We didn't have much time to linger in Mongolia. It was time to get to our real goal: Russia. In a savvy move, we opted to take the bus into Russia instead of the train, thus trimming our estimated border crossing time from about 10 hours to about 2 hours and reducing estimated journey time from 20 hours to 11 hours. And unlike the train, the bus departs in the morning, allowing one to spend more idle daylight moments in motion gazing at the mesmerizing Mongolian countryside.
We crossed the border about 5 hours north of Ulaanbaatar without a hitch and entered Russia. As we approached the Mongolia/Russia border, the steppe had gradually begun to give way to birch and larch forest - telltale signs of the Siberian taiga; this metamorphous continued inside Russia. The other main change was that Siberian izby - rural wooden dwellings, usually with brightly painted shutters and intricate designs over the windows - replaced the gers of Mongolia, although signs of human life were few and far between in this area. As in Mongolia, Siberian izby tend to be situated on neatly partitioned square plots surrounded by wooden fences. Only instead of throwing up a yurt in the middle of the plot, they build a quaint izby.
Before the Russians subdued and Sovietized the nomadic indigenous peoples on the Russian side of the border, it's likely that these plots likewise would have contained yurts. But the indigenous peoples around here were long ago absorbed into Russian society, their customs and traditions largely made a thing of the past. The experience of indigenous peoples in Russia echoes the experience of their brethren in the Americas. Conquered and "civilized", then ravaged by disease and alcoholism, they now scrape by on the fringes of society, their traditions hanging by a thread, safeguarded by a dwindling numbers of elders.
That said, the area of Russia we were entering, known as the Buryatia semi-autonomous republic, contains a robust population of the local Buryat minority, which far outnumbered Russians in our first destination, Ulan-Ude, the republic's capital. The Buryats speak several dialects, several of which are similar to Mongolian (or so I was told), and the difference in physical appearance between Buryats and Mongols is also subtle. The effect is to soften the transition from Mongolia into Russia. Yes we were now in Russia. But given that the Soviet urban architecture, the people, the language (to the extent that Buryat was spoken) and the landscapes were similar, we did not feel that we had made a major leap.
One major difference was obvious, however: An almost complete lack of tourists. Ulaanbaatar was crawling with tourists; here, we saw only one group of elderly German tours who had hopped off Berlin-Vladivostok train to enjoy the modest charms of Ulan Ude. There's not much to see or do in the Buryat capital, but it has a walking strip ('Arbat') that's extremely pleasant on warm, sunny days like our one day in town. A supermarket just off the Arbat sold reasonably priced draft beer in liter plastic bottles. Buy one (or three), take a bench and people watch.
After a night's sleep in Ulan Ude, we had planned on taking a day excursion to Lake Baikal, about 2 or 3 hours west by car, but I was getting anxious to move into my research zone further east, and dad was indifferent to the Baikal sidetrip, so we decided to move east. The plan was to hop on the 'classic' Trans-Siberian No 1 Moscow-Vladivostok train, which was coming through at 5.30pm. I would travel roughly 40 hours into my zone, which consisted of the entire Russian Far East and a small slice of Eastern Siberia. Dad would hop off the train about 8hrs down the track in the city of Chita, which he had read about and wanted to check out. We would reunite in Birobidzhan, 3 hours west of the large Far East hub of Khabarovsk, in a few days.
(Aside: The Soviets divided the area traditionally known as 'Siberia' into three separate administrative zones: Western Siberia, Eastern Siberia and the 'Far East'. Today if one deigns to call the Far East part of Siberia, Russians will instantly correct you. However, most geographers agree with the tsars and still consider most of the Far East part of Siberia. I side with the geographers and tsars on this one: With the exception of the extreme east coast, which has a different climate and topography, it's correct to describe the Far East as part of Siberia, and I will continue to do so in this blog).
Unfortunately, our plan went tits up in a hurry. Perhaps because the transition from Mongolia was less than abrupt, and it was only 4 hours due north from the Mongolian border to Ulan Ude, we didn't even think about changing our clocks. It turned out that it was an hour later in Ulan Ude. D'oh! When we showed up at the train station 40 minutes before our scheduled departure, we were shocked and awed to find out that our train had already departed!
As is often the case with missed transport connections, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, although it cost us about $100 in fees to change our ticket to a later train. Plan B was for both of us to take a slower overnight train to Chita, and we would play it by ear from there. This worked out better in two ways. For one, it would turn out that Chita was no place for the Bear to be roaming alone. Two, we had an awesome journey, in a kupe compartment with a friendly Buryat pensioner. It was dad's inaugural Russian train ride - along the fabled Trans-Siberian, no less. We bought a small bottle of vodka in celebration, and when an old lady came on board and sold us two wonderful smoked Lake Baikal omul (a particularly toothsome fish, red in color), we were, as our oft-repeated Spanish mantra goes, cagando en algodon alto. Our Buryat friend proudly boasted that he didn't drink anymore ('When did you quit?' 'One month ago!'). He then proceeded to mock us as we drank our modest 1/2 liter bottle, washed down, Russian-style, with omul and boxed juice.
'For me that bottle would have been just a warm-up. I'd drink most of it in the first swig, then finish it up in the second. Then I'd open up another.'
Let's not belittle that one month of sobriety.