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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  
Ivolginsk Datsan Monastery, Ulan Ude, Russia
COUNTRY FACTS Pop: 142,893,540 Area: 17,075,200 km2; largest country in the world Gov't: Federation Religion: 15-20% Russian Orthodox, 10-15% Muslim, 2% Other Christian View Map
Ivolginsk Datsan Monastery, Ulan Ude, Russia, August 3, 2003  



August 2. ULAN UDE  The train ride to Ulan Ude was very comfortable.  We had opted for our own cabin for an additional $10 and it was money well spent.  We were on the Mongolian train (Chinese and Russian trains also go the Ulan Ude) so the seat benches were covered in decorative rugs with another decorative rug on the floor.  Time seemed to go by quickly, as it often does on trains, and before we knew it someone was coming through the carriage and passing out exit documents for Mongolia.  We had departed at 10am and it was already 8pm.  That process took a couple of hours but was fairly painless.  

The cross to Russia took longer than expected.  The train stopped in the middle of nowhere as military personnel on both sides of the tracks investigated the outside of the train with the aid of bright lights.  The customs and immigration process on the Russian side took some time as well.  They opened every possible comparment of the train, looking for people or goods that were traveling illegally.  It was very thorough but, for the most part, the officials were pleasant.  The immigration officials collected the passports and took them away for scrutiny.  The customs officials went to the extent of actually looking in our bags, which was unexpected.  They looked in Rob's backpack and my daypack.  It didn't appear that they were trying to give us a hard time but needed to look in someone's bags so it might as well be ours.  I had a copy of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment"  in the top of my pack and the customs official took it out to show to his comrade.  They smirked and told me to be careful.  I offered to surrender the book if it was controversial but they said that it wasn't necessary.  The immigration officials returned our passports without requesting any other documentation but just as we were getting our sheets out they came by again and gave us another set of stamps.  So we appeared to be double approved for entry into Russia.  It as about 2:30. 

We arrived at Ulan Ude station at about 7:30 in the morning.  After the long night of immigration and customs exercises we had fallen into a deep sleep and the carriage attendant had to bang on our cabin door to wake us up.   We couldn't check into our hotel until noon so we parked ourselves the train station waiting area.  It was pretty dead.  There were just a few other folks around sleeping over the tops of their bags.  We did the same.  The place gradually livened up and a little coffee kiosk opened in a the corner.  There was a young stray cat lurking around and was the delight of a small boy who chasing it around the room.  That even make smiles crack on this stone faced bunch.

At about 10:30 we decided to give our hotel a try and caught a cab.  They checked us in immediately.  It wasn't worth the $100/night we were made to pay our travel agent in UB but it was comfortable.  We seemed to be off in left field near a neighborhood of old wooden Siberian homes but found a super market and hot dog stand just around the corner from our hotel.  The super market was more like a bunch of individual shops selling everything from meat and cheese to candy and detergent.  We grabbed some cheese and bread.  Our first actual meal in Russia was hot dogs, Pepsi's and Lay's potato chips, sitting under a Coca Cola umbrella while we watched some local kids try to break dance.  Not the far eastern Russian experience we were expecting!

After feeding ourselves we walked into the little city of Ulan Ude to visit the local History Museum.  It housed a really exceptional selection of Tibetan Buddhist art from China, Tibet, and other regions.   Ulan Ude is the capital of the Buryat Autonomous Region.  The Buryat are also practitioners of the Tibetan form of Buddhism.  The museum had some beautiful statues and an interesting collection of old thanghkas describing the various medicines and diagnoses of Tibetan medicine.  I had never seen anything quite like them.  The rest of the museum house a nice exhibit on the Buryat people, including some costumes from their previous shamanist faith, and a archaeological section.

From the museum we walked through town to the main food market, a bigger version of the market we found near our hotel.  This one was warehouse sized and each person behind the counters was wearing a cute uniform.  The mostly blue with little hate.  It was like something out of the 1950's.  They were amused when we took some photos.  Outside the food market was a general market selling clothes, CDs, books, etc.  

The town was full of quaint little wooden Siberian houses, famous for their ornately carved wooden trim.  We eventually came upon the trading arcade, which was beginning to look like a more modern strip mall while still retaining the more charming older architecture.  The shops sold everything from designer clothing to toiletries.  Little summer "garden" restaurants had been set up everywhere to sell hot dogs, ice creams, soda and, most importantly, beer!  Behind the trading arcade was the not-so-big department store.  People were giving children pony rides in the parking lot.

At this point we were on the main drag through town and kept walking past all of the shops until we reached the opera house which overlooked the city skyline.  It was a pretty little city was many trees and onion domed churches sticking up above the rooftops.  The weather had been nice all day and was so refreshing after all of the rain.  At the top of the hill the downtown area came to an end at a big communist style square.  The most striking feature of the square was this enormous head of Lenin, and I do mean enormous.  The head was mounted on a giant pedestal and just stared spookily off into the distance.  This head must have been 15-20 feet high!   

We ate a restaurant just off of the Lenin head square before heading back to our hotel and enjoy a soak in our nice hot bath.  And, the pillows on the bed were soft.

August 3. ULAN UDE  The following morning we still had great weather.  Conveniently there was an ATM and travel agent in our hotel lobby so we stocked up on rubles and got a train ticket to Irkutsk for the next morning.  From our hotel we walked down to the train station and found a taxi to take us to the Ivolginsk Datsan, the large temple complex outside Ulan Ude.  We had to negotiate for the taxi and were vexed by a slimy driver that wanted to charge us $30, double what it should cost.  He even followed us to harass the other driver we negotiated with and pressured him to give us a higher price.  The second driver had already offered us something lower but when the bully driver interject the price went up.  As soon as he left the other man lowered his price again.  It was reasonable and he was a nice old man with a kind face.  The other guy looked like a thug. That was a lesson to us to look more closely as them before tried to bargain.

The drive to the Datsan was about 30 mintues.  Once we left Ulan Ude we entered nice green countryside with white stupas scattered here and there.  Before reaching the monastery we passed through a charming little town full of wooden houses.  From the highway we could see the main temple hall across the fields.  It was really a more impressive sight than I was expecting.  We pulled up to the side gate, near a plethora of stands selling religious souvenirs.  Inside the fence of the monastery looked more like a little village than a temple complex.  An exception to Buddhist practice in the Buryat region is that the monks are allows to marry.  So, inside the grounds of the monastery were rows of little wooden Siberian-style homes.  They were an interesting contrast to the more non descript lodging found in the monasteries of Tibet.  They added a lot of color and life to the area.  

After we entered the gate we noticed the kora starting to our left.  We followed the path, spinning the prayers wheels along the way.  After coming around the back of the grounds we approached the main set of temples.  Facing us from the opposite side was a house with two lions at the front door.  This was the home of the head Lama, the head of Buddhism in Russia.  The temple buildings were fairly new and not terribly interesting but the mixture of the Tibetan-style temples with the Siberian wooden homes was fantastic.  There was chanting going on inside the main temple so we quietly walked in and made a loop around the hall.  I found an beautiful set of prayer beads made of bone, copper, coral and turquoise.  I had looked for prayer beads at every Tibetan temple I had been to in the last year (Tibet, China, Mongolia) and they all pretty much looked the same except for this one.  I bough it.

After a nice leisurely stroll around the Datsan and completing the kora walk we jumped back in our cab.  The sun was getting lower and we thought we would try to make the outdoor Ethnological Museum before dark.  For some reason our taxi driver couldn't take us there but passed us off to another driver before heading off.  He passed us in his car as we left town in the other direction and honked.  He must have been done for the day.  Maybe his wife had dinner waiting.  The Ethnological Museum was a worthwhile visit.  It was a collection of building typical of the region, including a Buryat ger, Evenki teepee, and various styles of wooden architecture.  The large wooden church with green onion domes was the highlight along side a collection of homes with lacey wooden shutters.  The Evenki teepees reminded me of my American history and the story of the Native American Indians having come to North America from Asia via a land bridge over the Bering Straight.  I could certainly see the similarity in some of their living customs.

We caught a bus back to our hotel and ate hot dogs again.  The only snack we'd had all day were some Mongolian style turnovers with mutton and shish kebabs.  On the street corner near our hotel was a Kvas selling, a local ale.  People were queued up for this traditional Russian drink, sort of like a mild cider, being served out of a kind of large metal barrel on wheels.

TRANS SIBERIAN RAILWAY Ulan Ude Aug 6-7 Irkutsk Aug 4 Aug 5-8 Yekaterinburg Aug 8-10 Aug 11-12 Kazan Aug 13 Nizhny Novgorod Aug 14 Golden Ring Aug 15 Aug 16-17

MOSCOW Aug 17-19 Aug 20-21 Aug 22-23