Malaya Siya:
A village of this world and the one below it
Experience the best of both worlds in this Siberian village

Cave People
According to the latest population count, the village has 32 inhabitants, but locals say that there are no more than 15. Food is bought in the neighboring settlement, and an UAZ off-road van, casually called "bukhanka" comes here every day, bringing freshly baked bread and mail.
Life in Malaya Siya mostly occurs underground. This corner of Khakassia contains more than 40 caves. There are simple caves, such as the Archaeological Cave, suitable for school trips and full of schoolchildren during vacations. They come to Siya for a fun crawl along the entangled cave labyrinths under the supervision of a guide and exit the darkness happy and smeared in orange clay.

Other caves, like Kashkulakskaya, which is commonly known as "the Black Devil's Cave" or the "Pandora's Box," are explored by experienced speleotourists, carrying a supply of food, dozens of meters of durable ropes, professional gear and sleeping bags to spend the night underground.

It was only in the 20th century that the caves of Malaya Siya became a popular tourist destination. Prior to that they were sacred: Since the Stone Age, shamans, hunters, people of the taiga and the mountains came here to perform rites and make animal sacrifices. The sorcery continues today, although it has been commercialized. Elena, a resident of the village, remarked with irony:
"Trying to impress their customers, these so-called 'shamans' often take a bundle of thyme or some Indian incense sticks and burn them inside the cave under the pretext of 'purification' or 'contact with spirits.' It is utterly harmful to the cave ecosystem, specifically, for the bats, the population of which has significantly decreased over the last few years. Such rites are often merely a commercial trick."
Zoologist, a local resident of Malaya Siya
Malaya Siya features Siberia's second longest cave, the "Pandora's Box." Its length is about 11 kilometers and its depth exceeds 180 meters. The cave shelters around 400 fresh water lakes surrounded with labyrinths of grottoes and wells that are inhabited by bats.

The average temperature in the cave fluctuates between 0 and 10°C, so it is recommended that visitors dress warmly. However, this temperature is the most favorable for bats and enables them to hibernate comfortably from mid-September to mid-June.

The Pandora's Box is a complex cave, so it is highly inadvisable to enter without the supervision of an experienced speleologist.
Wanderers in the dark
Elena is an intermediary between the village and the underground world. She attracts people from all over Siberia, who are pulled here like moths to a lantern. Her house seems to be the only inhabited building in the village.

Its roof features a life-size ragdoll of a speleologist in an old jacket and a red helmet. Her porch contains an array of equipment and clothes and boots left behind by tourists, which you can use if you have forgotten something. There are stacks of wood in the yard, endless rows of bookshelves in the house, a stove and a cat – the very definition of coziness.
At first sight, it may seem that this charming, intelligent woman truly belongs at an institute at a large university, not this godforsaken village. But Elena says that she enjoys life in the village because "you can choose your own pace of life here without the pushing and shoving on overcrowded buses."

Her home is the caves. She has a degree in zoology and has lived in Malaya Siya since the 1990s.
"We've always had an interesting crowd here: speleologists, archaeologists, geologists, songwriters and other extraordinary folks," says Elena. "Their company has always fascinated me."
Zoologist, a local resident in Malaya Siya
At present, Elena and her husband rent rooms to tourists and maintain a small, but valuable museum collection. She ushers us to the museum, which looks like an attic full of antiquities or a dimly lit grotto. She shows us artifacts left by tourists or found by Elena herself.
"It's the tooth of a cave lion," Elena says, taking a glossy, beautiful bone from the shelf. "It is a rare finding for Siberia and sufficient proof of the cave lion's existence here in Russia. Earlier it had been presumed that this cave dweller resided exclusively in Europe."
Elena's collection also includes a cave hyena's tooth, the skull of a young bear shot by local poachers, whimsical stalactites and stalagmites and fermented bats of an endangered species that died in the grottoes. It goes without saying that Malaya Siya offers her numerous opportunities to work in her field of study.
At the request of Tomsk State University and a number of engaged researchers, Elena monitors bats in the Archaeological Cave, rings them singlehandedly and also educates tourists, who often disturb bats in states of deep anabiosis with their bright flashlights, camera flashes and noise.
Text by Anna Gruzdeva.
Edited by Joe Crescente.
Design and layout by Yulia Shandurenko.
Images credits: Lori/Legion-Media, Shutterstock, Geophoto,
Alexander Kolbasov/TASS,
Anna Gruzdeva / Siberia: Joining the dots.

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