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Published: August 6th 2007
The sleeper train to Ulan-Ude, despite its promising name, unfortunately doesn’t involve any sleep at all. Thanks to a non-closing window allowing passing trains to blow their cheery 1000 decibel whistles directly into my ears and the fact that our enthusiastic train driver slams the brakes on hard every, oh, 15 seconds, allowing me to execute graceful somersaults backwards and forwards across the cabin, I don’t get an ounce of kip and tumble off the train at 06:30 at something slightly less than my most radiant. Still, excited to be in Ulan Ude we dash/stagger to the closest accommodation where the receptionist confides that there is no water available. Niet! However, never ones to shy away from a shower-free experience we shrug limply in the face of the water issue and take a room anyway. On settling in we discover, to our surprise and delight, that there is in fact water in our room, it's just that it is colder than the human mind can comprehend. Hypothermia-seekers! If skinny-dipping in Antarctica is fully-booked might I suggest a few minutes in the shower of the Hotel xxx, Ulan Ude. Anyway, thanks to the receptionists excellent handling of the situation we are delighted
to have any kind of water at all and figure that a bit of frostbite never did anyone any harm. Quick shower (faster than a speeding bullet), power nap, some snacks and we'll be sorted.
After a couple of hours tossing, turning and cursing in the splendidly uncomfortable and scratchy-blanketed bed while Nico hunts down breakfast (strangely, a big cream bun) I feel fully revitalised and ready to launch myself into the dazzling magnificence of downtown Ulan Ude. First stop, the towns main attraction, the worlds largest Lenin head statue. I can confirm that it is, indeed, very large. Huge even. I take many photos from all angles and we say many enthusiastic Lenin-head-size-related things, as befits the occasion. Worried that the rest of the town will pale in comparison we up the stakes with a visit to the towns central post office where we discover that they sell many stamps and postal related products. Next stop is the Natural History Museum for a tour of the fascinating and creative stuffed animal collection from the well-known Blind-drunk and Mental School of Taxidermy. The crazy, wonky-eyed nerpa seal puts Nico into such a state of hysterics that he nearly has
to be escorted off the premises by the 5 yr old who is running the room while her wrinkly-stockinged granny dozes, snoring and snuffling in the corner. Things take a turn for the worse downstairs in the live animal section, where tragic songbirds hammer their beaks against their prison cage bars, tropical fish float belly-up in the gloomy half-light of the aquarium and a very friendly and helpful but understandably depressed Russian fish specialist points out the crammed-in goldfish and piranhas. I know they are probably doing their best with very limited resources and I think everyone should visit in order to provide a much-needed cash injection but jaysus it's a desperate place.
On the upside, on escaping the museum everything outside looks a lot better in comparison. The sun is shining, there are cute kiddies playing in a nearby fountain, mountain peaks on the horizon and one ice-cream later spirits are sufficiently lifted to start to appreciate the fact that we are in the capital of the Buryat Autonomous Republic, Siberia. Yeehaa! Have to say that while there is slightly more Asian feel to the city - as promised by guidebooks- and European Russian faces are definitely in
the minority for the first time, it still feels very Russian to me, from the ubiquitous Lenin and the dill, potatoes and cabbage on offer in the local restaurant to, unfortunately, the sad alcoholics on street corners. Would like to find out more about the Buryat peoples history but can't face another museum and am too knackered to start up a conversation so it will have to wait for another time.
And that's about it on sunny Ulan Ude. People are generally friendly as usual, we sleep well - if scratchily, and the Lenin head really is impressively large. What more could you possibly ask for?
At 11:25 the next morning - following a very close shave involving a flight of stairs, a 6 ft glass window, a 1 storey drop and my 2 left feet - we are safely tucked in to our last train in Russia, the no 4 to Ulanbaatar.
Ps nearly forgot to mention the lovely Alexandra, a Russian lawyer on her way back to work in Ulanbaatar, whose cabin we shared from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude. Alexandra, if you are reading this we now realise what you were talking about with
Ulan Ude station
the stuffed marmot and the hot rocks! Nico can’t wait!
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