Altai: The Silk Road

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You can visit the Altai Mountains throughout the year via the Chuya route, one of the most spectacular in Russia. Here, winters are particularly cold from February to March with heavy frost but lots of sun.

In May, the mountains are covered in a pretty purple carpet of flowering rhododendrons and, in September, the larch trees of the taiga gleam with golden tints giving substance to the name Altai, which means Mountains of Gold.

Our itinerary covers three typical Altai environments: steppe, taiga and pastures. Hiking is easy and a great way to meet locals. Reindeer herders in Altai will explain how they arrange their yurt, called ail in the region. Craftsmen of the Kupchegen village will introduce you to traditional felt decorative arts and a shaman will share his thoughts on the meaning of life.

Visual guide to this trip

Itinerary

Land in Barnaul in the morning. A driver will be waiting for you with a sign Artel Troika. Travel along the famous Chuya route to the village of Karakol (6 hours, 460 km). The Chuya road was once a commercial artery that linked Siberia with Mongolia and China. Along the way, you will stop for a short walk (30 minutes) on the Seminsky Pass (1,717 m above sea level). Arrival at the yurt camp Uch-Enmek in the sacred Karakol Valley. Stay in a hotel or a yurt. By car, you will explore the Karakol Valley, a vast area of tight steppe nestled between high mountains covered in larch trees. Inhabitants of this valley are famously conservative and have a rigid social structure. They have preserved their way of life and beliefs based on Burkhanism. Visit archaeological sites that date back to the Bronze Age and the Turkic period: tumulus, stone stelae and rock engravings. You will also head out to explore the vegetation of the Altai steppe (2 hours). Dinner. Return to the yurt camp Uch-Enmek.

This day is dedicated to meeting locals of the Karakol Valley. Have breakfast with them (i.e., local cheese, honey, bread, milk, tea). Transfer by dirt road to Kulada, famous in the region for its storytellers, diphonic singing masters and poets (21 km, 30 min). Visit a small museum of everyday life in Altai. The curator, Marina, will reveal the symbolism hidden in the walls of traditional Altai homes called ail. She will tell you how locals adapted from nomadic to sedentary living during Soviet times. After visiting the museum, you will get to see a concert (either diphonic singing or a folk group).

Transfer to Boochi village (7 km) where you will meet members of the local shepherd’s family. In summer, they invite you to the family’s traditional ail to have lunch of homemade food (e.g., lamb soup, potatoes, seasonal vegetables, honey, cheese). In winter, lunch is served in a heated house. Over tea, your hosts will tell you about life as animal herders and the social structure in Altai.

After lunch, leave for the summer camp where there is a small log cabin for shepherds and a harness station. In the past, shepherds would mind animals here. From the camp, you can admire the spectacular views of the valley before going on a horse ride through the prairies and larch trees. Return to the Uch-Enmek yurt camp (20 km). Dinner with the locals. Banya (i.e., Russian sauna). Night in a yurt in summer or at the hotel in winter.

Customise your trip

According to Altai tradition, musicians who master the art of diphonic song are carriers of epic poetry. Once upon a time, these musicians, called kaichi, were able to recount legends of Altai for days on end.

After breakfast at the yurt camp, leave for the deep Altai mountains via the Chuya route to the village of Kyzyl-Tash, which is located at the foot of Northern Chuya (4 hours, 210 km). On the way, you will stop at the Chike-Taman pass (1,295 metres above sea level) that is famous for its craftsmen. The village is in a picturesque valley, the slopes of which are covered in rhododendrons. By combining their different skills, craftsmen can work wood, leather and felt to produce saddles of excellent quality. Their pieces are embossed in the local Altai style, with Turkic and Scythian designs. Visit a workshop and meet the craftsmen. Lunch from fresh Kupchegen produce. Back on the Chuya route for a stop in the village of Inya, famous for its unique engineering like the bridge suspended over the white waters of the Katun River. Then you will stop at the confluence of the Katun and Chuya rivers. Dinner in the Aktash village cafe for a local trout tasting. Arrive in the village of Kyzyl-Tash. Stay in a guest house (i.e., private rooms, Russian banya).

Customise your trip

In addition to its craftsmen, the village of Kupchegen is famous for its equestrian games called Kоk-Boru. Popular in Central Asia, these games are performed by Altai horsemen.

After breakfast in a guest house, depart on a Russian all-terrain vehicle for an off-track ride through the Kurai Steppe, a flat combe plateau surrounded by mountains, the tallest summit of which is 4,000 metres above sea level. After an hour’s drive, you will leave the 4x4 for a hike to a climber’s refuge (2,200 metres above sea level) then to the Maly Aktru glacier with its 3,000 square km surface.

The hike will bring you through alpine meadows, stopping at waterfalls and rocks. Picnic in the wild (i.e., sandwiches, tea). Return to your guest house in Kyzyl-Tash (i.e., private rooms, Russian banya). Dinner.

Leave for the village of Kosh-Agach in the Chuya steppe (70 km, 1 heure). This vast steppe is the driest area of Altai and has spectacular views over the mountains. Before reaching Kosh-Agach, you will make a stop to walk around on the martian-like slopes of red cinnabar. In Kosh-Agach, visit the Mongolian market where you can find camel and yak cloth, Chinese tea and kalmuk, etc. Lunch in an Uzbek cafe. Around Kosh-Agach, meet Vyacheslav, the shaman. Tea and discussion on shamanic Altai tradition. Return to the guest house in Kyzyl-Tach (i.e., private rooms, Russian banya). Dinner.

After breakfast in the guest house, you will take the trail back through Chuya to the village of Suzga near the airport (400 km, 6 heures). On the trail, you will stop for a walk around the geyser lake (1 hour). Deep in the lake, thermal water sources move blue silt to create fantastical shapes measuring up to 30 metres in diameter. Then, explore the petroglyphs of Kalbak-Tash (1 hour). There are 5,000 drawings dating back to the Neolithic period, representing Scythians and ancient Turks, the ancestors of the Altai people. On the walls, there are also paintings of bears, deer-hunting scenes, solar signs and the old calendar. Lunch in a cafe on the road. Stay at Lesotel, walk along the Katun River. Dinner at the hotel.

After breakfast, leave for Gorno-Altaysk (400 km, 6 hours). Stay at a hotel on the Katun River. Dinner.

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