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.

Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist monastery near Ulan-Ude, with a light covering of snow on the ground

Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist monastery, around 10 miles from Ulan-Ude.

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.

The world's biggest head of Lenin dominates the city square in Ulan-Ude.

The world’s largest head of Lenin, Ulan-Ude, Buryatia

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.)


Lake Baikal, Listvyanka and Irkutsk (proper Siberia!)

November 2001

Lake Baikal and Listvyanka

The next stop for me was the Siberian city of Irkutsk, an incredible 48 hours away. The train was just as comfortable and cosy as the previous ones, and for the first 24 hours I had delightful companions – Sveti, a 10-year-old girl, and her mother. Sveti was learning English at school, so we could communicate a little; enough, anyway, for her to ask me to write out the words to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. Sveti was extremely polite and had lovely manners, although I think she tried her mother’s patience a little. But then being confined on a train for a whole day and night can’t be easy when you’re just 10 years old.

A guide met me at the station in Irkutsk and took me from there to Listvyanka, a village on the shore of Lake Baikal.

Z, my host in Listvyanka, had a red-velvet-padded-toilet seat! Her cottage was compact and very pretty – lots of bright coloured textiles everywhere. It was one of those log cabins that Siberia is so famous for. You’d expect to feel like you were roughing it, that a log-cabin would be like a glorified tent or whatever, but this actually wasn’t. It was like being in a brick-built house, and it was only when I went outside that I remembered that I wasn’t. All the walls inside were finished properly, just like brick walls, so no draughts could get in through the tree-trunks. I guess the first pioneers in Siberia had to work with what they had – trees – and have perfected the design over centuries. However, probably the biggest structure inside Z’s home was a brick cube maybe four feet square and the full height of the room, which housed the wood-fuelled fire and oven. (A coalman in the UK told me once that houses with coal fires are so warm because the heat doesn’t come from just the fire itself, but the chimney acts as a massive storage heater.) Z was very welcoming, although she did seem to be a bit flummoxed by the prospect of catering for a vegetarian. In fact, vegetarianism was something of a novelty in Russia; I’d been asked about it umpteen times since St Petersburg.

A novel experience for me was a session in Z’s banya, or traditional Siberian sauna. It wasn’t much different to a conventional sauna, although would a traditional sauna be hot enough to have my plastic soap bag on the verge of melting, I wonder? It was lovely to feel deep-clean again, after my days on the train.

View over Lake Baikal on a grey November day.

Lake Baikal, Siberia, on a dark November afternoon.

My guide, T, showed me some of the ‘sights’ of Listvyanka – such as the church (timber, of course) and an ‘art gallery’ displaying some rather trippy paintings. We also took a ride on the ferry to Port Baikal and back. It was not unlike practically every other ferry ride I’ve taken, only during this one my mind was being persistently blown by thoughts of the size and age of the expanse of water I was passing over. Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume – ie when you consider the length, width and depth of water. Oh, and it’s the world’s deepest, too – nearly five and a half thousand feet or over 1,500 metres at its deepest. It’s also supposed to be the oldest – the rift valley it lies in was sealed around 25 million years ago. It’s home to goodness knows how many species of plants and animals, and some of them are unique to the lake. No wonder it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1996. This lake is nearly 400 miles long and (in places) nearly 50 miles wide. There are whole countries that are smaller than that!

However, just talking to T was as interesting as seeing the sights. She told me, for example, that in the 1970s she was refused permission to take a job that would have used her English language skills, because her then-boyfriend was a black marketer and considered “unreliable” by the authorities. During the 1980s she had the chance to work overseas for a year. She had to be “vetted” by the KGB and during the interview she was asked if she would spy on her colleagues. She refused, and so wasn’t allowed to take the job.

T was of an age that meant she could remember how shocked people were when they discovered the extent of the things done by the State under the Soviet system, such as the work camps and the interpretations placed on events. However, in 2001, she was worried about her son not being able to get a job when he left university. In Soviet times, graduates were guaranteed a job. But then, the previous day she had told me how her mother, a native of St Petersburg, had been sent to work in Ulan-Ude (my next stop) whether she liked it or not. K in Yekaterinburg had told me something similar about his relatives – they had been assigned to jobs all over the Soviet Union, and there had been nothing they could do about it.

During Soviet times St Petersburg was renamed Leningrad. The siege of Leningrad is one of the most notorious and horrific episodes of World War II. The city was besieged by the German Army for around three years, during which time around 630,000 residents died – many from starvation or cold. T said that, as a daughter of Leningrad, the authorities would pay for her mother and T and her sister to make a return trip from Siberia to Leningrad every year. That entailed T’s poor mother trying to keep two small children entertained for five days – each way – on the train; no easy task. Mind you, if T’s mother had survived around 1,000 days of being starved and frozen I guess she could handle anything.

After three days in tranquil Listvyanka, it was back to Irkutsk. I had a day to explore before I caught the train on to Ulan-Ude. I had a ‘host family’ – a history teacher and her daughter – but they were happy to let me just dump my bags in their apartment and, after a brief orientation tour, explore the city on my own. Irkustsk, with a population of over half-a-million, is like the capital of Eastern Siberia. There didn’t seem to be many tourist sites in Irkutsk – or if there were, the city didn’t (at the time) seem particularly geared up to being shared with tourists, but it was good just to wander around and soak up the atmosphere. I found the Irkutsk art gallery, which wasn’t dissimilar to an art gallery at home, only at home I’m not followed around by a posse of older ladies who switch off the lights in each room as I leave.

Wooden former home of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, now a Decembrist museum.

Decembrist Museum in the former home of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, Irkutsk

I also happened upon the Decembrists Museum, in what was once the home of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy. The Decembrists were a group of mainly well-to-do people who in 1825 set up a revolt against the then Tsar, Nicholas I. (Nicholas was clearly not a good name to have if you were a tsar!) The revolt failed and the Decembrists were exiled to Siberia. The house was surprisingly grand for someone “in exile” but it was very woody; it wasn’t obvious whether it was made entirely of wood, but with the interior walls lined with plaster or mortar or something, or if it was mainly stone but with the exterior clad in wood. It’s not the only house of this type in Irkutsk – the Decembrists created their own little colony in the city, an area of ornate wooden homes.

Shopping centre in Irkutsk, Siberia, on a postcard copyrighted 1986

Shopping centre in Irkutsk, Siberia, on a postcard copyrighted 1986 (possibly by a company called Plakat

Next stop was the waterfront of the River Angara, which flows through Irkutsk. The prime sight there was probably a group of teenagers and men lounging around swigging from bottles of alcohol. Clearly, drinking on the street in the middle of the day isn’t a purely British phenomenon.