In southwestern Siberia, along Russia’s border with China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, the Altai or “Golden” Mountains are home to the semi-nomadic Altai people and to many endangered species, including the totemic snow leopard and argali mountain sheep. The Golden Mountains are sacred to the Altaians and to Buddhists and Burkhanists around the world. Siberia’s highest peak, Mount Belukha, is especially revered. Within the Altai Republic of the Russian Federation, the Ukok Plateau is also famous as a burial ground and has been the subject of controversy in Russia over rights to the more than 150 archaeological sites that have been excavated there since the 1920s. The state-owned energy giant Gazprom has proposed building a natural gas pipeline to China across the Ukok Plateau. Mount Belukha and the sacred Katun River have seen recent influxes of tourists that bring a measure of prosperity to the impoverished Altai Republic, but may also have lasting impacts. Altaians wish to preserve their burial sites, as well as the land that nurtures their livestock, their crops and herbal medicines, and the forests that ensure the survival of their people. “We maintain connection to the land through petroglyphs, standing stones, kurgans, throat singing, totem plants and animals like snow leopard and wolf,” says Igor Sailankin, director of Nature Park Belukha. “It’s something people live with every day.”
The Land and Its People
The Altai Republic was split off from the neighboring Russian province of Altaisky Krai during the Yeltsin era, partly in recognition of the Altai people’s cultural and linguistic uniqueness, but also because of its geographical difference from the flat farmland and big industrial cities of the Krai. The Altai Republic is home to many people of Russian ancestry, but a third of its population is Altai and speaks the Altaian language. Today’s 60,000 Altaians live predominantly in the south of the republic. They are closely related to Mongolians and are considered the original Turkic people. The Altaians joined the Czarist Russian Empire during the 18th century seeking protection from Chinese and Kazakh invaders, but the Altai didn’t truly attract Moscow’s attention until the 20th century when its farmland and stunning rivers and mountains began to draw ethnic Russians as settlers and tourists. The north of the Altai Republic has a large population of Russians who settled during the communist era on collective farms around the provincial capital, Gorno-Altaisk. Today, many of these ethnic Russians identify strongly as Altaians and also wish to protect Altaian lands and culture.
Altaians have traditionally practiced shamanism, Buddhism and Burkhanism or Ak Jang (“White Faith”). Most ethnic Altaians are Burkhanists and belong to family clans that revere totem animals, such as the argali and the wolf, and totem flowers. Burkhanists believe in a three-world cosmology (upper, middle and under) and pray to many spirits, including legendary figures from traditional oral epics. Burkhanists are known for their throat singing practice, in which the singer recounts traditional epics that are very complex and endure for hours. Altaian ceremonies always involved a “feeding of the fire” in which food and alcohol are put into a fire in front of the home as each family asks the spirits to protect the health of the land and water and to continue to provide the family with sustenance. The land is foundational to Altaian spiritualism.
The Golden Mountain region includes the headwaters of Ob’ River, one of the longest rivers in the world, and Lake Teletskoe, the world’s second deepest freshwater body after Lake Baikal. The one million square mile Altai-Sayan Ecoregion (designated by the World Wildlife Fund, and including small areas of China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia) is home to 5 million people speaking 40 languages, and includes 326 protected natural areas and 27,000 lakes. The water system forms the primary Arctic Ocean watershed and nurtures more than 3,000 floral species, many of which are unique to the Altai. The dramatic Altai range, with its myriad microclimates, is home to nearly 700 animal species, including the mountain ram, reindeer and the endangered snow leopard. The Altai region contains many sacred sites and landscapes, including the following four:
Mount Belukha is the highest peak in the Altai Mountains. It has long been a focus of Buddhist and Burkhanist reverence, traditionally called Üch Sümer, meaning “three peaks.” Belukha may be Sumeru, which is the mythical Central Asian mountain of Buddhist belief, the center of Shangri-la (Shambala), where only the spiritually advanced may enter. Several important glaciers crown the mountain and supply the headwaters of the Katun River. Belukha was first climbed in 1914 and now draws many recreational climbers each year.
The Ukok Plateau in the south is thought to have been the Elysian Fields (the “Pastures of Heaven” as local people now call it) of the Pazyryk, an ancient Siberian people. There, hundreds of people were buried over many generations. The Greek historian Herodotus reported that the Scythians (as he called the Pazyryk) were a race of fierce warriors in the Asian steppes that kept a sacred burial ground in the high eastern mountains. One of the kurgans (burial sites) is that of the famous “Ice Maiden” or “Ukok Princess”— a young and powerful female Pazyryk warrior. In 1993, archaeologist Natalia Polosmak uncovered the 5th century B.C. woman who had been buried in a larch wood chamber with six sacrificed horses. The frozen mummy was removed from the site for research in Moscow, was then on display for years in a museum in Novosibirsk, and has recently been returned to a museum in Altai.
The Katun River is central to the spirituality and culture of the Altaians. Originating from the glaciers atop Mount Belukha, the Katun forms the beginning of the magnificent Ob’ River, Russia’s fourth longest river which empties into the Arctic Ocean. The Katun itself supports astounding biodiversity. Indigenous Altaians conduct many ceremonies in honor of the river and have used traditional ecological knowledge to protect the quality of the river and life in and along it for millennia.
The Karakol Valley is home to three villages, many ancient burials and — at its headwaters — the sacred mountain of Üch Enmek. The valley is now the heart of the new Üch Enmek Nature Park, where tourism is carefully managed by local people. In our new film, Standing on Sacred Ground, Üch Enmek Park founder Danil Mamyev explains the importance of the Karakol Valley: “This is the exact place through which planet Earth receives information. A shaman comes to these sacred places as a pilgrim and receives certain information. They then distribute this information at the human level, in human language.”
Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts
In the southern section of the Altai, there are multiple large Nature Parks recently carved out by the republic’s government in cooperation with local communities dedicated to preserving both culture and biodiversity. The oldest park was established ten years ago and the youngest only two years ago. There are active proposals to expand existing parks and add new ones. The parks are at the beginning of a long, difficult process: administrative resources and money are scant, management plans are mostly nonexistent, and powers of rangers are not clearly defined. There are daily problems with poachers of plants and animals, and with large numbers of what are locally known as “wild tourists”— people who seek adventure in the world’s most remote places. However, the parks’ directors and the Altai government are currently working to safeguard their lands and ensure sustainable tourism.
Large-scale tourism has come to the Altai in the last ten years, with the removal of domestic travel restrictions and the growth of private car ownership as well as the increasing interest of East Asian travelers in the Russian steppe. Many of these new vacationers have limited understanding of stewardship ethics, so incidents of environmental damage in parks or on local peoples’ land are increasing. In establishing a park, the consent of local people living within the park or using it for seasonal livestock grazing is necessary by law. Local support for parks is growing. Parks are seen as a way for Altai people to preserve their environment and culture, to increase local livelihoods, and to continue traditions of common land use and management as much of Russia’s land become privatized and fragmented.
UNESCO declared the Golden Mountains, including Siberia’s largest mountain, the sacred Mount Belukha, a World Heritage site in 1998. The World Wildlife Fund has designated the greater Altai-Sayan area as one of the Global 200 Ecoregions that should be protected for reasons of biodiversity. In 2000, a group of scientists and governmental and non-governmental organizations from the four surrounding countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia) established the Charter of the Altai-Sayan Region, which states: “The Altai-Sayan region, situated in the exact center of the Eurasian continent and inhabited by the key ethnic groups of Eurasia, is its geopolitical, ethnocultural and biospheric heart.”
The Altai Republic, primarily through the efforts of the local NGO “Ene Til,” has petitioned Moscow to become a special tourist area (which would give the local government the ability to regulate its parks and assess tourist taxes).
A recent proposal by Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom to build a natural gas pipeline to China has roused local concern. One proposed pipeline route crosses the Ukok Plateau, the biodiverse nature park and site of ancient burials. Due to a failure to reach agreement over the price of gas, the pipeline proposal has been postponed in recent years but a deal now may be immanent. Gazprom survey crews were seen on the Ukok Plateau in summer 2011 staking out the pipeline route.
What You Can Do
Support the Gorno-Altai based Foundation for Sustainable Development of Altai (FSDA), which is leading local efforts at community organizing, cultural renewal, environmental protection, international education and sacred site protection.
For more information on the World Wildlife Fund’s activities to protect the Altai-Sayan region, and the endangered snow leopard, contact their Altai office.
In summer 2007, Sacred Land Film Project filmed in the Altai Republic for our upcoming series Standing on Sacred Ground. Watch a video of our pilgrimage to a sacred mountain in the Üch Enmek Nature Park, and visit our News & Blog section for updates and report from the field.
Halemba, Agnieszka. “Contemporary religious life in the Republic of Altai: the interaction of Buddhism and Shamanism.” Sibirica Vol. 3, No. 2, October, 2003. (PDF)
Halemba, Agnieszka.“Power in places and politics in Altai.” Agnieszka Halemba. Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, Copenhagen, Denmark, April 2002.
Klubnikin, Kheryn, Cynthia Annett, Maria Cherkasova, Michail Shishin, and Irina Fotieva. “The Sacred and the Scientific: Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Siberian River Conservation.” Ecological Applications Vol. 10, No. 5, October 2000.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations. “Golden Mountains of Altai.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
Vinogradov, Andrei. Ak Jang in the Context of Altai Religious Tradition. Thesis submitted to the Department of Religious Studies and Anthropology, University of Saskatchewan, 2003.
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Report by: Ashley Tindall
Posted on: November 12, 2006
Updated on: March 7, 2012