It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Asia


This blog entry about the events of Friday, August 13, 2004 was originally posted on August 19, 2004.

DAY 300:  It’s somewhat fitting that I stumbled upon a interracial wedding party taking a big new family portrait in Soviet Square in Ulan Ude (picture below, which I took by posing as one of the many wedding photographers).  The bride and her side of the family had Russian Caucasian faces while her new hubby had an East Asian one, just like the ones on his side of the family.

Ulan Ude, Russia, a former trading post for the tea caravans between Irkutsk and China in the 18th century, is one of the main crossroads between East Asian peoples and stereotypical Russian ones — I say stereotypical meaning Caucasian because let’s face it, two-thirds of Russia is in Asia; concurrently I say “East Asian” because Indian faces are Asian faces too.  It lies in the region of the Buryat people, the largest indigenous group of Mongols in Russia.  The Buryats have had a strong cultural identity that they wanted to preserve, from the days of Russian colonization to the days Soviet Communism was spreading like wildfire.  While they might not have stopped the onslaught of either, they did preserve their identity and it is evident in the people and the culture of the city today.

My stay in Ulan Ude was brief — only a total of about six hours — but it wasn’t too big and I had just enough time to see the major sights.  My train pulled in early in the morning before 6:30 and I bid my compartment mates goodbye, including Asian-faced, Ulan Ude-born Alexander, the cop from Irkutsk who gave me “‘Um…’-Smile” combos when he stumbled on his English.  After catching a bit more sleep in the station waiting room, leaving my bags in storage and wasting an hour wandering the wrong side of the train tracks by accident, I found myself in downtown Ulan Ude, most of which was still in earshot of the train station’s loud and obnoxious pre-announcement musical tone:  a crude electronic beep rendition of the first eight notes of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” 

East Asian faces surrounded me — I would have fit in perfectly if my skin tone was a bit lighter — in a pleasant little town in the mountains where East Asian faces were even seen on local statues, like the ballet dancers in front of the Buryat Theatre of Opera & Ballet.  In fact, the only remnant of Soviet sculpture (and the most obvious) was the big massive head of Lenin in the center of Soviet Square.  (He looks like Captain Picard with a moustache, no?)

I walked the main street through town, passed the classical architecture and the ordinary type too.  Like in Moscow and most of the cities along the Trans-Siberian Route, construction of new buildings was well under way.  I thought seeing the Hodigitria Cathedral would be something to write about, but it too was closed off for renovations. 

THE PIERCING ELECTRONIC TONES of Ulan Ude Station’s pre-announcement “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” filled the air multiple times as I boarded a train around 1 p.m., which had come in all the way from Moscow, with service to Ulan Baatar, Mongolia and all the way to Beijing, China (still labeled as “Peking”).  The train was a Chinese one, with courteous Chinese conductors that gave us bed sheets for free.  (The Russian lines charged about $1.50 for sheets.)  In my car was another international group with faces of young travelers from Poland, Japan, China, Russia, Mongolia and Spain. 

The train head southbound through the countryside on the tracks of the Trans-Mongolian Railway, built section at a time between 1936 to 1956, each construction dependent on political climates between China, Mongolia and the Soviets.  In the 1960s, the borders — and therefore the line — were shut down during the China/Soviet split, but it had only been reopened in the 1980s, providing access for locals and foreigners to go straight from Moscow to Beijing or vice versa if they so pleased.

A young couple from Barcelona I met were two of these people, having been in the same compartment in the same car of the same train for the past five days.  When we stopped in Naushki, the Russian border station before entry in Mongolia, it was the longest time they had been off the train in the past week.  It was probably the longest time anyone had been off the train though; the Russian exit formalities took four and a half hours for the entire train.  Teams of stern-faced Russian immigration officials in uniform went to each person for his/her forms and passport in a formal military manner, so formal that you just had to hum the Darth Vader theme when they walked by.  Another team of officials searched the train for contraband, even using screwdrivers to open access panels in the ceilings and walls to see if anything was hidden.  The Russian officials marched around the train, and even saluted a higher-ranking officer like a platoon, before going back to the station office.

“Russian red tape,” my young Polish compartment mate Mark said.  He was no stranger to the formalities of Soviet culture, but knew that in Poland things were way more relaxed nowadays.  “Everybody thinks Poland is like Russia, but it’s a different country.”

My two other compartment mates, two Mongolia women, had been subject to the strict Russian formalities; they had not registered their Russian entry form and had to pay a fine.

WAITING AROUND WASN’T SO BAD; the pre-announcement musical tone was the pleasant sound from Microsoft Word after you “Save As…”  Plus, it was at Naushki station that I met the people on the train, sitting outside on the platform outside the station building.  Vendors on the other side of a fence sold beer, fruits and snacks to keep up happy.  Smiles were also brought about by a group of little dogs that walked around, jumping through the bars of the fence back and forth. 

It was about nine thirty by the time we all had our passports returned, again, individually by the stern Russian officers.  The train continued southbound through the night to the Mongolian border.  After a brief 30-minute stop for a train inspection, we continued to Sükhbaatar, the town for Mongolian entry formalities.  The process didn’t take as long as the Russian one — only about two hours — but that wasn’t to say it wasn’t just as strict, or even stricter.  A humorless Mongolian man in a uniform like a military general came to each compartment of our car and briefly interviewed up individually with our passports.  It’s funny how the East Asian-faced Mongolian official really scrutinized passport photos against the actual faces of the Asian passengers (me included); even he believed in the politically incorrect adage, “All you Asians look the same.”  For me and my American passport, he gave me a simple test — to say my name — which I did in a perfect American accent.

AND SO, after over six hours in border crossing formalities, the train finally continued on its way southbound to Ulan Baatar, Mongolia under the nighttime sky.  I slept fairly well in my compartment top bunk as the fourth part of my trip began:  The Global Trip 2004: Asia.

Next entry: Surrogate Parents

Previous entry: Gangs of Siberia

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Comments for “It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Asia”

  • WOOHOO!  DAY 300!  Just 200 more to go…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  12:48 PM

  • ARABELA:  Bienvenidos!  Glad you’re following along!  Did you get the link from Anel or by some other means?  Anyway, welcome aboard and pass the word along!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  12:49 PM

  • First!  This is what happens when you’re awake at 5:35am.

    Posted by Alyson  on  08/18  at  01:12 PM

  • Oh, and Happy Day 300!!!!  That deserves a party.

    Posted by Alyson  on  08/18  at  01:13 PM

  • The “Hodigitria Cathedral ” pic is the same as “the train head southbound”.

    Posted by Alyson  on  08/18  at  01:29 PM

  • Congratulations as you enter the next leg of your journey! Looking forward to your Asian adventures.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  03:27 PM

  • Congrats on day 300!  And welcome to Asia (I think I can say that since I’m in Asia).

    Posted by Liz  on  08/18  at  04:07 PM

  • It is so fitting that Day 300 starts off the Asian leg of the trip!


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  05:18 PM

  • Congrats on 300 ! Welcome to Asia & the awesome food !!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  06:08 PM

  • I’m really excited to read about Asia!  And I’ll be there too in a few months.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  06:50 PM

  • I really like the fact that I’m virtually seeing a different side of Russia - thanks. Wonderful pictures. That cathedral would have been so gorgeous - or so it looks. And the sculptures - fun times…
    Happy 300th Day!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/19  at  01:30 AM

  • Erik TGT: Muchas gracias por la bienvenida smile I guess I’ve been visiting your blog for quite a while as I can’t remember exactly where I got the link from. It might have been from the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forums, but I don’t remember. Felicidades por tu dia 300 smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/19  at  05:02 AM

  • Normally I’m not that jealous of you, since I figure that sometime I’ll manage to get the money together to do the same thing, but that “300 down, only 200 more to go” just kills me.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/19  at  08:59 AM

  • Congrats on 300!  Welcome to Asia!  When are you planning on going to India?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/19  at  06:48 PM

  • OMG…300 Already!?  Congrats man! Jeez, is it just me, but I can’t believe how fast that went!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/19  at  10:12 PM

  • YVETTE:  When IS a good time to go to India?  Right now I’m in the dilemma of trying to pack in too much in “just six months,” which, when you think about it, is really not enough time to see northern Asia (including Japan), Nepal, India, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, NZ, maybe Fiji…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/21  at  05:10 AM

  • Erik - the best time to go to India would be early Nov. for Diwali - it’s a big festival/holiday in India.  Diwali is known as the festival of lights.  Here’s a link about the holiday:  From my understanding, the festival starts on November 12th this year (but I would double-check that date).

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/22  at  04:34 PM

  • Holy crap! 300 down and 200 to go!?!?!?

    I’m impressed, very impressed. I also thought you’ld run out of Asia before you ran out of days, but that list you wrote is quite extensive. Do you expect Asia to be pricey like Europe, or cheap like SA?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  02:18 AM

  • CHRISTY:  Asia so far, is balancing out Europe…  I ate like a king the other day (beer included) for $1.50.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  04:10 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today,, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.

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Surrogate Parents

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Gangs of Siberia


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