That Summer: Braving the borders of a new Siberia in 1995

This piece was originally published as part of The Independent’s That Summer series. Find out more about it here.

“Phoo, Misha, phoo!”

The usual Russian response to irksome animals wasn’t working: Misha, a three-month-old bear, looking as cuddly as any self-respecting roly-poly brown cub should (but with a bad case of halitosis), kept trying to play. But her cute paws hid some sharp claws.

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In the summer of 1995, I was nearing the end of a two-year postgraduate stint in Novosibirsk, the city more or less at the heart of Siberia. The USSR had only recently unravelled, and life in post Soviet Russia was tough.

Novosibirsk, the biggest city on the Trans-Siberian line between the Russian capital and the Pacific Ocean, is not known as a tourism hub. Its name translates as “new Siberia” and it is a metropolis created by the railway.

So when Svetlana had suggested organising a back-to-nature journey to the Altai mountains in lieu of payment for translation work with her science journal, I was delighted to accept the barter. But I hadn’t bargained on getting quite so close to Russia’s wildlife. Nor to so many international frontiers.

Four giant countries converge in the Altai mountains. The Far East of Russia shares a long border with China, but here there is a 20-mile stretch of frontier too – between Kazakhstan to the west and Mongolia to the east.

Misha notwithstanding, the trip to the Altai was the highlight of my stay in Siberia. Our initial two soon grew to a convivial six, as everyone in the Novosibirsk-based editing team decided that this was too good an opportunity to pass up. We were promised basic, free accommodation at a research station by Lake Teletskoye.

Tatyana cooked enough food to last her husband and children through a siege, Natasha pleaded with her daughter not to give birth for another couple of weeks, Denis brought along his wife and, leaving the cares of the city behind us, we headed off – bumping along on the floor of an ex-army truck now used as a mobile laboratory.

The journey took the better part of a day: four hours south to Barnaul, then a few more hours through Biysk and upwards into the Gorno Altai Autonomous Republic. It wasn’t far from the border to our destination, the village of Artybash, but the road surface was dreadful, and it was dark when we arrived.

We woke to blazing sunshine and the shimmering surface of Lake Teletskoye, shaped rather like an upside-down Italy. A group of Belgian geologists was also at the base, examining rock formations along the shoreline: two of them had cadged a lift in our truck from Novosibirsk and returned the favour by letting us join them on a two-day trip.

Such co-operation would once have been impossible in this remote corner, but times had changed.

The lake is fed from mountain streams and remains virtually unpolluted (I was surprised at first to see the scientists happily brushing their teeth in it). We stopped off several times while the geologists took rock samples and we explored sights such as Korba waterfall.

In the evening, the men camped near the mouth of the Chulyshman river, providing the local mosquitoes with rich pickings, while we women tried to find refuge on the boat. After a fireside picnic on the first night, Katya and Svetlana sang Russian songs, the geologists responded with Jacques Brel, and it fell to me to show what Scotland could come up with (an off-key rendition of “The Skye Boat Song”).

The next day, we came across three game wardens who had just spent 40 days walking and riding through the huge nature reserve along the eastern shore of the lake, on the lookout for poachers. After the first few days, they had survived on what they could find or trap but, apart from ravenous hunger, they seemed none the worse for wear.

Back at the base, we were reminded of the need for such men when someone brought in a bear cub, left behind when poachers had killed its mother for her skin.

Misha was being temporarily fed and sheltered by the scientists, but unless they could find her a new home in a zoo or circus, she would have to be shot; she would soon be too dangerous to keep at the base, but incapable of surviving in the wild.

We stayed for another week in Artybash, watching hundreds of white and purple butterflies startle up from the ground as we passed, and swimming in mountain streams.

The men carried water up from the lake so that we could use the banya (the Russian sauna) and we cooked and ate in the open air, and drank toasts to everybody and everything imaginable.

The Altai mountains are not up there with the Alps, the Rocky Mountains and the Himalayas, but by rights they should be.

On our return journey, we spent a night sleeping outside by the powerful Katun river, mosquito-free; and our first rainy afternoon, wandering through Gorno-Altaysk waiting for the truck to be repaired. All too soon, we were back outside the publisher’s office.

I left for Moscow two days later, not to return for four years. When finally I did, we sat round Svetlana’s table and took stock.

Finances for the English-language journal had dried up, but Svetlana finally had a suitable flat. Katya had married an Australian she met through the Internet. Natasha had a four-year-old grandson. Denis was an awestruck father. And Misha had found a home in Novosibirsk’s recently upgraded zoo.

In normal times, Novosibirsk is easy to reach: it is approximately halfway between Moscow and Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and has many flight connections via the Russian capital and other hubs.

Wild Frontiers organises trips to the Altai mountains.

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