Altai – the Pearl of Siberia
Darik, our German tour operator, is what you might call an early riser. Having enthusiastically awoken before dawn, he had already dressed, packed up his tent and washed in the nearby river before he started shouting. “Simon, Sarah, let’s go! Get up!” he shouted excitedly in his half-Polish, half-German accent. “We’ve got a mountain to climb!” A few minutes later, we emerged from the tent. A now familiar scene greeted us.
By Sarah Fishburn Roberts
Photos by Simon Roberts
Birch and larch trees trembled in the light morning breeze. The ground was sodden underfoot, but sent up that fresh smell of moist earth and damp grass. The gurgling of the river grew louder. Vitaly, one of the guides, and mountaineer extraordinaire, stood next to them, wearing flip-flops and a t-shirt, studiously oblivious to the unseasonable weather conditions. Our group leader, Sergei, sat in the ‘dining tent’ drinking tea as Nina prepared one of her hearty breakfasts. Darik was loping about energetically, dressed top to toe in state-of-the-art hiking gear. He looked as if he could forego breakfast and get started on the ascent of the Multinsky Lakes immediately. The only thing that was strange about the seventh day of our ten-day trip through the Altai, was that, unbelievably, it was snowing – in May! I resisted the temptation to crawl back into the tent.
Having spent the previous month taking in the sprawling, industrial cities that border the Trans-Siberian railway line, we were looking forward to the rural simplicity that a trip to Russia’s Altai region promised. The name ‘Altai’ comes from the Mongolian word ‘Altan’ meaning ‘golden mountains.’ The area’s impressive natural diversity and its intriguing remoteness are made all the more exotic by its geographical position bordering Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. Pleasingly removed from any industrial development, the population of the Altai is traditionally nomadic and even now life is primitive and slow-paced. Stretching for nearly 2000 km from north-west to south-east, the mountains form a natural border between the arid steppes of Mongolia and the rich taiga of Southern Siberia. Both these climatic zones create landscapes of striking diversity, ranging from the Mongolia-like steppe (in the area of Kosh-Agach, for example) to scenes that resemble the Swiss Alps (along the Chuysky Trakt).
We met up with our motley crew of Russians, plus Darik, in Novosibirsk, and drove in two minibuses south to the village of Anos. After the five-hour drive, Novosibirsk’s vast size and scale are soon forgotten, as pigs meander through the dirt roads of Anos and the villagers collect water from a pump next to a picturesque stream. This stream flows into the Katun River, a broad, scenic river that lends itself to both leisurely and white knuckle rafting adventures, being swift and fast flowing with groups of rapids of varying complexity. Sergei owns a large, wooden guesthouse overlooking the Katun, with basic but comfortable rooms, each with its own balcony. A banya provides everyone with traditional washing facilities.
A half-hour lurch in an aged van up an extremely rutted dirt track from the guesthouse is the tiny settlement of Upper Anos. Sergei took us up there to visit his friend Armat, who spent much of the Communist years herding sheep, a pastime that afforded him an unusual freedom, since Upper Anos was briefly collectivised and the Kolhozniks realised, wisely, that Armat would be better off left to his own devices. “I am almost entirely independent,” he told us proudly, “and always have been.” We were sitting in the darkened gloom of his ail, a traditional Altai dwelling that is used more nowadays as a kind of outhouse and that resembles a large tee-pee. Armat sat back on his haunches, his Mongolian features amused and only slightly abashed as he recounted his wilder days of ceaseless drinking. “I used to wake Sergei up at four in the morning to ask for more vodka,” he admitted, “but I’ve given up now. That’s why I smoke so much.” Certainly, to the uninitiated outsider, these tiny settlements, where horses are tied up against ramshackle but quaint-looking houses, and where the inhabitants rely on the abundant and untameable nature that surrounds them, life seems to have a certain pastoral charm. In reality, a rural economy based on rearing goats, cattle, horses, yak and Maral deer offers little financial reward, and life is labour intensive for every generation of Altai people. However, the region presents a responsible tourist with the opportunity to witness a way of life that has not changed for decades.
The Altai is credited by many mystics, poets, writers and artists to be of especial spiritual and aesthetic significance. The area’s ‘original’ religion, still practised today, is Shamanism; and Russian New Age groups claim the area has an unusual spiritual energy. The famous Russian mystic Nikolai Roerich said, “Altai is not only the pearl of Siberia, but the pearl of the whole of Asia. This wonderful heart is destined for a great future.” Certainly, the descendents of the followers of Genghis Khan call the Altai Shambala – the place from which civilisation will spring up again after the world has destroyed itself. Sergei told us, half-laughing, half-impressed, about certain local characters, who after holidaying in the Altai, left their flats in Moscow or Novosibirsk and gave up everything to live hermetic existences in the tranquillity of this ancient region. We visited a group of young Buddhist monks who were busy building a new retreat centre in the village of Askat. In the nearby village of Chemal, the Ioanno Bogoslaviski convent looks out over the swirling waters of a deep canyon; you can reach the small but atmospheric chapel that perches on an island in the middle of the canyon by walking across the unsteady suspension bridge. The views are fantastic.
From Anos, our first camping stop was near the small settlement of Aktash. The surprisingly smooth Chuysky Tract – the Altai’s one and only main road – is initially lined with several turbaza, providing accommodation in simple huts or tents and food in the form of shashlik and salad. (South of Novosibirsk, there are no hotels as such, and certainly no such luxuries as indoor toilets.) Quickly however, the road opens out, revealing the open hills, fields of high grass and flowers, and, finally, the mountains themselves. As the vast pastures unfold, it becomes easier to imagine nomadic tribes migrating across the plains. The Altai is awash with archaeological evidence of ancient civilisations, some finds identifying cultures that existed as far back as the second century BC. We stopped to admire a Kameny Baba – a standing stone idol with the facial features of a woman etched into the top half of it. Sergei said it would be at least 2,000 years old, and there it stood, unguarded and undisturbed, surrounded by the remains of stone burial mounds. They are potent reminders of a civilisation that seems simultaneously remote, primordial, and oddly accessible, since these ancient civilisations form an essential part of today’s contemporary consciousness of the Altai identity.
Ancient petroglyphs carved into the rock near Inya
Kazakh village of Tebelir, between arid steppes of Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China.
Camping in the Altai is a delight (when there is no sign of snow); at 1,800 metres, our first campsite boasted views of Mount Aktru (4044 metres) and was ideally placed for a hike to Maashey Lake. Darik could hardly contain his excitement when we set off early the next morning. It was a mere two hours hike to the lake itself, but to walk around the lake took an additional four hours, plus the two hours back to camp. Hiking, I discovered, is a serious business in the Altai; and contrary to my flaky notions of finding a comfortable spot high in a field of flowers and surveying nature’s grandeur from an untaxing vantage point, most walkers come prepared and determined to conquer.
There was more to come. The next night we camped in a remote spot not really near anywhere, except that it afforded the ‘men’ the opportunity to climb Mount Tapduair, which at 3305 metres and snow-capped, provided a suitably exciting challenge. On a clear day, it is easy to see Mongolia from the summit. The initial ascent is extremely steep; Sergei and I watched as Vitaly, Simon and Darik crawled up the stony slope before disappearing from view. Meanwhile, Sergei guided me along a rather more modest hiking route along pleasant wooded paths and up wind-blown hillsides. We stopped in at the one and only house in a fifty-kilometre radius, a smallholding where Kampy Mixailovich rears several hundred sheep. Set in a rolling valley, with no other man-made landmarks for miles around, Kampy’s house gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “getting away from it all.” We drank Altai tea, which is very milky and doesn’t taste of tea at all, and chewed on pieces of fried mutton.
Sarah and Simon travelled with Sergey Kurgin of Sibalp Tours. The 10-day trip cost 480 Euros per person and included accommodation, three meals a day, transport, an experienced guide and all equipment.
Office: 3832 463191 or 3832 541374
Mobile: (913) 908 0916
Address: Prospekt Marksa 2, Office 515, Novosibirsk.
Our trip was drawing to a close. The scenery in the Altai is so unremittingly attractive that one becomes slightly hypnotised by its mesmerising beauty. Along with Kamchatka, it is undoubtedly one of Russia’s foremost attractions, mainly because it is so unspoilt, and lacks the forbidding climate and austerity of Siberia’s expanses, beautiful though they are. We stopped off at the picturesque village of Tyungur on our penultimate day. The sun shone, the river sparkled, and Darik and Vitaly raved about Mount Belukha. At 4506 metres it is Siberia’s highest peak, and the locals believe that it is specifically at Belovodie (the region around Belukha) that a new and inspired civilization will be re-born. The mountain itself is widely believed to be sacred and is a three-day trek from Tyungur (or two days on horseback). Trekking in this southern part of the Altai Republic requires careful planning and experienced guides, although the ascent of Belukha doesn’t require a special permit. We had to be content with a long, admiring study of the Belukha massif from afar; it was an awe-inspiring sight.
This ten-day expedition through the Altai was Simon’s and my last major trip before we returned to the UK after a year of almost continuous travel across Russia. It says much about the Altai that despite a myriad of diverse and exciting experiences across the country, the Altai would still rank, for us, as one of Russia’s most interesting and beautiful destinations. We only left when we did in order to squeeze in a trip down the Volga River. But that, as they say, is an entirely different story…