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Day 45: Buryatia, revisited

May 29th, 2011 8 comments


Lake Baikal from Listvyanka

I didn’t have any luck with couchsurf hosts in Irkutsk so stayed at a hostel in the center of town. This turned out quite well since I met many other interesting people, all on their own journeys. Most were passing through Irkutsk either on their way to Mongolia or coming back from Mongolia and heading to Europe. I’ve added their home city audio bytes to City Soundscapes. I wonder if I could open up a hostel in Los Angeles and what kind of people would pass through. Just kidding – the last thing I’d want to do is start my own business. I’m definitely going to try and host a lot more couchsurfers.

I spent two days in Irkutsk before heading south to the Tunka Valley to visit the lady I met on the memorable bus ride from Ulan Ude to Ulaanbaatar. I visited some small villages, Dalakhay and Arshan, inhabited primarily by the Russian Buryat ethnic group descended from the Mongols. They speak Russian as well as Buryat and are largely buddhist.

In Dalakhay, I visited the local school where I tried to get the kids to speak to me in English so they could practice it. Once they got speaking though, they were quite curious about me. I think the teacher would have preferred that they ask me questions about America but most of the questions were about me (hobbies, sports, authors I like, etc.). I haven’t done a show-and-tell since 3rd grade!

In Arshan, I did several hours of hiking and drank the natural sulphuric spring water. Spending a couple nights in this small village, I reaffirmed that I am definitely a city girl. I’ve lived in villages and peaceful remote areas before… and I think I can only take it for a couple nights before I start craving a nightclub. I’m really jonesing for a Malediction night.

However, this trip was part of some bigger plan because I had a “lightbulb” moment when I realized that my next job would still be project management (duh) and that I only had to think about which project I’d want to work on next. I’ve started to think about how I can help to connect people with similar interests around the world. Yes, I know that’s vague. Maybe to start, I’ll see if there is some way I can find people interested in visiting some of these small village schools to provide an opportunity for the children to practice speaking English (or other languages) and to share cultures. Part of me is saying, “ok, now that you know what you want to work on, get back to civilization and start working again”. But another part of me knows that there is a reason why I picked this rail trip from the Pacific to the Atlantic and I probably still have much to see and learn before it’s over.

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Categories: Cities traveled Tags: , ,

Day 13: Buryatia

April 30th, 2011 7 comments

I can’t make up my mind on what I think about Ulan Ude. Like much of Russia, it left me feeling the stark contrast between ethnically different people who are all very proud of their heritage and their country. It surprises me that everyone speaks the same Russian. There is a slight difference in accent but it is the same language. In the Philippines, for example, the people from one island to another speak completely different dialects that bare little resemblance to each other and not everyone speaks the national Filipino language (no, it’s not Tagalog). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because the U.S. is the same with English being the common language that everyone is taught.

The contrast from the urban cities in eastern Russia really struck me. I felt thrown back about 20 years to when I visited some of my relatives in Iran who lived in smaller towns (villages at the time) and everyone had an outhouse and lived off of dirt roads within minutes of the center of town with all the usual shops and restaurants. Similarly, I remembered living in the Philippines when electricity and water were intermittent and I’d have to go get water from a well pump and use transformers, battery packs, and generators to keep a constant supply of energy available.

The largest contrast, was in the very home of my couchsurf hosts, Vladimir and Irina, who have an unassuming small wooden house, a large yard, an outhouse, a banya, and a cat. And yet they have a small array of laptops and computer hardware running in the house. Vladimir teaches computer science at a local school by day and is a self-made hacker by night. He showed me a virus he’d written to send to his university professor as a joke. He said, “Russian programmers…” and trailed off into a laugh.

I spent a day walking around town with Irina and enjoying not being a tourist (other than taking pictures). We took the quick bus ride into the central square, Sovetov Plaza, where I saw the largest head of Lenin in all of Russia. I think I could have crawled into his ear. We visited Vladimir’s school and made it just in time for the recess bell (sounds typical to U.S. school bells, I think). The school halls had pictures of students, English writers, and fairy tale drawings (Sherlock Holmes, Gulliver’s Travels, Robin Hood). There was a random chimney in one hallway that reminded me of something out of Hogwartz.

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From there, we walked past the opera house that was closed for remodeling, went to the Merchant’s Quarters where I taped this street performer singing.

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I like the elaborate window carvings and colors on most of the wooden houses around town.

The opera house was closed but I tried to get close to the backstage entrance where some workers were sitting and talking.

You put money into the little slot at the top of the bronze horn statue at one end of the merchant’s quarter walkway.

We ate in a local buryat restaurant that took up two yurts down an alley off the main walkway. We shared pozy (looked like a steamed bun but was filled completely with ground meat of some sort) and sharbin which reminded me of an El Salvadorean pupusa (a flat bread filled with meat and deep fried).

As we walked around town, our group grew from 2, to 3, to 4, to 5 people, at one point, as we ran into family members along the way. Vladimir said, “Russian village” and laughed.

We spent two evenings peacefully by the Selenga River watching the sun set. On the day before I left, we had bought hot dogs at a local hot dog stand. It was in a french roll type of bread (bigger than an American hot dog bun) and, to my surprise, it contained 2 hot dogs (and cabbage, ketchup, and mayonnaise)!

Categories: Cities traveled Tags: ,