(Re-posted from my physical travel journal)
I’ve been in the Altai for 3 or 4 days now. The passage of time has become blurred for me on these travels. I don’t even know exactly how long I’ve been traveling when people ask. Have to think about it. It’s already been a month. Wow!
I’ve come to volunteer at a nature reserve, called Uch Enmek Park, founded, managed, and run by indigenous Altaians. My first day here, I chopped some wood in the morning with another fellow traveler visiting the park here. I’m going to be helping with a trail-building project, but the managers of the project weren’t able to come that day, so in the afternoon I was free to roam about. I went for a walk to the river. Through the fields that the cows and horses graze on. Krakol is a beautiful, calm, peaceful valley surrounded by majestic mountains.
The walk through the fields was serene. A chance to connect with the land. Thick tree lines to cross through here and there. Cow tracks, horse tracks, gopher holes. Plants I don’t yet know. Birch trees. Someone peeled some bark off of one. The bark is a great fire-starter. Are these willow trees near the water? Not sure what they are. Lots of flowering plants.
Near the river is the remnant of a camp site. Logs and branches neatly organized next to a fire pit, ready for the return of its previous tenders or perhaps the next campers. I walk up to an old, half-rotted, tree stump, which from afar looked to be the shape of a wolf. I greet the wolf. I greet the land. I make offerings of gratitude. I go back to the river bank. I wash my face and drink from the river (the nature reserve staff previously confirmed that it’s safe to drink). Its pure, refreshing, coolness excites every cell it comes in contact as it pass down my throat and into my body. I give thanks. I lay down by the campsite, taking in the surroundings. Slowly, I doze off. I wake up an hour or two later. The sun is near setting. It’s cold outside now. I get up. I’m dazed, still very tired. Exhausted. Did I get too much sun? I head back to the Visitor Center park area.
Herman and Ayan, two staff at the park, are having dinner and invite me to join them. Leftovers from the dinner cooked for the tourists. Traditional Altaian dishes. Delicious. Herman and I get into conversation. We talk about ancestors. We talk about roots. He lights a fire as night falls and the temperature begins to drop. We have post-dinner chai.
He talks about the energy of the land, the energy of Altai. He says there are certain energy centers on the Earth where there is a connection point between Earth and the cosmos. Machu Pichu, the Egyptian Pyramids, Himalayas, etc… and Altai.
You can feel it there. In the land. In the people. You can see it in the mystical overtone of the land, like you’re walking through a painting or a dream world. You can see it in the eyes of people like Herman, eyes that look like they see everything, know everything. Eyes that are not just his, but his ancestors’, eyes of the land itself. He is one with this land. It is evident on his weathered skin. He’s only three years older than me, but he in many ways appears much older. Old soul. He’s carrying his ancestors with him. His roots go deep and he knows them, is very strongly connected with them. You can feel it in the way he carries himself. Grounded, centered. You can hear it in his words, so simple and so wise. So much wisdom. He has a big, powerful soul.
Herman tells a story of a group of trouble-makers that came from Moscow once. They were disrespectful. They complained about the lack of amenities they’re use to. They left trash on the land. They did something else that offended the care-takers of the reserve (I didn’t quite understand with my limited Russian). They lit a campfire one night. It was hissing and spitting and shooting embers at them. Herman fed the fire some bread and cheese and meat. The fire calmed down. On the day they were supposed to leave to make a flight, their car broke down and they missed their flight. Herman said: “You see, this land has a spirit of its own. It can see right through a person. It knows you.” Right then, the way his eyes looked, I felt as though he was looking directly into my soul.
We talked about religion, about different belief systems. Herman said their (Altaians) belief system is Realism. What we call would call a mixture of Animism and Pantheism, they call Realism. He said they believe in what they can see, touch, feel. They see the tree. They can touch it. They see the Sun, can feel its warmth. Without the Sun, there is no life. (So of course we praise the Sun. It’s one of the sources of Life.) We can feel the Earth. The Water. The Wind. All of which there is no life without. Fire: you can feel it, see it, smell it. It is life. This is what we believe in.
We sat by the fire, being warmed by the energy of Earth, Sun, Wind, and Water, stored in the wood that was now feeding the dancing flames, and shared photos and stories of family.