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27 Mar, 2010 07:48

Taiga is the law, bear is the master

Just a four-hour flight from Moscow to western Siberia is the picturesque Kemerovo Region. A land renowned for its industrial history and rich cultural roots, and where bears really are a man's best friend.

Brown bears can be furry and cute. They may be, but do not be fooled by their looks: they are wild animals with all that implies.

In the Kemerovo Region bears really do wander the streets and drink vodka, and even munch on the odd cigarette – if offered.

Shocking to most, bear owner Viktor Kirpichnikov, says he acts only out of love.

“These bears are my life. And it’s for their own good I don’t set them free as they wouldn’t know how to cope in the wild. Their mother was killed by hunters when they were just a few months old. We rescued them,” he explained.

But for those who prefer their animals roaming free, there is a whole other world to discover in Russia’s Kemerovo region.

Five hours’ drive from the city and you enter a mountainous winter wonderland.

The taiga forest stretches for as far as the eye can see, and the history is as thick and rich as its carpet of snow.

Long before the Russians came in the 17th Century, this region was a tapestry of different nomadic tribes.

Ancient traces of a bygone age suggest life here began thousands years ago in the Bronze Age.

In some of Kemerovo’s more remote villages, people still live a traditional hunter and gatherer way of life.

The local sheriff, Valery Topakov, has been responsible for 19 villages – most of which have no electricity, shops or medical facilities – since the 1980s so people rely on the sheriff to keep them connected.

The furthest village lies some 60 kilometers away and consists of just 12 houses.

And when temperatures veer from minus to plus 35 degrees centigrade, his biggest challenge is how to reach them.

“I ski. If I leave at 2am, I’m there by 1pm. It’s the only way, especially by April when the snow’s begun to melt and spring re-appears,” Valery Topakov, local Ust’ Kabyrza Sheriff, said.

“Modern skis are no good as they don’t have enough traction. But mine are handmade in the traditional way, and covered in horse hair, meaning I can climb the difficult slopes.”

But for those less fit, there is another way to tackle the snow-drenched Siberian taiga – by skidoo. And even then, the elements can prove too much.

The thickness of the snow makes it incredibly difficult, even for experienced hunters, and an attempt to make way deep into the Siberian forest proves to be a real challenge.

Local legend has it that deep in the woods there is a cave where Kemerovo’s Big Foot or Yeti lives. The nearest town is only 50 kilometers away and several people claim to have seen the big man himself, or know someone who has.

Nevertheless, as for Big Foot, Sheriff Valery Topakov is skeptical.

“No such thing exists! But we do believe that a spiritual force, the Master of the Mountain, lives here and looks over the forest. When our hunters come into the taiga, they always leave gifts as a sign of respect,” he said.

Topakov has been coming to this cave since he was a boy and knows each step by heart.

He said he is still amazed by the scale and beauty of its ice stalactites and stalagmites.

Kemerovo region is an ancient, vast and contradictory land shrouded in natural beauty, history and legend – the true Siberia.