Ulan Ude, situated deep into Siberia to the south of Lake Baikal, is something of an oddity amongst other cities in Russia and makes an intriguing and memorable stopover. Located significantly nearer to Mongolia and China than Moscow and St Petersburg, Ulan Ude has a somewhat Asian feel to it and has traditionally resisted Sovietisation to maintain a distinct cultural identity.
This is reflected in many facets of the city, such as the unusual but delicious Buryat and Mongolian cuisine and the easygoing nature and strong Buddhist leanings of its people. Indeed, one of the highlights of a stopover in Ulan Ude is the splendid Ivolginsky Datsan; situated 35km from the city centre at the foot of the Khamar-Daban Mountains, this fascinating monastery is the centre of Buddhism in Russia and home to about 30 lamas. The city hasn’t completely escaped Soviet “progression”, however. And although the main square is a typical example of imposing Communist architecture, the giant Lenin head in its centre is a must-see and one of the most popular sights along the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Ulan Ude’s open-air Ethnographic Museum is well worth a visit. Containing a series of reconstructed buildings and exhibits such as Bronze Age stone circle, totems, gers and traditional Buryat homesteads, it provides a fascinating insight into indigenous and early Russian life that few other museums of its kind in the country can match. The less said about the zoo here the better, but hopefully the more visitors who complain about its conditions, the bigger the chance it will be improved.
Ulan Ude is Buryat for Red Uda (after the Uda River) and was granted this name by the Soviets in 1934 in recognition of the national minorities who live in the region.