While I’ve loved living and working in Tula this year and have enjoyed being only a couple of hours away from Moscow, I have sometimes been envious of the ETA’s that were sent off to remote, exotic locations in the Far East. When I found out about the opportunity that Fulbright offers ETA’s to work at English ACCESS Summer Camps in different cities around Russia, I saw it as my chance to experience a new part of Russia. Having always wanted to visit Siberia and see Lake Baikal, I chose to volunteer at a camp in Ulan Ude, the capital of the Republic of Buryatia. The map below shows how far I traveled from Tula.
Getting there: All in all, my trip took about 32 hours from start to finish. On Saturday, I hopped on a morning elektrichka to Moscow and then headed to good, old Domodedovo Airport for my overnight flight to Irkutsk. I left at 7:30 PM and arrived at about 7 AM even though the flight was only about 5 hours. Landing was a little scarier than usual because the airport isn’t as isolated from other buildings as they usually are. But everything turned out okay in the end. From the airport, I jumped in a marshrutka to the train station and checked out the city from the window on the way. I didn’t have time to explore the city while I was waited for my train, but I’ll get to see it again when I stop in on my way back from Ulan Ude. I lucked out with train mates to Ulan Ude and wound up sharing a kupei with three women, who watched out for me during the seven hour ride. One of them even insisted on setting up my bed for me (I didn’t object – Russians always do a better job than me anyhow).
After saying goodbye to my trainmoms, I was met by Olga, the Ulan Ude’s ACCESS group’s teacher, who led me to the dormitory, where I am staying at Buryatskyi State University.
In general, the dorm is simple, but cozy and it’s got everything that I need. Plus, the fire alarm is MUCH less annoying here and the lobby guards are incredibly friendly. Our region didn’t have hot water for the first four or five days I was here because of various repairs and construction in the area, but I managed.
Working at the ACCESS camp has been really relaxed and fun for me so far. It’s held at a local school about 20 minutes away from my dorm by marshrutka or avtobus. On the first day there was a cute opening ceremony, where the groups sang songs (“Yesterday,” “Listen to Your Heart”) and gave presentations introducing themselves.
There are two groups of about twelve kids from ages 14-16 years old and they have various activities and classes from 9 AM to 3:30 PM each day. I only have to lead about one 45-minute activity or lesson a day and they’re usually just fun topics anyway like making paper fortune tellers or learning English songs with the ukulele. The rest of the time I just get to hang out with the groups, play games, and help set up the tables at the “canteen.” The time goes by pretty fast because we get breaks three times a day for breakfast, lunch, and tea.
In the evenings after camp, I am free to walk around the city and do whatever I want, so I’ve been trying my best to do some exploring. Some of the places that I’ve seen so far include:
Arbat: Ulan Ude has its own pedestrian street that they call Ulan Ude’s Arbat. Minus the Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, I could see the similarities…
Museum of Natural History in Buryatia, where they had lots of stuffed animal displays representing the various wildlife around Buryatia. There were a bunch of strange deer species that I’d never seen or heard of before; one was gigantic and another had fangs!
Museum of History of Ulan Ude – This museum actually used to be the home of rich merchants, but now it’s rooms are filled with nice illustrations telling about the major historical events in Ulan Ude, a cool reconstruction of an old merchant’s stand at the market, national costumes that you can pay to take pictures in, and information on the Ivolginskyi Datsan. As I was about to leave, the ticket lady came up to me and asked if I’d already seen the exhibition behind the curtains, which I hadn’t even noticed. She then thrust a flashlight at me and told me to have a look. It turned out to be a modern art exhibition of paintings that you had to look at with a flashlight in the dark! The flashlight gave some of the paintings a kind of holographic effect and it was really neat. When I returned the flashlight, the ticket lady invited me to come back to one of their summer events, which included lessons in Tango and African drum playing!
Kalashnikov monument – This past Saturday after camp, I attended a ceremony celebrating the new monument to Kalashnikov, a famous author in Buryatia of a book about the Genghis Khan, which was built right outside of the school where the ACCESS camp is held.
All sorts of characters made it out for the big event including the mayor, Kalashnikov’s widow, some Old Believers, and young Russian girls with big bows.
Ethnographic Museum – After the Kalashnikov statue celebration, a couple of my students and one of their mothers took me to the open-air Ethnographic Museum.
It felt more like walking around a park than a museum because almost all of the exhibitions are outside.
As you walk around you can see different types of houses that the different peoples of Buryatia have lived in.
The middle area is for sacrifices and shamanic rituals.
You were even allowed to touch them (or at least we didn’t see anything/one stopping us from doing it). There was also a little zoo with camels (with two humps!), tigers, and bears (oh my).
There was also an old Orthodox church.
I give this museum 5 gold stars.
Around the datsan - After walking around the ethnographic museum, we were a little hungry, so we headed to a datsan (a Buddhist monastery), where they made their own buuzi. Buuzi are a national Buryati food that are similar to pelmeni/khinkali/potstickers.
Lyuda’s mother compared them to yurts because of their shape and said that when you take a bite, you create the door. Eating buuzi is also an interesting experience because once you take a bite, you have to first drink the meat juice so that it doesn’t leak out all over you. It sounds a little strange, but it was delicious. After our buuzi, we went to look around the souvenir shop and I wound up leaving with a new ring, necklace, and incense (apparently, if Russians ask you if you like something, you should say yes only if you want them to buy it for you). By the time we were done, the datsan had closed for the day, so we decided that we would come back another time.
Overall, I’ve gotten a really great impression of Ulan Ude over this first week. Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s summer, but the people somehow seem a little happier and more open here. The dorm guards always smile and ask me how I’m doing, the people that work at the stores seem less grumpy, and I’ve never even been asked for exact change!
The nature here is beautiful as well with the Uda River and the mountains in the background of everything.
Now I’ve got a couple of days off for “Russia Day” (which is one of those holidays that’s there mostly just for the sake of there being a holiday), so I won’t have to go to camp until Wednesday. My students have invited me to go roller skating, to a theme park, and general strolling over the holidays though, so looks like I’ll still be busy!