Calm Before the Storm

The ride to Ulan Ude was very smooth. It’s actually one of the best parts of the Trans-Siberian because for two or three hours the track runs alongside Lake Baikal, giving off great views. It was like a long, extended good-bye. On Olkhon, we’d had the chance to dip our toes into its cold waters. With wind-blown trees around us, shamanistic totems above us, the power of the frigid, mile-deep waters was palpable. The locals know it, too, and there are many shaman sites around the island. Baikal is one of the most spiritually powerful places I’ve been too. It sucks you into its vortex and you don’t really want to leave.

As we skirted the lake on the train, we mostly stared out the window. Farewell came and soon we were in Ulan Ude. It was with great – great – relief that we saw two girls on the platform bearing a sign that read “Sunshine”. For once, our contacts were there waiting for us. They took us to the guesthouse – a tiny one with just three rooms – and then guided us around town. Ulan Ude is good for two things, basically. One is the Lenin head. It must be the largest such thing in Russia. It towers over the main square, black and round like the giant Communist bowling ball of death just waiting to roll over the hapless bourgeoisie. The Russians still like Lenin, for the most part, along with other aspects of Soviet kitsch. There are Soviet kitsch restaurants in St. Petersburg and Moscow…the ones too young to have truly suffered those days just love it.

The other thing about Ulan Ude is that it is a cultural transition zone. The Buryats are Mongols and Ulan Ude is their capital. It still feels like Russia, but the people are more Asian. And for anyone going to Mongolia, it is a worthwhile introduction to the culture. They even eat the same food – buuza (in Mongolia just buuz), a steamed dumpling filled with meat.

We actually had way too much time in Ulan Ude, but it gave us a chance to explore a bit. We found three brewpubs, which was good times. The largest and most professional was Bier Haus, which sits at the edge of town. A row of stalls lines the road leading there and in one of those we found five more beers we’d not seen until that point. It wasn’t really a pub, but we made it one.

When the sun finally set, we hit up a very well-stocked grocery store we’d found for provisions for the 18-hour ride to Ulanbaatar. A little tipsy, we bought way too much food. The prize purchase has to have been the bag of ikura. It was cheap by ikura standards, but what exactly did we think we were going to do with it?

As it turns out, figuring out what to do with an abundance of salmon roe wasn’t even close to the worst of our problems on that journey.

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