Trips and Tales (Part 83)
As with most cities, Ulan Uday – Buryatia’s capital – formed out of a convergence of favourable coincidences: the presence of the Uda river, an area suitable for the establishment of a Cossack Ostrog (fort) and ideal positioning amidst trade-routes between Russia, Mongolia and China. That was back in 1666 – whilst here in the UK, destructive and purifying fire burned the heart out of plague-ridden, fire-trap London. Through trade, Ulan Uday quickly grew and from 1735 saw several name-changes from the original Udinskoye, through Udinsk and Verkhneudinsk to Ulan Uday from 1934 onwards, meaning “Red Uda”; the title rubber-stamping the city’s Communist embrace. Incidentally, in keeping with Ekaterinberg, the city was also closed to outsiders (it “opened” in 1991).
Ulan Uday is located south of central Baikal by approx 100 km, at the foot of both the Khrebet Ulan-Burgasy and Khamar-Daban mountain ranges but still 600m above sea level. Today, it has a population of over 400,000, though like Buryatia generally; the Buryats themselves represent only a sizeable minority. Over 70 per cent are Russian; the Buryats break 20 per cent, with the remaining few percentiles (and micro-percentiles) comprising Ukrainians and others.
Scanning through still and moving images of the city on and above ground, it becomes apparent that Ulan Uday is itself assembled from a distinct mix of styles. The squat, domed Byzantine cross-over is represented in the traditional Russian churches of the Old Believers. The main streets cast a nod towards the Italian Renaissance style favoured and imported by Peter the Great. Outlying rectangular block tenements are the spoor of Soviet expansion and, with a distinctly Decemberist feel, more beautiful ornate wooden structures signify milestones of burgeoning trade. Whilst before, I’ve only studied these as relics of Decemberist revolt and exile, here paradoxically they are symbols of mainstream acceptance and success: wealthy merchants houses complete with attractive river-side prospects.
It’s a perspective thing: I think they are beautiful but as ‘L’ who interpreted and assisted me over the net told me: the ones still in use (in Irkutsk at least) are viewed as old, dilapidated dwellings for people who can’t afford better, shoe-horned with central heating so that the current residents don’t die during winter. Either that or they are relegated to the status of non-functional museum pieces. All a pity, really.
At any rate the whole city-package is spread across the landscape in a rambling, spacious style. Modernity seems to have gone wide rather than high and blocks are modestly piled by general Westernised-city standards. Mercifully enough, with skies this bright-blue, frankly who’d want to obscure them?
The multifaceted architecture is perhaps no surprise too, when considering Ulan Uday’s collision of Asian, Buryat and European-Russian cultures. I read that the overall tone of the place is quite positive and light, perhaps bright even, buoyed up by Buddhist influence perhaps (?) and a welcoming curiosity towards strangers. It wouldn’t surprise me: Buddhists have markedly been the nicest people that I have met by far.
In support of this, the crime figures are said to be extremely low. I suppose that – as with most places – you’ll find it if you go looking; so best not to look then. Avoiding drunks for instance (as with anywhere) is considered good policy. Tell me about it; I can only speculate as to what the average Buddhist Buryat might think if transposed to Anytown UK when our late-night bar owners are “throwing out the trash”. Our own “cultural cringe”, I think.
More next time.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 84) Buryatia: In and out of Ulan Uday (Part 2)
[Photo by mikeemesser]