Last night we were whisked into a television studio, with a friendly local lama and our hostess/interpreter Oiuna, and interviewed LIVE on a local TV channel. This was an hors d'oeuvre to our public appearance tomorrow night at the local Palace of Culture where, before a possible audience of hundreds, we will give our thoughts on Western Buddhism. On the front of the building hangs a poster, half a mile high, with our faces on it!
But backtracking a day or two to our last afternoon in Ulan Ude.........
I spent it alone, first visiting a local Photography Museum, all abustle with a party of primary school children, full of early images of the city which grew up from the C16 on the banks of the Selenga, a mighty river which flows down from deep in Mongolia into Lake Baikal. It was a trading post on the Tea Caravan route from China to Irkutsk. Outside, an accordeon plays in the street, and I am transported into an aural/visual ecstasy. I drop my last roubles into the accordeonist's hat - 'mon semblable, mon frere'. (For those of you who do not know me too well, I play the accordeon, indifferently perhaps, but certainly with great enthusiasm). Back out on the streets I soak up the glorious late-afternoon light, and snap away with my digital camera which I am at last making friends with, after years of older technologies which I have relinquished reluctantly. I make a friend of handsome young Sergei, who, too, is snapping away , he as part of his job for an advertising agency, me as indolent tourist. He is curious about me, and engages me in conversation, in pleasantly fluent English. He turns out to be a Jehovah's witness! Siberia is full of surprises.
The next morning long before dawn we are back on the train, and chug away into Mongolia after an 8 hour wait at the border, where nothing much happens. We have masses of time to watch our single train carriage, alarmingly alone, locomotive-less, marooned at the platform. We walk into the village and have soup in a hostelry, and then back out in the street watch a crowd, a hundred yards away, coalesce into a funeral procession coming our way. We withdraw to the verges of the main street, a dusty track, as the procession straggles towards us. The whole village is out. A man leads the way with a yellow flag, and then with an electric shock we see TWO coffins, side by side and open, all draped in shocking pink and preceded by equally frilly and gaudy coffin lids. After the walking mourners have passed a truck passes from which a man throws fronds of pine onto the roadway, and then a slow cavalcade of trucks and private cars. This is a desolate place to live, and to die.
Back on the train we have another twelve hours' slow progress to Ulan Baator - henceforth UB. We sleep a couple of hours at the station hotel - our windows look straight out onto the bustling platforms. And then Oiuna comes up to greet us. Oiuna lived recently in London for four years, where she came into contact with the West London Buddhist Centre. Although an ethnic Buddhist from home, she knew little about Buddhism or meditation till she hit Ladbroke Grove! We have been in email contact for a few weeks, but have never met. She whisks us around UB, and its vast plazas and teeming streets. Its the most chaotic place we have seen so far. We pass the burnt-out premises of the Communist Party, torched only a few months ago in riots following allegations of rigged elections. The fire alas spread to the neighbouring Art Museum. No great loss architecturally, as it was the most hideous 80's building this side of the Urals, as its charred remains proclaim, but it was full of priceless and irreplaceable artefacts, gone up in smoke at the whim of the crowd. We go to various agencies to change our rail tickets to Beijing so we can stay an extra week in Mongolia. We make plans for expeditions into the outback - Oiuna's brother will take us. We have an excellent cappuccino in a cafe I'm sure we'll frequent when we return to town full of travellers' tales.
Later that night we get back on the train with Oiuna and travel for 12 hours to the town of Erdenet, NW of UB. This is where Oiuna lives, in a copper-mining town, which sprang into being amongst the desolate hills only 30 years ago, when the precious metal was first detected. Now its one of the world's biggest mines, and the raison d'etre for this town. From the station we pass miles of mined hillsides and massive installations, and then suddenly there we are in photographic splendour,our images hanging across the facade of the biggest civic building in town! Even Oiuna is taken aback. All we can do is sit back in our taxi seats and giggle.
Erdenet is a rough and ready place. For its coming 30th anniversary civic pride is bursting into action. A huge Buddha will be built on a hillside, up from a massive fountain. The town has doubled in population in the last 7 years, and stands now at 100,000. Everywhere new appartment blocks are under construction, eating away at the virgin landscapes around.
Oiuna has very kindly let us her flat for our stay here; she will stay at her brother's down the way. We feel incredibly privileged to be here. After a short sleep ( we are getting used to these strangely dislocated days and nights) we go out for a Chinese lunch, and then taxi it to a monastery up on the hill, where we converse with lamas, and make preparations for our television appearance later tonight. Next to me, petioners of all degrees come up to a table where a monk sits and chants, to order, for them. One petioner's mobile phone goes off in the middle of this transaction; she has a long chat with a friend while the monk chants on, seemingly oblivious of any interruption. Conversation concluded, the lady folds her palms again in rapt attention to the monk. A while later she leaves the temple already noisily engaged in another telephone conversation. Above Oiuna's head hangs a giant poster advertising the different mantras available, and next to them their prices. Not surprising perhaps that it was only in West London that Oiuna could connect, in a heartfelt way, with Buddhism. But the lamas are charming, and later drive us to the television studios. We enter from a desolate carpark, through a back door, into the razzmatazz of showbiz . Aquariums, potted plants, bright lights, technicians. We are in a daze of delight. We all sit at the desk, nervously sipping complimentary water, watching the monitor in front of us.....the Russian cartoon gives way to the opening credits of our live broadcast, and then there we are on screen! Oiuna is a modest but excellent interpreter, and through her we engage with the Mongolian 'grand public', sharing our thoughts on Western Buddhism and our plans for our stay in their lovely country. It seems to go very well and, after, I have my picture taken with the diminutive, giggling girl presenter. I look like a hulking bearded giant, in my moment of fame. Anything to get the crowds in tomorrow night, but to be honest I'd rather stay at home finishing Colin Thubron's excellent "In Siberia". ( I'm falling way behind with my reading, so busy and full of impressions are our days and nights.)