Events and Newsletters -
Winter 2004 - Issue 20
The Ancient and the New. Side By Side in the Altai
We came around the bend in the dirt road, and out of the van window I could see it—the Mountain. I am a mountain person and I am often captivated by the sight of a beautiful summit, but there was something about this mountain that jumped out at me. I was so excited to see it, and I did not know why. Danil Mamyev, Altai native elder and the founder of Karakolsky Nature Park, asked the driver to pull over, and he led Colin Garland, director of the U.S. non-profit “Global Classroom” and me down a gentle slope and stopped. “This is Uch Enmek, a sacred mountain and the powerful core of the Karakol valley.” Danil went on to explain that the people who lived here 8,000-10,000 years ago held this mountain and the surrounding Karakol Valley in reverence, and, as many local indigenous people in the region today, believed this to be an area of planetary importance. Last year, SEN had the opportunity to provide some support to the park—funding for basic infrastructure, communications and public outreach. Until this visit, I was unaware that the park contained such ancient and powerful energies, and that the Altai and Scythian cultures have served as stewards of this land for centuries. Being invited to walk among the ancient standing stones and burial mounds, and shown and told about the Altai native cultures was a gift I had never dreamed of.
Cement mixing for composting toilet, clockwise from left: Oleg Mitrofanov, Brad Little, Susan Cutting, Irina Filus, Natasha Priydak
Colin and I had just come from Altaisky Zapovednik (state nature reserve), where Irina Filus, Oleg Mitrofanov and Sergei Spitsin of Argali EcoCenter are building a visitors center for the reserve. Their aim is to create a place where people can learn about the zapovednik, its nature and the importance of protecting it. They also want to show visitors how they can take steps to protect the environment in their local areas. So, Colin and I, with two visiting volunteers: Brad Little from Florida and Natasha Priydak from Novosibirsk, Russia, went to Yailu, the staff village for the remote zapovednik, to show our partners how to build a composting toilet. This—our second state of the art composting toilet in the Altai—was extremely well received, and the visitors center was indeed the perfect place for it. As we laughed and joked while mixing cement, residents of Yailu would ask our hosts what this is, and often they would understand immediately the purpose and need for this type of technology. Most Yailu residents are staff members of the reserve—wildlife biologists or rangers. They are there most likely because of their commitment to conservation rather than the meager, sporadic salaries the zapovednik pays. The villagers mainly live off of their small farms and rich, inspiring gardens—all of them organic—to avoid contaminating the reserve lands and nearby Lake Telyetskoye. Since there is no sewage system, the only option for human waste that many had known of until now had been pit toilets. The composting toilet was clearly a welcome technology in Yailu.
Colin Garland and standing stones at Karakolsky Nature Park
As Colin and I later walked through the recently established Chui-Uzi Nature Park, the home of one of the most renowned petroglyph sites of the Altai, I thought of the ancient and contemporary approaches to honoring nature. In ancient times, they carved prayers and pictures into the cliff faces as messages to the spirits and future generations. Today, we choose renewable energy and waste-management technologies as another kind of message to the world. For Ruslana Toptygina, the young Altai woman who, with her mother’s help established and runs this park, these parallel worlds are a part of every day life. She is desperately trying to protect the cliff drawings by creating infrastructure to manage both inquisitive tourists and people coming to honor their sacred sites.
Ruslana, Irina, Oleg, Sergei and Danil, from three different protected areas of the Altai, share a common concern: how can we better share the wisdom and beauty of these ancient treasures without causing them harm? When is it appropriate to allow people to quench their thirst to learn from and experience wilderness and sacred sites, and when is it better to just let them be?