Sep 19 2010

Thoughts from Ulan Ude

This post is out of order — Ulan Ude was our last stop in Siberia before taking the bus to Mongolia. I just didn’t get a chance to post it till now. More on Mongolia soon!

There were several other notable things in Ulan Ude — a city in eastern Siberia — in addition to the giant Lenin head:

1. Our guesthouse was about two blocks away from the train station as the crow flies. However, thanks to a horrible lack of city planning, there is no direct way to get from the train station to the guesthouse – we had to take a ten-minute taxi ride to get there. This wouldn’t be that notable except for the fact that while we couldn’t walk to it, we could hear the train station. Every few minutes, an announcement was broadcast over a very powerful loudspeaker, and each announcement began with a series of tones that sounded exactly like the first line of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” followed by train information in Russian. Making this more disconcerting, the final note of “Christmas” was abruptly cut off, as if a caroler were being strangled.

2. Olga. She is the proprietress of our guesthouse, which is technically her apartment, and both she and it are quite nice. She also happens to be a retired French teacher, which meant that we actually had some chance of understanding her. After greeting us with a hearty “Bonjour!” – and with no questioning of whether we understood French – she moved on to an enthusiastic welcome tour to her apartment. Here was the bathroom. We would be joining her for breakfast at 8:30. She could do laundry for us, but it would cost five dollars a load. It seemed that perhaps we might like to take a nap so she, Olga, would let us relax in this, our lovely room. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

Online reviews of Olga’s raved about the breakfasts, so we woke up the next morning excited about the homemade blini that we expected to find waiting for us at the table. But alas, perhaps Olga felt less inspired by us than by previous guests – our breakfast consisted of a white bread pastry cut into quarters, a bowl of milk candies, pretzels, cheese slices, and a small bowl of cottage cheese-like curds that came from the cows of Lake Baikal, topped with crystalized strawberry jam. It was a diabetic nightmare (though the cheese was quite tasty). Luckily, the food selection was more than made up for by the conversation. Since neither of us speak any Russian, we hadn’t been able to ask anyone questions about the country. Now, with French as a go-between, we could finally get someone’s opinion on how things were. It turned out Olga’s father had been a forestry minister for the Communist party, which explained why her apartment was so nice (it was one of three buildings that had been set aside for government officials back in the day). Her father = not that psyched when the Soviet Union dissolved.  And Olga, for her part = not that psyched about Russia’s current government. Things were better now than under the communists, she told us, but money and power were going to people with connections, and Siberia was at the rough end of an already rough deal. When we asked her if she thought that Medvedev had any real power, she laughed. Then she invited us to bring our families to her dacha on the eastern edge of Lake Baikal, so that we could relax and eat food from her garden. “The next time you’re in Siberia!” she insisted.

Olga, je t'aime!

3. A note on the unexpected kindness of strangers: on our train ride from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude (which included several hours in which the train hugged the coast of Lake Baikal – an unexpected bonus!) we made a brave foray into the dining car in search of the potato pancakes and tea our compartment-mates had eaten for breakfast. As I tried to explain our order – a difficult task, since I didn’t know the Russian word for “potato pancakes” and no one spoke English – I noticed a seemingly drunk young man at the table next to us casting glances my way. Every time I glanced over Peter’s shoulder, I got a smile. At some point he raised his tea cup  (filled with vodka) and offered a toast. Distracted, he then began flirting with the waitress.

We eventually got our pancakes, but the real challenge was tea. After a long process in which I  kept mispronouncing whatever the Russian pronunciation is for “chai” (to the great amusement of the drunk guy) the waitress explained they didn’t have any tea bags available, only boxes. Oh well. We went back to our cabin to read, stretched out on our bunks.

About an hour or so later, I was very surprised to feel someone tickling my foot. Or, rather, grabbing hold of my big toe and squeezing. I looked toward the door. There was my drunken friend, smile on his face. “Shit,” I thought to myself, casting a glance at Peter. What could this guy possibly want? Or, rather, what could he possibly want that I would be willing to give him?

But I had judged the guy too quickly. Instead of moving on to grab other parts of my body, he extended his other hand and presented me with an entire fistful of tea bags. Then, still smiling, he waved and walked away.

I eventually found him again, arms around our waitress, and gave him a postcard of the Empire State Building as a thank you. He seemed very pleased – though then again, he was tipsy enough he probably would have had the same reaction if I’d handed him a tissue. Nonetheless, I appreciated it. I’m not sure if the same can be said of the waitress – she was down a box of tea.

Not a bad view.

How to tell you're in the middle of nowhere.