When the Altai mountains are called "the golden mountains," it's for more than one reason. First, the tamarack and birch have all yellow leaves this time of year, making the mountains literally golden. Second, because Altai means golden mountains, and third because there is actually gold in these mountains!
This past weekend, my mother took a class of English-speaking students, as well as me and my sister, to Seminsky Pass. This beautiful pass, about three hours from Gorno, is home to a year-round Olympic training facility and hotel complex where our group stayed. Our elevation was 1984 meters above sea level, that's about 355 meters higher than Mt. Marcy.
As we approached the Pass, the snow began to fall. It was sparse at first but as we climbed in elevation, it began to frost the trees and shrubs in a thin layer of glitter. Behind the hotel there were perfectly paved paths for roller skiers to use in the summers as well as a biathlon shooting range.
The paths curved back and forth up a hill between a forest of Siberian pine which the native people call cedar. These trees had more than one decoration. They were adorned by snow as well as draped with lanky light green lichen that, I believe, is called Usnea. There was so much of this Usnea lichen (you couldn't find a tree without it!) that it seemed like the air must be very clean, since these lichens need clean air to survive and thrive.
Around these pines the ground was littered with cones. In the pine cones were nuts that you could open up and eat. These pine nuts are prized among the people here. They are collected and often eaten like sunflower seeds. To give a visual, these trees are very similar to our own white pine. They have five needles in a bunch but they don't grow nearly as tall.
On one side of the path there was a steep hill. I climbed the steep side of a hill to get a better view of the mountains around me. I was not disappointed. I found myself atop a plateau overlooking the charred remains and stumps of Siberian pine and birch that were left from a large forest fire the summer before last. Beyond that were the mountains, some of the tops golden with larches and others buried in the clouds. I experienced my first Siberian snow in the gorgeous mountains of the Altai and was reminded of home.