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.

Take a tour of the Ice City 2012

Every December an ice city appears in the central park of Irkutsk. The theme is different every year, but it generally features various animals made out of ice. This time, as it is the year of the Dragon according to the lunar calendar, a jolly looking fellow welcomes everyone at the entrance to the park:

The center piece of any ice city in Russia is, of course, the Yolka – a Christmas Tree. They used to have an actual fur tree back in the day. Now it’s just a metal construction covered with plastic fur tree branches. But it still brings cheer to the young and old alike.

Christmas Tree in Irkutsk 2011-2012The most important attraction of any ice city is an ice slide. The bigger, the better, of course!

Ice Slide in Irkutsk

Queuing up in the back of the ice slide.

Ice Slide, Irkutsk

Down we go!

The icey animals were a little crude this year. I hear the real masterpieces of ice sculpture are up for display in Listvyanka, which is a small town right on the shore of Lake Baikal, about an hour away from Irkutsk. But for us, city folk, these were still fun:

Bunnies made out of ice, IrkutskAn Owl made of ice, IrkutskA Pig made of ice, IrkutskThe ice was harvested right here in Irkutsk. You can see pieces of lake plants in some of the sculptures.

We even had a maze this year! Here’s something for Bozeman to consider for next year, provided it gets cold enough in Montana:

An ice maze, IrkutskI personally like seeing families out and about in the ice city taking photographs and having a good time:

An Ice Hut, IrkutskA reindeer sleigh made of ice, IrkutskOf course, there should be ponies and horses all dressed up to lure young kids and set their parents back a pretty ruble for a short ride around the park:A horse and a pony in the ice city, IrkutskA word to one of the sponsors of the whole affair:

A squirrel made of ice with a cell phone, Irkutsk

This pugnacious squirrel with a cell phone from the 1990's is advertising Baikal West Com, a cell phone service provider in Irkutsk. Many thanks, BWC!

And last, but not least, a shot with the symbols of the New Year’s Holidays – Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, Snegurochka, or Snow Maiden:

Grandfather Frost and his grandaughter Snegurochka, Irkutsk

My friendettes, Tanya and Vica, posed for me in this -8 F weather.

I hope you enjoyed this taste of winter in Siberia!

Love, YN.

Siberian Pineapple

The sign says: "Pineapple, very tasty, 30 rubles each".

With temperatures hovering well south of zero, street vendors find creative ways to sell their products. While most of us would be home shivering under a blanket, Siberians put on fur and go about their business. If you sell produce outside, you take some hot tea, and you stand in the cold all day!

Fruit vendors bundled against the frost. Note both customers are wearing reindeer hide boots.

Now I’ve seen frozen fruit, vegetables, fish, and meat all unpackaged hunks of ice waiting to be chunked into any bag you’ve got handy, but yesterday was the first time I’ve encountered frozen pineapple for sale!
Pineapple and Siberia, have those two words ever been uttered out loud together? Until recently Siberians believed pineapples were a hoax, conceived by rich Russian vacationers to make them jealous. (Untrue, I made that last part up.)
Frozen pineapples lined up at a booth was too much for me, I broke into laughter! Noting my interest, the sales lady leveled her considerable business acumen at me with a “how many are you going to buy?” At a dollar a piece, how could I refuse? I did however refuse her offer on frozen kiwi. I don’t think my body could handle the right-left combination of pineapple-kiwi in Siberia. I paid up and stashed my prize in a backpack.

A cheery lady selling loverly frozen tropical pineapples.

Later Yulia and I staged an impromptu photo session to express the joy of discovery. Look for a photo exhibit coming soon to your town, entitled: “Stranger in a Strange Land”.

A whiff of the sweet stranger.

A "Resevoir Dogsesque" saunter. I know, the pineapple makes me look TOUGH!

"Look! Siberian pineapples do grow on trees!"