ULUGAN, RUSSIA - The remote Altai Republic has long been seen as "Russia’s Tibet." Isolated by the tallest mountains in Siberia, Altai is located on the border with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. But now Altai is opening up to jet-age tourism.
Last year, workers at the region’s only commercial airport doubled the length of the landing strip and built a new terminal. In June, jets started bringing tourists directly from Moscow, Europe’s most populous city, to drink the milk of horses, contemplate clear, glacier-fed rivers and breathe the fresh air of Altai’s Golden Mountains. The range, with peaks of 4,500 meters, is one of Russia’s nine natural areas listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Visitors are also attracted by the Altai’s exotic traditional culture. Alexei Kaichi, for example, is a throat singer who voices the epic ballads of his native land.
“I truly stand for worshiping the hills, the mountain passes, and the water springs,” he says as he stands outside a yurt, a traditional circular dwelling of Altai’s semi-nomadic people. “Because, as I was taught, every part of the land is a deity.”
Galina Toptigina, who built the Chui Ooz Cultural Center near her ancestral village, emphasizes the importance of tourism revenue as foreign and Russian visitors bargain for locally made scarves and hats of silk and felt.
“With the new airport, we get different people, and we make money with this,” says Toptigina. “We have to keep tourism in our hands, offering our tourism, our services, our handicrafts.”
Selling hats, scarves and toy snow leopards made of felt, Olga Safanova says she was unemployed for three years until she took an eco-tourism course from the World Wildlife Fund nature group.
"Tourism here is just developing, and I think it is not bad because the local people have started to prepare souvenirs," she says. "And we have our traditions and customs that attract tourists and earn money.”
But some big city tourists do not share the mountain peoples’ reverence for land. At one stop, trash of picnickers and campers is piled between a mountain lake and a sacred pass where good luck strips of white cloth flutter from cedar trees.
Igor Kalmykov, who directs the Altai Biosphere Reserve, says the first step is to get local community leaders to see that local jobs depend on a pristine environment.
“We prepare local guides,” he says. “We try very hard to give them the possibilities to sell locally made souvenirs in places where they can sell.”
With unemployment high, nature tourism could provide jobs for the next generation growing up in Russia’s faraway Altai.