Remember how I promised to write a post before leaving Ulan Ude? Well, that didn't work out... I wrote the post, but on our last day in town, I couldn't get Blogger (the site my blog runs on) to load on the dinosaur computers in the language department. Then I really disappeared from Internet-land for a few days as I took a 3-day trip to Irkutsk and then made my long and winding way home. So here, a week late, is the promised Ulan Ude post:
Bayarte, Ulaan Ude!
Although that's probably not spelled right, it means "Goodbye, Ulan Ude!" in Buryat. Yes, I am leaving this lovely city tonight on a night train to Irkutsk, and since I promised I'd deliver an entry before I left, I got up extra early this morning (after one of those conversations that goes until 3:30 a.m. – ugh, seems like a good idea when it's 3:30 a.m., but not so much when it's 8:30 and your alarm goes off) to write one.
Well, what to say? I realize I haven't actually told you much at all about what's going on or why I'm here. So I have a lot to say, which I will cop out on and offer in list form. So, I present to you a few fascinating tidbits about Ulan Ude (Ulaan Ude in Buryat):
1. The name means "Red River." I once speculated that Ulaan might mean "city" in Mongolian languages, since there's also Ulaan Baator, the capital of Mongolia. But no. Turns out Ulaan Baator means "Red Warrior," and Ulan Ude was called Verkhneudinsk (Upper Udinsk) until the Soviets both Communistized and Buryatified the name (don't know if Ulaan Baator is also of Communist origin... seems likely). Ulan Ude is situated at the confluence of the rivers Uda and Selenga, which merge to become one of the 300+ rivers that flow into Lake Baikal. By the way, only one river, the Angara, flows out. She is said to be the daughter of father Baikal (they really call it that, Batyushka Baikal), who ran away from him to the arms of her forbidden lover, the river Yenisei in the north.
2. On the topic of rivers, Ulan Ude is on the southern bank of the Selenga, and once you leave the city, there's no bridge to cross the river to the north bank and venture up into Baikal-land. They've been building one for the last fifteen years or so (my brother mentioned something in an email about the mark of Soviet power in Iraq – numerous unfinished structures – and I have to say yes, it's true. Finishing what they started was not apparently a part of the Soviet plan). We had to cross the river by ferry when we went to Lake Baikal. (Caulking the wagons and floating was not an option.) Larisa Petrovna, our host, mentioned that the village that owns the ferry will be in big trouble when they finish building the bridge, because half of them will find themselves out of work. I suggested that the government has already found a solution: keep the bridge perpetually half-finished, and both the bridge-builders and the ferry workers win!
3. The population is about half Buryat. What's a Buryat, you ask? The Buryats are a Mongol people that have been living in the area around Baikal and northeast of the Gobi for... well, I'm not sure, but a really long time. They cooperated fairly early and peaceably with the Russians, who arrived out here in the 1600's, because the amount of fur tax the Russians demanded for the privilege of the Tsar's protection was less than the Chinese (or Genghis Khan? I forget) were demanding for the Emperor's protection. So they missed out on the mass slaughters that nearly wiped out the Sakha (formerly known as Yakut) to the east and the Chukot (maybe not spelled right) north of Kamchatka. They're traditionally a tribal, nomadic people who live in felt yurts (a round, packable-but-sturdy tent-like structure) and wander the steppe following their cattle and camel herds. They were originally shamanists, but Buddhism came from Mongolia via Tibet at some long-ago time, and now there's a sort of mix of the two religions – predominantly Buddhist, with some shamanist aspects. (Although of course the Soviets did their best to stamp out both religions.) I've seen several offices here that claim to offer "Ritual Services," which I can only assume refers to shamanism. Near the city is the largest datsan (Buddhist monastery) in Russia, of which I have some awesome pictures that I'll show you when I get home.
Anyway, since Ulan Ude is the capital of the republic of Buryatia, it might not seem surprising that the capital is half Buryat. (Brief explanation: Russia is made up of regions, districts, and several "autonomous republics," none of which seem to differ much from one another except that the leaders of the autonomous republics are called presidents instead of governors. They answer to Putin all the same (and are now all appointed by Putin – three cheers for democracy!), so it's mostly just a difference of nomenclature.) But with the exception of Tuva, to the west of Baikal, none of Russia's ostensibly ethnic autonomous republics can claim a majority ethnic population. In Buryatia, I hear the split is about 80-20 in favor of the Russians, but many more Russians than Buryats live in the villages, so the capital is full of Buryat faces. Some of them have lovely Buryat names (Altana, Darima, Arsalan, Zhargal, Oyuna, Radna); fewer of them still actually speak Buryat. For me, it's a nice change to see all these non-Russian faces and feel little to no ethnic tension – it's pretty much the opposite of the situation in Vladivostok, where there's actually more tension than non-white faces (if tension and faces could somehow be measured in the same units). However, the Russian delight in ethnic stereotyping persists, in that I've had both Russians and Buryats here tell me that the Buryats are a very lazy people because of their nomadic lifestyle; Larisa Petrovna (not Buryat) explained to us that if our students stared at us silently and without emotion, we should write it off as a peculiarity of Buryat character; and last night one of the students (Chinese-Russian) mentioned that he wouldn't want the president of Buryatia to be Buryat, because they are dishonest.
4. So what's the city like? Small, cozy, with wide streets and lots of trees. (Unfortunately, it seems that 90% of the trees are cottonwoods, which were perpetually releasing their fluff onto us for the first two weeks of our stay.) It's situated on some hills, but they aren't nearly as steep as the ones in Vladivostok. The famous head of Lenin (called something like "the noggin" in local parlance) that dominates the central square is indeed huge and comical. Just like in Vladivostok, they have a gaudy (though less gaudy) triumphal arch to celebrate Tsarevich Nikolai's visit in the 1890's, torn down in the '30's and rebuilt in the last few years. Unlike Vladivostok, they have a lot of old wooden buildings, plus a great many more of the same two or three-story 19th-century structures I liked so much there. There are no tall buildings to speak of, because the region is prone to earthquakes, and there's a lovely pedestrian street (kind of a fixture of Russian cities) where the young'uns hang out in the evening. There's a surprisingly professional-looking historical museum, which we went to yesterday to see old Buddhist stuff and Old Believer costumes, and in addition to the Buddhist temple, there's an open-air ethnographic museum not far from the city, which is full of authentic old buildings (mostly from the 18th and 19th century) that were relocated there in the '70's. There are also pozy – Buryat steamed meat dumplings – EVERYWHERE. More than a national cuisine, I'd call it a national obsession. They even have cafés called "poznayas" – "pozy joint," I suppose, in English. The first question people ask me is often, "Have you tried pozy yet?!" (Yes, three times.) Very cute.
So all in all, it's a lovely city. I can already feel that it's somehow more civilized, by which I guess I mean more Western (as opposed to Soviet, not as opposed to Eastern) than Vladivostok. Which is funny, because while I was there I tried hard not to buy into all the "edge of the world" talk about the Russian Far East. But it seems that it is actually less developed than the rest of Russia. Hmm.
5. This will be the last thing because I need to get dressed and go to camp, but considering the length of this entry, maybe you're satisfied anyway: last weekend ranks among the best days of my life. I went walking alone in the forest, enjoyed a banya experience that involved jumping into a lake during a gale to cool off, went on a mountain hike that was too steep and had no trail and got lost in the forest on the way down and returned for lunch an hour late, and stayed out until 1 a.m. standing on the dock and looking at the stars. All in all, good Siberian fun. I decided then that if my life somehow goes badly in the U.S. (when I eventually move back to the U.S., that is), I will pack up and move to Buryatia.