A Letter From the Altai Republic

This article was published in The Calvert Journal (online journal on contemporary Russian culture). The longer version (before being chopped for Calvert) is published here.

A Letter From the Altai Republic

“Gate to Shambhala”…“Pearl of Asia”…“Siberia’s Switzerland”…“The Golden Mountains”… “Cradle of Civilizations”. The list of epithets to Altai is endless, exaltory, eclectic and impressive for a place few have ever heard of.

I first travelled to Altai as a tourist on a trip advertised online as a sacred journey. We were promised shamans and Shambhala but it was the earth and water that motivated my subsequent move to Altai. I was often asked by Russian friends in Novosibirsk, what exactly had driven me to leave the comforts of Europe for an old wooden house in a remote Altai village where I would chop wood, hack ice, lob cow pat and steal coal, all the while contemplating the nature of enlightenment. It seemed indulgent to say that I was searching for wisdom and so I replied in the manner every Russian could understand: ‘zov serdtsa’, “Ah yes, the call of the heart.” They would nod, eyeing me carefully, and with that, my unprecedented relocation required no further explanation.

On this particular autumn day I arrived at the ‘navel’, or the ‘cradle’, in short, at the bus station in Gorno-Altaisk, the capital of Altai located 2,262 miles from Moscow at 7 o’clock in the morning. I had set off from Novosibirsk by train the previous evening, reaching Biisk railway station at 5-30 in the morning. From there I took a taxi to Gorno-Altaisk as despite having recently acquired an airport, the entire republic still has no railway station.

There used to hang a large sign across the top of the bus station building, which read ‘Ulala-Oirot-Tura’. Ulala was the name of the capital before it was renamed Oirot-Tura in 1932 and finally Gorno-Altaisk in 1948. The sign reminded the traveller of the Oirot peoples, Djungaria and the great Oirot Khan of epic tales, thereby serving as a coordinate on the greater map of Altai’s mythology, ancient history and expanse prior to 1756 when it became part of Russia. The coordinate had recently been removed from the bus station wall, which was a great pity, and yet despite this, Gorno-Altaisk bus station, Russia’s only gateway to the Altai Mountains, remains my favourite place on earth.

I needed a car. I wandered up to the corner of the bus station ticket office, where the taxi drivers stood, smoking and shaking hands with passers by. I smiled at their familiar faces catching a few phrases in the Altai language. With every step towards them I felt the soles of my feet tread the tarmac more confidently, my chest breathe more freely and my heart gladden with the anticipation of mountain air filled with the aromas of sagebrush and fir, the sound of running water and the ‘ching’ ‘ching’ ‘ching’ of the bell mares.

 Ust-Koks! ‘Ust-Kan! Chemal! Ongudai!…’ The taxi drivers draw passengers each calling out the names of their destination, one of Altai’s ten administrative regions. To the first-time visitor these sounds might appear crudely shouted syllables, but not to me. I get a kick out of listening to them and in their call I hear a chorus of journeys through Altai’s enigmatic landscapes. I stand for a moment letting the associations of each place name run through my mind. “Kosh-Agach!” – Surely the end of the world; Altai’s last outpost before the Mongolian border, where even the eagles and black kites bunch up in flocks having seemingly stumbled against the edge of the sky.

“Ust-Koks!”  To any well-versed tourist the Ust-Koks region shouts sacred Mount Belukha, to the Altai people Kadyn Bajhi’, ‘Head of the Katun River’. Nicholas Roerich, Russian artist and mystic who had been intent on finding the geographical location of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala finally felt he had found it at Mount Belukha, the highest point (14,784 ft) in the Altai Republic in the 1920’s . In Heart of Asia Roerich writes: On the 17th of August we beheld Belukha; so clear and reverberant; “the Queen of the White Snows” of whom even the deserts whisper.”

“Ust-Kan!” – Synonymous with events said to have shaped the ‘White Faith’, Ak Jang’ of the Altai kijhi. Legend has it that one day in April 1904 in a soft, golden, highland pasture of the Ust-Kan region, Chugul-Sarok-Chandyk, the 12-year-old stepdaughter of a local shepherd met an old man, a messianic figure riding a white horse through the pasture lands. The white rider gave the girl a message to pass on to the people. Drums and hysterical screaming during shamanic ritual apparently upset God’s honour. The people were to pray at certain times in open places, to stick birches in the ground and decorate them with white ribbons. Instead of bloody sacrifices they were to burn juniper and sprinkle milk. The prayer meetings that followed after the message had time to spread were brutally crushed by the Russian Tsarist Regime and the Russian Orthodox ‘Altai Spiritual Mission’.

And yet to this day there are those in Ust-kan who serve the White Faith and attempt to popularise its philosophical component. My thoughts inevitably fly to a hearth that would be burning in an ail (traditional six-sided Altai dwelling). Beside the fire, elder and author Nikolai would be sitting on a low stool conversing through veils of smoke with visitors about the White Faith and ‘Bilik’, (Altai spiritual wisdom), imparting his vision of ‘ulalu‘ the connection between heart, mind and the parallel worlds. I was translating his manuscripts into English and always felt the pull to set off to his home, to be greeted by his sparkling eyes and stirred by his vision, but on this occasion, tea in his ail in Ust-Kan was not the purpose of my journey.

Next call: “Chemal!” Chemal conjures up images in my mind of the pristine pine forests that run along the banks of the mighty Katun River and the local Altai artist who loved to paint them, Grigory Ivanovich Choros-Gurkin. Gurkin was sentenced to death by shooting outside his studio in Anos village in 1937 as  an enemy of the people. In his painting and prose Gurkin revealed the soul of the Altai peoples: “In the understanding of the Altaians, Altai is not simply mountains, forests, rivers and waterfalls, but spirit……For the nation that lives here Altai is alive, fantastic in his many-coloured garb of forests and grasses. The mists are his transparent thoughts which run to all distant corners of the world. The lakes are his eyes, gazing up into the universe. The waterfalls and rivers, his words and songs of life and the beauty of the land and mountains.” (Choros-Gurkhin)

 Finally, I hear the call I am waiting for: “Ongudai!” The taxi driver looks me in the eye, and asks: “Going home?” I smile. “Iye, d’anarym”, “Yes, going home”. He takes the rucksack from my shoulder, packs it into the boot of his car. Soon we will journey for the next two and a half hours  down Altai’s main roadway, the Chuisky Trakt, marked on road atlases as M52, otherwise known as the ‘road of bones’.

As we travel, we follow the banks of the KatunRiver which in autumn is turbulent and emerald, a force to be worshipped. Eventually we cross the KatunRiver and continue in the direction of Ongudai, to the heart of the Republic. As I gaze into the mellow gold of the larch and beech forests that flash by I contemplate the legacy of the artists Nicholas Roerich and Choros-Gurkin. Both were exalters to Altai’s nature and both have played their part in shaping Altai’s image abroad. Roerich and Gurkin appear to me as two wings of a bird which carries the visitor into this precious land. For many Europeans such as myself, Nicholas Roerich’s travel journal Altai-Himalaya, is one of very few books in English that make reference to Altai, and so it serves as a bridge to the Altai Mountains. Those who follow Roerich take the road to Mount Belukha, his focus for ideas related to Shambhala, Buddhism and the return of the Maitreya. His paintings and prose are beautiful, expansive, filled with hope, and yet they present Altai from the outside, for these ideas are not born of the local culture. Those who keep searching later discover Altai artist Choros-Gurkhin who reveals the real Altai from within. Then the bird carries one further as it flies into landscapes enriched by spirit and deepened by the worldview of the indigenous peoples of Altai.

It was Choros-Gurkin’s road we were travelling and it lead off the Chuisky Tract and then right, into  the KarakolValley where the artist had made many portraits and sketches of petroglyphs, people and traditional household items. Eventually, we reach my stop on the Chuisky Trakt. It is here that I part with 450 roubles and watch the car drive off into the distance. I am alone. I stand at the bus stop. There won’t be a bus until 11-45 the following day so I prepare to hitch the remaining 15 km of my journey. I enjoy this moment as it gives me time to greet the valley and make the internal shift to a different time-space. I wait for a kestrel to circle above me in the sky as a sign that my greeting has been heard. Then I stretch out my arm to indicate that I need a ride. As always, a local car stops and agrees to drive me as far as Boochi village.

From the road the white ‘jalama‘ prayer ribbons can be seen hanging from the lower branches of the trees and the ‘taygl‘ ritual constructions can just be spotted on the lower of the valley’s peaks. In distant meadows the giant hay bales mingle without ceremony among the rock art sanctuaries, kurgan burial complexes and standing stones left by the nomads of ancient civilizations. As the village ails come into view, dozens of white smoke trails rise up from the hearths into the sky, pumping as regularly as a heart beat as they have done for centuries. Again the words of Grigory Gurkin come to mind: How I love you for having kept your secrets so solemnly and formidably hidden under rocks and in burials all these centuries and for having scattered your legends among the smoky ails…

 I watch for ‘Uch Enmek’, ‘The Three Fontanelles’, the sacred peaks of Terektinsky mountain range to come into view in the style of divination. This was a habit I had acquired from the time I lived in the valley. Each morning I would walk outside to check the mountain was still there, scrutinizing it to detect any slight change with which to take guidance for the day. Here the mountains are described with the reverence of ‘Kan Altai’ or more intimately as ‘kin Altai’, ‘navel Altai.’ I loved the way my Altai friends used metaphors of the human body to describe the sacred landscape. Rather than project the meaning of their homeland by comparing it with a country as far away as Switzerland or as elusive as Shambhala they bring it closer, into the immediate realm of here and now, making it more personal, private, cherished. Everyone can identify with these simple notions…one’s body, one’s blood relatives, one’s true love, one’s Kan.

I pass the mighty wooden tying post  ‘chakyr‘ that stands outside their home, and walk boldly into the ail stooping slightly to enter, thereby making an involuntary bow to the fire burning in the centre of the earthen floor. I am warmly greeted by the family inside and invited to sit at the low round table to drink tea whilst news is exchanged. ‘Dochinka vernulas’ they say, ‘our daughter has returned’. I can see that my Altai friend, the mother in the family, has been busy. The ail is smoky, fresh birch bark and a few short juniper twigs lie on a wooden plate at the ‘fire’s head’, ‘otyng bajhi’ where it is forbidden to stand or walk. The hard cheese ‘kurut’ is being smoked on the wooden slatted rack above the fire and above that a new leather bridle has been hung to strengthen the leather. I turn around and to my delight notice that a ‘little boy is peeing by the door’. This is an Altai expression for the drip, drip, drip of the sour milk drink chegen as it is filtered through a muslin sack into a bowl placed in the corner near the door of the ail to make aarchi (a type of Altai yoghurt).

 As usual we chat about news of the external world, my work in Akademgorodok, the journey to the valley from Gorno-Altaisk, updates on development projects along the Chuisky Trakt and the artificial lake Sibmost company has spent half a billion roubles to construct and then we come to matters closer to home; grandfather’s eyesight, problems with wolves in the summer pastures and news of close relatives, the responsibilities associated with a forthcoming wedding or funeral.

On this occasion as I have recently returned from London. I am asked how things are in ‘tumany albion’ and there are gentle jokes about how I always return ‘home ‘ to Altai and to their ail in the Karakol valley. In the neighbouring villages people had long compiled myths to explain the incongruity of an English woman living beyond Seminsky Mountain Pass: ‘Black shaman’, ‘Rich girl sent to buy up land’ and ‘spy’. The list of stories composed to explain my presence among the Maiman tribe was almost as impressive as Altai’s range of epithets. It is hard to say which was more enigmatic: Altai as it appeared to the traveller or the traveller as it appeared to the Altai indigenous population. But it had to be said, there was something magnetic about this smoky ail that always pulled me back as if to my home and family.

I loved sitting with them around their hearth, chatting on themes as lowly as water buckets, as eternal as smoke and as lofty as the kans. I could never quite say exactly why I felt so comfortable. Was it the fire, the friends, the conversation? I couldn’t help wondering whether it was not in part that spirit of Kan Altai also enjoyed our gatherings and came to sit with us beside the fire tucking this ‘ail’ tightly under his arm to keep us safe…

Another guest, an Altai scholar, turns to me and says: ‘The word Altai is actually a wider notion than people think. Most people say that ‘Altai’ means ‘golden mountains’ which is why UNESCO used it as the title for Altai’s World Natural Heritage Sites, but actually, I always tell people that the Bayats used the word ‘Altai’ to mean ‘rodnye kochev’ya’,’home camping grounds’, ‘home’. They would greet each other with the words ‘Where is your Altai?’ And so, you can say that where your home is does actually count as ‘your Altai’.

 I considered his words. Was this not how so many ailatkysh, ‘blessings’ and songs began? “Oh, my Altai, “Menym Altaiym”, silver, moon, golden sun Altai. In these words there was more than just the place one calls home. Everyone here had their own “Menym Altaiym”, a personal universe created by their passionate love for Altai.

We talked late into the evening. Outside the ail the colours on the valley slopes had long deepened and the day drew to a close. The fire in the hearth had been left to burn down and I finally took myself away to snuggle under a warm sheepskin throw and gaze up at the stars to where the smoke travels,  waiting for sleep.

As I lay there tingling with happiness, I wondered, of all the epithets I had heard for Altai, which one I would choose for the Altai world I had experienced. Which words could convey this: Shambhala, the navel, the cradle, kan Altai? I thought for a moment feeling each word through. To describe Altai’s beauty is not enough for she is no more majestic than other mountainous regions; to describe Altai through comparison with another land, a travesty; to refer to Altai’s spirit, generosity, purity was nearer to the point, but no epithet would be complete unless it conveyed the Altai people’s intimate, powerful, emotional connection with their homeland. It was something deeply personal, but everyone who felt this affection and carried it silently in their heart of hearts would be greeted here with kindness. Yes, that would be it: ‘My Altai’.

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