Chemal and onward

Despite attempts by a shady cab driver to take advantage of us, we paid a fair price for a hair-raisingly fast taxi ride to Chemal, about an hour from Gorno-Altaisk. Chemal is, as always, stunningly beautiful but is more and more built up. It really does look like Switzerland, albeit with smaller mountains. It has a warm microclimate and doesn’t see much snow in the winter. Now, especially after all the rain, the Katun River is at least 15-20 feet higher than it is later in the summer. Big, muddy, rushing water filled with huge tree trunks and detritus.

We arrived in time to meet with the leader of the local district government. He came to the US in December on an exchange and stayed with us. He was very excited to see us, peppering us with questions about other exchange participants and our lives back home. We talked for a while about local business (let’s just say he’s pro-development) and then headed off to dinner. We ate until our eyes bulged and had a really nice evening, all things considered.

We’re staying at a bed-n-breakfast equivalent. It’s owned by a woman (and her extended adopted family) who is notorious in the region for her inability to get along with anyone. I’ve worked with her in the past, and she’s a tireless anti-dam campaigner with a lot of success under her belt. She’s a bit on the outrageous end, conversationally speaking (“Oh, those [racial epithet] only recently descended from the trees. No point in listening to anything they say.”) Despite that, the b’n’b is really cozy and the food is outrageously good. They have several cows and a vast vegetable garden. We had fresh farmer’s cheese with rich, rich sour cream. A baked cheese, semolina, and sour cream thingy was divine with a dollop of cream on top and bits of pumpkin in the filling. Fresh herbs in the soup and homemade cheese for snacking.

We had an easier day today. In the morning we slept in and then headed out to visit the strawbale building over on the Fund’s land across town. A led the team that built it two years ago, and I helped them get the grant to pay for the land and improvements to that point. It was great to see it – the building has survived two winters without a scratch, and they’re looking forward to finishing it for residential use this summer now that they don’t need it as a storehouse any more.

Afterwards, we had a bit of a cultural interlude, first visiting an Orthodox convent that has a small chapel on an island in the middle of the Katun River. It’s a really special place, high on the rocks, and reachable only by a suspended footbridge. Apparently it has a rich Muscovite patron and is undergoing a lot of improvements. It was lovely despite a very pushy tour guide. “Look at this!” “Take a picture of that!” “Why aren’t you taking a picture?” There’s a rock carving of Madonna and child on the island that is said to have appeared spontaneously over a century ago, and ancient icons are also spontaneously cleansing and brightening themselves.

We went to a small Altaian Cultural Center, owned and operated by the eldest of all Altaian elders, a man of 75+ who refused to speak a word of Russian to us or anyone, although I’m sure he spoke it. He used to be an engineer until he became interested in his roots. It was a typical ethnographic-style amateur museum, with a few interesting artifacts and lots of books and dusty photocopies lying around of important people and elements of their culture. After lunch we hiked back along the river from the convent a ways up stream.

Later that evening, we rode out in a car to a more distant, mostly uninhabited valley. Our hosts had recently won a couple of acres along the river in a land lottery there and were planning a small beekeeping facility and a few huts for visitors.

The scenery was stunning in every direction, with two small rivers running together nearby, herds of free-grazing horses with newborn foals on the surrounding hillsides. There are rocky outcroppings in the mountains, graceful birch trees mixed with occasional spruce and larch all around, and grassy fields full of a multitude of wonderful smelling plants and wild flowers.

On our way back home, we stopped to watch a herd of 20+ mares and geldings (maybe one stallion?) cross the river. It was about 40ft wide here and running pretty strong and deep. The mamas with older foals made it over no problem, but a black foal (<1 mo old) got stuck midway, frightened. His mama milled around deciding what to do, nickering and whinnying at him while he stood facing upriver and looking unhappy. Eventually, she settled on the idea of enticing him toward her a little downriver. Once he reach the river bank, he stood for a bit, catching his breath and then gradually clambered out on the bank. Whew!

Another mama and baby, who couldn’t have been more than 3 days old stayed on the far side of the river. She knew she couldn’t make the crossing with the baby there, although the stallion (or very studly) gelding was threatening them, trying to get them to cross. When we left, she was sticking to her guns, and the stallion gave up and rejoined the rest of the herd on the other side. I’m sure she either found a quieter spot to cross or simply decided to wait it out. The herd was “commuting” somewhere, covering ground with intent.

Tomorrow, we hot foot it to Ongudai, about 240 kilometers from here by road, probably half that as the crow flies. Another gorgeous valley, but less settled, with amazing petroglyphs, stellae, and tons of fascinating Stone Age, Scythian, and more recent indigenous history.