Saturday, July 6, 2013

Summer 2013 - 2nd Stop: Ulan-Ude

Well, Ulan-Ude is lovely! A really nice town, small enough to walk around quite easily, but still plenty to catch your eye; beautiful buildings, big open areas and they've even got a Subway! What's not to love!? Another interesting thing about the place is the diversity of the population. For example, in Irkutsk, everyone looked very... well, Russian! I know that probably sounds like a stupid thing to say, but it's strange for a city that's certainly Asian in terms of geography, over 4,000 km from Moscow, to be filled with your typical blonde hair, blue eyed, Aryan race. In Ulan-Ude however, it's definitely more of a cultural melting pot with a large portion, even possibly a majority, of ethnic Mongols. I don't know if it's because of this reason, or because it's a lot smaller than Irkutsk, but there just seemed to be a much lighter atmosphere around Ulan-Ude. Anyway, in conclusion, it's lovely!

So, continuing on from where I last left off...

We were up extra early the next morning as we had to catch a minibus to UU and, as it was quite hard to find any information online, we wanted to make sure we were at the station in plenty of time, just to be ahead of the game. Although, our early start was undone right away as we got on the wrong bus to the station - disaster! We had no idea where we were and so had to continue on until the bus had finished its route, wait for it loop back around, and then ask the driver (who was very helpful despite any English) which stop would leave us closest to our goal. So, off we got and plodded along in the direction of the station.

On the way, we passed a tourist office and decided to pop in to make sure we were on the right track, only to find that it didn't matter what direction we were headed as the bus to Ulan-Ude leaves from the train station, not the bus station (obviously...!). So, we had to jump on a tram to take us to the other side of the city, in the hopes that we hadn't missed the last bus - and we hadn't! Our early start hadn't been in vain after all.

When we arrived, all of the bus signs were in Russian, so we just had to look out for a minibus with a *4 symbol* *hyphen* *3 symbol* combination (and hope there weren't any other towns similarly phrased). And we found one! Off to Ulan-Ude finally!

It took us close to 7 and a half hours to get there in the end, although, over an hour of that was probably spent on needless toilet breaks in the middle of nowhere. Having said that, we did stop off at a nice lookout point over Lake Baikal. It was good to see it again now that we had a bit of sunshine to better enjoy the view.

We arrived at Ulan-Ude train station that evening, greeted by pouring rain. I had walking directions to our hostel but it's never much fun searching around a strange city, soaked to the skin and dragging your luggage behind you, so we found a taxi. And after initially being quoted 500 Roubles, we brought out the good cop / bad cop routine once more, and haggled him down to 200. (Poor negotiating from the driver though, I must say - we were standing in the rain, clearly not knowing where we were going - not exactly the strongest position to bargain from)

At the hostel, we got settled and waited for the rain to die down, but we still got to have a general wander before sunset. And that's another point to note, and the same goes for Irkutsk - it doesn't get dark here until at least half 10 every night! It's great!

As it's quite a small town, and as we had over two full days here, we could afford to relax and take our time - so no Russian around! We also had the pleasure of experiencing Ulan-Ude's unique international claim to fame. Last year, if you remember, we saw the world's biggest wooden spoon in Miyajima, and of course we thought nothing could ever top that. But then came Ulan-Ude with, ladies and gentlemen, the world's biggest... Lenin head!

He certainly changed a lot after leaving The Beatles...

Apart from the above, there aren't a whole lot of other major sights in town. Across the road from Lenin's Head, there's the opera house and a lovely fountain, and then down at the other end of the main street (named Lenin St.), there's Odigitrievsky Cathedral, which is very pretty and similar in style to some of the typical Russian churches that we had seen in Irkutsk.

That evening, we went out to sample some Russian cuisine. We always make a big effort to be adventurous wherever we go as it really helps you to understand the local culture. In fact, we found a lovely, quaint little restaurant on Lenin Street to experience some unique Siberian delicacies...

Lol, jk! We went to an Irish pub, which was creatively named, "Irish Pub"!

And it didn't disappoint! Not so much the food which was only so-so, but the menu, that was clearly put together by someone who only had the faintest grasp of Irish culture. Dishes included the "Generous Leprechaun", the "Belfast Mystery" (which sounds more like a homemade car bomb), the Gaelic this, the Celtic that etc. etc., which all bore no relation to the actual dish.

But far and away the best they had to offer - from the streets of Mayfield to the tables of Ulan-Ude...

I don't even understand the concept of 'garlic toast and peanuts' as a meal, never mind its relevance to Roy Keane!

On our final day, we wandered further afield and got a bus to Rinpoche Bagsha Datsan, a Buddhist monastery about a 15 minute bus ride from the city centre, which is situated on top of a hill with a great view over the surrounding area. Unfortunately, there was major construction work going on while we were there which kinda killed the 'meditative Buddhist vibe' of the place, and also meant that the view was littered with JCBs and bags of cement. We still had a laugh though!

And also made a video diary there:

The next morning, in fact, tomorrow morning (I'm actually writing this in real time for once!) we'll be ending our short but very enjoyable stay in Russia, to hop on a 12 hour bus to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia - a new country, and undoubtedly a new adventure! 

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