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Mount Byelukha

Gaze at the inspirational twin peaks of Mount Byelukha (White One) and you will understand why it is revered by the Siberian shaman culture as a holy mountain. Buddhists also honour it as the spiritual centre of the Earth, or Shambhala. For the adherents of the ancient Turkic Tengri cult, rough-looking, sky-piercing Khan Tengri was the dwelling place of the chief (male) god, Tengri, but Byelukha's twin peaks look like the upward- pointing breasts of a goddess, lying on her back. The water of the mountain brooks and streams that spring from the mountain's glaciers foams white-like an ancestral mother's milk. Byelovodye (White Water) is the name of this land of shamans.

At 4,506 metres high, Byelukha is the highest peak in all of Siberia. It is the main landmark of the central Altai, or the Katun mountain range. Its summit was "officially" conquered in 1914 by the Russian mountaineers Boris and Mikhail Tronov. Climbing to the summit, or both summits (the lower of the peaks is 4,440 metres high, and a glacier separates the two), is not a simple venture: the difference in altitude between the base camp on the Russian side and the summit is in the order of 3,000 metres, there are treacherous glaciers to be braved, and the weather is extremely unpredictable; many an experienced mountain climber has failed on Byelukha.

But the majority of travellers will not be aiming so high; for most, simply getting close enough to gaze upon it and experience its pristine environment is more than enough. You can actually get a distant but good view of the mountain on the track some four kilometres before Rachmanov's Springs, at Radostniy (Cheerful) Pass-weather Permitting of course. Better, though, is to immerse yourself in this beautiful landscape on a two-day trek from the Springs to the tongue of the Berelskiy Glacier at the foot of the mountain, crossing two passes on the way, or from the Greater Yazyovoye Lake over a stance of some 40 kilometres through beautiful landscape. In this alpine wonderland you will pass the Black and White Berel rivers, whose cascades and many tributaries invite a bracing swim. Buddhists believe that there is a spiritual bridge at Mount Byelukha that leads to Chomolangma (Mount Everest). Some trekkers are almost prepared to believe them, since the crystalline light and some natural source of energy seems to permeate this timeless region-and those who visit it.