Russia: tales of corruption, trash and those little differences (Part 2)


Russian villages are tightly built. There is very little empty space between houses, but paradoxically enough private property is fenced off from the neighbors. This style of living would make sense somewhere in Tokyo, where each centimeter is at premium, but not in Siberia. There are vast empty areas here and you can actually get land for free from government (as well as an interest-free house loan intended for building a house), but for some mysterious reason people build their houses right next to each other. Is it fear of being alone and xenophobia at the same time? Does not compute.

Little differences

Vincent: Yeah baby, you’d dig it the most. But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules: What?
Vincent: It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it’s just – it’s just there it’s a little different.

from “Pulp Fiction”

It is indeed fun to spot these things when traveling. Some examples 1) State of light switches is reversed in Russia. The off-state in Europe is on in Russia and vice versa. Same applies in China. 2) Direction for hot-cold water in an one-handle tap is opposite. Right for hot water and left for cold water. In some places it is opposite, more familiar right-hot and left-water, but the reverse is much more common. What is actually confusing is that in some places marking and the actual flow is switched.  In China it is even more confusing, as it seems there is no one standard, so it is random guessing every time you use a tap in a new place. There are usually no markings either and crappy boilers make things even more confusing.

I could not think of any logical reason why either way in both cases is better than the other one, so let’s fill these under “little differences” department.

Russia: tales of corruption, trash and those little differences (part 1)


There is an illegal logging site in the forest near Arshan. Everybody in the village knows who are responsible for cutting down the trees, but since appropriate parties are paid off, nothing is done about it. What is even worse, only the most valuable part of the tree is collected, with the rest left rotting in the forest. Locals do not dare to pick that wood, because as soon as you touch you will be charged with illegal logging for the whole business. Sigh. Another example, when tax agency inspect grocery stores, they tend to grab things like vodka, fish, bread, sausage and other ingredients making a perfect picnic party to do a “lab analysis”. Business as usual.


It seems like Russia is on the mission to reach the price level of Europe, while quality of service not making any progress. The smallest practical money unit is around 1-5 rubles, but the coinage goes all the way down to 1 kopeika (1/100th of a ruble). Most prices are not rounded making money transactions a complicated business and there is a constant shortage of chanfe. When you purchase something, they tend to ask you for change instead. Sometimes this results in a deadlock, when both parties do not have any change, the cashier is not prepared to make a small discount. You also see coins lying everywhere, especially in tourist spots (even as far as in Mongolia). Shows how useful all these coins really are.

Trash management

One thing many Russians are not able to do is to take care of their trash. Everywhere you look you see heaps of garbage. When you travel by train, the entire area along the railway is covered with litter people throw out windows. Trash management in villages and small towns is not any better. People just throw out trash outside their property or sometimes even form a landfill in their own backyard or nearby road. National parks have not escaped this fate. Here again trash is everywhere: empty bottles, tin cans and even batteries. What is particularly sad that Russians take pride in their rich nature and holy land, but are unable to keep it clean at the same time. There are signs everywhere reminding to take care of your trash (sponsored by some company), but no trash cans. Go figure. It is almost shame that Russia has such a vast area, making it possible such a care-free policy. If Russia had one tenth of the area, maybe this ill practice would change. So sad.

Food so far

As you advance into east, quality of food becomes better and better. Russian food was pretty much crap. Russian cuisine can be excellent, if you go a fancy restaurant, but when it comes to eating out in cheap places, food tends to be pretty bland and tasteless. Potatoes, pasta, processed meat, little to no spices and bland salads. Bleh. Food in Buryatia was even worse, a poor parody of both Mongolian and Russian cuisine. As one of the locals described the differences between Russian and Buryatian cuisines: when a Russian makes a soup, they put meat, potatoes and onions. In case of Buryats, it is just meat. All in all, a pretty grim picture.

Mongolia was not any better. Meat and pasta – these two words pretty much sum up Mongolian cuisine. Ulaan Baatar offered some variety, but in countryside these two ingredients were the staple of Mongolian diet. Oh, and spices are virtually unknown to Mongols, as well as vegetables and fruits. Thanks goodness for ubiquitous Korean restaurants around Ulaan Baatar. Otherwise, it would be very bleak.

Chinese cuisine, on the other hand, is marvelous. Very greasy, weird at times, pretty much meat based, but the flavour is excellent. Needless to say that the food here is very different to Chinese food you get in Finland and only at a fraction of the price. I tend to overeat here, because everything is just so damn good and there are so many things to try. When it comes to meat, Chinese use the whole animal, not only juicy parts. Head, feet, skin, intestines – all parts are put into use. For example, when you order Bei Jing duck, you get filet as the filling for pancakes and the rest of the duck (including the head) in form of a soup. Or another example, fish heads are considered a delicacy and cost more than the actual fish meat. Go figure. As for weird things, I had a chance to taste scorpions (both small brown ones and huge black ones), sea-horses, snakes (meat and skin), bird’s nests and roaches of unknown origin. Apart from small scorpions, the rest was not very tasty, but not bad either. What I learnt from this experience, you can eat anything as long as it is deep-fried and sprinkled with chili. However, these snacks are rather a novelty and tourist attraction and not a part of daily local diet. On the other hand, a millennium egg, a transparent black ill-looking egg is a) a part of traditional cuisine b) extremely weird c) actually very good. Looks disgusting, but is very tasty, especially with soy sauce and ginger on top. Yum.

Ulan-Ude two main attractions

There are two things to see in Ulan-Ude: the biggest Lenin’s head statue in the world and Ivolginsky Datsan (Иволгинский Датсан), the largest buddhist temple in Russia. While Lenin’s head is well just a huge head, datsan (temple) is a more curious case. The place is situated some 40km outside the city near a typical Siberian village, providing quite a contrast between colorful architecture and bleak Russian one. Buryat buddhism is of Tibetan branch, which clearly shows in architecture, iconography and rituals. The first thing you notice upon entering the datsan area is numerous souvenir counters selling all kinds of buddhism related things. Furthermore, there is even a pay SMS-based prayer order: you send an SMS with your prayer and after monks do their job, you get an SMS back with the confirmation. Modern and efficient. Both Putin and Medvedev congratulated Datsan on its activities, the proof of which is proudly hung on temple walls.

Monks put out an excellent daily prayer, which is clearly aimed at tourists (with the prayer timetable on the walls). Sarcasm aside, it was a captivating show: six guys chanting, playing percussions and blowing  something like sea-shells. All in their own pace and slightly out of rhythm, but the end result is simply amazing. There is also a library at the temple, but  I only found a closed door. After additional inquiry, it turned out that the library is not yet opened. Strange, as when asking directions everyone gave me without mentioning this simple detail. That is rather deep. I asked one of the monks about their daily routine and particularly meditation and the answer was “We do not meditate around here”. That’s modern Russian buddhism for you. Marketed as the heart of Russian buddhism, it gives an impression of a money-making machine than a real monastery.

Russia, a confusing place

At times Russia can be a very confusing place, even if you know Russian (as in my case). I was planning to go from Arshan to Slyudanka, spend a night there, see Baikal and continue to Ulan-Ude the next morning. The bus schedule confirmed a bus to Slyudanka at 8AM. That is as far as the theory goes. The practical experience went like this. I came to the bus stop at 7.40 only to find a bus to Ulan-Ude. The driver did not know about any Slydanka buses and the bus terminal was closed (even though it was supposed to open at 7.30). So assuming that the bus will eventually come, I stayed there waiting. Several minutes later a woman working for the bus company appeared out of the blue and told me that there were no morning buses to Slyudanka, but there was one later in the evening. As an alternative she suggested to go to the place called Karantin (carantine in English, a cheerful name for a village,) and get a mini-van connection from there to Slyudanka. Well, screw that, I’d better go straight to Ulan-Ude. So I bought the ticket to Ulan-Ude and hopped on the bus. The real kicker waited for me several hours later, when we passed through Slyudanka, actually made a stop there and some people got off. I do not know whether that was malice, ignorance or plain misunderstanding, but the whole situation was rather surreal. Does not compute.