Dawn over Katun River.
The Altai region of southern Siberia is a place of geological wonders and rare biological diversity. The name Altai comes from the Mongolian word for ‘gold’ and ‘mountains,’ an apt moniker considering the ecological value of this UNESCO World Heritage site. Gold was also the colour of the trees and grasses during photographer Andrew Kudrin’s visit in Autumn 2011, which resulted in these stunning photographs.
The Altai is the source for Siberia’s two major rivers, the Ob and the Irtysh. It lies on the boundary between north and central Asia, is divided by four countries, and encompasses terrain, from high mountain ranges down to grassy steppes. Its rugged mountains, thrust up between 500 and 300 million years ago, were shaped by eons of wind, rain, and most of all ice – five glacial periods of it.
A lake hidden within the golden firs of autumn.
Kudrin says it was the wild beauty he had seen captured in pictures that drew him to visit the Altai. In particular, he wanted to see for himself the snow- capped mountains and glaciers for which the region is famous. Lucky for Kudrin, the Altai was “only 600 km away” (as he puts it) from his home in Siberia.
He explains: “Many people in my city visit it because it’s just about one day by car and you are in wild, beautiful nature. But the most beautiful places are a bit far away, closer to the Mongolian border. You have to go through several passes to get there so there are not too many tourists and a lot of wild, natural beauty. I saw many photos of these lands and really wanted to visit snowy mountains and glaciers.”
A stream meets the Katun River, close to one of photographer Andrew Kudrin’s campsites.
And that’s what Kudrin did; he went a bit further into the Altai than most Siberian visitors to reach the most beautiful regions closer to the Mongolian side. His main destination was the Aktru Glacier, a place popular with hikers in the Altai.
A river winds through the Chulishman Valley.
Encompassing an area of 1,611,457 ha, the Altai has a full range of mountainous terrains, from steppe, forest-steppe and mixed forest to subalpine and alpine. The confluence of rivers from these mountains forms the River Ob, at 5,410 km the fifth or seventh longest river in the world, depending on which source you refer to.
Close-up of an unusually shaped rock and river pebbles.
There are actually three distinct areas of the Altai: the Altaisky Zapovednik and buffer zone around Lake Teletskoye, the Katunsky Zapovednik and buffer zone around Mount Belukha, and the Ukok Quiet Zone on the Ukok Plateau.
A walking track leads through a valley.
The Altaisky Zapovednik supports diverse flora and fauna that includes 72 species of mammals and 310 of birds. Among the mammals are the endangered snow leopard and the world’s biggest breed of wild sheep, known as Argali mountain sheep.
Heading through the forest towards the snowy mountains.
Mount Belukha is the highest mountain in Siberia at 4,506 m, and according to local folklore it is the gateway to the mythical “Shambhala” kingdom. Not hard to understand considering the heavenly beauty of the surroundings.
The clouds reflected in a stream close to the Aktru Glacier, Kudrin’s prime destination.
Near Mount Belukha, the Katunsky Zapovednik and buffer zone is home to many important relic plant species – that is, ancient species that have survived from earlier ages, as well as an abundance of flora not found anywhere else on earth.
The end of the road, literally. From here on, Kudrin had to walk.
The Ukok Quiet Zone has a completely different landscape. Located on a high mountain plateau, it is dominated by hills and grassy steppe land with abundant streams and lakes. Like Mount Belukha, it has a special place in the religion and culture of the Altai people.
A winding road with telegraph poles as the only sign of human presence.
For millennia, the indigenous Telengits have grazed their animals here. One theory states that this long history of grazing may have contributed to the biological diversity of the Altai as much as, or even more than, natural factors.
Ominous clouds drift above a snowy peak.
Many cultures have made this part of the world theirs over the years – from the Khanates, Scythians, Turks, Uigurs, Mongols and Oirats, to the Russians who incorporated it into their empire in the 18th century. At that time, it became a refuge for runaway Russian peasants, serfs and religious schismatics who carved out their own free territory there.
Golden coloured fir leaves, perhaps the origin of the name Altai – meaning ‘The Golden Mountains.’
These days, it is sparsely populated by people who live mostly through low-level agriculture, hunting and gathering, much as they have done for thousands of years. Their traditional languages are divided into Southern and Northern Altay, both of them Turkic in origin.
The edge of the Aktru Glacier, one of the most accessible glaciers in the Altai.
Kudrin travelled over rocky roads and through rivers to reach his destination in the Altai. Most of that journey was through wilderness, with little sign of civilisation, a fact he is pleased about. His favourite part of the journey was reaching the Aktru Glacier, in a mountainous region full of snowy peaks and sparkling lakes.
The “road” leading to the Aktru Glacier. Actually not safe for vehicles.
This was also the most challenging part of his trip; with no vehicular access, he had to trek for 8 km to reach the glacier. He also had to carry food and camping gear, this being a remote area. And of course, lots of warm clothes! The Altai mountains are known for their frigid temperatures, especially during the colder months.
A peek at the pebbles beneath the glacial ice.
Unfortunately, Kudrin saw large-scale construction of roads and gas pipelines elsewhere. He recounts: “In other parts of the Altai, there are huge developments of roads and gas pipelines by GazProm. And this is too bad for the ecology and authenticity of these places.”
Another view of mountains, sculpted by millions of years of glaciers.
In 2006, Russia and China entered into an agreement to build a 2,600 km natural gas pipeline through the environmentally and culturally sensitive Ukok Plateau of the Altai. Development is yet to start, but if it went through, it would be devastating for the indigenous people and wildlife of the region. Russian environmental activists are strongly opposed to it.
Snowfall in the forest. The Altai has long, cold winters and relatively short summers.
The Altai truly is a world heritage site. Its richness in biological, historical and cultural terms are unequaled anywhere else on Earth. It is a place to be treasured and preserved for generations to come. Mikhail Shishin, president of an NGO opposed to the pipeline, Fund for 21st Century Altai, is hopeful when he says “The Ukok Plateau will be protected for the people of the Altai and the entire world.”
As for Andrew Kudrin, he had met his objective of reaching the Aktru Glacier, and photographing the many incredible wilderness spots along the way. He also met with visitors to the park from all around the world, all of them taken with the beauty of the Altai. Like Shishin, he hopes it will always stay that way.
(All photographs in this article copyright Andrew Kudrin)