Journey to Sacred Altai
(My first travel article on Altai – Kindred Spirit Magazine 2001)
What I am trying to say is hard to feel and hard to understand…unless you have been yourself at the edge of the Deep Canyon and have come back unharmed. Maybe all of it depends on something within yourself. Whether you are trying to see the water snake or the sacred cornflower, whether you go out to meet death or to seek life.” Susan Seddon-Boulet
In Moscow’s Pushkin museum hangs a painting by the Siberian mystic, Nicholas Roerik. The scenery is typical of the Altai region which Roerik loved to paint. A man is sitting somewhere high up in the mountains playing a flute and a few feet away from him bears are listening to the music. According to Siberian legend, humankind’s ancestor was not the ape but rather the bear, whose search for beauty initiated the evolution of the species. A three-week journey to the Altai region of Siberia convinces one of the validity of the legend. The region is a jewel of such beauty and purity that healing and learning, the stepping stones to human evolution, inevitably transpire in such a place.
It was in no way automatic that we should make the transition from the Western, rational experience to that of an ancient Siberian culture. Two figures helped me to navigate my way through the Altai region: one was a man and the other a woman.
Valery was born in Altai and has devoted his life to creating the Museum of the Sun. I was curious to know how and why one would create a museum to the very thing that it is impossible to look at. Valery is a sculptor by trade and has carved images of the sun from many cultures in Siberian cedar. In the main room of the museum stood an altar. Fixed to the wall were three of his large pieces displaying simple motifs such as deer, elk, people and shaman and inspired by rock carvings found in the Altai Republic. After he had welcomed us to the museum Valery stood in front of his altar and began to talk of the sun. “The sun shines on everyone giving life to the planet. Within our physiology the equivalent of the sun is the heart, and in the same way that the sun shines on us all, so shall we become united by living from our hearts.”
The woman lay in a glass cabinet. She was the ‘Ice-Maiden’, excavated in 1993 on the Ukok Plateau.
Believed to have healing powers, she had become particularly renowned for her tattoos and the mystery surrounding her past. Her body seemed darker and less radiant in the cabinet than in the photographs and I found it distasteful to look at her. However, her tattoos were indeed extraordinary. They were similar to some of the motifs in the rock carvings. They spoke of the same world and yet they were much more delicate and intricate. Deer, elk, fish and griffins with horns decorated with flowers presented a dynamic and mystical example of creative expression. Gradually, I was getting a sense of a nomadic people as if the images evoked fleeting memories of a long-forgotten dream. The animals, their dynamic poses and adorned features conveyed freedom, magic, huge vitality that can be found through a meaningful relationship with the natural world. It was compelling.
There are many beautiful, magical places in Altai and water, streams, rivers and lakes punctuated our route embodying the wisdom of the sky. Each place seemed to reveal its own gift as if the lakes, valleys, forests and mountains were all speaking in parables. As we travelled to the village of Kourai we passed Kal-Bak-Tash. On the rock face to the side of the road there are ancient petroglyphs. Further back, a little into the hillside a huge life-size figure is carved into the rock face. Valery approached respectfully, as if in a temple, stood a few feet from the figure and repeated again and again: “We bow to you, we bow to you Altai..” and promising to care for her trees, forests and rivers and making an invocation to the sun. Quite suddenly the atmosphere changed and the figure began to swim before my eyes. The energy was powerful and we were both affected and sobered.
Experienced with an open heart, Altai is a powerful catalyst for inner transformation. We visited many special places and in each I gave my respect and tried to be present and receptive. The heightened sensitivity that followed however, made me feel very vulnerable to negativity; but the sun God had been generous and there were many realisations after that visit at Kal-Bak-Tash. Kourai village was warm, balmy and earthy. Beautiful Belukha Mountain felt as if humankind had never been there, no word had ever been spoken and the ground would be warm for eternity. It was the experience of feeling these energies with one’s aura, and then searching for the same within one’s soul that made this journey a sacred one.
My memory of Lake Teletskoe is particularly strong. A day’s boat trip took us along the lake. Towards evening the sun was strong and generously adorned the lake’s surface with jewels. Columns of white light fell down from the sky to the water in a circle angled outwards as one might expect the circular lights of a space ship to appear! Soft balls of golden light, a few feet across hung suspended about twenty feet above the water. This was a place they called the gateway to Shamballah, a place where the veil between the physical plane and higher cosmic vibrations is finer than usual. It was as if love, devotion, grace and intelligence all radiated down from the sky.
A sense of ease and well-being filled me with relief as everything else fell away. On the boat I noticed crates of locally grown apples. I asked the captain if I could buy some from him. He filled a bag and passed them to me, taking nothing for them. Another man sat facing us with his back to the water’s edge as if he had been sitting there forever and I had only just noticed him. He was stunning. His aura was so filled with the bright light of the lake that his image carved itself in the air around him.
Suddenly he asked me a question. “What is love do you think?”. I replied, “Where there is no fear.” It was as if he has been waiting there to meet me on my soul’s journey , checking to see what I had learned so far. A pilgrim’s progress. I wasn’t sure if my answer had really made the grade. He said, “ What about a teenager on the phone telling a boyfriend that she misses him, is that love?”. “No”, I said, “Love is that which is the essence of every single thing. It is the particular quality of stillness in everything that is. Every man, tree and stone has a stillness within it and this is love.” “What about when one does something to one’s own detriment or makes a sacrifice to help another. Is this concordant with love?” We concluded that it was how something was done that is important and that an act made in love could never really be to one’s detriment, whatever one might appear to lose. As always, it is the question that really matters. In this place the man had asked the only truly human question: “What is love?” And so it ceased to matter whether one believed in Shamballah and cosmic vibrations, whether one was psychic, mystic, shaman, man or woman. What mattered was to contemplate the nature of love.
I returned to Novosibirsk with renewed hope and strength. I was eager to see the mummy again. Everywhere we had travelled in Altai I recognised her spirit as if her tattoos were a pictorial map of Altai, the ancient past constantly moving in and out of our present and future. I came to realise that the images chosen encapsulated the quintessence of the energies of Altai’s natural world and so when I saw her again it was as if to understand her significance for the first time. It was to see that she was so alive that, in excavating her, she had been disturbed not from death but from her spirit sleep and that, placed in a museum, she had been buried alive…pulled out of her eternity.
Archaeologists argue about who she was and especially whether she was of European or Mongolian descent. In short, they cannot prove who she belongs to—they should all like to own her. More fascinating than this is that centuries ago, a woman so came to embody the life force energies in Altai that even now she still radiates this energy. That which she embodied is timeless and so her spirit has transcended death. One can only imagine the level of sensitivity and integrity that this woman had. What is a showcase should be a shrine; in it she lies naked, the object of intellectual debate. The irony lies in the fact that the answers archaeologists think are shrouded in the mists of time are to be found in the unseen present; the tragedy lies in the unspeakable irreverence shown to her unrecognised dignity and my joy became mixed with shame. She represented that which I would spend my entire life striving to become. The extreme contrast of seeing her stripped of her dignity and buried in a museum to fade represented the opposite and revealed to me in one shocking instant just what contemporary civilisation has stripped us of: our ability to ‘see’ and ‘feel’ divinity when we find ourselves in its presence.
Some acts are so profane that there are no words, and so understanding does depend on whether ‘you yourself have been at the edge of the Deep Canyon and have come back unharmed’. This is the case with the mummy and so I left her my small bouquet of flowers, crouched down beside her and wept.
In an unspoilt area such as Altai, where the natural energies are as strong and clear today as they were centuries ago, a tree is more than a tree, a river more than a river—they are the very numinous quality we seek. Despite its luminosity and power the world of spirit is a fragile one. The problem is that its preciousness is not always seen. On the whole it can only be felt. ‘One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.’ (Antoine de St-Exupery, The Little Prince.)
Finally, my respect to the ‘Ice-Maiden’, who with bone needles and soot as her scribe, made her skin the canvas for her soul.