Blessed by Buddha
Ulan-Ude Travel Blog› entry 49 of 125 › view all entries
As I watched lake Baikal from the Irkutsk-Ulan Ude train, I almost wished I had suffered some great hardship to get there, so I could say "this makes it all worth it". But from the moment I had left Novosibirsk everything had gone smoothly (though there had been some bad omens: on my last night in Novosibirsk, I got locked out of my room and had to get the fire brigade to get in through the window; the left luggage office at Novosibirsk train station counted my backpack, my tent that was attached to it, and a tiny plastic bag as 3 items, and made me pay again because I picked them up after midnight). In Irkutsk, where I expected affordable accommodation would be hard to find, the first hotel I tried had a room available for about 15 Euro - not dirt-cheap of course, but certainly good value.
As I wanted to be in Ulan Ude on wednesday morning to get my Mongolian visa (there is a consulate in Irkutsk as well, but allegedly it only hands out 14-day visas if you don`t have an invitation, and that seems awfully short if you want to see anything), I had only time for 1 day in Irkutsk, so I had not seen the lake (which would have been an easy daytrip) yet before I got on the train. For about 5 hours it goes along the southern shore, so that`s 5 hours of breath-taking views.
The wonderful Naran Tour in Ulan Ude not only got me the aformentioned homestay and visa support, but they also took my passport to the Mongolian consulate for me while I went on a trip to Ivolginsk Datsan, the most important Buddhist monastery in the area, with a Dutch couple (I was very happy I could speak my native language, I hadn`t done that for over a month!), 2 Germans and a German-speaking Buryat guide. I could have saved money by going on my own, but I think without a guide I wouldn`t have understood much of it, and probably made offensive mistakes like turning my back to the altar in one of the temples, or walking in the wrong direction.
Ulan Ude is an extraordinarily pleasant city, I am happy I chose to stay there for a couple of days rather than in Irkutsk. It`s the capital of Buryatya, one of the "other" republics of the Russian Federation. Buryats, which make up about 30% of the population of the republic (though it must be at least 50 in Ulan Ude - for the first time I could really tell I am in Asia, not Europe), are related to Mongolians. After an era of horrendous oppression (monasteries were destroyed, lamas were shot, people weren`t allowed to speak Buryat or give their children Buryat names), Buddhism is now the prime religion again, popular amongst Russians as well as Buryats, but there are many shamanists, christians, jews and atheists as well.
The bext day I finally went on a daytrip to lake Baikal. I took a marshrutka to Gremyachinsk, about 2,5 hours away, walked along the shore, sat on the beach, and for hours didn`t see another human being. If I hadn`t felt quite hungover after having drank too much cheap Russian beer with Boris, my host (apparently homestays aren`t exclusively offered by old women, hosts can be nice young unemployed men as well), the night before, I might have thought I`d died and gone to heaven.