Day 26 – 7 June Chita to Ulan-Ude
As soon as I woke up, without any tiredness related to the marathon drive of the previous day, my mind was occupied by the need to move hotel bookings around. I was worried that hotels may not be available so close to the required dates. My concern was ill founded. Not only did I manage to advance the booking in Ulan-Ude without any charge but also managed a fresh booking in Irkutsk at half the previous rate. While hotel charges are not as cheap as in China, where it is really cheap particularly in chain hotels, the charges in Russia have been, on an average, Rs 2500 for more than decent facilities. I did not attempt any change in the rest of the itinerary because that would crucially depend on the drive from Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk. The distance is over 1050 km. I have not been able to find a town in between to break the journey. After enquiry in Irkutsk I will decide what to do further.
Chita is a city steeped in history. It was mostly a Mongol town before the Russians took over the region in the 19th century. The city where traders were attracted to has a Jewish quarter and a Tatar mosque. Chita is where the Amur highway from Khabarovsk and the Baikal highway from Irkutsk meet. It is also at the confluence of the Chita and Ingoda Rivers. The Trans-Siberian Railway too passes through the city. The city’s population has grown from a mere 1000 in the early 1800 to nearly 400,000 now. When I was driving out of the city I felt a bit upset that I could not find any time to do a little sightseeing in the city. But then, the objective of this expedition is different from the previous overseas expeditions to London and Singapore. Here I am attempting the fastest solo drive in a four wheeler on the Trans-Siberian Highway. Therefore, certain compromises have to be made in the daily schedule.
Hotel Dauriya had been a decent place to stay for Rub 2400. My only complaint was that I was lodged on the fourth floor without a lift! The tariff did not include breakfast and that gave me the ‘freedom’ to leave anytime I chose to. By a half past 6 am I was ready to leave. The steward of the hotel, who was also in charge of the car park, came out to see me off with a goodbye greeting, “Good travel”. I requested him to affix the sticker on Chita, which he smilingly did. From Chita I took the P258, or the AH6 as it also called, to Ulan-Ude. Google Maps suggested a diversion from P258 after about 450 km, as that was the shorter route. I decided at the intersection to continue on the longer P258, as that looked to be in better condition than the suggested short cut. At times, one has to make such choices. I have been put to lot of trouble merely choosing the shorter route, which need not necessarily mean the better route!
When I was on P258 it was natural to compare it with P297 on which I had travelled over 2100 km in two days. I had read and been told that the Amur Highway from Khabarovsk to Chita would test my driving skills and patience as never before. It was nothing of that sort. It was, by and large, a trouble free and smooth drive. Full marks to Mr Putin for this initiative, because it is at his insistence that this highway got funding and focus, I was given to understand. P258 paled in comparison. Portions of it was good but most of it needed attention. It was not as if the road was unmotorable. It was uncomfortable and a bone shaker because of the undulations and poor surfacing with some stretches of pot holes. Plenty of road works are on and, I am sure, will be completed soon. However, I respect the fact that the authorities have been able to maintain it even in this condition because the temperature variations are huge through the year; often over 60 degrees!
Even though I was not physically tired from the driving effort of the previous day the mind was ‘yelling’ for some respite from the concentration required on such drives. A small mistake could prove fatal. The roads are narrow and lane discipline is absolutely vital. Over the past many days in China and Russia I have not heard motorists honking, even at blind curves. You are expected to be on your side of the road and driving. That’s all. During emergency, if one has to pull up on the highway, it must be well clear of the road and on to the shoulder of the road. Else, there are designated parking places on the highway to park and rest. I took recourse to such facilities twice on the drive today for power naps.
Google Maps took me to a lively part of Ulan-Ude and pointed to a building, which did not look like a hotel. I parked the car and got out with the hotel booking to seek directions. I knew that without knowing Russian it would be a challenge. I was proved right. After some time I found a kind gentleman who offered to phone the hotel and walked me to the hotel, which was close by. Guardian Angels are everywhere, you see them when you need them.
Hotel Menshikov seemed to be a refurbished old residence not very far from the city center. The kind lady receptionist helped me park the car in a reserved parking lot inside the hotel premises. The room on the third floor was cute with skylight in the bedroom and bath. For Rub 1700 it was worth every penny; the location and facilities were excellent. The hotel also has a café attached to it.
The beautiful city of Ulan Ude is the third largest city in eastern Siberia by population, which is slightly over 400,000. It is the capital city of the Russian republic of Buryatia. It is located about 100 km south east of the Baikal Lake on the confluence of the Uda and Selenga Rivers, both of which feed the Lake; Selenga River provides over 50% of the inflow into Baikal Lake and hence, its significance. Ulan Ude, through history, has been known by different names such as Udinskoye and Verkhneudinsk. The present name was given in 1934 and means Red Uda, a reflection of the Russian ideology of the times. The weather is markedly different from where I had been in the past few days. It was hot, without being uncomfortable and sweaty. And dry. But, I understand that the temperature drops to -42o C in winter! The winter is long and summer short in these parts. The day is really long here. Last night, as I lay down in bed. I could see few streaks of light through the skylight of the bedroom at 10 pm! This makes for a great time for travelers like me, whether it is driving, sightseeing or just lazing around.
The receptionist took the trouble to explain, using a translation software on her phone, the places I could walk to in the evening. In about two hours of slow walk I covered the sights from St Odigitry Cathedral to the City Centre. The Cathedral is the main Orthodox centre of worship in the city and was the first stone building constructed in this seismically active area between 1741 and 1783. The icons in the church are rich and something that made me stare more than worship! The church was closed between 1929 and 1995, when it was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. The church is an imposing sight on the bank of the river. I was amused by the Free WiFi signs all around the cathedral.
The Tsar Gates are in the centre of Ulan-Ude. The 19th century Gate was a commemoration of the visit of Tsar Nikolay II. The merchants of the time greeted the visit of the Tsar to Siberia thus. The original was pulled down in the Soviet era and the new one is much larger, but said to be an exact replica of the old Gate that stood in the same place.
The most imposing monument of Ulan-Ude is the giant bronze head of Vladimir Lenin in the main city square. It is the biggest sculpture of Lenin’s head anywhere in the world - it reportedly weighs over 42 tons and is 13.5 metres high. One of the French Presidents was so impressed by the sculpture that France offered to buy the piece. It is famously said that the offer was refused with the statement, “Russia is not for sale!”