Chapter 12. Goods of Altai. Don't let them delude you
Our next chapter contains a bunch of pictures has a purpose to reveal the subject of Altaian products. I will tell you about the local productions, souvenirs, honey and balsams; about what you should take with you from Altai to your home, except for photos and impressions; about how to deliver it all whole and safe.
Without material pieces of Altai the travel experience will be incomplete
Altai honey is tasty. But some mountain sorts are just delicious
In our opinion, coming to Altai without trying local things, like touching souvenirs, tasting honey, drinking tea or pantohematogen, beating a tambourine will leave Altai unrevealed to you. Local authentic production is a strong layer of impressions, which is closely connected with history, culture and sightseeings. That is amazing world with all its cobwebs.
Originals, copies and imported stuff
All the products, being sold in Altai can be divided into three categories. And that is very important.
1. Authentic things with history, sense and reasons to be created
I'm acquainted with a master-improviser. He makes products of wood chips. Those chips always have different shape and the master fits his products in the exact structure. Look at these noses, for example
It is something that is often being done 'from a heart' or with an emotional impulse.
When an artist is creating something, he can make it really beautiful - because the initial purpose is to make it classy, not for money. It may become a small business in time, but initially it is not the matter of money. Products of that kind differ a lot - they are pleasant to touch, to hold or to taste. These are exactly the things you should buy for yourself or your family. Yes, they are more expensive, yes, there are so few of them. That is even better. A pleasure of a low price is so transient. But the bitter feeling of disappointment that you bought a piece of trash lasts much longer.
2. Copies, forgeries and money-oriented productions
Looks familiar, right? Probably, yes. The original story and the legend were stolen, but you can easily recognize the original. On the left — a plywood crafts with Chinese rope and Chinese bead. On the right - original made of wood chips, clay bead and leather rope. In reality the difference is even bigger.
These are the goods similar to the authentic. They appear the following way: some manufacturer notices a high demand for the authentic products and thinks like 'I will make nearly the same, but cheaper'. And he creates copies, which look similar, especially if you haven't seen the original. Those copies sell good because the majority doesn't care what it is, they want to buy it cheaper. In time the market got full of such crafts. That might be bought as a small present, but not for yourself. Well, people normally buy it anyway, because there is much less of good stuff and it is hard to find in the whole mass products. Then the time of the third category came.
3. Chinese stuff, manufactured stuff and 'Altaic goods' from afar.
Tons of such stuff are being sold every year
After the multiple copying and reducing the price the products from the second category turned into mutants. Further degradation leads to the moment when we can substitute them by manufactured stuff or souvenirs from afar. It is happening now: the first category goods are being exported to the big cities, and the local markets offer all the cheapest. They import souvenirs, creams and balsams. It's easy to buy an 'Altaic balsam' from Moscow region, Altai honey from Kazakhstan and souvenir from China. We can add to that category those well-spread plywood crafts made on the laser machines.
First category production that is worth buying
Traditional products in Altai are the natural continuation of its history and the mode of life: gathering, nomadic, in harmony with the nature - hand-made production, not manufactured
We consider the goods from the first category are the only goods worth buying for yourself. It is better to take a smaller quantity of product, but of the best quality. For example, half kilo of delicious honey instead of two kilos of unknown mixture. The second category goods can be bought as small presents for your colleagues. You may also buy the products from the third category, but there is no sense to take them in Altai.
Now let's look through the main products, the best places to buy and ways to take the products to your home.
Honey of Mountain Altai
Mountain honey from acacia — the most expensive
Let's start with honey. There is a great variety of sorts and tastes in Altai - they are all delicious. Altai honey is considered the best in Russia in 2016.
The most popular honey is meadow or multi-herbal. That is Altai honey - it is from apiaries of Mountain Altai and it is worth buying. But there is a big nuance. Due to high demand during the high season in Altai there is a lack of honey. Apiculture is not an aboriginal type of activity in Altai, it is quite new. So Altaian beekeepers are not able to supply a big amount of honey. If they stand on a hot spot they will sell out all the honey very quickly. But there is a way out! As soon as the local honey is sold out its place is taken over by the honey from Altai Krai or from Kazakhstan, where the apiculture is so popular and developed a lot to produce enough of cheaper honey.
White is mountainous. Almost black is with angelica. On the left - brown - multi-herbal
So make sure to buy Altaic multi-herbal honey straight from apiaries. You'll never know the origins of honey bought at the roadside - it is always a secret. All that I'm telling to you about roadside honey, I learnt from my personal experience, gossips and communication with people. I wouldn't recommend to buy at the mass trading spots, but, in fact, you may find quite good honey there, but you won't get any guarantees, and moreover, honey is being kept in the heat.
A classical honey roadside spot. People stand for years at the same places, they only change their cars. Seems, we can judge on the level of the car how long has the seller been standing there and how successful he is))
White mountainous honey is a separate category. That is special sort of honey, gathered from Acacia flowers in the mountainous areas. The amount of it is limited. It resembles white fat. It has a legendary taste. That is the very honey to buy for yourself, to take with you and enjoy. The taste is really amazing (tastes are different, of course). Here is what it looks like:
Where to buy
Straight from apiaries - which is not very comfortable (better honey is kept at the distant areas)
At the well-tried places that deal straight with apiaries and concentrate the products of apiculture (pollen, ambrosia and propolis): for example, at Etnomagazin or at BeeCenter.
A black substance - 10000 RUB for one kilo
Altaic shilajit is considered the best in the world. I don't know where it all came from, but people say that chemical analysis showed the highest amount of needed micro-elements. It sells in tons all over the world. Shilajit is essential - it helps with healing the wounds, bone fractures and, as people say in Altai, it heals everything)
What is shilajit? There are a lot of legends created by the sellers to make the consumption of shilajit not so disgusting for the clients. They may say it is a mineral tar, or a product from bees, or mountainous wax, or a stone oil. But now, let's name the things as they are: shilajit is turd of bats. They consume Altaic herbs and insects (which eat Altaic herbs as well), then the turds lie for several million years in the mountains and soak in the minerals. Then people gather them and refined. Now they can eat it, smear it, drink it and so on. Here is the fair video telling what is shilajit and how it is being made:
Where to buy
In Altai - anywhere. In the big cities it can be massively forged. But in Altai it is easier to make it, than fake it. So there is nothing to be afraid of. All kinds of shilajit with delivery you can get here.
Balsam of Mountain Altai
This balsam used to be a universal 'bribe'; it has a recognizable package
That is a legendary brand - it used to be the king of Altai balsams until the factory got a bankrupt. It is alcohol, it has its history, reputation and patented recipe. After the factory got a bankrupt the patent was redeemed and now the production of the balsam is reopened (here is the article). To be fair, still there is no exact answer if it's the same old balsam or not. The package is the same. All in all, it was necessary to include this product in our list, but there is an element of mistrust to it. Some people, though, say the taste is the same.
At the souvenir markets, shops or to order with delivery.
Souvenirs of cedar. Cedar chip crafts
There are a lot of souvenirs in Altai - different kinds, different quality. It could take couple of letters to describe them all. I'd like to tell you about an authentic and unique production - an art craft 'Keser', which has no analogues. We can call them fathers of cedar craft; the others just copy their style.
Original is on the left. It is double difference in price
The production is following: an author creates a model of a souvenir, then the cedar is being cut and splitted into ships. The master-artist takes a chip and carves an image on it, then works on its shape to make it individual - every cedar chip is unique and the master carves as he wants. He practices simple mechanization and handwork. Then the craft-work is being covered with special patented stain and assembled with leather threads and clay beads. At least 4 people are engaged into the production.
They've been working since 1991 and became an essential part of our culture.
A craft-work of stewed larch
Many masters do it, but the quality is much higher. Every souvenir has its own story of creation and the legend. All in all, that is cool stuff.
Where to buy
In Altai - at the souvenir shops, straight from the workshop, or at Etnomagazin. The detection of a fraud is quite simple: you just take two things simultaneously and the difference will be clear. And the price differs, of course.
Traditional Altai tambourines
Maral's leather, 50 cm in diameter, birch or cedar rim + a lot of labor = traditional shaman tambourine
Traditional altaian tambourine is really great. It is as great as complicated. The thing is tambourine is made of natural materials - wood and leather. So it is a kind of 'alive' - it is sensitive to the weather, humidity, it needs care and attention. Wood and leather have a 'veiled story' (more details below). That is rather a piece of art than a musical instrument. Tambourine is an authentic guide for meditation; for some people it is a friend. Don't laugh at it unless you try to beat the tambourine for 5 minutes. It contains so much of Altaic energy, mythology and secret power... The thing is the sound of a good tambourine is very low and it coincides with the rhythm of the organs of the body. So it is easy to fall into trance. There is nothing mystical, just psycho-physiology.
Here is how a tambourine can tear if it's not stored carefully, if it's overdried. Leather dries too much and tightens the rim. Something breaks first - the leather or the rim
But there are very few of such tambourines - they are so hard to make, they demand guarantee and they are expensive. There are a lot of 'souvenir' tambourines made - beautiful craftworks of different diameters with images, quite affordable. Traditional tambourine begins to sound from 40 cm; the diameter of the souvenir ones may be even 10 cm, but they will not produce a sound. They are often made of synthetics or the cheapest leather and may sound the same all the time. The true tambourine, however, will sag in the rain and you will have to dry it above a bonfire or a gas stove before you beat it again.
The tambourine with two-headed handle was produced for hereditary male shamans only. They had never made tambourines on their own. There were masters for that.
I wouldn't recommend to buy the souvenir ones - waste of money. Such tambourine may easily break in a month, when you take it to the different climatic conditions.
You should buy the tambourine (not a souvenir) at the places where you can surely get a guarantee.
The thing is leather and wood may have a veiled story. For example, a maral might be bitten by a tick. The tambourine made of its leather may tear in a month through that scar (there's no chance to notice that at once); or there might be a hidden crack in the wood. Such things reveal when you bring the tambourine to you home. Climatic conditions change, the tambourine dries, tightens too much and tear. I am not going to give exact names, but I know a master supplying souvenir markets with a hundred tambourines a year. They look like originals, but have an awful reputation - they tear easily. Who is going to be responsible for that?
There are very few suppliers giving guarantees. I know only one workshop - Altau (but their prices are high enough).
Vargan/Komus (Jew's harp)
It is a small Altaian musical instrument. It is used for meditation because it makes it easier to fall into trance. During the play you need to breathe constantly, deeply, and intensively — it changes the emotional state. Psycho-physiology). It is easy to learn.
Komus is an ancient artifact in Altai. Vladimir Potkin began to make komuses in 1980's. Now it is one of the most popular komuses in the world. (here is a photo with comments, why is it good).
This is the best Vladimir's concert vargan. He makes them very rarely
There are some other masters in Altai. Pavel Potkin, Vladimir's brother, makes copies of his vargans, but the percentage of defects is higher. Alexander Minakov is another master. His vargans are the products of the second category - made for money. These are copies - beautiful as the souvenirs, worse as musical instruments, easily breakable. But they are cheap and shining. Here is a review (please, pay attention to all Dobrynya's creative activity, he is an altaian artist):
Where to buy
Anywhere). At the souvenir shops or in the Internet. I would recommend vargans from the Potkins. I visited Vladimir's workshop and I know how scrupulous he is in terms of tuning - the way the tenons are set and sharpened, the way the frame is polished. For his vargans can be given the guarantee for 10 years). That is rather a joke, because there is very small chance that they might be given back for a defect.
Siberian stag (maral) farms
Maral is an altaian red deer. That is one of the endemics of Altai able to live in that half-wild nature. Breeding of marals is an authentic local production; it is possible to try its stuff only here. All is in use - meat, horns and blood for making pantohematogen. It is also possible to take a bath. There are so many things to tell about what and how they do it, so here is one of old articles.
Where to buy
At the maral farms (Karym, Biostimul, Kamza), at the souvenir shops or at the online-shops of Altai.
Coarse grinding: large pieces of herbs
That is not usual tea, that's a herbal tea. What should we say? It is different - can tasty, can be healthy. Unfortunately, there is a chance to get a fake. So you should take tea of coarse grinding - at least you'll be able to see what herbs it contains.
Where to buy
You can get the tea at the souvenir shops, but there is a risk of a fake. It is better to buy at the well-tried places or at the place of production. The best variant is to gather herbs and make tea right away, mmm)
How to deliver it home
Here we will stop describing of the products. There is a lot of stuff left beyond the description: cedar nut and its products, gallipot, herbs, oils, stone oil, some of Mongolian goods - socks, leather stuff and so on. But, in general, we have touched every item.
Now let's see how to deliver it all home.
Airlines nowadays sell tickets allowing carryon bags only, without luggage. Tourists are forced to throw away the honey, balsams and everything they are not allowed to have in their carryon. We've seen that many times - it's a sad situation. We used to give presents to our tourists but they couldn't take them aboard. That was the problem.
Our colleagues from Etnomagazin (actually, their office is the next from ours and I've mentioned this shop so many times because I know pretty well how they work) arranged a service that allows to pick the goods you need - and they deliver them to your home. It is very convenient, you don't have to carry anything and it is cheaper than extra pay for the luggage. Prices and description of the service.
The set of the best Altai products
That is another way - special ready-made sets including all the best stuff. It is a new, just developing, but very promising trend. The set that contains the best goods of Altai is available for home delivery. The tourists liked such sets from us but they had problems with transportation. Delivery is a good way out.
*While making this letter I used photos, videos of our colleagues from Etnomagazin, Kezer, Altau; also I got the consultations from masters and owners, the information from production excursions and my own experience. I don't claim for the 100% truth, this all is rather my personal opinion, which is acceptable surely not for everyone.
My first project (ten years ago) was online shop selling the products of Altai. So I know personally many true masters, the founders of that industry. We made mailings with their help, and published interviews and reports. Now I follow them to see how it all develops. Fakes hadn't been a massive phenomenon those days: it was unusual and funny. Then fakes flooded the market and outmatched the originals. The quality turned out to be not so relevant for many tourists - the price was more important. Souvenir shops made more money with the cheaper goods, so those goods flooded the market. When you come, you will see it with your own eyes. But qualitative things are still available - in the Internet, in the big cities of Russia and in the international market. Nowadays good stuff from Altai can be taken to China, but the local market is full of Chinese garbage for tourists. There are so few spots of the qualitative products left in Altai. Quality, despite that it is so obvious advantage, is the feature of the authentic goods of Altai: there are so few of them, they made with hands and love. I wish I could show you all that in reality, because the souvenirs smell, tea tastes, and honey flavors.
If you are going to visit Altai, you probably started with searching for the information in the internet: how, what, where, how much, what are the routes, reservation, sightseeings and tours. That's a huge work and it is time consuming.
Our mailing is a set of several letters full of concentrated and structured information, links to well-tried sights and sources and answers to questions.