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Absolutely Siberia


Absolutely Siberia

By Victor H. Garza Source:Global Times Published: 2014-10-17 5:03:02

A horseback riding journey into nature


This week's destination

When I was 8 years old I rode a horse for the first time in my life in a place called "La Siberia" located in northeastern Mexico (yes, a mountainous area with pine trees and snow does exist south of the US border!). Having lived in China since 1997 and having traveled extensively throughout Asia over the years, I decided it was high time to relive my boyhood memories by heading to the REAL Siberia during none other than 2014, the Year of the Horse, to go horse riding once again. 

Multicultural Irkutsk

One of the main cities in central Siberia is Irkutsk. After taking a three-hour "red eye" flight from Beijing I landed at two in the morning in a small but busy airport. Tired, worried, having no local currency, no hotel reservation and unable to speak Russian I started to make my way out of the airport. I felt a little bit nervous, helpless and lonely. Fortunately I saw a young, thin Chinese traveler at the airport's parking lot negotiating a ride with a middle aged, bulky Russian taxi driver. They both agreed to drive me out of the airport and took me to a very nice and cozy hotel nearby (for a very reasonable taxi fare which I paid in RMB). I decided to stay at the Europa Hotel for a couple of days and made my "base" there to explore the city before joining the group of adventure travelers with whom I would explore Siberia by helicopter, military jeeps, on foot and of course by horse!

Irkutsk turned out to be a large, lively and historical city. Its first settlers came around the 1650's trading furs with the local nomad tribes establishing themselves in pretty large wooden mansions, some of which still stand today. Other adventurers continued their journey further east beyond Kamchatka such as Grigory Shelikhov, the man who claimed Alaska for Russia.

Beside "historical" sites, the "in" place to hang around the city is the fancy, modern District 130 where nice cafes, restaurants, boutique hotels and shopping malls are located.

The most fascinating aspect I enjoyed in Irkutsk was interacting with so many diverse ethnic groups such as: Tartars, Buryats, Ewenkis, Russians, etc. All of whom coexist with each other alongside splendid Orthodox Churches, Zen style Buddhist Temples and dynamic and sociable Mosques. 

Sacred Lake Baikal

About 70 kilometers west of the city lays a very spiritual and holy lake that gives birth to the longest river in Irkutsk: The Angara. Lake Baikal is home not only to shamanistic traditions but also to seagulls, fish and a very lovely, playful type of pigmy seals. Many Buddhists followers as well as a few Shamans (both belonging to the Buryat Nation) find the energy of this place truly magical, especially on Olkhon Island. Baikal is the largest lake in the world holding 20 percent of the planet's fresh water.

Alygdzher: land of the Tofalars

Having enjoyed the Russian hospitality at Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, I joined a group of 15 travelers from Belgium, England, France, Hong Kong, Mexico, Mongolia, Norway and the US, taking an overnight Trans-Siberian train and a day later a very exciting helicopter ride to make our way to a tiny village, called Alygdsher, right in the heart of Siberia and home to one of the smallest tribes in the world: the Tofalars (there are less than 600 left in the world). This nomadic tribe is famous for breeding reindeer through the forests and highlands of the Sayan Mountain Range located north of the Kazakh-Mongolian borders. Many of Tofalars have settled down in this beautiful village. Their traditions resemble those of ethnic groups in Mongolia as the Tofalars also enjoy wrestling, archery and horse racing. Alygdzher is surrounded by wide and fast-flowing rivers and tall mountains full of evergreen trees. The sun sets around midnight, after which thousands of stars surround the village, with the Big Dipper the brightest constellation almost right above you! 

The Sayan Mountains

Our horseback riding journey took us to a majestic mountain range reaching heights of up to 3,000 meters). These mountains are home to elk, bears, musk deer and of course reindeer. Oh! And some valleys are home to hundreds of flies and mosquitoes, too! So taking repellent is a must. This was especially true for us considering that during our week or so trip, we rode our horses in the wilderness during the day time searching for reindeer and then camping at night.

I was quite surprised that certain parts of Siberia reached temperatures over 35 C during the month of July, while during the evenings the temperature could almost reach the freezing point depending on the altitude. So all of us needed to be prepared with all sorts of clothing. Thank God we had horses to carry not only our luggage and camping equipment but also our food.

Although I was expecting to see abundant wildlife in Siberia, only a few of our "traveling comrades" got to see an elk and maybe a couple of musk deer (a tiny deer with "Dracula" style fangs). We were lucky not to encounter any bears (but our Tofalar guides were prepared with rifles just in case). 

A day or two before the end of our journey we all did manage to find a group of 150 snooping reindeer walking in the snowy top of a mountain at an altitude of 2,000 meters above sea level. They came towards us and licked our arms in search of "salt" from our sweat.

Our journey ended at the foot of a very important sacred mountain to the local shamans called Alkhadir in Russian. This mountain bears the name of a famous Muslim sage who is often represented wearing a green robe. 

The Koran mentions that Alkhdir was an old sage full of wisdom. This trip made me realize that the simple lifestyle of the Tofalars is truly full of great wisdom and respect towards nature. I will never forget when our Tofalar tour leader Vladimir hunted an elk and gave thanks to the animal for sacrificing his life in order to nourish ours. Nor I will forget the Tofalar women singing as they collected garlic and berries from the forest. They were truly in harmony with nature!  

And most importantly I think the Tofalars are grateful to our guide Alexei Nikiforov for introducing their culture to the rest of the world! Now the Tofalars are not only living in Siberia but in the hearts and minds of travelers from Belgium, England, France, China, Mexico, Mongolia, Norway and the US.

So if you want to find "Rudolph" the red nose reindeer during the upcoming fall and winter holidays with the help of the Tofalars… then give it a try in amazing Siberia!

Searching for reindeer in the Sayan Mountains Photo: Courtesy of Victor H. Garza

Tofalar Art Center in Alygdzher Photo: Victor H. Garza
District 130 in downtown Irkutsk Photo: Victor H. Garza
Tofalar Shamanic Festival in Alygdzher Photo: Victor H. Garza
Fish Market in Lystvyanka (Lake Baikal) Photo: Victor H. Garza
Rules of thumb

Getting there: There are direct flights to Irkutsk from Beijing, China and Seoul, South Korea. It takes about 2-3 hours to reach Irkutsk. 

Where to stay: The Europa Hotel has very friendly young staff who speak very good English. This hotel is about a 20-minute walk from downtown.

The Irkutsk Hotel has a great downtown location next to the city's major river, the Angara. Many churches and museums are within a 15-minute walk from the hotel. The hotel also has international ATM machines.

What to wear: Summer can be hot during the day time reaching temperatures above 35 C! Nights can be chilly. It's important to wear insect repellent especially when going into the forests (there are tons of mosquitoes and ticks).

Winter time can be extremely cold so wearing layers is a must!

What you may have not expected: Russia is a multicultural country with hundreds of ethnic groups which include Caucasian and Asian ethnicities which speak many different languages and dialects and practice many different religions. 

What not to miss: Lake Baikal near Irkutsk; the Angara River; a mass at an Orthodox Church on a Sunday morning; and a Shamanistic ritual ceremony!
Posted in: Feature
Destinations in Siberia & Beyond
Weather in Irkutsk
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