04 June 2010

Ulan Ude, the end of our Russian adventure

We’re a couple of weeks behind in our blog writing, since we’ve spent most of our time in Mongolia hitting the hinterlands where the internet is a rarity, and when we’ve been back in Ulan Bator, we’ve either been recovering or meeting up with people.  And to top it all off, my domain expired, so I've had to spend a few days getting it all back together.

Ulan Ude would be the last place that we would regularly encounter people who determined themselves as Russians.  Initially, I had mixed feelings about them.  When you first get to Russia, and go through St. Petersburg and Moscow, the main thought you have about the Russians is how unfriendly they seem.  Bump into someone, walk on.  Stand on their heel, ignore them.  Go through a door, let it slam in the face of the next person.  Smile at someone, get a puzzled look.

Once you get over this aspect of Russian behaviour, and realise it is not personal, it’s just the way they are, you become more comfortable wandering around, doing similar things (except if you’ve knocked into an old lady, people will still apologise for something like that, they’ve been through a lot for the motherland).

The people that you actually meet though are a different kettle of fish.  Once a Russian spends 10 minutes getting to know you, and if they like you, then they are very helpful and hospitable.  I can’t think of anyone that we met on our way for the briefest period of time that wouldn’t help us when lost, offer us some drink or a bit of food.

Anyway, back to Ulan Ude. On the train journey, we went around Lake Baikal, which looked amazing.  The train snaked its way through mountains above the lake giving us great views over the vast frozen expanse (as usual, a camera find it much more difficult to pick up what the eye can see; and that's a crack in the ice).  I also got accosted by a 12 year old kid, who was interested in speaking English with us.  His English wasn’t great, but I was amazed by his persistence, as he spent 3 hours talking to us about different things.

I tried to explain to him I was from Ireland, the northern part, but he got confused, and continually called it the Republic of Northern Ireland (which is perhaps the best solution for the place).  He also wanted to know what types of guns we used there!  I couldn’t remember the name Armalite.  He told us that in Russia, they loved their AK-47.  By the end of the journey, he'd given me his address and e-mail (and vice versa, seems I’ve now got a 12-year old penpal), and he told me I had to stay with him the next time I’m in Russia, which I will, in case he gets his Kalashnikov out after me.

We arrived in Ulan Ude on a scorching hot day, at 5 in the evening, the heat of day having accumulated to make it humid and stuffy.  We had a 30 minute walk to the hostel, and by the end I was sweating like David Cameron in a working man’s club.

The hostel was pretty shit, they moved us between rooms the two nights we stayed there, and also somehow managed to move the kitchen to another room in the hostel as well (sink and everything). The hot shower didn’t work on the second night, and Audrey had to make do with the kettle for washing her hair.

We went to the big Lenin head (pic), the biggest in the world, and a monastery, but apart from that, the place didn’t offer too much.  Except for unusual encounters with strangers again.  We were on the tram in wondering (aloud, in English) where to go for dinner, when a young man approached us and offered help. It turned out that he (Shawn, I tried to explain to him it should be Sean) is studying English at the uni and wanted some practice, and we are the fist "real" foreigners he has ever spoken to.

After recommending us two good local restaurants, he suggested driving us there.  Audrey was interested, but a bit skeptical (he was a stranger, after all), but I was up for it, so we got off the tram and got in his car.  The windscreen had a spiders web of cracks all the way across it (like my brother Karl’s Skoda used to have), but no one worries about that type of thing over here.

We headed to the restaurant, but it was closed, so he suggested we try another one that was his friends.  He drove us out of Ulan Ude (I could sense alarm bells ringing in Audrey’s head, later she told me she was making mental calculations as to whether it would be safe to pile out of the car as we sped out of town) to a village, where he claimed the best baozis were to be had.  The food was good in the restaurant (right), and we got to hear the Russian take on Walk Like An Egyptian over the radio.

Shawn was Buryatin, but was fiercely proud of being Russian, and even though he studied Chinese and English, he had no interest in using them as a ticket to a “better” life in the west, but rather wanted to stay in Ulan Ude and help make it a better place instead of it continually suffering a brain drain.

During his English courses at Uni, he also studied the culture around the language, and had recently done a module on Northern Ireland, so he had a chance to ask me a few questions about it, and we discussed the situation.  He did admit to barely passing that one, but I can understand, as it’s a pretty complicated situation even now.

At the end of the night, far from being robbed, poisoned or abducted, we had 6 delicious baozis, a new friend, and valuable insights about Buryatin life in Ulan Ude.

A couple of final things, I had the best chocolate cake ever while I was there, for the grand sum of £1.4, and cheapest tastiest dinner, costing about £4 for both of us.  I would show links on google maps, but that part of Russia isn't mapped too well.

We left the next day at 6:55am.


pok said...

Missing the old blog - good to see oyu back. P. xo