On a recent trip to the Altai, I was disconnected from my office – and everything else that I could not see with my own eyes. Instead I could contemplate the silence of cedar forests, the grace of wild horses cantering through alpine meadows, and the beauty of glacier-fed rivers cutting through the republic’s rugged mountains.
Lost for centuries in a mountainous cleft between Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, the Altai features Siberia’s tallest mountain, Mount Belukha. To some Buddhist visitors, Belukha’s twin, snow-capped peaks form the gateway to Shambhala, a mythical “Pure Land” of peace, tranquility and happiness.
With its 4,500-meter high peaks and steep valleys, the Altai has always been the end of the road. Absorbed by Tsarist Russia 250 years ago to define an imperial border with China, Altai’s mountain peoples were largely left alone. To this day, the Altai Republic is one of only a handful of Russia’s 83 regions never penetrated by a railroad.
The isolation of “Russia’s Tibet” was cut this year when engineers finished doubling the runway at the airport of Gorno Altaisk, the republic’s capital of 60,000 people. In June, S7 Airlines started direct flights from Moscow.
On the ground, workers completed paving the “Chuisky Track,” a 600-kilometer road. Now, a smooth ribbon of asphalt, the Chuisky runs from the capital to the international border with Mongolia. On crossing into Mongolia, it immediately reverts to a rough, dirt track.
The republic’s main paved road threads its way through the rugged Altai-Sayan Mountains. In Turkic and Mongolian languages, Al-tai means Golden Mountains. In mid-September, larch trees were exploding like bright yellow flares against a dark green backdrop of cedar trees.
The Golden Mountains are now one of Russia’s nine natural sites listed among UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The higher elevations are home to the Argali sheep, the world’s largest mountain sheep. A ram can weigh up to 182 kilograms, including his two corkscrew horns which can weigh up to 28 kilos.
Prowling at the very top of the food chain are the snow leopards.
Well adapted to their high altitude homes, the leopards have wide paws to walk in the snow, thick fur to cope with the cold, and fat, extra-long tails to warm their faces when they sleep.
Secretive and solitary creatures, the leopards are masters of camouflage. They usually only make their presence known when it is too late. They kill their prey with a single, decisive bite to the neck.
The Argali and snow leopards inhabit the top of the world — a high altitude universe that circles in a massive crescent — south from Altai and eventually east to the Himalayas and Tibet. Both of these large mammals are endangered species.
In the Altai, they may stand a fighting chance.
Parks protect about one quarter of the republic, largely the mountainous forested parts. The Altai Republic is the size of Hungary, but has only 206,000 people — 2 percent of Hungary’s population.
In January 2009, a group of Moscow and local politicians rented a helicopter and flew into the mountains to hunt Argali sheep from the air. One of the “hunters,” possibly intoxicated, fired a stray shot that hit the rotor.
The helicopter crashed – deep inside a wildlife reserve.
Rescuers found the carcasses of two freshly killed Argali sheep as well as the bodies of seven hunters. They included the Altai Chairman of the Committee on Protection of Fauna, the Kremlin’s envoy to the State Duma, and another senior member of Russia’s Presidential Administration.
The three surviving passengers escaped prosecution for poaching endangered species by blaming all illegal activities on the dead men. Presumably, they were taken on board to provide moral ballast.
The hunting party’s behavior was so boorish, and the local, national and international furor so enormous, that it would now seem to be difficult for poaching parties to rent helicopters in the small world of the Altai.
Local outrage over the poaching highlighted a slow sea change underway in the republic.
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