Exploring the Karakol Valley

It rained softly on the yurt’s roof all night long, and luckily I didn’t notice the small, quiet drip onto the foot of my bed until morning. After breakfast, we piled into the Gazelle van and slip and skidded in the mud back to the main packed gravel road. Our host led us on a tour into the middle part of the valley.

We stopped briefly outside the mostly-completed gateway visitor center in the village of Bichiktu-Boom (possibly one of my favorite place names). Although Park staff have no authority to stop visitors, they hope to use this center as a way of registering visitors and educating them about their visit and giving them basic instructions on the do’s and don’ts of the valley’s sacred lands, protected areas, and Altaian customs.


A bit further along we stopped again to look at a small grouping of roadside petroglyphs and at a nearby spring. The spring had dried out more than 35 years ago, and only this year burbled back into existence. Unfortunately, the main road through the valley runs directly over it, so it’s a muddy mess until they work out a diversion under the roadbed.

There are several thousand petroglyphs at this site, and the locals believe that they are warnings and announcements of the numerous 4000-5000 year old burial mounds (kurgans) in the valley beyond.

Driving further along the road, one can see small, medium, and large low mounds sprinkled about the valley. Many of the kurgans were excavated in the early 1900s, and many were found to be empty. Depending on who you ask, the empty cenotaphs were either built in advance for people who were buried elsewhere or, as the Altaians believe, the empty sites were part of an important network of magnetic energy stretching the entire valley. The many round rocks piled atop the kurgans were brought in from outside the immediate area and are of different magnetic polarity than those in the immediate vicinity.

Pustyrnik (Leonurus)

Past the next valley village of Boochi, a great meadow bursting with a zillion wildflowers (edelweiss!) is host to two huge, leaning stone stellae that towered over all of us. These rocks are also not indigenous to this part of the valley.

During the Soviet era, there were many more of these stellae, as well as other rocks engraved with human images, but they were either stolen or thrown into mass cattle burial sites, or a very few were placed in museums. Supposedly removed to simplify crop farming, it is also likely that Soviet distaste for religion and spirituality played a role.

We weren’t able to travel much further up the valley because we ran out of time, but our host pored over a map with me later, indicating other checkpoints and locked gates that park staff are using to limit access to the most sensitive and/or sacred areas. Apparently this spring three adventure-seeking jeeps climbed up a horse trail over the back of the ridge (from the Ust’-Koksa side) and descended into the Karakol Valley, leaving a long trail of tire tracks in its path (and probably flustered wildlife too).

After lunch, the entire rest of the group headed off to Chui-Oozy for a visit to the Kalbak-Tash petroglyphs and an authentic Altaian meal, while some of us stayed back at camp for some intensive discussions. We made a long, long list of ideas for grant proposals, ranging from children’s citizen science projects up to funding the purchase of solar arrays and wind turbines to power remote checkpoints in the back of the valley.

After brainstorming, we had a long conversation about the land ownership registration process, territorial land use planning, and his vision for establishing a community council to manage the ecological, cultural, and economic development of the entire valley (and the valley across the highway, if he gets his way). Our host is the only protected areas manager that I’ve ever met with such a complete, holistic, and strategic approach to managing a park, communities, and an entire watershed, both now and looking ahead to future generations. He’s extremely inspiring and deeply humble about it all.

When the group returned, fully and sleepy, from dinner, they found us sitting around the warm hearth in the ail. Our host spoke of wanting to mark the end of our visit with intention and carefully wrapped each of us in a traditional Altaian sash to send us on our way.