Monday, September 17, 2007

Travels in the Altai-Sayan Region (August 15 - 30, 2006)

From August 15-30 my friend Anya and I traveled in the Altai-Sayan Region of south-central Siberia (see map right) , which is home to some of Russia's most beautiful, striking and varied landscapes.
Anya is from Irkutsk, and we met during my first trip to Russia over 4 years ago. During our trip we visited Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve on the Enisei River (one of the largest rivers in Siberia and on Earth, running from south to north to the Arctic Ocean); the Republic of Khakasiya and Khakassky Zapovednik (nature reserve); we traveled along the border of Khakasiya, the Altai Republic and the Republic of Tuva (home to nomads, throat singing, camels and yaks), through Tuva and to the park Ergaki in the Krasnoyarsk Region. We had an amazing time!!

We are very, very grateful to the directors of Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve and Ergaki Park, and also the director of the Idgir hunting and fishing company for inviting us to visit and taking time out of their incredibly busy schedules to organize everything for us. They are wonderful. We also owe a big thank you to the staff of Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve and Ergaki Park for teaching us about the protected natural territories where they work. Lots of pictures below!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Lenin Exiled Here: Town of Shushenskoye (August 16)

Anya and I spent our first day in the town of Shushenskoye, a town of 20,000, where the offices for Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve are located. The next day we headed out to the reserve.
City government building in Shushenskoye.

Church in Shushenskoye.

Shushenskoye's claim to fame is that Lenin was exiled here for 3 years, from 1897-1900, during the reign of Russia's last tsar, Nikolai II. We took a tour of the Shushenskoye ethnographic museum, which was basically a Lenin tour, with some other houses from the time period thrown in. Above I am standing in front of the house Lenin, "the leader the the world's proletariat", lived in from 1897-98.

This guy is showing us how they used to make those classic Russian wooden spoons in villages in Siberia. (At the ethnographic museum.)

It didn't sound like Lenin had it too rough in exile. Actually, kind of sounded like a well-paid vacation to Siberia. Lenin liked to head out of Shushenskoye and go hunting about 20 km out of town, in the territory that is now part of Shushensky Bor National Park. Here Anya and I are standing in front of the hut where Lenin would take a break during his hunting capades.

The sign says "Hut. Lenin liked to relax here while hunting."

We are totally relaxing to the fullest!

A little change of pace: this is the river-boat station on the Enisei River in the town of Shushenskoye. In a totally cool project - the brain child of the director of Sayano-Shushensky Reserve - the reserve bought up this building in 2000, when it was in a total state of disrepair (i.e., no glass in the windows, etc.). The reserve invested its own money to restore the building and turn it into a gym/nature exhibit in one. Now residents of the town of Shushenskoye can go workout here, so the reserve has taken on a societal role in keeping people healthy, and the fees the gym-goers pay go toward the reserve's budget. There are information signs about all the reserves of the Altai-Sayan region here, plus many professional photographs, info about other reserves, etc. So instead of watching talk TV while working out, people can watch and read about the amazing natural places in their own backyard. A pretty unique idea. The station also houses a conference room equipped with a projector and all, as well as the offices for the Association of Zapovedniks and National Parks of the Altai-Sayan Region.
We had a great place to stay in Shushenskoye - in the Sayano-Shushensky Reserve's little hotel lodge. Here's a picture from the outside. We were very well taken care of.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve (Aug 17-20)

Anya and I spent our first weekend on the edge of Sayano-Shushensky Biosphere Reserve, a huge territory with an area of almost 400,000 hectares. The reserve is a strict protected area and therefore no tourists are allowed into the reserve territory. The enormous Enisei River makes up the eastern border of the reserve and is also the reserve's buffer zone. All boats in the section of the river bordering the reserve have to have special permission from the reserve and have to register on site. We lived on the other side of the river, in the so-called "biosphere polygon." Under UNESCO biosphere reserves should have a strictly protected territory, that is the reserve itself, and a "polygon" where limited natural resource use is allowed with the goal of demonstrating sustainable economic development. Hunting and fishing tourism are the main activities in Sayano-Shushensky's polygon. In the first picture is the Enisei River; the reserve is on the right side, and the polygon is on the left side.

Here is a picture of Anya and the little boat we took almost 200 km (a 4-5 hour trip) down the Enisei River to the ranger station where we stayed. Anya is feeding this dog sunflower seeds, and he could actually shell and eat them.

Sayano-Shushensky Reserve was created in 1976 partially to offset and study the effects of the construction of Sayano-Shushensky Hydroelectric Dam on the Enisei River. This is why the river, much like the Columbia, doesn't look like a wild river with rapids, etc., but rather like a large peaceful sea.

Russians claim Sayano-Shushensky Dam is the largest on earth, which I haven't been able to confirm. However, it is huge. (It is the largest hydroelectric station in Russia.) When it was built the water level on the Enisei River behind the dam rose 240 meters up the sides of the mountains along the river!

These mountain sides were forested, and unfortunately they were not logged before the dam began to operate and the water level rose. Not only were millions of dollars of valuable timber lost, but dead logs still float on the reservoir nearly 25 years after the completion of the dam. The decaying logs pollute the river and make the water not so clear underwater, too. (I checked it out when I went swimming in the reservoir.) They say the logs that have sunk actually haven't reached the bottom of the river, either, but rather are floating as a huge underwater forest about 40 meters below the surface.

Logs still floating on the surface of the Enisei. Makes for interesting navigation for water craft.

Huge letters on the mountain side saying "Sayano-Shushensky Reserve." You can't miss that!

We stayed at the reserve's nicest ranger station, which was really, REALLY nice. Like a fancy ski lodge in the U.S. Here are me and Anya next to the fireplace.

This is a view from the ranger station in the evening.

Here is a view of the house we stayed in from the outside. Swimming was pretty chilly but still fun.

This is Valery, our super guide during our time in the reserve. There are just not enough positive adjectives to describe him. On our first day he took us on a hike over the cliffs near where we stayed, totally redefining the definition of "trail." Here he is probably waiting for us to hurry up and stop taking pictures of the great views we saw.

Anya and I became quite the rock climbers.

Valery also took us to search for the wild mountain goats that inhabit the steep slopes of the reserve. Amazingly, he could spot them with no trouble, even though they were hard for us to find even using binoculars! In hot weather the goats will come down close to the water level, but since it was chilly and misty when we went looking for them, we only saw them from far away. Which was still really cool!

Some cool pictures with reflections in the water. If you closely look at the bottom of the slopes you can see a little grey-brown edge right at the water level. That is the start of the "dead zone," where annually rising water levels from the dam don't allow anything to grow. In the spring, when the water is at its lowest level, this zone is 40 meters wide and very easy to see. Now it is only about 2 meters wide.

Me sitting in the rocky and dead-woody dead zone on the shore of the mighty Enisei.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Lakes, Steppe and Siberian Stonehenge: Khakasiya (Aug 21-23)

After Anya and I got back from Sayano-Shushensky Reserve we did a little loop -- or more like a triangle -- through the Altai-Sayan Region. (By "little" I mean 1000 km round-trip; we took a week to do it.) The northwest side of the triangle was in the Republic of Khakasiya, and we started at the northern tip and drove southwest toward the Altai Republic and Republic of Tuva. Northern Khakasiya has a lot of steppe and low rolling hills -- it seems the sky could just stretch on there forever.

We stopped for one night at Lake Itkhul' in Khakassky Nature Reserve (Zapovednik). (Sunset)

Khakasiya is home to lakes of all kinds. A few are protected in Khakassky Nature Reserve, and a few are open to tourists. Unfortunately we did not have the best weather for our lake touring day. Above Anya is climbing a steep hill for a windy and rainy lookout over Lake Belyo in Khakassky Reserve.

The soil on the climb up was very red (my socks changed color), as was this rock. On top is Ilya, our "guide" (I use that term pretty loosely) for our week-long tour.

Hanging out on another lake shore. Lake Tus is a lake with high mineral content that is a popular tourist destination in July. Unfortunately by August it is not really sunbathing weather there anymore. Although neither the chilly temperatures nor the "no swimming" signs stopped Ilya from taking a dip.

This was a nickel mine during the Soviet Union. However in the early 1970s part of the mine collapsed, killing the workers there, and they closed it. Now lots of tourists can come check it out for 20 rubles a head. The amazing thing is they dug this mine without any explosives or anything like that -- basically with hand equipment. Apparently they used to have bungee jumping here, too (after the mine's collapse, that is), which sounds like it was a disaster waiting to happen -- you can't go anymore.

These huge rocks are from a burial site from the 3rd century BC. They are huge (see picture below with me in it for some perspective). Ancient peoples probably dragged these rocks from at least 45 km away to this site, which is pretty unbelievable. The rocks made up the outer edge of a huge, circular burial mound that was covered in earth and hollow inside -- you could think of the rocks as the outer ring-support structure. Inside would be buried some famous ancient person (warrior, etc.) along with his family (if necessary they'd kill the wife so she could be buried with her husband), his property, etc.

Here's me next to a couple of these rocks. This burial mound was 0.5 km in length and 11.5 m high! Archeologists suddenly became interested in excavating it in the 1950s, when a local resident accidentally found gold here. Total they found 277 kg of gold in this burial mound -- so the warrior here must have been quite the VIP.

This mound in the foreground is what an unexcavated burial mound looks like. We saw hundreds of these throughout Khakasiya. Ancient peoples would build them on the steppe so that they would be visible from a distance. (That's why they had to drag those rocks from so far away -- no big rocks on the steppe, but you can't be building your burial sites on some river bank -- no one will see them there.)

This cow is chilling at a gas station in southwest Khakasiya. Cows were all over the place. And if they are crossing the road they definitely have the right of way.

11% of the population of Khakasiya is native peoples, and they have their own language. We saw signs in Khakasiya and especially in Tuva in the native language. (Tuva is 77% indigenous people.) Here is the first one of those signs -- the last 3 words are not Russian. Actually I'm not even too clear on what the Russian here is supposed to mean. Literally it appears to say "Wish the people a land of happiness!" but maybe it is supposed to mean "wish the people land and happiness"? Either way it seems nice.

Southwest Khakasiya is already close to the Altai Republic and is quite mountainous and forested. The roads through the mountains kind of reminded me of the Cascades in Oregon. When we camped out in the mountains in this tent Anya and I learned that late August is NOT summer in the Altai-Sayan Region. It got down to a damp and chilly 35 degrees F, at which point we decided to sleep in the van.

Here we are already approaching the border with Tuva. The landscape is already certainly quite different than the flat steppe at the beginning of our trip!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Camels, Yaks and Yurts: Tuva! (Aug 24-25)

Not many people would think of camels and yaks when they think of Russia, but in Russia's Republic of Tuva you can see them. Not that we did.

But anyway Tuva is one of the most mystical places in Russia, a land of nomads, throat singers, shamanism, and more.

Tuva is on the border with Mongolia. From Khakasiya we headed south and drove across Tuva from its western edge, on the border with Altai, to east. The landscape there was awesome. I have never seen any place like it. Tuva is home to the highest mountain in Siberia and also real, untouched steppe. There are only 300,000 people here, in an area as big as the state of Washington. Here is the sign on the border between Tuva and Khakasiya. Even though it is only a little more than 7000 feet up, at this pass it feels like you are on the top of the world.

Looking back toward Khakasiya from Tuva. The red color of the grass is a sign that it is already fall.

Me next to an Oba. People will start to build these in high places. You should add a rock on top if you wish to have good fortunes.

Yurts in the foothills. Yurts were the traditional housing for nomadic Tuvan cattle herders. They can have from 8 to 16 wooden walls and are covered with a thick cloth. They are the ideal nomads' residence -- they can be assembled and dissembled in just an hour! In the early 1950s the Tuvan people officially became "settled," that is, no longer nomadic, but a small percent of Tuvans today still lead the traditional nomadic lifestyle that they had led for over 2000 years. Another nomadic Tuvan dwelling resembles an American Indian's teepee, and was traditionally used by reindeer herders.

Amazing scenic lookout. It looked like another planet. Tuva has been a part of Russia since 1944. Before then it had quite the mixed history and was settled by by European, Turkish, Mongolian and Chinese tribes, and was part of the Mongolian and Chinese empires. The Tuvan language is a Turkish language, and they also adopted the traditional nomadic lifestyle (including the yurt) from the Turks over 2000 years ago. Today 77% of the population of Tuva is native, and 22% is Russian. Tuvans actually call Tuva "Tyva," which is the official name for the republic, but Russians say "Tuva" because "Tyva" is hard for them to say.

Me and Anya at the amazing scenic lookout.

This picture pretty much sums up our guide, Ilya.

Big sign heading into the town of Ak-Dovurak, home to a big asbetos mine. Big signs were popular in Tuva.

Here's another big road sign in Tuva, wishing you a safe journey.

Steppe and mountains. The scenery really was awesome.

More scenery.

Cow crossing. Single-file. They're very well organized.

Sacred mountain in Tuva. The Dalai Lama visited here in 1993. Both Buddhism and Shamanism are accepted religions in Tuva. Tuva is considered one of the birthplaces of Shamanism and is home to perhaps the most famous shaman living today, who is considered an authority for the religion.

Tuvans believe that Genghis Khan is buried in this little mountain/hill in the foreground. German archeologists actually wanted to excavate the hill and have a look, but the Tuvans wouldn't let them.

More scenery. Even though fall is starting in Tuva, it was still about 75 degrees out. In the summer here temperatures easily top 100, while in the winter it can hit 50 below.

This is the headwaters of the Enisei River. Only here is the Enisei still natural, and it still looks like it has for centuries, because here the river is free of dams. The rest of the river north to the Arctic is home to nearly a dozen very large dams. The Enisei forms at the confluence of the Small and Large Enisei rivers, and at their confluence also stands the city of Kyzyl, the capital of Tuva. Kyzyl was founded in 1914 and means "red" in the Tuvan language. It is home to only 109,000 people. The oldest city in Tuva was founded in 1886. (After all, Tuvans were nomadic.)

Buddhist temple in Kyzyl. After my visit to China I didn't find it very impressive inside, though.

We went to the Beaver Springs outside of Kyzyl. These springs were discovered in the 4th century, which means people have been coming here for over 1500 years. It is believed that people who wash in these springs will be healthy and strong, and that they will not harm nature (neither kill animals nor pick a single flower). Beavers would also come here in the winter. Now there are some signs of modernity here: there are a number of different springs and for each one a post-it note indicates what diseases the waters will help protect you from. This spring above one is helpful against headaches. We saw a few people come and fill up their water bottles here too. The water tastes really good.

Kyzyl is the geographic center of Asia! Wow! So now I have been there, too. Pretty cool.

Good-bye, Tuva. This is the sign on the border with the Krasnoyarsk Region.