Jean Pierre Alibert, Batagol et le pays secret des Soyots, juillet 2008

La mine perdue

Badma Dondokov au sommet de Batagol

En Sibérie Orientale, à 1 500 m d’altitude, sur le plateau de l’Oka, au cœur de la solitude des monts Sayans, le temps ne s’est pas arrêté. Mais, au cours de nos pérégrinations, dans le pays secret des Soyots, je n’ai pas croisé un seul habitant, connaissant ma nationalité, sans qu’il ne mentionne la mine de Batagol fondée par le français Jean-Pierre Alibert en 1848. On n’oubliait pas non plus de me rappeler qu’un de ses descendants l’a cherchée, sans succès, il y a quelques années. Andrey Bezlepkin a bien voulu m’incorporer dans son expédition de juillet 2008. Sous la conduite de Badma Dondokov, de son fils Sergey et de son neveu Bator, nous nous y sommes rendus. Perdus, il nous a fallu bivouaquer de façon imprévue entre des cimes noyées dans la pluie et le brouillard, mais le lendemain, la montagne de graphite nous accueillait. Elle ne s’est pas livrée sans panache, nous gratifiant d’une pluie et d’un orage d’anthologie, situation inconfortable lorsque l’on côtoie les sommets.

La mine de Batagol a été en exploitation jusqu’en 1950. Depuis lors, elle est totalement abandonnée. Isolée, elle n’est visitée que très sporadiquement par quelques rares chasseurs. Les vallées et les montagnes qui l’entourent sont désertes.
Le village de Batagol, situé quelques centaines de mètres en contrebas de la mine, le long d’une rivière, abritait les familles des mineurs et même une école. Il a été totalement abandonné dans les années 1950 lorsque la mine cessa son exploitation.
Aucune route ne reliait Batagol au reste du pays. Même si dans les dernières années d’exploitation le graphite était transporté par hélicoptère, le mode de transport le plus utilisé restait l’usage des rivières gelées en hiver. Leurs gorges en étaient impraticables l’été. Aujourd’hui, les très rares personnes qui s’y rendent y vont à cheval.

Okinsky region and local people

« Okinsky region, or shorter Oka, is one of seventeen counties of Buryat republic. It is the most remote part of Buryatia, situated to the West of capital city Ulan-Ude on the range about 600 km.
Local people kept more features of traditional way of life and culture. Oka is the wildest district of Buryatia. Yet, it is the very heart of Eastern Sayan mountain country. The main belief of locals is shamanism, or animalism, mixed with Lamaism, which actually is a branch of Buddhism. The administrative center of Oka is Orlik, a small town with population more than a thousand, which is constantly growing, as many young pairs move there from other districts. »

« According to evidence of old residents of Okinskiy district being both Soyots and Buryats, relatively recently, approximately 350-400 years ago Soyots representing clans Irkit, Khaasuut and Onkhot moved from the vicinities of Khabsugul Lake, Mongolia where they led nomadic life on the territories of Darkhat Somons Khankha and Uuri, and also from the area of Rinchinlkhumbe Mountain considered to be a sacred protecting mountain. After crossing Mongolian borders Soyots started settling in Tunka and, partially, in Zakamenka. However, since there are almost no places favourable for reindeer herding there a part of Soyots which adopted animal husbandry settled in Tunka and Zakamenka merging with local Buryats. As for reindeer herders, they moved to Oka, to the mountain range dividing Oka River and Irkut River, in the region lacking reindeer moss and food. This is the way Soyots came to Oka.
In 1993, Soyot national village council (at present – administration) with the center in Sorok village was established; the same year Association of Soyots of Okinskiy district, RB (Republic of Buryatia) was created and officially registered in the Ministry of Justice, RB. In pursuance of the act on revitalization of reindeer herding in 1994, 60 reindeers were brought in to Oka from neighbouring Tofalaria, and Tofalar herders started helping Oka people to recollect reindeer herding skills. By present reindeer got acclimatized and their herd started growing ».

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« The region is characterized by typical alpine rugged landscape with rocky summits and deep narrow valleys, mountain passes mostly are flat plateaus, swampy in summer because of permafrost, which melts in warm season. The streams are fast and cristally clear, as there are no industrial objects. The main and the biggest stream of the area (is) Oka.
General occupation of indigenous people is horsekeeping, cow and sheepherding. Oka is the only region, where people still keep yaks, which are becoming rather rare animals. In wintertime, men go for hunting, for the area is well known as abundant with wildlife. Trails inside the county usually made by horses and yaks and go along valleys thru every mountain saddle ».


« National and cultural revival of numerically small peoples which started in the 1990s in Russia affected Soyots. Studies held in those years by different scientists showed that still many Soyots remembered not only their belonging to a separate people of Soyot in general but also kept in memory their affiliation to one of three Soyot clans – Khaasuut, Onkhot, Irkit. They also preserved many features of their every day life and spiritual culture including not only legends, tales, songs but also shamanic calls, although all those were also preserved in Buryatian language. For instance, performing shamanic prayer to mountain-protector of Burin-Khanu location which old men called Ulug-Dag (that is “Great Mountain”) in Soyot, they appealed to it with the following words: «Уйгар хэлэтэн, урса гэртэн, үйhэн забитан, сагаа унаатан, сана хүлэгтэн бидэ hойоодууд» (literally, «We are Soyots having Uighur language, having chums as a dwelling, having birch bark canoes, reindeer as a transportation means, and sledges as fast horses”). Here is Soyots’ concept of their past traditional way of life of a Turkic-speaking nomadic taiga hunting and reindeer herding people.
The movement for rehabilitation of rights of Soyots as an independent numerically small Northern people which started in the Republic of Buryatia in 1992 and continued on different levels through the 1990s, on March, 24 2000 resulted in Decree #255 of the Government of Russia including Soyots of Buryatia in the universal list of indigenous numerically small peoples of Russian Federation. In this document, the total number of Soyots in 1999 equalled 1973 people. According to 2001 data, number of Soyots equalled 2002 people. On the level of the Government of the Republic of Buryatia measures on revitalization of Soyot traditional hunting and reindeer herding economy and national culture, including language were developed and are being undertaken. »

Source –
« At present, the issue of the rights of peoples to the national culture and language was raised to its full potential. The problem of revitalization and preservation of cultures and languages of numerically small peoples of Russia, especially numerically small peoples of Siberia and the North has become urgent and vitally important again. While in the first years of the Soviet rule national cultures and languages of these peoples were still living and widely used, and the main problem was the provision of written languages, the present situation has changed to such extent that not only languages but also peoples should be protected and revitalized.
In the Republic of Buryatia, such problem faces not only Evenks but also Soyots – a numerically small nation officially recognized just recently, whose aim is revitalization of the native language, national culture and economy. Sharing their feelings and supporting their struggle for revitalization completely we think that should not neglect any opportunity to help them in this matter. Sceptics assure us that it is allegedly too late and that all Soyots were completely “Buryatified”… Just recently, those sceptics themselves asserted that the issue of revitalization of such a small people as Soyots should not have been raised at all since they simply do not exist now and all of them became Buryats. But in practice, it was illustrated that the struggle to the revival of a people is unlimited. Soyots achieved recognition as an independent people and inclusion in the list of numerically small peoples of Russia. Real progress is being made in the cause of revival of their traditional economy connected with reindeer herding, which they held until the 1960s. Therefore, we should hope that the will and the struggle of the people also for the revitalization of their language will overcome the scepsis of individual researchers and politicians. »


Jean Pierre Alibert et la mine de Batagol

« Jean-Pierre Alibert was born in France in 1820. This Frenchman, a pragmatist by nature and a romantic at heart, conquered the raw forces of Siberian nature and captured worldwide fame for discovering Russian graphite in the middle of the 19th century. Alibert was a trader, a miner and a dauntless dreamer. He was worshipped by Siberian tribes people and admired throughout Europe. Count Muraviev-Amursky, Governor General of Irkutsk, as well as members of St. Petersburg scientific and artistic elites greatly valued Alibert’s achievements. In Siberia he was not called Jean-Pierre but Ivan Petrovich. In Siberia, where he felt despair and ecstasy, there are still signs of his presence. Peak Batagol still has stonewalls that were erected to protect the mine from hurricane winds. Here one can see a portion of the hippodrome on the mountaintop and find large steel nails that used to hold together comfortable housing next to mounds of graphite.
By day, Ivan Petrovich personally sorted through graphite that was to be sent to A. W. Faber’s factory. By night, living at the height of 2210 meters above the sea level, he studied the starry skies above the Sayans with astronomical instruments. It is just as difficult to get to Batagol today as it was back then, and the beauty of nature that beckoned Alibert has remained untouched. In the valley below Peak Batagol, shaggy yaks still roam as they did back then, and local villagers tell legends of a courageous and generous foreigner. Alibert gave many years of his life to the Sayan Mountains, following the valley of the Irkut River almost to the border with Mongolia. He shipped graphite down Siberian rivers to the Pacific and Indian oceans, to the Baltic Sea and Nuremberg. When he returned to France, Alibert remained nostalgic for the mountains. This nostalgia, as well as rheumatism, which he earned in severe Siberian conditions, led him to settle in the French province of Auvergne. »

Source –

« Né à Montauban (Villebourbon) le 23 mars 1820, huitième enfant d’une famille de fabricants de draps, il (Alibert) s’embarque à quatorze ans pour l’Angleterre. Engagé comme trappeur par une pelleterie londonienne, il part à dix-sept ans en Russie Orientale chasser le renard et l’hermine. Il ouvre à vingt-deux ans son propre comptoir à Saint-Pétersbourg et pendant plus de vingt ans parcourt la Sibérie. En cherchant de l’or dans les cours d’eau des monts Saïan, il découvre en 1848 un gisement de graphite sur le mont Batagol, au sud-ouest du lac Baïkal. L’unique mine de graphite d’Europe, en Angleterre, étant épuisée, cette découverte sauve l’industrie du crayon à papier, principale utilisatrice de ce minerai. A proximité il découvre une mine de néphrite (jade), utilisée pour la fabrication des vitraux. En plus des aménagements de la mine, il fait construire des logements pour les ouvriers, une infirmerie, une ferme modèle et une chapelle. Son œuvre industrielle et humaniste lui vaut le surnom de Yvan Petrovitch. Les cartes d’alors mentionnent le mont et la mine Alibert.
Ce graphite, dont Ingres vante les mérites, emballé dans des caisses de cèdre, est envoyé à Nuremberg siège de la Société Faber spécialisée dans le crayon d’art. Il se passionne également pour la météorologie et l’astronomie. « 

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« Le Montalbanais (Tarn et Garonne), Jean-Pierre Alibert, né en 1820, s’aventura jusqu’en Sibérie, y découvrit du graphite, fit fortune et rentra en France perclus de rhumatismes. Le voilà donc à Chateauneuf-les-Bains en 1871, désespérant de soigner son mal. La deuxième cure qu’il y fit le guérit! Et Châteauneuf devint son séjour favori. En 1892, il fit ériger la statue d’une vierge de bronze dans la péninsule de Saint-Cyr que, depuis, on appelle le pic Alibert. Une inscription sur le socle rappelle sa dévotion à la Vierge qu’il invoquait en Sibérie dans ses moments de détresse. Notre-Dame de l’Espérance est devenue un but de pèlerinage pour le 15 août. « 
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Irkutsk again

Before and after Batagol expedition, I staid in Irkutsk. I took Russian classes with Viktor Strasser at Alliance Française. Ekaterina (Katya), her Mum, Marina, and her brother, Nikita, invited me to live in their apartment. I spent 20 full days in this lovely family.

© Auteur: Bernard Grua


Auteur : Bernard Grua

Bernard Grua a une large expérience internationale. ll réside à Nantes et est expert en conseil, réalisation et analyse d'inventaires, préalablement manager dans un cabinet d'audit anglo-saxon , Diplômé de Sciences Po Paris, officier de Marine de réserve. Hobbies: photographie, géopolitique, patrimoine maritime, reportages dans des pays lointains