Good morning Ulan-Ude, nice to actually see you this time!
The sun is bellowing down on the ground below. Cold floors begin breathing with warmth upon the touch of soft, yellow light. Stripes of dark green shrubbery line the streets, separating building from road.
It’s a pleasant view. We only saw the outskirts of Ulan-Ude when we arrived yesterday. The layered trees of Lake Baikal gave way to giant slabs of rough concrete. All of this had succumb to darkness by the time the show began, so it was difficult to get a solid idea of the city’s visual identity.
I can’t see a whole lot more from here, but that the city itself seems to extend to the distant mountain ranges gives some indication of how large it is. Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Eastern Burital region and homes its third biggest population.
See. I do learn stuff. Cheers Wikipedia.
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Personal stories over broken bread
Our host (to whom I extend my most sincerest apologies for continually forgetting his name) tells us about his brother’s musical endeavours and how he’s moved to Moscow to interpret Chinese. This reminds me that just over a fortnight back, that’s where we were. Moscow, not speaking Chinese.
It feels like that was both yesterday and an eternity ago. Fresh in the memory, but much has happened since then and it’s difficult for the images I’ve mentally retained, not to be overwhelmed with those that have followed.
The whole tour feels shorter than Dawn of Shattered Silence did. We’re away for twice the time in total and have already been in Siberia for several days more than the entire time we were in Europe. Maybe it’s because so much of this is fresh, new and unpredictable. Maybe my brain just doesn’t work properly.
Another impeccable meal is served our way. I don’t even make it to the eggs this time. Did we even cook the eggs? I don’t know, but I’m taking my spotty memory as a positive indication as to the quality of this morning’s banquet.
Next destination – Chita
We have, as you might expect, another epic drive ahead of us. Tonight’s destination is Chita, a city Alex informs me is one of the most crime ridden in all of Siberia.
That would make it almost a fraction as dangerous as Liverpool. Shots fired.
We might be playing a show there tomorrow, plans are yet to be confirmed but I’ve got a feeling it’ll be more of a ‘tour around’ day.
I head outside to get my stuff packed into the Gazelle of Death and to see if I can find my plug adapter, which I apparently misplaced last night. I also want to check how Denis is doing. This is his lifestyle which he very much enjoys, but I don’t like to take it for granted that he’s ‘doing just fine’.
I am greeted by a black and white cat who I get the distinct impression represents the law in these parts.
Denis tells me they had fun and that’s far too potentially surreal a line of enquiry than I am willing to pursue so early in the day. He’s in positive spirits so whatever they got up to during Ulan-Ude’s darkest hours is all fair game as far as I’m concerned.
Another cat appears, this time completely black. He reminds me of our last black cat, Wilfred, with the key difference being that this one’s alive.
Everyone eventually congregates at the Gazelle of Death as we prepare to begin epic voyage number 5,291,027. Alex has washed his clothes and lays them out infront of Matt. Matt looks even more distressed than when he got the unfortunate news about his dog.
I feel the same.
To take our minds off things, we pose for a photo with last night’s hosts. Try as he might, Matt cannot help but wear the distress of being exposed to Alex’s undies across his face.
Taking our time
There’s no great rush to leave. It’s almost like the prospect of being sat behind the wheel of the Gazelle of Death for another billion hours isn’t one Denis is desperate to engage with. I can’t imagine why.
Our new friends wave us goodbye as we begin our next great adventure.
We’ll probably never see each other again. Assuming we all live long lives, the time we’ve spent together will eventually comprise a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of our existence. Barely a drop of rain in the proverbial ocean of memorised experiences.
And yet, remain the memory it most probably will. If not, well – that’s what this journal is for.
As we depart, Alex mentions that we’re going to be featured on TV. A Siberian news channel, to be specific.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I can be fairly slow on the uptake. Situations, concepts, questions and hypotheses that appear so rudimentary as to be within the mental capabilities of a concussed newt, might take me hours to process with little hope of success.
That fact notwithstanding, I can’t help but feel slightly confused at how ‘Appearing on National Television’ is a practice you might consider consistent with our general goal of ‘keeping a low profile’. I forget whether I’ve mentioned this before, but the guiding principle behind how we’ve promoted this tour has been, quite simply – don’t.
I guess you could say we’re doing this on the ‘down low’. Therefore, tour announcements and gig advertising across social media have been prohibited. We’re depending largely on word of mouth and the solid work of each show’s promoter to get arses through the door.
Which I’ve no problem with and likewise, no I’ve criticisms of the turnouts we’ve enjoyed so far.
But still, there’s just some sort of disconnect between “No-one can know we’re here” and “Let’s go on National Television” that I can’t quite put my finger on.
Meh, I’m sure it’ll be fine.
If a city has trams, chances are I'm going to like it.
Driving through Ulan-Ude
Driving through the city, the mix of Asian and Eastern European vibes I got a hint of yesterday continues.
There’s a lot of the classic ‘concrete block’ shaped towers that I’ve associated with the latter. In many ways, it’s your quintessential Eastern European city.
But there’s a wider variety of shapes than I’d say I’ve seen in most. Certainly, angled roofs are far more popular and this lends Ulan-Ude a particularly unique skyline.
During a bit of reading up I did last night, I learned that Ulan-Ude became the administritive centre of the Transbaikal region in the 1960s. It was essentially a huge trading center which connected China and Mongolia to Russia, which perhaps explains the greater diversity in people’s nationality I observed yesterday. I mean, this is 2018 and assuming what someone’s nationality might be based on their appearance, is an act of racial profiling tantamount to reinstating the Third Reich. Because there’s nothing so regressive as armchair progressive doctrine.
Christ, that was bitter… I think I might be getting hungry again.
That blending of culture I mentioned before is most pronounced as we cross a bridge to leave the city. Either side are guarded by giant, stone cats which give our departure a real sense of occasion. I immediately think of the sign as you drive into Gansbaai that showcases The Marine Big 5.
That likely sticks out in the memory due to my fondness of the place, but I’m confident a pair of giant, scowling felines won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Driving through Buryatia
The bridge leads us from Ulan-Ude into Buryatia and the transition is a binary one. There’s no gradual bleeding of one aesthetic into another. One step outside of the city and our feet are landing on dust rather than concrete.
It bares a striking, immediate resemblance to Fallout 3: New Vegas’s depiction of the Mojave. The ground is a mix of dry, reddish brown and tiring green. It stretches far and wide, leading to a range of mountains that stretch on indefinitely.
The mix of Asian and Eastern European aesthetics witnessed inside Ulan-Ude continues in the buildings here. Though obviously not to anywhere near the same level of scope or scale, there’s still a blend of cold, rustic blocks of geometry and the more intricate use of shape.
The Eastern European influence is certainly declining, which is really to be expected given we’re now heading into Zabaykalsky Krai, The Transbaikal Region.
The scenery is breathtaking. The palette and general tone have a real arid quality to them, but it’s no Mad Max: Fury Road. There’s plenty of greenery, it’s just really dusty and desaturated compared to the lush, hydrated region surrounding Lake Baikal.
I’m not sure I’ve been anywhere quite like this. Maybe South Africa’s Transkei region. It too has this mix of quite varied, earthy colours that are tonally quite dry.
Mountains in the distance, perfect blue water carving its way through the hard ground. It’s fudging great.
Never far from a familiar sight
The river we’re driving alongside eventually broadens. With it, so too does the landscape which practically aches itself open before us.
Does that sound sexual? It certainly shouldn’t. ‘Aching open’ doesn’t sound at all pleasant.
Whatever. The environment feels like a mix between Lake Baikal and the landscapes we drove through in the first week. There’s plenty going on at the horizon, but everything between we and it, is predominantly flat. Colourful, but flat.
I once again think back to South Africa’s inner regions on the few occasions we drove to Johannesburg or Durban. I daresay this is the furthest distance I’ve been from South Africa and yet, much of it looks similar.
Makes the world feel like quite a small place.
Denis pulls into a dusty car park. Apparently there is a spot with an amazing view just a short walk from where we are.
I’m hungry and can’t be bothered with walking. But this place has been pretty breath taking as it is. Ignorant as I am, even I am tempted by the promise of even more boss nature to look at.
As we step out of the van, I can feel the sheer heat of the sun pushing down on my shoulders. It is a glorious day and the dry, arrid ground sits in perfectly contrast to the rich blue sky above it.
To our left is Omulevaya hill, The Sleeping Lion mountain. It strikes upward from the ground with profound badassary. I don’t know if there’s any history associated with this, but you can imagine it being a popular, iconic local land mark.
It’s also what we’re walking to.
So walk we do.
Onwards, to the Sleeping Lion.
Views from the Sleeping Lion
We’re barely half way up before having to stop and admire the view.
That’s why we’re stopping, incidentally. It’s nothing to do with each of us being horrendously out of shape. It’s only because we have such a deep respect for mother nature and wish to reflect this by taking a moment to absorb all she has to offer.
In fairness, if you were going to die of exhaustion, this would be the place to do it. I’d sooner my last breath be before the river spread out before us (which I believe is the Selenga river) than into a nebuliser.
Bloody hell I’m in an oddly bleak mood today.
Impossible not to gain some perspective
It’s hard not to look at this and consider all that has existed here over the centuries.
Imprinted in its history and geography both, will be the footsteps of primitive man. By primitive man I mean prehistoric, not Port Vale supporters.
Even before that, you think of the wildlife that must’ve hunted or grazed here. It’s not like an area of development where you really have to use your imagination to picture what it must have been like. I can’t imagine much will have changed here during the course of human history. I am stood in a spot and overlooking an area, which could very well be indistinguishable from how they were ten, one hundred or ten thousand years ago.
Or I’m wrong.
Either way, I find myself picturing what it would’ve been like to see a herd of dinosaurs roaming these parts. I’m not sure what species of may have resided here. Kulindadromeus, if I’m remembering the name correctly, I’m fairly sure was discovered in this region. I remember seeing an article maybe four or five years back, where a new species had been discovered nearer to Chita. Was it claiming the discovery to be further evidence that dinosaurs were likely feathered?
I don’t know. I honestly don’t know why I’m remembering or thinking about such things now.
Maybe hanging around Alex has made me think of dinosaurs – wheeeey!!
The sense of enormity is difficult to capture. It’s something I’ve been struggling with for the duration of the time we’ve been in Siberia. Places are huge, no doubt, but photographs need something to give a sense of scale. Quite often, no such thing has existed.
This is one way in which I’ve found South Africa to be distinctly different.
There, you can rarely look in any single direction without being spoiled by an incredible array of flora and fauna. It’s famous for its biodiversity and that runs through much of its geography, also. Many photographs I’ve seen that capture South Africa’s scale benefit from the scaling this diversity brings.
Case and point – the following photograph. As I turn to shoot the awesome landscape ahead, a chap walks into frame. You can see how much of a difference this makes to really capturing the size of the environment.
Kids – bring appropriate footwear
As we continue up the hill, I feel like my footwear is about to fall apart.
I did buy new trainers before leaving for tour, but didn’t give myself enough time to break them in. Therefore, I’m left with these monstrosities which feel as though they’re seconds away from disintegrating.
I expect it to be worth enduring. We’re almost at the top, clambering our way over rocks and in between trees that cover this spot in shadow.
The views when we arrive are as you might expect, thoroughly rewarding for our troubles.
I feel as though I’m running out of things to say at this point.
It’s big, it’s amazing, it makes all the faffing around worth it. There are only so many variants on these that I can come up with, before the fundamental truth gets diluted.
I do wonder if it’s been at all diluted for Denis. I don’t know how many times he’s driven through these areas now. There must come a point where these amazing highlights simply just become another spot on the road often travelled.
But then, seeing a great white shark has never lost its sparkle in ten years. Whether seeing them regularly every day on the boat or the sporadic intervals of these days, they’re never just a thing.
The situations aren’t totally comparable, in fairness. I consider asking Denis his thoughts on this, but he’s looking like a total badass and I don’t want to ruin the shot with words.
Denis looking suave.
Back on the road again
There’s only so much absolutely boss nature you can take before reality sets in.
Reality in this case, is that we still need to drive for another million hours. It’s probably more like six or seven, but that isn’t nearly as dramatic.
What is dramatic is the speed at which I plummet down the hill towards the car park. I don’t have the patience or levels of self-preservation required to traverse such a decline with the recommended level of safety-conscious caution. I just figure I’ll survive, or I won’t.
But I massively underestimate how close to vertical the descent is and end up skimming closer to the latter than I initially anticipated. My nads fly up behind my ears and my ankles are shaking a wee bit by the time I come to a stop.
Quite the thrill.
As if the day couldn’t get any better – there are dogs.
One is a Bull Terrier. I love these things, they’ve got such unique faces. It’s a shame that their uniqueness is likely the result of genetic deformity from selective breeding, but you could say that about literally every human being. I think they’re stunning creatures.
The other looks a bit like a Chow chow. Or a really, really tiny Tibetan Mastiff.
I resist the temptation to go up and stroke them, much as it is my natural urge to do so. Dogs are fudging great.
Before leaving I spot an insect, which I assume is some sort of Grasshopper? I’m pretty ignorant to such things so can be no more specific than that.
He’s/she’s quite photogentic though and blesses me with a moment’s pause to get a photograph.
Overall, it’s been a pretty productive and enjoyable morning.
A cool little insect guy. Don't know the specific species. He's cool though.
Continuing across the Trans-Baikal Region
The arrid oranges and browns that dominated the Sleeping Lion make way for a little more green as we continue our drive.
Trees are scattered around the distant mountains and roadside alike. The forests aren’t dense like they were around Lake Baikal. It reminds me of some of my male friends’ heads before and after having children. Lake Baikal is a full, lush head of hair. Here is but a scattering of random, pube-like twigs that are doing all they can to hang on.
In fairness, the area is generally far more stunning and appealing than most of my friends heads. Except Ettiene, he’s just great.
The drive and landscape both feel like they go on forever. Everytime we advance over a small hill, a new world that you can’t believe was hidden a moment ago spreads out infront of us.
My attention is also bought back to the sky. it’s a striking sight. Huge, dense clouds broken up by erratic rivers of deep blue.
I really wish I had a broader vocabulary at times. Sure, pictures speak a thousand words and all that, but there’s a feeling and sense of presence you get in places like this, that are better expressed through language than imagery.
Assuming of course, you’ve a deep enough knowledge of language. I invariably seem to fall back on just describing what’s infront of me and comparing it to places I’ve been before.
But is this a realisation I’d even be having if I wasn’t here, now? Is not the wider purpose of adventures such as these, to recognise one’s shortcomings? To see what was before a vast unknown and in doing so, unveil another?
Yes, obviously yes. That doesn’t make me any less frustrated with those unknowns.
I’m arguing with myself. I don’t even remember why? What even started this?
Oh yeah, that awesome sky.
The skyline never fails to deliver.
Visual treat after visual treat
Every section of landscape is a variant on the same theme, but still distinct in their own right.
There are more trees here than previously. Both nearby and across the distance mountain ranges.
It reminds me so much of the forests in Half-Life 2: Episode 2. I often find myself seeing/feeling comparisons between the Half-Life games and places I’ve visited on my travels.
Victor Antonov (who has worked on many of those games and I’ve spoken about before, because he’s great) mentioned that when researching an environment for a game world, it’s important to focus on the specific. Very particular, special details that are unique to a time and place are what make it a place, rather than any place. That authenticity and attention to detail is likely why these games so often come to mind.
I wonder, are we nearby or traveling through the Trans-Baikal conifer forests? I only vaguely remember the details/map before leaving the UK. It feels like something that should have a Wiki about it. You can’t take something seriously if it doesn’t have a Wiki.
Krupskaya doesn’t have a Wiki, incidentally.
I’d ask Denis, but everyone is dead silent. There’s an air of peace and tranquility in the van which is consistent with the world outside it.
I choose to stay quiet and make the most of the calm. You never know how long it’s likely to last.
Only a few moments, evidently as we stop to pee. Maybe the silence was a pained one?
The Gazelle doesn't leak. Only the people inside it.
We set off again and the landscape continues to throw a mix of open planes, trees and stunning skies at us.
We pass over a pair of train tracks at one point. Might that be the Trans-Baikal Railway? I’ve honestly no idea where we are geographically. I’m just making connections between the things I’m seeing and read about in some detail before we came here.
During the drive, Denis gets a call from Irina who is both our host for the evening and an employee at the TV station intending to feature us.
As we’re running late, she’s advising that we postpone it until tomorrow. She sounds wise. I mean, she can’t be too wise if she’s heard us and STILL wants to meet us, let alone put us on national television. Either way, at least Denis doesn’t have to feel pressured into getting us there as soon as possible.
As amazing as our surroundings are, my eyelids become heavy and I pass out.
There are far, far worse things to see before entering a slumber.
Genital warts, for example.
Arriving late into Chita
By the time I open my eyes, we’re in Chita and its night. The streets are empty and silent, only lights from street lamps their inhabitants.
There’s a bit of confusion as we seek the night’s place of residence. Denis is on the phone to Irina as she guides us. Even if it wasn’t dark as shit, I think we’d be struggling. So many identical buildings, blocks and roads. Even if you lived here your entire life I expect you’d struggle to tell one spot from the next.
We clamber out of the van, I yawn and Alex immediately advises me to keep a low profile. Again, Chita has a bit a crime problem and as foreigners, we’re pretty good targets so we probably shouldn’t be advertising our presence. I don’t think that’s what I was doing but in fairness, subtlety has never been my strong point.
I think a tall, ginger peacock and towering behemoth with a giant gash in his leg are far more likely to draw attention than me, however. I decide to keep this observation to myself.
We eventually find the correct flat and enjoy a very warm welcome from Irina and her husband… whose name I once again immediately forget. Irina and husband if you’re reading this – I apologise. If there’s one thing this journal should be evidence of by now, it’s that I forget literally everything. Usually within seconds of it happening.
We’re spoiled rotten with some good food, conversation and vodka. Irina goes into a little bit more detail about Chita and the plans for tomorrow. She thinks it might be better to leave things like camera behind, but that we should be able to enjoy a decent tour of the city. Our TV appearance is looking pretty set in stone and a gig might even happen.
And on that note, I find myself a comfy spot on their balcony and very quickly pass out.
To all, as per usual – thanks for reading.