A Stranger in the Ural Mountains

Bobby Rahe follows a Bashkir legend across Bashkortostan

By / January 2015

For months after moving to Russia, I was intrigued by the Ural Mountains. The mountain range runs down the whole of Russia, from the Arctic Circle all the way into Kazakhstan. But my interest spiked, moved from passing fancy to something nearer obsession, when I first heard the story of Ural-Batyr, the legendary character from whom the mountains derive their name.

Ural-Batyr is an epic on the order Beowulf, the Iliad, or Gilgamesh. Originally a song, the story presents Ural-Batyr as a courageous defender of good who travels great distances on his white mount, Akbuzat, a winged horse or lion. Ural’s enemies are called devs, a sort of demon made flesh. He eventually defeats the leader of the devs, the giant Azraka, whose remains — and the remains of other defeated foes — form the southern portion of the Ural Mountains. Ural marries Humay and finds the Spring of Life, but refrains from drinking after receiving counsel from an old man who drank from the spring and would up yearning for death. After Ural-Batyr dies, he joins Azraka, his body forming the rest of the mountain range.

One morning, I hired a taxi to take me into the Southern Urals. I had been smothered with Russian language learning for six months in Ufa, the capital city of the Republic of Bashkortostan. A small-town guy with a hankering for adventure, I welcomed the chance to shake my urban environs and slip into the world of Ural-Batyr.

Taxis in Ufa tend to be caked in rust and dirt. So I was surprised when a white Nissan Altima pulled up, and equally surprised when we made a stop at the airport to pick up two more passengers. It was a new car, a clean car, but it was not large. The driver, Khasan, said he needed to fit in as many people as possible. The fair was cheap. For a six-hour journey, $20 a pop. I was not going to complain. I was riding shotgun. The other passengers leaned on each other in the backseat and slept.

Photograph by Bobby Rahe 2

As we headed toward the outskirts of the city and the sun began to peek over the distant mountaintops, I recalled the beginning of Ural-Batyr. As a boy, Ural captures a white swan named Humay. During the capture, the swan’s wing breaks and bleeds profusely. She begs for her life as Ural’s father sharpens his knife. So the swan pleads further, this time to young Ural. “My body was washed by water from the Spring of Life,” she says, “and my mother, the morning sun, shone upon me the rays of life everlasting. Let me go!”

Humay promises to take the family to the spring in exchange for Ural’s protection. But Humay breaks the promise. She manages to flap her one good wing and, as she does, three feathers fall from it. She dips them in her own blood and they turn into swans. Meanwhile, Humay transforms into a beautiful maiden. At her command, the swans carry her into the sky. Ural sets off to find the Spring of Life on his own.

The higher we steered into the mountains, the more snowpack covered the winding road. Since there was little exchange to be had with the sleepers in the back seat, I talked with Khasan. Khasan is Bashkir. He has black hair, light chestnut skin. I asked him how many times he travels over the mountains. “I’m not a taxi driver,” he said, “but a train engineer. I drive the taxi sometimes to make more money.” We took turns showing each other pictures of our kids on our phones.

About two hours into the drive, the road evened out as it followed the switch-backs of the Inzer River. We passed small villages dotted with wooden houses, worn tractors, and ragged split-rail fences. Cattle roamed free over the sparse patches of turf. There were old mosques, and the occasional Orthodox church. There were hastily built stands for selling honey. Bashkortostan is famous its honey. I wanted to pit, but Khasan was anxious to get down the road.

Khasan, however, did make a short stop in the village of Inzer, where a brick roadhouse awaited the weary travelers who milled about, stretching their legs. Inside the building was a Soviet-style mess hall, reminiscent of a middle school lunchroom, where guests could enjoy some of Bashkortostan’s traditional food, meat-filled bread pockets (pirozhak) and borscht, along with room-temperature bottles of Coca-Cola or blisteringly hot cups of tea. Luckily for Khasan, the roadhouse also had a bathroom, available for a thirty cent fee.

Ufa, our departure city, is a mix of ethnicities: Russia, Tatar, Ukrainian, Armenians, Germans, Azeris. But as we made a few more outhouse stops along the southern road, the people became almost exclusively Bashkir. We were passing from Europe into Asia. Most of the folks who worked at the roadside stops had lived there for generations. I was a foreigner, just as I was back in Ufa.

But I was in good company. “Brave man,” a chief says to Ural on his quest for the Spring of Life, “judging from the marvel, wherewith you look around you, from this lion you are riding, I believe you are a stranger.” I might not have been riding a lion, but, like Ural, my marveling was a dead give away as we ventured down the eastern side of the mountain. The sun, Humay’s mother, was setting now. The walls of snowy trees were giving way to the rolling hills and grasslands of Bashkortostan’s steppe.


Bobby Rahe is a writer living in Russia.