The Altai Ring

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This tour is one of the best ways to discover the Altai region in summer. It combines encounters with locals in the Karakol Valley, an easy hike to the Aktru glacier, a crossing of Lake Teletskoye and a visit of the Chulyshman Valley, one of the most remote places of Altai. The landscapes are very diverse, from tundra and glaciers to semi-desert near the village of Kosh-Agach and orchards on the Altai nature reserve. You will travel 1,000 km across mountains to the intersection of Siberia, Mongolia and China.

Visual guide to this trip

Itinerary

Arrive in the morning in Gorno-Altaysk. Meet your guide who will be waiting with a sign Artel Troika. Transfer to the town for breakfast in a cafe (12 km, 20 min). Visit the National Museum of the Altai Republic where you will learn about the geography of the region, national dress and unique archaeological findings on the Ukok Plateau (1.5 hours). Departure southwards on the famous Chuya route to the village of Karakol (3.5 hours, 200 km). The Chuya route is the main road in Altai and an old commercial artery that linked Siberia with Mongolia and China. Stop along the way for a short hike to the Seminsky Pass at 1,717 metres 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 of 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.

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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 rhododendron bushes. 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 at the guest house, depart on a Russian all-terrain vehicle to the mountain peak. From here, you can do an easy hike in the mountain meadow and enjoy the view over the Chuya mountain range and its soaring peaks that reach 4,000 metres above sea level. Picnic in the wild (i.e., sandwiches, tea).

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. In Kosh-Agach, visit the Mongolian market where you can buy 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-Tash (i.e., private rooms, Russian banya). Dinner.

After breakfast, leave the Chuya route for the village of Ulagan on a high-altitude plateau. On the way, you will stop at the Red Doors, a tight canyon cut into red rock, coloured by presence of cinnabar. Beyond the canyon is the region of Ulagan, the most untamed and unpopulated area of Altai.

As you get to the Ulagan Pass (2,080 metres above sea level), you will arrive on a plateau covered in tundra. On the way, you will also get to see dozens of small mountain lakes and spectacular views over the snowy summits of the Chuya crest.

Several ethnicities live side-by-side in the Ulagan village, including Altai and Telengit people. Here, locals raise horses, hunt and catch fish. Later, on the road, you will stop at the famous Pazyryk mounds. Soviet archeologists unearthed ancient pieces that are now exposed at the Hermitage Museum, including one of the world’s oldest rugs, still perfectly preserved, that dates back to the 5th century AD.

Lunch outdoors (i.e., vegetables, sandwiches, tea). The Ulagan plateau tour ends with one of the most impressive natural attractions of Altai: the Katu-Yaryk Pass. It is also one of the toughest and most extreme ascents in the region. You will hike down the pass (3 km) while your luggage is transported by 4x4. In the Chulyshman Valley, you will stay on camping grounds beside the Chulyshman River. Return to camp (i.e., log cabins, banya, outdoor toilet facilities).

This day is dedicated to the Chulyshman Valley. Once isolated, this valley only recently became accessible to 4x4 vehicles thanks to the construction of a road over the Katu-Yaryk Pass. The population density is one of the lowest of the region. The valley’s microclimate is softened by the presence of a great body of water: the Teletskoye Lake. It’s quite a contrast to the windy tundra of Ulagan. In May, apple trees flower and the bottom of the valley is covered by a perfectly manicured carpet of grass where the horses graze. The Chulyshman River runs through the middle of the canyon and to each side of it, 2,000-metre high slopes dominate the horizon. Picnic (i.e., vegetables, sandwiches, tea). Next, you will cross the Chulyshman River for a hike through mushroom-like rocks to admire panoramic views over the valley. Return to camp (i.e., log cabins, banya, outdoor toilet facilities).

After breakfast, you will continue your route along the dirt roads of the Chulyshman Valley (80 km) to the southern bank of Lake Teletskoye. On the way, you will stop in the picturesque village of Koo where Altai-Telengit people live. During the 19th century, Russian missionary monks travelled to this lake, bringing christianity to the valley. On the southernmost tip of the lake, you will swap your jeep for a boat. Your luggage will be taken care of. The motor boat will bring you on a tour of Lake Teletskoye (70 km). This long and narrow body of water (just 5 km wide) is referred to as Baikal’s younger brother, even if it’s not as deep (just 325 metres deep vs. 1,642 metres in Baikal). The shores are steep and craggy. On the right shore is the Altai nature reserve where, occasionally, you can capture a rare glimpse of the homes for park rangers built on the flat terrasses. The first stop is in the village of Bele where you can visit the orchards and where park staff will introduce you to local ways of life.

The next stops are dedicated to the exploration of the Korbu and Kiche waterfalls, followed by a stop at the Baygazan outpost where guardians Slava and Mira have lived for more than 20 years. Mira will accompany you on a walk along the reserve’s paths (30 minutes) to see the cedar relics. This itinerary around Lake Teletskoye ends in the village of Artybach. This time, you will swap your boat for a minibus and, after dinner, you will depart for Gorno-Altaysk (160 km, 3 hours). Dinner and night in Lesotel.

Breakfast. Transfer to the airport. Flight to Moscow.

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