Gem rush, miners’ mythology, the execution of the Romanovs, the rise of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, and legendary gangster feuds of the 1990s – Yekaterinburg is not only Russia's forth-largest city, it is like a piece of conceptual art with a fascinating historical sub-text.
Ufa is the capital of the autonomous republic of Bashkortostan (Республика Башкортостан), home of the Bashkirs, a Muslim Turkic people who dominated most of the southern Ural Mountains before Russian colonisation. Although they’re only a third of the republic’s population, you can hear their lispy language spoken on the streets of Ufa, in rural areas and on the radio.
Kungur's rundown appearance belies a skyline graced by a multitude of pretty church cupolas, including the 18th-century Tikhvinskaya Church in the centre and the Transfiguration Church on the other bank of the Sylva. The frozen magic of its ice cave, however, is the main attraction, drawing a stream of curious visitors.
Zyuratkul National Park
This very remote and quietly beautiful part of the Urals, unspoiled by industry and urbanisation, is only beginning to be explored by travellers. It’s great for hiking – if you climb the Zyuratkul range, swim in a lake, go to a banya (hot bath) and sleep in a log house, you may wake up and feel rather like Henry Thoreau at Walden Pond.
Nizhnyaya Sinyachikha & Around
The pretty village of Nizhnyaya Sinyachikha, about 150km northeast of Yekaterinburg and 12km north of the town of Alapaevsk, is home to an open-air Architecture Museum. Here there are 15 traditional Siberian log buildings, featuring displays of period furniture, tools and domestic articles.
Nevyansk & Around
The small town of Nevyansk is in the heart of the former patrimony of the Demidovs, a family of industrialists who effectively controlled much of the Ural Mountains and who received Peter I’s blessing to develop the region. At their most decadent stage, they bought the Italian feudal title of Count San-Donato.
The highly industrial city of Magnitogorsk is of limited interest to travellers, but once you leave it you enter eastern Bashkortostan and the southern Ural Mountains, a region where picture-perfect birch groves and large blue lakes fill depressions between gentle grass-covered hills and the mountain ranges.