Saturday, September 18, 2004

Hey Hey We're The Monks

Ulan Ude

Met another friendly local on the train last night. The two of us had a compartment to ourselves and he was very keen on trying out what little English he knew as well as, inevitably, sharing his stash of vodka and teaching me to drink it Mongolian-style, flicking it about to ward off evil spirits. It was really good stuff whatever it was although the measures he poured were on the generous side. I was able to fill my mouth with one of the drinks and there was still some left in the mug.

Not surprisingly we were getting on very well before long but I was still surprised at what happened this morning. He got me to watch the bags then came back after a while in a taxi and beckoned me to get in. We went through the city and got out at the bus station. Then he found a small bus and we both got in, me jammed in tightly with my backpack on my knees. Despite that I managed to get a great view out the window of the sun rising across the mountains and sparse plains as the bus sped at worrying speed away from town. After a while we got to where we were going and it turned out to be... a Buddhist monastery. But of course! Just what I had in mind for half past seven in the morning.

Actually it was a great place, the Ivolginsk Datsan, centre of Russian Buddhism. The Dalai Lama comes and hangs out there once in a while. Seeing my first monk was a funny experience, they're bald and in dark red robes, just like on telly. We looked around the site which was still empty at that time of the morning, walking clockwise around everything and doing stuff three times. Then he took me into the main building where among other remarkable, colourful sights and icons there was a mummy in a case with a flag hanging out the bottom. When we approached a monk appeared and pushed my head into the flag (three times, of course) which was a bit on a baffling side. It was very peaceful, a spell broken only slightly by the sight of one of the monks answering his mobile after his ringtone of Dido's "Thank You" had sounded round the room.

Then it started to fill with monks, all sitting around three long tables in the middle. I took a seat on a bench against the wall and watched as worshippers started to file in and sit all around me. One of the monks had a headset microphone and started to lead the chanting. Everyone joined in, sometimes the people around me stood up and sometimes they sat down again. Occasionally one of the monks banged a big gong thing and some others bashed cymbals before the chanting resumed. Everyone around me (I was the only westerner) kept on closing their eyes, leaning forward, praying. I have to admit was exhausted by this point and so when I copied them it was more out of tiredness than religious respect, but they weren't to know. After two hours of this and with no end in sight I finally gave up on the service, got the bus back here, found a hotel and crashed out for the afternoon. It was quite a trip though, not something I thought I'd see, and a privilege to do so.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Care In The Community


In hostels there's usually at least one random middle-aged or old guy sat around on his own and acting strangely. The place I've been staying in here is no exception, the only difference from most is that here he's not a German. Last night after some Russian computer geeks had persuaded me to end my temporary booze ban and try some of their local wheat beer, I went to bed at about half one expecting everyone in the room to be asleep. Not so. I found everyone asleep except this old man who had the light on, his portable TV blaring out Russian Pop Idol and some notebooks in front of him on which he was occasionally writing something and mumbling to himself. When I woke up this morning, he was still poring over those bits of paper and chuntering away. What does he think he's doing? Maybe he's a KGB spy.

I just checked out a museum about the Decembrists. They were a bunch of aristocrats sent into exile in these parts for a failed attempt to overthrow the Tsar in 1825. The wooden shack this family stayed in seemed pretty decent for around here although it wasn't a patch on their previous sumptuous lodgings in St Petersburg. It must have been terrible for them, poor things.

I'm off to Ulan Ude tonight, my eighth and last Russian city. I've got to make sure I'm in Mongolia by Monday because my visa here runs out on Tuesday. And as one local said to me yesterday, "in Russia, without papers, you are just an insect."

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Up At The Lake


The sun's been shining since this morning so a perfect day to spend at Lake Baikal. Took the minibus down to the village of Listvyanka, another one of the great journeys of my trip so far. The wide river Angara sparkling on one side of the road, a mixture of green, yellow and brown trees on the other. Tourist season is pretty much over now so the little place was quiet apart from me and a wedding party but it was a stunning area to walk around especially on a clear day like today. Looking across I was able to spot huge snow-capped mountains on the other side, just lots of the bluest water you'll ever see between me and them.

It's the world's biggest lake by volume and easily the deepest. Surprisingly little pollution too so the water's clean enough to drink. I dipped my hands in (thereby adding one year to my life, according to local legend) and took a decent mouthful and sure enough it was very crisp and cold. Plenty to go round as well - if the rest of the planet ran dry tomorrow there's enough water in the lake to keep all 6 billion of us going for the next 40 years. No hosepipe bans round here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Sink Estate


Got a place to stay in the end and a cheap one at that although it took a bit of finding. The only clue to its existence is the word "hostel" spray painted in red between two scrutty looking doors round the back of an apartment block. It's better on the inside. Went into the bathroom for a shower, on getting out I put my hand on the sink only for it to completely give way and smash all over the floor. The woman who runs the place may be the only cheerful female in Russia which was just as well. Not batting an eyelid at my dripping wet, towel-clad body she sang along to herself as she swept it all up before saying "kaput" several times and walking out again. Strange lot round here, maybe it's something in the water. Irkutsk is the only city in Russia where the stuff from the tap is ok to drink because it all comes from the lake. Hopefully its legendary medicinal powers will put me in better condition by tomorrow.

No Room At The Inn


It's all gone a bit Pete Tong in the last 24 hours. The train journey from Krasnoyarsk was a bit of a nightmare from the start as my legendary ox-like constitution finally caved in completely, leaving me to become much more acquainted with the interior of Russian Railways toilets than I'd ever thought possible. Nasty stomach pains too and I didn't sleep at all. It must be something I ate and I'm quite prepared to blame those superficially friendly Siberians who gave me all that food on the train the other day. I thought they were being hospitable but clearly they were all just out to poison me, bastards.

I've been trailing round town for the last couple of hours looking for a place to rest my shattered body but to no avail. There's one place left to try and if that draws a blank I may be forced into skirting round Lake Baikal and making an earlier than expected dash for Mongolia. Bet all that boiled mutton won't give me food poisoning.

Monday, September 13, 2004

A Pleasant Surprise


Scrambled up one of the hills on the edge of town yesterday afternoon to see a tiny cathedral and a view of the city. Apart from a few old fashioned wooden huts clustered together waiting to be burned down, it's great big concrete rectangles to the left, right and straight ahead. The huge River Yenisey is a fine sight though, and in this morning's warm sunshine it looks great with the trees all around turning brown and yellow.

I can't quite put my finger on what I like about this city. It's a shame about the Soviet buildings and factories, but I've got so used to seeing them around I hardly notice anymore. The riverfront here is a great area and there seem to be more young people about than in the rest of Siberia put together. If Krasnoyarsk was in Europe and had some nice architecture it would be one of the great cities of the world. Unfortunately it's in the middle of nowhere - Krasnoyarsk region is the size of Saudi Arabia. So it'll just have to remain our little secret.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Making Friends


Got the train along here last night and I had the luck to be sharing a compartment with some very sociable Russians. I'd heard that locals will often offer you food on the Trans-Siberian, but I wasn't prepared for the impressive spread my travelling companions managed to knock together. I'd also heard about Russians' love for booze, and a bottle of local whisky was quickly produced. Locals see you as their guest here and wouldn't accept any of the food I had, although I managed to get them to try some Laphroaig still lurking in the bottom of my backpack which went down well. Conversation was a bit tricky but Rowan's phrasebook got passed around a lot and we managed to get by. It was certainly getting very convivial by the time the whisky was finished, then the two men disappeared. I asked the woman where they'd gone, she said "restaurant" and pointed at the empty bottle. Sure enough back they came with a bottle of vodka and I realised we were going to be making a night of it whether I wanted to or not. I'd been a bit hungover to start with and feeling pretty delicate, but I'm glad to say I managed to keep pace with the locals even on the vodka and didn't let my country down. British stiff upper lip and all that.

Krasnoyarsk is easily the most beautifully situated of all the cities I've visited in Siberia. It hasn't got much competition, true, but coming through the Autumnal forests on the train this morning was lovely and the view from my surprisingly plush hotel is pretty great. I think I'll kick back and settle in here for a couple of days.