Posts Tagged ‘museum’

Commemorative monument to Chita's founding in 1653 (other pictures at end of post).

If they made shirts that said “I <3 Chita,” I would buy one and wear it all the time.

‘NICE’ & ‘TRAIN’. Two words that up to now I hadn’t considered being utterable in the same sentence. Nevertheless. The train was nice (that is, from Ulan-Ude to Chita). Relatively speaking, of course.

Yes, the Russian men still smelled, and the beds were still 6 inches too short for my legs, which, hanging out into the aisle, no matter, people walked through as if they weren’t there at all. But, the windows were able to be opened, and the wagon was clearly not of Soviet production (a personal first). We took off from our UU hotel at 4 a.m. (in an 80 ruble taxi!), slept ’til midday, ate, and began to see the outskirts of Chita a few hours later, around 5 p.m. local time.

Coming in from the west on the south side of the Chita River, you see the city stretches along the north bank, as if back into time: (more…)


"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…)

Bottom line: I love Berlin. Or maybe it’s just Europe. Or maybe it’s just not-Russia. Even though spending in the Euro zone is excruciating painful when a simple bottled water at 1,50 EUR really means 2+ American buckeroo’s, I’ve come back to the (more) capitalist system with a new (and happy) acceptance of inflated prices that (more than) cover the little Western concept called “service with a smile.”

AirBerlin gets thumbs up. Offered a complimentary mint with German- and Russian-language print media (LOOK! It’s a free press!) upon boarding (I took the only in-Russian newspaper, marking me, I think, as someone [a Russian] who would be surprised to read about new, non-censored ideas), I took my emergency-row seat. Ahh, leg room. And an empty seat between me and my row-partner.

Unfortuantely, it’s too easy, especially with a significant portion of German blood in your veins (I think I’m more than half German with Austrian), to cheerfully greet someone “Hallo!” and get a paragraph-long answer back, also in German, before it makes sense to give the guileful smile and shrug of the shoulders, “English?” To this (with one exception at the grocery store), I’ve been well taken care of 1) in my language and 2) with a genuine smile. Yeah, definitely not Russia. (more…)

Jan 5. State power day. Woo! Filled with a late breakfast (usually the broiled potatoes Ryan had made, long-overdue Honey Nut Cheerios with milk and OJ–simple delights I hadn’t had in months), I arrived at Kremlin walls just after 12 noon, where the line to see Lenin’s Mausoleum (free) was being told that they probably wouldn’t make it that day (the attraction closing at 1 p.m.). Since no one else seemed to believe the police officers saying so, I stayed in line and did make it within the last 20 minutes.

After the baggage check (40 rub.) and metal detectors, you walk along a bush- and grave-lined walkway along the Kremlin wall next to Red Square, occasionally seeing a name that pops out: Khruschev (USSR premier), Gagarin (first man in space), Stalin (had about 30% of the country killed). The path leads around the front of the monument, where you walk into the mostly dark, black granite structure labeled “LENIN.” The guard shushes anyone talking and with an aggressive flare of the eye, tells you to get your hands out of your pockets and to take off your hat. You walk down the stares, passing more guards saying “SHH!” with their fingers in front of their lips

And then boom. There he is. (more…)

Moskva. Bottom line: my feet hurt. Yes, great metro and bus system, but stepping out of every metro station and glancing around would hardly give a traveller the right idea of the city. Thus, walking can’t be done without, and so, walk I did.

Jan 1. And the decade begins. Streets quiet (except for the left-over fireworks and blank gunshots that continued until the day I left) and littered with empty bottles of Russian champagne ($2.99/bottle), Ryan and I got up early to get him to Sheremetyevo airport for his noon flight. Buying our train tickets to the airport just in time from the electric walk-up vendor (“3 minutes until next train”), only afterwards did the conductor decide to tell us that the first train wasn’t for another hour.

When I asked, “Because of the new year?” I noticed that it was a bit ominous to already be combining “new year” with “iz-za,” the participle used for negative reasons. No other bad omens have popped up since. (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 saga of my trip with Romany to not-Russia, almost-Far-East Asia begins. To sum it up, and in honor of Asia, I’ll even compose a little haiku (with full knowledge that the haiku is, in fact, not a Mongolian poetry form).

Train across the steppe.
UB. Camels. Really far.
Russia seems better.

Publishable almost, right?
. . .

Day 1 (Sat., Oct. 24): Getting abroad from abroad

Packing and leaving. Around noon on Friday a week and a half ago (Oct. 23), I realized the train left about 2 hours before I originally thought, meaning I needed to be at the train station around 9 p.m. So packing and getting ready was slightly more rushed than I had planned. But manageable, seeing how I packed for my whole year in Siberia within the 24 hours before my plane’s departure for Russia.

For a week in Mongolia, a really warm set of clothes, and a few spare pairs of boxers, socks, and t-shirts were basically it. Plus a small stack of books that were barely opened. But who didn’t see that one coming. After getting back from the central Irkutsk market where I got a pair of cotton Nike-knock-off gloves for the trip, I got everything packed in my backpacking pack, which I’ve found to have been a great choice over a suitcase.

Evgenii Evgenievich (who’s taken over the household duties in my host mom’s absence visiting family across the country) boiled some eggs for me and packed some bread and cheese and fruit, plus the tea with candy. He insisted I take the same 6-fl.-oz.-ish container of sugar that he had taken on his train trip. I told him that I don’t have sugar with my tea and couldn’t think of any reason why I’d need a cup of sugar in Mongolia. He nodded his head in acknowledgment, walked out of the room, and then returned with the container refilled in his outstretched hand with an incomprehensible smile on his face.

I took the sugar with me, but that doesn’t mean he was right. When I returned this morning, it was completely full, minus the spoonful Romany used last night on the train. I guess I took his sugar cup sightseeing.

The taxi to the train station cost 30 rubles less than the taxi I took there on the way to Buryatia. I was intentionally trying to be less tourist/American and more brash/Russian than the last time, and I think it paid off. A whole $1.10. But considering that’s about a 15% over-charge/savings due to my Americanness/Russianness, I’m still pretty happy about it.

The Foreigner Car. Train tickets for foreigners in Russia cost significantly more than tickets for citizens. Bureaucratic markup, I supposed. But. When we got onto our train car with plush seats (i.e. smelly and seedy old train mattress pads not necessary to add beneath complimentary sheet set) and a flat-screen TV (granted, only with 3 channels of static and 1 channel of blue screen), we were less upset about the markup.


What’s more, we didn’t hear much Russian at all on the car, since as they had put all the over-charged foreigners into the nice car: some English, a Scot, some Chinese. Plus us 2 Americans.

Our compartment-mates were two Canadians from British Columbia, grade-school best buds Kyle and Kelly, who were traveling from Sweden, through Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet, and India on their way to Thailand. Conversation over tea introducing ourselves and comparing our two-month impressions of Russia with their two-day impressions went on until about midnight, and then went to bed, rocked to sleep by the motion of the Ulan-Ude-bound train.

Day on/off the train. We, the four young 20-somethings with nothing to do on a train for another 24 hours, slept in until about 11:00. After waking up, we discovered we were the caboose of a five-car train, consisting of the over-priced foreigner kupe (4-person compartment) car, and four packed-to-the-brim-with-Russians platskart (6-people to an open, nook-like area) cars. The landscape was great, especially passing Goose Lake.


After another few hours of eating and talking, we pulled in to Naushki, the town on the Russian side of the border. The first great anomaly of the trip was the fact that the train was stopped there, not doing very much for 6 hours. They rearranged the cars, added some, etc. But other than that, we never figured out the reason for the extremely long stop.

So we got off the train to explore Naushki. Pretty dull, but we managed to fill a few of the hours at least. Walk through the park. See the small WWII monument. See the crumbling moose/horse statues. Climb to top of town hill. Stand at top of (windy) town hill for 20 minutes, wondering where Mongolia starts and taking pictures. . . .


Descend town hill. Walk down typical Russian village street. Take pictures of typical, but pretty painted Russian doors and windows. Realize village street is typical, thus a dead end. Go down another street. Find a pack of staring, growling dogs. Avoid said pack of dogs. Walk past closed stores. Go into market. Buy last Russian cookies. Leave market. Pay 8 rubles to use surprisingly clean station toilets. Get back on train because you’ve “done Naushki.”

We filled out our border-crossing paperwork as we started up, and then went at a stop-and-go pace from about 7 to 9 as different passport and customs officials of both Russia and Mongolia got on and off the train, muttering requests in half-English, half-native language. Then the money changers/hawkers got on the train to rip us off and scare us that we wouldn’t be able to change money easily in Mongolia. So we changed a little bit, just to be sure. Again, another made-for-foreigner rip-off.

After the border madness, we settled down for an evening of word games (in English–woo!) with the Canadians. Then a little Mongolian girl came in and entertained us with her drawings and pointing at the silly foreigners who had no idea what she was saying. She got a real big kick out of the last part. Her mother took her away for bedtime when she saw her daughter dragging a bemused and only half willing American (me) down the car. Bedtime for us wasn’t too far away, either. October 24 happened to be the International Day of Action against global climate change. Basically, people around the world did crazy things involving the number 350, which is the number of parts-per-million of CO2 that has been exceeded and is contributing to global warming. It’s a grass-roots awareness type of thing, so what we ended up doing was at least in the spirit, if not as over-the-top as other actions.


Romany and I had created an account on the site to say we’d participate by doing an action at the border. We didn’t have any ideas that we were really psyched to carry out, so we ended up talking with the occupants of The Foreigner Car about it, making a few signs, trying to convince a few Russians to pose with the signs, 100% predictably failing to do so (but hey, had to try for the record), and then just taking pictures of ourselves (Canadian compartment-mates included) holding the signs around various not-automobile modes of transportation for the rest of the trip.

Lessons learned on Day 1:

  1. Canadians are great.
  2. Don’t plan to stay in Naushki for more than 2 hours.
  3. Don’t plan to stay in Naushki for less than 6 hours if traveling across the border by train.
  4. Win the provodnitsa (train-car manager woman) over early by getting tea and using your endearing Russian grammar of a 5 year old as much as possible.
  5. Once you cross the border into Mongolia, you realize: you’re in Mongolia, as in, “Mongolia.”

And the saga continues (from Part 1). It might not be your ever-encapsulating expedition through Paris or African safari, but I can’t imagine you’ve read too many blog posts about this place.

Monday, Sep 28: Through the Barguzin Valley

Orientation: To give you a visual, think of Lake Baikal as being shaped like a crescent moon like a right parenthesis, as such: ). But tilt it about 30 degrees clockwise so that the right bank is more or less perpendicular to the equator. Then put Ulan-Ude off to the right (east) a bit, about a 1/3 of the way to the north from the southern-most point of Baikal. Then Ust’-Barguzin (where we stayed Sunday night) goes about 1/2 the way up, right on the border. Or just search these places on Google Maps.

Anyways, the Barguzinskii Valley, through which runs the Barguzin River (the fourth largest tributary of Baikal), stretches out from the mouth on Lake Baikal at about a 45 degree angle to the northeast for about 200 km. We set out on the road running along the foot of the gigantic, sharp and rocky, snow-capped–majestic, in a word–mountains of the northwest side of the valley, and made a few stops along the way.

Ferry across the river Barguzin: Romany and I pretended to take pictures of the coast to get a shot of a nice old lady with a bike who talked to us through the rolled-down window of the van about what we were doing there.


Cemetery in the town, Barguzin: Walked around a cemetery that had a few graves of Decembrists, who were exiled to the area around the town. But get this. In the language school play this summer, Pushkinogopolis (a grotesque about the relationship Pushkin and Gogol never, historically, had), when I was playing the character of an Italian in a Siberian camp, I played opposite someone playing the Decembrist, M.K. Kukhelbaker (1798-1858), whose grave I was standing there photographing. What’s more, the first lines to the poem Pushkin wrote (“In the depths of the Siberian mineshafts. . .” –again, sounds better in Russian) to the Decembrists in exile, which we had just learned a week beforehand in our Russian Lit class, were engraved over this grave. Go figure. Small world (which I think means more coming from Siberia).


Photo-op in the valley, Barguzin (Note: all these “Barguzin’s” are very spread out across the map, despite their similarities in spelling): More random datsans included.


P9284494Buryat holy place at Kurumkan: We got out of the car and Misha led us through a peaceful wood with all the signs of a datsan nearby: the prayer banners and other pieces of cloth tied to tree trunks and branches, coins and unused cigarettes tossed about the ground and placed on rocks and tree stumps, little stone pillars stacked up everywhere, the domestic dogs running around. And then the prayer banners started getting thicker, and thicker, and then they were literally everywhere.


Finally, almost a kilometer in, we got to our destination. It was a little glass-encased Buddhist-style pavilion housing a big rock. Apparently, the rock had an imprint on it of the goddess who dwells on the mountain top towards which we had been climbing, and if you can make out the imprint, that means she’s appearing to you and you’re going to have a fertile womb. None of the guys saw it. But Romany did. Mazel tov.


Alla (“. . .back girl, ain’t no ‘alla back. . .”): A little town situated almost at the northeastern-most point of the valley, Alla (not related to the Muslim Allah, population 8,000. . . so like the Siberian, Buryat/Russian version of Middlebury minus the university and mostly everything else) was our next overnight rest spot. But, by that point unsurprisingly, this rest spot was located somewhere at the base of a mountain, to which we could only get by turning off onto a dirt road that cut through open plain, half-forest/half-plain, full forest and almost bog. With all his typical coolness, though, Misha navigated the bumpy, boulder-filled dirt paths through said terrain, and got us to our “kurort” (the Russian word for resort that includes any sort of warm-, water-, or beach-related vacation/rest spot).

P9284607After dropping our things off in the domik we stayed in that night, we took a hike along a stream to a beautiful, at least 75-foot tall series of waterfalls that ran off another Buryat holy mountain (all of which are illegal to summit without permission from the religious administration of the given area). On the way back, we stopped and got a beautiful of the valley of this particular tributary-to-the-Barguzin. The dark gray mountains running on both sides of the bright sand-white river basin, dotted with the deep green or alternate bright yellow of the autumn trees, gave way in the far distance to the blue-white of again snow-capped mountains. Julie Andrews singing the reprise of “Climb Every Mountain” at the end of the Sound of Music popped into my head.

Hot springs and a hot dinner: We got back as the sun was getting ready to go down and took our dip in the hot springs along the river basin. After our hike, it was the perfect end to the day to sit for the recommended 15 minutes in the naturally heated water in the dark and tellingly rotten-egg, sulfurous smelling wooden shack. Afterwards, Misha showed us the other sources of different mineral waters in the general vicinity, each marked with painted signs reading “for the eyes,” “for joints,” etc. indicating which part of the body the given chemicals would help.

As we were finishing our dinner later, we were joined by two Petersburgers, Vika and her friend Paulina, two normal looking Russians who were taking a long vacation. Romany and I got to talking with them, mostly Vika, who took an instant liking to us and complimented us on our Russian. She also gave us the name and number of her friend who’s a doctor in Irkutsk (who’s also a Ukrainian, a fact that she shared with us with the typical Russian giggle about the Ukrainian accent, a giggle which I’m finding is basically a rule of Russian conversation about the Ukraine). She was a funny little lady, with short, white, kind of spiky hair, a painter by profession, who was more than happy to share with us her philosophy on the balance that people should try to observe between nature and man-made stuff. She and her friend were also Buddhist. Accordingly, they had their night prayers to chant and beat a drum and tambourine to, but enchanted with our random but quickly endeared new friend, we went to sleep listening to their foreign prayers in the room next door.

Tuesday, Sep 29: Leaving the Barguzin Valley

Museum and Cultural Center in Alla: First thing in the morning, we left the hot springs resort for the museum, housed in a traditional Russian house in Alla. A nice lady showed us around their room of traditional garb, nick-knaks, and photo-history books, and then told us about the cultural activities and classes that they conduct for the Buryat and endemic Evenkiiski peoples who live in the area.


Where in time is Carmen Sandiego? I got to thinking that it’s pretty amazing that such vastly different cultures and religious- and lifestyle-traditions (Russian/Orthodoxy, Buryat/Buddhism, Evenkiiski/Shamanism) could exist so strongly and independently of one another in such a small and isolated microcosm of a place, yet, as we were told, each have evolved into a modernized-enough lifestyle where members of each group think of themselves as typical Russians. That was also the case with the Semeiski people we talked with, that is, that they thought of themselves as everyday folk.

As much as it’s a step forward in time, preserving such old cultures in such vibrant and very much alive ways to the present day, still, for me, learning about a lot of these cultures was also very much a step back in time, as I was living in little houses heated by wood ovens, sleeping on matress-less, wooden beds with hand-made covers and real down bedding, seeing people dressed in hand-made garments passed down through generations, and so on.

Such thoughts were occurring to me as we began to cut across the vast and sometimes swampy plains of the valley, finally being able to get a good view of the gigantic mountains to the geologically newer West (closer to the Baikal rift, the source of the area’s seismic activity) and the slightly more rolling mountains to the East. We crossed the Barguzin and soon found ourselves in a rock garden, used by Buddhist believers of old. I didn’t really get why they call it a “garden,” because seeds, soil, sunlight, sweat, patience, and a green thumb had no part in the rocks getting there. Probably a “Garden of the gods” or “of earth’s erosion patterns” or something.

To take me back even further on my H.G. Wells trip, when Misha pulled the car over along yet another random dirt road (mind you, we usually just got places, and then found out what they were) and told us that there were paintings from the Bronze Age (3000 BCE), my jaw kinda dropped. But yeah. There, just a few yards up from the ground level, you could make out the red outlines of the paint (made from blood and a ground up pigment) depicting a shaman with a few regular Buryat’s just hangin’ out. From 5000 years ago. CRAZY!

“And that ain’t no bull:” We also saw the “Bull rock” (also a Buryat holy place speckled with the colorful prayer banners and a black dog running around), which is a rock that according to legend used to be a cow that wandered too far from his keeper, and too close to the god that lived on the mountain he got too close to. We had a lunch on the side of a low mountain with some cool rock formations at the top, which we climbed to. As we got to the top and got the view over the valley from the east, again, roll the Julie Andrews. . . . Elizabeth told us that there are a lot of nameless peaks on the west side of the valley that haven’t been summitted and officially registered yet, which means that, in all seriousness, if I got bored in the spring and wanted to come back, even as a foreigner, I could find one of such mountaintops on a map, fill out the paperwork, climb it, plant the flag, and have a Mount Mahoney overlooking Baikal. To assess the probability of this happening, I reference my post on the Russian bureaucracy.


Weather spoiler: So far on the trip, we’d had a mix of overcast with a splash of sunlight here and there, at which time we’d flip on our cameras to get as many shots in the good light as possible. Unfortunately, the one night we were sleeping in a tent on the coast of Baikal in preparation for our hiking a daunting, 1877-meter, straight-upwards trail to the top of the Svyatoi Nos peninsula, the weather turned, canceling any hope of our Everest hike. But we did the tent anyways.

Misha and Elizabeth sent us three out to find firewood while they set up the tent. It occurred to us later that they probably didn’t care about the firewood, they just wanted to quickly set up the tent on their own without us before it got completely dark, seeing as the rain was steady and we had a gas stove anyways. Good thing, because we didn’t find any dry wood. Duh. As the rain picked up and the wind (and like strong, big, gale-strength Baikal wind, called a “burya”) howled outside the well-constructed and comfortably spacious tent, we crouched around the little camp table preparing dinner. I had two revelations. The first, the Russian word for raisin is fun to say (izyum). And the second, that I had been peeling potatoes incorrectly for my whole life. Which really doesn’t mean anything, since the night before that was the first time in my life that I had ever peeled potatoes.

But with full stomachs and warm sleeping bags, we drifted to sleep listening to the storm and the huge waves crashing onto the sandy beach of Baikal a stone’s throw away.

Next time on “Update Buryatia”. . . Pollution clean-up efforts and an ugly case of food poisoning by the Chinese (. . . restaurant named Omon). There aren’t any pictures, don’t worry. ‘Til then.