Altaisky Zapovednik (The Golden Mountains Of Altai)

Wild, woebegone cries of elsewhere rare black-throated loons are heard on more than 1,000 lakes nestled amid mountainous terrain. Thousands of water-oriented birds are attracted to this 3,401-square-mile (8,812-km2) zapovednik and U.N. World Heritage Site to nest and rest on migration—rare black storks, white-tailed eagles, stately whooper swans, horned grebes carrying downy chicks on their backs, great cormorants, common goldeneyes, green-winged teals.

Brown bears follow retreating snowfields in spring, feeding on mice, tubers, and anything else edible, starting around Lake Teletskoye which stretches like a narrow blue ribbon 50 miles (78 km) between mountain ranges and holds some 1,400 billion cubic feet (40 billion cu. m) of crystalline water.

Wild reindeer, Siberian wapiti, and tiny musk deer forage in and around Siberian pine woodlands hundreds of years old which grow everywhere up to the tree line. Above this, rabbit-like alpine pikas share greenery with rare Argali sheep and Siberian ibex, able to graze steepest cliff faces. Wolverines, wolves, and lynx prey on small mammals throughout rocky terrain but leave higher elevations to densely furred snow leopards.

Great spotted and six other woodpecker species rattle woodlands where boreal and northern eagle owls hoot after dark—among more than 300 bird species, 180 of which nest here. On and under trees are 26 orchid species and 35 ferns.

A lamentable pollution source is Baikonur rocket launch site in neighboring Kazakhstan, which drops empty fuel containers and other space debris with every launch, defacing one of earth’s most remote, beautiful, and pristine places. Other problems are overgrazing, logging, and agricultural activities on adjoining lands. To ensure protection of Argali sheep, Altai snowcocks, and endemic plant species, it’s been proposed that steppe lands on the right bank of the Chulyshman River be added to the zapovednik.

Nearest cities are Gorno-Altaisk and Barnaul, which has an international airport. Access to Altaisky is by rough dirt road and remote parts only by helicopter, on foot or horseback. Tourism is seen as helpful but at least until recently, except for a lodge at the southern end of Lake Teletskoye, few facilities were available.