✍️: Erin 📸: Jan & Erin
Ulan-Ude immediately feels different when we arrive at 5 a.m. on an overnight train. Our cab driver is cheery, talkative and doesn’t drive 100 mph. There are Buddhist statutes, the first religious symbols I’ve seen in Russia that aren’t Orthodox Christian. And the racial makeup is much more Asian that anywhere else we’ve been, save for the giant Lenin head statue in the town square.
But the biggest surprise: Getting a personal tour of Ulan-Ude’s beautiful opera and ballet theater, which recently underwent a meticulous six-year renovation. We even meet a couple performers, including … the prima ballerina! OMG, I MIGHT DIE!
Surprise! Russia’s Best Guide
We have no idea what’s about to happen when, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, we peek into the box office of the theater. The roughly four-story building originally opened in the mid 1950s but, peering inside, it seems brand new.
There are no upcoming shows, so using Google Translate we ask about tours. The woman working the front desk pauses, makes a couple phone calls and writes “10:00” on a piece of paper. We figure out she means come back tomorrow at 10 a.m. So we do, assuming there’s a standard Russian-language tour.
Nope! We are waiting outside when one of the theater’s large wooden doors creeps open at 10 a.m. A woman with long black hair steps out wearing a sophisticatedly casual long maroon dress. She spots us and waves us in. She speaks impeccable English. She’s there, we learn, to take us on a personalized tour of the theater, formally named the Buryat State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.
The Buryat Influence
The local culture is immediately evident at the theater. Out front, a large sculpture of two dancers — a man and a woman with perfect ballet posture — have meticulously carved faces of Buryat people. Buryats are close cousins of the Mongols and the largest indigenous group in Siberia. Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Buryat Republic. (Russia is divided among a slew of federal divisions; republics are independent and home to specific ethnic minorities.)
Our guide explains symbolic details throughout the theater, many honoring the local Mongol-Buryat community and their Buddhist heritage. The main staircases and heater covers have Buddhist designs, as do the patterns in the intricately painted ceilings in the entry hallways.
She also weaves in Russian history during what becomes nearly two hours of showing us around the cavernous auditorium, backstage and work rooms.
The Backstage Tour
We meet costume and prop designers as they work. We see where backdrops are painted in a huge, windowed room that feels like a large university’s athletic field house. Rehearsing opera singers echo in the halls.
We even meet a few performers as they enter dressing rooms, including the prima ballerina. Let me say that again. I JUST MET A PRIMA BALLERINA! I’m a giddy 12-year-old little dancer all over again. She is graceful, gracious and friendly — and smiles at me! — as she briefly chats with us and our guide. (And no, I don’t have the self-awareness to ask for a photo. Fail.)
No one seems annoyed when we pop in to workrooms; they smile, ask in Russian where we’re from. One woman hurriedly sewing a stack of stuffed animals for the next production jokingly asks if I can help. I say I can’t sew straight. She laughs, shrugs and nods to the pile of simple stuffed animals — not her best work, either.
The Theater’s History
Our guide says the theater opened in 1952, near the end of Stalin’s rein, which she describes as “a very dangerous time for everyone.” (This is the first time we see a public representation or even hear someone talking about Stalin and that era in Russia’s recent history.)
The period when the theater was constructed marked the second wave of building across the Soviet Union: the first focused on industrialization in the 1930s, she says, while the second a decade later focused on the arts, including building dozens of theaters (derailed, of course, during World War II).
This theater is among the few public places where depictions of Stalin weren’t destroyed after his death in 1953, she says. His face was instead at the time covered with plaster in a large relief. (A relief is a raised, plaster sculpture built along a wall — see photos below). His head was discovered in front of Lenin’s during renovations.
Our guide tries to find the right word, even pulls out a translating app, then settles on “cunning” to describe the Buryat workers who plastered over Stalin’s face in the 1950s. Maybe knowing they couldn’t or didn’t want to hide history. The guide says renovation workers kept his face in part because of the history and because removing it would permanently deface the original work.
The tour is wonderful and teaches us a lesson: Never hesitate to ask about things you’re interested in. We’re always surprised to learn how far some people go to help us see or experience their communities. This tour is, hands down, the best so far.
We got to Ulan-Ude on a train just before dawn after sharing a cabin with a young, stylish man who wanted nothing to do with us (back atcha, buddy). Then it was a new public bus system to figure out, local history and art museums, and an awesome cafe called Marco Polo where we became temporary regulars thanks to the pancakes.
We happened to be in Ulan-Ude on the first day of school. A huge gathering of students, student organizations and shows is in the town square, as is a fair amount of dancing to American pop music (Miley Cyrus makes a couple loud-speaker appearances).
It lets us feel the city as a real city, where no one targets us as tourists. But we do get a few startled looks when people hand us fliers and start talking to us, and we respond in very broken Russian.
Among the city’s highlights is the giant Lenin head in the town square. The statue, especially impressive at night, proudly claims the title of largest Lenin head statue in the country at 25 feet tall and 42 tons, according to local guidebooks.
A Walkable City
An impromptu walking tour showcases a large World War II monument, which is common in the Russian cities we’ve visited. There’s also a dedicated pedestrian walkway that takes up three or four blocks of Lenina street that’s lined with cafes, shops and some museums.
Lenina street takes visitors from the Odigitrievsky Cathedral up a steep hill, through the pedestrian area, to the ballet theater and town square. The street is blocked off from traffic in some sections, which adds to the walkability of the city. There’s signage noting where to walk for historical sites.
This is also where Jan meets his favorite Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov (now a bronzed hipster). The playwright spent a night in Ulan-Ude, noting in his diary it was a “pleasant little town.” That’s all he wrote. And he got a statue.
Among the museums we stop by is the Republican Art Museum, where visitors have to pay separately for different exhibits. Odd and a bit annoying. We go after seeing signs promising a René Magritte showcase.
But after getting to the museum, we quickly realize this isn’t a place where such valuable art would be on loan. Not a lot of, er, security. But, it’s elegantly displayed and inspires visitors to learn more about him and his work, which is exactly what museums should help do.
The museum also showcases work by local artists, and that’s worth the visit. We pay the extra fee to get into the room and spend more time here than any other Ulan-Ude museum (save for the theater).
The paintings mostly depict local history and the nomadic life of the region’s early nomadic inhabitants.
Ulan-Ude is a major city along the Trans-Siberian Railway. It’s where many train tourists turn south to head into Mongolia and eventually China. So if you’re on such a route, take a couple days to see Ulan-Ude. It’s the most unique city we experienced while in Russia.
Up next: Mongolia.