Matthew Ballini, Hobart College '17
While each weekend has been a unique and amazing adventure, this past excursion encompassed both the Russian and Altaian cultures and may have topped them all.
After a long drive to the Chemal region, the trip began with a visit to an apiary. It was here that our group was informed about the beekeeping process, learned about its history, and tasted the different varieties of honey. When we first arrived, everyone in the group was given protective clothing which came in the form of a hooded hat that covered one’s head and neck. Knowing very little about the beekeeping process before the trip, I was surprised to learn about several different uses of honey. In addition to being very tasty and a great complement to tea, honey can also be used for various health benefits. As for the bees themselves, our guide demonstrated how the honeybee’s sting can be used as a form of acupuncture. One of our brave participants on the trip, Janet Murphy, volunteered to experience this by getting stung. Overall, learning about the bees themselves and the honey they produce was really captivating and something I never thought I would enjoy as much as I did.
The next day we visited the Island of Patmos, the home of a small, Russian Orthodox Monastery. This peaceful and simple monastery was moved to the island in 1915 and has a pretty unique story. According to legend, St. John the Evangelist saw two temples floating above the water in a dream. One temple was in the Mediterranean Sea, while the other was located in the distant lands of Altay country. When exploring the Island of Patmos, I took the opportunity to light a candle in prayer and even toss some change into a small pond beneath a religious painting on a rock. Hopefully, my dream to return will come true!
The entire group greatly enjoyed learning the history of this tranquil and spiritual gem but the real thrill came through crossing a 60-foot wire cable suspension bridge. Not only did the bridge sway but also it crossed over the large and well-known River of Katun. Surrounded by beautiful mountains, tons of small shops and Mother Nature, we continued for a scenic hike along the banks of the river until we reached our bus. This excursion was especially unique because it provided an opportunity to learn about the religious aspect of what the Russian Orthodox Church means to the Russian people.
Nature Park "Uch-Enmek"
The last major stop we made during the weekend trip was horse-back riding through the sacred "Uch-Enmek" Park, which is a nature preserve located in the traditional Altaian area. This particular activity may have been the highlight of the entire trip for me. Having forgotten to pack pants, I was fortunate to be given a park ranger uniform to wear for the day! The park rangers were exceptionally kind and thoughtful and I appreciated their help.
The day consisted of riding horses through dense woods and up the steep slopes, lunch on top of a sacred mountain, and incredible views through untouched nature. Riding the horses alone was an incredible experience, but learning about some of the local Altaian ideology and traditions was even more fascinating. For example, when our group reached the sacred lake of Aru-Kem, all of the men were directed to take off their hats so they could gain wisdom. As for the women, they were directed to cover their heads and wear their layers of clothing in order to keep their bodies warm and healthy for future child bearing. Another tradition we learned of occurred when we were about to eat lunch. It is local tradition to toss some of the cooked food into the campfire as a sacrifice to the fire god before eating.
All of these amazing experiences truly set this weekend trip apart from the others. I have come to realize that this mysterious land is a living spirit – not just beautiful mountains, forests, lakes and rivers. I witnessed this spirit in the Altaian people, their culture, and their harmony with nature.