The road from Abakan, the capital of the Republic of Khakasia, runs along the wide hilly steppes of Siberia. After climbing a hill suddenly a panoramic view of Itkul Lake opens before you, one of the areas of Khakassky nature reserve. The areas of the reserve are spread out throughout the republic, and cover different ecological zones -- steppe, forest steppe, and mountain taiga.
Itkul Lake is located in the steppe. People primarily come here to watch birds such as cranes, peregrine falcons, and eagles. In addition, you can explore the rich diversity of steppe vegetation, including rare endangered species, here in their natural environment.
Sunduki, an abandoned mine shaft, and herbal baths
Not far from Itkul Lake is the Sunduki mountain range -- a place that is popular among archaeologists and those interested in shamanism. Sunduki is called the Russian Stonehenge. Numerous pictograms (ancient petroglyphs) have been found on the unusually flat mountains here. Local shamans still come here on days when important astronomical phenomena take place. They believe that natural observatories were located here in ancient times, and the openings bored through the rocks helped priests to precisely determine the time of the year favorable for planting and harvest.
Sunduki is also popular for one-day hikes. The range consists of eight peaks that can be climbed with no special physical training. From the top one can see an amazing panoramic view of the green steppe stretching to the horizon.
Adventurous people may like to visit Tuimski Sink. Prior to 1954 there was a tungsten mine here, however a negligent engineer proposed expanding it upwards instead of digging the shaft to the usual depth. The mine caved in, and subsequent earthquakes deepened the gap. So as a result of human intervention and natural forces, a great basin with a emerald lake at the bottom and spectacular natural walls was formed here. A rope hangs at the highest part of the shaft from which brave people can swing and then jump 100 meters in free flight.
Five kilometers from the fresh Itkul Lake is the saltwater Shira Lake. Part of its shore has been designated as a nature reserve. Along the rest of the shore are tourist sites, towns and Pearl resort. Here one can not only have a comfortable overnight stay, but also bathe in the curative waters of the salt lake or take a herbal sauna, an invention of one of the local shamans. To take a herbal sauna, visitors sit in a cedar barrel and are enveloped in steam scented with steppe grasses and flowers. Medicinal cosmetics are produced here from these same herbs.
A tourist center was opened in the small residential area on the Itkul Lake reserve where people are permitted to live. The building has panoramic windows through which you can watch the lake and the life around it for hours. It also contains a watch tower and a museum.
The protected zone has walking and biking paths of varying difficulties and lengths. There are paths for bird watching and studying plants. Observation points are located at picturesque spots around the lake. Bicycles can be rented in the residential area and tours around the lake or to neighboring areas can be arranged. One-day tours are usually organized to visit the nature reserve. They can be arranged directly through the reserve (some staff there are fluent in English).
Volunteering and environmental inspecting
You can help the nature reserve by participating in environmental inspection with a team of local inspectors and by improving the tourism infrastructure. The reserve also needs people who can contribute to environmental education like photographers, videographers, and translators. The staff picks up volunteers at the nearest airport at Abakan (which has regular flights from Moscow and Vladivostok) and provides a tent. Volunteers need to provide their own food (a couple of kilometers from the residential area there is a village with a grocery store).
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