Belly of a Whale – a learner guide at an Altai nature park

When I first visited the lands of Altai, I dreamt of one day, riding a horse freely through a particular sacred valley; never though, did I dream, that I would conduct an excursion here. In the month of April, I conducted three such excursions and feel truly honoured to have been given such an opportunity. To conduct an excursion through the valley demands more than reciting legends and facts. It’s like taking a group on an initiation through the belly of a whale…

When a group enters the valley they are being asked to step out of their everyday familiar relationship to the natural world and into the sacred one of the local population, without necessarily knowing beforehand that this will be required of them. Conducting these three excursions highlighted to me just how great a shift this can be for visitors and just what a challenge it is for a guide to assist a group in making that shift.

The first excursion: The most challenging part, I found, was the very beginning. As we approached the entrance to the valley in the car I could feel the valley and began giving it my attention. The guests however were unaware of this process and constantly asked questions about how I had come to be in Altai etc. The choice is either to chatter away ignoring the fact that you are about to be swallowed by a whale or to ignore them and keep silence concentrating on the approaching oral cavity! Difficult. It appears rude.

We stopped just inside the valley entrance and I began to set the wheel in motion: “We stand at the entrance to the Karakol valley—this is sacred land.”, at which point a member of the group asks, “How do you spell that?” I begin my prayer again. “We stand at the entrance to the Karakol valley. This is sacred land. It is a rare thing in today’s world that a person can say just exactly what that is”, and the journey begins.

There are certain places in the valley that normally constitute the excursion, one of which is a place after the first village where there are rock carvings close to the road. Despite having been there on many occasions I suspected I would not find them which seemed quite ridiculous. Although on one level I knew this meant that the place was closed I began to panic that the excursion would go ‘wrong’ and the guests would be dissatisfied. The I realised that the role of the guide is not to make the excursion as interesting as possible for the guests but rather to be the human being present who demonstrates that whatever the valley is being that day IS the excursion. This was my first lesson. Trust the valley. The guide is simply a channel.

 The challenge is to be able to bare all levels of discomfort created by the guests—criticism, demands, mockery.

The second excursion. A photographer and journalist arrived. They were writing an article on ‘Burkhanism’, a modern strain of Altai faith. On this occasion, the problems arose before we set off for the valley. The journalist didn’t respond to the offer of speaking with local knowledgeable people preferring to wait until he arrived in Kosh-Agach. All they wanted to do was drive to the furthest village in the valley and photograph the sacred mountain. No guide necessary. Fortunately a park representative explained the situation to them and in the end they conceded to the necessity of a guide.

In the west we tend to shine a light on anything that is valuable, exposing it, but in Altai one often sees the opposite. Anything truly valuable is hidden and protected and demands a particular approach. What would be an equal and adequate exchange according to the laws of sacred land for driving into a long isolated community and photographing their deity, a mountain the sacred name of which is not pronounced aloud, to then distribute that picture in the mass media? If you want something, you have to know what it is worth and what you are prepared to give or BE in order to receive it. A mountain needs no gift…but it does know who you are.

What can a guide do in this kind of situation? Applying lesson one I decided to trust the valley! Just at the point where we entered the valley one member of the group turned to the journalist and said mockingly; “Can you feel the cosmic vibrations then?” They all laughed. They turned to me – I didn’t twitch a single muscle. We stopped at the turn in the road where the mountain normally comes into view but the sky had clouded over ….so we travelled further on through the village to the burial mound complex. If the sky was going to clear for them it would only be after the burial grounds.

We walked about and talked and the sky looked as if it might clear. It turned out that the photographer had worked with minority and indigenous peoples before and he was beginning to associate the valley with the approach of his previous work. He said: “It looks as if the sacred mountain doesn’t want to be photographed.” Covered in mist, clouds and the sky greyer than I had ever seen it threatening the beginning of a blizzard it did indeed seem that way!

We stopped at another monument from which there would normally be a good view of the mountain and the photographer took a shot of the stones in the mist. It seemed an appropriate shot illustrating the secret and hidden nature of sacred places. In the end it didn’t matter that the photographer hadn’t taken the ‘perfect shot’. Much had happened, after all we had passed together through the belly of a whale! We returned to Ongudai twenty minutes later in the brilliant sunshine.

The third excursion. This was the most frightening. I was asked to give an excursion for a French economist and twelve Russian accountants led by an Altai woman with the excursion to be given in Russian. Immediately after agreeing I began to regret it. How was I going to give an excursion in Russian to native Russians? How would I have the guts to stand on Altai soil and explain to an Altai woman that hers was sacred land? The present director of the park seemed to think that for some Russians hearing an Englishwoman affirming the views of the Altai population could be quite effective. I prepared myself before hand, writing out sentences in beautiful Russian copied from park material. As I waited for the group to arrive, I paced the office reciting sentences about the navel of the planet and the Man-Nature-cosmos triad. Somehow though, the more I tried to recite them the more meaningless they became.

I was nervous and when I began my prayer: “Here we stand at the entrance to the valley—this is sacred land…” I could tell that I didn’t have the attention of the group and could feel myself going red. For some reason I just couldn’t get the word “acupuncture” out which has a mere four syllables in English, but in Russian has six! I was stumbling over my own prayer! At that very moment two beautiful and rare birds came to the side of the road and beyond them two swans were visible on the water in the distance. The whole group turned their attention to the birds and ooohed and aaaaahed so persistently that no-one really seemed to notice and I had time to collect myself.

The group seemed to come together at that moment and was from then on attentive and open to all that I had to say. I was asked two questions though, that really made me think. The first was: “Can you direct us to a particular place here where one can stand and charge up on positive energy?” The second: “If I take this white stone away with me will it bring me good energy? Removing one stone may seem innocuous enough, but on sacred land especially, everything you do however seemingly small or insignificant has consequences according to spiritual law. What is important is not the stone itself, but what your actions reveal. Are you a taker or a giver, do you deplete or create abundance?

How consumerist and exploitative it seems we can be in our relationship to the natural world. Would anyone stand such a lover? It seems to me that if one were to imagine that all these questions about nature were addressed as if to a friend or respected elder then the response would be close to the indigenous relationship to the natural world. Imagine, that you said to a woman: “where can I stand so as to really get a good charge from your beautiful energy? How can I suck on your energy?” It is obvious that she would cover her sky with mist. But if one were to ask: “May I sit beside you? May we talk? I’d like to know who you really are”, then the response would be different.

Perhaps this parallel seems so fitting because the energy fields in the valley are particularly sensitive to the human emotional and psychic condition…and maybe this is part of the reason why anthropomorphic symbolism is widespread in the Altai culture.

There are many who care for nature but desire only to save the flora and fauna and care neither for the subtle intelligent systems the natural world embodies, nor for the people who live in harmony with a given environment. Then it seems, there are those who care very much for the sacredness of the natural world carrying out rituals and prayer in their “special relationship” with her but manipulate and exploit the souls of those close to them.

When there are men who treat the soul of the woman in their lover, wife, mother and daughter with exactly the same approach as the soul of the woman in nature and when there are woman who respect the male essence in their lover, father, son and brother just the same as the power of the male essence in nature – then shall we shall live well; man, bird and beast?

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