I traveled to Altai for the second time in 2002. On my first visit there two years back, the landscapes of this small republic in southern Siberia made such a profound impression on me that I felt I had to return. When I recall this second journey, I find that I am left with photographic clarity of a few defining moments and absolutely no memory of anything in between. Three images stay with me to the exclusion of all others. They are the faces of a knowledge keeper, a poetess, and a throat-singing storyteller whose voices spoke to me, calling me to the land that would subsequently become my home.
We stopped at the entrance to the sacred valley as one would naturally do before knocking on the door of any great residence. The indigenous nature park was relatively young and had been created only with much anxiety and discord among local inhabitants. Many people did not wish tourists to enter the valley at all. Our guide, Danil Mamyev, called us to be mindful of our behavior and asked us not to take offense if some of the local people were to give us strange looks or ignore our greetings. When queried as to why he had chosen to share his knowledge of the sacred valley with outsiders, he said, “I made the decision prepared to take responsibility for the consequences.” Looking a little abashed, he added more quietly, “My cup is full. If I don’t share from it, there will be no room for anything new.”
We drove slowly along a winding track that ran parallel to the river, passing villages of wooden houses and haystacks. Small herds of wild horses were grazing and playing between the villages and the forest edge. A huge black kite circled low, accompanying us as we moved further through the valley towards the mountain. We stopped at points along the way to admire rock art, kurgan sites (prehistoric burial mounds), and Bronze Age standing stones. Each place inspired our guide to share some aspect of the Altai worldview or other profound thought.
Turning a corner, we emerged onto a high plateau that widened out to reveal a magnificent view of the snowcapped peaks of Mount Uch Enmek, shining brilliantly against the blue summer sky. In the Altai language, uch means ‘three’ and enmek the ‘soft spot’ or ‘fontanelle’ on the top of a baby’s head. Uch Enmek was a replacement name. It was taboo to speak the mountain’s true name aloud, except in special circumstances of prayer and ritual.
Here, Danil spoke more openly, feeling perhaps stronger now that he stood at the foot of Uch Enmek. I studied our guide more carefully. He wore smart casual Western-style clothing: jeans, a white shirt, black leather shoes, and a blue Adidas raincoat. His black hair hung long and loose down his back like the mane of a wild animal and was cut into a rough fringe at the front. He had a wide forehead, large round cheekbones, and heavy Asian eyelids. He was totally still and unhurried, his face remaining expressionless while he spoke. I could imagine him climbing in the mountains, hand and foot searching for each new hold, learning humility through the limits of the high places, integrating nature’s pulse into his very skeleton. Here in the valley, he was always listening, attuned to something invisible, hearing more than the sounds of bird calls and mare bells. He was a knowledge keeper — and, when he listened to the music of the valley, truths inherent in the land seemed to rise up through the soles of his feet, to be considered in the heart and then expressed in words.
Danil talked more about the relationship that the local Altai people shared with the valley: “I remember when I was very young, the elders would say: ‘Kajhyl la nememing uchury, kemi, oyi bar,’ which in Altai means: ‘To all things there is a meaning, a measure, and a time.’ We consider these things to keep our human actions harmonious with nature. As you walk in the natural world, keep vigilant. Take note of anything you see that seems to stand out without becoming too attached to its meaning. This is nature’s way of talking to you, small signs that you keep inside and carry with you into the following day.”
Sometimes, when he was speaking, I thought I could detect a cautiousness beneath the veneer of resolute calm. He seemed to study our faces, wondering how much to share. He would turn to catch a glimpse of Uch Enmek over his shoulder as if on the distant mountain top there stood a being powerful and wise, whose thoughts he sought to gauge.
“It is important to travel,” he said. “An integral sacred knowledge has been dissolved over the course of human history into many separate parts. In life we must be like pilgrims searching the lands for these scattered pearls of knowledge to piece them together again in our own lives.”
There was a profundity to our guide’s words that gained power because they were inspired by this specific spot, on this particular day, perhaps because the wind had blown in such a way on his face, or the grazing herd had wandered in our direction giving their approval. Perhaps there was something he had chosen not to share because Mount Uch Enmek had veiled her highest peak with clouds saying, “Not yet.” This was the voice of the Earth, the ultimate conductor of our conversation with a knowledge keeper at the foot of a mountain peak — majestic and eternal.
The table in the cozy ail (traditional Altai six-sided wooden yurt) where we had stopped for a meal was laden with ceramic bowls filled with chunks of homemade soft white cheese and small balls of fried dough, the names of which sounded as scrumptious as the buckwheat honey in which they were dipped: byshtak, borsokh. Two Altai women were standing over a gas stove that took up one side of the wall. Marina was gazing intently at the ritual soup kocho, which she had made from barley grains, lamb, and garlic. Her teenage daughter had short, black hair and a round face, open and pale like the moon. She sat quietly on the single bed that stood to the left of the stove, waiting to be entrusted with holding plates and bowls as food was ladled into them.
If at that time I had spoken the Altai language, I would have understood that while I was eating my soup the girl had whispered to her mother, “Eje (mother), look at that English girl. Look at her eyes. They are so bright and alive! Look at her necklace. Do you think those are real diamonds? Eje, can I speak to her?” “Balam (my child),” came the answer, “wait until she has finished eating and we serve the tea.” And so it was that, as I took my last spoonful of rice, the girl strode toward me in a manner of correctness that transcends shyness and, without a moment’s hesitation, introduced herself to me in perfect English: “Hello, my name is Aiaru. Would you like to see our domestic animals?”
We wandered up the path past the potato plants to the farm sheds, where we sat down and leaned up against a haystack. The conversation quickly turned to language. Aiaru jotted down the Altai words for ‘yurt’ and ‘cow’ in my Moleskine notepad, demonstrating the correct pronunciation of the letter ‘j’ in the Turkic alphabet and explaining that in the Altai language stress always falls on the last syllable.
Then she said that she would like to read me her poem, “Flower People.” This is the essence of that poem as I remember it: A small community of wildflowers grows peacefully in an alpine meadow. Every flower on the mountainside has its own unique personality, just like people do. In the morning, as they set about the day, the flowers call out to their neighbors with a cheery ezen! (‘hello’). May we all learn to live together with the same mutual respect and friendship of the meadow flowers.
Perhaps something is lost in my account of Aiaru’s poem, but I remember that her poem breathed and opened a window onto a world I did not know existed. There was no doubt that the flowers truly greeted one another as the day began, just never when I had been looking.
Aiaru’s poem reminded me of a few lines by the Christian mystic, Jakob Boehme: “The flowers of the earth do not grudge at one another… but stand kindly by one another, and enjoy one another’s virtue.” I looked at the girl beside me and noticed that in an act of teenage expression she had drawn stick-like rock art figures in white paint all over the legs of her dungarees. Aged just sixteen, the young poetess had captured the nature metaphors worthy of a seventeenth century theologian in a language that was simple and happy. Aiaru belonged to the Maiman clan, the last Turkic clan to fall to Genghis Khan’s army. Hers was a beauty characteristic of her clan: rare, formidable, hidden on a scroll deep inside, which her pen would unravel with time. How I wished that I too had the perceptivity and courage to see a brother in a rock, a sister in a meadow flower.
As we entered the mouth of the cave, a throat-singing storyteller, a kaichy, moved slowly toward the fire that burned at the center. He had the awkward gait of an old man and leaned slightly forwards over a topshur, a wooden string instrument he kept sheltered close to his body. He wore a fur hat and a thick, tawny-grey suede coat crossed over at the breast. The edges of the front and wrists were decorated with white hare fur, a run of gray patterned silk, and wide gold and silver trimmings. The coat was tied at the waist with a thick band of bright, yellow fabric. From a fine leather strap slung over the shoulder hung a plump, black horsehair whip. The flames of the fire ran to caress his cheek as he approached and, lighting up his face in the darkness of the night, revealed the figure to be a young man no more than thirty years old. He crouched down on one knee before the fire, now holding his instrument out towards the flames and speaking a blessing meant only for the ear in the coals.
Arjhan, the young kaichy, turned to us, now sitting on a low stool. Holding his topshur in his hands, he began to sing. A huge guttural sound emerged from within his chest. O-oh-oh! Then he began strumming the topshur, interweaving the drone sounds of the strings with the growing strength of his vibrating voice. Then as he broke into lines of poetic rhythm, he told an ancient tale, at times mixing the low resonant note with an overtone melody and, to this, adding a high-pitched whistle. It was hard to believe that this mix of three vocal sounds could be the song of one man.
The music gripped us as it flowed in waves through the cave, down the mountainside, and to the raging river below, satiating the atmosphere, as if ceremoniously blessing all that it encountered. It was as if all of nature, every cedar, bird, and rock had been animated in the night and set trembling and reverberating until fused into a single chord: the performer and the listeners, the cave and the valley’s distant past, the heroes of the ancient tale. All matter and memory were united in the present moment by this unique voice charged with guiding the people into the future.
Joanna Dobson lives on the North Norfolk coast, England, where she is writing her book To Altai, which describes her experiences of living for a decade with the Indigenous People of the Altai Republic. During that time she worked as a translator in the field of biocultural conservation. To find out more about Joanna’s work, visit www.altaipilgrim.com
Dobson, J. (2013). Letter from: A journey to the heart of Russia’s Shangri-La. The Calvert Journal. Retrieved from http://calvertjournal.com/articles/show/1708/letter-from-altai-journey-heart-russian-shangrila
Dobson, J., & Mamyev, D. (2010). Sacred Valley, conservation management and Indigenous survival: Uch Enmek Indigenous Nature Park, Altai Republic, Russia. In B. Verschuuren, R. Wild, J. A. McNeely, & G. Oviedo (Eds.), Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving Nature and Culture (pp. 244‒354). Washington, DC: Earthscan.
Sacred Land Film Project. (2012). Golden Mountains. Retrieved from http://www.sacredland.org/golden-mountains/
Shodoev, N. (2012). Spiritual Wisdom from the Altai Mountains: Altai Bilik (J. Dobson, Trans.). Winchester, UK: Moon Books.
UNESCO. (1998). World heritage list: Golden Mountains of Altai. Retrieved from http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/768
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