Thursday, May 28, 2009

Going down Volga river on a boat: the evocation of Tom Sawyer

From Astrakhan, May 28th 2009

Following the Vikings who more than one thousand years ago sailed down Volga river to open a trade road between Bagdad and the Baltic Sea, i decided to take the boat to go from Kazan to Astrakhan and reach Caspian Sea. After almost 3 months of travel, it was the perfect way to change the routine and have a good contemplative rest before my last month through Russia.

Our boat before departure: Ivan Kulibin

Our boat at a so called "green stop" to exercise in the nature

The restaurant on board

On board with Russian families and some young people, i could see a small part of the huge network constituted by the largest European river Volga with the Don and their canals. Most of this network, with its dams and channels and numerous industries, has been built during Sovietic time and still 2/3 of fret cargo boats within Russia go through it.

Entering a dam

Dam's doors opening

Exiting the dam

One of the numerous cargo boats going through Volga-Don network

Beautiful Mother Volga

Interestingly, some cities along the way show German influence, for example Saratov with its beautiful Radishev museum of fine arts. It is tsarine Catherine II who promoted to Germans the immigration to this region and to develop agriculture. At the end of the XIXth century, they were 1.5 millions, but have been persecuted and deported to Siberian work camps following the events of the Second World War.

Saratov is the city of Iouri Gagarine, first man in space

Radishev museum of fine arts

But the most interesting visit on the way South has been Volgograd, previously called Stalingrad, and the location of of the famous and decisive battle during the Second World War. It was highly intense and emotional to follow the tour with my Russian new friends, going through the memorial of Mamaev Kurgan for this battle that cost the lives of more than one million Russian people (and 450,000 Germans).

Mamaev Kurgan memorial

Expressive sculpture where the snake symbolizes German fascism

Mamaev Kurgan memorial, inside

Watching the riverside from the boat, it evocated in me the adventures of Tom Sawyer, narrated by Mark Twain in his famous book, and that also situated on a large and key river: Mississipi. The three friends Tom Sawyer, Joe Harper, and Huckleberry Finn escape from home and decide to become pirates:

"Three miles below St. Petersburg, at a point where the Mississipi river wasa trifle over a mile wide, there was a long, narrow, wooded island, with a shallow bar at the head of it, and this offered well as a rendezvous. (...) They presently separated to meet at a lonely spot on the river bank two miles above the village at the favorite hour - which was midnight. (...) It was starlight, and very still. The mighty river lay like an ocean at rest. (...)
- Who goes there?
- Tom Swayer, the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main. Name your names.
- Huck Finn the Red-Handed, and Jor Harper the Terror of the Seas.
Tom had furnished these titles, from his favorite literature."

Agriculture along the Volga

Datchas and shops on riverside

Immense Volga

Incredible mines opened to public, with remaining wooden structure deeper inside

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kazan and Republic of Tatarstan, model for sustainable development through the Earth Charter

From Astrakhan, May 27th 2009

"The Earth Charter is the document intended for the Earth. To enable man to preserve himself and open a road to many and many generations, he must preserve the Earth"
Mikhail Gorbachev

What is the Earth Charter?
Earth Charter is a document containing the fundamental principles of creation in the 21st century of a just, stable, and peaceful global community. It is important to remember that it is not simply an environmental program, but combines economy, politics, ecology, education, and works for ethno-denominational tolerance and improving the living standards of the population.

Tatarstan, leading the way
On April 27th 2001, the Republic of Tatarstan adopted the Resolution 722 on the Earth Charter project and therefore became the world's first region for its practical application.

How does biodiversity fit into the Earth Charter?
The first principle is to respect and care for the community of life. To do so, it is key to respect Earth and life in all its diversity, and secure Earth's bounty and beauty for present and future generations. The Republic of Tatarstan has defined 24 state nature reserves, 121 monuments of nature and 1 historical-and-architectural and natural territory of regional importance, with the total area of 92,700 hectares.
The other major achievement in this sphere of competencies is the Red Book, created in 1995 and updated in 2006 after collecting and analyzing some 800 record cards of animals, plants, and mushrooms. It contains 237 species of animals and 397 species of plants, and ensures their special protection and reproduction.

As each region does, Tatarstan has selected one species that is its flagship species and requires specific attention: the white tailed eagle, haliaetus albicilla (Linnaeus, 1758). Although its population has been restaured and this species is therefore not in immediate danger, it requires constant control.

This specific eagle's range within Russia goes from the Western border to the East: Choukotka, Kamchatka, the coast of Pacific Ocean, and its habitat localizes in forests and toundras with forests. It is also present in other countries more in the South (e.g. Iraq, Kazakhstan, Mongolia) and there usually localizes habitat in steppes and forests.

In the territory of Russia live around 2,500 couples, from which around 500 in its European part and 50 in Tatarstan (up to 200 during migration period).

Ecology and biology
The white tailed eagle traditionally selects its habitat close to big water reservoirs (lakes, rivers) and large forests with high trees, and installs its nets at the crossing of old trees. It starts reproduction at the age of 5-6 years. The gestation period lasts for more than 3 months and involves usually 2 eggs. Essentials of fooding consists of fish, birds staying and swimming in water, and other aquatic vertebrates. Migration period begins in October or early November, when water starts to freeze. Population from Northern regions migrate within Russia to the coasts of Black or Caspian Seas, or even further to the South.

Limiting factors
The reduction of population of this species during the first half of the XXth century was mainly concerning the European part of Russia and due to human factors such as persecution, transofmration of its habitat, and pollution (e.g. via poisoning used to hunt other species). Since the 70's takes place a progressive increase of its population.

To conclude, i would like to first address my special thanks to Mikhail Aleksandrovich Gorshkov, leader of biodiversity department at the Ministery of ecology of the Republic of Tatarstan, for his warm welcome and presents. For more information, visit:
And secondly share with you some pictures from the beautiful Tatar capitale Kazan.

The oldest street with its canal

UNESCO classified kreml: main entrance

UNESCO classified kreml: wall and mosque

Baroque cathedrale of Saint Peter and Paul (inside iconostase of 7 stages, very rare!)

What is the link between Ural mountains and Hollywood movie X-Men?

From Astrakhan, May 27th 2009

Ural mountains are the connecting land between European and Eastern Russian populations of the animal called Wolverine, which is also the name of X-Men hero Logan played by Hugh Jackman in recent Hollywood movie X-Men.
From Ekaterinburg, i could have a first glance to Ural range but most summits are more in the North, reaching 1,894m.

Meeting with farmer working with fallow-deers, whose horns are used to produce medicine

Deep birch forests with intense green, back and white colors

Two of the numerous lakes in Middle Ural and the surrounding mixed forests

Slag heap of one of the also numerous mines throughout Ural range

Overlooking Middle Ural lakes within Chelyabinsk area


The animal species wolverine, scientifically called gulo gulo, is classified as nearly threatened by IUCN and is therefore of interest for our project. Although there is an overall continued decline due to human persecution and land-use change, the global decline of this species is not at a rate sufficient (30% over 3 generations, or 18 years) to qualify for vulnerable at this time. However, the European Mammal Assessment determined that the European Wolverine is currently Vulnerable, thus the nearly threatened listing is driven by the estimation that some large populations remain in north Asia and North America.

Geographic range
The species has a circumpolar distribution, corresponding with the boreal zone of the northern hemisphere (Kvam, 1988).

The European population is currently estimated to be approximately 2,260 individuals: 1,400 in European Russia (Novikov, 2005). To the East, the Eastern Russian population is believed to comprise more than 18,000 individuals (Novikov, 2005).

Habitat and ecology
Wolverines are found in coniferous, mixed and deciduous woodlands, bogs, and open mountain as well as tundra habitats (Mitchell-Jones, 1999). Snow is generally regarded as an important component of the wolverine's season habitat requirements. It has vast home ranges: faecal DNA sampling has detected dispersal distances of more than 500km (Flagstad, 2005). Hornocker (1983) considers the species as solitary, which influences the large home ranges and extensive seasonal movements. The wolverine is a nocturnal species (Whitman, 1999) with an average life expectancy of 4 to 6 years in the wild.
Wolverines are thought to have evolved to scavenge from the kills of wild ungulates abandoned by other carnivores such as lynx and wolf, as well as prey animals felled by disease or injury. Wolverines also actively hunt smaller animals such as rodents, hares, musk deer, roe deer, and wild sheep; given the appropriate snow conditions, they will also hunt larger animals such as moose.

Within the current range, extensive human activities continue to pressure wolverine populations and habitat (Krebs, 2004).
Wolverines are scarce in Europe today. Their continued survival is threatened due to their small and fragmented distribution, and the potential for their future survival mayb be weakened by the likelihood of low genetic diversity.
While major threat in Scandinavia is population control hunting to protect livestock, overharvesting and declines in key prey species are major threats in Russia (difference is due to the fact that there is more wildlife and larger areas).

Conservation actions
Key conservation measures that need to be implemented revolve around minimizing conflicts resulting from depredation of livestock, reducing legal and illegal hunting of wolverines, establishing well-planned conservation areas and carrying out surveys to gain a better understanding of the population and ecology of wolverines.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Alpinism in Altai mountains on the snow leopard's footsteps

From Novossibirsk, May 12th 2009.

Here is a recipe for pure adventure, big emotions, and many souvenirs.
1. Take a 29 years old innocent French boy from Paris, with intermediate knowledge of Russian, fairly experienced in hiking, and used to comfortable swiss Alps cabins.
2. Put him in a group of 7 Russian people, talking only Russian and with specific local jargon, highly skilled alpinists and used to cold, snow, and small tents for base camps.
3. And leave him there two weeks :-)

I had the chance to be the main ingredient of this recipe. The result: two weeks hiking and alpinism in Altai mountain range, at the border with Mongolia and China, between 1,500m and 3,967m, in an area famous for snow leopard's presence.

Along Chouisky Trakt, heading south east to Mongolia, in the rising spring's colors

Still along Chouisky Trakt, landscape moving from taiga to steppe

Reaching the deep steppe at the border with Mongolia and China

Approaching the high mountains of southern Chouisky range, and already observing the rest of some argali poaching

Mysterious menhirs and petroglyphs monuments along Elangash river

My first night in a Russian "bania" (as these small cabins are called here in Altai), photograph in the snowy morning

Base camp for Irbistu summit: igloo for the kitchen, and wall to protect the tents from the wind and snow

Irbistu summit: 3,967m, category 1B, overlooking the Russian southern Chouisky range as well as Mongolian and Chinese Altai ranges

Our companions in the valley: the yaks, providing herders with milk, cheese, meat, fur, combustible, and isolating material with their excrements.

View on Irbistu summit and our way up: through the gletcher from right to left and up on the rocks

On the way to 2nd summit Djanniiktu, 3,922m, category 2A, with its top all made of snow and ice

Base camp for Djanniiktu summit, right next to its gletcher

Endless pleasure at the fire camp, preparing tea and discussing under the supervision of our dear guide Maksim

Happy to find some vegetation, composed by small trees as well as fat and deep grass

Meeting the local population, families of herders, in their habitation traditionally composed of three parts:
1. The wooden house for all time and specifically winter,
2. The yourte for summer,
3. The farm.

Returning to the desertic steppe

Reaching the village of Beltir, entry point to Chouisky range, but with an atmosphere of dead city since the earth quake of 2003 that destroyed many houses

The serpentine of Old Chouisky Trakt on the way back to Gorno-Altaisk and Novossibirsk

Back to taiga landscape along Katun river