The appealing capital of Buryatiya, Ulan Ude (Oelan-Oede), is 456km east of Irkutsk by rail and makes a sensible staging post for visiting Mongolia or eastern Lake Baikal. Founded as Verkhneudinsk in 1775, the city prospered as a major stop on the tea-caravan route from China via Troitskosavsk (now Kyakhta).
Ulan means ‘Red’ in Buryat, yet Ulan Ude is pleasantly green, cradled attractively in rolling hills. Despite the inevitable concrete suburban scrawl, it remains one of the most likable cities in eastern Siberia.
Orientation of Ulan Ude
The city’s heart is pl Sovetov and its backbone ul Lenina, but most traffic bypasses the latter on uls Borsoeva and Baltakhinova. The commercial center is increasingly focused around the Sagaan Morin market and shopping mall across the railway tracks on pr 50-lt Oktyabrya.
City center of Ulan Ude
A certain 19th-century luxury is still visible in the attractive commercial buildings on and around ul Lenina. Viewed from the 2006 replica of a 1891 triumphal arch honoring the imperial inheritor, Nicholas II, or from the adjacent 1930s Opera house (undergoing a thorough makeover at the time of research), this street is given a photogenic focus by the gold-tipped spires of the 1785 Odigitria cathedral (ul Lenina 2), which was rescued from near collapse in the late 1990’s.
It commands an appealing area of the old town, with carved wooden cottages extending as far as ul Kirova. At the other end of ul Lenina the main square, pl Sovetov, is dominated by the world’s largest Lenin head, which some people say looks comically cross-eyed. The 7.7m-high bronze was installed in 1970 to celebrate Lenin’s 100th birthday.
Strangely, Ulan Ude’s birds never seem to streak Lenin’s bald head with their offerings-out of respect for the great man’s achievements, claim die-hard communists. Located beside a recently rebuilt 1830 chapel (ul Lenina), the renovated 1838 trading arcades are now filled with modern shops. Ul Lenina’s pedestrianised section, extending to blocks north, is a popular early evening hang-out.
Backed by a park with Ferris wheel and Gaudi-esque fountain, the active Trinity Church (ul Dimitrova 5a) sprouts a series of green bulb-domes. The Historical Museum charges per single-room floor. The best is Buddiyskoe Iskustvo (3rd floor), displaying thangka, Buddhas and icons salvaged from Buryatiya’s monasteries before their Soviet destruction.
Note-sheets in English fail to explain the fascinating, gaudy papier-mâché models of deities and bodhisattvas rescued from Buryatiya’s many prewar datsany. Note the home shrine table (every Buryat house once had one) and the sometimes gory Tibetan medical charts (practiced in the region until the 1940’s). The less interesting 2nd floor traces Buryat history in maps, documents and artefacts. Spy it for free from the balcony above.
In an attractive 1847 wooden house, the Buryatiya Literary Museum has old photos and manuscripts. A rare 108-volume Atsagat Ganzhur Buddhist chant book has multicolored Tibetan script on special black lacquer made from blood, sugar and pounded sheep’s vertebrae.
The Nature Museum (Muzey Prirody Buryati; tel: 214 149; ul Lenina 46; opening hours 10:00 am-6:00 pm Wed-Sun) has big stuffed animals and a scale model of Lake Baikal showing just how deep it is. The Geological Museum (Geologchesky muzey; ul Lenina 59; opening hours 11:00 am – 5:00 pm Monday-Friday) is modest but well presented, while the Fine Arts Museum (khudozhestvenny muzey; tel: 212 909; ul Kuybysheva 29; admission per exhibition R100; hours 10am-6pm Tue-Sun) has small, regularly changing exhibitions.
Outskirts of Ulan Ude
In a forest clearing 6 km from central Ulan-Ude is the worthwhile Ethnographic Museum. It's an outdoor collection of local architecture plus some reconstructed burial mounds and the odd stone totem.
Although lacking the pretty lakeside setting of equivalents in Bratsk and Irkutsk, it features occasional craft demonstrations. It also has a splendid wooden church and sports a whole strip of Old Believers’ homesteads. Marshrutka 8 from pl Sovetov passes within 1 km. Upon request it will detour to drop you at the door for no extra charge.
En route you’ll notice Ulan-Ude’s attractive new pair of datsany (Barguzinsky Trakt) backed by stupas and trees that flutter with prayer flags. There are services from 9:00 am to 11:00 am most mornings. The nearby hippodrome is the venue for major festivals including the Surkharban in early June, the biggest Buryat sporting event of the year featuring archery, wrestling and exciting feats of horsemanship.