Ulan-Ude is the capital of a small Asian republic in Russia, Buryatia. Buryat people are buddhist and speak both their native language and Russian. Earlier in the year, when a non-profit organization asked some American teachers if they would like to travel to some remote republics, I jumped at the chance to go to Ulan-Ude. How could I resist? I am obsessed with learning about the culture of the lesser-known Asian republics in Russia. I only spent three hot summer days there but they were amazing.
I rode a train from Abakan to Ulan-Ude. That was a two day journey. Have you ever been on a train that long? You start wondering what life would be like actually married to the train conductor. If he’s ugly, he starts to get hot. It’s weird, I don’t recommend it. Also, you’re at the mercy of whoever shares the cabin with you. You could be stuck with a racist. Or some children. Or a man. More likely, just a racist.
At each train stop, you have about twenty minutes to buy microwave food from snack stalls on the train platform. Microwave food is sort of a weird concept in Russia because in the US, it would be a little shameful if you found out McDonalds or a restaurant was microwaving your food. You prefer not to know that. And they try to hide that. But in Russia, it’s just how things operate. Food at fairs and at train stations just get microwaved (IN THE PLASTIC) in front of you. So imagine dealing with that for three days.
I don’t know if it’s like this in the US, but you are only allowed to use the bathroom in the train while it is moving. Because the toilet is just a bowl that goes to the outside. There is no septic tank. Your waste just goes onto the tracks. Is that strange? I really try not to make Russia seem like the world’s strangest place because I dislike that kind of alienating and nationalist language but um, train bathrooms are a trip. I don’t think I went to the bathroom in the two days because I was terrified I’d fall through.
But enough about Russian trains. Ulan-Ude was beautiful the second I got off the train. It’s nice stepping out of the train into a place where everyone looks like you.
I got into a taxi and the driver immediately asked if I was Chinese. They can spot foreigners right away.
I taught at a school for two days. With the students, we visited an open air Ethnographic museum. I don’t know how problematic that is, but in Russia, it is pretty common to see reenactments of indigenous life. There are just so many ethnic groups within Russia, so they don’t see it as over the top. Many ethnic groups are still alive and attempt to preserve their culture. I don’t know how protected they are by the state (in the West, we see Putin as a nationalist but in reality, I don’t know how ethnically diverse people groups in Russia feel because there’s a wide range in attitudes).
I also visited a large buddhist monastery called Ivolginsky Datsan. I had just learned in Tuva from a devout buddhist that in order to show respect you should ring the bells and walk clockwise around it.
I also got to visit a beautiful, natural place that was on my bucket list: Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. It is also ancient. Even though we went in the middle of summer, the water was still freezing cold. It is a feeling like no other to be next to a body of water that has seen the world change and remains the same.
Ulan-Ude is also home to world’s largest Lenin head. Talk about a unique selfie.
I loved Buryat food because it involves fish and dumplings. I had an amazing time there. The people were nice. I find myself strangely at home in Asian-Russian spaces. It feels like everything in my life led an Asian-American encountering those places. I don’t get weird looks or need to explain how I am American but also Asian-presenting at the same time.