Reindeer and Honey in the Altai


Posted by Leah Zimmerman
The foothills of the Altai
The foothills of the Altai

Greetings from somewhere over Greenland!  I’m on my way home after two weeks of “work.”  The quick overview: 4 days in Moscow meeting with journalists, environmentalists, and old friends; 4 days in Barnaul in central Siberia (pronounced “barn-owe-oool,” with the emphasis on ooool) planning for a environmentalists’ strategy conference; 4 days at said conference on the banks of the beautiful Katun River in the foothills of the Altai Mountains; 2 days on horseback exploring those same foothills with colleagues from Sakhalin Island (near Japan).

May it never be said that I like Moscow.  As a city, it’s an awful place: expensive, loud, dirty, and pretentious.  Moscow has too many McDonald’s, Ikeas, and TGI Fridays for its own good, but paint a cow blue and it’s still a cow.  You know you’re still in Russia when:

  • You go to a chain store in a very modern Western-style shopping mall one morning and try to buy something for 300 rubles ($12) with a 500 ($19) ruble bill.  The sales person says with a straight face, “You cannot buy this.  I do not have change for a 500 ruble bill.”
  • Next, you go to a go to a KFC/Rostics chain because dangit, you just want some good ol’ fried chicken.  The pictures of sandwiches and chicken strips are enticing, but when you order, you are told they don’t have any chicken strips, but they do have five sandwiches.  Five?  Yes, we have five.  Well, it’s a good thing I only want one.  Ice cream?  Don’t even try.
  • You are ready to go home, but have one small task left: change 9000 USD into rubles to pay for a conference.  You go to a big bank because the rate is good and you prefer to whip out all those crisp greenbacks in a private room.  “We don’t have $9000 in rubles to sell you.  I can only do three thousand, maybe four.”  You’re kidding, right?  Is this a newspaper stand or a bank?!  Stink.  Three bank stops later, all the money is finally changed.

Phew, that’s out of the way!  Now I can go on to ramble about the Russia that I love … the sleepy Siberian towns, the meandering mountains and rivers, the struggling fishing communities on the Pacific, and the generous and rugged people who live in Siberia and the Far East – on the edge of true wilderness.  Yosemite and Yellowstone delight, but falter just as Edward Abbey penned and ultimately pale in comparison to Russia’s remote wilds. This is why I love the wilderness!  So complicated and, well, wild, and yet so strikingly simple.

The first thing I noticed when I landed in Barnaul (at 6am) is that the sky is loud.  Barnaul is located on the steppe, the flatlands, not far from where the Altai Mountains lift up from the land with a quick sweep of God’s creative hand.  The weather in Barnaul is dizzying, changing every five minutes and boasting clouds that taunt anyone who dares to watch.  Cumulus – stratus fratus – stratocumulous – altocumulous – cirus – cumulous again.  Amen!  Every sunrise and sunset above the city is a marvel.

Sosnovka is an annual meeting of all the top environmental activists from Siberia and the Russian Far East, with a few lawyer and policy types from Moscow thrown in for good measure.  The conference is always a blur of intense strategy conversations and jovial social time.  (To my great relief, the vodka consumption was mild this year.)  Many of the Sosnovtsy are old friends who see each other once or twice each year, which means Day One of the conference involves a lot of who got married, who had kids, and who got divorced conversations.  What a treat to now be a part of this merry band!  Our strategy conversations were simultaneously broad and narrow, covering the hottest topics, both new and old:  forestry, protected areas, mining, fisheries, oil and gas development, alternative energy sources, etc.  Not enough time, so much information, so many ideas, so many plans …

We took a half day off to go white water rafting on the might Katun.  Given the fall water level, the rafting time was more about photo ops than white water, but can’t complain – I laughed so much my stomach was sore until the next day.  Yes, our guides made all the women wear these HUGE waterproof moon pants things.  I grumbled and said I was fine without, but it was a losing battle.  Not surprisingly, I was glad later that I had them on.  Cold mountain water and frigid fall winds are a nasty combination!

After Sosnovka, I was relieved of conference wrap-up duties in Barnaul and so decided to escape to the mountains with Dima and Zhenya of Sakhalin Environmental Watch.  Dima is THE premier activist in all of Russia and I was eager for a chance to pick his brain!  How did you get involved in this work?  What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the movement?  What motivates you?  How in the world does Natasha do this work along side of you with a 2-year-old at home as well?!  I heard you’re an Orthodox believer, can you tell me about that?

Dima, Zhenya, and I rented horses, found a guide, and rode up to a beekeeper’s hut in the mountains on the edge of a reindeer farm.  The next morning, we awoke to SNOW.  No joke.  But it turned to rain as we rode down to lower elevations.  We discussed the healing properties of reindeer antlers and rode the edge of the mountainous reindeer pasture hoping for a sighting.  Needless to say, we saw no antlers, but did see a bunch of reindeer behinds as a herd heard us and ran away.

Like every outdoor experience I’ve ever known in Russia, our horseback riding trip was, well, extreme.  Cold, wet conditions made steep, steep terrain perilous at best for the horses.  I felt sorry for them at first and tried to console my horse, but it seemed somehow that my horse was enjoying herself in spite of the conditions.

Other lessons learned and relearned:

  • An “Antler bath” (a hot bath with reindeer antler extract) feels like a regular bath, but is pleasant insofar as the extract smells like cake batter.  I kid you not.  Yellow cake batter!
  • I’ve (to my great surprise) developed a taste for carbonated water, salo (straight fat from an animal – think bacon without the meat), and mead (honey wine).  I might detest buckwheat cooked Russian-style, but honey from the plant makes a delightful wine, as it turns out.  The Altai region is known for its delicious and varied honey.
  • The stars on the other side of the world are different from what we see in North  America now.  (I know, I know – duh!)  But what a treat to see a different chunk of the sky than I enjoyed a few weeks ago in the Sierras.  The Milky Way was particularly brilliant last week in the Altai … Oh my stars!

I marvel at this life and can scarcely believe the things I have seen…


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