At the unearthly, ungodly and downright unreasonable time of 5.22am, the train pulled into Ulan-Ude.
It had been a comfortable journey from the “Queen of Siberia”, as I found Irkutsk described in the English-language book at the banya, while I was drinking tea. It was probably the oldest train on the Trans Siberian Railway that I had been on.
There was a bar of soap in the toilet, rather than a liquid dispenser as well as RUNNING water. To be fair, there had been running water on the 48 hour journey… it’s just that the water had emerged from the pipe joints rather than the actual tap.
On each journey, I find more and more facilities added though there was no toothbrush and toothpaste this time. Maybe it was too short a journey.
I was sharing the compartment with three men which surprised me a little as all of my compartment journeys so far have been women-only.
The provodnitsa came to wake us all 30 minutes before the train arrived into Ulan-Ude. I had set my alarm, just in case but, clearly that is unnecessary.
One cup of tea later… I really like the samovars on the trains here… and we arrived into Ulan-Ude.
While railway stations and platform kiosks are open throughout the night, as trains come and go, I did not expect the city to be ready for business quite this early. I waited for a couple of hours in the station reading.
As I walked out, I saw how vast the station is.
So, a little about Ulan-Ude for the history geeks…
Founded as a Cossack fort, called Udinsk (later Verkhneudinsk) in 1666, the city prospered as a major stop on the tea-caravan route from China via Troitskosavsk (now Kyakhta). I don’t think it has ever been the capital of Russia, but I will refrain from making a definite statement on that issue for now.
Renamed Ulan-Ude in 1934, it was a closed city until the 1980s because of its secret military plants and there are still mysterious blank spaces on city maps.
At just after 8am on a Sunday morning, I was surprised by how busy the city was. I walked among large groups of people to cross the bridge over the railway station – which is vast – and there were substantial numbers of buses on the roads.
There were however, no coffee shops open, and check in at my hostel was a few hours away.
As in Irkutsk and the other towns I have been to, there are significant roadworks under way all around the city centre and in the main square which seems over the top for what I think is a small city centre.
Maybe this is a result of those secret military factories.
I heard voices shouting “hello” (in Russian) but couldn’t work out where from. They called again. I looked up. About 15 storeys up on the currently being constructed block of flats were two workmen waving at me.
They, and the couple I sat next to while waiting for a coffee shop to open, quickly managed to give me an impression of this being a very friendly place.
Plus, the prices weren’t bad… £2 for double sausage, eggs and cheese on toast and a cup of tea.
With time for a little exploring before checking in, I headed to the main square where I found the inevitable Lenin, only a little different to the usual offerings.
Ulan-Ude’s main square is “entirely dominated” by the world’s largest Lenin head. The 7.7m-high bronze bonce was installed in 1970 to celebrate Lenin’s 100th birthday.
I’m querying “entirely dominated” because the square is huge, not Red Square in Moscow vast, but still enormous. Assuming the intention with the installation of Lenin’s head was to make an impact, it had to be at least this big. Anything else and it wouldn’t have been noticed.
Ulan-Ude is not the largest of the cities that I have been to so far but there are a couple of sights that make it worth a stroll.
The Odigitrievsky Cathedral, or Our Lady of Smolensk, was closed during the communist regime and used as a museum against religion. Since 1991, it has been undergoing gradual restoration and is awaiting the panting of its frescoes.
My favourite part of the city today has been spending an hour sitting in front of a musical fountain where the water danced in time to various pieces of classical music.
It was a great spot to people watch. Teenagers were skateboarding, children were racing around the fountain – there were a few moments where I was convinced that at least one of them was going to fall in.
It was a popular spot and there was barely in space for late comers to sit, though to be fair, the hour’s music was repeated throughout the afternoon.
I spent just over an hour watching the water until the sun began to disappear. A link to the video is here.
*Featured Photo: Lenin’s Head in Ploschad Soviet.