Ulan Ude to Irkutsk
11 June 2019
Sunday 9 June
We are in the centre of Russian Buddhism here in Ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat area, so will be visiting at least one Buddhist temple. Our train separated from its previous host train around seven o'clock last night, and the seven carriages were then shunted into a siding overnight, and for most of today. So we had a splendidly silent and motionless night, with only the sound of the endless freight trains passing us on other tracks. I say seven carriages, because in addition to the six I already mentioned, there is a carriage at the rear which is our generator of power when we are not in motion. While the train is moving all its power is taken from the overhead wires, but once stopped there is nothing to power our lights or air conditioning, so we need the generator unit to keep the train powered until this evening when we attach ourselves to the next scheduled passenger train heading for Moscow, and hitch a lift to Lake Baikal!
Meantime we're off at ten am to sample the delights of this historic capital, formerly a stop on the tea route from China, apparently. We have been reading it up on our Lonely Planet guide on the iPad.
Just had breakfast, the usual mix of fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, coffee and two hot courses, one of something described as porridge, then either omelette, sausages or pancakes.
The porridge varieties are interesting, my first was definitely rice pudding, my second was semolina. I still await oat porridge, but live in hopes. Our coffee is served in crystal glasses housed in ornamental metal holders. Classy.
Our first stop after a long bus ride was to a Buddhist temple complex, where there are a large number of temples, large and small. We observed the buddhist custom of walking round it clockwise first, then looking into some of the temples. They were everything from small, simple and wooden to large ornate and also made of wood. There was one marvel we saw, a buddhist monk from the local area, born in the eighteenth century, who was buried and for some reason his grave was reopened some centuries later, only to discover that his body ws almost exactly as it had been in life. We entered the temple where his body, seated and dressed in monk's clothes, forms the centrepiece of the altar. Only his head is visible but it is remarkably preserved. A real mystery.
Then it was back to the bus and off to the opera square, after a quick look at a huge Lenin statue, and in the square beside the opera classical music was playing from loudspeakers while children played in mini electric cars. Our guides got us into the opera house, where a troupe of singers and dancers were entertaining an audience of tourists with hearty cossack music. We took photos quickly and left.
Then another incredibly long and bumpy drive out of the city to a small Buryat village, with yurts and wooden houses, where we were welcomed to lunch in a large wooden yurt. Accompanying the lunch was a bottle of local vodka, which was poured into tiny tankards, repeatedly, as we ran through at least four traditional Buryat toasts, to friendship, peace, love, and the stuff was so good I forget the rest.
Food was excellent, and included the traditional meat dumplings made in the shape of a yurt, which had to be eaten in a certain traditional way, biting out the door first, then draining the gravy from the inside, before scoffing the rest. An acquired art! The Buryat people were nomadic, travelling with their herds of camels, horses, cattle, sheep and goats. They did not grow anything, and lived in portable yurts. As our guide said, there were no vegetarian Buryats!
After lunch we lurched down to a performance area, where a team of four musicians and two gifted girls played, sang and danced for us, using traditional instruments resermbling a dulcimer, a harp, a viola and a ukulele.
Then it was time to learn some Buryat skills, like archery, yurt building, playing games of chance with sheep's ankle bones (I kid you not), trying on traditional dress, and dancing in big circles.
We enjoyed all the activities, although I was rubbish at the archery, but the heat was oppressive after a while. We learned later it had been 30 degrees, a really dry heat, and it surprised our hosts as much as ourselves, as the weather in this area had been really cold even a couple of days ago.
When we got back to the city we first visited another buddhist temple, on a hill, with marvellous views over this amazing city. Formerly it had been a closed city, with military establishments, but now it is open to tourists.
We were beginning to get a bit weary by this time, and were conscious of the fact that we were not due to go back to the train until 9.30pm. The minibus took us back to opera square, but this time we set off down the hill from the soviet part of the city down to the older imperial quarter. It was a lovely long hill, with some shade to walk in, a large stone arch commemorating a visit by Czar Nicholas the Second, a bronze statue on a park bench of Anton Chekov, and lots of stall selling a favourite Russian drink on hot days, called KBAC, or something. It was cold and dark, and tasted unusual. Our guide said if she told us what it was we wouldn't drink it. Ha ha, I thought. But we did drink it because it was refreshing and it was cold. Later she told us it was a combination of rye and yeast and sugar and water. So it tasted vaguely like rye bread.
On down this long street towards an old Orthodox church, which looked huge from the outside and was tiny inside. Go figure.
Then finally a visit to a monument to the dead who suffered in the gulag archipelago. Thousands of people from Ulan Ude were incarcerated for political or presumed political dissent, some killed straight away, some languishing in the prison camps for years.
Then we were whisked off to a nice restaurant for dinner, then back to the train, which was all hitched up again ready for the off.
Tomorrow, hopefully, they give us back our missing luggage. Not a moment too soon. Buying new t-shirts all the time doesn't work long term.