Southern Siberian at Last
Not long after passing Lake Baikal, we arrived in Ulan Ude in southern Siberia. A former student met me at the train station and, boy, was I glad to see her. This was the first person I knew since I entered Russia. She was eight months pregnant! These Siberians are tough. She took me to a hotel. I thought that since I had an interpreter, this would be easy but nothing is easy in Russia except getting in trouble.
The lady at the desk said 1200 rubles for a room. I had a limit in my mind of 900 and this was a lot more. I had read there was a travel agent in the hotel that would help negotiate better price. I went to look for them. I found the office but there was only a girl who said she started two days ago. While I was getting nowhere with her, my friend came back and said the lady had lowered it to 1000 and I should take it. I persisted with the travel agent girl to find out if this was a good price.
“I’ve only been here two days,” she repeated.
I went back to the desk clerk.
I said, “OK, 1000.”
She said, “1100.” I said, “What happened to the 1000?”
She said, “You took too long deciding.”
I paid the 1100 and headed up to see what it bought me.
The hotel quite plain in every way and the room was OK and the bathroom was almost OK. My friend left and we agreed to to meet later for dinner. The reason the bathroom was almost OK is that it was tricky to get a decent shower and the toilet was a bit mysterious looking but functional.
I would like to tell you how wonderful Ulan Ude is but I was so glad to have some help and be clean again, my experience was better than the reality of the place. My friend brought her friend to dinner and left her to show me around the city. Again, my friend and former student was eight months pregnant and we walked everywhere around the city. I was glad to let her go get some rest.
It’s a small, quiet, reasonable clean city. It’s claim to fame is a giant head of Lenin in the main square. After that, the rest is pretty tame. I was so glad to be on solid ground and all in one piece, I was mildly euphoric.
The next day, we went to the museum where the friend of my friend’s mother worked. I can hardly remember the museum, which was interesting as any museum is, but I won’t forget our guide. She was a tall blonde that spoke like a robot but what a robot! I asked some questions to check if she was real. She was.
You have to understand something about the Asia past of Russia. Most the people look Asian. I mean a version of Asian which is striking. High cheekbones, golden skin, and a beautiful sturdiness about them make them the most beautiful Asians I’ve ever seen. And I have seen quite a few. But when you see a blonde, blue-eyed Russian in the middle of all this exotic beauty, it catches you by surprise. There are the Asian beauties all around and then this European beauty shows up and it’s just too much, really.
I decided to stay another night but only if I could get a lower price for my room. I went boldly to the desk but it was another woman than before. I told her that I would only remain in their hotel if I could get a decent price for my decent room.
“You want telephone?”
“Nyet!” I said.
“You want telewision?”
“No, nyet!” I answered, impressing her with my command of Russian.
“Okay, 700 rubles.”
Stunned, I took the new key from her and headed for the elevator. These keys, by the way, are attached to a metal piece the size and weight of a doorknob. You could kill somebody with one.
“See woman on floor for change room,” she said to my back.
I got to my cheaper room and looked around. It looked exactly the same as the other one. It had a telephone and a TV. I sat on the bed and thought, this makes it 900 rubles a night. I had a slight uneasiness because it seemed too easy which added to the puzzle of the rooms being exactly the same. I unpacked a few things and went for the bathroom. It, too, was exactly like the other bathroom and the hot water was just as hard to coax out.