In which I finally reach Altai…

When I reach Altai following the visa debacle, the actual work of the trip begins. In overview, my trip has a number of phases and goals. Overall, I am hoping to meet with as many conservation folk as I can, renewing contact with existing colleagues and cultivating new relationships as well. The first part of my trip will take me to the southwestern corner of Altai Republic – Ust’-Koksa – where I will attend part of a World Conservation Union (IUCN) meeting to discuss transboundary wildlife connectivity and climate change. I’ll leave the meeting a bit early to travel with my colleague James Gibbs to conduct site visits with long-term Altai Project partners in the Ongudai Region (NE of Ust’-Koksa) and then join post-meeting IUCN expedition already underway to travel onward to an area I’ve never visited – the Chulyshman River Valley and Lake Teletskoye to the north above. That route will skirt along the edges of the huge Altaisky Zapovednik (a strictly protected nature reserve). Upon returning from the north end of the lake to Gorno-Altaisk, I’ll zip back to Barnaul for another day and half of partner meetings there. This trip would really have been much more manageable were it 3 weeks long, but I just don’t have that luxury.

July 23

Arrived effortlessly in Barnaul at 6:40am, along with several members of my US group. A larger group of other IUCN meeting participants had gathered as well around a person holding up meeting signage. Climbing aboard a rickety red bus, we settled in for a long day of driving. We drove through the early morning rush hour of Barnaul, where I noted lots of new buildings and construction along familiar routes, so I guess the economic crisis hasn’t been too brutal of late. Scooping up a few more colleagues at a local hotel, we finally set out for the 4-hour drive to Gorno-Altaisk, capital of Altai Republic and located east and a bit south of Barnaul. I was pleased to note that our bus driver was cautious and, as it turned out, very concerned about his vehicle’s welfare, stopping periodically to top off fluids, whack bits with wrenches and what have you. There are more than enough crazy aggressive drivers out there not to have to deal with one’s own.

Late July is the peak of summer here, although today started off overcast after nighttime showers. There is a riot of green trees, mostly deciduous but with a few evergreens tossed in here and there. Lush grasses and wildflowers were growing everywhere and the long flat expanses of fields were cultivated with various grains (looked mostly like rye and buckwheat to me). We drove through small villages mostly populated with log cabins trimmed in bright colors and occasionally with elaborate gingerbread around the roof and windows. Most houses had teeming vegetable gardens dominated by large plots of potatoes but also including small fruit trees and beautiful flower beds. [I don’t have any pictures of this stretch, due to my aisle seat and filthy windows.]

Leaving behind the vast steppe plains of Altai Krai, the landscape evolved into rolling hills and greater forest coverage as we entered Altai Republic. Along the initial miles of road in the Republic, the government has erected a series of large billboards glorifying an assortment of stern-looking men for their contributions – something straight out of Soviet times. This northwest corner of Altai is the most densely populated part of the Republic. Discrete villages gradually evolve into greater urbanity until we finally pull into Gorno-Altaisk, the capital, at about noon. We are taken to Gorno-Altaisk State University (the only higher education institution in the Republic) for some opening speeches and lunch. There’s a great deal of interest in this international meeting, so the press shows up in full force. The photojournalists are completely shameless, wandering among seated participants and snapping zillions of shots at every angle during all of the (blessedly brief) speeches.

Finally, at about 2:30, we all stumble back onto our gallant red bus and settle in for an even longer bus ride to Ust’-Koksa. In a speedy car, it generally takes about 5-6 hours. Driving time is determined by the number of lumbering overloaded trucks, free-roaming herds of cows, sheep, horses, and geese, and the current condition of the unpaved portions of the highway. In our bus, this trip lasted 9 hours, with only the last hour or so was in darkness, pulling up in Ust’-Koksa at about 11:30pm. Road trips in Altai are one of my life’s great pleasures, however. Driving over passes of varying elevations and winding along gently curving roads, each new broad valley is more stunning and beautiful than the previous. Livestock agriculture is the dominant economic pastime here, and most families have at least one cow if not more. The animals all roam and graze freely, and the only fences to be found are around family garden plots and the like. This time we passed a number of horse herds with foals in their midst, idly swishing their tails against the flies while grazing in vast fields of wildflowers and tasty grasses.

When not napping due to jet lag or the gentle sway of the bus, there was plenty of good conversation to be had on the bus. I sat next to Misha Paltsyn, wildlife biologist and conservation administrator extraordinaire. We caught up on all things snow leopard, argali sheep, and conservation moment politics.

July 24

When I woke up the next morning, I finally got a chance to check out my surroundings. We’re staying at the Argut Hotel, named for a local river (with Class 5 rapids and amazing landscapes) and nature park. Our first floor room opens out onto the banks of the Koksa River. I could probably frisbee my laptop into the river from my window should the need arise. While the river is still running high with snow runoff, it’s well past peak flow and is a lovely sound backdrop to my work. It’s a gorgeous, clear and sunny day today, not too hot.

It is still true that Ust’-Koksa is a one restaurant town – the Elegiya (aka, the Elegy). There are a few cafes, but I worry more than a little about food hygiene when I walk past their doors. Luckily, the Elegiya is tasty and has a pretty varied repertoire; we will be taking all of our meals here. This morning we had a potato/egg/beef/pea salad, followed by rice porridge, and a huge plate of pelmeni (small beef dumplings). Served along bread and apricot jam rolls. Talk about caloric.

The workshop got underway this morning with lots of pomp followed by a series of 20 minute presentations to set the stage for what I am truly hoping is some actual productive discussion of concrete proposals, issues, and collaboration opportunities. That might be difficult to achieve given how many UN and government scientists are in attendance, but a girl can hope. Day two of the agenda promises to at least allow for Q&A. Unable to take off my translation/interpretation hat as usual, I’m concerned that how its handling (w/out headphones, w/out adequate preparation, and w/out stern control of the speakers) is interfering with participants’ ability to actually understand the presentations, although the interpreters themselves are performing well!

Ust’-Koksa’s economy is based first and foremost on agriculture – dairy cows, medicinal plants, honey, and many other farm products. And despite its isolated location, it is the launching off point for tourists looking to visit Mount Belukha (highest peak in Siberia at ), trek or ride horseback in all directions, or just camp and get away from everyday life. From my room, I can hear cows mooing and something that sounds suspiciously like a howler monkey, although I’m pretty sure that must be something less exotic. Maybe a dyspeptic cow.