The morning started off overcast, but settled on partly sunny during breakfast. Seven of us set out from Yailyu for a six-kilometer hike to the top of the nearest ridge. We were accompanied by two rangers, one armed with a rifle to protect us from bears. Yailyu villagers and zapovednik staff have a complicated relationship with the bears, as is often true, I suppose, for remote villages in a wilderness.
Around the turn of the 1900s, local residents were inspired to plant 110 hectares (~275 acres) of orchards, mostly apples, but a few pear and apricot trees as well. They planted over 80 different varieties of apple trees and have tended them for over a century.
In recent years the orchards have been neglected due to lack of labor, knowledge, and resources. Despite this, bears and other animals eagerly come to eat its ripe, sweet fruit in the fall, and this fact is probably at the root of human/bear conflict here. In hungry years, like in 2008, several dozen bears descend into the orchards as well as into the village itself, seeking fruit, stealing chickens, even hunting cows in desperation to fatten up for their winter hibernation.
Returning to the hike, we walked east out of the village, through the orchards, and then along the shore of the lake. On the low terrace here, we walked through small pockets of grazing cows and horses and crossed several small and medium creeks. The lake lapped very quietly at the shore, but big banks of wave-smoothed rocks and driftwood indicated that not only had the lake’s water level been much higher this spring, but that large waves had driven piles of rocks and large logs several meters up the beach.
A bit further along, we stopped briefly to listen to our guide. He hypothesized that the first Russian explorers probably had their first view of this lake from the terrace upon which we stood. Coming from Tomsk in the far north, their explorations would most likely have led them here. A few years ago, a zapovednik ranger came across a bronze sword in this area, so at the very least, people have been here in the past.
From this point we turned north and inland and began to climb up the ridge. Apparently, this trail, if you can call it that, has only been around for about a decade, and very few people hike its winding, but nearly straight uphill route every year.
It is one of only six official hiking routes accessible by non-zapovednik staff in the entire 2+ million acre protected area. The trail was narrow and often involved walking on and through brush and wildflowers that reached up to the top of my head. It was muggy and warm and the flies and noseeums were brutal at times, but the climb was worth it. At the top, we had a broad view stretching from the north all the way to the south end of the lake, some 50 miles to the south. We sat and enjoyed the view and then desperately tried to keep up with our jackrabbit guide as he flew back down the mountain.
We saw a few birds here and there and enjoyed their songs as we walked, but otherwise our wildlife sightings were confined to the insect world. We did see lots of butterflies. And as we walked along the lake shore, we came upon bear tracks leading up to the water’s edge, where it had stopped for a drink. About the size of my own hand, the prints were quite fresh and probably from early this morning.
After lunch, we packed up our belongings and said a long goodbye to Lake Teletskoye as we rode the Zurbagan back to Artybash. There we had a comical and classically Russian arrival. Our boat pulled up slowly alongside a rusting hulk of a former barge and tied up to it. Climbing over both ships’ rails, we stood precariously on a pile of boards lying on their sides to receive luggage as it was handed over to us. Then we did it all again on the other side of the barge to get onto dry land.
That evening we had a huge final feast. On top of the dinner the kitchen had prepared for us of buckwheat kasha, mystery meat cutlets, and the classic tomato-cucumber-cabbage salad, our very friendly driver also made us pork plov (a Central Asian pilaf) AND pork kebabs. All the food was a very good thing, because there was also a lot of alcohol in the form of vodka and wine to be consumed. A good time was had by all and we were a pretty decorous group for the most part. Not a lot of activity the next morning though.