I was surprised not to find Orenburg in the guidebooks such as Lonely Planet on Russia. Of course, it’s far from the main touristic routes and 900 away from the Trans-Siberian railway. But if you happen to get to the Southern Urals, Orenburg is certainly worth a visit. The city with about half a million population is unofficially called the Asian Capital of Russia. It was once the capital of Kirgiz Autonomous Soviet Socialistic Republic but in 1925 remained in Russia. In 1938-1957 the city was called Chkalov, named after a famous Russian pilot who had never lived in Orenburg.
Orenburg was built as a fortress on the Or river on the border of Russia with Kazakhstan in 1734. The city is proud of having over 100 nationalities living together in peace. The signs of international friendship can be seen everywhere. The most interesting site in the city is the so-called National Village. It’s a walking street with 10 houses-museums on both sides representing the culture and traditions of 10 major nationalities in Orenburg.
There you can enter a Ukrainian house with a straw roof, stay at the Tatars’ wooden home, relax in the Kazakh yurta, dance national dances with Belarusians or eat Bashkir chak-chak with honey. By the way each house-museum has a restaurant with national cuisine!
We really liked the Governor Museum, especially it’s room of the Sarmatians’ Gold.
In 1986 a group of students of the Bashkir University of Ufa found several burial kurgans (burial hills) 100km away from Orenburg. All the graves contained a lot of gold. One kurgan in particular was a grave of a rich Sarmatian female warrior. Golden coins and decoration made of pure gold were scattered all over the place. All the pieces date back to IV -II b.c. and are still in a very good condition.
The ornaments have mostly an Iranian influence. It’s still not clear whether the nomadic tribes of Sarmatians made them themselves or perhaps took them as trophies.
Although most of the findings are exhibited in the Academy of Science of Ufa, a part of the collection including the treasures of the rich woman’s grave, stayed in Orenburg. The museum guide told us that it’s not allowed to take photos in the room of Sarmatians’ Gold but on the second thought ‘it’s ok if you do it quickly’
What kind of a souvenir can one bring from Orenburg? All over Russia people know about famous Orenburg shawls. Finely knit shawls are also known as wedding ring shawls because even large ones are so fine they can be pulled through a wedding ring.
The shawls became famous in Russia in the 18th century when Russian aristocratic women noticed that local Tatar and Bashkir country women make beautiful and very warm shawls of the wool of native Orenburg goats. Due to the harsh climate in the Ural steppes the down hair of the goats is very thin soft and fine. Attempts to breed Orenburg goats in Europe ended in a fiasco as the animals need the climate of the Southern Urals.
Orenburg has numerous shops of shawls and all are hand-made, by the way!. Some stores are very fancy and look more like museums. In one of them we could even have a photo-session in traditional Russian costumes.
The prices of shawls vary from 1000rub to 50 000 depending on the size and art work. If a shawl is under 1000rub it’s more likely to be machine-made with synthetic wool.