How far to Ufa?
Text and photos Piers Gladstone
Ufa greeted me at 5 AM in the morning with darkness, a cold autumnal air and a thin but constant drizzle – a metaphor for my feelings as I stepped down onto the platform. Due to a logistical mix-up I was to spend 2 days here waiting for my travelling companions. Hotel Bashkortostan looked regal and well-lit, but was fully booked. So was the slightly less charming Hotel Agidel. By 6 AM my driver had exhausted all central hotel options and I found myself at Sanatorium Zelyoni, a long way from anywhere, past caring and just wanting a bed.
Morning revealed both pleasant grounds with autumnal trees and my fellow sanatorium-goers: old men with smouldering cigarettes in their mouths and medals pinned to their faded jackets, doddery old babushkas, pregnant women and an assortment of ill-looking patient-guests. I resolved to leave for the center as quickly as possible.
Ufa is the capital of the proudly autonomous Bashkortostan Republic, in the mineral rich Ural Mountains, the geographical border that separates Europe and Asia. Ufa is deceptively large, as my 20-minute mashrutka bus ride into town illustrated, as did the fact that, like many other Russian cities, a construction boom is currently under way. The historic center, though, is just small enough to wander round by foot and is easy to navigate due to its being laid out in a grid system.
The 19th century trading arches on Ulitsa Lenina are one of the central focuses of Ufa. Recently renovated, the arches have been given a roof and now resemble a mini-mall. Inside, small shops and boutiques nestle in the arches, and kiosks are dotted around the floor, the majority representing two national obsessions, cosmetics and mobile phones. A small traditional yurt sells traditional Bashkiri souvenirs, the mother and daughter behind the counter both wearing headscarves, a reminder that Bashkortostan is a Muslim republic.
In front of the arches is a fountain-adorned square where the young of the city hang out – Ufa is a university city, lending it a youthful and vibrant atmosphere. A beautiful and recently refurbished Russian Moderne (Art Nouveau) building looks down over them, while on the other side of the square men grill shashlik in the beer tents.
A couple of streets away, on Sovietskaya Ulitsa, stands another beautiful example of Russian Moderne architecture, now housing the National Museum of Bashkortostan. Downstairs is a fairly uninteresting collection of rooms with stuffed squirrels and ducks, plus bears and wolves. The upstairs, though, is fascinating. One room has a wonderful display of old black & white photographs of the city and various Ufa personages. Another is dedicated to the Revolution, complete with a large Socialist Realist oil-painting depicting oil bursting from a well, with people of all nations cheering and clapping, men embracing each other while others throw their caps in the air, and in the foreground stand women in veils alongside a camel - idyllically inclusive. My favorite room, however, was the one dedicated to war and the battles fought in this region. Most of the paintings used to illustrate this section were painted by Russian artists, and so the Muslim Bashkiris are depicted either as devilish or thief-like (unlike the good, clean Russian soldiers), or as noble savages, no doubt influenced by romanticized portrayals by writers of the time such as Lermentov.
Dinner at ShinokSolokha Restaurant on Kommumisticheskaya Ulitsa provided me with perhaps the best cooking I have had in Russia (albeit Ukrainian food!). The restaurant has a rustic theme, and the waiters and waitresses all wear traditional Ukrainian national costume. The menu is extensive, utterly delicious, and ridiculously cheap. The highlight of the evening was when I used the toilet. Attached to the wall above each urinal sits a soft and cushioned leather headrest, presumably for the welloiled diner to rest his drunken head in comfort while relieving himself.
Driving across town in a taxi the following morning I realised that Ufa, like many other regional Russian cities, feels vastly under-populated. The grand central boulevards and monumental buildings of the center, predominantly from the Soviet era, seem almost bereft of life. The beautiful (and huge) theater with its Islamic inscriptions is a perfect example - nobody in it or around it. However, there was life at some kind of military skirmish overlooking the road, and I asked my driver to let me out. A military brass band was rehearsing while a small troupe of ceremoniously uniformed soldiers was practicing goose-stepping up to the memorial to lay a wreath, all the while being directed in their movements by their commander. “Luzhkov is coming here with our President later today,” one man informed me, while a small army of women with wet rags wiped down the marble surfaces. “President Rakhimov has been our president for 20 years. He is a good and honourable man and gives his blood to this republic,” he added. Rakhimov is certainly giving money to the city. Municipal projects seem to be underway all over it, a brand-spanking new railway station is nearing completion, and in the shiny green and blue glass, ultra-modern design of the People’s Friendship Palace (with an Islamic twist) and the surrounding parkland area, a vision of Ufa’s future is appearing.
One hundred meters from the almost-complete and Dubai-like People’s Friendship Palace stands Ufa’s most iconic and truly impressive monument. A huge statute of the 18th century Bashkir hero, Salavat Yulaev, astride a rearing horse, faces out from a promontory over the Belaya River and the forested landscape that spreads to the horizon. The river is a golden path in the low-lying and fading sun. The majority of people are not by the monument however, but by the nearby and newly finished fountains that, with a great swoosh, are turned on for the first time.
While modernity and its architecture is rising in Ufa, much of its history remains, and is well looked after. There are whole streets of traditional wooden izbas, with their delicate latticed window frames and eaves, all in good repair. And at 45 Krupskoy Ulitsa, also known as the Lenin Museum, one old wooden clapboard house, set in a small garden, has held out on its own against the tide of newly built bank headquarters. The street is named after Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, who lived here for several years while her husband was abroad. Lenin himself only stayed here for 3 weeks, while waiting for a boat to Pskov. The main room of the house is crammed with Lenin memorabilia: statues, busts, paintings et al, all of which the guardian of the house enthusiastically explains. However, it is really only in the cramped living quarters upstairs that one gets a sense of the man himself, at his desk, with his books and papers.
Ufa makes a calm, pleasant and interesting comparison to Moscow. People smile, cars let pedestrians cross the street, it is clean and there is a palpable sense of genuine progress. With a journey time of less than 2 hours, it is an ideal place to spend a weekend or to use as a base to explore the nature of the surrounding countryside.
Both Aeroflot and S7 fly direct to Ufa.
The four star Hotel Bashkortostan (34 72 790 000) is the best hotel in town and the rooms are very reasonably priced.