Falling for the Golden Mountains

Posted by Meerim Kylychbekova
A performer at the El Oyun festival in the Altai Republic.

Heavy rain hits the car windows loudly, making it almost impossible to see down the road.  I am with Natalya Tokova, one of our partners in the Altai Republic, and we are heading to El Oyun, a three-day festival being held in Kabailuu-Mejelik Valley, near Elo village in Ongudai region.

The weather will change soon, as it always does in mountainous areas, where it can go from an icy hail with roaring thunderstorms to a clear blue sky in minutes.  Natalya fills me in on the festival – what type of traditional sport events will be held there, who was the kuresh winner, a traditional form of wrestling, and who should do well this year in the at-chabysh competition, which is a saddling of untrained young horses.  She also tells me how the location for this year (a different place is chosen every year) is causing some controversy because the valley contains numerous ancient burial sites, or kurgans.  Deep respect for ancestors, no matter how far back in history, runs in every Altayan person.  Disturbing such sites is strictly prohibited, although in Altai, kurgans, petroglyphs, and other sacred places are commonplace, and it is challenging at times to avoid being too close to them.

The Altayan people are connected to nature and history in profound and intricate ways.  Their worldview, interpretation of events and life, and code of conduct are all based on the idea of human beings and the natural environment forming one inseparable system.  In Altai, almost every mountain, every tree, and every body of water possesses a particular meaning and a purpose. Local people treat nature with care, applying knowledge that has been carried over from one generation to another for thousands of years.

When we are arrive to the festival, we first go to the food stand set up by Natalia’s family, where I am given a bowl of fresh kumys (horse milk) and some mutton, followed by a cup of strong black tea with milk.  This small make-shift ‘café’ is bustling with customers, run by Natalia’s cousins and aunt.  As in many nomadic cultures, women work on an equal footing with men, having to take care of the whole family, while men were away looking for better pastures for their herds.  In traditional Altayan culture, a woman is also revered as the core of all beginning, as Mother Nature herself.

This is my second visit to Altai, and I continue to fall in love with its people and its landscape.  It is impossible not to get mesmerized by its untouched beauty, walking through the fields of purple, red, and yellow flowers, soaking your feet in crystal clear glacier water and listening to the ancient melodies of tushpur, a two-string instrument.  As I think about what can happen to this place if local and federal governments continue to approve economically unsound and environmentally unsafe development projects, I genuinely hope that our partners and the people of Altai will have the international community’s support and they will be able to protect their land.

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