The 450 km journey from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk oddly takes one from Asia to Europe. It is a beautiful ride with first a river, then quite steep mountains and then the lake, as big as the sea, bordering the railway. Ulan Ude was cold, stark and very Asian in feel,with a huge central square dominated by the biggest Lenin head in the world, carved badly out of a dark grey soft stone that has weathered poorly. Presumably it is just too big to blow up. It is the capital of the Buryat republic, a local people who look Mongolian and who seem friendlier and readier to smile than the Russians
There are two completely different economies in Russia – the local and the Western – and we found both in Ulan Ude. Wandering into a cafe serving local produce, notably the delicious meat dumplings called Buuza, we paid barely £3 for a copious lunch for two but then round the corner was an expensive Desert Nomads, which we did not realise was part of a chain, serving meals for ten times that amount. The local people, often eking out a living on a few hundred dollars a month, cannot afford anything like that. A Swiss teacher we met who is married to a professor of psychology says she earns just 500 dollars per month, half the pay of a bus driver. Corruption is the only way such people can survive, by accepting bribes from well off pupils.
We hopped in a minibus for the five mile journey out to the Ethnography museum, a journey that cost all of 15 roubles – 30 p – as it is part of the local rather than the Western economy. The museum is the site of various houses brought from around the area and reerected – so there is a church, various different farmhouses owned by more or less affluent Buryats and even some yurts, the round tent like structures in which these nomadic people live.
We walked back briskly, as one has to, from the museum only resorting to the bus just before reaching the busy ring road that surrounds the city and boasts rickety but yet very popular trams. We walked through a forest, bounded by houses which are protected by head high fences and mostly loudly barking dogs. This was actually quite an affluent area as later we walked on a busy street bounded by higgedly-piggedly fences protecting old wooden houses that were clearly much poorer with people having to seek water from outside taps.
Irkutsk was very different. Bigger, with a huge river, the Angkara the only one to flow out of the Baikal, and with several surviving old churches – those which that vengeful atheist Stalin had not ordered bulldozed, it reflected its longer history with surprisingly large numbers of wooden houses, with their ornate lintels and coloured shutters, surviving amongst the statements of Soviet brutalism – the regional headquarters built in the 1930s and 1950s with a long delay due to technical problems takes some beating – and capitalist overkill. It was not Europe, but it had lost the exotic feel of Ulan Ude. Some of the pastel mock classical buildings could be in central Europe reflecting the fact that Irkutsk was destroyed in a fire in 1879 and was rebuilt rapidly in the style of the day, Belle Epoque with eclectic additions.
The art gallery had some impressive impressionist paintings, some modern, as well as endless portraits of governors.
One day was spent at Listvyanka, the nearest village on the lake where the rich locals come and play in the summer but which suffers from out of season seaside syndrome in the winter. That made it rather charming and we walked a mile or so up a valley to look at a dog sledding centre but decided the experience would not be worthwhile.
Back on the train, it proved to be the Rossya, train number one, a far cry from the routine servce we had been on before. The compartments are modern with TV and excellent lighting, the beds are softer , the door boasts a full length mirror and the train runs far more smoothly. And the conductresses smile and all seem to have a smattering of English. The scenery, though, was not the more monotonous endless birch tree forest broken only by the occasional village with a few wooden houses or dachas , and every few hours a huge city such as Krasnoyarsk, next to the river Yenisei – we were allowed out briefly to the enormous central square, bustling with buses, and looking rather more European than the other cities we had seen. It was snowing and the sleepers between the rails on the other track were, for once, covered, but it seems that nothing stops the Transsiberian. It was still chundering along at 70 kph, and left every departure point on the dot.