I Stood there in the passage way of the train with all my bags, I let the three other men who joined me in the middle of the night stinking of stale tobacco. The landscape was completely black apart from the fast approaching lights of Ulan Ude train station which were soon upon us. The train slowed sown and crawled into the station at a leisurely pace at 6.13 on the dot. I moved down towards the door of the carriage, bidded farewell to the Provodnitsa and climbed down the steps onto the platform below.
Dimitri had informed me that a man would be there to meet me to drive me to the hostel as it was early in the morning. However, I couldn't see anyone waiting for me. I decided to stand there for 10 minutes and see if anyone would turn up and that would be the 'cut off point' where I would get one of the thousand taxi drivers trying to get business in this early hour to take me. I did not have to wait long before I was approached by a man who asked whether I was Adam. Usually I would get very annoyed at being called Adam but I have learned during this trip I will need to let it go and not dwell on it. When it happens here, it is an honest mistake, when it happens at home, it is the ignorance of the people.
So with my new Russian chauffer, I placed my bags in the boot of his car and we were away. This was the first time I had been in a car in Russia. It was pointed out to me by Christian that some cars have oddly have their steering wheels on the correct side, the right side and others have them on the left side. I never noticed this until he showed me. Since then I have noticed more cars with the wheels on the opposite side to what they should. I thought perhaps these are imported Japanese cars or another fact is that a lot of cars that have been written off in the UK are bought by foreigners and exported abroad where safety standards are non existent.
We drove for around 5 minutes to the hostel and the man was pointing out the main attractions of the city. We pulled up into a quiet part of the city and was greeted by the mans wife. They quickly got me into my room and told me about Ulan Ude and where I need to go to buy my bus ticket to Ulan Bator. As it wasn't even 7am I thought I should have a couple of hours rest before heading into the centre to get my ticket.
The hostel was a small bungalow with three rooms a kitchen and bathroom. Every where I turned there were electical devices that had signs on them stating that they were broken. I was apparently sharing the bungalow with a Russian Mother and her son who were there for a basketball tournament.
I woke up a few hours later and climbed into the shower. Why is it that anywhere you travel, you always feel dirty at the end. After cleansing myself and putting on some warm clothes I headed out of the front door. In fact, I got to the front door and was stopped in my tracks as the front door was locked despite the lady saying the door always remains open. The problem was, I didn't have a key and was effectively a prisoner in the hostel.
I began by knocking loudly on the front door hoping that someone would hear me and release me into the wild. That didn't work, so I got out the peice of paper with the hostel details on them and thought I would call the owners. There wasn't a number! I thought OK, the internet must have contact details for them. They didn't! I got out my Leatherman and tried to open the door as the lock looked as though it could be opened with a phillips head screwdriver. It couldn't! To my relief I spotted a neighbour passing and began banging hard on the door and shouting "hello, I'm locked in!" Luckily he spotted my pleas for help and came to my rescue. He went to the owners bungalow which was behind the hostel and they came out to unlock the door that trapped me.
Having been released from the confines of the hostel, I walked towards the tram stop that would take me into the centre of Ulan Ude. The first thing I noticed with Ulan Ude was that the demographics of the population had much more asian features than those in Irkutsk. Travelling overland gives you the opportunity to see the subtle differences in the people and landscape. However, this seemed to be a big jump. I suddenly felt more like a tourist and was being looked at more often. This is the beginning of Asia and the end of being able to fade into the background of the everyday person as I did in St Petersburg, Moscow and Yekaterinburg.
I successfully bought my bus ticket to Ulan Bator which cost 1000 Roubles from a travel agency in an upmarket hotel.
I then began to explore Ulan Ude and search for the biggest Lenin head in the world. It didn't take much to find it and I can honestly say it is a very big head! I feel that they must have had plans to do the whole body to and make one giant statue but gave up.
In the same square there were many men creating ice sculptures for Christmas/New Year. Their work was spectacular and very grand structures that were designed for people to walk over. Unfortunately they weren't finished but I think it was more interesting watching them being created. They weren't the first ice sculptures I've seen on my trip as I came across those in Irkutsk. It seems as though it quite a big tradition here. Let's just hope that they don't get too warm and melt!!
Having walked around town I decided that it was my last opportunity to send those post cards which I had bought in Moscow, so I walked back towards the hostel where there was a post office. What an experience. The Russian queue is tightly compacted and if you leave a inch of empty space in front of you, someone will have it. I got to the counter and done my usual routine of asking whether she understood English, she said no and so I told her I didn't understand Russian. I then passed her the letter and thought it would be a simple request. It was obvious I want to send these cards and all I needed to do was pay her to stick some stamps on it. She kept saying things to me that I obviously didn't understand, but with the help of the other ten people in the queue they all scrapped the English they knew from their brains and helped me communicate. Fifteen minutes later I paid the lady and left the postcards behind, which may or may not get to their inteded destination!
Arriving back at the hostel, I was again confronted with a locked front door and had to knock until the Russian mother came to let me in. I tried to ask her not to lock the front door as I had no key. I thought she understood until I tried to leave at 6am the next morning. I had to wake her up to let me out, I was quite happy to be leaving that place,
My bus was scheduled to leave at 7am and I was warned that it would be -30c so was advised to wrap up warm before I left. I left the hostel and it was pitch black. The cold was certainly there and I struggled to breath at some points on my walk downtown. I got to the bus with plenty of time to spare and was the first person to get onboard. I wasn't sure how long the journey was going to be but was excited that in a few hours I would be in Mongolia, the unknown land full of nomads.
It was a sad but symbolic moment when I stepped off Russian soil for the last time and onto the bus.
More people started to arrive and at 7am precise, the bus moved off and headed out of Ulan Ude to the Mongolian border where I was hoping Russian border officials would let me leave without too much of a bribe!!!
Please note that photos are being added as and when I can. There have been a few uploaded already and I will do the rest soon, so keep checking!