From a western perspective, much of the history and topography of Europe is both mysterious and beautiful, and nowhere is this more evident than in Russia. Russian history and geography is entirely foreign to most in the western world, it’s a state of secrets, harsh climate and spectacularly unique terrain, especially in the area of the Ural Mountains. There have been many strange stories of mysterious events and locations in the regions along the Ural range, the Dyatlov Pass Incidentcomes to mind, of course.
In the northwestern region of Russia, where the Urals meet the Komi Republic – a federal subject of Russia – is one of the country’s seven wonders. This region boasts the largest tract of protected virgin forest in the world, which is also the first natural UNESCO World Heritage site in Russia (the Virgin Komi Forests). This is not, however, the most interesting thing about the area though.
Not far from the Virgin Forests, located in the Troistko-Pechorski District of Komi stands one of the world’s most beautiful rock formations: Manpupuner.
Manpupuner [Man-pupu-Nyer], or as it’s more popularly known, the Seven Strong Men Rock Formation (also Poles of Komi) is one of the best kept secrets of the Urals. As the name suggests, this is a group of seven massive stone pillars or columns, jutting out from a hilly plateau on the western side of the mountain.
Not much is known about their formation, but it’s generally believed that they are the product of wind and ice erosion from and since the last ice age retreat. Some suggest that they could be a karst formation, which are geological formations that are caused by dissolution of layers of soluble bedrock. Their shape, which is irregular and inconsistent, has proven to be too much for even the most skilled rock-climbers. To date, no one has reached the top of any of the pillars by way of climbing.
The pillars range in size from 30 to 60 metres (200 feet), and the plateau on which they sit is quite difficult to reach. Most of the visitors to the site arrive by chartered helicopter, but some of the more adventurous among them endeavour to travel the more than 140 kilometres from the nearest village, Ust-ilych, by boat up the river Ilych and then embark on a two-day hike through the dense Taiga forest. The trek becomes a pilgrimage by the time the weary travellers reach Manpupuner to camp. From the pictures alone though, the view seems worth the trip.
The Seven Strong Men are said to be spiritually significant both for modern visitors and for the indigenous Mansi people into antiquity. Legend says that the rocks were once an entourage of ancient Samoyed Giants. The giants are said to have been on a trek to destroy the Vogulski people, or the people of the Vogulski mountain area, who were in fact Mansi. Upon reaching the Manpupuner plateau, the group’s shaman saw the holy Vogulski mountains – Vogulski means ‘naked mountain’ in the Mansi language, which refers to the fact that the mountain is treeless above an altitude of 1000 metres, and would provide a unique view from a distance – surprised or awed by the mountain, the shaman dropped his ceremonial drum and the seven giants immediately turned to stone. The pillars are sometimes referred to as ‘Mansi Fools’ by locals, which suggests that this legend may be a little mixed up, and/or perhaps we are, yet again the victims of complex transliterations between Russian and English.
Despite the obvious allegorical nature of the legend, the site retains its spiritual air. Many people who visit Manpupuner report feelings of deep contentment and calming energy permeating the site. Though this is a common effect said to be characteristic of many such locations, similar to reported experiences at Stonehenge or Mesoamerican ruins, for example. The Mansi people are said to visit the site to remove limestone for shamanistic rituals even today.
Of course, there are those who look at the Seven Strong Men and their legends, and see the hand of man, or perhaps aliens in their making, as might not be surprising. Rumours of ancient alien involvement in Manpupuner have started to circulate on the fringes of the paleo-contact community, but it seems fairly obvious that these giant stone columns are a natural formation with only incidental significance to the Mansi culture by virtue of their strange appearance.
Manpupuner is one of Russia’s best kept secrets, and tourism has, up to now, been at reasonable levels, affording the site a relatively untouched existence. This is set to change, however, as many western thrill-seekers and nature buffs are looking for new and exciting places to visit. Being one of the Seven Wonders of Russia, enjoying the company of Saint Basil’s Cathedral and Mount Elbrus, the tourism potential of the site and the economic benefits of foreign money flowing into the small villages of the area are hard to deny. Let’s just hope it doesn’t get out of hand, such as with Mount Everest in the Himalayas.
 Manpupuner Rock Formations; Gigantic natural towers in a Russian plateau – Atlas Obscura http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/manpupuner-rock-formations
 Hiking Expedition to Manpupuner, Russia – Munich – Toytowngermany.com http://www.toytowngermany.com/lofi/index.php/t302363.html
 Russia’s Seven Wonders – EnglishRussia.com http://englishrussia.com/2009/11/08/russia%E2%80%99s-seven-wonders/