The rain came. We were crowded under the doorway with our parcels under our arms. The man next to me winked and gestured with his hands, tiredly at the sky outside, as if to suggest that this was a normal event. The wind that blew the hard rain against the building outside was warm and almost pleasant. The traffic on the nearby street sent sheets of gutter water onto the broken pavement. It was better to wait it out, the man said.
Go with the flow
I wasn't in a rush. I found my situation almost amusing. I cracked open a beer and applauded the rain for its social purposes. It finally subsided and my new friend left as he had arrived. Going with the flow of the masses, I stepped outside the now uncrowded doorway to change my roost for a place with more action. The corner of the road had a small bench that was not being used. I parked myself on the empty seat and drank my beer.
The skyline view from this vantage point was amazing. You could see all of Ulan Ude stretched out like a massive concrete jungle, twisting and turning with its industrial flow. Beyond the city was the Selenge River riding the tide all the way to Lake Baikal. A woman came shortly afterwards. She gestured at my drink, and then, as if invited, grabbed the beer from my hands and started drinking. She finished a long swig with an embellished burp and began to laugh hysterically. It was infectious; I couldn't help but join in. Here was this random toothless woman drinking my beer and laughing at me like we were old friends.
From out of nowhere, a man her age came to collect her. He claimed to be the woman's husband. He apologized for his wife's crazed laughter that had continued even as he appeared. "She's crazy," the man grinned. In one motion, he grabbed the same beer from out of my hands, and drank what was left. The old couple left with their arms around one another, giggling. The day wore on and the rain had come back. I took my remaining beers and moved back to the main square to find shelter and to people watch.
Separate from the crowd, I sat, drank and smoked. A man sat next to me. He spoke a little English; we started talking. He told me he was a lawyer who was down on his luck. His days had been filled with the excitement of the courtroom. He was now out of work; spent his days talking to strangers and drinking vodka. He could be found at the park any time. We shared a bottle of vodka and conversed. As we continued speaking, the number of curious and interested locals increased.
They appeared to be from all walks of life; congregating around our bench. Where was I from? Why was I there? Questions kept coming. I felt a part of something. Everyone welcomed me. Everyone had an opinion. As the drinking progressed, so did the action. My lawyer friend ran down the street, grabbed a guitar and played late into the night. The gray concrete of the communist era buildings stood in stark contrast to the company I was keeping; a reminder of a much different past.
Eastern Siberia seems a place long forgotten. It wasn't the white Russians who first inhabited this vast and empty region of the world. The Mongols from the south conquered the area, long before Christian missionaries came. It was an organized and working society, living in harmony with the land. Even today, farther to the south, you can find traditional farmers and yak herders living their lives just as they had so many years before.
When night ended and the crowd thinned, we went our separate ways. We never saw one another again, but I was happy to have met them. I spent several more weeks in eastern Siberia. Every day there was another happening. I ended my trip several weeks later, on the Mongolian border, south of Ulan Ude – a wild land where the pavement ends and the world begins.
I recommend this part of the world to anyone who wants a remarkable experience.