Trips and Tales (Part 84)
It seems that no description of Ulan Uday is complete without a mention of the giant bronze-cast head of Lenin in the city’s central square. So let’s get the obvious out of the way. It certainly looks imposing, even from photographs, and reminds me again of something that I have noticed repeatedly in Communist civil art (was any of it truly civilian?): the fact that the artisans really knew their stuff. Their knowledge and use of form, style and composition is remarkable. Nothing jars in the execution. It is a curious phenomena: “questionable” regimes often produce remarkable artworks whether Nazi, Imperial Rome or Ancient Aztec, highlighting the paradox between glorious sky-bound aspiration and darker earth-bound reality.
Supported by a plinth, the monument stands 7.7 metres high, weighs an astounding 42 tons and was officially opened to the public in 1971 to commemorate the centenary of Lenin’s birth. Now, devoid of its occasion, it has become somewhere to meet-up and hang-out. On a par with a shopping mall or town seats in the precinct then. There is a certain Monty Pythonesque air about the lopped body-part, as if transposed directly from a Terry Gilliam animation and, again, that sharp use of form and detail typified by those who “know their stuff”.
Other transplants can be found at the “Architectural-Ethnographic Museum of Transbaikal Peoples”, based at Verkhnyaya Berezovka village, located 5 miles out of town. Similar to the Ethnographic museum in Irkutsk, it features dwellings representative of the historical times and peoples that dwelt in the general area.
As such you will find various types of Gers from regional subdivisions of Buryat culture, as well as from the Evenks and Mongols (apparently Evenks and later, the Buryiat-Mongols were the region’s earliest known inhabitants). There are also architectural milestones from European Russia heading east: distinctly Westernised (relatively speaking) cubic structures in wood: the house of a Transbaikal peasant, a merchant’s abode, an Old-Believer Christian church and some distinctly Asian Buddhist structures (not least the museum’s colourful entrance gate). A hint of the geographical territory on which you are encroaching, here a virtual stones-throw away from Mongolia and then China.
There is also a 35 acre wildlife park “attached” – if that’s the right term – where you can see: “wolves, bears, horses, sheep, deer, camels, yaks”. Yes, the ships of the desert have made it here too. Just deal with it.
It is worth contrasting all this evidence of rustic trail-blazing with the fact that the Buryat culture is highly sophisticated and enjoys a wide range of expression through a range of creative arts. This is manifest in a breadth of talented artists, musicians, dancers, opera singers and throat singers too. The latter as much a tradition with Buryats as with Tuvans, it appears.
So back in the capital itself you’ll find: The Buryat National Academic House of Opera and Ballet, The National Dance and Song Theatre “Baikal”, The Republican Puppet Theatre “Ulger” and more. I’m sure that most of us wouldn’t recognise the star of the show from the ticket attendant, their names and faces haven’t exported West, but that isn’t what it’s about.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it but it does appear that this is not a culture that envies a mythologised version of Westernised modernity as so many others depressingly do. Rather, there seems to be a strength in the preservation and celebration of what they have created for themselves.
Aside from the theatres, museums are also well represented, with the Natural History Museum, the Hangalov Museum of History of Buryatia and the Khotsa Namsaraev Literature Museum, just for starters.
There really is quite a copious list of places of interest across a range of themes. The Buddhist temples, Orthodox Churches and cathedrals, the street sculpture and edifices of modern (and recent) Russia all speaking of the rich and diverse cultures that came, went, or stayed.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 85) In and out of Ulaanbaatar: The faithful and the melon smugglers
[Photo by mikeemesser]