The Altai in the Saturday Guardian’s Travel Section


In Response to Luke Harding’s Article on Altai in the Guardian Travel Section 25.09.2010 Come on kids, we’re off to Siberia.

Katun River

As the article tells us, Altai is a popular tourist destination among affluent Siberians and yet little known among the Brits.  Luke Harding obviously had a great family adventure holiday despite the ‘sagging yurt beds, mosquitoes and inedible food’. ‘Altai is beautifully unspoilt’, the article reads, ‘a perfect base for an adventure holiday, with horse-riding, trekking, and glacier-climbing…a perfectly feasible mid-way stop-off on the trans-Siberian railway. More appealing than Vladivostock’.

‘The cultural difference between western tourism and the Altai worldview can be felt immediately. The natural world as field for recreation on the one hand and the natural world as shrine on the other. Nothing could be more antipathetic to the Altai religion than glacier-climbing, for the mountains in Altai are revered, worshipped and repsectfully left to the silence of their own time-space.  ‘Tourist glacier-climbing’ resonates here about the same as ‘spreading out your picnic blanket on the Turin Shroud’.

The article conveys the undisputed beauty of the Altai landscape but goes on to describe just exactly the kind of tourism the elders and guardians in Altai have been fearing. When I asked indigenous Director of the Fund for the Sustainable Development of the Altai, Chagat Almashev, where he felt understanding was most lacking between western visitors and the indigenous Altai people, he said: ‘In how we visit our sacred places.’  The type of tourism Luke Harding describes is at first glance harmless. However, tourism in the Altai that gives no account of the sacredness of the integrated spiritual landscape, ignores the Altai worldview and customs and is uninformed of the indigenous culture will ultimately only contribute to railroading what remains of the sacred atmosphere in Altai.

In general, the article gives yet another description of a corner of Russia written in superficial style highlighting the  idiosyncratic and appearingly pharcical without deeper enquiry. The real atmosphere of Altai is not conveyed at all.  The factual information in Harding’s article is mostly acurate aside from the fact that the Turkic faces on the kameny baba, (rock carvings) are not ‘scythian’ and it is to be disputed that they are ‘tombstones’. Certainly the masses of visitors to Patmos monastery ‘the chapel on an island in the Katun river, accessed via a wobbly footbridge’  is as far from being a pilgrimage as a herd of stampeding cattle.

Having stayed in the environs of Aktru peak Harding writes ‘it was clear that nobody had really worked the land here since the collapse of communism. Until relatively recently, Altai was desperately poor; now tourism is helping to revive the local economy.’  No mention is made of the fact that the majority of the inidgenous people are farmers having preserved one of the few remaining examples of sustainable livelihood anywhere in the world. Nor is any mention made of the fact that the majority of the population see almost no benefit from the development of tourism as it is currently developing. Profits mainly go to tourist agencies in Russian cities outside of the republic like Sibalp advertised in the Travel section.

‘We had visited one of the world’s last great wildernesses’. It sounds enticing doesn’t it?  A wilderness is an unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition. The wilderness is thought of as paradise and man’s presence there incongruous. Altai is not a wilderness. Altai IS the Altai people whose unique spiritual philosophy and  living culture demonstrates how man and the natural world can live in harmony. 

Harding probably unwittingly, falls in line with the tendencies that work against cultural diversity. He divorces the Altai people from their land by calling it a wilderness thereby giving others carte blanche to ignore local custom and assimilate these lands as they see fit. Harding makes no mention of the ‘Golden Mountains of Altai’ UNESCO’s serial world natural heritage site consisting of five seperate sites unique in the world for their ecological characteristics and outstanding natural beauty. Nor do we hear of the Specially Protected Nature Territories in the Altai which  cover  over 20% percent of the republic’s total land area. These protected areas have been set up, many as an indigenous initiative, as a potential solution to the ideological impasse left by the collapse of the soviet union; a structure that combines the priorities of nature protection, cultural preservation and economic development. The Altai’s nature parks offer visitors fascinating ways of travelling through the Altai. One sees the same rivers and mountains and yet  also receives an introduction to the Altai culture with its delicious cuisine, epic throatsinging traditions, women’s ritual singing, cosmology, healers, and seers, artists and dancers. They also offer the sincere visitor the opportunity for genuine pilgrimage. It is here that the heart of the Altai is beating. This is the true jewel in Altai.

This is not the last we will hear of Altai. The question is, how will the Altai be perceived as the west continues to expose it? Will Altai be experienced as a wilderness in which to glacier-climb and drink vodka with fellow rafters or as a beacon of hope in these complex times? Will Altai continue to be praised as it has been by seekers over the centuries as a haven for healing, rejuvenation and evolution with a people who serve as its guardians? 

In contrast to Harding’s description of a chaotic, vodka drinking rafting trip on the Katun river the next post is a short quote from the prose of G.I.Choros-Gurkin, Altai artist and visionary in which he describes his love for the Katun river in Autumn.

2 responses to “The Altai in the Saturday Guardian’s Travel Section

  1. I too am a “starry-eyed Westerner” because I have also been blessed to experience the magic of Altai over the past decade. I listen carefully to what the local Altai people say, and I do all I can to allow their voice to be heard and to minimize the utterly incomprehensible, wanton destruction by Westerners (including most Russians) to a people for whom life, wisdom, Earth ARE sacred.

    To those who ask for the voice of an Altai person, the following quote by the indigenous Altai elder Svetlana Katynova affirms Joanna’s points:

    “The whole world hears about the sanctity of the land of Altai and about the spiritual culture of the people living on this ground. But only a few know about the conditions in which these people live here today.

    Their temperament is not to shout to the whole world, asking for help, which is why those of us who understand what irreversible processes are occurring in Altai, ask for help from friends, to keep even part—the most basic territories: the primordial land of the ancestors.”

    I invite any and all to be a friend to Altai and to help their people salvage even a LITTLE bit of the sacredness. Thank you.

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