Lonely Planet calls it “one of the most likeable cities in Eastern Siberia.” The Australian cousins sent me email giving me tips: “If you go there – and you HAVE to go there…” they liked it so much. Either there are two Ulan Udes, or they are crazy, or I’m missing something.
You know the old saying that Boston city planning involved dropping a handful of toothpicks on a piece of paper and then making each toothpick a one-way road? Ulan Ude is worse (though unlike Boston, it least offers foreign wanderers street signs). First, it’s much, much uglier – mostly old Soviet concrete and some new steel/glass awfulness. And (due to the fact the city is built on steppe, I think) everything is on different levels – sidewalks lower than the street, the street lower than the buildings. It’s impossible to see anything – where you are, what’s in the shops – never mind to see where the road might lead you. It’s like trying to get from point A to point B in one of those Escher prints we all had on our walls in college.
From what I could discern there is only one walkable road from the north part of town (where I stayed) and the south part (where all the stuff is). I tried to find another way, but I kept getting funnelled into the maze-like dead end of concrete apartment blocks, where the notion of “sidewalk” and street” and “empty space” are all interchangeable. You put your life on the line, trying to walk through one of those complexes. And you’ll definitely get hopelessly lost.
Anyway, as I was saying, there is only one road, and it is full of diesel-exhaust-spewing Ladas and Kamaz trucks in a GREAT RUSH to get places. Much honking and gunning of engines and screeching of tires. The sidewalk itself would undergo wild transformations from block to block: sometimes it was nicely concrete-tiled and at road level, separated from traffic by a line of trees; sometimes it was a dirt path that meandered closer to the buildings, set about a meter higher than the road; sometimes it was a narrow strip of broken concrete right by the road, lined on both sides with high concrete barriers that led you halfway down a sidestreet before you could cross to the next block south, across what seemed to be a busy highway off-ramp (again, impossible to see exactly where all those careening vehicles were careening from).
As for the buildings , their placement was equally chaotic. No promenade of grand structures here. There would be concrete hulks of offices right up against the road; whitewashed concrete shopping malls set back from the road, up some stone steps and a piazza-like area dotted with ice cream vendors; stucco-covered concrete ex-Soviet hotels set at an angle to the whole street. Sometimes the view was just a concrete hill leading 30 meters up to the unseeable road above. Visual chaos.
Then suddenly the sidewalk became broken stone stairs that led you into a wide-open, mostly unused main square, in which you had to choose which direction to continue. And let me tell you, no matter which direction you choose, you never feel like you get anywhere. UU isn’t so much sprawling as uncentered. There’s a recurring nightmare I have: I’m walking along (or climbing a hill), thinking the unnamed thing I seek is just around the next bend, just over the next hill. It must be! But every time I get around the bend or over the hill, all I see is another curve. (Doesn’t take a genius to armchair-psych that one.) Well, UU is my living nightmare.
Even the pedestrian zone of ul. Lenina (every town in Russia has one) is uninteresting for the average tourist: mobile-phone shops, children’s toys. There was one overpriced cafe, but it was well-hidden enough that I didn’t find it until I had already accidentally found a nice cheap shwarma place attached to an equally well-hidden shopping mall. I mean, how does a city’s pedestrian zone not have, like, a billion cafes? Answer: Siberians don’t go out to eat much, and this is a city for Siberians, not tourists.
Of course, when you go to Ulan Ude – and you HAVE to go there – you will discover why it’s worth it. The aforementioned (I hate that word, but there it is) otherwise unremarkable main square is adorned – dominated – by the world’s largest Lenin head. Yup, you read right: it’s a statue, of only Lenin’s head, on a plinth. And it’s HUGE. Inadvertent Soviet surrealism at its best.