Thursday, 20 September 2012

Ulan Ude - Lenin's Big Head

It's Lenin's Head and it's huge
The train trip from Irkutzk was amazing – it is the section of the railway which follows the south eastern shore of Lake Baikhal for about a quarter of its length and the scenery was stunning (although our window could have done with a bit of a clean so all the photographs were a bit rubbish but we enjoyed it nevertheless!).  And we had the compartment to ourselves which was a bonus.

However, we arrived at our last stop in Russia a little weary after the 8 hour train trip and, to be honest, not looking forward to another homestay or another guided city tour. 

At Ulan Ude we were met by our driver who spoke very little English and we were struggling to summon up the energy to try to converse in Russian.  We were knackered and really just wanted to be left alone for a day or two preferably within the anonymity of a hotel with a private bathroom but instead we were heading to a stranger’s apartment which is always awkward in the initial stages. 
And the next day we had a 3 hour walking tour with a guide to look forward to, which involved us nodding and smiling in the right places, interjected with the odd “oh really” and “that’s interesting” – all we wanted to do was curl up with a few beers and recharge our batteries.

A church
We have had several conversations in the last few weeks about how either of us ever thought it was a good idea (a) to have an organised trip over which we would have little control and, more to the point (b)stay with complete strangers in their homes when neither of us are particularly outgoing, good at small talk, or comfortable in other people’s spaces, and hate being waited on, even in restaurants!  We both feel awkward in this situation, and it wasn’t getting any easier.  We were happily blaming each other for not pointing out to the other the error of this decision!

So we arrived at our homestay destination in Ulan Ude tired, with a sense of dread, and a bit grumpy.  The driver deposited us at an apartment with a family just around the corner from Ulan Ude’s most famous landmark – the giant Lenin head.  At this stage we didn’t know whether our driver was our host with his wife (a young woman was at home when we arrived, who spoke no English whatsoever), and our communication skills, had at this stage, been reduced to zero so being the cowards we are we elected to escape for an hour or two. We dumped our rucksacks in our room but left immediately to go for a wander. 

The memorial dedicated to those
executed for their political
beliefs under Stalin
including Rada's grandfather
We found the two main squares in Ulan Ude just around the corner.  One of these houses the huge Lenin Head which is, well, huge.  Apart from that, nothing really to say.  The other square has a massive fountain at the centre, with lots of seating and where the locals seem to spend time just chilling out.  So we jointed them and sat watching the fountain provide a spectacular display to the soundtrack of some classical music being piped from huge invisible speakers.  This wasted an hour or so while we smoked a pack of cigarettes each and summoned up the courage to head back to our homestay.

The population in Ulan Ude is clearly more Asian, a large part being of Buryat origin, an ethnic group much closer to the people of Mongolia , China, and Native Americans.  As a result the city doesn’t really feel part of Russia at all.  Apart from the language you feel like you’ve left Russia behind somewhere in mid Siberia.  It remained to be seen whether they would be any friendlier.

On our way back to the apartment we stopped off at the nearby supermarket which turned out to have the highest  prices we had ever seen for traveller food (we dubbed it Harrods because it was so ridiculously expensive).  We replenished our  supplies of bread, cheese, salami, beer, and plastic mugs.  In our rush to get off the train we had left our bag of food on the train which also contained our cutlery and thermal mugs which probably wasn’t a very  auspicious start to our stay here, and probably contributed to our general miserableness when we arrived (although it may be that the Russian disposition was rubbing off on us!). 

Another church
We paid for our bag of goodies and after we had picked our jaws up off the ground at the bill, gathered our gathered our expensive purchases, along with our courage, and headed back to the apartment.

In our absence, our actual host Rada had returned home.  At the risk of sounding like a couple of lazy British tourists, we were relieved to learn she spoke excellent English, and we immediately felt a little less isolated.  Despite agreeing between ourselves earlier, that the last thing we wanted was another 3 hour guided city tour, and that we would we would do everything in our power to get out of it, we found ourselves enthusiastically agreeing to set off with Rada after breakfast in the morning at about 10am.  We are nothing if not polite and hate to offend, and Rada did seem very nice.

During breakfast the following morning we caught up with the news on some Russian English-speaking news channel.  China and Japan were having a fight, the USA and the French were upsetting Muslims worldwide, and there was still a global economic crisis.  We hadn’t missed much then.

We then set off on our tour with Rada.  Ulan Ude is quite a pretty city – lots of Soviet era history but there is clearly more of an Asian and Buddhist influence. 

The Buddhist symbol of two fish
yin and yang
As Ulan Ude is located in Siberia there is more of the Siberian Exile history here so we learned a little about that shameful part of Russia’s past.  While Russia proudly informs you that it abolished the death penalty 1847 for all crimes except crimes against the Tsar, it was only to be replaced by the exile system and forced labour camps.  It was easy and convenient keep prisoners in such an isolated and forbidding environment, and they desperately need the labour to work down the mines in Siberia, or on projects such as the railway. 

If you survived the march to Siberia (which many didn’t so it weeded out the weak, the old and the young) you were subjected to hard labour.  The death toll was high.  You could be sentenced to exile for the most minor of offences.  Exile was also notoriously used as a punishment for beliefs which did not accord with the prevailing rulers at the time, whether it was the Tsar who exiled revolutionaries, or the communists who exiled aristocrats and their supporters, and of course Stalin needs no introduction.  

Stalin ramped the whole exile system up a notch with his Gulags and was responsible for the deaths of many millions of people from the late 1920s until his death, for no other reason than their nationality, ethnicity, religious or political beliefs.  It is estimated about 20 million but no official figures exist.  People from all around the former Soviet states and the far east (among many others) passed through his Gulags in Siberia.  It is a truly horrific part of Russian history.

One of the most interesting parts of our tour was what Rada,(who was Buryat and Buddhist)  told us about her own family.  We had met her mother briefly earlier in the day before breakfast - 85 years old, still going strong, and with a friendly smile which belied her traumatic childhood she certainly didn’t look her years. 

In about 1939 when Rada’s mother was a child, Rada’s grandfather was executed for his political beliefs.  Rada’s mother was part of a large family and they were ostracised by the wider community and as their mother could no longer look after all the children they were sent off to different places around Russia to live with various distant relatives.

They were eventually reunited some years later but not before they had all been through some considerable hardship.

After the fall of communism Rada’s mother and her surviving siblings have been recognised as being victims of political oppression.  Rada’s grandfather’s name is on a memorial in the city, which she proudly showed us, and it is personal stories such as these which bring the history alive.

Rada was an informative guide and really very charming.  We soon felt guilty for earlier wishing we were anywhere else but in her apartment.  After our guided walk, we left Rada to spend the rest of the day sitting on the riverbank which, if it were to be developed, could be a real asset.  The river itself is beautiful but there are a few factories in the distance churning out some nasty looking smoke.  But apart from that, it was pleasant and had potential . 

We also watched the local police rounding up the local drunks, who were catching up on their sleep on the benches along the river.  While it did seem as if the police had a bit of a full time job, we must admit that drinking was not quite the serious problem other Russians had led us to believe.  If you believe everything you were told, Ulan Ude is a hotbed of Buryat no-good, unemployed drunks.  That is not the impression we got at all, and probably just another example of discrimination and ignorance, which is prevalent all over the world, not just here in Russia.  In fact, the general atmosphere in Ulan Ude as a whole, was a bit jollier than most other places in Russia.

That evening we went to a Mongolian Restaurant which had rave reviews for good reason.  The food was excellent, but rather disappointingly (for Russia) we couldn’t smoke and so didn’t hang around long.  On the way home we watched another display by the fountain in the square, but this time to music and colour. 

All in all it was a very laid back city, we had a relaxing time (after our initial anxieties), and it was just what we needed before we headed off early the next morning on the train to Mongolia.  There is not an amazing amount to see in Ulan Ude but we suspect, given its proximity to the eastern side of Lake Baikal, that it will increase in popularity and in the future will be used as a stop off point more and more for travellers like us, who have the time to break up the train journey.   Although it does have the most expensive supermarket in Russia, so bring lots of roubles!



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