Outdoor Ethnographic Museum; Ulan-Ude, Russia

Yesterday I visited what I imagine is the most famous of Ulan-Ude's few attractions: an open-air outdoor museum featuring dozens of examples of local Siberian architecture, from prehistoric to modern.

Here in Ulan-Ude, the ethnic breakdown is roughly three-quarters Russian and one-quarter Buryatian. Buryats, or Buriyads, are the largest ethnic minority in all of Siberia, and most of them live here in Ulan-Ude. They are the northernmost Mongol group, and I believe they share many customs, history, and probably bloodlines, with those living in Mongolia. Mongol designates one or more ethnicities (concentrated in Mongolia, Russia and China) and Mongolians are those living in Mongolia, though they may not necessarily be Mongol. Buryats are Mongol.

The local Siberian architecture at the museum was of both Russian and Buryatian origin.

The museum was difficult to find, and doing so was extraordinarly satisfying and rewarding; in hindsight, the journey to find the museum was far more enjoyable than the museum itself, although that is not to discount the museum itself: I would like to return, and will try to do so again tomorrow before I leave Ulan-Ude for Irkutsk.

The museum is located in the suburbs of Ulan-Ude; yes, even Siberia has its suburbs. I set off early in the morning, armed with somewhat specific directions: "Take this bus, yes, and in this direction, OK, for maybe 20 minutes; then go this way (pointing to a location no longer on the map) for about 200 meters," and off I went.

I met my first challenge when I arrived at the bus stop: The bus number I was told to take traveled only in the opposite direction of the arrow indicated on my map. I asked a woman at the bus stop, using my sloppily handwritten Cyrillic note, if I wanted bus no. 37 (across the street, but headed only in the opposite direction of the arrow) but she assured me I wanted bus no. 57, which traveled the way of the arrow. Thinking that a local who owned a car and didn't take the bus (i.e. the guy who gave me the directions) was more likely to get the bus number wrong than the direction, I hopped on the 57 and showed another passenger a second note, asking him in Russian to let me know when to get off for the museum. Ten minutes later, and 10 minutes earlier than expected, he grunted when the bus stopped and pointed me in the direction I knew I had to walk. That felt right.

Unfortunately it was wrong, or I should say, I was wrong. The direction was correct, but the bus had been wrong. Instead of walking 200 meters, I walked for two hours. If I didn't have boot spikes, the walk would have taken probably closer to six hours. I was just about to give up, turn around, and walk two hours home; fortunately I studied enough Cyrillic before I arrived in Russia to be able to read the sign: I had arrived, or rather, I was at the spot where my "200-meter" walk began (it was actually closer to 500).

My two-hour walk took me through some of the most interesting neighborhoods I have ever seen, and I also had the chance to use the most disgusting bathroom I have ever seen. It makes the toilet from Trainspotting look like your kitchen. It was a steel box secured (why, I don't know) with an industrial-sized padlock. Inside was just a hole in the ground. You've seen these before, or at least heard of them, but today it is negative 25 degrees Celsius, and life here is below freezing for more than six months out of the year, easy; so it is unfair to say it was a pile of shit. It was more like a tower of shit: tall and narrow and reaching up out of the hole, one person's shit freezing to the next person's shit, until the whole thing looked like one of those tall, thin towers that megacities build, reaching up into the heavens (and straight out of hell).

During my long trek through suburban Siberia, I saw endless rows of wooden houses, broken windows with signs of life inside, rickety ladders, hungry dogs - pets, not strays - chained up outside, and maybe every 50 houses I'd spot a rusty satellite dish on the roof. For me, the Siberia of today was more interesting than the Siberia of yesterday; the same has held true for my photography: I am more interested in the world of today than the relics of yesterday; that having been said, I absolutely plan to visit Lenin's tomb, and when I am in Paris I will visit its cathedrals, et cetera; and I will take photographs, probably many, but I suspect I will look back on those with more yawns than awe. If I want a photo of the Eiffel Tower, I'll buy a postcard.