Sacred Land Blog

September 15, 2009
Sacred Site Guardians Meet in the Altai
Posted by: Toby McLeod

Sacred site guardians from Central Asia meet in Karakol Valley School, Altai Republic, Russia.In July, we traveled for the second time to Russia’s Altai Republic, this time to film a meeting of 25 sacred site guardians from all over Central Asia who gathered to discuss strategies for protecting cultural and biological diversity locally and globally. At the invitation of the Foundation for Sustainable Development of Altai (FSDA), delegations from Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan and Russia’s Lake Baikal area met at Uch Enmek Nature Park with Altaian colleagues for two days of discussion about how best to deal with tourism, mining, climate change, archaeologists and government bureaucrats. Altaian environmentalist Danil Mamyev, a key character in our film, observed, “By networking sacred site guardians you also connect the places — and the guardians and the sacred places are all strengthened.”

We learned when we arrived that our friend, shaman Maria Amanchina, had become very sick after we filmed her in the summer of 2007. When I saw Maria I apologized for any role our filming might have had in her illness and she said, “No, it wasn’t you or the equipment, but I should not have allowed filming inside my yurt.” Initially, we heard Maria would not permit filming on this trip and that she would not accompany the group on a pilgrimage after the conference. As the meeting went on, however, she changed her mind and allowed filming (“no tight shots please”) and agreed to come with the group on a long journey to the Ukok Plateau.

Danil Mamyev explains sacred site protection efforts in Uch Enmek Nature Park as an elder from Kyrgyzstan and shaman Maria Amanchina (at center) listen.On the final day of the conference, the participants took a journey with Danil Mamyev, the founder of Uch Enmek Park, into the heart of the Karakol Valley, where Danil explained how the three communities within the park protect both the ecology and spirituality of the valley through traditional customary law that guides careful management of biodiversity and sacred sites. We stood in a carpet of wildflowers richer and more diverse than any I have ever seen.

Danil Mamyev and two students from Moscow University map sacred sites in Uch Enmek Nature Park in an effort to manage tourism.Danil is racing to survey and map the entire Uch Enmek Nature Park by the end of December 2009 to prevent the Russian government from privatizing the land within the sacred valley, which would allow distant hotel operators to buy land and build tourism facilities. We filmed Danil working with two students from Moscow University doing GPS mapping near an offering site by a tranquil mountain lake. The mapping work will be used to manage tourism by re-routing roads and trails and building a visitor education center. Danil’s mapping work received a great boost this month with a National Science Foundation grant that should enable him to complete the survey work by the end of the year.

After the sacred site guardian meeting in the Karakol Valley ended, the participants journeyAt a sacred radon spring below the mountain pass to the Ukok Plateau, Maya Erlenbaeva offers milk at a sunrise ceremony before heading out onto the plateau.ed to the Ukok Plateau, a World Heritage Site known even to the ancient Greeks as a hallowed burial ground. Before attempting to go over the pass to the plateau, Maria Amanchina led a sunrise ceremony with Danil and FSDA’s Chagat Almashev and Maya Erlenbaeva offering milk to the four directions. After the ritual the group made a circuit of 13 springs before heading off for the far reaches of the Ukok Plateau, where they hoped to make it to the Mongolia-China border and the burial site of the renowned Ukok Princess, a 2,500-year-old mummy unearthed in 1993 by Russian archaeologists.

After a six-hour ride in indestructible Russian-built vehicles known as Uazis, passing ancient standing stones, the group made it to the now-empty burial site. The young woman had been buried in permafrost and her skin was well preserved, still bearing intricate tattoos, her clothing in perfect shape. Altaians immediately protested the removal of their ancestor and demanded her return. A major earthquake rocked the region soon after, and the locals attributed the earth tremor to the disturbance of the dead. Maria and Danil conducted a solemn ritual at the site of the excavated kurgan and prayed for the return and re-burial of the Ukok Princess.

The shaman Ahamkara conducts a blessing ceremony for European pilgrims near sacred Mt. Belukha.When the Ukok pilgrimage concluded, we traveled to sacred Mt. Belukha and met a group of Europeans making a spiritual journey with a Russian-born healer named Ahamkara. As the drumming shaman invoked the Altaian nature deity, Erlich, the wolf, two members of the group began growling and writhing on the ground as they transformed into wolves. Tourism is on the rise in the Altai and native shaman have voiced growing concern about outsiders conducting such rituals, which the traditionalists describe as a form of “spiritual pollution.”

Back now at our new home in Berkeley, I feel as if one of the mountains I watched all day lying quietly at the edge of the Ukok Plateau, Nairamdal, is still calling out to me. From half way around the world I can see its brightness hovering in my mind and I wonder: is it touching my soul? The Altaian mountains are potent and alive. When I close my eyes I see a series of softly rounded snow peaks stretching along the horizon under blue sky and puffy white clouds — a dazzling being whose name means “Friendship.” The mountain was my first view of Mongolia. In front of Nairamdal I can also still see the endless barbed wire fence running to infinity along Russia’s southern Siberian border.

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