There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Ulan Ude (2), Incompetence Among the Buryats: Part 7 of the Trans-Siberian Railway

(In which we demonstrate our lack of ability in making buuz, shooting arrows and playing the bones game.)

Back to Part 6: Ulan Ude (1)
Buddhists, Old Believers and an Enormous Head

In the morning we had a spare hour so we decided to buy some provisions for the next stage of our journey. According to the guide book there was a supermarket called ‘Sputnik’ in the same street as Svieta’s apartment block.  It was not where the map said it was, and after some searching we concluded there was no shop anywhere in the neighbourhood. We had just about given up when we saw a small sign high on a wall saying Спумник, - Spumnik rather than Sputnik, but suspiciously close.

Beneath the sign was a row of silvered windows. Wondering what might be behind them we walked to the end of the block. Round the corner we discovered a small door. It opened automatically and we stepped into a large, clean, well-stocked supermarket. With no indication on the outside as to what would be inside, we again found ourselves marvelling at the mysterious workings of Russian capitalism.

Shopping done, we met Svetlana, Andre’s wife, who was to take us to Atsagat, another datsan, this one some 50 km east of the city. She turned up not with the battered family Lada, but with a company four-by-four and a Buryat woman driver.
The outskirts of Ulan Ude
Ulan Ude stretched out in a ribbon development of army bases and factories, many of them derelict. Eventually we were in open country and made our way across the steppes to the datsan, which stands on a low rise above the village of Atsagat.

On a rise above the village of Atsagat

Although older than Ivolginsk, Atsagat was much smaller and even quieter – if that was possible. It was once a centre of learning and of Tibetan medicine, but now struggles on with only a handful of monks and students.

Atsagat Datsan

Once we had walked round Atsagat in the approved clockwise direction, looked into the various temples and wondered at the lifelike waxwork of the Dalai Lama, it was back into the car and a drive of some 10 km westwards to another of Russia’s endless supply of identical wooden villages.

Atsagat main temple - and our Buryat driver

We stopped outside a house distinguished by having a ger in the back yard. A ger is a large circular tent on a wooden frame, a Mongolian yurt. Inside the ger – in Part 9 and Part 10 we live in a real Mongolian ger, not a tourist ger, so I will leave further description until then - Lynne and Svetlana sat on the women’s (right hand) side and I sat on the left.

Lynne and Svetlana on the 'woman's side'

After a short wait a woman in full local dress brought us a yoghurt drink, salty rather than sweet, the sort we had drunk in Iran and would have been quite happy not to meet again. We ate bread and salad and were then offered a glass of something described as herbal and healthy. It was related to Benedictine or Chartreuse, but a little lighter in alcohol. Slowly it dawned on us that the woman was in fact our driver; she had slipped in the front door and changed while we were coming through the back and looking round the ger. It was, we learned, her house and her ger.

Next up was noodle soup, very pleasant if a bit salty, and that was followed by some buuz, Mongolian dumplings – or at least the kit to make them; pasta/pastry circles, chopped meat and herbs. We tried our best to wrap the first around the second, but the results were singularly unimpressive. When we had finished they were taken away to be cooked.

At this point we were invited to dress up in local costume. This is a situation we usually try to avoid; it so often morphs into an ‘aren’t foreigners funny little people’ sort of activity. However as there was no one to offend except the woman offering us the clothes, we had no option but to dress up. And very fetching we looked, too.

Not really Buryats
By the time we were back to normal, the dumplings had returned. Buuz are big butch dumplings stuffed with mutton. These had a pork based filling similar to Chinese jaoizi, but they had all the other buuz characteristics. Most had been properly made, our creations sat among them looking a little sad.

After lunch it was time for games. Riding, wrestling and archery are the traditional Mongolian sports but we had not seen a horse in the Buryat republic and in present company wrestling seemed inappropriate. We went outside for some archery. With blunt arrows and a target scarcely 5 metres away it was childishly safe – which was a good thing given our woeful shooting. I seemed to find my line quite easily, but length was another matter, some arrows soared over the target, heading for the next county, while others slammed into the turf barely beyond my toes.

This man is not Robin Hood

Having demonstrated we were as good at archery as buuz making we went inside for some jam and fritters and a cup of tea. I have been privileged to drink tea in many places and am constantly amazed at the variety of ways it can be presented. The British, of course, drink black tea with milk, sugar is optional. Americans (those that drink tea), Poles and Russians omit the milk. Iranians, stalwart tea drinkers, do the same but like to suck their tea through a sugar cube held between the teeth. Moroccans and Libyans like theirs sweet and with as much mint as tea. The Indians either dunk in a spoonful of masala or make their tea with condensed milk, pouring it repeatedly from one glass to another from a great height so that is served sweet and foaming. The Chinese are purists, permitting only leaves and water (though some of the leaves may be jasmine, chrysanthemum or rose). The Tibetans add yak butter, though Lynne and I, and most non-Tibetans, find the rancid cheesy flavour somewhat unpalatable. The Buryats, Mongolians and Kazakhs make a brew consisting largely of sweetened watery milk which may, at some time, have been shown a tea leaf. It is not unpleasant, but it is hardly tea.

We were joined by our host’s eight-year-old daughter for the ‘bones game’. Sheep’s ankle bones are roughly cuboid. Two ends are slightly rounded, so that when thrown they fall with one of four sides uppermost. These are sufficiently different to be recognisable and are called ‘camel’, ‘horse’, ‘sheep’ and ‘goat’. Thirty or so bones are thrown onto the table and the first player chooses a bone and attempts to flick it against another similarly orientated bone. If they succeed they take one of the bones and continue. If they fail it is the next player's turn. When all the bones have gone each player puts in as many bones as the player with the least, and play continues until somebody has no bones at all. That person is eliminated…and so on.

Camel, horse, sheep and goat from left to right (I think)

An impromptu international was arranged between the Buryat Republic and the Principality of Wales. Buryatia won easily, probably because they had played before.

Buryat bones team
If you have a shaman handy you can also use the bones to tell your fortune. Having no shaman we took our leave of the ger, though not our host as she was also our driver, and returned to Ulan Ude. We had a nap and woke not quite ready for dinner. The problem with allowing hospitable people to take control of your eating arrangements is that no one wants you to leave their table hungry. You end up with a choice of being rude or being stuffed. I would never be rude.

In fact, dinner was worth having, because along with the mashed potato and the obligatory dill salad, Svieta presented us with an omul. We had observed these fish in the aquarium in Listvyanka but were seeing them on a plate for the first time. Omul is a distant relative of the salmon, but Lynne thought it more like a firm fleshed haddock, albeit a fresh water haddock. It was excellent, not perhaps worth the five thousand mile journey on its own, but I would certainly eat it again if I spent any more time in the area.

In the evening we passed another hour in the pizza café, beer drinking and people watching rather than pizza eating. Young people were out in force parading up and down Lenin Street. Clothing tended to look cheap and again we noticed the fashion for ‘street walker chic’ which seems to be current all over Russia and indeed much of Eastern Europe.

This looks suspiciously like the same beer as yesterday

Russians outnumber Buryats two to one in their own capital, and that seemed to be reflected in the people we saw promenading. Although they live side by side, by and large Russians walked with Russians and Buryats with Buryats. There were a few mixed couples, but they were very much the exception not the rule. We tried to decide if Ulan Ude is a Buryat city with a lot of Russians or a Russian city with added Buryats. We were now further east than Singapore; Irkutsk had been unequivocally European, Ulan Ude was beginning to hint at being in Asia, but we were unconvinced we had got there yet.

Svieta’s apartment was close enough to the railway station to hear the announcements. During the night we were woken by what sounded like an argument between two station announcers conducted over the loudspeakers. We were up at 5, breakfasted on tea and pancakes, and at 6 o’clock Andre arrived to take us to the station for our journey to the border town of Naushki, gateway to Mongolia.

Back to Part 6: Ulan Ude (1)
Buddhists, Old Believers and an Enormous Head

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