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Enjoy the trip that Absolute Siberia offers which is a one-of-a-kind journey to the unique cultural and natural environment of Siberia’s one of the most isolated areas; inhabited by its smallest ethnic group. Throughout the tour, the itinerary will be riding a Trans-Siberian, flying a helicopter, having a journey on horseback through the virgin taiga-woods of “Siberian Switzerland”, seeing the Tofa folklore and shaman rituals. The horseback portion of the tour will be led by Siberia’s gifted local trail guides, from whom you will learn, firsthand, how to ride a reindeer, bake bread in the open-air conditions, catch black grayling and roast it on splinters above live ash, lure wild animals, and how “dancing with wild musk deer” looks like. On the day culminating your horseback portion of the tour, you will be the first foreigners to learn a mystery of the sacred Mountain of Alkhadir.
You'll spend your nights in a train in Irkutsk, retreat lodges in Tofalaria, and a tent camp in Usharoy Creek, Upper Dugulma River, and near the Sailyg-oil Klyuchik. Other nights will be spent in a camp at the Upper Kuktey Creek Area, in tents or a hunter’s log cabin near the Hunga River, in tents or “choom” - tepees in Khailama, a camp at the foothills of the Alkhadir Mountain, and a “Kazachka Iya” guest lodge in Tulun.
The tour itinerary, besides the horseback journey into the wonderful Tofalaria, includes another highlight in the beginning - visit Irkutsk - Paris of Siberia, and to the world’s deepest freshwater Lake Baikal often referred to as Siberia’s Pearl and Well of the Planet Earth.
Upon arrival in Irkutsk by morning flight, Absolute Siberia shall be there at International Airport Irkutsk (IKT) to meet you for a further transfer to your nice downtown three-star hotel. Before lunch, you will enjoy sightseeing tour of Irkutsk where you will visit most atmospheric sites of Irkutsk including Znamenskaya Orthodox Cathedral (famous for a rich collection of icons); graves of the Decembrists’ revolutionaries who were exiled by the tsar to Siberia for the ill-fated attempt to overthrow the tsar in December 1825; and grave of so-called Russian Columbus - Gregory Shelekhov - an early Russian explorer of Alaska. You will also then have opportunities to take pictures of richly carved old-style wooden houses and see the Monument to Russian Pioneers of Siberia topped by the bronze figure of Alexander-the 3rd, the White House of Siberian Province.
After lunch at the Russian-Siberian restaurant located in the recently renovated historical 130th Quarter, you shall drive to Listvyanka on Lake Baikal ( 60 kilometers away from Irkutsk). Upon arrival at the mouth of the Angara river (the only river to outrun Lake Baikal), you stop near the legendary Shaman-rock to take pictures, listen to your local guide to tell you a story about the mighty father Baikal and his naughty daughter, Angara. Then, you will have a tour of Baikal museum which besides the interesting collection of exhibits has an aquarium with Baikal fish, crabs and the Baikal freshwater seal - the only aquatic mammal of Lake Baikal which origin remains a mystery.
In Listvyanka, you will also visit a bazaar before returning back to Irkutsk to have dinner. Then, you check out from the hotel for a transfer to the railway station to take the overnight train by Trans-Siberian Railroad to Nizhneudinsk. After dinner served at the hotel, Absolute Siberia welcomes you to one of the Siberia's meeting rooms of the hotel for the slides presentation and orientation lecture on the upcoming day tour itinerary.
In the morning, you arrive at Nizhneudinsk, founded in 1648 on the crossroads of trade routes. Hence. the town is even older than Irkutsk and still preserves some original wooden structures of the past. Now, an administrative center of Nizhneudinskiy District located on the Uda River (Yenisei's basin), 506-kilometer northwest of Irkutsk, the town with the population of about 40,000 people, is the gateway to your destination in Tofalaria.
After breakfast served at local restaurant, you will visit a small but very interesting local lore museum which contains exhibitions of the local past, including authentic items of Tofalar origin, as well as one-of-a-kind Tofalaria stones of Kostyrma - sculptured and shaped by nature. After the tour of the museum transfer to the local airport to board MI-8 helicopter for a flight to Alygdzher village in the Tofalaria mountains. During the flight, you shall be able to enjoy fantastic views of Tofalaria mountains and rivers from the air. In one hour ten minutes after takeoff, you arrive at Alygdzher - the largest settlement of Tofalaria, which was founded in the confluence of the Uda and Kara-Buren rivers , on spot of the former Cossack frontier post (the Russo-Chinese Treaty of Burin between fixed the borderline between Russian and Chinese Empires along the Uda Mountain range). At Alygdzher, you shall be met by the hosts and walk to their homes for accommodation at the retreat lodges run by families (toilet facilities – outside; hot/cold water provided inside your accommodation facility).
After lunch, the rest of the day will be spent exploring the central village of the Tofalaria - Alygdzher. First, you’ll see the Tofa Ethno-cultural center. Founded in 1991, the Tofa Ethnic Centre has now a nice and unique display of original ethnic items of the Tofa people: national clothing, fur, embroidery and birch bark items, paintings and drawings, a few artic rafts relating to shamanism as well as. Here, you will also listen to a guide’s story about the Karagas (the former name for Tofalars), whose origin has many interesting facts, including their similarity (at DNA level alike) with American Indians.
After the tour of this folk center, on behalf of the group, the tour organizer will traditionally present the Tofa kids with some instruments for skin and wood processing, beads or some other items that can be useful for the children and their teachers to make their handicrafts. Before dinner - enjoy the “banya” -steam-bath ( Siberian sauna) prepared in the original way of Russian Cossacks - early explorers of Eastern Siberia who penetrated this part of the world in the late 18th century.
An alternative tour this day is offered for those who are interested in speleology and can endure nearly an hour ascend to the Uriangaiskaya (or Winter Fairytale” cave, one of the most beautiful caves of the Irkutsk region, located on the mountain slope, 3.6 kilometers from the village of Alygdzher. The Winter Fairytale Cave consists of multiple chambers, the upper filled with relic ice and huge water crystals (snowflakes with a diameter of approximately 40-50 centimeters), in the lower halls there are stalactites, graphite. Cave ends with a small lake, which is fed by the underground rivulet. The cave has a special thermal regime created by the glacier: sixty meters long, five meters wide. Outside air entering the cave is cooled and water droplets gradually form fanciful ice sculpture-stalactites and stalagmites. Also, there are formed ice crystals located in a fantastic mess. In the lower part of the cave, there is a small lake (ten-meter long and three-meter deep) in the lower chamber of the cave. Upgrade to this cave takes 40 minutes, inspection and descent is one hour.
After breakfast (time to make the acquaintance of the local horses), you will be riding and make friends in the upcoming several days. Today, you get on horseback for a roundtrip ride to gorgeous Uda river rapids. When approaching the Toz-Oy creek on horseback, you will already hear the heavy noise of the Uda river current. In a while, the river stream will be seen falling with several cascades which constitute most impressive sight of the Uda: in the 800-meter long canyon the beautiful Uda forming several weirs and waterfalls, framed by rocks, rushes steep through the upper canyon. Next, after these waterfalls runoffs, begins the Lower Canyon claimed to be the Uda river’s rafting highlight. At the Canyon’s first stage, the river rattles down between sharp edges of four-meters wide rock gutter to follow it for some 15 meters, then without clearing back hurtles the rock bench of the right river bank to fall into the stone trap and form up there an aggressive whirlpool. Stuffed with stones, the stream then rushes very steep and at full speed through the canyon away. In the end, and after hitting up against the edge of the canyon’s left wall that nearly blocks the river, the roaring water plays up and tails away for a hundred meters in a deep river pool. To crown it all, the Canyon’s ceremony will be closed by 150-metre-long waterfall and a short, direct discharge. After the Canyon ends up, the river of Uda enters broad hollow, and upon receiving the waters of the Kara-Buren, its tributary will then be approaching Alygdzher village.
After enjoying the fantastic views of the Uda flow through the lower and upper canyons, you will have the picnic lunch in a picturesque natural setting on the Uda riverbank before returning on horseback to the hospitable lodge. By the time, horses and their riders will become familiar with each other, and that will certainly help smooth riding on the further days of the tour. After lunch, you will spend the rest of the day watching local Tofa folklore - which will be a kind of mini- “Argamchi-eery” festival (or “the lasso games” festival).
The “Argamchi-eery” Tofa Festival dates back to distant past when the Tofa tribes were a numerous nomadic group who migrated in a huge expanse from the Eastern Sayan down to the river of Yenisey. The Argamchi festival is usually held at the huge meadow at the end of Alygdzher village symbolically called as the “Stoyanka” (Tofa migration quarters), and where the sacred larch-tree grows (called shaman-tree). The bellowing sounds of the “murgu” hunting decoy horns would invite the Tofa residents from three villages of Tofalaria to approach the sight of the festival. After all the “sulgan” delegates arrive at the sacred larch-tree meadow, the local merited shaman would carry on a special rite of offering to the master spirits of the local area, first, and then all who arrived tie colorful ribbons on the sacred larch-tree twigs.
The local Tofa chieftain is then there to make fire and as soon as its first flames appear will perform the song of the Holy Fire sacrifice. After the song is over those who gathered will sing in set up order Tofa folklore songs called "ulgers," musical poems of wisdom, laconic and perfect in form- the songs named like “Down the Dodot river”, “The Summer Camp”, etc. Dancing will also be then a part of the Tofa folkloric performance during the “Argamchi” festival with such dances starring as the Reindeer Dance, Sun Beams and Snow Flowers, the Black Eagle legend, and the Hare Dance. Then in a kind of contest with no winners, the delegated Tofa people would in each turn tell the Tofa fairy tales like “About Bear and Dog”, “Why the bear hibernates”, “ Why the chipmunk has stripes” etc. And then the singing part of the festival is most likely to end up with Tofalaric ditties (the fluent bilingual Tofa-Russian guide will be there, at least, to convey the essence of those to you - hence, the play of Tofalaric words). Besides some Tofa sports competitions, you will watch the local “fast reindeer” children folkloric performance as well as see the local acting shaman who hitting the drum will do a special ritual to honor local deities (prepare your ribbons to tie on the “holy” tree or bush near the shamanistic ceremony to follow ancient tradition). In the evening, you will have dinner featuring some simple but delicious entrees of the Tofa national cuisine. Before dinner, your local tour leader will deliver a briefing about the upcoming horseback portion of the trip. And at dinner of Siberian-Tofalar tasty and purely natural cuisine, you will have with Absolute Siberia local Tofalar “dwellers” who will be open to discussions, tell stories of their life - you do not have to have your questions ready, this will be a real intercultural exchange, in a non-binding manner.
After breakfast and packing up, you start packing up your belongings. You get out for the horseback journey to the sacred Mount Alkhadir. This day, you will ride along the scenic trail of the Kara-Buren river, the distance of around 30 kilometers. Lunch as picnic prepared over the campfire will be at Karnahoy meadow. After lunch, you continue your horseback ride to Usharoy Creek where you will stay for the first overnight in a setup tent camp. After dinner, your local trail guides will be at your disposal to talk about their way of life, customs etc.
After breakfast, you continue your smooth horseback ride along the Kara-Buren river bank. After passing five kilometers from the Usharoy creek, you will start your ascent to the White Creek (part of this ascend is on foot). You stop for lunch at the Uurloy Creek (meaning in the Tofa language: “Hard Creek”). After lunch, you will continue on horseback to the Belyi(meaning “white”) creek where elevations already rise to 2,100 meters above sea level. After descending from the mountain pass, you will have your dinner and overnight at the Upper Dugulma River (N 53°27.147'/ Е 098°39.008'). You will set up the tent camp near the spring seasonal reindeer camp where the females calve as well as where in winter they cut the male antlers to avoid injuries of males during rut season in spring.
Around 09:00 after breakfast, you continue your ride through scenic taiga-woods surroundings to the river valley of Khailama. En-route, you will be passing by the crags where highly valuable, rock butter” (Jew’s tar) containing medicinal properties is in abundance. Once you come across it on the way, the Tofa trail guides will tell you how to use it. Your place for the overnight tent camp will be located near the Sailyg-oil Klyuchik (meaning “Fishing Creek”, N 53°25.718'/ Е 098°48.060'). After you catch enough grayling for a profound and tasty Tofalar dish, the guides will prepare it for you above live ash.
Proceed on horseback along the upper reaches of the Levaya (meaning “left”) Khailama river to the Chara Bashty-Oy Creek (meaning “place where two deer hooked together their antlers). This day, you will be already approaching the reindeer camp run by Innocent.
Since reindeer feed primarily on thick ground moss called “yagel”, the herders must always be sure that the “yagel” moss is not overgrazed or the local animals over-hunted. That’s why the reindeer herding team migrates to a new pasture every 15-20 days, but migrations are usually no farther than 25 kilometers from the previous camp. Prior to a migration any wandering deer are tracked down and either corralled or bound to a tree. Then camp is torn down, packed onto saddles, and loaded on the backs of the strongest deer, children are placed in bucket-like "baby seats" made from two conjoined wooden rings that are bound to the back of the deer.
The local guides who are well familiar with the Tofa reindeer herding routes know where the current camp of their relative nomads will be located this summer end. And Absolute Siberia expects that the Tofa reindeer destination camp this time will be in the Upper Kuktey Creek Area which is planned to reach by the next evening.
During these two days, you will proceed to the Upper Hunga River crossing some rivulets, often encountering wild animals such as noble deer, sables, fox, moose, wolves and possibly brown bears. The Tofa guides will also provide you with a unique chance to watch dancing with wild musk deer. The Tofa attract the musk deer by means of a special whistle which provides a unique chance to take pictures of this rare deer up close. In the evening of Day 8, you approach the confluence of two rivers near to the Hunga River for dinner and overnight in tents or a hunter’s log cabin.
On the morning of Day 9, it may happen that the reindeer can come to your tent camp. So, don’t be frightened if you awake to deep guttural grunting and shuffling sounds: they will not belong to a brown bear but produced by the reindeer grazing in the woods around your tents. In the summer months, the reindeer usually scatter through the surrounding hills and graze at night when the temperature is cool, and the mosquitoes are fewer, and during the day the reindeer return to the camp to escape the heat or stay on the “whites” (mountain meadows which slopes preserve ice round the year). And if the reindeer prefer this day to stay at the “whites”, then you will hike around three kilometers to see them.
You spend the whole day and next night at the Tofa reindeer summer camp learning from firsthand their every-day life, their attitude to nature, taiga-woods survival skills, interbreeding of domesticated deer with wild reindeer, and other interesting things. You can also try some of their traditional Taiga-cuisine and the core staples of the Tofa diet. These are flat round bread cakes made from a wheat flower with plain water added and dipped in vegetable oil or grease (called “Lepyoushki” in Russian), meat, and reindeer milk.
During your stay, you may see how the Tofa people milk the reindeer. Seven times richer than goat milk, reindeer milk is thick - somehow like yogurt - and serves as the most important source of vitamins in the reindeer breeders diet. On one of the days, you will also be able to ride reindeer, which is not an easy task, but still really fun. Firstly, reindeer saddles are made from reindeer leather and wood. Then, unlike horses, reindeer have weak backs and so the saddle must be placed high on the shoulders of the deer, that’s why the shifting scapulas can sometimes - especially when crossing rocky riverbeds - make balancing critical. After dinners and before going to bed, don’t miss your chance to watch the near skies enchanted in stars above the upper reaches of the river of Khailama. You will spend an overnight in tents or “choom” - tepees.
Today, you will ascent on horseback Tofalaria’s ’s most sacred natural and spiritual site - the Mountain of Alkhadir, highest one on Tofalaria (2,325 meters above sea level). The mountain is famed for a number of ancient legends and very few historical facts that the tour organizer will share with you after the Alkhadir ascend. According to some Tofa ancient legends, the Alkhadir contains all the most valuable treasures of the humans, and in the past was referred to as the mine of wisdom. The shamans from all over Northern Siberia were coming to this sacred mountain to carry together on mass shamanistic “camlany”- a ritual to worship and do offering to the master spirits of Tengery -“blue skies” and the Alkhadir. The mountain is quite an interesting site geologically - inside, it is covered with a very thin nickel layer. Another interesting fact is that the Alkhadir gives the source to four rivers - the Khunga, Right Khailama, Zhelos, and the Dergapsy - each running in one of the earth directions - south, north, east, and west.
Mt. Alkhadir and nearby Khan-Burgat Mountain are connected in one range and used to be a part of the ancient trade and war road. In 1207 an expedition under Jöchi, Chinggis Khan’s eldest son, went along this mountain range trail to secure the submission of many of the forest tribes living along the Yenisey River in southern Siberia, including the Oyirat and the Kyrgyz. When in 1209 the Uighurs of Turfan renounced their support for the Qara Qithay and were peacefully incorporated into the confederation, Jöchi returned to the Yenisey in 1217 and, with help from the Oiyrat, put down a regional revolt led by the Tumat. Following a purge of the rebels, all of the remaining forest tribes were absorbed into the Mongol confederation. And each time Jochi was using this trail road. There’s a concept of this tour product developer, that it was Jochi who named the two mountains of this mountain range as “Alkhadir” and “Khan-Bargut”. You will be among the first to learn about this fabulous mystery while standing on top of the Alkhadir. In the evening, you will spend an overnight and set up a camp at the foothills of the Alkhadir Mountain.
After breakfast, you bid farewell to the excellent and hospitable Tofa trail guides, board Soviet Army Ural 4WD first-class truck. You have an eight-hour drive through wildlife area with a few stops en route to the town of Tulun, a district center. On the way, they will stop to have lunch at the taiga-woods retreat lodge and base for hunting and harvesting Siberian pine tree nuts - another interesting place to visit and learn about the life of Sibrian taiga worldly-wise dwellers. Upon arrival in Tulun, you check in at a cozy and comfortable “Kazachka Iya” guest lodge. Then enjoy another “banya” - Siberian sauna before dinner of local tasty specialties. You'll spend you overnight at the lodge.
Today, you board your coach for a transfer from Tulun to Irkutsk ( 390 kilometers of a well-paved highway). During this transfer ride, you will be passing by and through interesting towns and villages of Irkutsk region: Kuitun, Karymsk, Zima (the town where famous poet Eugene Evtushenko was born), Mal’ta settlement famed for the ancient burial and Mal’ta boy DNA, Zalari, Kutulik, Cheremhovo, and Angarsk. Great sites will be on the way, and you will have opportunities to stop at some of them. Not far from Angarsk, you will be definitely stopping at Telma village to visit Orthodox Cathedral of the Icon of God Mother of Kazan to see its beautiful iconostasis and take pictures of the scenic environment of this historical village founded in 1731 ( older than Irkutsk). Lunch shall be served at the roadside cafeteria. By 17:00, you will be arriving in Irkutsk, check-in at the hotel before having the Farewell Gala Dinner. At dinner, you will receive special gifts from the organizers and the Tofa people – their special amulates (lucky charms).
You will be transferred to the International Airport Irkutsk (IKT).
Horses used in Tofalaria relate to Kuznet or Kuznetsk Horse Breed Group ( Russian: “kuznetskaya”.
The Kuznet is the foundation for many of the Siberian horse breeds. Through cross-breeding (end of the beginning of XIX -beginning of XX c.) the Kuznet changed its type. It was crossbred with the Thoroughbred, Orlov Trotter, and American Saddlebred.
The Kuznet has a long bony, softback, crooked limbs, short pasterns and flat hooves. This breed is strong, has wonderful endurance, very resilient in the Siberian climate, undemanding, has good pulling power, shows good movement, very smooth in descending/ascending hills. It also has a massive skeleton, good joints, along wide croup, strong muscles, and a deep but rather flat rib cage. They stand approximately 15.3 hands high at the withers ( 1.5 -1.66 m, on average – 1.52).
Tofalaria is considered to be the most isolated territory in East Siberia; within this area, there are no roads. You will venture into the last of the untouched Taiga region, it is famous for its pristine rivers, waterfalls, and mysterious caves, unhealthy Kastarma pebble stones, the world's best sables, the home to Irbis. Referred to, by Valentin Rasputin, as the "Country next to Heaven", Tofaria is the last shelter of Siberia's smallest ethnic group and the first reindeer herders of Asia called "the Tofalar" or "Tofa" people.
Valentin Rasputin, describing the nature of Tofalaria, also compared it to cosmos in which all elements remain in the shape of oneness, and the Tofa people were perceived by him as the carriers of a distinct ontological type of conscience which are able to live in harmony with mind and nature."
Tofalaria lies between 95°37′ and 100°05′ E and 51°53′ and 54°59′ N and is close to Central Asia. Encompassing an area of nearly 27,000-square kilometers, this beautiful area is mainly inhabited by the Tofa people; one of the smallest ethnic minorities on Earth. The Tofa people were traditionally peaceful in character, trying to avoid any violence and clashes from within their own clan and tribes. This eventually caused them to move further to the depths of Eastern Siberia in an attempt to escape from communism and further contact with the outside world. Finally, they settled amidst the picturesque northeast slopes of the Eastern Sayan Mountains which isolated them from the rest of the world, contributing to the preservation of their ancient society. They are able to carry on their nomadic existence as hunters and reindeer herders.
International Airport Irkutsk
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