Just as I am beginning to speak Russian ( I didn’t say understand) at least as well as a precocious 18-month old, it’s time to move on to another language zone. I say 18-month old because, on good days and at certain times of the day or night, I can count to 999. One thousand is a very difficult word.
Ulan-Ude is at its summery best and makes you forget the dozen disaffected factories (formerly dedicated to the defense industry) marring its suburban scenery. And Ulan-Ude is not alone in that situation: when you travel in the daytime, you see these abandoned monstrosities with their useless chimneys all over the place.
Post-Soviet Russia has basically abandoned Siberia, which it once saw as the way of the future. Financing from Moscow has trickled down to almost nothing: factories and research institutes have closed, collective farms, once productive, have gone fallow.
But you can’t tell in the cities; Siberia has obviously found a way to its own prosperity and Ulan-Ude is as grandiosely built as the others, borrowing heavily to Stalinist baroque. Its center is spanking clean and pretty, with musical fountains playing something that sounded like Mahler, but was certainly not, in a city that still preserves a lot of its Soviet mementos. Among others, a humongous head of Lenin. I’m not good at assessing measurements, but I’d say that one of his ears is probably taller than I am. Miraculously, birds must have been heavily indoctrinated as none dare leave a souvenir upon its head. I suspect a special squad comes to give him a scrubbing at night. Some people pretend he’s crossed-eyed but I forgot to verify, which bothered me greatly for the rest of the night.
Beyond the white ministries and the ceremonial space upon which looms Lenin’s monstrous head, rows and rows of buff and pale green apartment blocks, a drift of cottages and prefabricated suburbs with the oriental touch of a occasional Buddhist temple.
I took “marshroutka” no. 37 to the Museum of Ethnography, set in a clearing surrounded by a pine forest. People-watching is fun! At least that’s what the two year-old on the seat across mine seems to think. Papa is very Buryat; mama very Russian and the cute baby has huge button eyes that remain fixed on my face. We exchange universal niceties like bye-bye: baby goes bye-bye. He keeps going bye-bye even after the family has stepped off the bus.
The museum, set in a lovely park, is really a reconstruction or rather re-localisation of Russian and Buryat housing and Hun burial sites, traditional yurts, an Old-Believers village (neo-orthodox sect, not unlike the Amish) and a bourgeois house having belonged to a dentist, judging by the bloodcurdling display of dental and surgical instruments. The Old-Believers homes look incredibly cosy, at least they do in summer. I wonder about winter. Some privileged members of the family, baboushkas and children I presume, can sleep on top of the stove if they don’t mind having their noses touch the ceiling. Hanging on the walls are fancy cushions used for… knocking your head on the floor when you pray. There are still some of those communities in Siberia. Can’t say I’ve met any.
Tamara is visiting the park with her two pretty grand-daughters. My not speaking Russian doesn’t deter her from making conversation. Where am I from? Where am I going? Alone? Oh well, You’re young, she says. I think she needs a new prescription for her glasses. As it is, we find out that I’m older than she is. She has travelled too: Italy, Paris and another place I forget. She didn’t like Paris, but she likes sports. She seems to be in good shape.
It could have continued for a while hadn’t I met David Applebaum and his family. David is a Philadelphia Jew married to Larissa, a Buryat woman from Ulan-Ude. By the way, I don’t think I mentioned that the Buryat are a Mongol people, Ulan-Ude being the capital of their state: Buratya. They were visiting her family and traveling with a whole retinue of friends and relatives, American and Buryat, and their two beautiful children: proud descendants of Genghis Khan and Abraham, with perhaps a few Cossacks down the line. Interesting inheritance. Larissa was most helpful in having a few houses, usually closed, opened for us. Her translating was also a bonus.
I walked back to the bus stop through the shady pine forest and was surprised to find behind a new fence a bright new development of fancy condos? Townhouses? I could have been in Brossard, not that I’ve been there lately, but that’s the way I imagine it must be.