Magazine article Russian Life

The Spirits of the Mountain Alkhanai

Magazine article Russian Life

The Spirits of the Mountain Alkhanai

Article excerpt

In the 16th century, a Buryat man gave his beautiful daughter, Balzhin, to a Mongol landlord, against her will. Her new husband's family gave her a gift of nine tribes of Buryats. Unhappy with the marriage, she escaped and ran from Mongolia. When the pounding army sent to find her by her mother-in-law cornered her among the dense forests of Mount Alkhanai, she cried out "Alhar!" (They are going to kill me!) Atop Mount Alkhanai, one can feel the tremor of her spirit while sitting where she stood.

The outcropping of granite at the summit stands sentinel over a world that few outside eyes have seen. Perching upon the rock of Mount Alkhanai in late spring is like sitting on a small island jutting up from the sea. Instead of waves, this sea features an expanse of green trees that float out into the distance. Larch, birch, fir, and pine form brilliant checkerboard patterns of green, which take on blue hues as they rise up to form mountains, turning turquoise in the distance, where they meet the white clouds.

At 1,662 meters above sea level, Alkhanai is the highest peak in the Aginsk Buryat Autonomous Region. Located in a sparsely populated area three hours south of the trans-Siberian stop Chita, it lies within a few hundred miles of both the Chinese and Mongolian borders. But back in Genghis Khan's time, it served as the centerpiece of a much wider Buryat area, a land and a people that were subsequently divided between Russia, China, and Mongolia.

Ancient Buryats long ago considered Mount Alkhanai sacred. For luck, Mongol warriors once carried pieces of the broken rock with them into battle. Buryat-Mongol tribes, the indigenous people who populate this area, bring up their children to love and respect the surrounding world. They pass along legends and tales about the Alkhanai mountains, caves, and springs, and teach them to recognize the unity of nature and humanity.

In later times, both shamans and Buddhists considered Alkhanai to be their sacred space. Beginning in the fifteenth century, shamans used the forests of Alkhanai as the site of frenzied ceremonies, featuring banging drums and trances. In the early 1800s, Buddhist lamas took control of the mountain in what present-day Buddhists insist was a non-violent takeover. "The lamas just prayed hard enough," said a local guide, Achim. "The shamans are pagans, but the lamas have a real religion, Buddhism."

Five hundred years after Balzhin's death, on May 15, 1999, the mountain named after her cry became Russia's 35th national park. It is also the first park in southeastern Zabaikal. According to park director Bair Nimaev, Alkhanai is not only the youngest national park, but the only Russian park to "combine nature and religion."

The Sacred Mountain

Towering over the Aghyn steppes, Alkhanai National Park blends natural rock monuments with curative springs, waterfalls, and diverse flora and fauna. The 105,255 hectares of protected area contain more than 340 plant species, 180 of which are used in official, Tibetan, and folk medicine.

Different landforms, incompatible in ordinary conditions, thrive together at Alkhanai -- including steppe, forests, meadows, lichen, and tundra. Magenta elderberries sparkle against a background of grey volcanic rock, while nature offers up treasures of Altai onions, compact rhubarb and pine nuts.

Visitors most often see chipmunks, rabbits and birds, though bear, elk, lynx, deer and wolves also call the park home.

Mount Alkhanai, an ancient volcano, formed 150-170 million years ago. Vertical splits in the fossil-filled stones provide evidence of the violent convulsions of its formation. Tuff rock, created from the lava of the exploding volcano, lines the slopes and, like the rest of the rock at Alkhanai, it is disintegrating with time. The top of the mountain is unusual in that it forms an almost perfect circle, 34 meters across. A circular path runs around the summit, where Buddhist pilgrims walk their traditional circle round the sun -- the rite of goroo. …

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