Really long post on Altai Republic road trip

Where to start? Everyone should be as lucky as I am to see the places I see. As a matter of fact it should be required that everyone in the entire world travel to a distant and exotic place that is nothing at all like any place they’ve ever been before. “Citizen of the World” certification or something to that effect. As I type this, I’m sitting in the front seat of a mini-van, traversing a long steppe valley, surrounded entirely by mountains. I think, we’re at about 6000 feet. To my right, we just passed a herd of about 20 horses,* grazing freely by the road. Out here it seems they mostly build fences around the areas where they DON’T want livestock to go, fencing them in, rather than out.

In the summer, farmers grow meadow hay, cut and harvest it in the fall; stocking up for a long winter with frosts as early as August. It’s almost April here, and the snow is just starting to melt in the higher reaches. Horses and cattle paw at the snow, searching for edible bits and pieces of grass. In the villages, cows eat out of the dumpsters and horses nibble around the manure piles, searching for undigested bits of forage. Spring is a hard time for everyone—the previous year’s harvest consumed, but no new growth is yet in sight.

Apparently this is a good time for cutting firewood, with a huge new pile stacked or piled up and awaiting neat stacking near each house. Trucks drive out along the river ice (even now still a good 8-10 inches thick in places) to log trees for firewood along the river. Birch, larch (looks coniferous, but loses its needles in the fall), and Siberian pine (yummy pine nuts!) are predominant.

I’d guess that only tourist facilities have any sort of “artificial” heating options, and even that is minimal. Small wood log cabins or timber houses are heated using a centrally-placed wood-burning stove in each house. A lot of houses, especially along the main roads have electricity, but virtually no-one has plumbing of any sort. Outhouses, hand pumping wells or dip wells prevail. Nothing even close to running hot water.

For those without running water, Saturday is “banya day”, when you fire up your steam sauna, fill up a tub with water to warm in the sun or by the sauna stove, and scrub a week’s worth of hard work off your body. A friend or relative beats you with a bundle of twigs, and you come out ready to have a day of rest before starting all over again.

People here keep cows for milk, cheese (amazingly tasty), and other dairy products, not to mention all sorts of meat products. Pigs and sheep are around too. You can buy raw or spun wool at the market. Geese, chickens, grow your own potatoes, carrots, cabbage. Flax grows here—people harvest, process it, and weave linen fabric. There are generous populations of “Old Believers” here, following pre-schism Russian Orthodox traditions, driven out of European Russia and further east over time by religious repression over the last 3 centuries. The indigenous peoples here are Turkic speaking Altaic, Telengit, and the occasional Kazakh who drifted in from nearby Kazakhstan. Down here in the south, I’d say that no more than 1/3 to ½ the population is ethnic Russian. People commonly speak Altaic, which sounds very similar to Mongolian, another group that is not far away to the southeast.

*For the horsey folk…most of the horses here are smallish, around 15 hands at the most, and mustang-y. This is the general area where Przewalskis (spelling?) originate, although I don’t think there are any wild stocks left in this specific area. They are used for transport, both under saddle and hitched to wagons. Tack here is a bit on the rustic side: wooden trees, minimal padding, frequently with pack harnesses. Bridles have thin metal snaffles, with a noseband/browband that forms an X between their eyes. Riders hold the bridle high to keep in contact with the horse’s high head and neck carriage. During a brief road-side stop for a photo-op, I was able to convince the lead mare of a 5-horse herd to stop and let us pet her. The rest of our group was properly impressed, since no one else had been able to get close to them.

On departing Barnaul on Wednesday morning, we headed to Biisk (sounds like “Beesk”) for an intense one-day seminar reviewing a variety of “renewable” energy or small-scale off-grid type energy sources. There were at least 25 speakers, including myself. My eyes started to glaze over about halfway through the day, as the talk turned to the benefits of various heat pumps, micro-hydropower stations, and the relative outputs of motors and turbines. My presentation went pretty well, as the number two presenter, I still had most everyone’s attention, if not for the quality of my information then for the novelty of being the only Russian-speaking foreigner to pass through these parts of late.

During a lunch heavy with various meat-laden salads, meat-laden main dishes, and at least 3 vodka toasts, we proceeded into the afternoon. I finally discovered my own personal secret to appearing comfortable and sounding fluent before TV cameras (another necessary evil bestowed upon hapless foreign visitors)—vodka shots! Works beautifully to loosen the tongue and relax the speaker. Just a little though, because, as you can probably imagine, things could get ugly. After the meeting, attended by at least 5-6 highly placed government officials of the Altai Krai and Republic of Altai, we went off to dinner at a gaudily decorated restaurant for further wining and dining. How much food can one body possibly consume?

Biisk is a pretty interesting town, about 300 years old, and originally home to a significant number of merchants and traders. Many of these old brick buildings remain, with fanciful brick designs worked into them. As is typical of Siberia’s richly forested lands (20% of the world’s forests), there’s also a ton of wooden timber and log cabin style architecture, even right downtown in largish cities.

The next morning, we headed to Gorno-Altaisk, in the Republic of Altai, for a much condensed version of the previous day’s seminar targeting government officials there. Again, much shaking of hands, lots of cameras and filming, and general pomposity. The Chairman of the “Council of Peoples’ Deputies”, the equivalent of a US state’s legislature, noticed me searching for a bathroom and dragged me off by the arm to his personal bathroom, explaining along the way that he had noticed that “men had ‘occupied’ the public bathroom”. Very kind.

That very same afternoon, around 4ish, after another HUGE meal (where we were served the usual meat appetizers, followed by what we thought was the main dish—parboiled potatoes and mutton, but turned out to our collective horror to be just another appetizer followed by a mystery meat and carb dish), we all piled into our Russian-manufacture Gazelle heavy duty mini-van to drive to Ust-Koksa.

Now if you look on the map, you’ll see that Ust-Koksa (population ~3500, elevation 2500 meters) is, as the crow flies, probably about 275 km from Gorno-Altaisk. Since, however, there is not really a “crow’s route” road, we drove for 7 plus hours around a large mountain range. Most of the road was paved, but there were at least 50 kilometers of graded dirt and gravel. Even now a light coating of dust is filtering in through the windows as we bounce along. Overtaking big trucks is the worst, with huge clouds of dirt. You can tell they don’t get much precipitation here, when at the height of winter snow melt, the roads are already dusty.

So, we finally make it o Ust-Koksa around 11pm and head off into various cottages around town. No hot water, but our “tourist facilities” have running water and some source of semi-heat whose source we were unable to determine, despite the presence of stone-cold radiators in each room. We breakfasted on amazing local cheese and butter, with tasty dark bread, and tea.

The purpose of our visit to Ust-Koksa is to attempt to build local support for the installation of sufficient micro-hydropower to support the region’s increasing needs for energy. Our group consisted of two representatives of Pacific Environment’s partner organization “Fund for 21st Century Altai”, me, the Altai Krai vice chair of the state legislature, two St. Petersburg energy specialists, and a couple of other support staff. The poor Head of the Ust-Koksa regional administration was a nervous wreck, feeling greatly overshadowed by the Altai vice chair and the lofty St. Petersburg specialists.

Personally speaking, while both of the St. Pete specialists were clearly knowledgeable, they both suffered from bad cases of huge ego and condescension to the local “peasants,” a not-uncommon issue with Muscovites and St. Petersburgers. The engineer had a habit I’ve never ever seen before in a well-educated, urban intellectual, let alone for a man of his age and status—‘Valley Girl’ syndrome. At one point I counted—in a 12 minute speech, he uttered “tak skazat” (“so to say”) no fewer than 93 times. The other fellow, a professor of renewable energy policy, was merely pompous and condescending, reminiscent of Dubya.

So, where was I? Oh, yes, Ust-Koksa. The local businessmen came and listened; the administration head sweated it out; Vanzha the engineer, gave his spiel, and then Misha Shishin from the Fund reminded us all that working with local residents is an important aspect of infrastructure planning. Overall, all these meetings were remarkably successful in our opinion. Providing a viable alternative to large hydro dams is a vital part of the overall anti-dam campaign.

After lunch, we climbed aboard our trusty Gazelle and headed up in elevation to visit Verkhny Uimon (“Upper ‘Oy-mun’). A smallish village of perhaps 200 souls, still inhabited by a few Old Believers. Most of the houses were at least 100 years old, cows and chickens wandering freely everywhere. There were two museums and the town library to visit, including the local “culture and history” museum and a house dedicated to Nikolai Roerikh, an important philosopher and artist in the region.

On the way back, we stopped along a picturesque bridge crossing a medium-sized stream. In a lovely deep pool, surrounded by graceful birch trees reflecting into the water, it is rumored that mermaids can be seen in the summer. As is traditional with any Russian road trip, the bottle of vodka came out, along with leftover lunchmeat and a jar of pickles. Some of us began taking bets on who was going to fall into the creek.

Needless to say, when we got back into town, it was time for dinner. After the five previous banquets, my stomach said it was done. I managed to limit my intake pretty well, even avoiding all but a single vodka shot. It is very hard to say “No” in the company of strangers here; much much easier among friends and solid acquaintances. One of our local “minders”, Liza, felt it her personal mission to make sure I ate and drank as much as possible. Oy. A lot of women in Russia don’t drink, but Liza is not one of them. Sigh.

After dinner, heading back to our respective cottages, two of the “businessmen” who had attended the seminar earlier that day appeared out of nowhere. They had clearly been hitting the bottle, but were still sober enough to think they were charming. The younger one, a dapper young engineer-business man from Gorno-Altaisk, decided that it was his night to charm the American woman into his bed.* Folks came to my rescue and firmly showed him off. Ah, the charms of alcohol.

This morning, we packed up and headed back wistfully to civilization as we usually know it. As I continue to type, we are now traversing lower-elevation, grassy plains, with herds of horses and cattle scattered here and there, basking in the warm spring sun.

*This was made quite clear to me when he grabbed me somewhat firmly by the arm and started to “cut” me out of my herd. I lagged back, claiming that I was waiting for Tanya, who had the key to our cottage.” He suavely answered that he had “many keys in his pocket” and went on to inform me that he was the vice-president of his firm a big shot from Gorno-Altaisk. Very subtle. I restrained myself from telling him that I probably made 10 times his annual salary and that I wasn’t in the least interested. Changing tacks, he began to “wow” me with his limited English vocabulary. I politely inquired if he had visited the US, and he put the final nail in his coffin by answering that he didn’t need to visit the US, if he could “get to know” America here. At this point Tanya