IT IS a fine day in May in the Altay Republic—a region of breathtaking beauty in the southwest corner of Siberia. From our window we see swaths of dark coniferous forest; and rising majestically behind, faint blue peaks capped with snow. This is the rugged and remote land of the Altaics—a distinct Asian people with their own language. They are perfectly at home in the Altai Mountains, a name based on a Turkic-Mongolian word meaning “golden.”
It has been a few years since my wife and I learned Russian Sign Language and began visiting sign-language congregations and small groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are deaf. In this country, more than 100 ethnic groups and 70 distinct cultures share one common spoken language, Russian. The deaf among us use yet another language, Russian Sign Language. The deaf enjoy a tight-knit culture, and many whom we meet are eager to share their personal history with us and show us hospitality. This is certainly the case in Altay.
In the city of Gorno-Altaysk, we learn of a few deaf ones who live in a small village 155 miles (250 km) away. We know there are a few Witnesses there, but none of them know sign language. We wonder about these deaf Altaics and decide to drive out to find them. Our enthusiasm excites Yury and Tatyana, a deaf couple who agree to come with us. We load a minivan with sign-language publications on DVD and a DVD player. We also pack a large thermos, sandwiches of rye bread and smoked sausage, and freshly baked piroshki—delicious Russian pastries with fillings of cabbage and potato. Finally, we spray ourselves, our clothes, and our shoes thoroughly with a tick repellent, as tick-borne encephalitis is common in the area.
The road we are traveling winds through spectacular mountain scenery. The air is thick with the fragrance of jasmine and lilac. It invigorates us! We are thrilled to see a herd of Siberian deer calmly munching on the grass. Altaic settlements are clusters of wooden houses with neat metal roofs. Next to many of the houses are wooden dwellings called ayyl, usually six-cornered houses with a conical roof. Some resemble tepees covered with tree bark. Many Altaic families live in the ayyl from May to September and move into the house for the fall and winter.
We are warmly welcomed in the village by local Witnesses, who lead us to the home of a deaf Altaic couple. They are delighted to see us and are curious about where we are from and what we are doing. It turns out that they have a computer, so when we pull out a DVD, they insist on playing it. Immediately, all conversation ceases; it is as if we were not there. Their eyes glued to the monitor, they occasionally copy the signs they see and nod in appreciation. With difficulty, we get their attention so we can stop the DVD to return to its opening scenes, which depict a beautiful paradise on earth. Pausing on one scene, we discuss what God will do for mankind and what kind of people will live forever in the conditions they see. We are heartened by their interest, and at the end of the visit, they tell us about another deaf couple living a few hours away in another village.
Setting off again, we cross a spectacular rocky pass cut deep into the mountains and follow the serpentine road to a much smaller village. There we find the deaf family—the husband, the wife, the wife’s mother, and the couple’s small son—who are delighted to have unexpected company. We enter the tiny door of their ayyl, which smells pleasantly of wood and buttermilk. It has a round hole on top of its cone-shaped roof, which lets the light in. A whitewashed brick oven and stove stands in one corner, and cheery red rugs carpet the walls. The couple treat us to an Altaic dish—small fried doughnuts and tea in little Asian-style bowls. We ask them if they have ever considered it possible to be God’s friend. They ponder the question. The wife’s mother tells us that as a child, she once took some food to a place in the mountains as an offering to the gods. “What that really meant, I don’t know,” she shrugs and smiles. “It was our custom.”
We show a DVD on this subject, and their faces light up. They are eager to continue the discussion, but how? Although text messages usually make it easy to keep in touch with deaf ones, there is not a single mobile-phone antenna in the area. So we promise to keep in touch by letter.
The sun is already setting as we part affectionately and set off on the long road back to Gorno-Altaysk, tired but content. Some time later, we ask local Witnesses about this family and learn that every other week, the husband travels to a larger town, where he studies the Bible and attends a meeting with the help of a local sister who knows sign language. How happy we are that our efforts bore fruit!
Our search for honesthearted deaf people can be compared to looking for treasures hidden deep in the mountains. Long hours of searching are rewarded when we find a stray jewel, seemingly by accident. For us, the mountains of Altay will always be golden, reminding us of the sincere ones we met between the rugged peaks.