Lively escapade to a honeypot of Russian culture

Lori Images, Legion Media
Ufa is the main city in the Republic of Baskortostan, named for the Bashkirs, the main ethnic group indigenous to the area. Formerly a semi-nomadic people whose cultural influences result as much from their interaction with Central Asia as Moscow, Bashkir hospitality ranks among the best to be found anywhere in Russia.

Ufa was founded in 1574 on the orders of Ivan the Terrible as a fortress to defend the southwestern territory of the Russian Empire from outside incursions. It was one of the major sites of Pugachev’s rebellion (1773-1775), a peasant uprising against the Russian state fomented by a discontented former army Lieutenant. The city and fortress were under siege for months in 1773-1774 by native and Cossack insurgents. Proclaiming an end to serfdom, the rebellion was eventually crushed by Imperial forces that acted to solidify the power of Catherine the Great early in her reign. Yemelyan Pugachev, instigator of the rebellion, was executed in 1775.

In 1802 Ufa was declared a regional capital and Scottish architect William Heste, who had designed a number of St. Petersburg’s bridges, developed a general plan for the city center in the early 1800s. Industrial improvements in the late 1800s, including the opening of the railway in 1890, connected Ufa with the rest of the Russian Empire.

On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Ufa had grown to 100,000 people. During the Russian Civil War Ufa was briefly held by White forces and for a short period was the capital of the Provisional All-Russian Government, a short-lived anti-Bolshevik union. The city underwent a rapid period of industrialization in the 1920s-1930s and oil was discovered nearby, leading it to becoming a center for oil extraction and refinement. During World War II, many industrial enterprises were temporarily relocated to Ufa.

Bashkortostan, like its better known neighbor to the west, Tatarstan, is a multiethnic and multi-faith republic whose peoples have co-existed peacefully for centuries and many mosques and Orthodox churches dot Ufa’s skyline. The most prominent mosque is Lyalya Tulpan located 13 km from the center in Park Pobedy. Completed in 1998, it features twinned minarets that reach a height of 53 meters, the third tallest in Russia. President Vladimir Putin attended a summit with Muslim leaders here in 2001.

The Rozhdestvo-Bogorodistky Church is the largest in Ufa. Painted in a baby blue color, this church’s bell tower reaches 47 meters into the sky. Built at the end of the 19th century, it managed to serve as a functioning house of worship until 1934 (while also serving as a hospital), and from the 1950s until 1991 it was a cinema. The territory was handed back to the Orthodox Church in 1991 and a massive reconstruction effort began, lasting 15 years. Today the church can hold several thousand people simultaneously.

Ufa has a charming Gostiny Dvor located on Lenina street  in the very center of town. A well-preserved Soviet-era shopping arcade, it is surrounded by beer gardens in the neighboring park, which is where the whole town seems to congregate on balmy evenings. Inside, handcrafted souvenirs can be purchased at stalls from extraordinarily honest salespeople. For example, I dropped a magnet that I purchased and went back to purchase another, and it was replaced for free. “I’ll just tell them it arrived damaged,” a traditionally dressed Bashkir woman told me.

Another good place to pick up souvenirs and local handicrafts is at the Ufa Art Gallery at Revolyutsionnaya 34.

Also at Gostiny Dvor is the Soviet retro café, Kukhnya (Kitchen), located in a basement at Verkhnetorgovaya Pl. 1 at Pushkinsky Ryad. Featuring Bashkir, Russian and European dishes and a wonderful staff, it tries and largely succeeds at creating a Soviet era café of the 1960s and 1970s.

The main symbol of Ufa and Bashkortostan is the monument to Salavat Yulayev, the local insurrectionary leader of Pugachev’s rebellion and one of the instigators of Bashkir ethnic consciousness. Captured in late 1774, he was given a life prison sentence. Branded and sent in chains along with his father to Paldiski, a port in present-day Estonia, Yulyayev died in captivity in 1800. Located on a hill overlooking the Belaya River, this monument is prominently featured in Ufa souvenirs and regional prizes, a town and the local KHL hockey team are all named in his honor. Located nearby is the Congress Hall of Bashkortostan, an expo and business center, featuring a museum, concert venue, Bashkir restaurant and a large shopping center.

The Belaya River slices the town into pieces and winds its way through much of the Republic. On the weekends, couples and families go for walks along its banks, or stop for a snack at one of its many summer cafes. It intersects with the Ufa River near downtown, ensuring that residents are rarely more than a few steps from the water. There are many opportunities to take boat cruises and most leave from the Monument to Friendship (Monument druzhby) built in honor of the 400-year union of Bashkortostan and Russia. Boat schedules can be found here.

Ufa is a fabled city on Russia’s rock n’ roll trail as it is where Yuri Shevchuk, leader of rock band DDT grew up and is the birthplace of Zemfira, a famous Russian-Tatar singer.

Shevchuk was reared in the center at Lenina street, 43 in apartment 9. This dissident rocker first made noise in the 8th grade when he was detained by the police after writing “Jesus was a Hippie” on a T-shirt. He has glorified the city in a number of his songs with odes to the Belaya River and Bashkirsky myod (local honey), as well as a song called My iz Ufy (We are From Ufa) , with lyrics in Russian, English and Bashkir. Frequently in trouble with the local Soviet authorities in the 1970s, he is now an oft-honored guest.

Zemfira, who was one of the city’s leading female basketball players before turning to music, grew up at the city’s edge at Admirala Ushakova street 64. Diehards should hire a car as it is very far from the center. However, the few that make the pilgrimage will be treated to a living museum to functional Soviet architecture, passing atmospheric squares, two-story workers’ abodes, and an enormous farmer’s market. Little has been touched in this area.

Additionally, Ufa is also significant in the annals of Russian literature. Celebrated writer Sergey Dovlatov was born in Ufa after his family was evacuated from Leningrad during World War II. One of the major samizdat writers in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, he spent the last 11 years of his life in New York where he died in 1990. Born in 1941, he spent his first three years at  Gogloya street 56  apartment 20.

Sergey Aksakov, a friend of Turgenev and Tolstoy and an early proponent of Gogol, was born in Ufa in 1791. Mostly known for his tales of family life, he spent his first few years along the banks of the River Belaya. Today, this house, a preserved example of 18th century wooden architecture common in the area, survives as a museum to the author. (Z. Rasuleva street 4).

But, other luminaries have made Ufa their stomping grounds as well, including Vladimir Lenin, who visited Ufa on two separate occasions and whose visits to this day are documented in a museum. Located at Dostoevskogo 78, this is near where Lenin and his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya spent nearly three weeks in June 1900. There is also an exhibit with photos of old Ufa on display.

Bashkortostan is famed for its honey. While it can be found in almost any supermarket in the country, prices are signicantly lower here. Most kinds of honey are celebrated, but the white or linden honey (lipovy myod) is especially prized. A good location for purchasing honey is the bottom floor of the Tsentralny Rynok located at Tsyurupy 97. There is also a cheap Bashkir cafeteria called Ashtau on the top floor at the food court.

Two other places to try Bashkir food are Idel’ (Mendeleeva 137) or at any of the Pyshka cafeterias around town. For a quick and fresh Turkish meal, stop by Evren at Lenina street 16, a popular lunch time spot with a patio out back.

There is an excellent Uzbek restaurant, aptly named Uzbechka, at Tsyurupy 27 run by transplants from Tashkent. For pub food, cross the street to Pub Watson at Tsyurupy 42. For a fun night out, head to Scottish-themed McHighlander, where young Russian waitstaff wear kilts, an unusual reminder of Ufa’s Scottish roots (at least in terms of its first city planner). It is located at Ul. Karla Marksa 24/1.

There is much to do outside of Ufa and ecotourism is on the rise in the Republic. Lake Asylykul is the largest lake in the Republic and a popular summer destination. It is located approximately two hours from Ufa. Cave-spelunking and river rafting are other activities enjoyed by tourists. The company Otdykh v derevne can arrange a variety of activities including rafting tours, fishing and hunting excursions, as well as visits to ethnic villages. Most of their tours seem to culminate with a visit to a Russian sauna.

How to get there
Many airlines fly to Ufa from Moscow including UTAir, S7 and Aeroflot. Flights leave from all three airports and take approximately 1 hr and 40 minutes. Several companies fly from St. Petersburg as well, in addition to many other large cities in Russia. Buses 101 and 110 connect the city and the airport. There are approximately five trains a day to Ufa from Moscow, all leaving from Kazan train station, with the journey taking between 24-30 hours.

Where to stay
A new and affordable business hotel can be found at the Iremel Hotel at Ul. Mendeleeva 141/2. Opened in 2009, it features a Serbian grill restaurant on the premises. Room prices strart from 3700 RUR. A more central option is the Bashkortostan located at Ul. Lenina 25/29. Room prices start from 3700 RUR.

For further viewing:
Belaya Reka by group DDT

Paris Hilton in Ufa

Some say that Ufa is the epicenter of R&B in Russia

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