May 13, 2013. Ulan Bator, Mongolia — Traffic jams, skyscrapers, and sleazy karaoke bars in Ulan Bator. Who would have thought?
After several days of traveling through Eastern Siberia, we finally made it to Mongolia. The last two days were the best in terms of scenery. From Irkutsk, we headed north, stopping at Taltsy, a recreation of an 18th Century Siberian village of wooden houses in a forest on the banks of the Angara River. The setting is remote – just trees and the river – and the buildings look very authentic, so it felt as if I were walking through a real village of the time, except for the other tourists sporting 21st Century clothing and gear.
From there we headed to the shores of Lake Baikal, one of the largest lakes in the world. The weather was hazy so I could just barely make out the snow-capped peaks on the other side. A short trip on a rusty ferry took us back to our train, which had been repositioned to meet us for a scenic ride along the ice-rimmed shores of the lake.
Everyone on the train had a chance to stand on the exposed catwalk along the side of the locomotive for 15-20 minutes while the train chugged slowly along, hugging the shore. It was cold and a little scary at first so many passed on the opportunity, but for me it was exciting and the highlight of the trip.
The day ended with a BBQ alongside the train. Some hardy souls took a very short and very cold dip in the lake. I chose to eat skewers of meat accompanied by potatoes, cabbage, onions, and cucumbers instead. And of course, lots of vodka.
The next morning took us to Ulan Ude, another pleasant Siberian city (I know that sounds snide and sarcastic, but its not) of open plazas, parks, and promenades, obviously designed to take advantage of the brief Siberian summers.
The morning started with a rousing performance of traditional Cossack music, and my favorite, the music and dances of the Buryat people, the Mongol group indigenous to the area. Again, I’m not being snide. The performances alternated between graceful and highly energetic and sounded weird enough to appeal to my musical tastes, molded over the years by the likes of Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, and John Zorn.
Following that we visited Rinpoche Bagsha Datsan, an impressive Tibetan Buddhist temple at the top of a hill with panoramic views overlooking the city. Our visit to this delightful Siberian city (honest!) ended with a stroll through the plazas and down a promenade in the center of the city to the strains of “Hotel California” on an outdoor speaker. It wasn’t Sun Ra or a percussive Buryat dance, but it went well with the sunshine and mellow vibes.
From there it was on to Mongolia. We crossed the border in the middle of the night and woke up to the wild, remote and empty steppes of Central Asia. After the unchanging, featureless, almost meditative scenery of Siberia, the cliffs, buttes, rolling hills and open prairies were a welcome sight. To add to the effect, it was snowing in wind-driven parallel sheets!
The snow stopped and the sun came out by mid morning when we arrived in Ulan Bator. Forget your image of a low key, desert outpost in the middle of nowhere. Ulan Bator is booming, fueled by investment from Russia and China. This is a modern metropolis with all of the pluses and minuses that go along with that, most notably some of the worst traffic jams I have ever experienced (remember, I’m from Los Angeles, so I know what I’m talking about). It is clear that the growth of the city has far outstripped its ability to deal with that growth.
But, strangely, I like the place. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the energy and vitality. Or maybe it’s because my senses and judgment have been dulled by a lifetime of living in Los Angeles and the big cities of the US East Coast. Or perhaps it’s the anticipation of seriously excellent Chinese food just a day or two away.
We have a few more hours here before we leave for China, so I may have the chance to figure it out. Stay tuned….
(More photos will be added soon. Please check back later. For more info on trans Siberian travel check out www.transsiberian-travel.com. For more information about our trip see http://www.lernidee.de/en/transsiberian/trans-siberian-railway.html)