We left Irkutsk after our time on Olkhon Island at about 9pm and got on a baby-sized sleeper train (we are such pros now!) - we literally got on about 9pm ish on Thursday, went to sleep (I mean pretended to), and disembarked at 6:30am. I didn't even have time to write a diary entry! Just waited to take my contacts out (using bottled water of course; I like having the gift of sight too much to use train juice) before getting maybe an hour of sleep. Our roommates were two Chinese women (female roommates are so much better...and rarer) who didn't speak any other language, so Z showed off with the two phrases he learned in Mandarin to prepare for this trip - "Do you speak English?" and "I speak a little Chinese." It was so funny and they loved it. I didn't love that the window in this cabin didn't even open. Remember when I complained about old Russian lady closing the window? THIS ONE DIDN'T EVEN PHYSICALLY OPEN. ughhhh it was so gross and stuffy. Thank god it was short. At 6am, the attendants shouted for everyone to wake up - we were almost at Ulan-Ude, which is our last stop in Russia! Well, until we return from the southwest on our eastward Silk Road journey in September, but that's years away and not part of our Trans-Siberian adventure! Trans-Mongolian, whatevs. So really, Ulan-Ude marked the end of this first part of our journey! Already! It's going so fast. To mark this auspicious occasion, we surely would do something very special once we dropped our bags at the hotel.
And that was laundry. The most special thing we could possibly do! We found THE BEST, and I mean THE BEST, laundry babushka with the most perfect little laundromat WITH DRYERS. It was a few dollars and we gave her literally every piece of clothing we owned. It was all dirty. OH my god. And she handled it herself! We didn't have to wait! She said when to come back (less than two hours!) and she was the best and it was so clean and so dry and smelled so good and I want to cry because we will never find a laundry babushka again. (In Mongolia now, had to do laundry last night. It's still air-drying eye rolllll.)
Seriously, if you are ever in Ulan-Ude, this is the door you must find. Aside from seeing the giant Lenin head - which you can't miss, it's in the main square - this is my biggest recommendation. Finding the Laundry Babushka and just giving her a hug. And all your dirty clothes. The best thing we did maybe in all of Russia.
Okay maybe you're one of those weirdos who cares about other things to do in a Russian city in Siberia. Ulan-Ude, which I've seen both hyphenated and not and when given the choice to hyphenate something I'm gonna take it, is the capital city of the Republic of Buryatia in Russia. So Buryatia is a federal subject of Russia, like its own republic? but not? And in Siberia which is its own like region. It's so confusing. Do I get to count Buryatia for the Century Club? Prob not. Buryatia has its own little president but the position is not called a president, it's called a 'head' so I like to imagine that whenever he meets with Putin, Putin's like "HEEEAD! MOOOOVE! NOWWW!" Putin to me sounds like Mike Myers's Scottish accent. Buryatia's main distinguishing feature is that the food is closer to Mongolian food, with lots of khuushuur (fried empanada looking things) (god they love their vowels in Mongolia) and buuzy (dumpings), both with meat. I already felt the increased difficulty of eating in Mongolia by being here. But of course we found plenty, don't worry. Buryats were traditionally into shamanism, which is the deification of nature and spirits and magic and stuff and not, as I would have guessed, the deification of the composer of "Hairspray" and "Smash" songs.
After we landed at 6:30am, we walked to our hotel, the Buryatia Hotel, which was a little Soviet-era feeling but was very comfortable. They had water coolers on every floor AND a gym. (Granted the gym was pretty much just a treadmill I had to plug in and boot up myself, a squat rack with no barbell, AND A MASSAGE CHAIR, like full-on Sharper Image style, which is so ridiculous but ya know I think I can get behind that. Regardless, yay a gym!) Thank the Buryat shaman water sprite that our room was ready despite it being like 6 hours before check in. We showered (yesss post-train shower is the best) and then took the best nap ever, waking up at a normal human time to start our day. We found a quick bite, and then we tried navigating the completely ridiculous minibus situation so we could go to Ivolginsky Datsan, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside the city (about an hour's journey).
The Datsan was built in 1945 with permission from Stalin to thank the Buryat people for help during WWII. It's still active with lamas (not llamas) joining each year. It's a beautiful space, and it actually made me feel quite calm being here. To visit, you walk around the complex clockwise, and you walk around each object or statue or temple clockwise, and you spin the wheels of veneration and stuff that's all over the place as you walk clockwise. We started by entering the gate and turning right and we got yelled at. Counterclockwise bad for Buddha!
There are a good number of temples and statues and spinny wheels and stuff to see, but the main point of the visit is the Temple of Hambo Lama Itigilov. Okay so remember when we saw Lenin's embalmed body in Moscow? More of that shiiiittttt! So in 1927, right before he died, Itigilov (who was the 12th Khambo Lama like I know what that means) was like, "hey, I'm gonna die soon - I know this because I'm a Buddhist - and I want to be buried in the position I die in, but just for 30 years, and then I want you to dig me back up...and then it's your call what to do with me, I guess, because that's as far as my decree goes." So he died in lotus position (I mean, no he didn't) and was buried, and then 30 years later monks dug him up and MIRACLE, his body was preserved! (Sure it was guys.) I guess they reburied him because they were like okay cool he still looks good for his age, but like I don't want him in my house, but then in 2002 he was exhumed again, and MIRACLE! he was still looking fresh! (Sure!) So his corpse is a sacred object of Buddhism. Oh what does all this have to do with my visit to the Datsan? HIS CORPSE IS IN THE TEMPLE. JUST PLAIN SITTING IN THE MIDDLE. Obviously the body was embalmed with like all of Siberia's embalming fluid, and not only that, but his head is made of papier-mache. I am curious about where the real head went?? Anyway, so we entered this temple behind a long line of fervent Buddhists bowing and scraping all over the place, and had no idea what we were about to see. No pics, of course.
The rest of the place was pretty nice. Getting there and back was a bit ridiculous, though. We caught a minibus from outside the cathedral square here, and it dropped us about 40 minutes outside the city. The driver just pointed to a corner to stand on and catch the next one that goes directly to the Datsan. It doesn't have a number or anything; you just have to trust. Luckily it did go there, and everyone out in this land is going to the Datsan too, so it's not that bad. But, as always, they are overstuffed and even in little vans it was standing room only. It's definitely worth a trip out there though. It's the best thing to see in Ulan-Ude.
So there's this one area of the temple complex that was amazing. There was a line of people waiting their turn (first time I've seen queuing in weeks!) to walk a set distance from a mark to a big stone - with their eyes closed. Their friends are allowed to shout out directions, I guess, Price is Right style, but you're supposed to try to walk to the stone with your eyes closed - letting the spirits guide you, I guess - and then you get to make a wish. Then you walk around the stone three times and then touch it again. I don't know. Obviously we tried to! It's scary walking on rocky paths with your eyes closed!
The next day, we were planning to go on another trip outside the city limits to see the Open-Air Ethnographic Museum. Unfortunately, we didn't have the time - the company that booked our train tickets had our departure train time wrong in our itinerary. We though we had till 8:45pm but we were leaving at 3:45pm! Definitely not enough time for an excursion! (Fortunately, we realized their mistake before too late, no thanks to Real Russia.) Instead, we stayed in the city and visited the Buryat History Museum. It was a pretty decent collection of Tibetan Buddhist items and shamanist objects. The history of Buryatia is also covered. I get bored easily in museums but this was ok. Bathrooms were awful though.
The last touristy thing we did was, of course, seeing the giant Lenin head in the main square. It's the biggest Lenin head in the world. No kidding!
We had a few nice meals in Ulan-Ude. My favorite was a place called Marco Polo that wasn't even on HappyCow but was super vegetarian friendly! They had vegetarian borscht (yay!) and a delicious carrot-beet-pine-nut salad. We also got a plate of stir-fried vegetables. I need to eat veggies when I can! I really loved this food. Simple but delicious.
We also had a nice meal at the very famous Modern Nomads, which seems to run most of this part of the world! (There's a whole street in Ulaan Baatar with like, 7 of their restaurants). I had a great veggie dumpling plate and a big green salad. Perfect!
We also found a good supermarket called Sputnik that had some amazing vegan finds! I got this oat-based yogurt drink, a superfood oatmeal cup that will be perfect on the next train, and a bunch of crackers. And of course fruit!
So that's what we did in our last stop in Russia! It was an okay city, nothing special. A good rest, a few good meals, some nice sights, and a great load of laundry. On to Mongolia!