“Ude is river, that runs through town. Ulan is Buryat word for red, like blood. Ulan-Ude, it means blood river.” These are the words of the local man who shared our train compartment for the journey into Ulan-Ude. He had lived there his whole life and told me his hobbies are hunting and MMA. I think the gloomy introduction he gave to Ulan-Ude (he called it UU) is more due to his personal disposition than the city itself because it has been my favourite city in Russia.
UU is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia, a federal subject of Russia (so says Wikipedia). The people look Asian, similar to Mongolians, and they do have an official language which is also close to Mongolian (although apparently it’s not widely spoken, even amongst Buryatians). However when the Cossack people spread east and came across this region they embraced the locals as brothers – legend says that the word ‘Buryat’ was mistaken for the Russian word ‘brat’ which means brother. The people we spoke to do not see a distinction between being Russian and being Buryat, they are content being both. In a global political climate that seems obsessed with ethnic and cultural division this was a refreshing change.
If you google UU the main result will probably be the statue of Lenin’s giant head. It’s a big head. It’s impressive. There’s not a great deal to say about it really, it stares sternly out over a large square with a soviet style office building as its backdrop. Facing it is an Irish bar in which hang the flag of the Republic of Ireland and the flag of Northern Ireland. The pub is called Churchill’s with a beefeater standing guard outside. Maybe the reason why these things would not be intermingled in the Atlantic Archipelago / Anglo-Celtic Isles / British Isles / ‘these islands’ is lost on Buryatians.
Datsan ‘Rinpoche Bagsha’
A Datsan is a type of Buddhist monastery found in Mongolia, Tibet and Siberia. They are distinct from other temples in that they have a teaching function as well. There are several in and around UU, Rinpoche Bagsha is one of the most easily accessible which is why we decided to visit it first. We were also promised excellent views of the city and were not disappointed. It is located at the top of a hill overlooking the city centre. It has a tranquil walkway that circles the temple through a pine wood, with periodic wooden gazebos, each paired with a statue to a different zodiac animal. We were happily strolling along this path, looking out for the snake which is our birth animal, when a lady walked up to us and made us stop. It gradually dawned on us (with the help of her gestures) that everyone else on the walkway was heading in a clockwise direction and that this was more than just a coincidence. She escorted us back along the path (“Amerikanski?” she guessed – we had to correct her), across the front of the temple and over to the correct entrance. She was completely lovely about the whole thing and I have since used this clockwise rule in multiple buddhist related scenarios since.
May 1st, Labour Day
We were excited to spend Labour Day in Russia, we werent sure what to expect and had received mixed predictions from the Russian’s we’d spoken to about it ranging from “everywhere will be closed” to “there will be hoardes of people using it as an excuse to get drunk”. In the end it was neither of these things. I was woken by patriotic songs being blasted an incredible volume in Soviet Square (where the aforementioned head is). When I say patriotic, 50% of the words were just “RUSSIA” and the rest didn’t seem that important. When we left the hostel and crossed the square groups of enthusiastic people were parading up and down with large flags whose markations we could not decipher. Throughout the day we came across a couple of parades, but they were small, only 20 or so people. And not a single drunk person. When we returned to the hostel at around 4pm the celebrations in the square that had begun with such gusto were completely gone, only a few chalk sketches of firefighters remained. So unfortunately, not as great an event as we’d expected or been promised, but still an experience. The 9th of May symbolises the end of the Patriotic War (how Russians refer to their involvement in WW2) and apparently that is the culmination of over a week of celebrations that begin on Labour Day, perhaps that will be a larger event. Unfortunately we will not be in Russia to experience it.