Pelikan’s ceilings are decorated with European club scarves — Manchester City, Chelsea, Napoli — and the walls have been festooned with the flags of competing nations specifically for the World Cup: the red and yellow of Spain, the green and yellow of Brazil. There is no Russian flag, though, only the colors of Buryatia.
“It feels like a holiday,” said Bair Nydanov, a 22-year-old human resources student at one of three local universities, and a devoted fan of the Italian team A.C. Milan. He has come with three friends, all students, none of whom have to be up in the morning. “There is a special feeling in the city, in the country.”
That will only grow, of course, the longer Russia stays in the tournament. Nydanov, though, believes that it is not simply a matter of national pride in the team — “we were surprised to win the first game so well,” he said — but of genuine enjoyment of the tournament, of the sport. “People will keep on watching even when Russia is out,” he said. “We love football as much here as they do anywhere in Europe.”
He and his friends are devotees, of course — his knowledge of Milan’s financial situation is remarkable — but what makes the World Cup different, what acts as its unique power, is that it can reach parts of the world the ordinary club game cannot.
A few miles outside Ulan-Ude is the Ivolginsky Datsan, a Buddhist shrine, monastery and study center. Monks in saffron robes wander the site, guiding the groups of tourists who come from Russia, Mongolia and China to visit the Hambo Lama, the body of a monk who died in 1927 and was exhumed in 2002, his body said to be remarkably preserved.
It feels as far from the Russian World Cup as it is possible to be: a peaceful, pious place, a world away from the frenzy and the international festival being held in Moscow and St. Petersburg, a speck of civilization adrift in the endlessness of Siberia.
The monastery’s abbot, Ayur Lama Tsyrendylykov, is pouring tea. Zhargal Bagsha Dugdanov, his deputy, is sitting on a couch in his robes. It is quiet, contemplative. Has anyone here followed the World Cup, or is it all too far away?
“Well,” Dugdanov said, perking up. “We were all very surprised by winning the first game, 5-0.”