The Altai Ring: Karakol Valley

I want to quickly leave Chemalsky District, located near the capital Gorno-Altaysk, to travel into the depths of the Altai Republic. All the ‘civilized’ tourist infrastructure is concentrated in the Katun Valley. The development of tourism has resulted in chaotically built buildings and endless advertisements for kayak tours and therapeutic baths.
Фото 1
The way to the real, non-touristic Altai lies along the republic’s main road, the Chuya Highway. The Chuya Highway crosses Altai from the north to the south, and goes all the way to the Mongolian border. There are no railroads and no public transportation in the Altai Republic. You need a car for trips to the city, or you can ride a horse along the mountain trails.
Фото 2
The Chuya Highway crosses Seminsky Pass 150 kilometers from Gorno-Altaysk. This is considered to be the unofficial border between touristic Altai and the real Altai. The Russian population predominates in the area before the Seminsky Pass, and, beyond the pass, the majority of inhabitants are Altaians, engaged in their traditional livestock farming. Several new hotels can be seen before the pass, mainly along the Katun River, but, beyond the pass, the only accommodation is at small wooden huts with an outdoor toilet and a banya instead of a shower. But it is here where you can taste the traditional cuisine, cooked over the fireplace in an ail (the traditional cone-shaped Altaian dwellings), visit the herders’ resting place, and chat with the locals.
Фото 3
Ayaru is my friend and my guide to the Altai Republic. She is thirty years old. She graduated from university in Moscow. Ayaru’s life is divided between two worlds: in Gorno-Altaysk, she is busy with scholarly work, learning the language and culture of her own people, and in her native village of Boochi, she helps her parents and numerous relatives on their farm.
Фото 4
Текст 5
Фото 5
Фото 6
We stay at Ayaru’s house in Boochi. It can be recognized on the photo for its large garden that’s planted with potatoes. The house and yard have been arranged in the typical manner for an Altaian family. The large winter house seems empty during the summer because all the furniture and kitchen utensils have been moved into the ail, the traditional hexagonal Altaian dwelling. The little hut in the yard is the banya. They don’t heat it very well, just enough to warm up water for washing up with. Vegetable gardening is not very developed among Altaians. The soil is difficult to cultivate, there are frequent frosts, and most importantly, all their time is devoted to cattle and there’s no time to work in the garden. This year, Ayaru’s family planted a lot of potatoes in their garden.
Фото 7
They built a small wooden guest house on their plot of land. There is a bedroom with a stove on the first floor, and on the second floor there is another bedroom with a view of the mountains and village—there is no other hotel in Boochi.
Фото 8
Фото 9
Фото 10
Фото 11
A square wooden hut, the habit of cultivating a vegetable garden, and the banya are all Russian influences. In the past, Altaians lived in ails. For Altaians, the ail is a model of the world. At the center of the ail is the hearth: the women’s half is on the left and the men’s half is on the right. You must pass before the hearth in order to go from the men’s space to the women’s. The space behind the hearth is considered to be sacred. Hunting accessories may be stored in the men’s half of the ail, and the women’s half includes the kitchen and housewares. A wooden smokehouse has been set up over the hearth, where cheeses are placed to dry. The lay-out of Ayaru’s family ail is considered traditional even to Altaians themselves with its earthen floor and hearth without a chimney or a stove pipe.
Фото 12
Фото 13

Female family members have gathered on the women’s side to discuss the daily affairs

Altaians do everything quietly and modestly. It was several days later that I discovered that they had specially slaughtered a lamb in order to cook dorgom—a festive dish that they usually prepare for weddings.
Фото 14
They clean out the sheep’s intestines, then they tie it into braids and boil it with chopped onion and potatoes. Altaians do not traditionally use spices. The braids are cut into small pieces and eaten along with potatoes and meat broth.
Фото 15
Now, I should tell you about Altai cuisine in general and about the other dishes that I had a chance to taste.

Like any other nomadic people engaged in livestock breeding rather than crop farming, Altaian cuisine is primarily meat-based. This is almost always mutton—the meat with a smell that many people dislike. In the Altai Republic, all herds graze freely on ecologically clean pastures, and, in my opinion, the mutton here is exceptionally tasty. They primarily eat mutton, not lamb, and use all meat by-products in their cuisine. Like other nomads, Altaians do not grill or fry meat, but boil it, ending up with a nourishing meat dish that replaces soup, considered to be a first course in Russia, and they eat the boiled meat separately as their main hot dish. I was surprised to find out that Altaians consider dishes made from meat by-products to be festive (like dorgom, a meat dish made from braided intestines), and not dishes made from tenderloins.
Фото 16
The Altai breakfast was a real ordeal for me. This meal was obviously intended for those who endure a long journey across the cold steppe from one resting place to the next. Any European who can get through an Altai breakfast can easily skip lunch.

The fact is that Altaians eat the same meal for breakfast as they do for lunch and dinner. This could be a very strong mutton broth with onion rings, or the very same sheep’s intestine that was left over from dinner, warmed up and served with onions and potatoes. I certainly understand that any European would most likely refuse such a breakfast, but here it should be noted that, in this case, all the ingredients—everything from the excellent meat to the onion—come straight from their own garden and undoubtedly deserve to be labeled as organic, a term that is often used in Europe by wise marketing people.
Фото 17
Фото 18
In addition to mutton, they eat other types of meat, such as yak meat, in some districts of the Altai Republic. They use the meat by-products to make their well-known blood sausage as well as tripe.
Фото 19
A very salty and sour cheese is smoked over the hearth. The cheese can be stored for several months. Here you sense the trace of their ancestors’ way of life: the need for long migrations and the convenience of having a supply of products that won’t go bad along the way.
Фото 20
In the Altai Republic, instead of coffee they drink strong green tea, which has an even stronger energizing effect. They add milk to their tea, and sometimes add talkan (coarsely ground flour) to make it more filling.

The next day, we leave Boochi and set off for the village of Kulada. Ayaru’s mother Marina established a small museum of the Karakol Valley here. She graduated from the teachers’ training institute in the city and speaks a little French.
Фото 21
Фото 22
The museum was set up by fellow residents of Marina’s village. The museum’s collection includes several archaeological artifacts as well as display stands about Soviet collectivization and translation into the Cyrillic alphabet.
Фото 23

The Little Prince has been translated into the Altai language

Marina shows me an archaic type of ail. The ail had to be light for nomadic migrations. The cone at the top was formed by poles covered with larch bark.
Фото 24
Фото 25

A wooden distiller and leather utensils made from a cow’s udder are inside the ail

The village of Kulada is the last town in the valley. From here, the road goes into the mountains, where there are herders’ resting places located several kilometers apart from each other. The men spend most of the year here watching over the cattle.
Фото 26
Фото 27
Фото 28
Altaian herders have their own opinions about the Soviet government. Those who were fortunate enough to receive electricity at the expense of the state remember the Soviet period fondly; nowadays, only a few of them can afford to pay for such work themselves.
Фото 29
The pastures are the starting point for a scenic trail to the mountainous Ak-Kem Lake. The hike from Kulada to Ak-Kem Lake and back will take about 4-5 hours. Those who feel comfortable in the saddle can ride a horse there.
Фото 30
Фото 31
After leaving the Karakol Valley, my route takes me further along the Chuya Highway into the depths of the Altai Republic. The journey from the village of Karakol to the village of Chibit is 160 kilometers. This is a 3-hour journey, not including multiple stops to see the Kalbak-Tash cliff drawings (petroglyphs), the suspension bridge near the village of Inya, and the confluence of the Chuya and Katun rivers.
Related trips
The Altai Ring
The Altai Ring
  • 8 days
  • 1700 €
  • from May to September
  • Altai

Other articles

We are constantly searching for new itineraries and share useful insights. Let us inspire you.