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Karakol Valley

Protected by Spirits

I was standing at the intersection of dusty roads right in front of the Karakol Valley, a sacred place to the Altai people, and waiting for Marina. Her voice was warm and welcoming on the phone, gurgling like a forest creek. Marina was a local guide, she organised excursions to holy places and petroglyphs. She was a little late, so while waiting I was watching the cows that were grazing at the roadside pond.



Marina came out of the forest, waved to me and asked me to come closer. I liked her right away - a friendly woman with a soft voice, wearing a modest headscarf. Without even greeting she gave me a long brown feather: “Olya, look what I have for you! I was on my way to meet you and noticed that your feather was right there on the path. I immediately understood that was a good  sign. I picked it up to bring it to you. I wish you can write anything with this feather as easy as the bird flies. The Altai people in the Karakol Valley are loyal followers of the “White Faith” of Burkhanism, a new religion that includes a little bit of everything: shamanism, Druidry and local cults. Burkhanists worship the spirits of nature and the spirits of the elements, they make offerings to trees, streams, mountains and forests and they believe in signs very much. The feather clearly belonged to a large bird. I am not an ornithologist, but I wanted to believe that this feather had once belonged to a black kite or an eagle.

“Turn around, look, this is our sacred stone," continued Marina, "It has quartz in it, a mineral that has a memory. It was installed here for our protection. In the Karakol Valley, everything is sacred. We believe that the navel of the Earth is here, in the valley.”

Well, "the navel of the Earth" looked perfect in my opinion. A fully lit flatland framed by mountains, cows and horses grazing on the fields. In the distance, there were the roofs of rural houses, blue ribbons of rivers, slowly flowing along their riverbeds, like veins. Somewhere in the distance, there was the Chuysky Tract, and far away on the horizon was the Terektinsky Ridge.

The wind ruffled the ribbons — kyir made of white and yellow satin. The Altaians tied them, while praying to their spirits. It is not recommended for other people to do this, since they don’t really know the rituals. But in all the tourist places in Altai, I noticed that visitors tied up any garbage to the branches - from shoe laces to plastic bags. “We most often tie the ribbons on a birch or on a larch, we honor these trees. We all have houses made of the larch, we warm them up with the larch wood. We have three names for it - we call the young tree ‘charal,’ when it grows up - ‘chet,' and the adult one is 'tyt.' I will not tie the kyir now though, because I’m in mourning. But I brought offerings to the spirits, I made offerings to the spring before I met you here," Marina shared. "Have you treated the creek with cookies?" I asked. Marina nodded.

 

I looked from the almost yellow larch, under which we stood, to the mountain peak. That was Mount Baitu. Marina followed my gaze and immediately asked: “Do you see something there?” Well, I saw mountains, beautiful, rocky silhouettes. Wherever I am, I love these vertical landscapes. “People with a third eye are able to see many different images instead of mountains. For example, once I could clearly see a snow leopard. It was snowing. And all images were black and white. There is an old lady that lives in a neighbouring village, she is over 80 now. Once she drew this mountain and there was a whole army of heroes there. I could see the power and feel the energy in that image," Marina added a little mystery to our day. Maybe it was just her quiet, calm and balanced voice, or maybe there was really something important, that rose up along the umbilical cord to the children of the Earth.

“We do not climb to the top of the sacred mountains. The mountain symbolises a hearth for us. Therefore, the hearth is always at the centre of our yurt - ail, ” continued Marina. Well, it's quite logical: the pyramid shaped houses-ails, which most people now use as a summer gazebo with an open kitchen, really looked like mountains. “There is always a male and female space inside of the ail. The same is here. The Karakol Valley is considered male. And the valley beyond Mount Arakta is female.” Marina began reading the text carved into the stele – it said the words of benevolence and finished with: “Alas, alas, alas.” Which literally meant "Amen." 

 

We got into the car and drove to the Karakol Valley. Right to "the belly button". On the way, we stopped near Bichiktu-Boom Mount to look at the ancient petroglyphs: figures of deer and hunters, drawn on a stone with an ancient Turkic script. Then we drove on and damaged a tire. While Kirill, my companion, driver and "guardian angel" in Altai, who also brewed me wonderful coffee every day right in the nature, was busy with the tire, Marina convinced me go up the hill.

She was in her own nature. She collected herbs and leaves, looked for any other gifts of nature. I could hardly keep up with her. Sometimes it seemed that my presence was not very important for her. There was a feeling that she almost did not notice me, although she talked to me, and she saw everything that I did not see. She was in her world, where she knew the names for everything that can smell, prick, blossom and cling to pants. 



“Olya, look, it's a miracle! The Rhododendron is blooming - this is also specially for you! Usually it blooms in May, and this one is blooming in September. This is a very good sign.” The pink petals on the low bush were indeed the only blossoming flower in the valley. Autumn is a time of Spiraea, when the mountains turn red. And pink is the color of spring. 



On the way to the village of Boochi, where Marina lived, we picked up her neighbours. There are only three villages in the valley, and transportation rarely runs here, so everybody who drives between the villages helps each other to get home. “I live in the middle village,” said Marina in the car. "Each village has its own character. This is the small one - Bichiktu-Boom. They didn’t even have a school here for a long time. But now there is an Elementary school here. It's interesting, but this village is well known in Altai as the motherland of many scientists. My village is known as a place of workaholics. They say, we are working until 'the eye falls out'. And when the eye falls out, we put it in a pocket and continue to work. The next village is Kulady. There are no ordinary people there. Everybody you will meet there has some talent. Let’s go to Nogon! He will play and sing for you. Yesterday he and I had a tea with thyme, and today he promised to cook a ground squirrel. ”

“Do you eat ground squirrels too?” I knew that in Mongolia the indigenous people grill marmots. But could not imagine that they eat those who snoop back and forth under the car wheels…

It was clear that Marina was embarrassed, but I was curious. It turned out that here, in the valley, they cook the ground squirrel in the same way as domestic rabbit - bake it in foil and serve with baby potatoes. And sometimes they barbecue it.

“And how does it taste?” I wondered.

"Well, it's like a squirrel, for an amateur…"

Nogon Shumarov came out in a very beautiful blue outfit and headdress. He introduced himself as Kolya. “And I'm Olya,” I replied cheerfully. Nogon, also known as Nicholas, escorted me into a bright room and invited me to sit on a low platform covered with a carpet. He took one of the traditional Altai instruments which were lying in front of him on a small table and started to play. First he played a jaw harp; then he played Altaian flute and komus - another kind of jaw harp; then the yatyagan (Scythian harp). During the intermissions (which were professionally planned like in the theatre), in between musical acts and Nogon's throat singing, he told me that he was in fact a Merited Artist of the Russian Federation, an actor and musician.

After a couple of musical compositions, the old man told me that he once hosted Ville Haapasalo. He scored a sheep for the Finish actor, and guided him to a sacred spring, when he came to film a documentary about Altai. Also, Nogon starred as an old man in Garik Sukachev’s film "House of the Sun." Also, Nogon starred as a shaman in the movies “Gloomy River” and the “Fence”. Marina, who was quietly sitting at the kitchen table, modestly added, that she was starring as a shaman's wife in the same movie.

“I studied a lot and worked a lot in different places, but came back to Altai. My ancestors lived here. I play the instruments that they played thousands of years ago. I’m a self-taught musician, I learned to play musical instruments by myself. I even made a shoor (an instrument similar to a flute) by myself out of angelica plants. I am in contact with these places. When I was just learning to sing and play, I felt like I was flying over our village, flying like in a dream. Once I was asked to play at a hero's sarcophagus, so that the spirit of the Baghatur would return. And the spirit returned! I rode a horse at the top of the mountain over the clouds, I sang Altai songs. And suddenly I began to growl. Just like a bear, I realized that was his spirit. I almost ripped off my voice.”

Nogon sang in a low, bubbling, sharp, voice. There are more than 260 epics in Altai, which can be sung, all of them are recorded and stored in the archives. Previously, they were transmitted from grandfather to grandson, from father to son. It was a small part of some great heroic legend, clearly about the raids of warriors.

Nogon put down the Tovshuur and offered us some tea. Marina started to fuss about: she poured boiling water into large mugs and put tomatoes on the table. Noon and I talked for a while. Unlike many residents of the villages in the Karakol Valley, Nogon’s life is vibrant - full of tours, theatres, filming, and performances. But the villagers also like their own life. The sun was going down, Marina was in a hurry to go home, and I needed to return to Un-Etchmek. I warmly said goodbye to Kolya and we drove back through the three villages of the Karakol Valley.

We stopped in one of the villages near the museum of local lore. It turned out that Marina worked there for a long time. But the museum was closed. Harvest time - is not for culture. There were a lot of pine cones this year - everyone is harvesting in the cedar forests, or digging potatoes, or picking berries. Looking over the fence, with totemic symbols, I asked what was most valuable at the exhibits. “Traditional utensils - vessels made of a cow's udder or a sheep’s scrotum… There is  an ancient 'stone phallus', and another one is made of a bone. Both were used for the Kochegan ritual to help women to give a birth. They were found in the mountains," Marina answered.

I touched the symbol carved into a totem pole. Marina, immediately understood what I was going to ask, answered ahead of me:

"These are the symbols of the Altai clans, we have more than 40 of them. Here, on the wicket, the symbols of the clans 'tulyes' and 'maiman' are depicted."

"And who are you?"

“I'm a 'tudosh'. And my husband is a 'maiman'. Each clan has its own tribal sign, totemic mountain, its own tree and tribal animal. My tribal animal is a hare, my husband's animal is a dog, some other clans' animals are leopards and even moose. Maybe they used to live here. My children’s animals are dogs; according to the paternal line. My tribal tree is a birch, maimans’ tree is a larch."

“Look up there,” Marina asked. “Do you see the ribbons on the mountain? This is the place of our prayer, our sanctuary. There is such a place above every Altai village. We go there to pray twice a year, for 'golden' autumn prayer, which has already passed, and for 'green' spring prayer."

“Do you pray only twice a year?”

"No, it is just that in other cases, women can conduct prayers to spirits right in the yurt. Most often, we pray to the spirit of fire."

“What do the prayers look like? Are there any special words?"

"Every prayer comes from the heart. But yes, there are certain words that need to be pronounced. All events should be held on the waxing crescent moon. Birthdays, anniversaries are celebrated once every 12 years. It means we do not celebrate the anniversary of 50 years, for example, but we celebrate 48. If the anniversary happens during the old moon, we move it to the next month of the new moon. We celebrate weddings only in the period between the new moon and the full moon. After the full moon there is silent period - no more holidays. Everything we do depends on the lunar phase. We also plant vegetables according to the lunar calendar. Those vegetables that grow above the ground, upwards, we plant during the waxing crescent moon; and all roots, like carrots, beets, potatoes, we plant during the waning crescent moon."

"Are holidays also ‘lunar' here?"

"Yes, we celebrate the Lunar New Year, it matches the dates of the Chinese New Year. We also celebrate spring, it matches the dates of Maslenitsa. We gather all together in one place, have fun, play different games, cook a lot of food."


 

Cows were laying in the sunset shadow under a stone stele. They just drowsily looked at us and didn’t move, preventing us from exploring the place of power - Scythian, and possibly Turkic burial mounds. The mounds were looted a long time ago and locals stopped praying there. There are too many tourists now in this place. Archaeologists could not understand where the stone steles had come from. They figured out that the steles were brought here from somewhere, that the stones were not originally from these places. The stones are standing all in one direction - like a fence. One of the stele was originally installed at an angle, and it is leaning and tilting at the same angle as the Earth's axis. But Marina didn’t specify when it was installed: before the axis changed its coordinates a little bit or later. What is the secret of these steles, what is sacred about them? Nobody could explain that. Maybe these were Balbals - just simple hitching posts for horses? In 1954 excavations were carried out here, but everything that was found in the ancient burials was taken to the Hermitage museum in Sankt-Petersburg.

We got into the car again and headed towards Karakol. Marina told me that in difficult times, she asked the shaman for help, she told me about the amulets she kept, complained that it was necessary to hang the skin of a totem animal at home (according to the shaman advice), but she never had enough time for it. She told me about an earthquake, that happened a couple of days before my arrival. She also recalled about the mummy of the Princess of Ukok, which was taken out of the mound. The Altai people believe that disaster came to their lands precisely because the mummy was disturbed. She told me about the rule not to disturb the grave after 40 days, the Altaians don’t even go to cemeteries and crying is forbidden. She told me about grazing sheep. I hardly imagined Marina on a horse in the mountains, but Marina assured me - she could do it. Especially in the fall, when sheep are fat and lazy and there is no need to gallop after them like in spring. She told me about her "adopted daughter" from England, Joanna, who came as a tourist, and stayed in the village at Marina’s house for many years.

 

It got dark. We warmly said goodbye to Marina, but it turned out that it was only until tomorrow. In the morning she asked us to bring her to the shaman’s place, that was on our way.

  • Orange fact
    In 1904, in the first Burkhanist revelation, some commandments were given to people. Among them, for example, it was recommended: to kill all cats and not let them into yurts; not to eat animal blood; not to smoke, and if somebody can’t handle it - to mix tobacco with two parts of birch bark; to sprinkle milk upwards and on all four sides twice a day; not to eat from the same dish with Christians (with the newly baptized Altaians); not to make friendship with the Russians (cause they all "must go to Hell"). 



The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A visit to the Karakol Valley is recommended by the Russian geographical society.

The tour operator LB Tour, in Altai, will arrange for you to see the beauty of Altai, to learn about local traditions and have a real adventure LB Tour.




 

You can see the photo report about Altai Krai and Altai Mountains here.

Also read about Altai:
Looking for a snow leopard
The Princess of Ukok
The most beautiful places in Altai
The most beautiful places of the Altai Mountains
A female blacksmith: The mother-Anvil

Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1

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