Pilgrimage to the Sacred Altai Valley –
It can be the case that the longer you know a person or live in a place, the less interesting it, he or she becomes. This is not the case with this Altai valley. A pilgrimage is a serious undertaking here and the extent of the inner work and learning involved does not necessarily depend on its duration. This particular pilgrimage was like taking a quick shot of Russian vodka. Downing it in one go armed with just a slice of pickled cucumber, it has you gripped from the inside out in nothing but a moment.
Our guide was a young Altai man from the last village before the taiga. The benefits of travelling with an Altai guide are great. They know how to behave in the taiga. They take the land and the mountains seriously. They are at home there. Generations of experience tell them to acknowledge spirit and as a result travelling with them can make for a safe, gentle journey. This was my first time travelling in the area without the responsibility of translating for a group. It was such a gift. I rarely photograph sacred places. There’s usually too much going on to think about a later date but Natasha, fellow pilgrim sent me a few for the blog. Unlike the masses of tourists who make the most of the photo opportunity, the Altai people don’t photograph their sacred places which is why you don’t see the mountain in the photographs above.
We travelled for four days setting off from the village where the guide lived. His sister plaited our hair to keep it out of the way as we would have nowhere to wash. I enjoy the drawn out process of packing saddle bags, learning little tricks about keeping a spare set of matches and a piece of silver birch bark dry in case of rain etc. Makes me feel more resourceful than I really am in an environment that isn’t mine from childhood.The guide dealt with the horses, packed a couple of billy cans, attached a small axe to the leather holder on the saddle and off we went. Quite a contrast to the endless gear of the modern day camper. Although we had a tent with us we actually spent the nights at ‘stoyankas’ which are small, wooden farming huts. Local farmers take turns at manning the stoyankas for three days at a time watching over the livestock. Just outside each stoyanka is a tying post for the horses carved in different patterns. More on the tying post next time…..One farmer had a terrible sore throat, he could hardly speak. He’d left home without his gun and had spent all night shouting his guts out to keep a bear away from the sheep.
A friend asked me why I was calling this blog post ‘In God’s Back Door’. Quite right too. Horses, mountains, a few pilgrims busy with their own soul searching and expressing their modest devotion to the grass and clouds. Where does God come into it? Curious really. Entering a church, you wouldn’t need to mention him would you? His presence would kind of go unspoken. It’s the same with this mountain. How else would you refer to something so powerful, so much greater than yourself, something you need so much to help awaken the inner resources required to cope with life. It hadn’t occurred to me than one would associate this mountain with anything else. On the one hand, there is nothing to recount of our short journey. The weather was fine, the company measured and quiet, friendly. The same mountain landscape as all the other times we have been here together; a few solitary moments and beyond that each has their own story. And yet, there we were in the back door to the house of God.
If an Altai person knew where we had travelled the photograph above where our guide points a rifle would stick out like a sore thumb. They don’t traditionally hunt in the area immediately surrounding the mountain, and this is particularly the case with the maral deer, the spirit of which is strong in the valley. There is a legend that a shaman’s son hunted and shot a white deer, a spirit deer, at the foot of this mountain. A man from a shaman’s line should have known better and so he paid the price, each of his sons suffering a different sorry lot and the consequences continuing through the generations. In the west we talk about the laws of the universe, certain fundamental principles we have learned about the way things seem to work energetically, such as the law of attraction and necessity. In Altai, people refer to ‘the laws of nature’ and the working of these laws seems to be particularly evident and immediate in sacred places. People like shamans and healers who are gifted with a certain type of knowledge or understanding seem to have to pay the price severely if the laws are crudely broken.
The fact that mountains around the world are places of worship is a well known fact and in the past I always assumed this was because their peaks are the closest point the earth has to the heavens; because they are portals or because they seem to stand in places where the life force that stimulates evolution is so highly concentrated. In this mountain valley, I wonder if it is not the omnipresent power that forces one to observe certain ‘universal laws’, the ‘laws of nature’ that makes one automatically think of God. Even churches have a back door, and on this occasion, we arrived there where we were awestruck so suddenly that it was just as if we had sneaked into a cathedral service through the back door walking in from the street and finding ourselves immediately beneath the altar. We left our second stop ‘stoyanka’ in the morning and rode for just a few hours before arriving at another ‘stoyanka’ nestled beneath the mountain ridge and laced with tiny lakes. Perhaps you imagine that we were struck by the beauty of the scene? Indeed not. The landscape had barely changed. Rather, I was so overwhelmed by the sudden power of the sublime that I could do nothing but slide from my saddle and sleep. Forty minutes later I awoke like a new-born, said my prayers. We just had time to gobble up the slice of pickled cucumber before were mounting again and riding off into the late afternoon sun. The immersion in the sublime was short and swift but enough to find oneself at peace.
Today we have the technological capacity to travel so high, so fast, so far. We know so much about everything which forces us to measure ourselves up against the best and the worst the world over. And in amongst all this I pray that in falling asleep beneath a judicious mountain peak there will always be those for whom this beautiful world of land and water is still the house of God.