August 9, 1995 - Wednesday

I have a definite hangover this morning. The train ride was great, but now we get into the bus which takes us to a nice hotel. After one hour rest, it is time for breakfast and a full day! First we go to a Buryat Monastery and village which are about one hour outside Ulan Ude (at breakneck speed over questionable roads). The village is far out, very poor, and on an unpaved road with massive pot holes but our minibus makes it! After returning to Ulan Ude for lunch, we went to see a remarkable collection of Buddhist relics from all over Russia in a museum / storehouse. They need much more space to show everything properly. We also go to a local market. When we return for dinner we find that they are not expecting us. We decide to order light - bread, cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers, fruit and tea for 6 = 80,000 roubles (about $18). After dinner we go for a short walk in the rain through a rough neighborhood along the busy industrial waterfront - probably not smart anywhere in the world - but we get back OK. Finally to bed.

August 10, 1995 - Thursday

It's raining. We all feel like there is not much more to see or do in Ulan Ude - maybe this part of the trip was a mistake. But we head off with our guide Tatyana and her husband Bob, who is from Hawaii. We go 70 kilometers outside Ulan Ude to the Big Village of Koonalai. The trip takes us along the Selenga river. We stop at a spot that has been sacred to the Buddhists for thousands of years (Tatyana says that in ancient times it was used for animal sacrifices) - We walk up hill, up hill, up hill and then climb rocks to the top - I went?...Yes! The view is magnificent and worth the climb. Back in the minibus, Tatyana takes us to the home of a woman that she has known since her childhood. The woman proudly invites us into her cabin and offers us fresh milk from her cow. We all hesitate knowing that the milk is not pasturized, but how can we turn her down? So we drink this wonderful, creamy, ice cold milk. A new experience. It is so rich and sweet it tastes like ice cream. It was also interesting to see her refrigerator - a room in the permafrost. Then we keep going until the pavement ends - and then keep going. We finally arrive at a village of Old Believers. The village well has delicious water but even in August when the air temperature is warm they have to break through the ice that forms due to the permafrost. They farm wheat, rye, buckwheat, cows, sheep and pigs. The houses are small, close together, but beautifully kept with decorated fronts of carved windows and shutters. The shutters are closed at night and to keep out fierce storms that sweep across the steppes. We visit the house of an old widow who (with the help of two friends) has prepared a feast for us - potatoes and pork, salted omul, curd, fat back, tomatoes and cucumbers, fresh berries of three kinds, and homemade breads and cakes. In usual Russian fashion (I think) all the food comes out at once including dessert. Wow. After dinner the three ladies sing for us; dressed in local costumes that have been handed down through many generations. The ladies are part of an ensemble that performed in New York, Boston, and France. They sing in old Russian language in perfect harmony. Then we are asked to sing - embarrassed again! But we have fun and the ladies seem satisfied with Bob's Hawaiian dance. We head back to Ulan Ude for dinner. Tatyana and Bob invited us to join their party for dinner at a Buryat restaurant. It turns out to be a wedding party for them. There are Buryat singers in full costume. It is Pam and Andy's anniversary today and they are presented with champagne, chocolates, a white scarf signifying long life together, and a wooden bird called Goruda (a Buddhist symbol for life). Everyone treated us like family. We all danced, toasted, and ate large volumes of delicious Buryat food! What a day - a big surprise and an incredible experience! We return to the hotel at 11:30 PM. It's pouring rain and we find the building completely dark and locked up. Our car and driver have pulled away, so I guess we'll have to solve this one ourselves. After banging on the door for a few minutes, a woman comes from behind the reception desk with a candle in hand. It seems the power is out so they locked the place up for safety. She lets us in when she sees our keys. The flashlights we always carry come in handy for finding our rooms. It is definitely the right time for sleep!

August 11, 1995 - Friday

Still raining! Because of the washed out roads, they decide not to take us to Genghis Khan's fortress but to a nature museum instead. Nothing great there. Shopped for a few items on the way back for lunch. Not many souvenirs in town. We decide we want our trip to Lake Baikal in spite of the weather, but the tour guides have other ideas. Since we have to catch the train back to Irkutsk at 9:00 PM, they delay long enough that it becomes impossible. Tatyana takes us to the Tibetan Health Center where Bob has been receiving treatment for high blood pressure and where they have both been living while Bob receives treatment. We see an IV bottle with tube and needle still attached, ready to use again. We ask how the IV and acupuncture needles are cleaned. The nurse states they are cleaned very thoroughly and then placed in an autoclave (quite old). At this clinic, they have treated children from Cherynobl using alternative methods of health care such as acupuncture, massage, and herbs The staff seem quite dedicated and concerned for their patients. The building is only three years old. There is an attractive communal dining room and a living room with a TV. While we were visiting, the water system was not working. We then go to see the ethnology museum - an outdoor exhibition of Yurt encampments, pre Christian shamanism, and old Russian houses (including the one in which Tatyana grew up). Yurts, utilized by nomadic steppe inhabitants are covered with very thick wool blankets and can be moved and set up in one and one half hours - by the women of course. Men tell the women where to put the Yurt. There are camels and llamas roaming free. On the way back to Ulan Ude, we find out that Svetlana has canceled our dinner arrangements in case we went to Baikal! Oh well. Dinner at the hotel was fine. We are just about to begin toasting with a guy from Oregon who is in the forestry business in Ulan Ude (the only American we saw in Ulan Ude except Bob - our guide's husband) when it is time to leave for the train. On the train, all the bunks are booked so Nate and Andy sleep in a compartment with two Russian men who had apparently been partying pretty heavily. The women get a cabin to themselves. Of course we first enjoy a few toasts, and stories. We sleep quite well and arrive in Irkutsk early in the morning.

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©entire contents copyrighted by Nathan Lipsen, 1995