Notes from exile

Tsagaan Sar, or lunar new year, was celebrated last week in Mongolia. Over the course of several days, people visit the homes of family and friends. Most wear traditional deels, many having new ones made for the occasion. Tsagaan Sar is also an opportunity to consume your body weight in buuz, steamed meat dumplings. Some of our friends have made 2,000 dumplings in preparation.  Matt and I, however, don’t join in the Tsagaan Sar celebrations. This is in part because we are not particularly partial to meat dumplings, but mostly because, well, vita brevis. We decide to impose on ourselves a temporary exile to Siberia instead.

For those with days to spare and a passion for great train journeys, the Trans-Mongolian railway is probably the most civilised way to make your way from Ulaanbaatar into Siberia. If you have less time, there are two alternatives. A 1.5 hour flight to Irkustk, or 18 hours on the bus over a 24 hour period. We take the bus up. We learn our lesson and fly back.

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Lake Baikal – Baygal Nuur
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Khoboy Cape, Olkhon Island, Siberia

The main attraction in the region is the truly enormous Lake Baikal. It’s the largest fresh water lake in the world. It holds 20 per cent of the world’s unfrozen fresh-water. In places it is so wide that it is impossible to tell where the horizon lies. Over summer, it sounds like a beautiful place for water sports. In winter, if you time your visit right, it’s possible to drive across the lake. We spend a day in a clapped-out Lada bumping over the ice. It’s not an entirely comfortable feeling. I know that the lake is over 1.5 kilometres deep in parts, and we are driving on a  crust of ice a mere metre-or-so thick . When you stand still you can hear the creaks and snaps of the lake’s slow thaw.

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Winter touring on Lake Baikal

We stop for tea at an ice village sculpted onto the lake.  A bearded traveller who has taken up a two week job pouring tea for tourists, tells us that last week they had a samovar atop the ice bar. Over the course of the day it melted deep into the ice. I pray that our Lada driver will seek shade, and get a move on so that our car doesn’t follow suit

 

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Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God, Irkustk

Our travels centre around Irkustk, a large city in a region not known for large cities. It has been nicknamed ‘The Paris of Siberia’, and we can see why. There is heritage-protected wooden architecture not seen elsewhere in Russia, cute coffee shops and craft breweries, and a thriving arts scene. There are theatres: academic, youth, puppet, independent/alternative, musical. All have something different on most nights. There is a philharmonic orchestra, art galleries, multiple museums. We lift our brows and plan a program of performances to attend. Some Vaughan-Williams at the philharmonic one night perhaps? A Gogol drama the next? We miss out on tickets to both, and end up at a performance of modern organ/theremin compositions and a children’s puppet show. Sadly we don’t know how to yell ‘He’s Behind You!’ in Russian when the sneaky ‘krokodil’ makes an appearance. Like most of the (mostly under 8) audience, Matt decides on a new career. He will become a puppeteer. I tell him he needs a gimmick—there’s clearly going to be a lot of competition. He says he will be a puppeteer who only performs the stories of cycling’s great victories and scandals.[1]

 

We see how Russian theatre troupes program their repertoire and suddenly the arts scene in Mongolia makes a lot more sense. Russian cities have repertory theatres, in which a troop of actors perform a rotating series of their repertoire. From time to time they rehearse new productions and retire shows that aren’t popular. Every summer they tour to other cities around Russia.  At the State Opera and Ballet Academic Theatre in Ulaanbaatar there is usually a ballet on Saturday afternoon and an opera on Sunday. Rather than premiering a show which then runs over a season, each production is staged for one night only. The sets were large, and it seemed like a huge amount of effort to go to for a single performance. The upside is that if you miss Swan Lake this month, it will probably be performed again in a month or two. It probably also means there is greater job security for artists.

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Matt with ‘Monument to Dog’

One thing I was hoping for was a change in food. Country cafes that offered more than buuz, khushuur and tsuivan. The first place we stop at we go to pull out Google translate for the menu. We don’t need it. There is buuz, or khushuur, or tsuivan. The border between Mongolia and Siberia isn’t quite as clear as the customs officials might think.

Now we’re back in UB. There’s no Gogol on the theatre menu, but we’ve heard rumours of two Brazilian heavy metal acts coming in the next few weeks.  The temperatures are reaching above zero some days, and the sun is still out at 6 in the evening. It feels like summer isn’t so far away.

[1] He’s fickle. At the Roskilde viking ship museum he decided he was going to be a friendly viking.  

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