Just about Mongolia (day 144)

Hi from a train near the Mongolian border.

I spent the last couple of days (once I finally got here – my train was delayed) in and around Ulan Ude. It is the capital of the Buryat Republic (one of the 15 that make up the Russian Socialist Soviet Federation).

It is quite an interesting place. Less missable than Irkutsk. Both are celebrating birthdays this year. Irkutsk is 340. Ulan Ude a comparatively young 335.

I just happened to arrive on a public holiday (it was a Saturday anyway). It was the “Day of Books”, because 1 September is the day that the new school year starts. It was quite a nice start to Ulan Ude (once I finally found my hotel) to see fireworks exploding over Lenin’s head – the world’s largest Lenin head (and I can confirm that it is Very Big).

I went to an outdoor ethnographical museum yesterday. Not sure what “ethnographical” means but Russians like to give things long names. Basically it was a display of Buryat homes (and thereby ways of life) throughout the ages.

It started with real stone age stuff. Burial mounds and gravestones and such like. It was kinda hard to distinguish what was a real gravestone from what was just a rock. So once I got into the swing of things I would see a rock and think “ah, another grave” and consult my map to find out that it was, well, just a rock.

It had a number of really interesting structures typical of the Evenki (who got here first, but have mostly moved on now in one sense or another – either through inter-mingling, total societal collapse, or by moving further north).

I got told off by the babushka tending this section of the museum because I wouldn’t follow the centuries old tradition of walking through the gate to the shaman’s hut and putting a coin in the cup as I passed. The cup was actually a margarine container – in itself an exhibit, since the Evenki are well-known as the inventors of margarine. But we became friends again when I did as she bade me.

There was also a small zoo. And I mean small. Which was sad. The bears in particular looked sad, pacing around hunting for the museum director so that could hold him/her to ransom for a bigger cage. But I had never seen a real bear before, so that was okay too. The camel looked very happy (not sure what he is going to do when it gets to be 20 degrees below).

The Buryats are a central Asian people originally. Relations with the Russians seem very friendly, but they do look different (and this is partly what makes Ulan Ude more interesting than Irkutsk – even though it was raining). More specifically, they look like a cross between Asians and Slavs a lot of the time. Although I met a Mongolian woman who said she often found it hard to distinguish the faces of Chinese from the Buryats who have not interbred.

It was also interesting to see people tending herds of goats within the city limits (and hurrying them out of the path of suburban trains). I guess they keep the grass down (something that the rest of the people could learn from, given how often they seem to cut the lawn – lawn is too good a name – around most apartment buildings).

I also saw a few other things for the very first time on my trip to Ulan Ude. I saw steppe (and yes, it is flat). I saw rows and rows of tanks, and rocket launchers, and missile launchers, and big trucks, and guns and all sorts of other stuff that I had only ever seen on the movies. I saw the Mongolian border (two fences, a sign, some buildings, and a lot of guards). And I saw an amazing Cathedral in the middle of nowhere.

To see all these amazing things, I had to endure a six hour bus ride across the bumpiest roads it has ever been my misfortunate to experience (so bumpy that they broke all my biscuits that were hiding inside my food bag). Fortunately I had a seat, which is not something that can be said for many of the other travellers on this ride.

I went down to a place called Kyakhta – yes that is how you spell it – an excursion I recommend for everyone who happens to be in this part of the world. It used to be an extremely prosperous staging post on the tea route from China. Then they built they railway, and it was no longer. Now it is a highly militarised spot (hence the guns) on the Mongolian border (hence the border) in the middle of the steppe (hence the step).

And why the cathedral (which is an amazing baroque design)? Well, that was what you did back then when you had serious money. And it is serious. A perfect bell tower. Amazing windows. And in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by just about nothing, about 50 metres from Mongolia.

It seems like they might be doing it up now – at least they have locks on the doors and bars on the windows to stop people getting in, and they have cleaned out all the rubble from the inside (which was there when my guidebook visited in 1999). My taxi driver wasn’t so sure – “they are building it, they are not building it, they are building it. I don’t know”, he said.

Getting to and from Kyakhta in a single day was rather fortuitous. The bus ride got me there at 2pm. I arrived, grabbed a cab to the cathedral and back (total cost about $3.50 – but the driver thought it was a really good fare, i.e., he was ripping me off), leapt on a bus to the nearest town with a train, and bought a ticket on next train towards Irkutsk with 20 minutes to spare.

Given that I had no idea of the timetabling of any of these connections, I thought it worked out rather well.

I am hoping my luck will hold and I will catch the (apparently spectacular) round-Baikal railway tomorrow morning, and head back into Irkutsk to catch a train out to Krasnoyarsk (in Western Siberia) tomorrow night. We shall see.