There is too much to say about our trip to Siberia and writing stories about travel is time-consuming. So here is the best I can offer without dedicating too much time to a full blown story. However I will add to this once I am back home.
Before you read on its important to understand that shooting from a helicopter is a challenge due to all the reflections. The videos and photographs do not do Altai region justice and its a remarkable place.
Our purpose to Siberia was to see southern Siberia and especially the wonders of nature, mountains, lakes, rivers, wildlife and the raw materials. No question raw materials are mother nature at its best. This trip is probably not much different from visiting parts of New Zealand, Canada or America and or Switzerland.
However Siberia is an extensive geographical region, and is also known as Northern Asia. Siberia has been historically part of Russia since the 17th century and extends eastwards from the Ural Mountains to the watershed between the Pacific and Arctic drainage basins. Siberia stretches southwards from the Arctic Ocean to the hills of north-central Kazakhstan and to the national borders of Mongolia and China. It is an area of 13.1 million square kilometres and accounts for 77% of Russia’s land area, but it is home to just 40 million people – 27% of the country’s population.
The first day we arrived to a Siberian cold-war welcome, I felt a sense of suspicion given this region is still based on the USSR way of life since 1922, which ended in 1991. Landing in Barnaul’s small airport after a mandatory customs clearance, the airport is a typical military setting stuck in a time warp.
No doubt the USSR’s history has left a strong impression on the people here, the aesthetic hasn’t changed very much and neither has the way people think, or look here. The city of Barnaul has a simple past and was founded in 1730 as a settlement to serve silver smelting owned by a prominent industrialist family. Today it still remains as one of the largest industrial, cultural and university centres in Siberia.
Obtaining a visa to Russia is an experience, and clearing customs in Siberia is no less of an experience. After 2-hours at customs and immigration we were ready to head to our destination Gorno-Altaysk, the capital town of the Altai Republic of Russia.
This small town looks sleepy, a place where the mountains rule the roost. A tiny population of less than 60,000 Altain people in a land that has an area of 100,000 square kilometres. The town is sleepy and there isn’t much to do there, so its just a juncture point unless you are Russian.
To understand the geography better, Altai Republic is situated in the very center of Asia at the junction of the Siberian taiga, the steppes of Kazakhstan and the semi-deserts of Mongolia. Forests cover about 25% of the republic’s territory and the mountains are just vast.
The weather and climate at Altai is as diverse as its nature. Generally, the summer starts in May and finishes in September. During that time it’s quite warm during the daytime 20+ Celsius and cool in the night 5+ Celsius or more. The winds are game changers and the day depends on your location and itinerary.
Located in the southern part of Russian Siberia bordering with Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, the Altai is minutes away from two significant political rivals. A UNESCO-protected wilderness zone, the high peaks culminate at the summit of Mount Belucha (4506 metres) with a landscape of rivers, waterfalls, lakes and the endless taiga forest.
The taiga in eurasia covers most of Sweden, Finland, Norway, some areas of Iceland, much of Russia and areas of northern Kazakhstan, northern Mongolia, and northern Japan’s Hokkaidō. This biome is a formation of plants and animals that have common characteristics due to similar climates, and can be found over a range of continents in including Canada. Biomes are distinct from habitats, because any biome can comprise a variety of habitats. /source wikipedia/
The Altai Republic is home to the shamanistic Altaian people whose followers believe that they are dependent on higher superhuman powers and submit themselves to offering sacrifices. The designation is a ‘nature religion’ without any script but instead have simple based statues.
Yersu: are earth-water spirits that live in a particular mountain, lake, river, rock, tree, etc.
Chotgors: responsible for physical as well as psychological diseases and illnesses.
Otsoors: are suld souls of ancestors living in nature.
Ongons: Totems are ancestral spirits that now live in a place or house especially assigned or may also live in figures carved from wood.
Burkhans: very powerful and dangerous spirits that are rather hard to control
The name Altai has origins from the word Altan; which means golden mountains in the Mongolian dialect and it’s easy to understand how these golden mountains came to be given that name.
While the mountains are peaceful with changing landscapes from valley to valley, I am warned by our chaperone that it’s not uncommon to see toppers flying over head, or being moved to their launch pads within the region. Russia currently pays Kazakhstan $100 million annually to use baikonur cosmodrome and the rocket fuselage can drop in Altai.
Topshots nicknamed toppers; this is Russian Soyuz-FG rocket with Soyuz TMA-10M spacecraft aboard is transported to a launch pad at the Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, on September 23, 2013. Soyuz TMA-10M is a planned transport the Expedition 37 crew, including Michael Hopkins of the US together with Russia’s Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazansky, to the International Space Station (ISS) on September 26/
Attention to the fact that Siberia has developed its reputation over the last centuries as a territory difficult to access or travel within. So it made sense for the Kremlin to develop strong local ties, mostly if not all are people today are of nomadic origins.
But more importantly the region of Altai includes more than 20,000 tributaries that you see flying over the mountainous, making more than 60,000 kilometers of waterways and more than 8,000 lakes. The republic’s largest rivers are the Katun and the Biya flowing northwards forming the Ob River, one of the longest rivers in Siberia, which flows north to the Arctic Ocean.
The source of the Biya River is Lake Teletskoye, one of those magical settings and the region’s largest lake. Named the golden lake is the largest lake in the Altay mountains and has depth up to 325 meters in some places. The lake is surrounded by mountains and is included into Altaisky Nature Reserve. That reserve along with the Katun Nature Reserve and the Ukok Plateau Nature Refuge were listed as one of UNESCO World Natural Heritage Sites under the name “Golden Mountains of Altai.”
In fact the well known Ice Maiden’s tomb was found on the Ukok plateau near the border of China, in what is now the autonomous republic of altai. The plateau, part of the Eurasian Steppes is characterized by a harsh and arid climate. The area is known by the local people as the “second layer of heaven,” one step above ordinary people and events.
Present day Altai herdsmen still bring their sheep and horses to the plateau during winter because the fierce wind blows the snow off the grass and provides grazing land for the animals despite the freezing temperatures. /source Wikipedia/
The area is rich in history and the Katun river fed by the gebler glacier is situated on the highest point of Mount Belukha. The river holds a religious significance for native Altaians, as Mount Belukha is known in Altai folklore to be the gateway to the mystical kingdom of Shambhala.
The spirit in Siberia is no less than an authentic Russian way of life, and you can only imagine it, without seeing it first hand. There is no doubt the territory is immense and if you lived in anyone of the valleys, you would be hard pressed to survive the harsh winters unless you are very tough and versatile.
The emotion there is intense, the land is vast, and the landscapes are incredible and picturesque. The pine trees dominate life in more than one way and offer a richness to the territory.
The people there have this extraordinary commitment to nature, and it caught us by complete surprise. I always thought of Siberia as a place of doom and gloom under the USSR, a place where people were sent to work camps. While there is no doubt most westerners remember that image, the charm of modern day Siberia is wonderful breath of fresh air.
Now wipe out of that image old image of Siberia, and imagine the perfect natural landscape, purity and mysticism. Modern day focus is Mother Nature and when you are there, all you see is astonishing nature. The sheer beauty is extraordinary, and the territory is a treasure trove made up of valleys, mountains and lakes. I almost feel like crying, when I think of the feeling I had running in the deep spongy fauna of the valley in the middle of nowhere, and I mean no where.
You fly in a helicopter for 35+ minutes over the mountains peaks and all of a sudden you are in a valley all alone, not a single person within hundreds of kilometres. There is something inviting about that and at the same time scary if you know what I mean.
In fact we met a women, a descendant of a local altaian family (Anastasia) that lived in the mountains’s wilderness (isolated) and her parents passed away and she was guarded by her grand parents. They were so isolated in the Gorno they were not aware that the second world war.
You can’t imagine the intensity you feel, a natural beauty shaped by blue skies that capture the landscapes. The masses of green trees mixed pines, larch and white birch bark that mark the mountains tops that appear suddenly flying over the landscape. The lowlands and valleys are lit by the multi-colored fauna, and circles of small water bodies scattered throughout the regions are everywhere.
It makes it the most spectacular place to visit, perfect nature exploration. It remains a hidden treasure and for those Russians who are fortunate to see a tickle of Siberia, and they are instantly hooked.
Before coming here anyone I discussed it with seemed surprised, even negative. The stigma of Siberia vanishes as soon as you immerse yourself in their way of life. The foods are simple, the land rich, people warm and the moment you step into the wilderness you become hooked. The natural wonders are too many to see in a few days, but we were lucky to have access to plenty of helicopter travel.
The people here are nomadic tribal mountain dwellers and it takes you back in time. The magnitude is dramatic and you begin with an adventure by foot, four-wheeler, horse, raft, or boat but without helicopter just forget it. The distances are too great and road networks are virtually useless.
We find ourselves making a deep turn and a twist in the Eurocopter 135 and in front of is a shaman wonder, rock formations have rock topped mushrooms naturally formed. The mushrooms are formed by weathering and water erosion of rock layers, with the softer rock around the base eroding away more quickly. Overlooking the Chulyshman valley, these odd rock structures will with continue to erode and eventually disappear.
Back to the base, I am invited to take a small cruise on the lake Teletskoye with a new friend, a Moscow native who has a cabin on the lake and comes with his family a few times per year. It isn’t a place you can easily come and go from given the infrastructure, unless you know the right people. In Russia it’s all about whom you know and without the right introduction, it’s really tough.
I jump onboard a small vessel to cruise up the lake and see some of the shoreline. I have no idea where I am going, and it doesn’t really matter. The one thing I noticed is the local’s hospitality is tremendous. It doesn’t matter if you just finished a full lunch, there is always more food and drink.
The boat heads west to a small waterfall on the lake, and on the way we pass an Ernest Hemingway type, he drives a small wooden boat, a distinctive beard dressed like a withered old man at sea.
An important local he says, Igor says lets come back in twenty minutes to visit his small cabin on the way back to the base. In the meantime, we stop and go off to the shore line. In a matter of minutes Igor has set up a small pick-nick made up of the usual but this time no whiskey just peppered vodka. I was already full after a royal lunch, and let me tell you we just had lunch fit for a king, yet I find myself eating again pickles and smoked fish.
Igor pops open a bottle of homemade vodka with chilly pepper and explains the tradition. I am not a vodka drinker but on my fourth shot, and he says “bottom’s up”, just one more because it’s the first time we’ve met. After a few minutes we are off and racing down the lake, as we speak about life in Russia and the sanctions. In fact the sanctions aren’t big deal for Russians because they have what they need, dirt cheap hydro, a land rich in resources and plenty to drink ☺
We pass some kids playing on the lake’s shore and we beach the boat and jump to land. Walking on a small beach my feet are squishing in the pebble sands as I follow Igor. The cabin is as simple as it gets, no luxury here. Igor explains that he has known his friend for 20+ years and we are stopping in for tea. He introduces us, and we sit on their porch for a quick chat but no one speaks English.
The woman of the house serves us some local mushrooms and some hearty forest foods. I try the mushrooms but they taste almost fermented, or just really funky. Sitting on the porch, I am still dazed from the shots of pepper vodka, and feel as if I am teetering when they offer me more to drink.
All of a sudden, I hear my wife’s voice, and I ask myself, I am hallucinating? I know we are at least twenty-five minutes away from the base camp but the voices grow louder and louder. As I rub my face, I stand up there is my wife with our new friend Vladimir. I smile in bewilderment, my wife doesn’t realize I am in comatose state from the umpteen shots of locally made vodka.
After some sobering tea we are moving again, and this time I am jumping into a Robinson 66. For those of you who have fears of flying like I do, you have no time to be bothered with any fear, you have two choices, go or stay, and I am going.
Helicopters after helicopter, it’s a way of life in Altai and you need to get used to it. The fact is helicopters mostly suffer accidents by human error, and not by the fault of the machine itself.The golden rule is, never fly into a cloud ever. In Altai you generally have top Russian pilots, at least our brigade of pilots were all seasoned veterans, so I felt very comfortable.
Before coming here, I was completely ignorant about helicopters, but I recall a good friend telling me he was hooked and I always wondered why. I can say, I am hooked too, and if I would have a choice between a high-end Ferrari or a Robinson 66, I would take the Robinson. It is a perfect helicopter for exploring with great visibility and versatility and you go places that are difficult to reach.
So what is it that makes Siberia so special – that’s one thing, the Altai mountains. The nature of this mountainous territory is quite distinct. There are few places in the world where you can encounter so many landscape combinations in such a small area. The region’s flora and fauna are diverse and unique. In the Lake Teletskoye basin, Altai cedar forests still exist and make the area a home and feeding place for a variety of wildlife.
The total area covers 1,611,457ha and represents the most complete sequence of altitudinal vegetation zones in central Siberia, from steppe, forest-steppe, mixed forest, subalpine vegetation to alpine vegetation. The site is also an important habitat for endangered animal species such as the snow leopard. The lost values of civilization have been preserved here without a doubt, and the people here live as many nomadic peoples, in harmony with nature.
The people are dedicated to their lands and are out moving their herds. But it autumn the sun shines, and the small communities are consumed by their daily chores, getting ready for winter. As we fly over in a chopper, no doubt their pride and joy is the silence of nature, its sheer beauty, impressive diversity and unparalleled joy you feel being isolated. Over 20% of the territory is rock, scree and gravel. On the high plateaus there are over 1,000 alpine lakes greater than 1 hectare in size.
Scientists at the reserves have recorded over 1,500 species of vascular plants, including 22 species listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the Red Book of the Russian Federation. There are over 70 species of mammals in the reserve, including two endangered species, the Snow Leopard and the Altai argali. There are 19 species of fish, mostly in Lake Teletskoye, including pike, perch, and whitefish. In the streams the most common fish is the grayling. Of the 331 species of birds found in the reserve, most (48%) are passerine (159 species), waders (48 species), Falconiformes (30 species), and geese (29 species). The remaining 66 species account for only 20%. Another very pleasing touch is no mosquitoes! source: internet
Our host has arranged our entire trip with the assistance of a Russian translator who accompanies us because without a translator you can forget it. That’s why the Altai region isn’t a place for the average tourist and for numerous other reasons as well.
Our first night we have dinner with one of top Russian businessman in the country. My host is very familiar with him, he’s an ex-minister in the Russian government. He seems very modest and soft spoken with a smile. Its obvious he adores this region, and its obvious he feels right at home. But our chaperone reminds me that he can be cruel, and adds, it’s all about survival. I ignored that comment because that wasn’t my focus.
The entire trip changed when we were introduced to him, as he turns from sitting with us and calls Vladamir. A well built Russian man comes over to the table, and is asked to sit with us. In Russia you cannot judge a book by its cover, and I mean it. We met several interesting people, they could be native, or from wherever, but the common denominator in Siberia is he luxury of nature.
I ask about fishing and without hesitation, he asks “you want to fish”, and before I can answer he says “okay” and he means done. Life here without choppers would be almost impossible given the terrain. Except for those who use horseback transportation travel, and even that is strained given the multiple steep hills and large long valleys.
This is the Wild West, just a Russian version, and man versus the wilderness, and either becomes in sync with Mother Nature, or dies. It’s true Siberia has a reputation of being a cold place but it’s balanced by the natural warmth and explicit beauty. Each mountain brings another kind of scenery, incredible diversity.
Each view you see another kind of terrain variation and you begin to understand how gorgeous the fauna is between your fingers. It is mind-boggling to see pine trees lined as soldiers, or fellen trees washed down a hillside into a lake. One can only imagine the fall colors as the glitter of the leaves are beginning to change colur. I dream to see it but in the meantime the landscape changes each kilometers of the Altai without leafy trees.
So we met our new guide (local host) he could mistaken for an ex-officer and it turns out he’s is. Vladimir has dedicated his life to Altai’s Mother Nature. He is well built, blond hair and blue eyes, and when we first met him, I had no idea who I was meeting.
It turns out he is a very successful businessman who lives between the Altai and Moscow. A very low-key modest person who invites us to his territory. There wasn’t much communication as he speaks very little English but we get along easily. He in a very gentle gentlemen, however I am reminded again by our chaperone that beneath this cloth is a very tough person and it’s obvious.
Siberia is always been a place that has been cast with a certain darkness, these days I’m open-minded to seeing the other side and we are impressed.
The next day we fly to a base that is located on a small-secluded lake. You can see the tree-moss below that thrives here. I am told it only grows in micro-climates where the air is mountain pure. We eat some local smoked fish and some domestic tomatoes, pickles and drink the fresh squeezed local red berry juice.
We sit down at a table, which is immaculately set up, and we begin to have what is described as a pre-launch snack. There were some level of panic to make us all feel very welcome, as we sit near the lake at a picnic table enjoying local products. Describing the fish as very tasty, I begin to think that they are some kind of small trout, but I am quickly informed that they are Grayling. The taste is superb and second to none.
We are sort of rushed out of there, some broken English about moving to a new location, although we all felt right at home sitting by the lake in the sun.
The lake waters are crystal clear and you drink it without any hesitation and swimming is another another matter as its freezer cold. I didn’t try the Russian sauna and my did and she describes it as one of the world’s wonders.
But in no time we are back to the helicopter and taking off again and over the lakes and mountains and onwards to our base camp.
A magical lifestyle, one of planets wonders, the Altai Mountains is where rivers start flowing and for innumerable centuries being the cross-roads of human migration, the Altai has a long and rich history. The Xiongnu Empire (209 BC-93 AD) governed the territory of the modern Altai Republic, and scholars are hypothesizing about ethnicity; is it Turkic, Mongolic, Yeniseian,Tocharian, Iranian,and Uralic.
The modern population is a mixture of indigenous Altais and Russian settlers, some of the latter still leading in their villages the life of “old Believers”, with strict rules and very much isolated from civilization. Most of those visiting Altai are looking to get away from the concrete jungle and connect with a mystical place.
If you ever decide to travel there you must be well organized and dedicate at least 7+ days or more to the region. Our next trip there will be in the winter when we can fly above the great white Siberia and see our friends again.