The View out our Window

A waiter's view from the restaurant at the top of the White Horse hotel.

A waiter’s view from the restaurant at the top of the White Horse hotel. Ulan-Ude in Winter’s grip.

This post is dedicated to Christy Morgan, a great friend, with a lovely smile who braved a new culture and a coooooold winter to love on Siberians. She is getting married to her Jonathon this very fine day in Florida. Yahoo! And wishing you both our very best.

Ever wonder what the view looks like out someone’s window on the other side of our bantam blue planet? What some Indian businessman gazes upon as he contemplatively buttons his shirt in the warmth of a Bangalore summer morning? What a Chinese child might spy out her autumn Kunming window after her studies? What frosty winter view stretches before a Siberian wife sipping darjeeling tea? Oh! To find common ground with a Mechanic from Davao or Cleric from Alexandria observing life outside their window. To meet some deep human need of understanding in a shared, silent gaze at life through glass. Window views from Bangalore, Alexandria, Davao or Kunming I can’t do. But if you have longed for a view on Ulan-Ude from someone’s window, come stand next to me, and let’s see what we can see.

Watching the police cruise Kluchevskaya street.

Watching the police cruise Kluchevskaya street in the gloaming.

Our neighborhood maintenance worker chipping away packed snow along the driveway under our apartment building.

A neighborhood maintenance worker chips away packed snow encrusting the driveway under our apartment building.

Ulan-Ude, capital of the Buryat Republic, snuggles between hills sheathed in Siberian pine, marches toward the banks of the Selenga river and spills across her current out onto the sprawling steppe. It has changed drastically since I first visited this fair settlement of former nomads in January of 1999. I remember searching the whole east side in vain for a place to eat; now there are cafes on every other block across the city. Fourteen years ago there was one shopping center, the Univermag (Universal Shop) on Lenin Street. Now swank shopping centers spring up from under your feet. The city has become a real patron of the arts, planting sculptures of nomadic archers, warriors, maidens, birds and beasts liberally upon her squares and bridges.

The administrative building for the Railroad region of the city on Oktoberskaya, lit Las Vegas style.

The administrative building for the Railroad region of the city on Oktoberskaya, lit Las Vegas style.

Generally though, art is not what you see out your window. Rather, you see white ten-story prefab apartment buildings, or five-story versions in weathered shades of amber, pumpkin and brick. You might see people chopping wood, walking their house dogs, upbraiding itinerant packs of feral dogs, hauling water from public water pumps, shopping, strolling, sledding, chilling in land cruisers, waiting for trams, picking through trash bins, or just chatting.

The neighborhood grandma's gather for a winter's chat.

The neighborhood grandma’s gather for a winter’s chat.

Named "The Pentagon", this brick apartment building has a commanding perch on Ulan-Ude. Yes, the edifice is more circular in shape.

Named “The Pentagon”, this brick apartment building has a commanding perch on Ulan-Ude. Yes, the edifice is more circular in shape.

Trees near your window are a boon indeed, as they cater to feathered flutterers who visit your windows unannounced. I am unfamiliar with many bird species here, and so don’t know their equivalent names in English. A few favorite visitors I do know, such as Great Titmice, Azure-Winged Magpies and Bohemian Waxwings. These Waxwings seem to show up on schedule right around noon at our kitchen window. Puffed up against the Siberian cold, they look like a ball of down fluff with a beak.

As it turns out their are three species of the Waxwing: Bohemian, Cedar, and Japanese. I have always been mystified as to why these birds are called “Waxwing”. The etymology of the English name of the bird is fascinating. Waxwings have brilliant red tips of “wax” on the inside, or secondary feathers of their wings. The red reminded people of red wax used for sealing letters, hence the name Waxwing! Bohemian is a reference to gypsies or Roma from the East who are known to wander throughout Europe, and Asia. To English speakers, Bohemia used to be known as a place “somewhere far to the east”. Perhaps they should be renamed Siberian Waxwings, as Siberia is much farther East than Bohemia and the Roma roam here still. These little aptly named wanderers continue in the traditional nomadic culture of much of the East, handed down to them by their fore-bird-fathers.

This Waxwing takes a break from his lunch break.

This Bohemian Waxwing takes a break from his lunch break.

What's at the bottom of this blue fence?

What’s at the bottom of this blue fence?

Growing up in a railroad town, I have always wondered at diesel dragons appearing from nowhere to roar through town, stopping people in their tracks, kicking up a hub-bub and then disappearing, leaving peace in their wake. In Irkutsk, I lived in a region called Universitetski (University) where I could see the great Trans-Siberian beast rumble through the city. When I walked to Russian class I crossed the railroad. Yes, more than once I stopped to squish a few rubles under the steel wheels of the dragon.

While we can’t see the Trans-Siberian railway from our flat, we have friends who can. Behold a frosty afternoon vista from their window, through the smoke of a thousand fires keeping the cold at bay one more night.

Looking west over the Trans-Siberian Railway toward the left bank of the Selenga. The people of Sovietski region stoke their stoves against the approach of a frigid eve.

Looking west over the Trans-Siberian Railway toward the left bank of the Selenga. The people of Sovietski region stoke their stoves against the approach of a frigid eve.

You may never come to our part of the blue earth. But you have now seen her through typical windows . . . windows on the exotic East, the Siberian Orient. (Follow this link to see a post on traditional decorative Siberian windows : )

The Red Gated Golden City

I peered through inky blackness while our aeroplane jetted northward from Beijing across the invisible steppe. Feebly lit villages briefly flickered and disappeared sinking into a sable sea. The age-old stars lit our long, long way.

Out of the inky blackness of empty steppe rises a city of gold; Ulan-Ude.

Out of the inky blackness of empty steppe rises a city of gold; Ulan-Ude.

And then gold. Ulan-Ude, like some bejeweled fairy tale city, some golden Oz, pierced the darkness beckoning our wandering craft to come and rest in her berth. The temperature in Ulan-Ude during our 7 am touchdown was a crackling -37° C. Siberia didn’t disappoint.

A cold, dark arrival.

A cold, dark arrival.

Our airport stay was prolonged by the consternation of officials trying to get their heads around a three-year visa. Finally the immigration officer in charge confidently informed us the Russian Consulate in Seattle had made a mistake, for there is no such thing as a three-year visa. With that they let us go and we collected our baggage, hailed a taxi and set off into the city.

Wood smoke rises to greet the sun who finally peeps over the hills at 10:00 am.

Wood smoke rises to greet the sun who finally peeps over the hills at 10:00 am.

Tigers, and deer stationed on the bridges leading into the city welcomed us. Lovely Mother Buryatia greeted us with a bowl of mares milk and blue silk at the eastern entrance to the city as is steppe custom. Stalwart Buryat warriors astride their chargers silently saluted us as we drove into the mist covered chill resting on Ulan-Ude. (Ulan-Ude means: Red Gate)

Ulan-Ude on a cold sun day.

Ulan-Ude on a cold sun day.

Nina, Yulia’s delightful mother set down before us warm bowls of salamat; fried sour cream, a Buryat delight. We savored the steamy, creamy goodness, and laughed at excited antics of our nieces and nephew. Just the things one needs after a long flight through the darkness.

Late afternoon on the Trans Siberian Railway.

Late afternoon on the Trans Siberian Railway.

The sun sets orange on another frigid day.

The sun sets orange and frigid.

Irkutsk on Al Jazeera!

Check this out: Irkutsk is featured in a video report on Al Jazeera! Take a trip on the TransSiberian railroad with AJ’s Jonah Hull and listen to what people have to say about Putin and the upcoming presidential election on March 4th. Watch the video here.

Irkutsk and TransSiberian Railway on Al Jazeera

Fruits of the Taiga

It may not look like it, but we are out in the middle of the Siberian taiga. L-R: Galina, Lida, Tanya, Vika, Dima

Russia is a country where one must be prepared to surrender their plans in an instant, when adventure/opportunity comes a-knocking. So when Vika said “Mushroom picking tomorrow?’ I asked, “Where do I have to be?”

Mushrooms are in season.

Early the next morning, I met my Mother-in-law, Nina, coming in from Ulan-Ude, at the train station, sent her on her merry way home to Yulia, and I hopped the Electrichka (electric train) headed toward Yagodny stop. The Electrichka always carries an eclectic mix of gardeners headed to their summer cottages, hikers, mountain bikers, mushroom/berry/pine nut gatherers, some fishermen perhaps, wanderers and ne’er-do-wells, bottles in hand. Sometimes the train will stop near a settlement of dacha’s (summer cottages), to offload the vegetable tenders. At other times, the train stops in the middle of what would appear to be nowhere, but is in fact somewhere in the Siberian taiga, where you can watch the gatherers and adventurers get off the train and disappear into the boreal forest in like seven seconds flat!

On the train I hooked up with Dima, Vika, Tanya, Vika’s mom, Galina Dimitryevna and numerous friends of Vika’s family, who are all a knowledgeable, able, and very entertaining lot. Galina is a dear and jolly lady with vast knowledge of the taiga, a fabulous cook, and if your stranded in the forest will come find you, and fix you right up. That owes to the fact that she has worked for the Ministry of Emergency Situations for years; she does search and rescue!

After quickly repelling from the train car to solid ground, we set off toward mushrooms, trekking through lush green growth. Right on cue, the rain began to sprinkle, drip and patter on us. Now friends, it is a myth that only ice and snow can be found in Siberia. For three fleeting months, the land literally bursts forth with fruit. It seems where last week you saw bare branches, this week they are laden with ripening cherries, gooseberries or raspberries. It’s a mad dash between people, bears, squirrels and birds to pack away for the loooooooooonnnnnnng approaching winter.

Black currents.

Siberian cherries.

Unbeknownst to me before our train ride, we actually had a specific destination. A cabin built by the elder generation in ’79 and ’80. As we walked, I received two educations. The first was on the history of Siberians resettling in New Zealand before the Revolution: the second was on types of mushrooms, where one finds them and what to eat varying species with. Our crew hiked, chatted, dripped and plucked our way several kilometers to a well built cabin (left side of the Trans-Siberian railroad if headed east, somewhere between Krasnoyarsk and Chita!) A quick costume change and . . .

Better than a beachfront condo.

Russian smiles, hospitality and a hot stove keep this cabin warm.

Shazaam! In the time it takes to sneeze, our crew had, from scratch mind you, borsht, wild herb and vegetable salad, and fried bread, spread out before us. For garnishing they included salted cucumbers, homemade raspberry or black currant jam, bread, cheese, salami, pork fat, tea flavored with black currant leaves, wine and a bit of vodka literally piled on the candlelit table! We ate and laughed and laughed and ate! Delectable.

Preparing the spread. (No electricity in this part of the taiga!)

Galina preparing fried bread. Yum.

Table set, stomachs ready. The best place to get to know the Russian people is at the table.

Heating water for tea, or for a bath.

After luncheon, mostly people settled down for a nice nap. Dima and I on the other hand, went a searching mushrooms and came back soaking wet, again! To our great pleasure, the Banya, a true Russian bathing experience, was blazing and ready for a good steaming, which we did with relish. In between our steaming sessions we sat in the rain and told stories. (Prior to our baths, we hung our soaking cloths in the banya. The blazing stove had that room extremely hot drying our cloths in about half an hour.) The girls got up; we had tea, and made our way back out of the taiga. We did stop for about twelve minutes to eat black currents, which was our downfall! Descending the last hill, we saw our electrichka pull into the stop . . . . . . . . and pull out without us! So we did what any good Russians would do, made a fire, put potatoes in the coals, cut up vegetables, kielbasa and laughed for two hours until the next train pulled in.

From here you can reach Vladivostok in JUST four days.

We weren’t the only ones enjoying the rich Siberian summer.

The girls react to Dima’s statement: “I think I melted my glasses in the Banya!”

Passing a Siberian village after the rain.