As we bid farewell to the Mongolian steppes, a sense of excitement pervades the train — we are on our way to Siberia! Your imagination conjures up all sorts of images — an endless frozen land inhabited by sable, wolves, and bears . . . a harsh land where survival and luck go hand-in-hand. . . a part of the world that is unknown to most people except possibly through the eyes of filmmakers. On the other hand, Siberia has a rich history that we discover starting at our first stop, Ulan Ude, in the Buryat Republic of Russia.
Our train crosses the Russian-Mongolian border just after breakfast. We are confined to our cabins with strict orders not to leave until the passport formalities have been completed. One passenger who rebels is told that she will be arrested unless she complies immediately. In the middle of the vast Siberian steppe, at Ulan Ude, our train joins the main route of the Trans Siberian railroad running from Vladivostok to Moscow, some 3,500 miles away. Originally founded as Fortress Udinskoye by Russian Cossacks in 1666, the city was closed to foreigners until the early 1990s.
In the relatively compact city center, with its many streets lined with decorated wooden houses once belonging to rich merchants, youngsters play Frisbee and ride their skateboards under the watchful eye of an enormous bronze head of Lenin on Sovetov Square. Across the square, people sit and chat near the ornate fountain outside the Opera House before wandering down the pedestrian area of the city. Nearby is Odigitria Cathedral, its golden onion dome gleaming in the setting sun.
Ulan Ude was once the place of refuge for the Old Believers (Torbogatai), a Russian Orthodox sect who fled here in the 17th century when doctrinal reforms in the Church made them victims of persecution. A visit to the Village of Old Believers provides you with a small insight into the lives of this group. Dressed in their traditional clothing — colorful layers of magenta, yellow, red and green dresses, with bright scarves covering their heads, the Old Believers sing acapella, telling stories of love and suffering.
Just outside Ulan Ude is the Tibetan Monastery, Ivolginsky Datsan, the center of Buddhism in Russia and a reputed Siberian Lourdes. In a wide green valley surrounded by mountains, the colorful temple, adorned with statues of the Buddha and painted dragons, is the final resting place of Khambo Lama who died in 1927. On major Buddhist holidays, his preserved body, sitting upright in a lotus position, is on exhibit. It is a phenomenon that continues to intrigue scientists who have studied his remains and inspires thousands of believers who stand in line for a quick glimpse of the Lama.
This first stop in Ulan Ude begins our voyage through Siberia, a vast, empty land which has impacted the lives and stirred the imagination of so many people through the ages.
IF YOU GO
In addition to the Trans Siberian Express trains that travel between Moscow and Ulan Ude, there are daily flights from Moscow on S7 Airlines (www.s7.ru/en), a six-hour overnight flight. To get to Ivolginsky Datsan take bus no 130 from the bus station to Ivolginsk village; switch to a shuttle bus that will take you to the Monastery.
The Baikal Plaza Hotel (Erbanva 12)
Ulger Restaurant and Cafe, serving traditional Russian and Buryatia food (Kirova St No 8)