The Grand Trans-Siberian Express Experience Part 5: Ulan-Ude and Tarbagatay

This is the fifth in a six-part series of blog posts about my experience onboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express. To read the other parts, click here: 

Part 1: Moscow to Yekaterinburg

Part 2: Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk

Part 3: Irkutsk

Part 4: Lake Baikal

Part 6: Ulaanbaatar and Terelj National Park, Mongolia

The video above is a 7-part anthology of short films that capture my experience onboard, a highlight reel of memorable experiences onboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express, taken during the summer of 2017.

The Grand Trans-Siberian Express is the premium version of the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway journey. The GTSE is an all-inclusive "cruise on rails" using a private charter train, with luxury accommodations and fine dining from start to finish onboard the train and at designated stops along the way. Our chosen route took us from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, over the course of 12 days, with guided day trips in between long hours in transit on the train. I had the good fortune of joining this trip thanks to Aeroflot Russian Airlines.

PART 5: Ulan-Ude and Tarbagatay

A scorching summer day greets us at the station at Ulan Ude

I KNOW LITTLE about our next stop at Ulan-Ude, except that it is close to Mongolia and that it is home to the world's largest Lenin head. It is Day 10, and we step out of the train into scorching heat under a cloudless sky. It is our final day in Russia, and the days have gone by in a literal and figurative blur.

From Irkutsk Oblast (region), we have entered the Buryat Autonomous Republic, in the strip of land between Lake Baikal to the north and Mongolia to the south. Ulan-Ude is its capital. We are deep in the Asian side of Russia now, and it is clear the moment we step out: many of the people here, our guide included, look Mongolian, and also speak the language or some version of it. It feels weird and wonderful to still be in the same country yet feel like we've entered a completely different nation - such is the effect of Russia's stupendous mass and the distance covered by the Trans-Siberian Railway.

We are met by our guide and come to the main square of the town, where the hulking Lenin head proves markedly more impressive than it did in photos. It's pretty big.

 The famed giant Lenin head of Ulan Ude

The famed giant Lenin head of Ulan Ude

We make our way past the opera house and down a boulevard to Arbat Pedestrian Street, a pedestrianized area with shops, restaurants, and hotels. I like how the town is quieter and less developed than the others we've been to, but remains immaculately clean, like an outskirts border town that has grown up. I see no skyscrapers, and buildings for the most part retain an older style of architecture.

The Buryat State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Music Fountain

Statues outside the Opera House

Looking down the road towards Arbat Pedestrian Street and the Holy Cathedral Odigitrievsky at the end of the road

Entering Arbat Pedestrian Street

We are now laboring under the sharp heat and so stop to have a drink of kvass. I am almost upset that I waited until my last day in Russia before sampling it: this traditional Russian drink, fermented from rye, is delicious and refreshing, with its 1% alcohol content giving it just a hint of a kick.

A lovely cup of kvass

We walk down the Arbat and take in more of the local architecture. It reminds me of a theme park made to look like some Russian town of the past.

Commercial establishments along the Arbat

I love the look of this town

We stroll further down, past the end of the Arbat, until we reach the Holy Cathedral Odigitrievsky

Love these old Soviet-era vans

More of the local architecture. The streets here are quiet on a Sunday.

Holy Cathedral Odigitrievsky

We turn a corner to Ulitsa Sobornaya, another pedestrianized area that is still under development, but promises to be beautiful. It has the cathedral on one end and, like District 130 in Irkutsk, is bordered by rows of traditional wooden houses.

A view of the cathedral from Ulitsa Sobornaya

The traditional wooden lace architecture of the old downtown, where the intelligentsia used to live

These houses were once home to merchants the intelligentsia - people who suffered greatly under the Bolshevik regime. There is a memorial to the victims of oppression at the end of the street.

A monument to the victims of oppression under the Bolsheviks

Another wooden house nearby

By now it is nearly noontime and the heat is too much to bear. Fortunately, it's time to board the minibus and make our way, we are told, to the Old Believer village.

At the Old Believer village in Tarbagatay

We arrive in the dusty little town of Tarbagatay an hour later. Once again, we seem to have traveled to a completely different place and time: the entire town is composed of squat wooden houses, many of which are painted bright colors and decorated with whimsical wooden inlays. We enter a compound showcasing a traditional Old Believer village, full of color and people in traditional garb.

A pleasant face greeting our arrival at the Old Believer village

The Old Believers, we are told, are called such because they broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church when it reformed in the 17th century to align more closely with the Greek Orthodox Church. As a result, maintain much older rituals and practices. We learn that Old Believer services last for five or six hours (!), and like Russian Orthodox services, there is no sitting.

After a walk around the village it is time for lunch, and then, once again, music. We are treated to a mini-concert showcasing traditional polyphonic singing, which I found so amazing that I was nearly moved to tears. (This is why they are devoted an entire segment in my video above.)

Time for a show at the Old Believer village

The colorful garb of the Old Believers, and a bored little local girl waiting for her mom

Once again, of course, some of the guests are called to dance, and even don the local garb. They take a female guest and a male guest and reenact an Old Believer wedding ceremony.

Breaking into laughter while demonstrating an Old Believer wedding ceremony

We then step inside an Old Believer church, followed by the most unique museum I have ever seen: every single item in it was gathered by one man, a local priest. It is the most quaint, colorful, and hands-on museum I have ever visited - you can touch almost all the items!

The Ethnographic Museum of Tarbagatay

A museum full of quirky trinkets from a bygone era

Among the many museums we've visited, this is the one I want my friends to see the most

It's been a long day, but our guide has one last surprise in store for our group. Somewhere in between the Old Believer village and Ulan-Ude, we visit a sacred hill where there is a fantastic view of the Buryatia countryside. We are the only group from the Grand Trans-Siberian Express that makes this trip, possibly due to the physical exertion needed to get to the top of the hill.

Looking up the hill from below

View of the Selenge River and the Buryatia countryside

Panorama of the Selenge from the top of the hill

We return to the train station at Ulan-Ude and re-board the Grand Trans-Siberian Express for the final time. In a few hours, we will be at the border and conclude our time in Russia.

For now, as the landscape transitions to the Central Asian steppe, we are treated to some of the best scenery of the trip.

Looking back at a bridge we crossed

The hill where we stood just a few hours ago, as seen from the train

The Selenge and the mountains of Tarbagatay

It's time for our farewell dinner onboard, and I'm already nostalgic about the trip. The light streaming in from the late afternoon sun cooperates, setting the mood perfectly.

One last dinner aboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express

Artem the tour director once again addresses the passengers and has us thank all of the staff who have made our journey so memorable and trouble-free. We all receive certificates of completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway journey.

Certificate for traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Last dessert on the train :-(

One last sunset from the train

The sun disappears below the horizon, and we retire to our rooms. Late that evening, we are processed at the Russian border without leaving our cabins, and cross the border into Mongolia at around midnight. About an hour later, we stop at Mongolian customs and the local border official comes to our cabin and takes our passports. Our cabin attendant returns shortly after to tell us we can go to bed.

The train ride is almost over, but the adventure continues.

END OF PART 5

Proceed to Part 6: Ulaanbaatar and Terelj National Park, Mongolia

Many thanks to Regina Laquindanum and Lizette Jocson of Aeroflot Russian Airlines for having me along for this trip. If you are from the Philippines and would like more information on booking this trip, you may contact Aeroflot Philippines at:

GSA: VITA Travel Services

Unit 809 8F Tower One, PSE Plaza Ayala Triangle, Ayala Ave. Makati City

T:+632 759 2191 / 759 2192 / 836 8975

E: info@aeroflot.ph