I feel a kind of melancholy creep into my soul as my mind conjures up the image of those magnificent sunrises and sunsets. Vast wilderness, numerous lakes, mighty mountains that bear a striking resemblance to the ones we can admire in Slovenia: Altai is a distant Russian republic located at the crossroads between the Siberian taiga, the Kazakh steppes, and the semi-arid Mongolian deserts. The rugged young mountain range of the same name is shared by Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan; its highest peak Belukha reaches a mighty altitude of 4,506 metres. This world is dramatic, dynamic, remote, and nearly forgotten by Moscow; due to its purity and the poetry of its natural beauty, it is sometimes rightfully called the “Russian Tibet”.
As we were flying over the heart of Russia in a Russian Aeroflot, I didn’t yet know what was awaiting me. I wasn’t aware of the wonderful adventures one can experience by simply deciding to hoist a huge backpack over one’s shoulders, containing practically everything one can of think needing in the 30 days to come. And thus began the beautiful stories, the best of which took place right in the heart of the Belukha National Park. It happened 10 years ago; it still seems like yesterday.
Mornings are a special treat in this part of the world. We were high below the Kara-Tjurek pass, each of us fast asleep in our tent. Even though you’re sleeping on nothing but bare soil, wrapped in your sleeping bag, this is a “million-star hotel”. If you manage to convince yourself that you're not cold, and if you don’t fall asleep before having the chance to admire it, the mighty image of a clear, star-strewn sky will stay embedded in your heart. All you have to do is take a peek out of your warm sleeping bag.
I was usually among the first to come out to the fire pit; the only ones there before me were the puppies whose owners were our horse-riding guides, and who were the real guardians of the fire pit. I went to get water and put a large kettle on for tea. Before the water boiled, I had some time to do my morning meditations, collect the impressions of the past couple of days and, best of all, enjoy the morning. Often, frost was still covering the delicate and tiny flowers in the morning. It was August, that’s true, but at an altitude of more than 2,000 metres, the frost could hardly be a surprise.
Then, we prepared breakfast together, packed up our tents, hoisted the backpacks over our shoulders, and off we went again. During the day, you’re alone with your thoughts. Even though we were walking as a group, we each had our own cross to bear: our luggage, our thoughts, our emotions ...
But the landscape reaching up to the ice-covered peaks, secluded trees, and babbling waterfalls spoke to us. Very loudly.
The Valley of Seven Lakes made me think of the story behind our Triglav; the Belukha Mountain also has three peaks, after all, just like Triglav. For a couple of days, we set up camp in the vicinity of the Akkem Lake and followed the path of the seven lakes. The view of the glacial lakes and the untamed mountainous landscape stirs up many emotions inside of you. With me, these emotions came rushing at the surface and expressed themselves as admiration. A sense of wonder. I could not get enough of all the beauty. Pure poetry of untouched nature, as far as the eye can see. Such corners of the world also make you aware that we must keep the world we live in as wild, pure, and untarnished as possible.
Another such corner of the world is the Jarlu Valley, also known as the Door of Gods or the Altar of Gods. In an amphitheatrical refuge of the mountains, a strong shaman stone lies at the bottom of the valley; according to a legend, this is where the painter, philosopher and theosophist Nikolai Konstantinovich Rerikh tried to find Shambala. Small figurines standing by the road lead visitors to this “sacred spot” under the mountain.
It is hard for me to express the impressions of these nearly 14 days of trekking in the heart of the Siberian mountains in the shelter of the Belukha in just a couple of words. I can try to depict some inserts. Some expressions. Morning mists, or the morning cold. The silence of the starry sky. Maybe laughter coming from our camp as we were making dinner. Four Slovenians in the company of Russians and Ukrainians. The taste of Siberian blueberries and freshly prepared mushroom soup. A morning icy bath in one of the lakes where we washed the sweat from the previous day off our bodies. Or the sight of the evening meditations of a fisherman on the shore of Lake Kucherla. But I’d be ready to hoist that same backpack of adventures over my shoulders tomorrow!
Of course, our story in the Altai didn’t end with our steps. By car, we also visited numerous other places, such as the Teletskoye Lake and the Ukok Plateau, nearly touched the Mongolian border and crossed over to the steppe zone, looked down into precipices, and formed bonds with random natives.
The Republic of Altai is nearly 5 times as large as the surface of Slovenia (92,600 km2), of which the Golden Altai Mountains protected by UNESCO World Heritage represent 22%, meaning three quarters of the surface of Slovenia. This UNESCO heritage unites three parks: the Altai Park (comprising the area around the Teletskoye Lake), the Ukok Plateau (a high mountain region bordering Mongolia), and the Katun Park (the area of Belukha).
Each of them paints a different picture. Each of them has its own energy. And each of them leaves a mark on your soul.
Petra Draškovič Pelc
Born in the Slovene Štajerska, she chose to live in Kočevje and the mere thought of adventures in the wild nature of Alaska gets her heart racing like a wild animal. She enjoys silence, peace and the beauty of the light-flooded wilds of all the untouched corners of the world, as well as the beauty of her local Kočevje-area and Slovenia. She is an enthusiastic traveler, a curious admirer of nature, a tourist guide, author of countless articles in Slovenia as well as abroad and a doctor in biomedical science, who found her calling in (natural scientific) photography. Throughout her work with ARS NATURAE she tries to express love towards nature and its preservation.