Tuesday, 14 October 2008

from russia with love, for the last time

We arrive in Ulan Ude at 6am and have a long walk in the freezing cold into town. I have almost given up on David's navigational skills (we seem to be about to engage with a motorway) when our hotel surges up improbably in the middle of a vast shopping centre. We rest for a little, and then head for town for our rendez-vous with Natalya who was our companion on the train. (Hello, Natalya! It was lovely to meet you, and many thanks for looking after us! Thanks too to Alex in Krasnoyarsk, who met us improbably off our 6am train - yes, another one - and took us to our appartment - happy ballroom dancing!. Thanks also to Roman in Irkutsk who helped us decipher a menu in a moment of need, and became our almost constant companion for a couple of days. Roman, you have no excuse now not to attend your lectures at University!) We meet at the foot of the largest Lenin head in all the Russias, a Lenin with decidedly Asiatic features. Another beautiful sunny day, shirtsleeve weather, spent wandering around this attractive city, capital of the autonomous Buryat republic. Asiatic faces in greater abundance. Funny how I feel more at home than with unsmiling Caucasians. We all go out of town to an open-air ethnographic museum, which apart from a desolate little zoo, is full of interest and a typical Buryat townstead, all timbers and stockades.
Yesterday we take more 'mashrutka' little buses right out of town to the Ivolginsk Datsan, a complex of Buddhist temples, and the centre of Siberian Buddhism. Shown around by shy hesitant apprentice monks with rudimentary English. In the 30's Stalin destroyed all the temples in the area, and thousands of monks were sent to the gulags. In the capricious way of demogogues and lunatics, Buddhism was allowed to resurface in 1945, when this temple complex was first built and now flourishes. At once strange and familiar, being surrounded by Buddhist iconography, in this vast plain ringed around by curious shallow hills. We rattle back to town on more buses. In the evening we dine excellently in a Buryat restaurant, surrounded by handsome Asiatics. Flop down in our spacious hotel room with all modcons.

Tomorrow we leave for Mongolia on the morning train. We are all sad to be leaving Russia, which has been full of surprise and delight, not at all like our earlier imaginings. Last impressions - endlessly tall and attractive girls in high heeled boots, four-wheel drives clogging up the roads from Minsk to Pinsk, sophisticated shopping centres full of everything we take for granted in UK, but which here still seems a surprise, excellent restaurants with smiling service, boys with beautiful cheekbones, endless pot-noodles on the trains, Siberian plains full of turning birches, and brooding ambiguously over it all, Lenin in his marble mausoleum, deathly pale against black and red marbles. What does he make of it all? Next posting from Ulan Baator.
Greetings to all.
ps. Kieran please write - I don't think I have your current email.