Alkhanai National Park
Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug, Dul’durginskiy District.
According to a Buryat legend, there once lived a princess called Bal’chzhin-khatun. She married a Mongol feudal lord and together they went to live in Mongolia. But their enemies wouldn’t allow them to live peacefully, and the couple decided to return to the princess’s homeland. The enemies chased them the entire way, and finally, at a mountain massif, killed the princess. The woman’s last cry before death was, “Alkhany!” (“they are killing me”), which became the mountain’s name. And her name—Bal’chzhin—is memorialised in the nearby Bal’zinskiy Lake, whose shore she was buried on. There are many more legends and beliefs linked to the mountain Alkhanai. It is said that Genghis Khan’s soldiers patrolled the mountain, and amongst Transbaikal Buryats the mountain is considered a buddhist shrine.
Alkhanai was created in 1999 with the aim of preserving the native landscape, natural monuments, history and culture, animals and plants, as well as providing people with a place for recreation. Its area is 138,200 hectares.
The park’s central belt is occupied by the Alkhanai massif, which is covered with mixed and coniferous forest. Lower altitudes in the southern part of the park are mostly steppe.
The river Ilya and its tributaries flow throughout the territory of the park, giving a total of 37 large and small rivers. The main lakes are Bal’zino, Krasnoyarovo, and the Alkhanai Lakes.
The park’s location means that it has a distinctly continental climate, with average temperatures in January of -22.5°C and in June of +18.4°C.
Flora and Fauna
There are three main altitudinal belts on the territory of the park: forested steppe, which dominates the foothills of the mountain range; forested; and the higher cedar-larch woodland belt, which marks the tree line below the bare mountaintops.
A rare sight in southeastern Transbaikalia, various species of Siberian pine (cedar), Siberian dwarf pine and Siberian spruce are seen often in the park.
Around 180 species of plant found in the park are used for commercial and folk (including Tibetan) medicines, such as roseroot (Rhodiola rosea), Mongolian milkvetch (Astragalus membranaceus), Baikal skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis), thick-leaved rhubarb (Rheum compactum), giant hyssop (Lophanthus anisatus Benth), Phlojodicarpus sibiricus, and many more.
Alkhanaian fauna is unique in that Manchurian and Euro-Siberian species can be found in eastern parts of Transbaikalia. The region also marks the Apollo butterfly’s easternmost habitat—this species is now on Russia’s and the IUCN’s Red List.
What to see
The park’s main attraction is, of course, Alkhanai mountain. It is recognised as a Buddhist sanctuary by Buryats, and the Temple of Great Blessings can be found near its base. The most interesting feature here is the natural grotto—there is a crack in the grotto’s ceiling that leads deep into the cliffs, and the water that seeps out of it is thought to be healing. Believers drink the water and make an offering, usually of grain or coins.
Another of the park’s natural monuments is the cliff at Temple Gate, at an altitude of 1100m. This six-metre high natural arch was formed by weathering. Under the arch there is a suburgan—a small Buddhist stupa. It is likely that the arch was also an important pre-Buddhist pilgrimage site.
Other pilgrimage sites include Dorzhi-Pagman (Diamond Princess), a 12-metre high natural stone column.
At the southern end of the park there is also a natural basin, which is used by believers as an altar or shrine.