Former Soviet Union: That Summer: Altai mountains, Russia, 1995: Siberia, where even bears have bad breath

We'd planned a trip to the mountains and Lake Teletskoye - but we hadn't bargained on getting so close to the wildlife.
"PHOO, MISHA, phoo!" The usual Russian response to irksome animals wasn't working: Misha, a three-month-old bear, and looking as cuddly as any self-respecting roly-poly brown cub should (but with a bad case of halitosis), kept trying to play and her cute paws hid some sharp claws. When Svetlana had suggested organising a back-to-nature journey to the Altai mountains in lieu of payment for translation work with her science journal, I hadn't bargained on getting quite so close to Russia's wildlife.

Misha notwithstanding, the trip to the Altai was one of the highlights of a two-year stay in Siberia. Our initial two soon grew to a convivial six, as everyone in the Novosibirsk-based editing team decided that this was too good an opportunity to pass up. We were promised basic, free accommodation at a research station by Lake Teletskoye.

Tatyana cooked enough food to last her husband and children through a siege, Natasha pleaded with her daughter not to give birth for another couple of weeks, Denis brought along his wife and, leaving the cares of the city behind us, we headed off, bumping along on the floor of an ex- army truck now used as a mobile laboratory.

The journey took the better part of a day: three and a half hours south to Barnaul, then a few more hours through Biysk and upwards into the Gorno Altai Autonomous Republic. It wasn't far from the border to our destination, the village of Artybash, but the road surface was dreadful, and it was dark when we arrived.

We woke to blazing sunshine and the shimmering surface of Lake Teletskoye, shaped rather like an upside-down Italy. A group of Belgian geologists were also at the base, examining rock formations along the shoreline: two of them had cadged a lift in our truck from Novosibirsk and returned the favour by letting us join them on a two-day trip.

Such co-operation would once have been impossible in this remote corner, where the Russian, Kazakhstan, Chinese and Mongolian borders meet, but times had changed.

The lake is fed from mountain streams and remains virtually unpolluted (I was surprised at first to see the scientists happily brushing their teeth in it). We stopped off several times while the geologists took rock samples and we explored sights such as Korba waterfall. In the evening the men camped near the mouth of the Chulyshman river, providing the local mosquitoes with rich pickings, while we women tried to find refuge on the boat. After a fire-side picnic on the first night, Katya and Svetlana sang Russian songs, the geologists responded with Jacques Brel, and it fell to me to show what Scotland could come up with (an off-key rendition of "The Skye Boat Song" and "Flower of Scotland").

The next day we came across three game wardens who had just spent 40 days walking and riding through the huge nature reserve along the eastern shore of the lake, on the lookout for poachers. After the first few days they had survived on what they could find or trap but, apart from ravenous hunger (I've never seen a tin of condensed milk go down quite so fast), they seemed none the worse for wear.

Back at the base, we were reminded of the need for such men when someone brought in a bear cub, left behind when poachers had killed its mother for her skin.

Misha was being temporarily fed and sheltered by the scientists, but unless they could find her a new home in a zoo or circus, she would have to be shot; she would soon be too dangerous to keep at the base, but incapable of surviving in the wild.

We stayed for another week in Artybash, watching hundreds of white and purple butterflies startle up from the ground as we passed, swimming in mountain streams and enjoying some rest. The men carried water up from the lake so that we could use the banya (the Russian sauna) and we cooked and ate in the open air, and drank toasts to everybody and everything imaginable.

On our return journey, we spent a night sleeping outside by the powerful Katun river, mosquito-free; our first rainy afternoon, wandering through Gorno-Altaysk waiting for the truck to be repaired; and enjoying hospitality with friends of Svetlana in Biysk: all too soon, we were back outside the publisher's office, and I left for Moscow two days later.

I returned to Novosibirsk last month. Sadly there was no time to travel to the Altai, but we sat round Svetlana's table and took stock: finances for the English-language journal have dried up, but Svetlana finally has a suitable flat and Katya is married to an Australian she met through the Internet. Natasha has a four-year-old grandson, Denis is an awestruck father - and Misha has found a home in Novosibirsk's recently upgraded zoo.