Saturday, 16 August 2014

Aug. 11-16: Kazan-Ufa-Berdyaush-Zyuratkul-Satka-Chelyabinsk-Yekaterinburg

During the 11-hour bus journey eastwards across Tatarstan the landscape - which had been uniformly flat since Nizhny Novgorod - started to become more hilly, and we started spotting signs of Russia's natural wealth dotted throughout the meadows: pumpjacks extracting petroleum from the earth. Eventually we reached Ufa, a city of 1.06 million and the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Despite being the capital of the homeland of the Bashkir ethnic group, the city's population is 49% Russian, 28% Tatar and just 17% Bashkir, as the Bashkirs - a predominantly Muslim group who speak a Turkic language closely related to Tatar and who dominated most of the southern Urals until the arrival of the Russian colonizers - are a largely rural people. Although Ufa's history goes back to the sixteenth century, and on paper it sounds like an enticingly exotic place, it is perhaps the ugliest Russian city we've been to yet, with no signs of historic architecture, due to the fact that it's an oil boom town that doubled in size in the latter half of the twentieth century. Our only really "exotic" experience was sampling kumys, a popular Bashkir drink made of fermented horse milk, which was frankly disgusting. The one interesting thing about Ufa is its layout, sprawled in some kind of star shape with two large rivers and, inexplicably, a sizeable expanse of forest, within the city limits.

After two nights in Ufa we took a morning train six hours eastwards to Berdyaush, a tiny railway town of 5,000 inhabitants nestled in the Urals, in Chelyabinsk Oblast. This place really felt like the end of the world, frozen in time. After buying some food from the town's two tiny shops, we got a taxi for about an hour to Zyuratkul, a large lake located in a national park of the same name. It was raining when we arrived, so we set up our tent as soon as possible and went almost straight to sleep. The next morning we opened our tent to see blue skies and a fantastic view across the lake to the peaks on the opposite bank. We spent three nights here, hiking through fields, forests and marshes and camping along the lakeside. Considering the Urals form the border between Europe and Asia, they're hardly an impressive mountain range, but our surroundings were beautiful nonetheless.

Yesterday morning we got up early, packed, hiked back to the national park's entrance and called a taxi to take us to Satka, still in Chelyabinsk Oblast. Satka is a reasonably large town of almost 50,000 and it seemed very attractive, sprawling through a valley along the banks of a couple of lakes, with lots of nice wooden houses and picturesque churches contrasting pleasingly with the mines and factories around its edges. It would've been nice to spend a day enjoying Satka but we had to push on: the taxi took us to the bus station, where we got on the first coach east to Chelyabinsk, the oblast's capital. During this journey we left the Urals and thus entered Asia. After four hours on the bus we were surprised to see ourselves entering a large city: we'd expected Chelyabinsk to be relatively small, but it turns out to have a population of 1.13 million. From the coach window it seemed like an interesting and attractive place - more so than Ufa, at least - but we spent all of fifteen minutes in the central bus station before getting on the next northbound coach to Yekaterinburg, as we don't have much time to spare!

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