Tag Archives: Russia

Ulan Ude, Russia

Ulan Ude is the capital of the Russian oblast (state) of Buryatia. It was our last stop in Russia before crossing the border into Mongolia and we found it to be a friendly and interesting small city.

Ulan Ude has the somewhat dubious honour of having the world’s largest Lenin head on display in the main square. It is 7.7m tall and weighs a massive 42 tonnes. Our hostel had a collage of comedy photos of the statue which inspired us to try a couple of our own!

20130629-165300.jpgSee if you can spot Andrew in the first picture to get an idea of the scale! Also, there’s a caption competition for what he’s whispering to Lenin – post yours in the comments


We treated ourselves to a pub lunch on our first day in the city. We had to contend with a menu written only in Russian, but by this stage we knew enough words to work out what each section was (soups, salads, main courses, grill…) and so we took pot luck. Andrew chose from the main courses something that we thought was chicken, and contained a word that was something like ‘Mexican’, and I chose a random soup (chanakhi). Andrew’s was indeed a kind of Mexican chicken (well done us!) and mine was a fabulous, very savoury broth with huge chunks of meat (mutton or lamb I think).

The local specialty of Buryatia is a dish called ‘Buuza‘. We tried these twice, the second time they were delicious homemade ones at Nadya’s birthday party – we even got the recipe: mix beef and pork mince, diced onion and a little bit of water, form into balls roughly 3cm in diameter, wrap in a simple dough of flour and water, pinching up the edges to seal them. They are cooked by steaming, and should be eaten by hand using the dough to catch the juices.

20130703-001928.jpgSoup and Mexican chicken at the Bochka pub, a single Buuz

Buryat History Museum

On our first afternoon we had a wander around the town and then visited the Buryat History Museum. The local people (Buryats) are mainly Buddhist and the top floor of the museum was a display of devotional paintings (thangkas), statues, and costumes used in Buddhist mystery plays, which had been collected during the closing of the monasteries after the Revolution. It was especially interesting to read the description of the meaning behind some of the images as we’re likely to be visiting quite a few Buddhist sites over the coming months in Mongolia, China and beyond! The rest of the museum was devoted to the history of the region from ancient times, through Genghis Khan and the Mongol empire, to the nomadic cultures and railway building in modern times.

20130629-173327.jpgBuddhist artefacts at the Buryat History Museum

20130703-002732.jpgA copy of the ‘Ostrog bible’, the first complete publication of the bible in the Church Slavonic language printed in 1580

Ivolginsky Datsan

Having learnt a little bit about Buddhism at the History Museum, the next day we set off on the 1 hour bus journey to the Datsan, or Buddhist monastery, at Ivolginsky. As instructed by our guidebook, we followed the path clockwise around the site, turning the prayer wheels as we went – the big ones took quite a bit of effort! The temples themselves were beautiful, very colourful and different to anything else that we’ve seen in Russia.

The Datsan is also home to the body of the 12th Khambo Lama who ‘died’ in 1927. He stipulated that he should be buried in the lotus position and exhumed after 30 years. When he was dug up in 1955 the monks found his body to be miraculously preserved. In 2002 he was exhumed again and still found to be looking as if he’d only recently died. The body is now kept in the monastery, but we didn’t see it as it is only brought out a few times a year. The faithful believe that he didn’t actually die but reached the state of nirvana while he was meditating, so it is just that his spirit has left his body behind.

20130703-194456.jpgIvolginsky Datsan (clockwise from left): Temple roof decoration, prayer wheels and temple, stupas

20130703-191758.jpgUs outside the colourful main temple

Ethnographic Museum

In Ulan Ude, we spent yet another day at an open air ethnographic museum (see also Riga and Suzdal). But this one was a little bit different as it contained examples of wigwams (called chooms in Siberia) and gers as well as wooden houses and churches similar to those in the other museums. It also has a rather sad zoo section of Siberian wildlife. The animals seemed to be well fed and their enclosures kept clean, but it was heart wrenching to watch the majestic Siberian tigers and brown bears pacing up and down in their small cages.

20130703-202007.jpgAndrew with a birch bark choom – bark was used as a covering in the summer and reindeer furs in the winter

20130703-203412.jpgA wooden ger (I’m not sure that the green roof is strictly traditional…), reconstruction of the inside of a felt ger

Goodbye Russia, Hello Mongolia

Well, after 10 weeks and within 3 hours of the end of our visa we bade Russia a fond farewell. Our final night was spent with our friend Nadya, the seamstress, who invited us to join her birthday celebrations after we surprised her with cake in the morning. The party started with traditional Buryat food, continued with some vodka toasts and ended with us dancing until 3am! We’re sworn to secrecy about the amount of vodka consumed, but suffice to say we were feeling slightly the worse for wear this morning…

20130701-211513.jpgNadya’s birthday party before the eating and drinking began

The journey from Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar is not particularly long (by the standards of these vast countries) but includes a lengthy and tedious stop at both border stations. Fortunately we were sharing our compartment with some friendly Mongolian students who helped us to while away the time by teaching us to play poker, and how to count to 6 in Mongolian.

20130701-211903.jpgLots of winding track on the way out of Russia meant we got a great view of the train

20130701-211953.jpgPlaying poker

20130701-212022.jpgSunset as we crossed the border

This morning we arrived in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, to begin our exploration of the world’s least densely populated country with just over 3 million people (only slightly more than the population of Greater Manchester) spread over a country 3 times the size of France.

The Irkutsk-Newcastle upon Tyne connection

Not far from our hostel in Irkutsk, is the steamship Angara.

20130629-000642.jpgThe Angara. As viewed in the rain

Together with it’s sister ship the Baikal, they were commissioned as the Lake Baikal section of the Trans-Siberian Railway before the lines that run south of the lake were constructed. While passengers boarded the smaller Angara, the train boarded the much larger Baikal – yep, you read that correctly – the top deck of the Baikal was kitted out with 3 sections of track to take the full train in one crossing.

Sadly, the Baikal is now in the Baikal as it sank some time ago, but the Angara, which had partially sank too, is now restored and moored in the Angara river and is a hidden gem of a museum, especially for us because both ships were designed and their hulls manufactured in my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne, England!

20130629-001540.jpgWey-aye man, bilt on the toon! We wa geet prood!

The museum’s exhibition is a treasure-trove one-room affair, chocked full of maps, diagrams and news-story clippings charting the sister ships’ inception, transportation to and assembly in Listvyanka, their use as transport ships and ice-breakers, to their sinking and the subsequent resurrection of the Angara.

20130629-003221.jpgThe single-room exhibition on the steam-ship Angara

20130629-003352.jpgThe route of the hulls from Newcastle to Listvyanka, accompanied by 5 ship-workers from Newcastle, where the ships were assembled. Everything arrived, but there were delays.

After we’d absorbed as much of the exhibition as we had rain in walking there, we excitedly tried to explain to the curator that we were from Newcastle too, but his nonchalant response gave us the impression that every other visitor he sees is a Geordie.

Mr “Toon-Army” curator then locked up the exhibition and led us to the back of the ship, took us down some stairs inside, and pointed to a maintenance ladder that led further down.. leaving us to explore the engine room on our own! sweet!

20130629-005035.jpgThe “small” forward engine, used to drive a bow-screw that displaced the water underneath the ice, making it easier to break

20130629-010028.jpgJulie climbing through the various maintenance levels between the two huge main boilers

20130629-110717.jpgDials, knobs and levers aplenty

20130629-110740.jpgMe posing next to one of the two huge boilers

An awful day weather-wise, brightened by a previously unbeknownst tie to where our two year trip started :o)

Russian Kindness

If you haven’t been to Russia then you might have a preconception about how Russian people are. Cold? Reserved? Rude and unhelpful? That was along the lines of what we thought before we came here.

Admittedly, there is sometimes a lack of awareness of other people – we’ve learnt not to follow too closely when going through swing doors because people don’t look behind themselves and just let go, so if you’re not careful you get a door in your face… But when we’ve had contact with individuals, we’ve been constantly amazed at the level of generosity and friendliness.

The most recent example was on Wednesday in Ulan Ude. Andrew needed the knee of his trousers mending (don’t laugh, but he fell off his bike!) so we found a small clothing repair shop. We explained to Nadya, the seamstress, that we don’t speak Russian, but it was fairly obvious what needed to be done and, to our surprise, she started straightaway. She spoke a little English and asked us some questions as we waited, but pretty soon she wanted help to interrogate us, and enlisted Nikolay, a used mobile phone salesman who shares the same unit, and speaks excellent English (although he claims to be a bit rusty). We chatted for about 15 minutes while Nadya stitched up the tear at the same time as chipping in with the conversation. When it was all fixed, Andrew asked how much and was told that it was a present for us. So, we got to have a chat with lovely, interesting people, the trousers were expertly mended straightaway (we expected to drop them off and collect them in a few days), and she didn’t want us to pay for the repair. I can’t imagine that happening in the UK.

20130628-195641.jpgJulie, Nikolay, Nadya and the mended trouser leg, and Andrew

Another great experience happened in our hostel in Krasnoyarsk, we were waiting in the common room to use the kitchen after a Russian guy who was making a large pan of amazingly aromatic soup. Moving around him as he was finishing, I indicated that I thought it smelt great and before we knew it he had dished us up a bowl each! His English was about as good as our Russian which made conversation very limited but he told us it was Solyanka and I managed to work out all the ingredients so I might have a go at recreating it when we get home.


  • Russian sausage – something like a Matteson’s sausage
  • Corned beef
  • Black olives
  • Gherkins
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Dill
  • Paprika?

All diced and cooked in stock (?). Serve topped with a dollop of mayonnaise.

We’ve had several nice experiences on the train. Andrew had a long, sign language assisted discussion in a mixture of broken English, Russian, and German with Vasily, a salesman. And on the train from Krasnoyarsk to Severobaikalsk, we watched the woman in the next compartment expertly crochet and stitch together a small toy. We were very pleased with ourselves when we worked out that it was an owl, and absolutely gobsmacked when, on finishing, she got up and presented it to Julie. We hardly exchanged a sentence with her, and still don’t know whether she intended to give us it from the start, or gave it because she saw our interest. His name is Sova (Russian for owl), and he now lives in my backpack.

20130628-203142.jpgAndrew and Vasily

20130628-205215.jpgSova and his creator

These are just a very few of the many kindnesses that we’ve experienced over the last 10 weeks of travel through Russia. Not many Russians speak English, many not even a few words and so without their patience, generosity and good humour over our mangled attempts at Russian and creative sign language, our journey would not have been nearly as easy or as pleasant.

Olkhon island, Lake Baikal

Six hours from Irkutsk by local bus and a small ferry ride is Olkhon, the largest island on Lake Baikal. Tell anyone your plans include visiting Olkhon and they’ll ask if you’re staying at Nikita’s Homestead – it seems the two are synonymous – and with good reason as Nikita is widely credited for almost singlehandedly establishing Olkhon as a destination for visitors.

Nikita’s Homestead is on the outskirts of the main Olkhon town of Khuzhir, near the Shaman Rock, which sounds idyllic, and in many ways it is – for us, it was so nice not to have to think about shopping, cooking and washing up as all the meals are included, plentiful and tasty. Our spacious room was cosy and quiet, and there was always someone eager to strike up a conversation and share their wonderful (and sometimes scary!) travelling tales.

20130627-170834.jpgThe food at Nikita’s. Clockwise: Breakfast of pancakes, porridge, fried eggs and tea; Lunch of two courses, soup or salad with grilled or fried fish (and this time with spaghetti), and tea; Dinner of beetroot and carrot salad with fish, pasta with giant meatball and lots more tea

Unfortunately, and it may just be that we were there early in the season and the cogs of tourism had yet to start turning, we felt Nikita’s suffered from a lack of organisation and openness. Literally in some instances – timetables said things should be open and they weren’t. Sadly, there was little orientation, description or explanation upon arrival, and while the excellent staff on reception answered our questions, sometimes you just don’t know to ask. For example, we didn’t know there were laundry services until 3 days in, and even after asking 2 different people we still couldn’t find the library! Minor criticisms aside, we had a great time there.

Excursion to the northern tip of Olkhon

20130626-092134.jpgRoads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

We thought the bus to get to Olkhon was bumpy, but that was just the prelude to what we later nicknamed the “Russian Rollercoaster” – the trip from Khuzir to the northern tip of Olkhon island in a UAZ-452 Russian van.
The day trip takes in a number of stops up the western coast of the island, including Crocodile Rock, a human-like face in the cliffs of the mainland, and the site of an old fish processing gulag that continued to operate after prisoners stopped serving time there.

20130626-213820.jpgWestern coastline of Olkhon. Clockwise: “Crocodile Rock”, The “Face of the Island” on the opposite shore, Old jetty outside a now dismantled gulag fish processing factory, Julie and “The 3 Brothers”, the view south from “The Three Brothers”, and Andrew testing his nerves on a natural window in the rock

At Khoboy Peninsular, the most northerly point, you’re afforded wonderful views from the cliff-tops of the lake and the coves below.

20130626-094827.jpgShamanism prayer ribbons at Khoboy Peninsular – the northern-most tip of Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, Siberia.

While we were taking in the views, our driver had been setting fire to a bucket of fish-soup. Mmm, lunch too!

20130626-214148.jpgOlkhon delicacy, “Ukha” (fish soup), server up with cheese sarnies, tea, and lots of sweet biscuits

The return journey takes in the little village of Uzury which is the only village on the east coast, has only solar power, and is home to weather and seismic stations, and Mount Zhima, the highest point on the island at 1274m.

A trek and a dip

It is said that swimming in Lake Baikal adds 5 years to your life. Given that at the height of summer, the lake reaches a temperature of just 9C, and it wasn’t the height of summer, it took determination and willpower / complete disregard for personal safety* (delete as appropriate) for us to venture into waters that felt like 3 or 4 degrees..

20130626-094951.jpgBraving the cold water of Lake Baikal in June – I don’t know why I’m smiling, I can’t feel my feet anymore..

We both waded in, Julie got up to her thighs, and I made the quickest dunk I could to get my head wet. It. Was. Cold.

Good thing it was a lovely day, we had plenty of time to warm through as we trekked back to Khuzir.

20130626-095043.jpgClockwise: One of the many sandy/pebbly beaches on the western shoreline, cows stopping for a drink in the lake, the beach we took a dip from, view through the forest on the way home

Cycling (with a bit of pushing)

One of the guides had recommended taking bikes through the forest to the eastern coast of the island, and we thought that would be a good idea – we’ve already cycled around lake Shartash when we were in Yekaterinburg.

We hired our bikes in Khuzir instead of from Nikitas (as they were almost half the price), but they were insistent we took a southerly looping route via small lakeside lake (!) on the western coast. Armed with a small laminated satellite map with our route clearly marked in fluorescent yellow, we headed off in the prescribed south-easterly direction to the inconspicuously named ‘view point’. Now, had we stopped to think what that meant, we would have realised that view points typically look out over a vista, which implies height. Starting from the village, that meant uphill. A lot of uphill..

20130626-095624.jpgEven in the lowest gear, some parts were tough going. In the end we both resorted to getting off and pushing.

We made it to the viewpoint, and stopped for a much needed rest. The view wasn’t too bad either..

20130626-095729.jpgPanorama of Khuzir, Olkhon island, Lake Baikal, Siberia

The next section was uphill too and we started to think we wouldn’t make it round in the described 6 hours, but shortly thereafter we hit a lengthy downhill section and the fun began – yeehaw!

Not quite brave enough to freewheel it all..

The lake was just past the halfway point, and the last part consisted of the undulating main ferry road back to Khuzir. Despite it being the main road, the traffic was sparse which meant we could use the smoothest part, but at times the smoothest part was bumpier than a cattle grid designed for elephants.

Spotting a marmot-like creature in the verge, I tried to stop my bike to take a closer look, and forgetting that the front brake was a lot better than the back, I locked up the front wheel on the sandy-gravel road, which immediately skidded out from under me, sending me knee-first into the ground. With a small tear in my trousers and and a smaller scrape on my knee, I dusted myself off more embarrassed than injured, how long have I been riding bikes?!

Despite my little stumble, the bikes passed an impressive multi-point inspection by a young version of the censoring twins from the movie Good Morning Vietnam. We checked our watch – we’d made good time, 5 hours and 30 minutes. Probably not the fastest, but not the slowest either :o)