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July 23rd 2010
Published: August 2nd 2010
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My next destination was a place I'd never thought I'd visit on this trip _ Russia. Home to almost 150 million people, the largest country in the world, and arguably the coldest during the winter months. I left UB and took an international bus to the border, which was fairly easy to get across. Border security only asked me something along the lines of "Do you speak Russian?" (probably cuz of a my last name) to which I responded "nyet!" and then let me through. They did have drug sniffing dogs all over. I entered into southern Siberia, in a region known as Buryatia, not surprisingly green and sunny for this time of year, with similar scenery to that of Canada. The bus was driving along when suddenly one of the tires exploded, we lost control and almost ended up in a ditch. The driver and his assistant spent the next half hour changing the tire and all was well. I got into the city of Ulan-Ude by nightfall. It's a town to less than half a million and has a large population of ethnic Mongolians due to it's proximity to that country. I knew Mongolia was truly gone the moment I stepped off the bus; Russian language filled my ears, techno was blasting not far away and Lada's zipped up and down the streets. I walked along and entered a shop to use the phone, made my call to Baikal Ethnic Hostel, the only place around this city that seemed to cater to foreigners. They offered a free pickup service which was great because the place was a 15 minute drive outside the town in a small village.

When I arrived there I was surprised at how many others were staying there. There were about twenty middle aged men, mostly from New Zealand, traveling in a convoy with big trucks and jet boat, intent on blazing through some rivers and lakes of the region. They explained to me that the boats had been retrofitted with powerful car engines and could achieve dismal speeds. They invited me to partake in their beer supply and left over rice they had, which was great because I'd hardly eaten a thing all day. They also offered me some shots of vodka, fitting intro to Russia. I also met Olga, a young woman who spoke decent English and worked at the hostel. She was a great guitar player.

The next day I met some other travelers who were coming through and they gave me tips, from what I'd heard Russia was a difficult place to travel and I'd need all the info I could get. I met a Korean guy named Juno, who was going into town so I went along with him to check it out. The public transit in the town is all done by mini-buses called Mashrutky and we caught the #4 that came conveniently enough. We got off in the center of town, there was a plaza with a massive Lenin head statue, the landmark of this city, and then walked to the train station as Juno needed an onward ticket and I would eventually need to do the same, so good to know where it all is. As with all new countries, it takes time to get used to the currency, prices, and vibe of the people. Russians for the most part, at least initially, come across as cold and occasionally angry, but we met some nice ones along the way. One guy helped us find a grocery store and then when asking where I was from, happily answered "Canadiens Montreal!" The city was small and easy to walk through and we found a place to eat, for a good price by Russian standards, at about 4$ which was double what I used to pay in Mongolia. It was expectantly meat and potatoes fare.

While waiting for the #4 by the Lenin head to get back to the hostel, we sat and watched young kids skateboarding and having a water fight with the sprinklers, until the police came to kick them off. Once the police left they were back at it again. Waiting for the bus back proved to be a bigger challenge. Every time it came by, it was either full or just didn't stop. It was fine at first but after an hour it became ridiculous! We walked back towards the train station, thinking I'd have a better chance catching a bus that wasn't full. Well it didn't work out that way although we did meet a guy that overheard us speaking English. He was actually a friend of the owner of the hostel I was staying at, and was on his way there himself, he wasn't having much luck either! I said goodbye to Juno and then "Mishka" and myself took the #23 and then got picked up and brought the rest of the way by a friend of his. I figured it was a good first day finding my feet in Russia. After my Baikal expedition I would come back to Ulan-Ude for another two days, to wait for a train east, this time staying closer to the town center and avoiding the bus madness!

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