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Interview to Siburbia internet magazine.

By Anna Gruzdeva.
 
 
 
 
The specialists estimate Altay recreation region to be especially popular with Russian travelers. The team of the project “Siberia and that’s that” is also planning to explore Altay, and particularly Chuya highway, the lifestyle of modern nomads, mountains and steppe. One of the tours will be to the south of Altay and further on, to Mongolia, to Golden Eagle hunting festival , the participants of the project will be accompanied by the touristic company Siberian Expeditions. Before the summer season starts, we’ve talked with Rodion Zhitin from Novosibirsk, the director of the company, organizer and the leader of travels around Siberia, the Far East, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, a member of Russian Geographic Society. We discussed touristic infrastructure of Altay, talked how one can combine scientific research and popular science traveling, and of course, “travels with meaning” – around Siberia, and further.
 
 
«Altay is the most advertised tourism region in Siberia. If one googles “Katun” or “the Altay mountains”, he will find many links to touristic companies’ websites after articles in Wikipedia. Is there a real need in such abundance of touristic companies or everyone is just trying to have their piece of pie and get rich with the help of “the sacred location”?
 
«The competition seems great only at the first sight, and it is not true actually. According to what I see, the demand in a vacation in Altay is even greater than the amount of proposals from travel companies. Our partners, Alpindustria, even told me that cheap tours to Altay, about up to 20 thousand rubles, are in the greatest demand this year».
 
«Why this year? It looks like people are always eager to visit Altay».
 
«First of all, it’s due to the financial recession. People just don’t have extra money to go abroad. Also, I think active propaganda with slogans like “The Crimea is ours” advocating traveling around Russia has born its fruits. There were people in our group who said directly “We had a choice between traveling to Europe or somewhere in Russia, and decided it was the time to discover Russia”. A wave of patriotic feelings has played its part. I think bloggers and travelers who go around our country and tell about some cool unusual places also helped to create a specific informational situation. My partners told me that a special interest this year lies in Altay and Kamchatka.»
 
«And what about Lake Baikal? It is also one of the main touristic attractions.»
 
«I suppose, the Baikal will keep its level of popularity. I think it has fewer possibilities for cheap active tours: the activity there is located mostly on the coast, and traveling about the lake on boat and something like that is not a cheap thing.»
 
«My friends told me that even while it’s a popular vacation region, tourist infrastructure is poorly developed in Baikal. What about Altay in this sense? In 2013, the region won “Best region for traveling around Russia award” of My Planet prize. I’m talking about the Altay region specifically.»
 
«Generally, the infrastructure is poorly developed or just none. If we are talking about mass travel business, the number of tourist bases is not enough. When you drive to Chemal you see recreation bases and hotels one after another. 80% of tourists stay there. And it seems to stop completely around Chike-Taman pass: the last resort is “Kochevnik”. There are no good cultured paths, they are mostly wild. Those who travel beyond Chike-Taman are, as they earlier called them, “wild tourists”. Yes, the northern shore of Teletskoye lake is completely developed, but its southern shore is wild and difficult to reach – you can’t drive there by an ordinary car, with fords and stones everywhere. There’s much to do in Altay in the sense of developing tourism, especially as the demand is way ahead of offers in every sphere. There are very loaded routes in the Altay, together with completely inelaborate ones.»
 
 
Chuya steppe, that unknown Mountain Altay. Martian-like landscapes (Mars-1).

The presentation of the expedition Unknown Altay. Around Chuya steppe.

 
 
«On the other hand, the spread of mass tourism may ruin the wild and untouched Altay, which is so attractive to many, if everything will be developed there.»
 
«One will say at first, yes, that’s true. But it depends on methods used for improving tourist infrastructure. Carefully planned tourist base can only improve the situation in the region. It is important who will come to develop Altay, what approach this person will have. And yes, it is difficult to build everywhere.
 
 
In the south of Altay there live the Altayans, it’s their land and they have their own laws. If a business people try to do something there, they will have to take local population in consideration, as well as their lifestyle and economy.
 
 
In addition, the stream of travelers to the south is fewer, because it’s one thing to start from Novosibirsk in the morning and to reach Chemal in the evening, and it’s quite the different thing to travel south, to the border with Mongolia, the drive taking about two days. It is possible to reach Chuya steppe in say twelve hours, but it is an extreme driving to say the least. I think it’s the main reason why the tourist infrastructure is poor there and probably won’t be much better in the future. Not everyone is ready to spend time driving. The South will probably attract free travelers, which are few. Or there will be rare tours that won’t affect the tourist infrastructure in that part of the region on the whole. Also, the landscape there is specific. Not everyone likes steppe.
 
«And when you entered tourist market with “Siberian Expeditions” how did you plan to fit into this variety of companies? For instance, you are one of the few who arrange travels to the south. Did you stake for it?»
 
«When we started back in 2007 or 2008, we didn’t even think of it. “Siberian Expeditions” grew from the club of extreme recreation Mustang.,We’ve taken our main idea from there, and only changed our name to a more attractive one from the point of view of marketing. It was the time when there appeared a wave of a so-called “deep tourism” in Russia, with a group not only traveling along an all-inclusive route, but also discovering history, geography, learning something about the region, communicating with natives. First companies with such concept appeared in Moscow. Our team started with Ivan Polousov’s passion for “deep tourism”, he was inspired with the concept and started to combine classic tours with researches of history. And all i’s then were dotted and t’s crossed, as it’s impossible to compete in such business since each tour is unique. However, we didn’t look at the market when we started “Siberian Expeditions”, we were just interested ourselves – it was a heart’s desire. Marketing and targeting came later.»
 
«And was your “heart’s desire” in any demand?»
 
«Yes, it was. When people see something new and interesting, they take it. Passion for traveling is contagious.»
 
 
 
Photosafari: Spring in the Semirechye
 
A legendary video by Katerina and Alina, members of a very cordial and spectacular tour to the Semirechye in May 2014. There’s no better way to see what tours by “Siberian Expeditions” are than watch the clip up to the end.
 
 
«So, what do you imply by your slogan “Travel with meaning”. Are there meaningless travels?»
 
«First, I’d like to say that there are no meaningless travels. There’s meaning everywhere and always, even if people don’t realize it. We are just trying to draw attention to this particular important moment, thus reminding our customers what traveling actually means. Not a tour, but a travel. We remind that it consists of unexpected, that it’s a challenge, that it has goals than may not be achieved, because a travel is a living event. This May we traveled to Dzhumalinkiye springs with an aim of exploring an abandoned mine, climbing on mountains and find our path through spring snow. It was difficult to predict if we would be able to drive through or not. We were lucky: we did drive through, and it was even a bit boring without much challenge. Planned but unpredicted – these two words are important for our expeditions. The aim of our work is to help a person gain something after a travel, either with our efforts, or people we had invited, e.g. scientists and guides. We want people to change somehow after travels: to learn something new about the world, to see something they haven’t seen before.»
 
«And what people take part in your expeditions? Are they from Siberia or from the Central Russia, where Siberia is regarded as some kind of exotic place? You have a lot of difficult routes.»
 
«About 70% are from Moscow. I thought at first it is because of cost, because I can’t say our travels are cheap. And then I gave it a thought, and compared the cost of travels to Egypt of Thailand, and saw the cost was not so much different. Moscow is generally a big city, plus salaries in the capital give the opportunity to travel here and there. And yes, Siberia is an exotic land that can be compared with exotics of South America or Nepal.
 
 
Siberian folk may even stay their whole life within their city and still think they know their land, so why travel around it?
 
 
Plus, it is not exotic for local population. And when going on vacation, most of us want to change the scenery. Most Russian citizens haven’t yet visited even Turkey, Thailand, that’s why they generally fly to southern warm countries. Those Siberians who go travelling with us are usually just the people who love “traveling with meaning”: they are interested in the nature and the history of their native land; they generally care what’s going around them. It often happens that after our joint journeys we have a long association, and even take part it different projects around Siberia.»
 
«How do people react to your expeditions? After all, take an average Moscow citizen, and place him or her in the wild Altay region for two weeks, with its off-road travel, tent camps, without every day hot shower…»
 
«Usually people regard traveling as some change in activity, or a means to switch off. Yes, we had such cases that people changed their workplace or took vital decisions after having traveled with us. Some of them were inspired by our lifestyle and tried to help with organization and became involved otherwise. Moreover, everyone reacts differently, since such journey is — to put it plain — like a kick out of urban life style. As a rule, our travelers are slightly shocked at the beginning, then they start adopting, and after that, they stop tracking time and forget their usual lifestyle. If anyone finds it difficult to keep up with others, which happened only a couple of times, we do not push, do not make them climb mountains or anything — a person may have a rest from efforts, or from information. We think of an expedition as of a successful one if people don’t even have time to brood about difficult conditions, or driving in an YAZ, but just immerse themselves into the nature, new information and interaction with people around. Those who take part in our expeditions usually don’t look for predicted and comfortable routs with 100% guarantee that they see every location that was planned to be visited. Travels are travels, and they do have some features of spontaneity.»
 
 
Skiing in the Siberian Taiga.

The presentation of the journey “Skiing in the Siberian Taiga”

 
 
«How did you start elaborating your routes? What do they come from?»
 
«Many routes have grown out of our own interests. In 2010, for example, I took interest in the abandoned mine Kokkol at the border of Russia and Kazakhstan. Kokkol is a forgotten place located deep and far in Altay. Few tourists have been there. In 1930s the USSR needed tungsten for tank armor, and it happened that it was discovered near Belukha mountain, at the Kokkol pass. And thus a worker’s camp appeared almost immediately in this wilderness. It was naturally closed afterwards, it 1953. There is a USSR museum located there now: dwelling houses, concentration plants, a diesel station, a recreation club — everything stays untouched. It’s like an illusion in the mountains. And we organized a full-scale expedition to explore the place.
 
 
It is always important to find a connection with some local interesting fact. As a rule, geographical points of interests and the route are found spontaneously after such fact is discovered.
 
 
Everything came and comes from knowledge (generally, the more knowledge you have, the more ideas you generate), from personal development, from studying references, from other journeys, from the location. At some point, something clicks in one’s head, and one sees the idea and starts to develop it. What the route will be? How to reach this or other location? How to organize travel so nobody is bored? I had done sport tourism for 10 years before I started “Siberian Expeditions”, and this experience helps. Perhaps, my perception how “thoughtful” tourism could be developed was influenced by an expedition around Chuya steppe in Altay in 2012 called “Runes of Ancient Altay”. It was then that I understood for the first time what “the travel with meaning” is, and it was the steppe that helped me to learn it. We began doing photo-travels recently, then I got interested in geology, start learning it, and new ideas also came. We took interest in animals and begin working with Siberian Environmental Center. There’s more ideas now than we can implement.
 
«What kind of people are in your team? I’ve been long watching your work, and you seem to be a bunch of enthusiasts who do a lot of different work at the same time. It’s not usual for tourist companies.»
 
«Yes, we are a bunch of enthusiasts. There are few places where you can learn the touristic business, one needs to have some experience, that’s why the people are few. “Siberian Expeditions” were founded by me, by Vova Chulyshman, the driver of our UAZ “Kuzya”, by Ivan Polousov, who started with us, but then left. Slava Karmanov s engaged in “Ethnic village” project and winter skiing tours in taiga in Kemerovo region — these are his projects, and I only help there. An ornithologist Elena Schneider from Siberian Environmental Center recently joined our team, just not long ago she accompanied an ornithological expedition to the Crimea, and everything went well. In June we are planning to go together to the Altay mountains. Actually, our team is 3-4 people, and everyone does a lot. Our project exists because people engaged in it are multifunctional. Our driver Vova, for that matter, sold his apartment, bought an UAZ, invested about 1 mln. rubles in that-time prices in its upgrade and lived in the car for three years in Barnaul. Many people approach him, e.g. when filming a documentary about Altay. “Kuzya” is a vehicle with a history.»
 
«You have scientific and educational tours. Last year you traveled to ornithologists in Khakassia — to study birds and to Kamchatka — to study killer whales. Why did you decide to try this kind of travels? It is not that it’s greatly developed in Russia.»
 
«I would say it is not developed at all. There are two reasons for it. Firstly, it is interesting, it’s new knowledge. From the organizational point of view, this is new experience, since nobody did it before. And apart from that… Perhaps, I can call it social responsibility.
 
 
It is very rewarding to know that your activity serves the community: scientific researches in such expeditions were mostly paid by organization fees that we collected. It is a rather new pattern of interaction for tourism and science.»
 
 
«And do science organizations and communities greet such enterprisers? They are mostly closed communities interested only in their own activity and not connected with tourism.»
 
«We now managed to find a way to cooperate with the Siberian Environmental center in Novosibirsk. It was a bit more difficult with biologists whom we accompanied last year to Paramushir in Kamchatka to watch the life and behavior of killer whales. Not all scientific organizations and centers can be engaged in travels of our format. Firstly, a place must be truly interesting, as well as a scientific research, and not only interesting, but also understandable by common people. And, of course, tourists shall not interfere with the research work. Last year we understood that studying birds, whales or manul cats is the ideal option. It’s much more complicated to work with archeological expeditions. But generally researches tend to agree to take tourists with them — they are glad that their work is interesting. Probably it’s a way to receive recognition from the public for them. This year we are developing a tour to the Caucasus in November together with one of Caucasian observatory: we’ll be watching stars and walk in the mountains. This tour is connected with an important celestial event — a meteor shower. I got acquainted with a researcher from Russian Geographic Society who studies impact craters in the close proximity of Lena Pillars. Perhaps we’ll travel to Yakutia.»
 
 
A jump of hump-back whale, Paramushir
 
 
«In 2016 our country celebrates a big anniversary: 100 years of Russian reserve system. It it a long period, but ecological tourism still didn’t develop here at all; meanwhile it is a common practice — to go on holiday to a reservation area. Why ecological tourism in our reservations is in such poor state?»
 
«I’ve talked recently just about it with one of officers in Sayano-Shushensky reservation. The problem lies in the human nature and in our reservation system on the whole. Few of our citizens are interested in developing ecological tourism in Russia, because one has to do a lot: create a web-site, develop routes and paths in the reserve, engage people. And nothing goes smooth from the first time, as mistakes are inevitable due to the lack of European experience. As a rule, it is a challenging and complicated activity. Developing ecological tourism is a tough task, and it is much easier to present some imitation of activity. If there is a person in a reservation who gets his or her teeth into the issue of ecological tourism, there will be a result. Reservations often have problems with illegal hunters, there are also internal violations. And if there are tours in such reservation, all breaches will be revealed.
 
Today ecological tourism in the entire Russia is more or less developed only at Kamchatka. There are 2 factors that helped it: first, Kamchatka is a unique and extremely spectacular region, and second, there are responsible, organized and experienced people there interested in attracting tourists. They don’t waste breath at Kamchatka. There is a saying, if I’m not mistaken: lots of people are lost between the word and the deed. I believe the reservations have their potential, and I will be glad if the system develops, as it will be much easier to cooperate then. But today reservation is a Pandora’s box: lots of red tape, odd and illogical prohibitions, and very few things can be done properly. Still, one way or another, the idea of developing reservations in Russia appeared, and I believe at some point ecological tourism will start to grow.»
 
«And how do people learn about touristic companies, say, about your company? What instruments do you use, what marketing works? Is it the website, social networks, a word of mouth?»
 
«Generally, it works just in this very order, i suppose. It often happens that people who found us a year ago finally decide to join an expedition. It’s like they watch for some time, and then resolve to take part. We usually have about half of a group like these. Speaking of social networks… In 2013 I gathered almost the whole group with the help of them, and nowadays it is just another proof that the company is still active. I don’t think social networks should be regarded as a serious means of promotion. There’s lots of advertising and spam, and as a result people are overloaded with information. Plus, the novelty effect is gone. Now we are having such an effect from Instagram. On the other hand, I aim to stay long in the game, and that is why I develop the website which is an instrument to use and to bring good results for the whole life. On the opposite, rules are changing perpetually in social networks.»
 
 
Originally published by Siburbia, July 17, 2015.
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