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25 September 2018

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The Ghost of the Mountains

Author: Maria Antonova
Illustrations/Images by Maria Antonova

Mar/Apr 2017
Page 28   ( 8 pages)

Summary: Editor Maria Antonova headed off to the mountains of the Altai to learn about a project that monitors rare snow leopards. We get to tag along.


Timur Pustogachev stops and stares at a mound of small pebble shards. In the sea of rocks that is the Altai’s Chikhacheva Ridge, and just a half-tone darker than its immediate surroundings, this spot has for some reason caught his eye.

“Yup, a snow leopard was here,” Sergei Spitsyn confirms. An expert from the Altai Nature Reserve, Spitsyn is this morning taking four of us up a hitherto unexplored rim, hoping to find new tracks left by the rare animal. “This is an old one, but it’s a scrape pile alright – left maybe a week ago.”

Scrape piles, pugmarks and clawrakes: our team has plenty to learn as we huff and puff to keep up with Spitsyn, a sprightly, silver-haired researcher who made snow leopards in the Altai his field of scientific study two decades ago because, as he says, “someone had to do it.” Since then, he has managed to trace the big cat’s main routes in the area, determining where to set up camera traps – small plastic-encased photo and video equipment that snaps images when it senses movement in its field of vision. Spitsyn, or Sergei Vladimirovich, as we call him, moves and speaks with the efficiency of someone who has spent much of his life in the field, in treacherous environments. But he generously shares his knowledge of the area and the species, Panthera uncia – the elusive beast nicknamed “the ghost of the mountains” – an animal that inhabits high-altitude regions of Asia that are so harsh that researching the cats is a far from comfortable pursuit.

I am one of a group of fourteen who have each paid R14,000 ($235) for a week-long trip to Russia’s Asian underbelly, the Altai Republic, a region slightly bigger than Portugal that happens to share a border with Kyrgyzstan, China and Mongolia. For two full days we zip along the historic Chuysky Trakt, or Chuya Highway, a road stretching almost 1,000 kilometers from Novosibirsk to the border with Mongolia. It is a road one local native, the famed actor and director Vasily Shukshin, compared with “the imprint of a whip that has cut the mountains.”

Along the way, the scenery changes dramatically as we drive through unique relict pine taiga, then witness the snow-topped peaks of the Northern Chuya Ridge, and roll across the wind-swept Kuray (Kurayskaya) and Chuya (Chuyskaya) steppes. During one bleary-eyed lunch stop somewhere near Gorno-Altaisk, a sun-bronzed local in camouflage learns of our final destination and matter-of-factly offers a piece of advice: “Please don’t consume marmot blood. There has been an outbreak of bubonic plague.”

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