Between Ulaanbaatar and Ulan Ude lay the Russian Border. Just as obtaining my Russian visa had been the most complicated to get crossing the border itself was similar. I lost count of the number of groups of people and individuals that came on board but it took far longer than any border crossing that I’ve undertaken before. Eventually we were able to move about freely only to find we had to wait in the small train station just over the border for another train to arrive which we would join up with to go to Ulan Ude. Our carriage had been the only one to have made the border crossing. All the rest that had left Ulaanbaatar had been left on the other side of the border.
I had again spent the trip in a carriage with three locals who it seemed were Mongolians now living in Russia but I can not be entirely sure about this as their English was as non-existent as my Mongolian and Russian. What I was absolutely certain about however was that I was stuck with one of the grumpiest men I’d ever met in my compartment.
Having one of the top bunks I had tried to put my backpack into the overhead compartment but had found due to my trainers being in the outside compartment it would not fit so taking them out I put them down on my bunk whilst I put the bag away. This caused great consternation from the man on the bottom bunk even after I had also put the shoes away. Although I had no idea what he was saying to me every time I went back to my compartment he would go on about the shoes. The other two people in the compartment ignored him when he was in rant mode and indicated I should ignore him when he was out of the compartment.
Whilst this was annoying, what was worse were his comings and goings during the night and the other guy in our compartment talking on his phone from 2 until 3 in the morning which added up to not getting much sleep.
By the time we reached Ulan Ude it was already 10pm so we were taken straight to our hotel, by our Honcho Xenia, to get some sleep. The hotel was just what I would have imagined a basic Russian hotel would be like, the beds were small single ones and the decor was very basic and spartan with a generally cold feeling about it.
The showers also had a cold feeling about them. Hot water is supplied from central source to the city and twice each summer it is switched off for maintenance. Unfortunately one of this maintenance periods coincided with our visit and so the shower in the room only provided extremely cold water. There was a room down the hall that had its own water heater but since there were lots of people sharing it there was not much in the way of hot water produced so in the morning I just went with the very cold and invigorating shower in the room.
Thoroughly awake it was then time to get our free breakfast. Finding the restaurant was the first challenge despite having been given directions. In the end the receptionist showed us the way where it turned out the restaurant was actually a canteen and it was right next to the rooms on the 1st floor behind a nondescript door. For breakfast I had meatballs which was a strange choice for breakfast but they were all out of porridge, the only item on the menu that I would have considered normal to have for breakfast. The girl serving us did so with a permanent dour look on her face and seemed shocked when i stated I didn’t want any tea with my breakfast. I guess you don’t get a choice in these matters though as with my meatballs came a mug of tea.
After meeting back up with Xenia we went for a tour of the city center and visited a Russian Orthodox church. We weren’t able to look round it completely as there was a christening of 3 children taking place with all of them being stark naked and one at least being at least 4 years old. Next stop was a working monastery out of town. Unlike all the other monasteries I have come across on my travels this was not some ancient structure and had only been built after WW2 and was actually more interesting to visit as a result.
Back in town we visited a monument to Lenin which is a big bust of his head. In fact it is the biggest Lenin head in the world and had the look of something between intense concentration and being cross-eyed. Nearby there were several wedding groups as apparently the local equivalent of the registry office was located there. The brides were dressed in western white wedding dresses though the choice of dresses for the bridesmaids was a bit more unusual. One carrying the brides train in front was wearing a black mini dress with a pair of the highest black heels I have ever seen and fish nets. Quite the contrast!
Having toured about the city we decided that it would be good to try some local beer and relax a bit. After a couple of beers it was decided to try some Russian vodka for the first time. This was fortunately a lot smoother than the Chinggis we had in Mongolia and with it we had lemon to eat after every shot (which is apparently traditional in Russia) together with some chips and smoked fish & onions.
It was another late departure that evening so in the early evening we visited a local park, where they have a memorial to the locals who fought and died in WW2. Here we met an old babushka Maria who wanted to know where we were all from and thought we should live in Ulan Ude and get married to a local. Whilst none of us were ready to agree to that we did agree after having our photo taken with her to send a copy when we got home, so that her friends would believe that she had met us.
Before we left the hotel for the train we took advantage of the free internet, which for some reason could only be reliably picked up in the corridor outside our rooms, so we just sat out there. Whilst there 2 girls wearing very little came and knocked at a door along the hall which was answered by a plump middle-aged man. After ushering them in he popped his head back out of the door and told us that the girls were his “sisters” which from the noises coming from that direction the night before I certainly hope they weren’t.