This winter my colleagues, the guides of Yekaterinburg and I decided to explore the Southern Urals to see its touristic potential. Within 6 days we covered over 3000km by car, visited 3 regions of Russia populated by over 100 nationalities: Chelyabinsk Region, Orenburg Region and the Republic of Bashkortostan. Almost every day we were crossing the border of Europe and Asia, got into a severe blizzard in Step and drove through the thickest fog I’ve ever seen along the river of Ural. The temperatures in January varied from – 25 in the mountains to -7 Celsius in the step areas.
This story is about the Republic of Bashkortostan.
As the roads get broader and better, the road signs are written in two languages and the music stations play ethnic songs in Bashkir, you immediately understand where you are. Bashkortostan is a small autonomous republic with around 30% of native population. In the course of Russian history Bashkirs were with or against Russians, therefore the Tsars considered them unreliable and they were not recruited in the Tsar’s army. But Russian Empire needed their lands full of mineral recourses and black oil besides the geographical position was important to protect the country in the South from Kyrgyz Kaganat (that was the name of the Central Asian and Southern Siberian lands before they were divided into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan end others)
Bashkirs don’t like it when Russians say that they are similar to Tatars. Although both are Muslims and their languages of Turkic origin are similar, Tatars have always been traders while Bashkirs have been good hunters. Living in the Ural mountains in dense forests they developed the knowledge of using wild nature for their needs, wild bees in particular.
When in Bashkortostan (though Russians would say Bashkiria) you should definitely go to a local market. Amidst stalls with horse meat and dairy products made of horse milk one corner of the market is always full of famous Bashkir honey. Back in the days people took honey from hives of wild bees. Nowadays it’s almost a national tradition of having bees and making honey. So, as you understand honey is the main souvenir that you can bring from Bashkortostan.
We skipped Ufa – the capital of Bashkortostan. It’s certainly worth a visit especially in summer time. But since our destination was Orenburg, we stopped in Sterlitamak, the second largest city of the Republic.
A former merchants town mainly inhabited by Tatars because they know how to trade, as you remember, today Strelitamak is a typical Ural Soviet-looking industrial city with a few old buildings in the center. Mosques and Orthodox churches alternate as you drive through the city. For over 300 years people have learnt how to live in peace and tolerance here.
As we came to Bashkortostan on the eve of Epiphany Day (January 19th) we decided to visit Tabynsk – a resort with mineral springs not far from Sterlitamak. It also has a small convent with a famous Tabynsk icon of Our Lady. The icon dates back to X-XI century and it was found next to the mineral spring in the 1570s. Surely, then the spring became holy and hundreds of people come to Tabynsk to dive there on the Epiphany Day.
The man in the pool said that the water was warm. +4C compared to – 20 outside, of course it was warm enough but we were not ready for a swim. Besides, that evening we had to be in Orenburg. The last 250km were very difficult as the roads along the Belaya river were covered in the thickest fog I’ve ever seen. It took us 5 hours instead of 3 but we made it to Orenburg safely though the following day there were reports about many car accidents and 3 lethal ones in the vicinities of Strelitamak.