Friday, 6 December 2013

Places to Visit in the World

There are places in the world which people visit for their history and culture, like Paris, Venice or Istanbul. Cities like Singapore, New York and Dubai have the tags of the world’s renowned shopping meccas. Bali and Bora Bora are amongst the most popular destinations for drinking Mojitos and Pina Coladas at the pool. Then there is Alaska, Patagonia and Mount Kilimanjaro for adrenaline junkies. But there is also a different type of traveler who crisscrosses the world in search of harmony, healing and spiritual knowledge.

When I was in Russia in July this year I visited one of those special places, the Alkhanay National Park. It’s situated in South Eastern Siberia, not far from the Russian – Mongolian border, just to the south of the region where I was born and grew up. Okay, bearing in mind that I am writing for the whole world and that most people would only know three Russian sights being Moscow, Saint Petersburg and the Trans-Siberian Railway, I thought it would be easier if I just show the place on the map (look for a red teardrop).

I know, I am a bit biased but it’s a truly magnificent part of the world! Majestic cedar and larch taiga forest, mysterious rocky peaks, infinite stretches of steppe covered by carpets of wild flowers in summer and powdery white stuff in winter, wild mountain rivers and languid lakes – all on a very large scale! Even typing this makes me homesick!

The territory of the Alkhanay Park covers 1380 km2, which roughly equates to the area of Rhodes Island in Greece or Flinders Island in Tasmania.

The central part of the Park is mountainous with average altitudes of 1000-1200 metres and the Alkhanay Mountain being the highest point at 1662 meters above sea level.

It took us just over 4 hours to get to the top and back. The incredible thing is that people manage to climb the path to the top of the Alkhanay without any special training or preparation.

Our group included a bunch of school children aged 7-8, grandparents in their sixties with their 4 year old granddaughter and every other age group and fitness level in between!

With one guide for our 20 plus group, only bottles of water in our backpacks and just mosquito repellent and Band-Aid for the First Aid – you might think we were lunatics! No, the locals claim that since the opening of the Alkhanay National Park in 1999 there was no single incident of people getting lost, injured or falling sick while on pilgrimage there.

I can definitely confirm that despite the fact that our mountain climb started at 4 pm in the afternoon, straight after a long drive from the nearest big city, and also the truth that we were totally unprepared and ignorant in our expectations, we successfully reached the summit and what is more, got back to the base unscathed!

We could not help but tested ourselves through the Sinners Crack. When one passes through this Crack, he gets rid of all his sins. It's, you guessed it, a crack about 2-3 m long and about 50 cm wide, and you have to climb up into and through it! I have to say, it’s a HUGE challenge for someone with claustrophobia!

Local Buryats (the largest indigenous group in Siberia) claim that Alkhanay is a dwelling place of the spirits, and therefore is worshipped as a sacred place with an unusual strength, capable of healing people from various diseases and charging them with positive energy. It is one of the most significant sacred places of Northern Buddhism.

There are numerous natural cultic objects in the Park: the Gates Temple, the Alkhanay Mountain Top, Buddhist Stupas (mound-like structures containing Buddhist relics) and Oboos (sacred piles of rocks considered to be the dwellings of the spirits).

The Alkhanay Park was created for the purpose of preserving natural landscapes, historical and cultural monuments and flora and fauna. Therefore the primary goal is to encourage tourism with minimal impact on the natural landscape and ecosystems. Everybody here obeys an unwritten law: live in peace with the world.

Accommodation is very basic, ranging from traditional yurts to wooden huts. We wanted to be authentic to the end and so chose to stay in the yurt!

It's so special to sit by the fire at night, watch the stars and feel close to something magical, cosmic and unusual.

Conveniences include outhouses with pit latrines and communal rainwater showers; or if one has preference for hot ablution there is a banya (a Russian type of sauna, a kind of steam bath).

Another bathing option is not for a faint-hearted, but I had to try it! The temperature in the creeks is near zero on the hottest summer day!

There are a few options for dining – from cooking your own food on a campfire (plenty of dry wood for people to collect) to plentiful caf├ęs and eateries which serve home-made hearty food all day long!

The Park attracts all kinds of visitors. Buddhists come here to worship or perform religious rites. Many people believe that they can find healing from various illnesses by drinking holy water from the numerous mineral springs or by bathing in the Alkhanay waterways. Some tourists (like me!) escape here from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, to feel at one with nature, find peace of mind and accumulate positive energy.
Where to next?