Artybash onto Lake Teletskoye

EDITORIAL NOTE: Much has changed since this journal piece was published in 2010 – most importantly, there has been significant development on the southwestern and northeastern sides of the lake.

I can hardly believe that this trip is going by so quickly! Must be all the sleep I’m getting now that the jet lag has passed. Well, that and the fact that we’ve been covering so much ground and meeting so many interesting people.

After a breakfast of noodle cooked in slightly sweet (powdered) milk and homemade cake donuts (mmmmmmmmm), we set out on foot to walk the few minutes into town. Out here in Artybash, we are in the heart of a black taiga ecosystem. That seems to be the conventional translation, but in reality it is “chernevaya taiga” where the first word carries the nuance of garbage. Typical taiga forest consists of tall coniferous forest with a dense canopy that blocks the sun below, resulting in only very low or minimal growth in the understory. Black taiga, in contrast, has a more open canopy and thus there is a great deal of tall brush and shrubs and small trees growing among the mixed coniferous and deciduous trees. High in moisture compared to taiga, it is very dense and even impassable to those traveling on foot. I can only imagine what it must have been like to explore or live here before the time of roads, etc.

Upon reaching the west end of the village, we could clearly see where Lake Teletskoye ended and the Biya River began (well, that and there’s a bridge right there to mark the spot). A mixture of rustic old cabins and sparkling new gingerbread cabins and small resorts, the town is clearly putting all of its eggs in the tourism basket. We visited the Altaisky Zapovednik’s visitor center in town and then were driven to take a tour of a recently restored 70-year old ship. In its heyday, it carried 300 travelers at a time up and down the lake. Nowadays, it has no motor, but earns its keep as a restaurant, local history museum, screening room, and general tourist attraction. Its restorer, Igor, joined us for lunch afterward. He is a hugely energetic entrepreneur, who described his approach to business was to take over projects that others had abandoned and to make them successful. After starting off by chopping down trees and ferrying them over the lake to town and building his first rental cottage by hand, now he owns the only village bakery, has a number of timber processing plants, owns and operates a small resort and several rental cottages, and a bunch of other things I can no longer remember.

Then there’s the lake – Lake Teletskoye to be precise. The biggest lake in Altai Republic (easily) it is a rift lake, created by seismic forces. It’s obvious when you see it, because there are cliffs along parts of the shoreline, and 90% of the shoreline we’ve seen so far is very, very steep. It is very deep and its waters (mostly glacial runoff) are so cold that there are few fish or plants living in it. An upside-down and backward L-shape, the only significant settlements are at the very upper left end. The entire top and right sides are 99.99% unoccupied because the 880,000 hectares stretching along those sides are the Altaisky Zapovednik. A zapovednik affords the strictest possible protection – no human visitation is permitted at all, with the exception of ranger patrols and limited authorized scientists. There is no such similar protected area type in the US, even very little of its type around the world. The Zapovednik is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve and it adjoins a number of other related protected areas in the neighboring Russian states of Tuva Republic and Khakassiya, as well as Mongolia. We’re talking about a HUGE swath of critical global biodiversity and landscape.

Getting back to the day’s events – after lunch we took our pared down luggage and set off by boat for a 2-day exploration of the Lake and the Zapovednik. We would be staying overnight at the only settlement within the Zap’s boundaries – Yailyu (pronounced “ya-eel-yu”). The only reason that Yailyu still exists is that its existence easily predates the protected area (1812 vs. 1932). In general, all humans are resettled to outside of a zapovednik’s boundaries upon its establishment. In this case, the Zapovednik instead chose to have its main offices and rangers/guards operate from this more central location (at the spot where the lake turns 90 degrees). We traveled about 90 minutes at a steady rate to reach Yailyu, and then spent the afternoon exploring the 200-person village and environs.

View all our photos of the trip here!