The Altai I: Lake Teletskoye and the Chulyshman-valley

The Altai is a mountain range situated in the border land of Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. It’s highest peak is Mount Belukha with 4.500 m.
The Russian Altai is part of Siberia. It consists of two parts: The Altai region (Altaiskii Krai) and the Altai Republic. Really the mountaineous part is just in Altai Republic, but for historical reasons the Krai has always been seen in unity with the mountains. In Tsarist times the area bordering the mountain ranges was far more important than the mountaneous parts as silver and copper were found there, and the mountains only served as a defense wall against raids of tribes living on the territory of what is nowadays Mongolia and China. From now on, if I refer to "Altai" I only refer to the territory of what is now Altai Republic.
The Altai was inhabitated by the Skyths some time between the 7th and 2nd century BC. They left richly supplied gravesites, "kurgany", that have already for a long time been subject to acheological research. The memory of the Skyths is also faintly present in the legends of the inhabitants of the Altai. Later came Turk tribes who also left testimony in form of gravesites, and additionally carved stone colums erected in various parts of Altai, prefereably in steppe regions where they are well visible. The Altai therefore is rather densely filled with prehistorical monuments which, due to the region’s lack of roads, means of transport and tourist facilities, are difficultly accessible.
The Altai occupied a central place in the conquest and empire-building of Dzhingis Khan in the 13th century and he is believed to be buried there though the exact site of his grave is not known. After the succession wars of his empire and the decline of the empire of the Golden Orda the Altai was the scene of various short lived smaller or bigger empires of Turk-Mongolian nomad tribes. In the 17th century the Dzhungarian Khanate was formed and after it’s destruction by Chinese forces the Altai was united with Russia in 1756. It is said that the inhabitants of Altai voluntarily chose to become part of Russia though it remains unclear to me how this decision was made, by whom, and on which reflections it was based.

Fishers on the banks of the Biya

The inhabitants of Altai consist of
– the descendants of all the peoples or tribes that inhabitated this region before the arrival of the Russians, called Altaians (Altaitsy) by 31% (data from 1999)
– the descendants of the Russians who came since the begining of the 17th century, by 60% (among those are also descendants of people who came from Ukraine, Belarus and other parts of Soviet Union since the 30-ies of the 20th century)
– and the Kazakhs by 6%.

The Russians started to come to Altai in the wake of the conquest of Siberia by Yermak and his men. Altai became a refuge for people who wanted to escape from serfdom or other forms of oppression, looking for a mythical land called White Waters (Belovodye) where they would be free to practice their beliefs and follow their aims. A part of those settlers again formed the Old Believers who came after the split in the Russian Orthodox church, the "Raskol" that took place between 1653 and 1656. One of the most important communities of Old Believers in Russia which is still existing to a certain extent, is in the Uimon Valley in southwestern Altai.
The Old Believers have been subject to persecution during the centuries of Tsarist rule and again in Soviet times. This persecution started after Altai became part of Russia, and it was the original Altai inhabitants who helped them and provided shelter and hiding-places for them in these harsh times. The situation somehow got under control with a decree of Catherine The Great in 1792 that legalized their situation in turn for a special annual tax that had to be paid in furs, the "Yasak". With this decree they were acknowledged as citizens of Russia and inhabitants of Altai, and what was very important for them, they were freed from recruitment duties.

The northwestern end of lake Teletskoye

The traditional beliefs of the Altaians are polytheistic. They believe in spirits of mountains, rivers, passes and trees. They believed that the Earth was created out of the water, in a kind of contest between two gods. They believed that the soul is formed out of various rays coming from the earth, the sun and the moon. In the 19th century many Altaians were forced to convert to Christianity but the conversion was completely superficial and left little traces in their spiritual world. There was also Buddhistic influence coming from Mongolia and Tuva (East of the Altai) of which some elements were adopted and incorporated into their nature religion.
Around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century a religious-political movement emerged whose representatives strived for independence from Russia and were persecuted by the Tsarist authorities. The "Burkhanism" was a doctrine of salvation based on the appearance of a Messias called Oirot who would come, wage war on Russia and unite the Altaians in a country of their own. This Oirot was the mythical incarnation of the founder of the Dzhungarian Khanate who was perceived by the Burkhanists as the last representative of a state on their territory that they could identify with.
Today most younger Altaians claim to be atheists. Together with many members of the Russian population of Altai a great number of Altaians adore most of all Vodka, or homemade alcohol, "samogon".

On the northern end of Lake Teletskoye

To complete the spiritual geography of Altai one has to mention the beliefs and teachings of Nikolai Rerikh (1874-1947), a painter and philosopher who was especially attracted by the mountaineous parts of Central Asia and finally settled in Himalaya. He was interested in both the heathen beliefs of Altai, Mongolia, India as in the various forms of Buddhism being practiced in this region. He believed that some kind of Buddhist paradise called Shambala was to be found or should be founded in Altai. His writings today again have a lot of adherents in Russia some of whom travel to Altai and settle there, trying to discover Shambala.

  In a more centrally situated part of the lake

Lake Teletskoye

Lake Teletskoye is a narrow long mountain lake in the form of an L. By depth it is the 5th or 6th in the world. It has a lot of tributaries the biggest of which is the Chulyshman, and only one outlet, the river Biya. The road from the north leads till Artybash and Yogach, two villages at the northwest end of the lake. All other settlements on it’s shore can only be reached across the lake, by boats in summer and walking or riding across the ice in winter. In summer about once a week a barge crosses the lake and supplies the settlements along the shore and in the Chulyshman-valley with fuel and other goods.
People along the lake live mainly on hunting and fishing. The lake is rich in fish and the surrounding mountains (the highest of which is Teletskii with 2500 m) are the home of many eatable or fur-providing animals: Deers, roes, elks and "marals", a central asian kind of deer, moreover bears, sables, minks, and – very seldom – the "arkhar", a kind of ibex, and the snow leopard.

The south end of Lake Teletskoye

In the distance a now idle quarry

  South end of Lake Teletskoye

In summer here used to be a lot of tourism but as the transport situation has deteriorated and food and accomodation have become more expensive the inflow of tourists has shrunk considerably.
The lake serves as a kind of climate regulation, weaking the summer heat and the winter’s frost. This has made it possible for a daring settler to grow apples and rasperries in a place in the southern part of the lake, thus contributing to the self-sufficency of the region.
At the bottom of the lake the water is so cold that no organisms can survive there. The corpses of those who have drowned sink to the bottom and are well preserved. I have been told by locals that during the civil war there was a small battle on the shores of the lake, in winter, and afterwards the corpses of those who had died in this battle, and of some horses, too, were thrown into the lake and still can be seen at the bottom, and what is more, in upright position, slowly moving in the water. So there is a lot to see at the bottom of this lake!

A bay in the south of the lake, where the Chulyshman flows into the lake. In the house on the shore lives a doctor responsible for the south part of Teletskoye. She attends her patients by boat.


The Chulyshman valley

The Chulyshman in about two hour’s distance from Lake Teletskoye
Sight from the Katu-Yaryk pass into the Chulyshman-valley
The heights of the Katu-Yaryk pass. In the foreground there are paper stripes attached to the twigs of the tree as a thanksgiving to the spirits of this place who facilitated reaching the height without accident