Orenburzhye - the Heart of Eurasia! Forgotten Steppe Region of Russia Experiencing a Renaissance!
Orenburzhye, the Heart of Eurasia. Special Report by Maria Gladkikh
We've arrived in Orenburg. It's where the Orenburg Shawl comes from. But in such weather, we won't need a shawl. Summer is really hot, 95°F. Orenburzhye is called the sunniest region of Russia. But how have the local climate patterns affected the regional economy? What attracts business people to the region?
We'll cover it all. We'll cast bullets that aren't fired but are in the top 10 export products.
«It underwent a temperature of 3,600°F in the furnace».
We'll have a steppe safari and see the efforts to preserve the Przewalski's horse.
«They're fighting! Well, that's how mares compete for dominance».
We'll find out how a unique plant, which is unparalleled in Europe, produces the «sun gas» and why the future lies with it, and where in Orenburg you can get an irresistible offer.
Our business trip starts with the regional air gate. Next year, Orenburg Airport will turn 90 years old. It serves flights on 14 domestic and international destinations. Over 200,000 passengers have used it since the beginning of the year. It has comfortable lounge areas, cafes, a business lounge. And if your flight is delayed, you can visit the civil aviation museum.
First, we were on a real plane, now we're in a museum piece. There are five planes and a helicopter in the museum. You can easily go into them and see what's inside. The museum is open from Monday to Friday, admission free. These museum pieces used to be operational. This fancy plane also known as the Tupolyonok (a nickname for the Tu-134A) is the loudest plane in the world. Now, modern Boeing planes have all systems automated. But there used to be a special person, a navigator, who crawled to his workplace like that. They controlled the flight path. They placed their legs like that, and saw the whole route underneath.
The airport is 12 miles from Orenburg. It took us 30 minutes by car to get to the historic downtown. Orenburg is a young city, it's only 276 years old. It's the only Russian city that was founded on the third attempt as they couldn't find the right place for it. Finally, they did.
In 1938, Orenburg was renamed Chkalov. It returned to its historic name in 1957.
Orenburzhye is called the heart of Eurasia for a reason. It's practically the Russian Istanbul, a city which is also situated in both Europe and Asia. You can use the world's shortest cable car to go from one part of the world to the other. From a height of 100 feet, one can get a good view of the city's downtown. It's densely populated with houses and Stalin-project low-rise buildings. Modern apartment blocks are actively being built too. There's a demand for housing. The city's population rises every year.
For example, Denis Pasler has come to Orenburg from Sverdlovsk Oblast to live and work here. He's been the acting governor of Orenburg Oblast for the past three months.
— How would you assess what you inherited as governor?
Denis Pasler, acting governor of Orenburg Oblast: Of course, there are always some issues, and Orenburg Oblast is no exception. There are issues with kindergartens, healthcare. But there are two major issues: the lack of jobs and people's incomes. So, I'll basically focus on addressing these issues.
— How are the national projects going?
— This year, 15.2 billion rubles have been allocated to the national projects. 19 kindergartens are being constructed in the region. It's an unprecedented number. It also refers to schools. The road construction industry has grown by 35%. While last year, about 7.2 billion rubles ($114 million) were earmarked for it, this year, 10.5-11 billion ($114 million) have been allocated for road construction. Residents of Orenburg should feel the difference.
They’ve already felt it. Thus, according to the Safe and High-Quality Roads in Orenburg national project, 24 facilities are being constructed now in Orenburzhye. A total of 155 miles of roads is expected to be fixed in 2019. Roads in Novotroitsk also fall under the project. It's a big industrial center with over 20 big and medium-sized businesses. The major industries are chemical and iron & steel. By the way, it's metallurgical production that dominates the region's economy. It accounts for 13.2% of overall production.
One of the leading companies of not only the regional, but also the national industry, is Ural Steel, incorporated by the Metalloinvest company. The enterprise specializes in cast-iron production, stock steel, and flat stock. It exports its products all around the world. Last year, the company's dispatched output totaled over 99 billion rubles ($1.6 billion). When the enterprise is upgraded, the figures will only rise.
Denis Pasler: “6-7 billion (about $100 million) this year, 11 billion ($175 million) next year; about 17 billion ($270 million) in 2022,. This is the investment in the upgrading of the plant. In fact, it's one of our biggest employers.”
There have been increasingly more such big employers in Novotroitsk. In 2017, the city became the first Priority Social and Economic Development Area in the region, meaning that it's profitable to build new enterprises as the residents of the Area enjoy zero profit and property tax rates during the first five years. Let's see how it works.
We've arrived at a new but unique NSplav plant. Let's see what's so special about them. (Safety measures come first!) As much as half a billion rubles were invested in the enterprise in 2016. Now its product is indispensable for the aerospace and nuclear industries, and even for stomatology.
Alexey Sharygin, NSplav general director: “We produce highly refined chromium, which is further used for alloying.”
These bullets have over 99% of purified chromium. This unique product helps create high-temperature metals. There are four similar enterprises in China, Japan, France, and Great Britain, but NSplav is the only plant that managed to fit the cyclical turnaround into a single processing chain from processing ore to the final product.
Alexey Sharygin: The capacity of our plant is 500 tons per year.
— 500 tons?
— Yes. The world's overall consumption is 4,000 tons per year.
95% of the final product is exported to Europe, Asia, and the USA.
Alexey Sharygin: “While we sold 24 tons of the final product in 2017, when we had barely started the business, 180 tons in 2018, we sold 160 tons in the first quarter of 2019!”
The dynamics are obvious, and sales will only rise. Over a billion rubles ($16 million) will have been invested in the enterprise by 2021.
Besides, NSplav was created thanks to another major player on the chemical and metallurgical market. We're going there now. The Novotroitsk Plant of Chromium Compounds was founded over half a century ago. However, its production is still in demand in the radio-electronics, metallurgical, fur, and aerospace industries. Last year, the plant's output was the largest of all the enterprises in this field.
Artem Zharko, Novotroitsk Plant of Chromium Compounds deputy general director: «Last year, we paid a total of 1.514 billion rubles ($24 million) in taxes to budgets on all levels. So, we're a major taxpayer in Orenburg Oblast, given the amount of taxes we paid. The company's revenue is now about 10 billion ($160 million)».
Such successful performances by Novotroitsk businesses stem from big investments.
Artem Zharko: “The production upgrades started in 1993. Since then, we've grown to be twice as large. I mean, our territory has increased as well as the number of shops. We've introduced new production technologies.”
Moreover, they’ve installed and upgraded an air filtration system to ensure fresh air for the residents of Novotroitsk.
Actually, there's a place in Orenburzhye where you take a deep breath, and we're going there. We've arrived in the city of Sol-Iletsk. Have you heard about this resort? It's on the top 10 list of Russia's most popular resorts, lagging behind the Black Sea. Over 1.5 million people come here annually. Look! We're literally walking on salt! The water has a concentration of 324 grams of salt per liter, which is more than the Dead Sea in Israel. Today, the resort has seven lakes with that unique water chemistry.
Alexey Abdrakhmanov, Sol-Iletsk medical center: «If you grab a handful of this water, your hands will turn white after some time because of the high concentration of salt. The lake consists of sodium chloride by 99.9%. Those who spend 10-15 days here increasingly rarely fall ill during the year. Some never fall ill at all. That's why people come here».
It's planned to transform Sol-Iletsk into an all-Russian health resort to attract even more people. The construction of the Salt Lake cluster is underway.
Denis Pasler: “Now, the heart of this facility is being built. It's a sanatorium. It's quite a big one, over four billion rubles have been invested into it. It's supposed to and will be very modern.”
Construction is planned to be completed by 2020. By the way, part of the complex will base on the convalescent center, which has worked here for 40 years. The center successfully treats multiple diseases with the local product.
Alexey Abdrakhmanov: “It's high-mineralized sulphuric mud with a salt concentration of over 200 grams per liter, which makes it biologically valuable.”
It also has unique medical equipment even space equipment.
Alexey Abdrakhmanov: “This is gravity therapy. The device is called the SIS301. It was made by a defense plant located in Samara. It's Russian technology. It's used to treat herniated nucleus pulposus. So, the gravity stretches the spine and hernia. “
This is how it actually works. Oh my! It rotates fast with a person inside. Now I see why it's called a whirligig. The center also has cold, magnetic, and electric current therapies. Every patient gets an individual program. Most importantly, one may be treated here for free.
Sol-Iletsk isn't only a resort, but also one of the largest top-class salt deposits, which is 270 years old! It's all the heritage of an ancient sea, and experts believe that the stock will last for 20 generations.
There aren't only salty lakes here. We're going to White Lake. It's said to be very tasty but perishable. The White Lake milk factory produces 10 tons of milk per day. It was a conscious decision to have such a small production. The factory filled the niche of low-cost perishable foods. It takes one hour for the milk to go from milking to processing.
Ruslan Sagitov, general director of the White Lake milk factory: «First comes heat processing to kill the microbes and make the milk safer. Then, if it's ordinary milk, it gets packed».
The factory produces cheese, butter, and dairy products other than milk. It recently invented a yogurt that is very good for health, which was confirmed by the Pirogov Research Medical University. The factory has its own lab to control and improve the quality of products, making dairy products thicker than the competitors' without any chemical additives.
Ruslan Sagitov: «Multiple experiments revealed that by mixing various ferments from Russian, Danish, and Italian producers, we get the needed thickness».
The region is also considered promising for foreign investors. There's the Russian-Italian OrenBeef meat-processing factory. €50 million was invested in the project. One shift processes over 120 tons of meat. Part of the production is used to make patties for a famous fast-food restaurant.
Kurra Marino, OrenBeef CEO: «We thoroughly analyzed the market before launching production here. Agriculture has always been successful here. There has always been a lot of cattle. Moreover, economically, Orenburzhye is very well located. It's near the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan».
The factory produces about 19,000 tons of meat per year, which is supplied to 22 Russian regions and exported abroad.
Marina Zakopaeva, senior quality officer, OrenBeef: We're now working with Angola, Vietnam, and Hong-Kong.
— Do tastes differ according to the country?
— Yes, tastes differ. For example, Angola, Vietnam, and Hong-Kong purchase by-products that aren't in-demand in Russia. For example, tripe isn't so popular in Russia. It's actually the stomach.
— Russians like meat more.
— Yeah, Russian like beef more.
— Indeed, Russians prefer steaks.
Italian investors are planning to create their own dryfeed lot for 5,000 head near the factory. It is supposed to be launched in 2020.
In Orenburg Oblast, almost 300 days of the year are sunny. The region took advantage of this resource too, creating the largest solar power plant in Russia. This solar plant produces 45 MW. It's as big as 145 soccer fields. It actually covers 227 acres and consists of 150,000 solar panels made in Russia. It's output is enough to save 40,000 tons of fuel, which equals 500 tank cars with heating oil.
Oleg Yakhnitsky, Orenburg solar plant: This is the control room, the so-called working station. The screens show where the energy goes. And this screen shows our output. So, now it's almost 7 p.m., but we're still producing 7 MW.
— Because it's sunny here day and night!
Orenburg Oblast doesn't get free energy only from the sun. These are the Orenburg windmills. There is steppe for miles around, the wind isn't strong but continuous. Now the windmills produce energy day and night and then distribute it.
We're now at the helium plant, which is unique both in Russia and Europe. The «sun gas» was first produced here over 40 years ago. The plant has annually produced five million cubic meters of helium ever since. This is enough to fill over 22 million balloons. But helium is primarily needed for hi-tech.
— Is helium in demand? As you might guess, most people believe that helium is only used in balloons.
Sergey Molchanov, Gazprom Orenburg helium refinery general director: Well, I think it's mainly needed in medicine, MRIs; computer equipment, and, last but not least, space exploration, meaning Mars and Moon projects.
— So, it's all about the future.
— Well, I'd say the future lies in it.
Helium is a profitable export article. About two million of the extracted gas is for the domestic market, while the rest is exported. The main customers are Italy, Austria, Germany, and France. Actually, Western European countries want to buy liquid helium, not gas, as it's easier to transport. By the way, the large hadron collider was filled with Orenburg helium. The plant doesn't only produce the «sun gas».
Rustam Khabibulin, Gazprom Orenburg helium refinery: “We get nitrogen and oxygen from the air. We use nitrogen in technological process. Oxygen is actually a by-product, but it's in high demand.”
Oxygen is widely used in medicine, including in the biggest regional hospital. We've arrived at the regional perinatal center. It's not only the best in the region, but one of the best in the country. It was opened in 2016 based on the regional hospital. Over 2.5 billion rubles ($40 million) were invested in the construction and equipment. It's the ninth center in the country which carries out unique pre-natal surgeries.
Alfia Sidorova, Orenburg regional hospital: «Child-birth alone was boring for us, and we started to introduce hi-tech. When we detect a congenital anomaly in an unborn baby, it undergoes pre-natal surgery».
Since the beginning of the year, over 50 such surgeries worth tens of thousands of rubles have been conducted. They are all state-funded.
One of the most complicated sections of the center is the intensive-care department. It nurses babies with extremely low birth weight. One of the babies weighed only one pound.
Pavel Vladimirov, head of the intensive-care department: «The department has modern nursing equipment, artificial respiration units, incubation apparatuses, gravity systems, monitoring equipment, and screens».
This center can host 170 patients. All expectant mothers in the region are admitted here. Some are taken here urgently.
Telehealth is developing too.
«She goes to a third-level ward for planned childbirth».
Igor Vekker, deputy chief doctor: Thanks to the perinatal center, the regional obstetrical body works as a single system with the help of telehealth communications. To date, doctors in remote areas don't feel lonely. If some major complication occurs, which threatens the life of a mother or baby, they can call the perinatal center at any time of day or night, and we evacuate patients.
— Is every woman admitted here?
— It was actually created to provide help to all who need it.
The next stop of our business trip is the steppe. We're going to the Orenburg Nature Reserve. I hope we'll be lucky enough to see the Przewalski's horse in the wild.
«Hey! Hey! Hey, my children! My children! Come here! Hey! Sweethearts, come here!»
This is an amazing place. I'm not speaking loudly because we're approaching wild horses that live in the wild, just like they're supposed to live. There are about 2,000 Przewalski's horses left in the world.
Tatyana Zharkikh, head of the Przewalski's horses reintroduction center: «This is the only free-ranging population of wild horses in Russia. They were brought here from Hungary in 2016 to be released from the environmental enclosure the following year. We've been following them ever since».
A total of 37 horses live on 40 acres of steppe. Not only scientific work is advancing here, but also tourism. Over 1,000 guests arrived here for the Day of the Steppe.
Tatyana Zharkikh: «People enjoy watching the animals closely. They are calm, relaxed, they've never seen evil people. That's why they trust us».
Naturally, we couldn't help but find out how is the number one brand of Orenburg Oblast. This warm symbol of Orenburzhye used to be handmade. But with the rise of technology, it's Japanese machines that make the Russian brand.
Maria Pekhteryova, designer and technologist: «It's fully automated. It can create patterns of any complexity, complying with the traditions of the Orenburg Shawl».
It takes from 40 minutes to 2.5 hours to make a shawl. If it were handmade, it would take 5-6 days of continuous work.
Fariza Uzyakova, seamstress: This is the test desk. What your eye can't see can be easily detected on the glass.
— Is this a flaw?
— Yes, it is.
— What do you do then? There's a hole. What do you do?
— We unsew it.
After the test desk, the shawls go into a washing machine, and then to a dryer to hang there for 24 hours.
— So, while some shawls are drying, there's some exclusive, right?
Fariza Uzyakova, seamstress:
— Yes, we have exclusive shawls. They are customized, of any complexity.
— There are two?
— Yes, with every pattern.
— Oh my! Look! It's the national emblem. So, you can sew anything?
— Well, I guess so.
— A portrait? A self-portrait? Nature?
— Yes, whatever you want.
— Whatever you want! Can I try on this Orenburg Shawl, please?
— Perhaps, it's bad manners, but I just can't help it!
— Is it soft?
— Yes! Vanya! Yes! I will… I will check if our Orenburg Shawl is authentic. Hello.
— So, how are we going to test what we're buying?
— Like a web…
— With the traditional method?
— You still use it!
— Paradoxically, the production is fully automated, but the product is still tested with a ring! How come? Do you think it will pass?
— Yes. Let's try.
— It won't tear?
Fariza Uzyakova, seamstress:
— So, shall I wrap it up?
The mill also produces textiles. The Italian machines make socks, hats, mittens, and modern clothes. Total investment amounts to $5 million.
Vasily Kholzakov, head of the textile mill: “We got interested in the mill in 2001. At first, it had all the space of what is now the Orenburg Shawl industrial estate. We made it 50 times smaller. The production volume remains the same. To date, we produce about 100,000 shawls per year.”
Orenburzhye is as big as Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Denmark put together. It's a huge territory with over 3,000 enterprises.
Denis Pasler, acting governor of Orenburg Oblast: Of course, Orenburg Oblast has something to be proud of. There are good employees and shrewd leaders. There are future-oriented leaders who understand the market well and know what to improve, how to progress.
— What would you like to do for Orenburg Oblast?
I want people to live here, the city to be developed, wages to be high. We attracted investors to work here. Actually, there's nothing new in these challenges. But this is our main goal, and I want to achieve it.