Сайн байна уу from Mongolia!
After twelve hours, two border crossings, and infinite cows and horses, I’m happy to say I’ve arrived in Ulaan Baator. I’m excited to start planning a trip to the Gobi Desert, but I’ll miss Russia and its particular charms.
I ended my time in Russia in Ulan Ude, capital of Buryatia and home of the largest Lenin head statue. In a country of infinite Lenin statues and Lenin streets, this Lenin head is king. Ulan Ude is also close to Igolvinsky Datsan, the center of Russian Buddhism. I visited the Datsan with my friend Juan (from Madrid). Later, we walked around the Ethnographic Museum. It’s a huge open-air space with wooden buildings from all over Siberia.
But the real winner in Ulan Ude was my last dinner in Russia. I feel all warm and fuzzy after spectacular Buryatian hospitality. On the train from Moscow to Irkutsk, I met a young opera singer, Sankirov, from Ulan Ude. We took a route taxi (the best! I’ll miss route taxis!) to his house where his mother was preparing a huge feast. Most notably, I ate multiple fresh meat dumplings, the national dish. We listened to recordings of his arias and I shared my brother’s music. After dinner, we walked to a fountain and listened to comedic songs being performed as part of Ulan Ude’s city day.
I feel so lucky to have been welcomed into their home on my last night in Russia. It’s a wonderful change from standing on the metro platform in Moscow, too nervous to ask for directions.
This weekend I left Irkutsk to have a look at beautiful Lake Baikal. Kylie – a new Australian friend – suggested a hike from Bolshiye Kotey to Listvyanka. As you may notice from the picture, the trail runs quite close to the water. This was not a problem…except for the time I dropped my camera and it almost rolled into the lake. Oh yeah, and the time when it started raining halfway into the hike and didn’t stop until we reached the hostel!
But the rain only added a new dimension to our experience of Lake Baikal. After six hours hiking along the shore, it was difficult to imagine the entire lake frozen over. The rain obscured its distant borders and the wind turned its glassy surface into waves. Kylie and I repeatedly made deep observations to each other: “Wow – that’s a big lake!” and “Are you sure this isn’t an ocean?”
After the hike, I spent a relaxing day in Listvyanka. Baikal Dog Sledding Center was my favorite place in this popular, tiny village. It was so fun to run around petting the 45 dogs in their multi-colored houses. I really wanted to sneak one of the puppies into my backpack.
Thanks for sticking with me through these first two weeks. I’m nearing the end of my time in Russia and looking forward to sharing my experiences in Mongolia with you. If you have any advice on Mongolian tour companies, please do leave a note in the comments!
At 3 am today I found myself being offered the entire contents of my hosts’ refrigerator in an apartment on the outskirts of Irkutsk. It was a surprising and gracious end to the longest leg of my Trans-Siberian journey.
When I boarded the train in Moscow, I wasn’t sure how 54 people would fit in one train car. But I snuggled into my upper bunk and started a relatively comfortable four-day journey across five time zones. I loved the village atmosphere that gradually developed. By day three, a woman near my sleeping area was inviting everyone to her birthday party. We sat around a delicious spread of kielbasa sandwiches, apples, vegetables, and cookies complemented by champagne and some mysterious hard liquor. Soon everyone was singing Happy Birthday in heavy Russian accents.
I was lucky to be sleeping near a Russian woman from Irkutsk who knew some English. She both translated for me and kept me supplied with a steady stream of food for the entire trip. I went home with Alisa and her parents early this morning. The picture below shows her family (minus her mother).
In conclusion, Siberia is really as big as it looks on maps, you will fit into your train bunk bed, and the rounds of tea are far too numerous to count. Tomorrow I’m headed off for a hike around a section of the trail being built around Lake Baikal. I’ll be on the lookout for seals.
Today I visited the Monument to the Conquerors of Space – great name, great looking monument – and the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics below it. My space adventure rounded out a full two days of Russian power plays. I went to the Kremlin and saw treasures including the Trans-Siberian Fabergé egg. After writing about the metro in the last post, I toured around some of the coolest metro stations. The two men skydiving below are part of a wonderful series of recessed mosaics in a metro station ceiling. Both the Kremlin and the metro offered well-planned and supremely executed state propaganda.
This morning I visited the Tretyakov Gallery featuring only Russian painters. Luckily I kept bumping into a Spanish tour group so I could pick up details on the Russian masters. And then the space museum continued the all-Russia-all-the-time theme. It was refreshing to look at goofy moon suits after a state art museum, but the message was definitely not diluted. Russia won the space race guys! Did you know?
In all seriousness, I visited great places over the past few days. I feel like I’ve only begun to understand the dramatic changes that have taken place in Moscow over the past few decades. Or, perhaps more importantly, what has stayed the same.
Unfortunately, I’ve just about finished my time here. Tomorrow afternoon I’m getting on a train to Irkutsk. I’m looking forward to three days of socializing and scenery in a very small space.
See you in a few time zones!
I made it to Moscow! Picture me standing on a packed metro train with my huge backpack, counting stops so I know when to get off. And then the train arrives at Pushkinskaya and a wave of stone-faced Russians pushes me out into the corridor and up the escalator. This is the closest I’ve come to understanding what a population of 11 million plus looks like. As my Croatian hostelmate might add, that’s almost three Croatias (pop. 4 million).
I asked the woman at the front desk of Chocolate Hostel how she would describe Moscow in one word (thanks Google translate!). Her response: “Tired. I don’t know, I’m tired of it. There are so many people!” The past two days have certainly been exhausting, but I’m happy to say I’m still in a state of Moscow exhileration. Yesterday I walked down Tverskaya Street to Red Square. It’s a straight shot past McDonald’s and sidewalks cluttered with cars to the massive tourist center of the city. I can now verify that the domes of St. Basil’s Catherdral do look delicious enough to eat.
Today I took in more of Moscow’s outdoor spaces. I highly recommend the Novodevichy Convent for its beautiful, peaceful grounds and gilt interiors (see the gold wall in the collage below). Art Muzeon Sculpture Park, near Gorky Park, also makes the top of my list – I’d say it’s more communist playground than artsy garden. You can frolick around a noseless Stalin and many strange political works taken from all over the city.
Please let me know if there’s anything you would like to hear more about! I’ll be in Moscow for at least two more days.