My shortest leg of the Trans-Siberian was between Ulan Ude and Irkutsk, around the gorgeous scenery of Lake Baikal.
Never have I felt such joy in beholding Lenin’s face.
Let me explain, lest you think me now a supporter of the Communist Party. Rewind by an hour or two and you see me getting off the Trans-Siberian in Ulan Ude. We had pulled into track 3 or 4, and as I looked about for a way to get to the station, I noticed that everyone, babushkas and passengers laden with many bags included, were just walking over tracks 1 and 2. I resolved to follow them, despite the fact that the tracks were covered by a thick layer of ice and I am a little top heavy when carrying my backpack.
I made it across, exited, and dodged the taxi drivers to start out for my hostel, located near Soviet Square and the Lenin head (the biggest one in Russia). Unlike for my arrival in Vladivostok, I had prepared for my arrival in Ulan Ude by examining the map in my guidebook and actually leaving my guidebook accessible. I set out walking in the general direction of my hostel based on the map. I walked for a way and realized that none of the street names were on the map. I passed a dead dog on the side of the street and was walking over sheets of ice or mud covering whatever sidewalk there was. The state of the infrastructure was in stark contrast to the nice clothes people (especially the young women) were wearing. They managed walking in heels on ice very well! What also threw me a little while I was walking along was the large number of Buryat, an ethnic group in the area who resemble Mongols. (Ulan Ude is the capital of Buryatia). What was strange was that their native language is Russian but since I’d recently been in Japan and Korea, I expected the Buryat to speak an Asian language.
I tried to stop a person or two to ask for directions but they shied away – I suppose I looked pretty wild-eyed. Finally an older lady stopped long enough to point me in the right direction. Actually, I’m pretty sure she was telling me to take the tram but there was no way I was going to let myself get as lost as quickly as you can by vehicle!
I walked…and I walked. I was worried the lady hadn’t understood my request as I still wasn’t seeing the big head of Lenin which decorates the main square. I realized that I had a lovely picture of Lenin’s head in my guidebook and I used that to ask a young Buryat lady for directions. She pointed me in the direction of the underpass (yes, under the railway tracks) and my suspicion was confirmed – I had exited the station on the wrong side, and had been walking off the map.
Once I knew that, it took me very little time to get to where I was going (barring the ice). And that brings me to my profound joy upon seeing Lenin’s head.
I found the hostel shortly thereafter and immediately took a shower – three days on the train with no shower made bring able to wash my hair an amazing delight. Unfortunately, the toilet was similar to that on the train where you couldn’t flush any paper products, but rather had to throw them away. (Maybe the hostel’s building had a septic tank?) I did however simply assume that the hostel’s water was safe to drink and haven’t had any ill effects from brushing my teeth with it, though all other water was boiled. (It was strange to me that I would have to ask about water safety in Russia.)
I took some awkward pictures of myself in front of Lenin’s head, and explored Arbat Lenina, a pedestrian-only street that’s lined by 19th century buildings. I took some detours down random side streets, again without sidewalks, but lined in atmospheric, Siberian wooden houses. These houses are built of old, dark, weathered wood and they often have wooden fret-work trimming their eves and big painted shutters. If you think of Dr Zhivago, you won’t be far off. (Not to mention all the birches there are in Siberia – I feel like I should be in a sleigh pulled by horses, and possibly pursued by wolves or some scary supernatural creatures – instead of in a cozy sleeper on a modern train.)
Everywhere there are stray dogs, but they don’t seem too preoccupied by the humans around them.
On my way back through the old city, I stopped by the city museum. It had a couple of rooms set up in 19th century fashion to show what life was like back when.
I returned to the hostel, which is almost more like a home stay. There are 12 or 16 bunks in two rooms, a communal room, a kitchen, and the owner and his wife’s rooms. Perhaps because it is the smallest hostel I’ve stayed in, or perhaps it was that I was traveling on my own, but it had a nicely communal feel. I ended the evening chatting with the two French guys, guy from Hong Kong, woman from Germany, and owner.