Blagoveshchensk

Earthcircuit Two Trucks

China stands tantalisingly close on the otherside of the Amur river. Some of our new friends here can get paid to make the trip across every half month or so to bring back goods. They don’t need a visa or anything and we’re completely envious when Lyosha says he’s popping over the next morning and will be back by lunchtime.
Earthcircuit Two Trucks

Deep in the middle of nowhere

Today we met a guy who is walking the entire length of Russia, from west to east, pulling a 70kg cart.

Christian, the German cyclist we met by the Lake Baikal had told us about this bloke. As Christian was cycling east to west and as we were travelling much faster than walking or cycling – he predicted we would overtake him sometime soon. Sure enough, there he was, jogging down the road on a damp,grey morning.

It took me a couple of seconds to figure out this was the man and not some local late for his bus – we did a U-turn and found his cart by the side and him taking a leaWalking across Russiak in the woods. He was pretty excited to meet us and tell us his story and passers by stopped to take photos of us all – I think he’d been on TV and was expected in the next town soon…

Chita

This is our last big town before crossing the infamous Zilov Gap – the bit of the trans-siberian highway that didn’t exist until just a couple of years ago. We could hardly find any information on whether the new road had actually been completed or whether bad sections remained. On our atlas the road was marked with dotted lines (“to be completed in…”) – the latest guide books said there was no road at all and anyone we asked said something different. We felt pretty apprehensive – this was the very centre of the Russian outback ahead of us.

We were saying our farewells on the internet and making our wills and such, when a massive storm broke out, sending everyone running. The roads were quickly inundated with ankle-deep water and their pot holes became pools of unknown depth. Just the kind of weather to make a Russian road pure mud and unpassable. What a wonderful omen.

Nations Unknown: Buryatia

Buryatia

 

Okhlon Island Buryat

Buryatia

This land has been populated by Buryats for over a thousand years – it has been populated by various types of Mongols for a lot longer. Their nomadic lifestyle in a vast region of Central Asia may have made it easier for the colonizing Russians to instal  the Russian nation. Certainly, there is a reduced region called the Republic of Buryatia that is meant to be their country but surely that is just a name given that, politically, the autonomous state answers ultimately to Moscow.

Nevertheless, traveling east along the Trans-Siberian Highway, this whole area remains geographically very distinct from the wastelands of Siberia proper. It begins to look altogether Mongolian, grassy hills and rolling vistas provide the stage for gangs of wild horses – but it still retains a mountainous, northern aspect with the terrific and cold Lake Baikal dominating the scenery.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, when the Baltic States won their independence, as did Ukraine, Kazakhstan, etcetera and so on, Buryats have become the largest non-white minority in modern Russia. It would seem strange that they didn’t win their independence along with all the others.  I don’t think, at the time, they were given any vote in a referendum – possibly, their nation is too strategically important for the Russians who would find it more difficult to keep their Far East linked to Siberia and Europe with an independent nation in the middle that could well forge alliances with an over-populated China. Maybe they imagined that the Far East, too, would attempt to secede… The hold on these far way lands, vast, lonely regions, has always been firm but not strong, if that makes any sense. But that could almost be said, too, for the indigenous nomads who lived here.

We talked to one guy, an ethnic Buryat, one evening, parked up in the center of Ula-Ude, the capital of Buryatia. He said that Buryats were happy to be a part of the Russian Empire – the situation of Buryats and the prosperity of the Autonomous Republic in general are improving. He didn’t think there was any serious independence movement.

Ulan Ude Party

In many ways, Buryatia is a nation that you may never have heard of, one possibly similar to the First Nations of Canada or USA: The experience of indigenous people who suddenly find themselves living in a modern country. It is another question; what the Russians have done for Buryats that the Buryats bury any dreams for absolute self-determination?

Not far from the internet café where we had met our Buryat friend, some Russians were talking to me, admiring our trucks close by. But I got fooled by their heavy metal appearance. They looked kind of grunge to me but they were actually fascists who thought it cool my truck was painted black, white and yellow – the colors of Imperial Russia. They also corrected my use of the name ‘Ulan Ude’, preferring to use ‘Udinksy’, a Slavic rendition of ‘town on the river  Ude’ – ‘Ulan’ refers to soviet red as said in the Buryat language – two faux-pas for your typical Russian fascist who hates Communists and hates non-white people living in Russia. And this was in Ulan Ude, the racism in general in Russia getting worse, it would seem to an indigenous Siberian, the further east and more populated it gets. Our Buryat friend, indeed, considered it unthinkable to travel around the country away from this small Buryat part of it.

And so, too, you won’t find much information on Buryatia. Wikipedia doesn’t say much, the guidebooks are pretty quiet. There’s information out there, to be sure… But, for me, Buryat identity is a work in progress.

Ulan Ude Street Scene

Buryat Traditional Dress

Ivolga

Camped overnight outside the centre of Buddhism in Russia,

We asked the deputy head guy of the whole place if it would be possible to film the next morning’s prayers inside one of the temple. It was a long shot but we’d been doing a lot of filming around the Buryatia region and wanted to continue this. It took us a while to track the man down, going from house to house, pointing out to a passing monk a dead dog being eaten by some evidently hungry ones. Of course, the boss said no when we finally asked him but only after asking us whether the Russian Orthodox monastery, that we had visited a week before, had allowed us to film inside their church – damn, we hadn’t even thought of asking them.

Ulan Ude

Shot of vodka in Ulan Ude

Stopped in the capital of the Buryatia Republic to make some repairs to Jigsaw’s front shock absorber mounts; to splash around in the torrential rain that seems to follow us whenever we visit a city; to go see the giant Lenin head for which Ulan Ude is “famous” and to try and figure out how this can be a capital of a republic within a republic…

One of the many illusions we had about Russia was that everyone would be offering us shots of vodka, toast after toast. It hasn’t been like that and, while we understand that we have avoided many centres of population and such on our mad rush eastwards, we were wondering what had happened to that aspect of Russian culture. Well, today, after five weeks, we got our first shots of vodka; stopping to ask directions to the local Ethnographic Museum and finding some office workers having an office party.ulan ude party