Exploring Ulan Ude

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Ulan Ude [Улан-Удэ] is the logical first stop when heading to Russia from Mongolia, and as the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, [essentially a state or province with some political complications I’m unsure of] has a few things to offer. And so it was that we figured we should have a little bit of an explore of the city. It felt like more of a large town than a city, with a population of around 400,000. Our first stop was a visit to the Lenin bust on the main square. Apparently it’s the world’s largest Lenin head – I was unaware there was some kind of competition for this, but after being disappointed in the size of the world’s largest Mao statue I wasn’t expecting it to be colossal. And it wasn’t, although it also wasn’t little.

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We may have had some fun posing.

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The next stop was a visit to the Buryat History Museum, which is spread over three floors and requires separate tickets for each exhibition. The lady spoke no English and we tried pointing at the option we wanted [it was in Russian], but eventually only handing over enough money for all the exhibitions seemed to work. She pulled out an old ruler and began carefully tearing out six tickets for us. Armed with our tickets, another lady unlocked the first room for us. It was clearly something to do with the military although the complete lack of English information left us unsure as to what exactly. The next room focussed on the Orthodox church in the Buryat region and had a lovely collection of old icons, illuminated manuscripts and religious objects. The third exhibition, and the one most worth seeing, was on the third floor and contained a wonderful collection of Buddhist art – the Buryat people are primarily Buddhist and there is a long history of Tibetan Buddhism in the area. That was something I hadn’t expected – Buddhism in Russia. The collection included sculptures, statues, religious paintings and Buddhist medical paintings that showed their scientific understanding of their world. It was fascinating, and most fortunately each article had an English description. While we laughed at some of the medical ideas espoused it was very interesting to learn about some of their beliefs. Of course, the medical paintings were quite old and I don’t believe that they show the current medical technology in the region!

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We wandered down to the arbat, or walking street – the actual name is Lenina St – which seemed to have something happening. There were street performers and hula-hoopists and bouncing castles, and a stage had a variety of different performers. We suspected it may have been a talent show but were unable to confirm this. The street itself was lovely, with a beautiful fountain and paved walkways, all off-limits to vehicles. Lots of kiosks sold ice-cream and there were a number of tents where you could shoot something with I imagine a BB gun or something like that. We didn’t really understand it.

Just before the arbat street really begins is the Natural History Museum, and this was fascinating. They have an extensive collection of taxidermy animals and birds representing different landscapes in the Buryat region, and have helpful English information sheets at the start of each room. One of the ladies in a room full of birds spoke some English and was very excited to practice it, telling us all about the different birds and their environments. They also have a scale model of Lake Baikal, which we would be visiting later on, and it was incredible to see how huge and how deep it was. We saw different animals from birds to deer to foxes and wolves, all preserved and looking at you through glassy eyes. I hadn’t realised the plethora of species native to the area and it was great to be able to learn a little about the animals and birds of the region.

Downstairs, for some reason, they had a mini petting zoo with bunnies and guinea pigs and mice and some birds. I didn’t quite get that.

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One of the fascinating things about Ulan Ude, and Siberia in general, is the wooden houses. They’re simply beautiful. Usually of a dark brown wood, the houses have intricately carved and brightly painted windows and shutters. The woodwork is beautiful and the bright colours so cheerful. These houses are very old, and many of them are in various states of disrepair and even sinking into the ground. Still, it was great fun to walk down little streets and see these old houses. We’d see them in a lot of other places too, but Ulan Ude was the first place.

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About 6km outside Ulan Ude is the Ethnographic Museum, and in this instance it was set in parklands in the forest. The museum consists of tens of old, traditional houses from the Buryat region representing a wide range of ethnicities and social classes. From wooden yurts to two-storey merchant houses, it showcased not only the architecture of the region but trades and folk handicrafts – many of the houses had been decorated as they would have been when lived in, with handmade rugs and antique furniture, delicate lace curtains and embroidered tablecloths, colourful quilts and beaten old kettles. They looked cosy.

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The one thing I didn’t like about the museum was that, inside, they also had a zoo. And it was awful, truly awful. They had a bunch of farm animals in small enclosures, but this wasn’t so bad. They had a lone wolf without much space to move, and he didn’t look happy. The worst though was that they somehow had two tigers, bored and miserable, kept in a tiny cage with little room for them to move nothing to do. Next to the tigers was a lonely bear, equally depressed, and it just made me feel sick. I had to get out of there. I’m not a huge fan of zoos but can appreciate that a lot of zoos truly care about the welfare of their animals and the conservation of species. Not this one. The tigers were sad and listless, without any means of entertaining themselves or occupying their time, and no comfort at all. While I felt bad for most of the animals, my sympathy lay more with the tigers and bear than with the sheep. They should not be allowed to keep exotic animals there, let alone an endangered species, in a situation cruel and neglectful. It made me angry. John hurried me away from there.

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We’d taken a marshrutka to the museum and the driver had dropped us off at the entrance, which was off the route. So we walked for about fifteen minutes to get back to the main road and hail down another marshrutka, or minibus, that was heading back to Ulan Ude.

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Fortunately where the bus finished was pretty close to our hostel, however we still had six flights of stairs to climb to get there. The hostel was called Rooftop Hostel, which we’d hoped meant that they had a rooftop you could go out onto. They didn’t have that, but they did have a great view over the city!

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