Russians have a word (“trevoga”) for the spiritual qualms that you experience before traveling until you’re safely seated on your train/plane seat. I call it stress. Whatever it is, I feel it.
The day of our departure, I went straight from classes to my internship, and then straight to choir rehearsal, leaving early around 8 p.m. to inhale my dinner, grab my things (packed the day before), and run to meet Ryan at the station to catch our 9:40 overnight train to Ulan-Ude. The guidebook says it’s nickname is “UU,” but I’ve never heard that in real life. (Prophesy from the future: more “the guidebook was wrong” moments to come).
Regardless, we got in at 6 a.m. and bought the last of our train tickets (the ticket lady in Irkutsk had advised us to hold off on getting a few of them, since better seats opened up in the end).
MISTAKE ONE: Not booking the hotel. We spent the first hour in Ulan-Ude walking around the center’s five or so hotels, finding that only the most expensive were available. Luckily, the first hotel/the one we wanted (we’d stayed there in the fall on our Midd expedition) let us drop our bags there while we waited to see if a room opened/did our sightseeing. Though we also lucked out, since a room opened up by midday, we learned our lesson and decided to call ahead to the other hotels to make reservations.
Too bad that all the phone numbers online and in the guidebook are bad…
BREAKFAST & MORNING SIGHTS. I had a cocktail glass of oatmeal (I’d say “a bowl of” oatmeal, except it was actually served in a cocktail glass…) and a kettle of green-colored Earl Grey tea at a Marco Polo cafe, whose advertised “Free WiFi” was neither free, nor functioning. Too bad Russian MTV doesn’t make up for disappointments like that.
Ryan and I saw the head (i.e. the Wizard of Oz looking, somewhat cross-eyed, largest head of Lenin in the world –built to celebrate his 100th b-day in 1970). Walked past the opera house (Soviet stars and emblems at every chance –engraved with the wisdom of a Lenin quote “Art…”). Walked through the arch (constructed in 1891 to celebrate a military victory against neighboring China, total rip-off of Napoleon’s in Paris) about a hundred times, at that, searching for an ATM, and then an Internet connection, then this marshrutka, then that one…
‘…WEATHER OUTSIDE IS FRIGHTFUL…’ The snow steadily fell all day, and since we didn’t have a hotel yet and weren’t necessarily up for traipsing about the snowy, forested acres of the architectural-ethongraphic museum that I’d seen in the fall, we decided to keep our cultural exploration to indoor museums.
- History: Lenin and company were held at bay within the walls of the Buddist-style building of the largely ethnographic museum. The only display open was a collection of 400-year old Buddhist manuscripts, icons, statues, and medial diagrams (rather graphic for the eyes used to Western medicine). There were also jars of dragon bone, wolf tongue, elephant skin, dried raven blood, and other Harry Potter potion ingredients. If I’d known the German words for these animal-body-part combinations, I’d have clued in the German tour group next to us, who was making do with a tour guide (“Tell them this…. Did you tell them that?”) and confused-looking translator (“Und das ist…”).
- “Literature”: After we spent 20 minutes searching for the Literature History Museum along Victory Street (banner read, “Praise to the people who is victorious!”), we finally found the well kept-up wooden house with the right address. Except that museum had been traded out with about 3 different ones since the guide book’s publication, and now housed a small, but nice exhibit of a Polish dude’s drawings of Buryatia and the handcrafts from the youth-senior cultural center.
- Nature: I justified my 30 rubles ($1.00) with accidentally walking into the kids exhibit with random almost-loose (as in, the glass had disappeared from all the aquarium frontings) reptiles and a monkey (all getting along in perfect Soviet harmony), and then a to-scale model of Baikal, which gave me a visual (at long last) of the lake’s relative dimensions. Usually, Aleksandr Pavlovich (Baikal Studies teacher) usually just drew a slanted “V” on the board to represent the lake’s walls….
NOMADS & THE BURYAT IRISH. The Mongolian restaurant we found was good, nice service, and the right price for the sampling of all my faves (irony?) from my trip in October to Ulan-Baatar.
Ryan and I had seen an “Irish” “Pub” earlier in the day, so we thought we’d give it a whirl for a last, after-dinner drink. On-tap Guinness plus Russian guys and Buryat girls dressed in britches and the green-white-and-orange were entertainment enough until it was time to go back to the hotel to pack for our train to Chita.
Ulan-Ude, with wider streets, kinder population, and slightly improved traffic, despite the winter weather, was a great break from Irkutsk on day one. We were sad to leave, happy with what we’d got done and seen, but as I’m reflecting in retrospect from Chita’s Baskin Robbins’ WiFi (Chita entry coming from Khabarovsk in 2-3 days upon arrival), I can say that Ulan-Ude was nothing compared with what’ll be a great rest of our “spring” break.