It is a day’s journey from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, our last port of call in Russia. Much of the train journey borders the lake, so it is quite scenic. At one point there were dramatic snow capped mountains to the south (if my sense of direction is correct!). I shall have to brush up on my geography and find out what they are called. It was a nice, peaceful journey; I think there was only one other couple in our carriage. Along the route, we kept encountering thick clouds of smoke, which I believe were from controlled forest fires.
We stayed in a small hotel that night, and were kept awake at 1am by a screaming man. It was pretty horrible and we could see the police outside, but not much seemed to be happening apart from him screaming – it didn’t sound like there was any fighting or any other raised voices. Apart from that, our general impression of ulan Ude, the capital of the Buryat region in Russia, was positive. The people were very friendly and helpful, and generally seemed more open and to smile more. To us, the Buryats looked Mongolian in appearance; quite a contrast to other parts of Russia we had been to, it was clear we had come quite far East. The houses were fairly similar to those we saw in Irkutsk, with decorative edging to the wood.
We took a bus to visit the Ivolginsky Datsan Buddhist monastery, about an hour’s journey from Ulan Ude. On the bus, we met a very smiley man who was also heading to the monastery. He didn’t speak English, but as it was out of season and there were no English speaking guides, he kindly decided to show us round the monastery and showed us what we should do where and how to behave. There were several little wooden huts, some larger wooden temple buildings which were beautifully carved and painted and a path that ran around the complex. You had to walk around in a clockwise direction, and now and then there would be a series of prayer wheels that you could push round as you walked past. We stopped by a space where people were lining up to walk with their eyes closed towards a stone plaque that was supported in a wooden frame. Our friend gestured for us to do the same. We gingerly walked forwards one by one and both missed the stone and had to grope our way towards it. We went into a few of the temple buildings and learnt how to do the buddhist worship gestures in front of the various sculptures, and lit candles for a few roubles for prayers. Inside many, there were lots of little tables with colourful cloths, and sometimes a table where food donations could be left for the monks. We left half a pack of biscuits! In some of the temples, when exiting, you had to pour some tea into your right hand and sip it, then wipe the rest through your hair. We were doing all of these things without really knowing the significance of them, but we had a genial, welcoming guide, so we were happy! The last temple was very ornate from the outside. We had to wait for the monks to come and let us in. There was one cabinet we had to walk around 3 times clockwise, then, a bit of a surprise, there was an embalmed monk in a glass case sitting crosslegged at the front. We had to lie down on our bellies with arms outstretched three times. After we had done this, we were each given a scarf – mine was white, Luke’s was bright yellow. Our friend was evidently really keen to explain the meaning behind all of this to us, but in the end he wrote it down on a piece of paper and we will have to get someone to translate the Russian. I think we were both glad that the English speaking guides were not there that day, as we had more fun this way!
The following day we went to see a puppet show! On our travels through Russia, we had noted that there was a puppet theatre in every town, so it was clearly an important part of the culture. We resolved to see a show before we left Russia. When we arrived at the theatre, with our tickets that said ages 3+ on them, we found it full of cute little children. There were two jesters getting them all to do dances and little exercises – for a moment, we wondered if this was our puppet show! Luckily, we didn’t have to join in, big kids as we are, and the real show began. It was all in Russian, but it became clear quite soon that the story was Cinderella, so at least we knew what was going on! The puppets were brilliant, really charismatic. They weren’t glove puppets or marionettes, but little dolls whose arms and legs the puppeteers moved with great skill. The puppeteers were also the actors and did wonderful voices for their little dolls. Often the humans were quite visible and became part of the action themselves. There were some really lovely tricks for the magic moments like the pumpkin turning into a carriage and the mice into horses. Afterwards, the ladies at the theatre were telling us we must come back – I think they probably don’t get many foreigners, and possibly not many adults without children, but it didn’t seem strange to them that we had gone – they seemed really happy we had enjoyed it.
After the theatre, we had quite a tight schedule before getting our train to Mongolia that afternoon. Luke, of course, wanted to squeeze some drawing in, so I left him sketching whilst I went to do some shopping. When I returned, I found him surrounded by a film crew! I got talking to them, and it turned out that they were from South Korea and have a company that supports artists with their work, and they had been on a tour seeking local artists. They had been in Mongolia the day before, and now were seeking Buryat artists – but the only artists they’d found so far was Luke! They still seemed quite pleased though, and asked if they could interview us. Luke had been sketching a homeless man – he didn’t know he was homeless at first, as he wasn’t begging. The man had willingly posed for the drawing, but got a bit worried about the film crew, so Luke’s sketch was cut a bit short. The man was really lovely and smiley, and when Luke shook his had we noticed he had lost a few fingers. We wondered if this was due to frostbite in the severe winters. It must be so hard being homeless there. We gave him some money, which felt a little awkward as he was a bit shy about accepting it. It is very sad that people end up in these situations. We saw several more men in wheelchairs begging who had lost limbs – I thought perhaps they could have been ex-soldiers, but who knows. We were interviewed in a café – it was short but sweet as we had a train to catch – and we posed with their wooden symbol. (Picture to follow). The interviewer was very calm and softly spoken. They gave us their business card and we might try and find out what they get up to when we’re in South Korea. Perhaps we’ll be famous!