Ulan Ude’s Big Head
Our next part of the Trans-Siberian Railway trip was to Ulan Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia in Siberia with 20% of the 440,000 population being nomadic Buryat Mongols. But before we share our experience in this small city, let’s update you on our journey.
We left Irkutsk in the early sub-zero morning, wearing every layer possible. The train arrived promptly, and we climbed the stairs in trepidation of who would be joining us in our carriage. Thankfully, no drunkard. A nice young lady, Dasha, training to be a primary school teacher, sat embroidering an angel, so we had some peace while looking out of the window.
About an hour into our journey, the train zig-zagged down the side of a hill, and there it was, glistening in the sun like a brilliant jewel in the midst of Siberia. Lake Baikal. I now understand why this trip is so magical, as well as being the longest railway line in the world.
The train chugged on for 200km with panoramic views of this gem of a lake on our left; we were so lucky to have such a bright sunny day again, we certainly got our money’s worth of a view.
Eventually, the train turned right towards Ulan Ude, and this sprawling metropolis soon greeted us. First impressions weren’t positive. Bland concrete blocks of flats with no design features lined the busy roads. There must be more to this place. In our Lonely Planet’s guide, it said that Ulan Ude “is one of Eastern Siberia’s most likeable cities.”
There was one specific thing we wanted to see here on our short visit. We detoured from going directly to our accommodation, and as we turned the corner into the main Ploshchad Sovetov square, there he was on a tall plinth: a giant head of Lenin. It’s colossal! We have seen several Lenin statues on our journey in Russia, (none of Stalin), but this is the most impressive, standing at 7.7 m. It was built in 1970, one hundred years after Lenin’s birth and made from bronze, weighing 42 tons.
We passed the Buryat State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre with a pretty statue of ballet dancers and walked down Lenina Street, a pleasant pedestrian walkway. At the other end, the surroundings changed; we were in the Old Town. This is more like it; beautiful quaint wooden dachas with intricate friezes above the doors and windows and walls made from whole trunks of trees, keeping the homes cool in the hot summer and warm in the freezing winter.
We got to what we thought was our accommodation, but couldn’t work out how to get through the metal gate. It was getting dark and cold, with stray dogs lurking. Tim knocked next door and a young lad answered. He went back into the house as if he was getting help, came out again and called out “do svidaniya” (goodbye – for you English speakers) and closed the door! Oh dear, what to do? We had no sim to contact our lodgings.
A guy passed us, so Tim quickly showed him our booking sheet. He pointed to a wooden building with a big red sign above. Had we learnt the Russian alphabet, perhaps we would have known this was our Guest House? At last, we were tucked into our nice cosy room. Phew!
The following morning, after a quick breakfast, where the host ushered us out of the tiny dining room after 15 minutes to make way for the next guests, we walked into the city and went to an Art Museum.
There were a choice of exhibitions and a cost for each one. We chose two, the "Masterpieces of Russian art from the storerooms of the art museum" and “Bato Dashitsyrenov” who originated from this area.
The first exhibit was a range of artwork by famous 19th - early 20th-century Russian artists to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Art Museum. The other exhibition was of Bato Dashitsyrenov’s work, who was a renowned set designer as well as painter and sculpture with his works exhibiting worldwide. Sadly he died in 2010, aged 49. Some of his work we liked, especially the rotund statues with small heads.
There would have been a few other things that we could have seen if we had more time. A 45 minutes bus journey would have taken us to Datsan Rinpoche Bagsha, a Buddhist temple, but buses back were on the hour and time was tight. Or we could have visited the outdoor Ethnographic Museum which piqued my interest when I read that it displayed traditional Buryat wooden yurts. However, the uncomplimentary reviews of some animals being cooped up in small cages there put us off.
After lunch, we picked up our luggage and headed for the train. Wearing five layers of clothes, by the time we reached our carriage, we were sweltering and quickly stripped off. This time, there was no one else joining us; we had treated ourselves and booked a first-class compartment! Very nice too.
At sunset, the scenery was amazing as we passed by another lake, quite a bit smaller than Lake Baikal. Shortly after we stopped for passport control and several officers climbed on the train checking our room, passports and forms. All good, we finally got to bed.