Ulan Ude: Buryatia and the Giant Lenin Head
Our last night in Chita offered a little more excitement than we expected. We were enjoying a relaxing evening, drinking beer and snacking on dried fish with Pasha, Vika and some friends of theirs, when Vika asked to see our train tickets. "Your train leaves in 40 minutes!" she shrieked. "You've got to get out of here!"
Train tickets in Russia show departures according to Moscow time, rather than local, and I'd miscalculated which time zone we were in. In a flash, David and I ran around the apartment to make sure we had every last cord, camera lens and laptop, and we hurried out to Pasha's car. Fortunately, we got to the station in time -- but when we got to the platform, I looked in my documents belt and saw that my passport was missing.
It's best in these situations not to panic. Looking back, I can see why that's true, as I went completely berserk, throwing things out of my bags onto the platform until Pasha said, "Stop! Calm down! Did you check your pocket?" I stuck my hand in my jacket pocket, and there it was. With relief and embarrassment, I hugged Pasha goodbye, and David and I lugged our bags onto the train and were off to our next destination.
In Ulan Ude, we're being hosted by Oleg and Sveta Lebedev -- the first time on this trip we're staying with people I stayed with 10 years ago. They even live in the same apartment as in 1995, so we decided to photograph them in their kitchen, in the same spot. Just as it did then, their apartment feels like a haven -- we've been able to relax and catch up on email while listening to Oleg's impressive collection of jazz albums and CDs.
Oleg and Sveta haven't changed much, but their neighborhood has: a giant new shopping center opened just a block away in 1997. When David and I strolled there Friday evening, we noticed that almost everyone we passed was Buryat, rather than Russian. Ulan Ude is the capital of Buryatia, an autonomous republic that runs along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal and south to the border of Mongolia. Buryats are ethnically related to Mongolians, though their languages are different. Like Mongolians, they were traditionally nomadic herders, and many still practice the Tibetan Buddhism of their forebears.
Our goal in Buryatia is to find Buyanto Tsydypov, the "gentleman farmer" we covered in 1995. But before setting off to his village, Galtai, we decided to stop by Ulan Ude's most famous landmark: the giant Lenin head on Soviet Square. Standing 44 feet high and weighing 12 tons, it's reportedly the world's largest monumental head. I can't confirm that independently, but I can say I've personally never seen a bigger one.
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