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Bur-What-Tiya?

It was even colder in Ulan Ude than it had been in the other Siberian cities that we visited. It was also the crack of dawn and the coldest part of the day, when our train hissed into the station. We climbed off, put on the leather jackets, and began the gray early morning wheel into town.

We reached the city center in no time, but finding a hotel was more difficult. We had heard that Ulan Ude was a cheaper and more backpacker-filled Siberian town. It was cheaper, but we saw no signs of tourists, and most of the hotels were still the usual Siberian business traveler-fueled, inflated price. We did get a chance to wheel by the largest bust of Lenin in the world, though, which helped to fuel us on in the search for lodging.

We spent quite some time wheeling around town that morning, as the sun grew ever higher in the sky, poking our heads in and out of many different hotels.

It was not till our fifth or sixth try that we found one less than $100 a night. And when we finally did, we decided immediately to stay there.

It was a place called the Hotel Buryatiya, a giant and degraded Soviet behemoth, with hundreds if not thousands of rooms, and which still used the old Soviet system of having a woman staffing each floor, as a kind of grouchy secretary, manager, and general concierge for the everyone staying on the floor.

We left our bikes in the lobby and headed up to the room, showing the floor woman a slip of orange carbon copied paper, which she exchanged for the key to our room. Our room was delightful, with some really unique wall fixtures, an old Soviet radio, and a great view of the city.

It felt great to do work at the desk in that room, and though there was no Internet in the hotel, we found ourselves spending time typing away, so pleased were we with the space.

We spent a little time that morning working on correspondence and asking our floor lady to bring us some hot water to make coffee with, but soon the call of the open road and our grumbling stomachs pulled us out into the city.  We could see already we were in a very different place. To begin with, the people here were Asian, looking more like Kazakhs or Koreans than Slavs. Second, it was definitely poorer, not a lot so, but enough to make it much easier to find real grubby down-home joints.

We ended up eating at this place:

This green shack slapped together with corrugated metal was a cheap eating hall specializing in small portions of greasy, salty food. With stomachs full once again, we headed back out into Ulan Ude to do a little more exploring. We found ourselves in a pedestrian mall, which was flooded with people in large furry suits, and families out for a stroll. It was then that we noticed neither of us had service on our cell phones, so we headed into a Beeline Shop that we spotted as we rode by.

Beeline explained to us that here in Buryatya, they were only supporting 3G (welcome to the future) and our old GSM phones would not work here. We had two choices, then: we could either buy a new 3G phone and continue to use Beeline with a new SIM, or just get a SIM card from one of their competitors.

We were in no way interested in buying an overpriced fancy pants Russian phone, so it was with much sadness in our hearts that we headed out into 3G-only Buryatya to find a MegaFon shop.

Buryatya… what was this place? It was the name of our hotel of course, but what else? We really didn’t know, so we took out the wikireader. It was the name of the semi-autonomous region of Russia where we were right now. In fact, the people here did not even identify themselves so much as Russians as they do Buryats. Of course ,they all spoke Russian, but most of them also spoke Buryat, a Mongolian dialect. They were Buddhists here, too, and had been for a long time. Buryatya also sports one of the fastest growing populations of all of Siberia, and is nestled up around the world famous lake Baikal. Well that was something to begin contextualizing our experiences.

Meanwhile in Ulan Ude, we were trying to get SIM cards, but waylaid by our fascination with these modern stainless steel urinals that were so popular in the city. I applaud your taste, Buryatiya.

We did find a MegaFon shop, but being still not fully registered in the city, we would need to wait ’til the next day to get phones. So, with some time left, we headed off on a very long and frustrating search for Internet.

We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble if only we had taken the time to look back on the lessons we learned in Kazakhstan: When Internet is scarce and expensive, just go to the fanciest hotel in town and vagabond your way onto their network.

Eventually, this is what we did, wandering all sweaty and disheveled into the upscale café at the giant and expensive Hotel Cagaan Morin.

We ended up working there for hours and hours, with all intentions of only spending a couple bucks each, but something about the place began to endear us, and soon we were drinking multiple  cups of americano coffee and ordering sour cream blini.

The place was nice, tastefully lit with a cluster of soft white glowing orbs. The tables were comfortable and we were becoming very good friends with all the staff. The Internet was also blazingly fast. We decided this place would need to become a staple of our time here.

That night we dined at the Ulan Ude’s answer to the question of “to Traktir or not to Traktir?”

There, we enjoyed black bread, a very mayonnaisey tomato salad, a tomato-filled local borscht variant, and a couple of handmade pottery steins filled with home brewed “live” beer.

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