A nippy autumn breeze catches my nostrils as I step out of an Aeroflot plane onto the tarmac of Barnaul Airport. -1 °C is not the end of the world, but my destination is and I wonder how cold it might get when I travel further. A sarcastic taxi driver points at the last living mosquito in Altaisky Krai, a poor creature hovering about his dashboard. We make across the Pavlovskiy Trakt in the darkness of the early morning toward the bus station, where I get ushered into another cab by a convincing cabdriver, with the argument that his car is far more comfortable than the bus with the added value of being able to leave right away instead of waiting and being miserable in the waiting hall.
I succumb to his arguments, weary of 30 hours of travel, and take the backseat of his car, which I share with an older lady from nearby Kazakhstan, out to visit her daughter in Gorno-Altaisk, Altai Republic’s capital city and only city for that manner. At last the rows and rows of project highrises make way to rolling hills of ploughed fields and grassy meadows, intersperced with open forests of birch and poplar showing splendid autnumn colours. It’s the first of october and I’m Siberia! The thought suddenly hits me and I get all giddy inside , the promise of adventure beyond the winding road, erasing all doubts about my undertaking and feelings of guilt for leaving my family behind for the next two-and-a-half weeks.
I’ve been here before, the first time a little over a decade ago in the summer of 2009. I had finally landed a spot as a volunteer on an archeaological expedition of my former university. An experience that had made a deep and lasting impression on me, marking the start of my obsession for wilderness, wilderness travel and expeditions in general. I came back to Altai Republic in 2010, 2013 and 2014, mapping Scythian and Turkic burial mounds, standing stones and petroglyphs in Uch Enmek Cultural Park and the Yustid steppe southeast of Kosh Agach. One year I came volunteering with the Altaiproject, going deep into the mountains at the Russian-Mongolian border with researchers from WWF Russia who are monitoring snow leopards in this transboundary mountain range.
The Altai mountains, spanning across this part of Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, are rugged and sparsely populated. Taiga forests of pine, birch and aspen in the north gradually make way to Siberian larch and as the ground rises toward the south, forest makes way to arid highland steppe and barren mountain peaks. Never before have I experienced a landscape so vast and empty, with an endless horizon and bright starlit nights. There and then I made the promise to return and help out this biological research again someday.
Five years later and I’m standing on a snow covered mountaintop, bright blue sky overhead, overlooking the Chuya steppe, Kosh Agach but a flickering mirage in the distance. I try to catch my breath, since being from the low countries means I’m not adapted to an altitude of 3000 meters and cold, dry, continental climate. Alexei didn’t even break a sweat, and his small legs carry him faster than I gave him credit for. This stocky Altaian is the only researcher working on snow leopards and argali sheep (largest wildsheep in the world) in the republic nowadays, so when a call for volunteers came into my mailbox, I knew that this would be a good time to return to this sacred land of snow leopards. A land, which locals deem the belly button of the earth, a place where portals between this dimension and world of spirits exist. Many buddhists believe it to be Shambala, paradise on earth…
Paradise or not, the reality for the majority of the people living here is one of surviving the elements and living off the land. Summertime sees the thermometer skyrocket up to 40°C, whilst winter can bring 50 below freezing. Whatever is grown in the summer months, is prepared to last the winter. Livestock and animal husbandry is by far the main source of income. If you live in the mountains or the Taiga, hunting for food traditionally is a part of this subsistence.
Many prey animals are on the Redlist of endangered species, so action needs to be undertaken to stop this practice. WWF Russia reaches out to the locals, by raising awareness amongst children, by making animal pens predator proof and by reaching out to poachers by providing them a monthly salary as park ranger, enabling them to use their knowledge of the land and their tracking skills for a good cause. This approach is paying off: the number of snow leopards in Russia has risen from 50 recorded animals to around 80 in the past five years. That’s a major feat considering there are only around 4000 snow leopards living in the wild worldwide. Argali sheep also increased by 35% as more and more habitat falls under protection.
It takes a lot of work to monitor these elusive animals. Some stats: in 2019 1800 km² of territory has been examined, using 85 motion sensor camera’s, hidden in strategic places on mountaintops and passes. Those cameratraps have to be checked on foot, totalling a 1000 km for a researcher in one season. This includes mountain scrambles in both summer as wel as winter time!
I couldn’t have chosen my time for volunteering any better. That first spell of winter made way to fourteen glorious days of indian summer, which Russians call Babje Leto (grandma summer): blue sky, golden larch trees, brown steppegrass and temperatures that are neither too hot or too cold. Some days were spent climbing a mountain to retrieve cameratrap data, map territorial scrap marks and collect hair samples or scat for laboratory research. Other days were used to scan multiple valleys from the seat of our 4 x 4 UAZ minivan, binoculars in hand. Three days I tagged along with a CBS newscrew, out in Sailyugemsky National Park to shoot a feature on a poacher turned park ranger. It was an eye opener to whitness first hand how much work goes into making a small documentary, which eventually gets compressed into 5 minutes of airtime.
My last days were spent in the otherwise forbidden borderzone with Mongolia and China, not far form Ukok Plateau. A team of Russian researchers would scan all the frontier valleys simultaineously with a Mongolian team their side of the border, in an effort to make estimations of the total population of argali sheep in this transboundary zone. I was given a map of my area, a gps and the instruction to walk and scan a river valley up to a mountain lake, with strict orders not to proceed any further, as that would mean crossing the border illegaly and almost certainly a confrontation with the military.
Oh that sense of freedom when it’s just you and the mountains around you! I hiked along cattlepaths, crossed the river a few times in search for drier ground, approached a herdsman’s summer cabin with caution, only to find it empty, abandoned for the winter with the cattle brought to lower pastures. I took many breaks, scanning the area through my late fathers old binoculars. 40 Odd years, made in the USSR and still sharp as a needle. I counted a dozen argali in the far distance, took a waypoint with the number of individuals counted, made my way to the mountain lake but backed off when I spotted the lookout tower of the border guards. Then I made my way back. Elated I reached our camp just before nightfall.
The next day was to be my last day in the field before returning to Gorno Altaisk and subsequently starting the long and arduous journey back home. Alexei took me aboard his ATV quadbike to my alotted valley. He showed me which river to follow, where to abandon the river to follow a tributary and where we would rendez-vous again. Again I set off on my own. I relish those moments where one feels like the only living person. Being from the most densely populated region of Europe means those experiences are few indeed. As I follow the tributary up a wide and marshy plateau, my mind wanders off in existencialist thoughts. Suddenly I stand face to face with an argali, it’s head just peeping over a rise, some 20 m further. I freeze as the animal scampers off, then crawl my way across the knoll to see 8 individuals taking leaps for safety. A few minutes later and they are but a speck on the horizon.
Later that day, Alexei spots a herd with over a thousand head, grazing on top of a grassy bank. He takes me to the valley below, instructs me to lay low for a while, camera at hand, and takes off with his ATV. He is gone before I could protest. Again, silence and solitude envelops me. I take out my binoculars and whitness two rams fighting each other for supremacy. Rushing foreward on hind legs, the sound of their huge antlers colliding reports like a gunshot across the valley. The sun is setting and the temperature drops below freezing. It gets cold as I lay there, which must have been the better part of an hour, wondering what Alexei is up to and what is taking him so long. Finally my binoculairs see him making his way slowly to the pack. Soon after the first animals at the periphery start bounding off, triggering the others to take off as wel. By the time I get my camera out, I can hear a stampede rumbling my way. A little frightened of what’s to come I raise my head and see argali running past me left and right. The white of their eyes wide with fear. Unfortunately, they are no match for my wideangle lens.
“Did you get’em?” Alexei asks when he arrives at my hideout, beaming with pleasure, his dissappointment apparant when he sees my pictures didn’t turn out all that spectacular. “Oh well, next time bring a telelens, will ya!” I’m glad he took it well and even though a little unorthodox for a biologist, I do appreciate his farewell present…
List of animals spotted:
- Maral Deer
- Bactrian Camel
- Red Fox
- Snow Leopard (only on cameratrap)
- Wolf (only on camera trap)
Birds of prey:
- Common Kestrel
- Steppe Eagle
- Golden Eagle
- Bearded Vulture
- Cinerous Vulture
- Little Owl
- Black Grouse
- Whooper Swan
- Black Woodpecker
- Henderson’s Ground Jay
- Spotted Nutcracker
- Northern Raven
- Great Tit
- Eurasian Treecreeper
- Horned Lark (?)
- Dusky Warbler (?)
- Long Tailed Tit (?)
Anyone interested for volunteering in the Altai in 2020? Alexei can use help anytime of the year. A minimum of two weeks is required, and longer stays are of up to several months can be arranged. The National Park provides logistics and accomodation, all you need to do is get to Gorno Altaisk and share food expenses. I stayed at the National Park visitor centre in Kosh Agach (8/10 on Booking.com!) for most nights in all comfort (wifi, tv, common kitchen, bunkbed, western standard bathroom and sauna. There couldn’t be a better (and cheaper) way to discover what Altai is about and have a genuine adventure. Just drop me a line and I’ll foreward you the contacts!