23 June. We’re on the train from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, we put the alarm at 4 AM to catch the sunrise on lake Baikal and as I open my eyes, Marta is already up next to me, looking out the window, searching for the water. Yet all we can see is trees and again trees.
Then, suddenly, a window opens within our window. And there it is, the mirror of the sky. It’s breathtaking. There’s a stream of bright red burning in the sky, and it’s replicated in the water, upside down. The rest of the surface is like silver, reflecting the mix of blue and grey of the cloudy sky. I cannot take my eyes off of it.
In the lake, movement stands still
to contemplate its own depth.
And yes, we’re on the train, we’re moving forward, yet everything is immobile, immortal.
As I go back to sleep and close my eyes, this image gets replicated in my head a thousand times, a mute lullaby.
We arrive at Ulan Ude train station around 9 AM. It’s actually not that far from the city centre, so we decide to walk to our hostel, which is located on a corner of Sovietsky square, in the middle of which stands a huge Lenin’s head. The biggest in the world. Then again, who would have a 7-meter tall head of Lenin, apart from some lost Siberian city?
UU Traveler’s House Hostel is pretty cool, big common room, a “generosity box” (where travellers can leave what they don’t need for other travellers in need to take), walls covered in maps and tips for the city and its surroundings.
We leave our stuff, take a shower and spend the day walking around the city, taking funny pics with tovarish Lenin, visiting the ethnographic museum and the Datsan, a buddhist temple up on a hill, surmounting the city, Tibetan flags waving on one side. All buddhist teachings are written in Russian, which feels quite odd to see.
Back at the hostel, we meet a French couple, Mathieu and Colleen, also travelling on the Transsiberian – Transmongolian, but, unlike us, they have no deadlines nor defined routes. They’re just going. Then another couple arrives at the hostel, they’re Italian and are actually coming from Mongolia. We exchange stories and they give us a preview of what awaits for us in Mongolia. This hostel is a true Transsiberian passageway, where eastward and westward travellers come together. And it’s awesome.
We go for a beer with Mathieu and Colleen down at the Churchill bar, in front of Lenin’s head. It’s nice to hang out with them. Mathieu especially seems to have a very special take on life. He’s one of those free spirits, one of the genuine ones and it’s nice to talk to him. We even joke about the yesman movie and challenge ourselves to only say yes tomorrow. Cause, he says, you only live once after all, so if you say no, how will you know?
24 June. It’s another bright day here in UU, the capital of Buryatiya. Our plan for today is to go visit Ivoginsky Datsan, the most important buddhist centre in Russia.
That’s the thing about Buryatiya, it is so interesting to see the mashup of cultures, traditions and ethnicities coming all together here. 50% of the population of Ulan Ude is indeed Buryat, of the same ethnicity as the Mongols. They mainly practice Buddhism and Shamanism, and all have a special relationship with nature in general, due to their animistic beliefs: not to dominate nature, but to integrate yourself in it. All of this comes together with the Russian culture and its Soviet inheritance. See the ridiculously huge Lenin’s head in the middle of the main square.
Anyway, after breakfast Mathieu and Colleen decide to join us, so we all go to the South bus station to take bus 130. After about an hour we get to our destination, which, once again, is located in the middle of nowhere, dry lands surrounding it on each side. Lonely hopeless villages on the way to reach it.
The Datsan is actually a complex of temples and buddhist schools. We start walking around them in anti-clockwise order. Round boxes containing buddhist prayers are scattered along the way, for visitors to turn. Each turn you make equates to reciting a prayer. It is incredibly quiet and as you walk around it’s like tranquillity descends on you, englobes you.
I meet a local woman who explains to me that whenever something is wrong or bad, she can come to the temple and talks to the monk and everything will be okay.
Entering the many temples, I am amazed by the bright colors and the quantity of statues and images of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Unlike what I saw in Sri Lanka, where they follow a stricter branch of Theravada Buddhism, here they practice Mahayana Buddhism, the Tibetan branch, which claims that enlightenment can be actually reached in a lifespan and that through the enlightenment of one individual, such goodness can be spread to other beings for the attainment of enlightenment for the whole world. So they recognise many bodhisattvas and their reincarnations and are open to influences from other beliefs and traditions.
As I walk into one specific temple, where I see an incredibly beautiful sand mandala, two monks are sitting in the middle and recite prayers on a loop, on behalf of the believers who signed up for it in the designated tickets. I walk around this place and I want to know more about Mahayana Buddhism, about the lives of these red-dressed monks, some of them so young they’re probably no more than 16 years old.
I find Gian, Marta, Mathieu and Colleen and all get back to UU, stop for some groceries and head to out hostel. We spend the evening there and the atmosphere is incredibly nice, we all exchange stories and tips and we don’t really know each other but we all understand each other, we get each other, we’re all of the same kind. The generosity in the exchange of knowledge, which is all we really have after all, is just beautiful and filling.
25 June. Today’s the day we leave Russia. This country who we at times hated so much and got frustrated at and rebelled against and didn’t understand at all, but who at the same time we learned to love and appreciate. As she, like a mother, in some weird way always looked over us and protected us.
It’s 6 AM and we’re leaving the hostel to get to the station, trying to be as quiet as possible not to wake the others. Our train is “officially” leaving at 7.24 AM, “officially” because apparently, as we’ve been told, it may happen that the train actually leaves earlier with no notice. Great. But wait, do we really wanna leave Russia after all?
Our wagon is the number 10 and it’s the only one that is green instead of red. It in fact does not belong to rzhd (the russian railways) , but has the symbol of the Mongolian railways. All the other wagons are indeed gonna be disjointed from ours once we get to the border. Then, only one car, ours, will continue on to Mongolia. Cool, let’s see what happens.
We get on the train and find our seats. We’re in kupe this time, so we’re expecting to feel like kings compared to the platskartny we’re used to take. Yeah, a little something we did not consider: this ain’t a Russian kupe, it’s a Mongolian one, big difference. As we enter our cabin, a girl is sleeping in one of the lower berths, and as we try to settle in, she wakes up and grunts at us in Russian, like we’re invading her space.
I climb up to my bed, we have our breakfast with bread and jam we “borrowed” from the hostel and fall asleep till around 12 or so. Just as we’re getting ready to have our fantastic lunch: noodles and cucumbers on bread, again, the provodnitsa stops by and warns us we’re approaching the border.
A few moments later, an officer comes by asking us to show our passports. This ritual will happen 5 times, by the hands of 5 different officers in different uniforms, over a time span of 5 hours, before we’ll manage to get our passports actually stamped. It’s getting hotter and hotter and, apparently, we’re not allowed to get off the train. This is gonna be sooo much fun. 1 PM. 2 PM. 3 PM. Still stuck in here. We look out the window and realise that yeah, as predicted, all the Russian wagons have been taken off and only ours remaines, while other wagons, mongolian ones, are gradually being attached to it.
Finally, around 4 PM, no idea if Ulan Ude or Mongolian time, the final control squad hops on, dogs included, and a woman in uniform starts examining our passports, one by one, checking every single detail on our Russian visa, till she finally stamps them. Finally! 1 down. Still, it’ll be one more hour before the train gets on the move again toward the Mongolian customs. It’s so hot we’re almost delirious by now, Gian keeps walking up and down the hallway like a caged animal and the girl in our cabin hasn’t said a word to us.
Alright, we’re moving again! We look out the window and say goodbye to Mother Russia, then look at each other and say out loud: oh, fuck, we’re in Mongolia!