s OK if you don’t open your mouth, but if you do, the cold air makes the resin set solid! S said it was good for your teeth, and it probably is. Firstly, because if your jaws are stuck together you can’t cram in anything else that might be bad for your teeth, and secondly, if you do manage to get something else in your mouth, the sirra has coated them so thoroughly nothing harmful will find a purchase!
Back at home, A showed me a video of him and his mates driving over Baikal in winter, when the lake was frozen, when a four-foot wide crack appeared in the ice right in front of them! They managed to stop the car just in time (even on the ice!), but it was one of the maddest things I had ever seen. A said he wanted to build a sledge hotel, so he could take tourists camping on the ice in winter. I’m thinking that if he did manage to make that happen, he would share the video with them after they’d spent a night on the ice, not before. (Ulan-Ude is probably not that much further from Baikal than Irkutsk is from Listvyanka and the lake, probably only around 50 miles or so. It’s like the two cities are at either end of a flattened-out U-shape, with the narrow end of the lake sitting in the bottom of the U. For probably half of the journey the train line is running along the edge of the lake, but as I was travelling overnight, viewing the lake from the train was an experience I missed out on.)