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Christmas in Ulan Ude

After my daytime train along Baikal with stunning views (and all the nice weather I missed when I was in Listvyanka), I rocked up to the hostel in Ulan Ude freezing my face off. I hadn’t intended to spend 3 days in Ulan Ude, but I screwed up some of my train scheduling, so I ended up there for Christmas instead of Mongolia like I’d expected. It ended up being the coldest part of the trip, and I spent a majority of those three days inside. But it wasn’t a bad place to have a bit of a break in the end.

The first night, there was a group of French guys who were on their way home from a semester in China. The guys who worked in the hostel made us all borscht for dinner, one of the French guys made some banana and apple thing for dessert, and then they insisted I drink their bottle of vodka with them. I’d not had much vodka in Russia yet, as previously mentioned, so this was my last chance. It was good! I think I did about 5 or 6 shots, and I didn’t die. And that was after half a bottle of wine. I couldn’t actually believe the three of them went out clubbing after we finished it, because I went straight to bed.

The next day was Christmas Eve, but A: Christmas in Russia is the orthodox Christmas on 7 January, and B: I was in the centre of Buddhism in Russia, so there wasn’t a whole lot of Christmas going on. I was just hoping there’d be some people in the hostel up for a bit of food and a party.

I went out for a short walk through the old wooden houses and some Buryat fast food. I basically pointed to some stuff on the menu without knowing what it was and enjoyed some surprises when the food came. Some lamb and noodle soup, massive dumplings, a meat and potato dish, and a pickled salad showed up and all of it was good. And warm. And it was so cold when I went back outside that I went straight back to the hostel and, aside from some grocery shopping, stayed there the rest of the day.

I’d not had a lot of vegetables in a while, so my Christmas Eve indulgence was a massive salad made of all the local, crunchy stuff I could find, plus some nice looking pickled fish and cheese and crackers. And I got a box of chocolates and some mulled wine to share because CHRISTMAS.

No one else showed up that night, but Ivan and Sasha, who worked at the hostel, hung out with me and played board games and taught me a Russian card game called Durak (which is Russian for ‘fool’) while I doused my liver in wine (mulled and non). It was a really good time. I skyped my parents, did some more blogging, and went to sleep without an alarm clock.

On Christmas day, I checked the temperature in the morning to find it was a debilitating -39C. Jackson from Hong Kong showed up to stay, and I convinced him to go check out the Buddhist monastery on the highest point in the city with me. The idea was partially to get a good view, but it was so hazy you couldn’t see much, so we walked around the temple a bit and then headed back down into town. We took a few silly pictures with Lenin’s head – Ulan Ude has the world’s biggest statue of Lenin’s head, which is one of the main reasons I decided I needed to stop there – and went across the street to thaw ourselves out in The Churchill (the local ‘British’ pub) for beer and food. I had grilled lamb and cake, so it was a pretty successful Christmas lunch, I’d say.

Later on, Sasha gave me a super tasty cinnamon bun from the cake shop downstairs with a hand drawn card on top as a wee Christmas present, which was really sweet. I drank my Christmas beer from Kazan, wishing I’d bought more, and decided at the last minute to try to get a Couchsurfing host in Ulaanbaatar instead of a hostel. (This turned out to be an excellent move.)

I didn’t do too much before catching my train the next day, but I did get to share the walk to the station with some Australians who were getting a train in the opposite direction. And then, for the first time, I met a load of English-speaking trans-Siberian travelers ON MY TRAIN! I was sharing a compartment with Harald from Sweden, and there were two other girls from Sweden next door and a guy from Austria who was hanging out with us as well. I joined Harald in the restaurant car to jettison the last of my roubles on wine and potatoes with mushrooms, and then joined in the prosecco drinking once we’d crossed the Mongolian border.

The border crossing on this train wasn’t too bad. They did lock the bathrooms for two hours on each side, but there was a brief window in between, and it wasn’t the nightmare 6 hour stop I’d heard tales of on the interweb. Unfortunately the train was kind of freezing. (It was probably the oldest, crappiest train I’ve been on the entire trip.) But the company was good and I got to use an extra blanket for my brief sleep since there were only two of us in a 4 person compartment. I got up around 6 and said a quick goodbye to my Swedish bunkmate before exiting to a dark, smoggy Ulaanbaatar to start the next brief chapter.