Posts Tagged ‘datsan’

"Art belongs to the people," says Lenin. On the UU Opera House

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. (more…)


Day 8 (Sat., Oct. 31): Mongolian Tricks and Treats

A sample of a pretty standard Mongolian music video, i.e. what you watch on state busses for hours on end as disco-lights make it all the more exciting, as we had done the day before:


I had a nice sleep-in kind of morning our last day in Ulaan Baatar: had breakfast, wrote postcards, gathered up my things. Romany made our game plan for the day and headed out the door around 11.

Winter Palace. We first walked a few kilometers to the south side of the city where the Mongolian kings lived in the wintertime. The multiple temples and all the artwork, artifacts, religious items, tapestries, and so on had been well preserved and made into more of a museum than an actual, living datsan or monastery, as many of the other historic temples in the city.

After a stroll around the snow-powdered grounds in what had become a pretty steady snowfall that lasted the whole day, we got to the building labeled “Part 2.” It was filled with huge fur and gold-threaded coats, diamond- and gem-covered crowns, and other really cool luxury items that filled the palace back in the day. They even had a pair of “musical chairs,” which played music when you sat on them, a gift from Russia’s tsar Nicholas; a display of German taxonomy; a ger made out of leopard skins; and the Mongolian declaration of independence from the early 1900s.

A well-spent $2.50 all-in-all. Walking away, we were patting ourselves on the back for seeing the Mongolian equivalent of, say, the National Smithsonian museums for so cheap, and then we realized that it’s free to get into the Smithsonians. Scam, I tell ya’. . . .

We tried our luck and were happy with the results in an Italian restaurant for lunch on our way back. I got bruschetta (sp?), garlic bread, a meat-sauce pasta dish, and a fairly good glass of red wine for about $11. Not the all-you-can eat bread sticks of the Olive Garden, but still not bad.

Toys! Our next stop was the International Intellectual Museum. Apparently, this Mongolian man has been sitting around for years and years making wooden puzzles based off traditional Mongolian patterns, and putting them in his two-story museum.

So that’s basically what it was. A cool German guy, about our age who was volunteering there for a year, gave us the tour and shared all the fun facts with us. Something like 336 possible solutions to a puzzle (what looks like an unbreakable block of little wood cubes) about the size of your palm. The largest metal chess set in the world (all pieces, tables, etc. puzzles). The smallest San Fran cable car theme chess set in the world. And so on.

If you could solve the famous turtle puzzle in 10 minutes that the founder made, you win $10,000 (US). I didn’t bother trying. He came out and did some magic tricks, and then went back into his little room. Funny little man.

All aboard to Russia. Around 4:30 we started to head back to the hostel/State Department Store area. Romany and I stocked up on souvenirs, groceries for the train, went back to the hostel for our stuff, and went to grab dinner.

We thought we’d enjoy a last imitation restaurant, as they are definitely in lesser supply in Irkutsk, so we tried “Texas Restaurant,” a 100% rip-off of I think the Church’s Chicken logo. Bad decision.

After placing our order with our faux-hawked, 20-something waiter, who failed to tell us at the beginning that they had 0% of the Texas-themed items, of which the menu was full, but instead, only had 2 Mongolian dishes available, of which we each ordered one, we waited literally 45 minutes in a basically empty, smoke-filled bar (admittedly, they had the décor right on. . . just not the service) before we finally inquired 1) where my beer was and 2) where our food was, seeing as our train was leaving within the hour and a half remaining before 9:00 p.m.

Finally, the food came about an hour after we got there, luckily it was rather good and filling–I had already been let down from expecting BBQ, beer, and a relaxed walk to the train station when we were done, so had it not been edible, I might have cried.

We speed-walked through Ulaan Baatar one last time in the dark, got to the train station, found that the train was to arrive in 10 minutes, got on once it came, and pulled out of the station, Siberia-bound about a half hour later. Sweet survival. . . .

Days 9-10 (Sun.-Mon., Nov. 1-2): Long ride home

Ze French. Our compartment-mates were a French couple (who spoke really good English). “Yes, so oui queet our jobs [stock brokers] to take zees wourld tour,” they said. “Oui ‘ave been wouanting to do zees for a vary long time.” I think in the French translation, “world tour” means traveling outside the Euro-zone, so their trip from Japan to China, Mongolia, Russia, and Tibet counted.

They actually weren’t even French. He was half Spanish, half Italian, and she was half German, half Moroccan. And they hated the French and were constantly reminding us about how lazy the French are and how they abuse their system, and so on and so forth. So our conversations about politics, education systems, healthcare, etc. were interesting with everyone looking at France from the outside in. Ohhh les français. . . .

It was also fun to eavesdrop on their conversation and realize that I hadn’t forgotten French. I accidentally laughed a few times when they said funny/ironic/snooty things to each other.

The same route, just backwards. Dodging aggressive Mongolian moneychangers, passport control, and customs were no issue. Except that the little thermometer (blue gun looking thing that they point at everyone entering Russia to test for H1N1) said that I should have been dead with how low my temperature was. The Russian woman in gloves and a face mask operating the thing didn’t look baffled.

Naushki was just as unexciting as we left it, so we spent about 30 minutes of our 6 hours there outside, 3 minutes in the bathroom, and the rest of the time doing homework as our French ami’s explored.

We played a game of cards (“Oui just laave to play cartes, but it is too bed, becaause we do not knouuw many games!”) while we had beer (“Oui teenk zat eet is razzer strahnge, how Americains are forbeeden to ‘ave alcohol before zey are 21 years old. I cannot imagine what eet is like to not ‘ave a meal weezzout a glass of wine.”) that they sold on the cart that came through (“Zees is interesting, zat zey ‘ave more alcohol in zees Russian beer!”). Welcome to Russia, Frenchies.

Once we pulled in to Irkutsk early Monday morning, Romany and I sent them on their way to their hostel (we told them it would be easier to to just walk across the bridge rather than try to find the right bus) and then found our marshrutka (van-bus-taxi thing).

Home sweet Irkutsk.

Day 2 (Sun., Oct. 25): 22 steps to a [pick-your-adjective] day in UB City

1. Know that UB City is the somewhat gangsta’ name for Ulaan Baator so that you can feel hip and cool in conversations about the capital of Mongolia. Facts: 1.5 million people of Mongolia’s 2.5 million population live in UB. UB is less polluted, but just as face-mask filled as Beijing. The face-masks of UB are, however, due to the threat of the H1N1 flu, which the government figures could wipe out a good 20-30% of the country’s population if it got to epidemic status in the capital.

2. Get your train times right to avoid rude, early-morning awakenings. Not really rude, just unexpected. Our train tickets from Russia said that arrival time was at 5:50 a.m. Which meant that you add the 5 hours to that, because all Russian train tickets are printed in Moscow time, to get 10:50 a.m., another morning of sleeping in, right? Wrong. Moscow-time rule only applies with arrival times to arrivals to Russian cities. Not confusing at all. So we got up at 4:50, the hour out of Ulaan Baatar, 30 minutes out of when they lock the bathrooms for the sanitary zone around the city. But we didn’t want the extra 5 hours of sleep anyways, did we. . . .

3. Find nice Mongolian lady from your hostel who will lead you past the mob of “taxi” drivers to the van she has arranged for you and included in the $6/night rate of the hostel.

4. While Mongolian lady leaves you at van to go advertise some more for her family’s hostel at the platform, try to learn first Mongolian phrases from van driver and reading random signs.

5. Learn quickly that Mongolian is an Asian (from the Altai group, related to both Korean and Finnish) language, printed in Cyrillic (thank you USSR influence), which means that you know absolutely nothing. Accept equally quickly that on a vacation from a year-long language-learning program, your motivation to start a new language = 0, and that you will probably leave with fewer than 20 phrases under your belt. Check.

6. Enjoy comfort of free bread-and-coffee breakfast in nice lounge room surrounded by fellow travelers, mostly from the U.K.

7. Enjoy the accents, mostly from the U.K.

8. After you gather your things for a day on the town, remember advice from Professor 1, Program Coordinator, Professors 2-4, and Babushkas 1-3, and avoid the possibly rabid dog standing directly outside hostel door.

9. Decide that the loud gun shots you heard just down the block while crossing the street at 9 in the morning were prooobably just from an air-gun.

10. Cross your fingers that your parents told the bank you’d be in Mongolia for the next week so that the bank doesn’t shut down your debit card when you try to withdraw tugrugs (1400T to a USD, which means that if you think 1000 to a dollar, it’s actually less!) from the ATM at the main department store complex (the State Department Store–not store of the State Department, as I was figuring, but Department Store of the state).

11. Speed-walk to the Buddhist Gandantegchenling Monastery a few kilometers away to catch the sunday morning services, realizing that a Catholic church isn’t going to pop up along the way. Note the beautiful chanting, the slightly more relaxed atmosphere (compared with the Buryatian datsans), the decidedly older and more beautifully time-worn feel of the temples.


12. Snap pictures of pigeons flocking back and forth between the rice spread on the ground and the temple roofs. Snap pictures of the old and young monastery inhabitants.


13. Look confident when walking into the gers (yurts) and buildings of the Mongolian Buddhist University, which you’re not sure whether or not you have permission to enter. Strangely, no one bothers you. Realize, this isn’t Russia. Browse pamphlet. Consider, but then decide against transferring from Middlebury to get a bachelor’s degree in Buddhist Chanting there.

14. Leave monastery, stop in at gift shop, take some time to notice the generally happier, smiling, and easier-to-approach (Asian) (mask-covered) faces of the streets of UB. Realize again, this really isn’t Russia.

15. Drop in at the store labeled “Made in Mongolia” and agree that that’s a good name for it. Camel-hair products and pointy Mongolian hats abound.

16. Get to train station to buy tickets back to Russia (for a week later. . . figure that the time away from Siberia could be therapeutic. Step 35,470,907 from Day 3 or 4: think again about the therapeutic part). Find out that ticket office is located across the street, which is huge, traffic-filled, and the scene of a just-happened accident. Get to ticket building, and read sign in funny English with complicated directions saying ticket counter has moved down the street behind the third building. Walk down street, past 3 buildings, get to ticket building. Find out nearest ATM to get cash (tugrugs) is back at train station. Retrace steps both ways. Return to ticket building 15 minutes later. Buy overpriced foreigner tickets to Irkutsk for Saturday evening. Hope you don’t want to leave Mongolia earlier than that.

17. Eat last food from Russia picnic-style outside of ticket station on nice yellow benches. Enjoy international meal of imported-to-Siberia-from-abroad oranges, Finnish yogurt-covered cashews, and cookies from Naushki.

18. Browse names of shops along UB’s main drag, Peace Street (the USSR’s preferred Lenin Street didn’t stick), which include The British Store, Scottish Pub, Books in English, Texas Restaurant, American Technology Pizza Shop, and get hungry for world-cuisine imitation restaurants, despite filling picnic lunch.

19. Take a walk through the Natural History Museum of Ulaan Baatar and see dinosaur bones, gear from the first Mongolian ascents to Everest and outer space, and lots and lots of taxonomy work, all for 2,500 tugrug (meaning $2.50, but less!)

20. While crossing the main square with the large government building and its huge Lincoln-like statue of Chinggis Khan, find out and briefly express disappointment that tonight’s showing of Die Fliedermaus at the Mongolian National Opera, in fact, costs closer to $20 instead of $7, like the sign said, and decide that $20 could buy that many more souvenirs, and that German opera is probably best seen when a) not fatigued from a day of walking around the city and b) when not in Mongolia. But we wished the artists well.


21. Grab a nap back at the hostel before dinner at American Technology Pizza Shop. Enjoy almost American pizza and almost American Coca Cola, along with great conversation with co-traveller. Be impressed at your waitress’ English, and, as a matter of fact, most people’s English in UB, if they know any.

22. Finish day with hot shower and watching the Liverpool/Manchester United soccer game with a group of young English mates. Try not to attach too much significance to the fact that they used “you yanks” once when referring to Americans.

The grand finale of 6 days in Buryatia, which unfortunately left a bad taste in my mouth. . . .

Wednesday, Sep 30: Returning to Familiar Sights

Our fears were confirmed, meaning that the strong west wind from the night before hadn’t let up and didn’t show any signs of stopping, our hike to the top of the large peninsula on Baikal was cancelled. Looking across the bay to the peninsula from our beach, it was clear that the peak was covered in clouds and that even if we had done our hike, it would have been all for naught, since the promised 360 degree view would have been blockaded.

Packing it out: So instead, we ate. For about 2 hours. We had our kasha (oatmeal) with raisins and dried apricots and condensed milk, a delicious yogurt fruit salad (apples, oranges, raisins, and peanuts, topped with cinnamon), the rest of the butter cookies, chocolates, and so forth, topped off with the necessary tea. After we did the dishes and packed up, we climbed to the top of a lookout tower about 6 stories tall, consisting of wooden planks and ladders, and enjoyed the view despite the wind. To kill time and get our exercise in, Misha agreed to meet us at the mouth of the river (the ferry ride away from Ust’-Barguzin) with the van two hours later, to which we walked in about 2 hours.

Long walk on the beach: It was sunny and bright, and a sandy beach the whole way, and the wind blew big waves ashore, so it felt like any ol’ ocean beach. Elizabeth, the ecological go-getter of the group, picked up a piece of litter a few minutes in, and then a bottle, and then another, and soon, we (myself, Elizabeth, and Romany; Patrick decided not to participate in our project) found ourselves hands full of empty-vodka-bottle- and fishnet-filled, tattered plastic bags. The wind got pretty wicked and was tossing us and our payloads around pretty freely, so we eventually had to abandon our broken bags and take only the litter that we could carry in our bare hands with us. Though it was because we ultimately only moved the trash further down on the beach, and take a handful with us, we at least managed to make the first half of the beach nicer. Felt good to do our part to support the effort to grow the eco-tourism sector of Baikal.

Familiar places and faces: After the same ferry ride back to Ust’-Barguzin, we found ourselves again in the care of Aleksandr and Galina at our homestay there. Upon arrival, Aleksandr gave us a tour of their property, including the second banya and their little dining hall decorated with paintings depicting the Russian banya culture, also where the veniki (the dried branches you beat each other with in the banya) were hung to dry. Since we had an hour or two until the banya would be ready before dinner, Romany and I took a stroll around town where we were surrounded by the directionless flow of people walking home from school and work through the town’s colorful, mostly unpaved streets.

When we got back, the banya was ready. This was a special banya, called a banya po-chyornomu (a black banya, as opposed to a “white” one, po-belomu), which people generally don’t use anymore, and which, Aleksandr told us, plenty of Russians haven’t ever done. It’s prepared in a little domik, built out of full-width logs for insulation, with a stone oven, which looks like a pile of stones with a hollowed out area for an oven. The difference is that there’s no chimney, so the smoke just fills the domik as the wood burns, and escapes through a little hole cut out in the side of the house. So the entire inside is charcoal black, and really dark, which makes a cool effect when the coals blaze up beneath the stones and the steam rises. When the stones have been heated enough, you open the door to let all the smoke out, and when the smoke has stopped, you go in, shut the door, pour the water to make the steam, and so on and so forth.

So we had our banya, shower, and then delicious dinner and a few shots of vodka and toasts to health, us (the guests), and travel, and then it was off to bed.

Thursday, Oct 1: Almost Home

Happy Elderly Person Day! The polite way of saying that is, well, morphologically equivalent to “person who has lived ‘through.'” Unfortunately, we were traveling as and with the young, so no celebrating really took place. Bummer.

I felt a little woozy in the stomach, even before breakfast, but eating an oily egg and fish dish didn’t help, so I asked if Elizabeth had any medicine. She did. But bad question to ask. It was this clearish gel that you’re supposed to take a huge tablespoon of to “clean out everything” as she made a circular motion with her hand indicating the stomach. Just what I needed, right? Well, it took me about 5 seconds after barely swallowing the tasteless but slightly sandy compound, that it wasn’t going to make it as far as my stomach to do any “cleaning.” Made it to the restroom in time, and felt mostly better afterwards. So on with the day.

Vizit-tsentr: On our way out of Ust’-Barguzin in the morning, we stopped in at the not creatively named “Visit Center” of the Zabaikalskii National Park, in which we had camped out two nights before. A nice German girl, barely any accent at all speaking Russian, who had met her (Russian) husband when she was visiting the park about 5 years ago, gave us the run-down of the park’s flora and fauna, geology, history, and so on. After a browse around their display on the preservation of the Baikal seals and through their collection of stuff-for-sale, we got into the car for our five-hour (turned into seven with stops) drive back to Ulan-Ude.

Stop 1: Neat little complex about 35 km out of Ust’-Barguzin with an Orthodox church and a few other houses and a little museum built entirely out of wood in the traditional Russian Orthodox way by this woodworking artist–no metal nails, wood glue, or string involved. The church was closed for internal remodeling (which isn’t an infrequent occurence in Russia at all: “Remont idyot,” or “Remodeling is happening” is a common excuse for strange noises or smells from a neighboring room or for locked doors and detours), and there weren’t any tours that day, so we just wandered around for a bit and stretched our legs.

Stop 2: Random shore of Baikal with a rock that was famous for looking like a turtle jumping out of the water. Indeed. It looked like a turtle jumping out of the water. But that wasn’t why we stopped. . . Elizabeth, out of the blessed goodness of her Kansasan (word?) heart, shared her last stash of US-bought marshmallows and graham crackers (plus some Russian chocolate) with us, as we made s’mores over a campfire Misha whipped up for us. Plus apple juice. Yumm, and aww, America. . . .

Stop 3: Lunch in Goryachinsk, where we’d had lunch on our way there. Our last stop at a road-side cafeteria, which are good for a hot bowl of soup and a pirozhok (sometimes deep-fried ball of bread filled with meat, potatoes, or cabbage–so good), that is, if they’re not out of half the things on their menu. Also our last authentic Buryatian pozi, which consist of a half-palm-sized ball of spiced meat inside an almost rubbery type of dough or pasta wrapping, pinched together at the top but left open with a small hole. My theory for the existence of said hole is that it’s for ventilation, because the way you eat them is by biting another small hole in the side of the pozi, slurping the juice out of it (thus the need for the cross-wind through the pozi), and then eating it normally, usually with a mustardy horseradish-type sauce called gorchitsa.

Stop 4: Gas.

Big things in Ulan-Ude on a Thursday afternoon: As our drive came to a close, the color scheme changed from the grey, deep green, and golden yellow highlighted with the streaks of dirt roads and crystal white birch tree trunks, and into the grey fog of the mountains before Ulan-Ude, and then into the brown-grey smog of the city. Once we got into town, we drove up a hill along a street called “Panoramskaya” (yes, again, shamelessly stolen from “panoramic”) with another modern-looking datsan at the top. Getting there just as it was closing, we got to see the largest statue of Buddha in Russia. Ironically or not, it was the skinny version of Buddha, but in all his golden splendor in a huge hall with chandeliers, tile floors, and the rest of the typical contents of the Buddhist temples we’d seen. Happy with the sense of peace that a journey almost complete plus a Buddhist temple will tend to create, we spun our last prayer wheels, each rang the huge bell commemorating the visit of the Dalai Lama, watched the colors of prayer flags waving in the wind, and took in the view of the Selenga flowing through the city, just as the sun began to get low in the sky.

At this point in the day, I found myself in what seemed to be a communist plot. We drove back to the downtown area, where Misha and Elizabeth dropped us off to wander for an hour and a half while they unpacked the stuff at Misha’s apartment. On our walk along Lenin street (note, literally, every city, town, village, sparsely populated area in the country has a Lenin Street, and a Karl Marx Street, just like every good Soviet city), we saw, again, the largest Lenin head in the world, the arts center still bearing the Red star and the hammer and sickle in its decor, a cafe named “Carlos VII,” and a blue-domed church (being remodeled, of course), inside of which they were conducting a service for the blessing of the Elderly on Elderly People’s Day. Communist conspiracy number one: the communists–gerontocrats, propaganda symbols, Karl Marx disguised as a Spanish freedom fighter alias “Carlos VII,” and the Wizard-of-Oz-head of Lenin–were following me.

Misha and Elizabeth picked us up and brought us to dinner at the Chinese restaurant named “Omon” (which, we later learned in Baikal Studies, is the name of the river in Russia on which Genghis Khan was born). The restaurant, on the second floor, was a funny, awkward, long, dark room lit by soft overhead lights, red and green christmas lights hung over the windows, and a green laser light, which was part of the DJ’s set up. Note, no one was dancing, but the DJ was jammin’ nonetheless. It was a good tasting meal, and the fried pears and bananas were good for desert. But, had I realized that I had also fallen into communist plot number two of the day, I would have avoided the combination of sparkling water with a food-poisoned (. . . by the Chinese communists, of course) seafood dish.

We got to the train station at about 5 in the evening Moscow time (10 in Ulan-Ude, but you never would have known that from the clocks. . .), said our farewells to our guide Misha, and boarded our wagon. It was a pretty quick lights out, as we were all pretty wiped from the long drive, and long week.

Friday, Oct 2: Food Poisoning

Communist plot number 2: Successful. After 4 scenes in the train bathroom and one in the little room at the end of the car before you walk out the door onto the tracks crouched over a bag, I was down and out for the count. Elizabeth ordered me a taxi home (the other two came along with, since we all live on the same road), Tatyana Eduardovna gave me strong tea upon arrival, and I spent the rest of the day in bed, missing the classes at school that I didn’t really want to go to in the first place. Not that I would have minded exchanging the class time for the train ride back to Irkutsk.

Returning to Irkutsk in the drizzly, morning rush hour, though, was a strange feeling of homecoming, yet complete estrangement only in the fact that I felt moderately comfortable telling the taxi driver how to get to the front door of my homestay so far away from real home.

But it was a successful trip, I learned a lot, saw new things, and had my time to gather my strength for the three-week stretch (now just two weeks) of classes until the actual scheduled fall recess. In other news, Romany and I purchased our train tickets today for our trip to Mongolia for the week of fall break. The one-sentence preview of that trip: 36 hour train to Ulan-Bator; 2 days there in the capital of Mongolia in a $10-a-night hostel; 4 days being led on horse or camel back through the Mongolian steppes by natives (no English or Russian there) who will house us, armed only with a small phrase book; and the 36-hour train ride back to Irkutsk. Who’d a’thunk. . . .