Ulan Ude is not exactly Ibiza, here’s a dark tourism tale. We walked around in this seemingly dystopian area and heard two children scream, or maybe laugh. We couldn’t tell if they were terrified or just happy. But we walked towards the sound and saw two small kids strapped into what looked like a DIY swing and was constantly being pushed by a carousel worker. I was amazed by this absolutely marvellous Russian amusement park.
ULAN UDE: THE WAY TO EAST OR MONGOLIA
Of all the train rides on the Transsiberian, I think that the one from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, although being the shortest, also was the hardest one for me. It was a combination of no coffee and barely any sleep that made me more grumpy than usual. Arriving in Ulan Ude didn’t directly change my mood. It is a nice Russian city that works as a crossroad. Here, you either take the train south to Mongolia or follow it east to Vladivostok. We were heading east and had one night in Ulan Ude. Living on the cheap we found a small hotel on the outskirt of town with barely a restaurant or bar insight. After a rather disappointing meal at the so-called top restaurant in the area (I guess pizza-place is more accurate), we went to the hotel to plan our Ulan Ude adventure. Like most tourists, we were heading down to see the giant Lenin head and see the main square. But we wanted to find something else and tried to see what more we could do in this place.
Looking at the map from where we were I spotted something just north of us, that looked like an amusement park. An amusement park in itself is not so intriguing, but being a small park in the middle of Russia that, in the pictures, looked run down, that is interesting. The plan was set, we were heading north to the park that is called Divo Lion (wonder lion).
THE WONDER (LION) OF A RUSSIAN PARK
Travelling through the wonderful nation of Russia you learn that service is a very relative term. We went to places where it was non-existence, and then we went to places where vodka was put on the table and we drank all night. In this park, we met the former. Although, it could also be the fact that not many non-Russian enter this park. The woman in the ticket booth was not smiling and seemed to be pushed in to this small, dark box where she spend all her day.
Unlike many other parks, I have been to it wasn’t a big, highlighted entrance. Taking the tram up the entrance was just past the tracks and had a modest, and very old sign with the name and a lion, taking directly from Disney’s Lion King as a logo. It would turn out that Simba was far from the only copyrighted character in this park, but far out here in the middle of nothing, I do not think that is an issue.
We didn’t pay any entrance fee and if that was because it was free or because we didn’t “got caught” I am not sure, but in we went. What immediately caught my eye (and ears) was the rollercoaster at the entrance. It was very old, rusty and made a clanky sound as well as going very unsteady. I knew this was my kind of park. We were strolling through the main path seeing a mixture of characters to the right and left of us. On a bench was two characters I had never seen before that turned out to be Zayats and Volk (the Hare and the Wolf), that is the Russian equivalent to Tom and Jerry.
ULAN UDE AMUSEMENT PARK
The rides at this amusement park were interesting, to say the least. It was like half the park was abandoned and the other half was fully (depending on how you see it) operating by some people. To ride any of these attractions you had to go to the entrance and buy a ticket for the specific ride, then find that ride. Once there you needed to find someone who could (and presumably wanted to) operate the machine. Even if you managed all these steps I doubt everything worked as it should. There were different kinds of swinging carousels that all seemed out of order but now and then someone came up and pushed the button and off it went. It wasn’t really a queue system. People who wanted, and found an operator, could go on anytime.
Like any self-respected amusement park, they did have a Ferris wheel. In one of the ends of the park, in front of old Russian block buildings, it rose to the sky. The carts looked old, very unsafe and completely empty. It reminded me of the one in the park in Chernobyl. Some rides were inside old, blue fences, and it didn’t seem like these were operating at all. It was even an area inside one of these blue fences stacked with old cars for some reason.
ULAN UDE A BYGONE SOVIET ERA
Behind a closed down attraction was an overgrown patch of land with old arcade machines. They were standing like in an old warehouse, and it felt like these were put away during the Soviet era and had stood like this since. I walked around this park with awe of the mixture of everything from broken down, overgrown, rusty old attractions to the families walking around enjoying every bit of it. The screaming (or laughing?) that we later heard came from the far end of the small park. This was perhaps the oddest attraction of them all. Attached to what looked like a slingshot shaped swing were two kids, and this attraction was not machine-controlled. Instead an old Russian just pushed these kids so they flew up and down.
But the kids did seem to love it. My passion for (abandoned) amusement parks grew and so did my love for the uniqueness of Russia. To go behind the tourist lines and see oddities like this is marvellous.