Altai: Mountains, lakes and a lot of cows

We spent 10 days in the Altai Republic of southern Siberia. This is our account of a beautiful trip. And if you get the chance, do visit.

We decided for the flexibility of renting a car instead of waiting around for busses or going on a pre-arranged tour, despite some worries about road quality and plenty of stories of corrupt traffic police. As it turned out, the highway Chuysky Trakt must be one of the best mountain roads we’ve ever driven and the police gave us no problems during our two brief encounters.

Altai Republic
It took us a full day to pick up the (wrong, but that’s another story) car, stock up on food, water and last-minute camping supplies and manage the drive from Novosibirsk to Gorno-Altaisk. Luckily we arrived at hostel heaven and could enjoy a good night’s sleep before dealing with what seems to have been quite unnecessary visa registration.

That’s right. It’s an ice skating rink. Inside of a mall. In the middle of summer.
Our first stop was in Chemal, which is actually off the main road and which will probably be very crowded come the start of the proper tourist season. The highlight here was the Ioanno Bogoslavski Chapel on a small island in the middle of the Katun river, accessed by a wobbly wooden footbridge holding six people at a time.


We also visited the Varota Sartikpayev Canyon, which we had read was supposed to be an important place in Altai mythology. It certainly was important for the local souvenir sellers. Nevertheless, it was impressive to follow the Katun river, which, still filled with water from the mountains’ snow, flowed at furious speed.

Back on the Chuysky Trakt, we watched the hills become higher the further south we got and touched the still-not-melted snow at the Seminsky Pass. Just before Karakol, we decided to see if the smaller gravel road west toward the village of Kulada would be manageable. We ended up picking up an old lady waiting for a ride in the first village, dropping her off in Boochi, some 10 km on. She insisted the road would be good and the views sure were worth the detour.

At the nature park Uch-Enmek, we tried a night in a traditional Altai ail (do bring your sleeping bag or take an extra cover!) and met Cirga and Gerad. Gerad turned out to be very helpful explaining Altai sights and customs in a mix of Russian, English, Altai and sign language.

We met another lady who showed us the somewhat hard to find petroglyphs at Bichikty-Bom before we dropped her off at the pharmacy in Karakol. Hitchhiking seems to be pretty common around these parts.

After the serpentine Chike-Taman Pass, the hills became mountains and we kept pulling over to enjoy the views and an interesting surprise tour (in English!) of the petroglyphs at Kalbak Tash. Driving down to Aktash and then Kosh-Agach, the mountains became more and more imposing, particularly the snow-capped 4,000+ meter Mount Aktru and its neighbouring peaks. The landscape also gradually dried up, trees being replaced by shrubs and then grass until it all looked like the kind of lunar landscapes we’ve seen in some interior parts of Iceland.

Kosh-Agach, one of my personal milestones in Russia, was a bigger-than-expected collection of houses, shops, gas stations, at least one church, one mosque and one football pitch and, of course, the obligatory Lenin statue.

Throughout the Altai, cows, horses, sheep and the odd pig roamed free. They did what they wanted and drivers adapted. Still, it was odder than usual to stop for a cow suddenly appearing from a narrow alley in Kosh-Agach, since it really felt like a proper town.

After our first night in a ger (bring your sleeping bag or get up at 4 to get to work at the fireplace), we tagged along with Anna and Alexey who were driving some tourists to the red cliffs nearby Chagan-Uzun. As the road got too bumpy for our 2WD, we sent them on ahead and went on foot. Lesson learned from that? Always bring water on walks in dry climate, even if it’s “just over that hill.” The cliffs were pretty, but the lonely walk through the eerie landscape clearly topped them.

After taking the M-52 back up to Gorno-Altaisk, we took the significantly less maintained road to Lake Teletskoye. Here, the hills were low, the villages few and far in between and the potholes abundant. In the village of Artybash, which seems to live off of tourists, tourists and tourists, we finally got our tent out. What do you know, we can camp!

Our industrious tent neighbour Matvey suggested we join him and the family of four camping nearby for a trip to the Korbu waterfall on the east coast of the lake to make up the numbers needed for the boat to leave. The 13-meter high waterfall, hid behind numerous souvenir and shashlik stalls and a surprise 100-rouble “entrance feel,” was pretty, but not spectacular, and, as Christophe can testify, cold. I don’t think either of them really meant to do it, but that’s the beauty of peer pressure and lack of a proper common language – both Matvey and the Belgian went for a swim.

Since that wasn’t enough cold water, Matvey took us for a 2 km scamp through the forest over stones, across felled tree trunks and up a near-vertical dirt wall through a series of waterfalls. How very handy to have a guide.

Last but not least, Teletskoye also offered some time by the pool. The Russians sure know how to enjoy themselves.


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