24 June 2009

Buryatia Experience Part 1: Departure from Ulan-Ude and arrival in Mihailovska

As most of you already know, we decided to participate in a volunteering project organised by a young russian student from Moscow, but originally from Buryatia which is a republic in southern Siberia. We were going there to teach something to the school children there, and also to experience their way of life.

The departure from Ulan-Ude was scheduled for the 24th of June, 6:30 am. All we knew was that we were supposed to go in a minibus. We still didn't know that we would experience the real russian way of travelling....

We were a group of 5: Kate from Canada, Juergen from Austria, Ayuna the organiser from Moscow, and the 2 of us.

Actually, to get to these remote places, a few minibuses leave every morning from the bus station. You just go there, wait, and when a bus arrives, jump inside to get a seat. As we were a group of 5 with quite a lot of luggage, we were supposed to have 5 seats reserved in one of the buses, which was supposed to pick us up at our hotels. But it didn't turn up, the driver had decided to drive to the train station... So we ended up waiting for an hour at our hotel, being driven to the bus station and waiting there for another hour or so. Finally, our driver turned up and we got our 5 seats. This was already a good example of how things work here. Don't plan ahead or you'll be disappointed....

After one hour we alreday stopped for "lunch" (it was 10:30 in the morning) and then drove for another 4 hours non-stop. Of course there was the usual drunk guy who was a bit annoying, but he fell asleep after some time and we didn't hear him anymore. It was a very scenic drive, the landscape becoming greener and hillier, with meandering rivers and a few small villages. Once there were cows on the street, once there was a group of running horses, and once the driver almost ran into a group of men who were doing repair work on the road.

At some point we arrived at a checkpoint. This being a border region, we needed permits to go there and our passports were checked (which consisted in writing down our names and a phone call to the boss, without noticing that Kate didn't have her visa with her). When the passport procedure was over, we were told to get out of the bus, this time for a welcoming ceremony by the head of administration (Svetlana) from the village we were going to (Mihailovka), which consisted in some chanted speech in Buryat, offering a spoon of milk (white foods are supposed to have a "cleaning" function) and the handing over of a coloured scarf. During the whole time, the other passengers waited patiently.

When we arrived to the village, we were introduced to our host families, who all lived in very tidy wooden houses with big gardens and a banya. We immediately got food, and then had a good wash in the banya.

The village had one asphalted road, the others were non-asphalted. Cows were wandering and grazing freely in the village. All the houses were wooden, often with colourful windows. No house had individual water pipes. Every street had its water pump station where people went to get water. Toilets were outside, "hole-in-the-floor", often far in the garden, but clean. Our family also had a few pigs, two dogs and a small potato field behind the house. The main foods are milk products, cow's meat and potatoes. Almost everything is produced for self-consumption, hardly anything is sold. Life seems very simple there. I also noticed a strong, mainly female community, with all kinds of activities (library, dance group...). All in all people seemed very happy there.

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