Published: June 9th 2012June 9th 2012
After a train trip that lived up to expectations (12 hours of actual moving on the train, 6 hours of inexplicably sitting on the platform doing nothing, 6 hours of border processing), we arrived in Ulan-Ude at the sparky hour of 11pm. After a quick glimpse of the giant Lenin head in the city square it was off to the hotel. The next morning we shivered our way onto the bus, with the expectation of snow in the air. Hello Siberia!
First up - an inspection of Lenin up close (the locals call him the 'Chuppa Chup'), it was off in our tizzed out mini-van (a frequent thing in Siberia apparently, think tassles, curtains, hardly any glimpse outside) to an Old Believers village for some history learning and lunch. Some of the first exiles to Siberia, something to do with a church split and Catherine the Great and then walking all 8,000km to Siberia. Now that is commitment. With the snow chill very much in the air, we looked at the cute wooden houses and rebuilt churches, before an introduction to homecooked russian cuisine. Think potatoes, bread, potatoes in bread, mystery meat, cabbage. And vodka of course. At least it
sort of helped with the cold.
Lunch and a song and dance performance later, it was back in the tassled van to Lake Baikal, via a chilly look out in the rain. Once arrived it was sort of evening, and after begging for heating in the guesthouse and having some warming dinner it felt like time for bed, even though it was still very light outside. The trip from Mongolia was almost due north, so sunset was now at the party time of 10:30pm.
Our village on Lake Baikal was called Enkhaluk and was sort of the equivalent of a small south coast town, with the villages dotted along the coast of the lake. Taking advantage of the holiday atmosphere, first up was thermal baths, complete with rotten egg smell. Supposedly very theraputic. Then a walk on the lake sure, more Russian food, a walk in the beautiful Siberian woods (each time I told a local that the scenery was lovely they descended into hysterical laughter), then: Banya.
We steamed, we retreated to cooler rooms, we steamed, people were hit with sticks, some were inspired to jump in the lake, I stuck with throwing cold water overmyself.
However after more steaming i was convinced to jump in the lake. Given my state of dress at the time I am sure it was an event the locals shall never forget. It was very invigorating though, and was nicely topped off with a beer and vodka after.
The next day it was back to Ulan-Ude via some Buryat food (more potatoes) and the biggest Buddhist monastary in Russia, supposedly built with Stalin's blessing. I have been surprised at just how much everyone is into religion given the short time since the Soviet collapse, however I was amused by our guide's explanation of how the people in the region participate. Many not only whorship at the Buddhist temples, but also attend Orthodox services and visit Shamans to keep all bases covered.
Back in Ulan-Ude it was time to get on the train for a 3 night journey across the depths of Russia.
Hopefully I will be able to do more frequent entries, it has been really hard finding internet access in Russia. I am actually sending this from inside
the Hermitage in St Petersburg, where I spotted the only internet cafe I have seen in weeks!
There are more photos below