I spent almost three weeks in Altai, and after this long journey I can say for sure, that it is one of the most beautiful places in Russia. But here is the paradox, the more I saw, the more I realized that it is just a small part of a large region that can impress and surprise you. So now, I’m telling you about the most beautiful places in the Altai Mountains, so you will not miss them and your trip to Russia will be wonderful.
The Chuysky Tract is one of the most beautiful roads in the world. So, I checked it out. I drove along the longest part of the historical road from Biysk to Kosh-Agach, with some stops on the way to look at beautiful landscapes. This trip became a kind of cult journey, which for some reason was not on my bucket list. The road leads from Novosibirsk to the border with Mongolia, through three passes, Seminsky, Chike-Taman and Durbat-Daba, and three steppes - Chuya, Ursul and Kurai.
The total route is almost 968 km. How many beautiful places are there along the way? Well, it’s difficult to count: the Meeting of Waters; high mountains, absolutely flat valleys streaming into the horizon; passes with tight hairpin turns and the snow-covered North Chuysky Ridge. There is even a museum of the Chuysky Tract in Biysk. There is also a symbolic marker of «Kilometer Zero". Outside the village of Bely Bom, at 744 km there is a monument to the drivers - an old truck on a pedestal, which is known as the Kolka Snegirev monument (the character of a famous folklore song).
Car traffic: 50%
Things to do: See all places listed above.
Teletskoye Lake is cold - the temperature of the water rarely rises above 10 C; it’s dark - the depth is about 323 meters by the Korbu Falls; it's gloomy and even ominous. There are a lot of legends about the second largest lake after Lake Baikal. They say that there is a forest of dead men at the bottom of the lake. And you know what? If you read the most recent news or watch the videos from underwater filming, you will probably believe it.
But on a lovely day Teletskoye Lake is fascinating. According to geological standards, Teletskoye Lake is quite young - it is only 37.5 thousand years old. According to geographical standards, it is quite large with its length of 78.6 km, and a fresh-water volume of 41.06 cubic kilometres. More than 70 rivers flow into Teletskoye Lake, and only one flows out - the Biya. Therefore, every 6 years the water in the lake is completely renewed. Even in the summer, the waves can get up to 3 meters high, or a thick fog can cover the entire lake.
Tourist traffic: 30%
Yes, there is life on local Mars. Well, at least there is a parking fee and an admission fee for this "mini-planet". It is really surprising that Altai Mars is quite small, it is located on several reddish-orange hills with white stripes. A steep road leads to the colourful mountains, on the right side of it there is much easier and flatter path. The views are really fantastic there. You can see the orange spaces of the Chuya steppe framed by mountains, the threads of rivers below and a picturesque valley. This landscape has not changed for several million years. Visitors are amazed by it, but there are no secrets here for geologists - this area is full of polymetallic ores and clays of various tints, and that is why the valley has such an unusual color.
What to do: take a walk upstream the river to "the second Mars", which is 3 km from Kyzyl-Chin.
Tourist traffic: early in the morning: 5%.
The locals here still believe in Spirits, have totem poles, and worship the Spirits of Nature. There are three villages in the Karakol valley where Altaians practice Burkhanism (a new religious movement); these areas are sacred to them. There are many ancient burial mounds from different eras, petroglyphs, and other Places of Power with ancient steles. The most beautiful view is right behind the village of Karakol, there is only one road which seems to lead into the sky. The most popular tourist attraction is the stone steles near Kulada village, where cows often doze right under the steles. One of the ancient stones is leaning and tilted at the same angle as the Earth's axis. This raised a lot of questions among those who love historical coincidences and generated many tourist tales. Well, as far as I remember, the Earth's axis changes its tilt angle every 40,000 years.
Tourist traffic: 5%
I had a choice - to visit the Multinsky Lakes or the Krasnaya Mount (Red mount). Both places were interesting. It was difficult for me to choose until I learned that a few women from the guest house were planning a trip to Multinsky Lakes with only one target - "to have a Space Encounter". Since it was clear that I had to travel in the same car with them, the choice was made quickly - to visit the Red mount to the extinct volcano. Well, I have to tell - I am not against any "space encounters", it's just not my cup of tea. The road on both routes is far from being a smooth road, only the legendary UAZ-452 soviet off-road van can drive along it. A few hours later we went up to the plateau, where there was a strange wooden idol. It was visible that there were some ritual ceremonies held there, as there were candies and sweets left as offerings right under its wooden «manhood». There was nobody around to ask if the ritual really helps to break the curse. But just in case, I touched it.
We didn’t reach Red Mount by just a few kilometres; the road was impassable even for the UAZ. We pulled over on the grass and randomly walked through the forest. I saw just three lakes out of the cascade of seven and all of them were incredible. And the walk itself was a great pleasure.
Tourist traffic: 0%
The water in Katun river is as clear and blue as the bluest eyes. But the river "opens" its eyes only in the fall, and only the most adventurous tourists can see this beauty. Well, you need to travel from Chemal to the village of Askat, leave the car by the forest and hike to the left bank of Katun. The paths are well-trodden, so you will not get lost. The forest paths lead, as in a Russian fairy tale, to the "wonder of wonders". Bays with amazingly blue water form in three deep cavities (which have existed here since the Kurai Sea) after the water level in the river drops. Usually it happens at the beginning of autumn and the water there does not freeze even in winter. In the spring, muddy waters turn everything into a brown mess, and Katun hides its "eyes" until better times.
Tourist traffic: 1%
There are not many exciting sights at the Seminsky Pass of the Chuysky Tract, in fact there is only one stele. The main thing here is the understanding that you are at the height of 1717 meters above sea level and the way down is 11 km! Along the route you can turn into a cedar forest (check schedule of permitted dates ahead) and collect pine cones. Which I actually did. My guide and I collected half a bag full of cones and continued our trip. The views of Chike-Taman are much more beautiful. There are amazing panoramas of the valleys on both sides of the pass. The height of the pass is 1295 meters.
At both passes, you can buy socks, gloves and vests made of Mongolian camel wool. You can also buy honey, pine nuts and herbs here. The assortment and prices are similar at all the local markets.
Things to do:
Ok, buy knee-high stockings made of camel wool with deer patterns.
Overcrowding of tourist facilities: 90%
Cave painting was very popular among the ancient people in these places for many centuries and even throughout different historical periods — from the Neolithic period to the Old Turkic era. The oldest petroglyphs are about 5000 years old. There are a lot of them on the rocks of Kalbak-Tash — more than 3,000 thousand or maybe even 5,000. Some are very small, some are huge. Birds, deer, cows, human figures, runic inscriptions are depicted on vertical walls. The most unusual drawings at Kalbak-Tash are figures of aliens — they look exactly like I could imagine them. It is also likely these are symbols of some ancient Gods that people believed in at that time. The only face, which is depicted right over the aliens, seems unbelievable to me - it looks too much like Homer Simpson’s dog… It seems that it was drawn not too long ago - in the "era of millennials".
n the Autumn, we visited Kalbak-Tash twice. And both times the Information center and gift shop were closed. It turned out there were reasons for that, for example, there was a great harvest of pine cones in Altai and everybody had to gather them. And, being the end of season, the tourists were also gone. Well, it’s good that there was no admission fee, so we could walk in on our own and find the famous cave paintings. Of course, there was also a chance to miss something interesting.
Tourist traffic: 1%
We arrived to the Kosh-Agach area at sunset. The snow caps of the North Chuysky Ridge looked gorgeous against the background of a glowing pink sky. The Kurai steppe was "dressed up," as if for a date. We had to stop almost every half a kilometer to take pictures. A little later I found out that this place is one of the coldest in Russia, in the winter there are terrible frosts here - minus 40-50C. We reached the Visitors’ center of the Sailugem National Park when it was completely dark. The next morning we traveled along the border of Mongolia, climbed the mountains and watched animals and birds. My list of achievements from those days is pretty impressive: I saw a white wild camel, a herd of cautious shaggy yaks, argali (wild sheep which are included in the Red List), and a flock of black vultures, yet I did not see a single tree.
Tourist traffic: 0%
Where to stay: Visitors' center of Sailugem National park
A large hole in the mountain, which is called the White Stone, is visible from the road. Ust-Kansk cave is located at an altitude of about 50 meters from the ground. One's imagination draws many ancient scenes when looking at it: a family in animal skins warming-up by the fire, the wind or maybe wolves howling outside, and so on… We had to cross the bridge over the Charysh River to get to a wooden staircase leading to the very top. Looking up it was difficult to understand how high we had to climb.
While climbing, we looked all around at the views - all these unforgettable Altai places that sink into the soul. The last flight of stairs, a small ladder down and finally... A metal lattice. We couldn’t get into the cave. The sign informed us that archaeologists from the Academy of Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences are working here in the summer. They have already made several interesting discoveries: a camp of ancient people, the bones of ancient animals, including woolly rhinoceros. Well, we tried to look into a 17-meter cave and went back down. But the views of the valley all around it are beautiful.
Tourist traffic: 1%
At night in Inegen, in a village in the Ongudaysky District, I learned to shoot photos of the starry sky. I was lucky with the weather, the nights were clear, the sky was sparkling, and the waters of Katun were emerald. I felt regret, that I planned only a one night stay at the farm in Inegen. I should have stayed longer, in this cozy wooden house overlooking the river: to ride a horse far into the mountains, to look at the shepherds grazing sheep or at the herds of semi-wild horses, to visit sacred places of Altai people. In addition, the food at the farm was pretty delicious. I didn’t have time to take part in the local life, but I recommend it to you: to milk a goat, to find out everything about herd horse breeding and, together with the herdsman, take the herd to a new pasture, to shear the sheep and knit the wool into a thread, to go fishing, to grill kupaty (rural style sausage).
What to do in Inegen: see above
Tourist traffic: maximum 40 people
Geysers are usually in areas with volcanic activity. There is not any volcanic activity in the Altai Mountains, but there is a “Geyser” (or Blue) lake there. Bizarre silhouettes at the bottom of the lake are constantly changing, as if the hands of an artist are drawing them on the sand. In fact, at the bottom of Blue Lake, which is not far from Aktash village, underground springs are moving the blue clay and silt around and "drawing" these unusual patterns. The sight could be quite meditative, if it would not be so crowded. The lake is really small, it is only about 30 meters wide and only a couple of meters deep. So when it’s full of tourists, it looks like there is a round dance around the lake.
Tourist traffic: 100%
Chemal village was my final destination in the Altai Mountains. Chemal seemed very crowded and bustling after all the beauty, mountain trails, lakes and glaciers, and most importantly, solitude. Well, most tourist camps are located there. Patmos Island is the most visited attraction in the area. There is a Church of St. John the Apostle on a small island in the middle of the Katun river (the same St. John who prayed on Patmos Island in Greece). You can get to the small temple by crossing a suspension bridge over the river.
The image of the Virgin Mary, which is carved into the rock, is located on the right side of the church and it is almost hidden by bushes, it is impossible to get closer to it. The best option to look at the holy face is from a boat, if you decide to take a boat tour. The number of people allowed on the bridge is only 15. On the left side of the bridge, there is the Goat Trail, which leads to the market (operates only in the summer) and to the Chemal hydroelectric station. After the natural beauties of Altai, these two places make a very strange impression and I doubt they will be interesting for an advanced tourist. But the pilgrims are thrilled.
Where to stay: Mountain Hotel Teneri
Tourist traffic: 100%
The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A visit to the Altai Mountains is recommended by the Russian geographical society.
The tour operator LB Tour, in Altai, will arrange for you to see the beauty of Altai, to learn about local traditions and have a real adventure LB Tour.
You can see the photo report about Altai Krai and Altai Mountains here:
Also read about Altai:
The Princess of Ukok
Looking for the snow leopard
A female Blacksmith: The Mother-anvil
The most beautiful places in Altai region
Karakol Valley: Protected by Spirits
Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1