pIn the West, the general view is that the Communist/Socialist experiment failed totally, and has been expunged from history. I'm not sure that is the view in modern Russia. In multicultural Ulan-Ude, where Asian and European faces throng the shopping mall, the iconography of the Soviet experiment is commemorated in the heroic statuary, detail on buildings and the ubiquitous Red Star. It reaches it apotheosis with the massive bust of Vladimir Illyich Lenin, whose stony gaze surveys the passersby in Ploschad Sovetov. These icons are recognised as one of those things with made Russia what it is today. After all, the Communists may have closed the churches, but they did not destroy or obliterate them. They were kept as museums, comemorating a part of history that it was supposed the nation had moved beyond. The churches came back. Whese to say that Socialism cannot likewise return some day.
Twelve hours on a pink tassled bus takes one from Mongolia to Russia. How does one land differ from another? Is there much difference at all between Mongolia and the Russian Republic of Buryatia?
It was remarkably difficult to find information on how to book these bus tickets from Ulaanbaatar to Ulan-Ude. Internet searches just return information on how to buy tickets TO Ulaanbaatar from Ulan-Ude. It can be done, but there is an extra cost to post the tickets to your Mongolian address. But with the assistance of our airbnb host in Ulaanbataar, tickets were booked easily online at http://eticket.transdep.mn. The website is in Mongolian, but with judicious use of Google translate, the transaction is easily done. An image of the ticket will be sent to your email address, which can be printed for presentation at the bus station. In 2017, tickets cost 67000 MNT.
In a sunny courtyard of the temple complex of Gandan Khiid, moks are congregating. The temples are closed to visitors, as large groups of monks, young and old converge in the couryard. Some are weaing ceremonial hats, and carrying strange devices. The scent of incense is bourne from the smoking censers. A faint undercurrent of chanting is heard and the conch shell call punctuyates the surrounding murmur. We don't actually knw what is happening, but it is pleasing to sit and take in the experience.
If Mongolia has one great resource (well apart from minerals, which is undergoing quite the boom at present) the it is space. Whilst 1.5 million Mongolians cram themselves into the Priuslocked streets of Ulaanbataar, the remainder are scattered across the countryside, herding their sheep, goats cattle of horses from pasture to pasture as the seasons dictate, or in small ramshackle settlements, surronded by the green and grassy steppes of Central Asia. Those who are nomadic bring their traditional homes with them, erecting them where the pasture is good, and moving on again when the sheep have eaten their fill. Scattered throughout these lands are the detritus of many civilizations, Mongols, Turks Buddhists and more.
Chinggis Khan spawned an empire that from the 13th Century spanned asia and Europe. Astride his silver steed, this symbol of a confident nation overlooks his rolling plains from a hilltop an hour drive from Ulaanbaatar.
Ulaanbaatar is a fascinating melange. Soviet stolidity, with serried rows of identical apartment blocks, and a grand and proud central heroes square, is leavened with a Chinese entrepreneurial confidence. It is a city of bright young go-getters, encircled by a nomads camp of gers as the Golden Horde migrates to the city again.
And they have abandoned their horses for automobiles, and pity help the pedestrian who gets in their way, green lights and policemen notwithstaning. The traffic is in permanent gridlock, but this does not prevent feats of split second timing and crazy bravery as the modern horde pilot their Priuses about the metropoilis.
Sometimes, thing from the past bubble up to bite you. Seven years ago, I missed a connecting flight in Beijing. The next available flight offered by Air China was 2 days later. On arrival in Beijing, I was given a 24 hour transit visa, and did not realise the implications until, 2 days later, Immigration at Shanghai Pudong pointed out that I had overstayed my visa. After 15 minutes sitting in the naughty chair though, I was allowed to leave China. So I thought, OK case closed.
Wrong. I planned to take advantage of the 72 hour visa free entry when flying into and out of Beijing. But Chinese Immigration keeps records, and my previous infraction made it impossible for the desired visa to be issued. Problem.
Thanks to wonderful customer service by Singapore Airlines staff who were very effective and persuasive with the local officials and ticket agents of Air China, we were able to avoid having to return to Singapore, instead flying on to Mongolia on the next available flight. Cost of overlooking the past? About $1500. Ouch.
It has been months in the planning, but the grand adventure is soon to begin. We fly to Beijing on Wednesday, on to Mongolia a couple of days later, and thence by car and bus and railway to Moscow by the last week of June.
Bookings courtesy of airbnb, and inspiration from the very diligent Irina of Canberra, on her russiau website.
We should be full of mutton, borsht, blinis and vodka by journey's end.
The map of the itinerary can be found here. Or you can browse to images below the break.