The Electronic Telegraph (UK)
June 14, 2003
Stags' blood bath draws tourists into wilderness
Julius Strauss in the Altai mountains reports on a gory event for rich Russians in Siberia
By Julius Strauss
FIRST the stag was beaten and prodded into a large, wooden vice which held it fast. As the animal groaned and keened, blood was drained from its neck into glass phials.
Then the antlers were sawn from its head just above the base. Blood spurted from the shorn stubs.
Nearby, visitors, some of whom had travelled thousands of miles for the occasion, gathered and watched the bloody spectacle with approval. Some took photographs, others were offered phials of fresh stag blood to drink.
For the stout-hearted, there was the chance to drink straight from a severed antler, a display of machismo greeted with particular admiration by the others.
Each of the guests present had paid hundreds of pounds to travel to remotest Siberia to take part in the bloody annual ritual. They are among a growing band of moneyed Russians who believe that drinking, or bathing in, stag's blood will cure sicknesses, help resist disease and perhaps increase virility.
The phenomenon is the latest example of the way those who have prospered under the country's wild capitalism since the fall of the Soviet Union seek to assert their individuality by finding unorthodox methods of spending their profits.
For much of the year, Chendek, where the event took place, is a forgotten Siberian village, nestling in the Altai mountains, 2,500 miles from Moscow and a 10-hour drive from the nearest airport. But, for a few days in mid-June, it becomes the scene of a bloody ritual in which Russians recall their primeval past as hunters in these virgin Siberian forests.
In a few short hours, hundreds of majestic Maral stags are shorn of their antlers and drained of their blood before being released back into the forest. "I came from Moscow to do this," said Anatoly Gensiorovski, the 66-year-old managing director of an engineering firm, as he emerged from a specially built tub where he had lain steaming in fresh stag's blood.
"I have tried all kinds of cures for my back pain but this is the only thing that works. Last year was my first visit but from now on I'm coming every year. It's not cheap but it's worth it."
The stag was a symbol of health and virility in this part of Siberia even before the Russians arrived nearly 400 years ago.
In the 18th century, hunters traded the stag's antlers with Chinese and Mongolian tribesmen to the south for fur and gold.
In Soviet times, local collectives began commercial exports to Korea, where the stag's antler is believed to be a cure for a host of ailments and an aphrodisiac.
For local people, the business has already brought a modicum of wealth. Vadim Mesheryakov manages a company in the regional capital, Gorny Altaisk, that exports several tons of antler derivatives a year.
He said: "The antlers help with a whole host of conditions: they boost the immune system, and can cure gynaecological problems, cancer and high blood pressure. During the Second World War they even gave them to wounded soldiers. The Soviets gave them to cosmonauts on the space programme.
"In Korea they eat of lot of our antler and as a result haven't had a single case of Sars."
By any measure, the Altai, in southern Siberia along the border between Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, is remote and its climate hostile, with temperatures in winter dropping to minus 50C. The forests teem with wolves and bears and there are also snow leopards and lynx. But it is also one of Russia's most beautiful regions, with stunning mountains and fast-flowing rivers. The River Katun, which runs through the Altai, resonates with mysticism for Russians.
Vladimir Weinberger, a Siberian descended from a German family, who lives on the Volga and owns the Chyorny Klyuch stag farm, had 30 guests this week who came to bathe in stag's blood.
He is building a new hotel and bath-house and hopes next year to charge Russian tourists pounds 30 a night, a huge sum by local standards. "The number of rich people in Russia is growing and, just as in the West, they want to look after their health," he said. "In a few years, there will be hotels and houses on the banks of the River Katun comparable with those in western Europe. We have plans to develop the infrastructure, roads and communications."
Next month officials say an abandoned Soviet-era airport will open in Koksa, at the heart of the Katun region, and there are plans for regular flights from Novosibirsk, Siberia's largest city. The experience Mr Weinberger offers includes food - venison, bear and lamb are typical local dishes - and vodka, with or without added stag's blood. There is also a host of antler products on sale.
Visitors are entitled to one blood bath a day and a glass of fresh stag's blood, squeezed from the animal's neck. "It tastes like egg-yolk," said Park Chang-Yer, an ethnic Korean from Russia, after downing a phial of the dark-red, still-warm liquid. A local woman, Lyubov Petrovna, has opened a guest-house on the strength of the increasing flow of tourists and was touting for custom this week.
"All kinds of people come here," she said. "It's an accepted fact that the bath is a cure for many ailments. I had arthritis and after four blood baths it went away."
Nikolai Semenchenko, a 46-year-old manager from the Urals, said: "I don't believe the bath cures diseases but it certainly feels good."