The Altai Ring: Gorno-Altaysk and the village of Chemal

Gorno-Altaysk Airport is the most convenient starting point to begin a trip around the Altai Ring. The airport was under reconstruction for a long time before it was reopened in 2011 to the great delight of local residents. Now you can fly to the Altai Republic on a direct flight from Moscow. Another route is by airplane or train to Barnaul or Novosibirsk, but this adds an extra half a day of car travel.
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The Altai Republic’s only city and thus, capital city, Gorno-Altaysk has a mere 60 thousand residents and its neighborhoods mainly consist of low-rise houses that are spread out along the valleys and ravines. There are no major industries here and also no railroads.
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In the center of Gorno-Altaysk, the National Museum of the Altai Republic, recently rebuilt using funds from Gazprom, is striking. I only saw a museum of such scale and dazzling newness in another national republic of Russia—Kalmykia. Here, you sense that a subtle point about the politics of the federal center has been made. The Russian government seeks to support the national cultures along the borders of this large country. That being said, the Altai Museum does not seem to be more than its collections. The mummified body of a woman from the Pazyryk culture, called the Princess of Ukok Plateau, became the museum’s main treasure when it was discovered in 1993.
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Returning to the Altai Ring, it must be noted that Gorno-Altaysk is located away from the Chuya Highway. Having arrived at Gorno-Altaysk Airport, it will take you half an hour to get to the city but it’s worth it. Accompanied by a good guide, the museum is an excellent theoretical introduction to the Altai Republic’s geography and ethnography. In any museum like this, I usually spend a long time at the relief map. The Chuya Highway stretches through the mountains along the valleys of the Chuya and Katun rivers, crossing the Altai region diagonally. Clearly visible is the Chuya Steppe, where the village of Kosh-Agach is located. The Ulagansky Highway crosses the Kuray mountain range and descends into the Chulyshman Valley, and finally, ends up near the narrow dark blue strip of the mountain Lake Teletskoye, from where it’s a further 120 kilometers back to Gorno-Altaysk—this is the entire length of the Altai Ring.

The Uimon Basin deserves a special mention. This is the region where the settlement of Ust-Koks is, where Old Believers live. Also located here is a small museum dedicated to the artist Nicholas Roerich’s expedition. Unfortunately, this region is part of a border zone and foreign travelers cannot come here without a special pass. The same rule applies to the high-altitude Ukok Plateau region.
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The samovar with barankas (bread rings) is a symbol of Russian influence and the first Russian settlements in the Altai region. As the Altai people say, Russians brought their square hut dwellings to the republic and taught the Altai people how to cultivate vegetable gardens.
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In addition to the animals characteristic of the taiga and steppe zones of Siberia, in the Altai Republic there are two species listed in the Russian Red Data Book on rare and endangered species that you should pay special attention to: the very rare snow leopard and a large species of mountain sheep that speakers of Turkic languages call ‘argali’.
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A completely new bust of Empress Elizabeth has been solemnly partitioned off by ropes in the historical hall. It was during her reign, in 1756, that Altai became part of the Russian Empire. The main reasons for this were the collapse of the Dzungar Khanate, the last khanate of the great state of Mongol nomads, and the threat of attack from China, where the Qing dynasty ruled.
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The traditional dwelling of the Altai people is a cone-shaped ‘ail’ covered with birch bark or larch bark; the modern form of the ‘ail’ is a summer dwelling for Altai families that is placed beside an ordinary square house.
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Very recognizable traditional hats are decorated with fur from foxes, lynx, and even musk deer. A cloak with very prominent shoulders is called a chegedek. Today, people in the Altai Republic wear such costumes on big holidays and important events. It was my impression that the most important of these are weddings.
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A costume of a female Russian Old Believer settler who settled in the Uimon Valley in the Altai region

Old Believers fled from the Tsar’s government, which had been persecuting the followers of pre-reform Orthodoxy. The Old Believers chose the most inaccessible places to live in. Uimon Basin is on the border with Kazakhstan and is surrounded by mountain ranges. Even now, there are no paved roads to this place. In the Russian Empire, Catherine the Great made the social status of Old Believers equal to that of the indigenous population. The young men were not drafted into the army, peasants retained personal freedom, and the sole duty to the state was paying the ‘yasak’ tax—this brought the Old Believers and indigenous Altai peoples closer together.
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The most valuable exhibit of the National Museum of the Altai Republic is the famous Princess of Ukok Plateau. In 1993, archaeologists from Novosibirsk made one of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent times. The archaeological find was preserved due to the permafrost on the alpine plateau at an altitude of over 2000 meters. The princess lay in a wooden vessel that was filled with ice. The ice guaranteed the preservation of the mummy itself, the clothes made of silk, felt and wool, as well as the decorations.
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The archaeological finds were delivered to Akademgorodok in Novosibirsk, and only in 2012, the princess was transported by helicopter to a repository specially equipped for her in the museum in Gorno-Altaysk. There are still complicated debates about the princess. Indigenous people believe that the natural disasters that occurred in the Altai region are associated with the desecration of the burial mound and demand that the princess be reburied.

Scientists from Akademgorodok insist that it is necessary to continue the excavation work, as their findings may not be preserved due to global warming. In this sense, the museum’s decision to open the tomb to examine the mummy only a few times per month according to the lunar calendar seems to be an appropriate compromise. This means that travelers will most likely not be able to see the mummy itself.
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Healing balms based on the extract of Altai maral (Siberian red deer) antlers are sold in the museum shop. Maral farms, the production of items based on folk medicine, and even therapeutic baths with boiled down antlers are traditionally well developed in the Altai Republic and are very popular among the followers of alternative folk medicine.
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There are two ways to continue your journey from Gorno-Altaysk. You can take Choysky Highway to Lake Teletskoye, but this road usually closes off the circular route. Another option is along the Chuya Highway, where, at the spot where the bridge crosses over the Katun River, the highway diverges towards the village of Chemal, the main center of Altai’s ‘comfort’ tourism.
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The main cultural attraction of the village of Chemal is a small rocky island on the Katun River. Patmos Island was named after the island of the same name in Greece where there is a large Orthodox monastery. The wooden chapel, which is so picturesquely hidden in the thickets on the island, has a rather symbolic value. It was restored in 2000 in memory of the former chapel that was there before the revolution.
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You can reach the dam of the Chemal hydroelectric power plant by following the path from Patmos Island along the Katun River. The small local power station was built in 1935 using the labor of GULAG prisoners before the construction of the most powerful dams on the great rivers of Siberia.
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All the proverbial signs of unimaginative mass tourism can be found around the power plant: magnets and bedside rugs with portraits of Putin on them, Altai honey that for some reason is green in color, all types of amulets and other junk made in China.
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As I already said, the infrastructure of ‘comfort’ tourism is concentrated in Chemal and along the shores of the nearest reaches of the Katun River. The best hotels in Altai with large bathrooms, saunas, and swimming pools are located here. Except for the large hotel complexes, everything looks very chaotic and, unfortunately, in extremely bad taste, and most of all, does not resemble that Altai that I know and love! Everywhere you look there are advertisements for rafting along the Katun River and medicinal antler baths. In my opinion, Chemal, despite being mentioned so often in guidebooks, is the most uninteresting part of the Altai Republic. Altai is interesting first and foremost for the way of life of its indigenous people and the breathtaking diversity of its landscapes—from taiga to tundra, from steppes to flowering orchards near Lake Teletskoye. As the locals say, the real Altai begins beyond the Seminsky Pass. This is 150 kilometers away from the city along the Chuya Highway. As for Gorno-Altaysk, it is certainly of interest with its excellent National Museum of the Altai Republic. Chemalsky District itself is suitable for one stop in a comfortable hotel on the Katun River before starting your journey around the Altai Ring or at the very end of your trip before you fly back to Moscow.
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The Altai Ring
The Altai Ring
  • 8 days
  • 1700 €
  • from May to September
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