The Altai Ring: the village of Ulagan, Katu-Yaryk Pass, Chulyshman Valley

I leave the Chuya Highway behind at the village of Aktash. The next part of the route to the southern tip of Lake Teletskoye is along an unpaved mountain road.

After Aktash, the road ascends steeply up towards the Ulagan Plateau. Before long, I make an obligatory stop at a local attraction. The road passes through a narrow opening in the cliff with rocky red-hued walls. The name of this passage—Red Gates—stems from the color of the rocks. Cinnabar gives the rocks their red color. The local variety of cinnabar, a rich source ore of mercury, is also the reason for the village’s existence. Mercury was mined in Aktash during the Soviet years. The enterprise is no longer in business and the mine has been abandoned. Now, people from all over the Altai region come here for red clay. The clay is watered down and used to paint fences. When my acquaintances from the Karakol Valley found out that I was heading to Ulagan in a large empty vehicle, they immediately handed me three empty bags to collect clay in.
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I keep repeating this fact over and over again: the nature of the Altai region is absolutely stunning with dramatic shifts between its various vegetation zones. After leaving the taiga with its larch forests in the Chuya Valley behind and having ascended the Ulagan Plateau, I found myself in the winter forest-tundra. There had been a heavy snowfall here in the beginning of June.
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Located at an altitude of over 2000 meters, the pass divides the Chuya and Chulyshman river basins and is also the border between two worlds: the more populated villages along the Chuya Highway and the remote high-altitude Ulagansky District that has quite a different history than the rest of the Altai Republic.

The Telengits (an ethnic subgroup of Altaians) who settled this part of the Altai Republic over 150 years ago were under the suzerainty of two empires: Russia and China. It was only in 1863 that the south-eastern part of the Altai region finally became a part of Russia. This historical circumstance is the reason for cultural differences: Telengits don’t know Russian as well as other Altaians and speak their own dialect of the Altai language.
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The Telengits believe in a fascinating mixture of shamanism, Burkhanism, and Orthodoxy, in striking contrast with those in the rest of the Altai Republic. Local shamanism is associated with worshipping the cult of nature, especially the mountain spirits that inhabit the passes. Late one evening while driving back from Ulagan, I happened to give a ride to an old hunter who kept begging me all the way not to brake at the mountain passes so that evil spirits would not jump into the car. I obediently did not slow down and the old man smiled mysteriously in the darkness.
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This photo was taken on the plateau the day after the snowfall. Such is Altai and the peculiarities of a harsh continental climate in a mountainous area. In the center of the large village of Balyktyul, a collective farm is a remnant of the Soviet transition to a settled way of life.
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There is an exceptionally important archaeological site of global significance located five kilometers from the village. In 1929, Soviet archaeologists unearthed the burial sites of noble people from an Iron Age culture called the Pazyryk culture. Objects found in the burial vaults were remarkable for their rare degree of preservation due to their placement in caskets fashioned from hollowed-out trunks of rot-proof larch trees and their location in permafrost conditions. Archaeological finds include a light chariot made from birch and the world’s oldest pile carpet. The stone burial mounds can be seen at the site of the famous excavations, but the finds themselves are stored at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. And now I can’t help but show a few photographs.
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Every now and then, you can see tracks leading into valleys that branch off from the main road. Semi-sedentary pastoralism among the locals is also associated with their migrations between summer and winter pastures.
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The route from Balyktyul to the Chulyshman Valley is a 35-kilometer mountain road along a highland region overgrown by the larches and cedars of the taiga. The lowlands are dotted with mountain lakes.
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At last, the deep canyon of the Chulyshman River appears before me. The 3.9-kilometer winding road descends along a steep slope from an altitude of 1200 meters to 670 meters towards the torrential Chulyshman River. If the Ulagan Highlands are considered to be a hard-to-reach place in the Altai Republic, then the Chulyshman Valley is its most well-hidden wild corner. During Soviet times, it was only possible to reach the canyon along a narrow horse trail or over a water route from Lake Teletskoye. During the era of perestroika, as if anticipating the imminent collapse of the Soviet system and the end of subsidized small aviation along with it (there used to be regular helicopter flights to the valley), a local bulldozer driver from the Soviet Altai collective farm spent three years digging a road through the 35° slope.

The road appeared in 1989, but you can still sense the isolation of the Chulyshman Valley. For the first time in many of my journeys throughout Russia, I was faced with the fact that local residents barely understand Russian.
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Immediately after the Katu-Yaryk Pass, there is a place to spend the night with the usual level of comfort typical of the very depths of the Altai region. There are wooden cottages and traditional ails (cone-shaped dwellings of the Altai people) next to the Chulyshman River. Wooden outdoor toilets and a traditional wood-fired banya are available on site. We accommodate up to two guests per cottage or ail, and we certainly plan ahead to make sure that a diligent chef will be there to prepare breakfast and dinner for our guests. There is sufficient electricity from solar panels to provide lighting and to charge phones and camera batteries. This is the best level of comfort that you can expect to find in the Altai wilderness. The host of the tourist base is a fantastic storyteller and an expert in the local waterfalls and cliffs.
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The route stretches out further along the bottom of the deep Chulyshman Valley. The valley is framed by sheer cliffs nearly a kilometer high and the turbulent flow of the Chulyshman River forces its way through the cliffs into Lake Teletskoye. It seemed to me that this canyon is perhaps the most beautiful place in the entire Altai Republic. Being here at the beginning of summer is a special kind of happiness. I didn’t meet a single car along the way. A herd of horses grazes freely as usual in Altai.
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The bottom of the valley is completely flat: at first, there is the dry steppe, but as you get closer to Lake Teletskoye, the Altai nature amazes you once again with its dramatically changing landscapes. After the tundra and permafrost of the highlands, you find yourself in a strange, almost southern nature. I’m surprised to see a birch grove and stop to take some photos of the herders’ resting place at the stream. The warm and dry wind, called "the dryer", as well as the presence of Lake Teletskoye contribute to this special mild microclimate. Chulyshman Valley is a rare oasis of Siberian horticulture. The fruit trees here bear fruit in the summertime.
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The entire route along the Chulyshman Valley from Katu-Yaryk Pass to the southern tip of Lake Teletskoye is 80 kilometers, but, one thing to keep in mind is that it’s nearly impossible to be constantly on the move without stopping to take some photographs. The second thing you should know is that the opposite river bank is the starting point for trails to two popular places for easy hiking—the eroded cliffs, which are called "stone mushrooms" due to their characteristic form.
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This is apparently a good place for haymaking. You only come across livestock stations every once in a while. Most equipment is still from the Soviet period: simple and reliable all-wheel drive UAZ and Niva jeeps.
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Herder Nikolai Tuzhalov and his son implored me to take a photo. I will send them a big photo with our travelers in a year

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A mere 230 people live all year round in the village of Koo. All residents are Telengits

An Orthodox church—the Church of St. Nicholas—was built in the village in 2000.
I feel that a few words must be said here about how Orthodoxy spread among the Altai people in such a remote place. The Annunciation Monastery was established in the Chulyshman Valley immediately after these lands became a part of Russia. The construction of the monastery is associated with the work of the Altai Spiritual Mission in Biysk, which sent out missionaries to the pagan Altaians.
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Koo’s modest commercial infrastructure includes gasoline sales from a private barn (the nearest gas station is over 120 kilometers away in Ulagan) and a kiosk where they sell local fish, mainly grayling from the Chulyshman River, milk, and home-made bread.
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This sign says: Gasoline

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This sign says: Bread, milk, meat, fish, vegetables, drinks

Reading the notices near the post office is the best way to find out about life in the village. This piece of paper warns about the exact launch time of a space rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The village is evidently located in an area that may receive fallout if any parts come off the launch vehicle and the locals are cautiously warned that they should stay home that day.
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There’s talk that after the Soviet attempt to ‘modernize’ the folkways and forcefully transition the local people to a settled way of life through collectivization, the Altaians are once again returning to their traditions. The custom of building a traditional ail on your own plot of land is not dying out, but is in fact being revitalized and has become popular. However, there are always warm Russian homes for the winter located nearby.
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In Koo, I was lucky enough to be a guest at a local resident’s ail and I bought qurut, a type of smoked cheese, from her. It is very salty and can be stored for an incredibly long time. It was this type of cheese that they discovered in 1993 at the burial place of the Princess of Ukok Plateau.
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Here, in the Chulyshman Valley, there remains a special regard for people with cameras. A very sweet woman had such a poor understanding of Russian that I couldn’t even find out her name, but I guessed that she would like to have a portrait photograph taken of herself. Later on, I dispatched the photograph to Koo along with some French travelers. At my request, they dropped it off at the local store. I wrote "Give this to the woman in the photo" on the photograph.
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In the Altai region, horses are so revered that you will not only see them through the windows, but also in the large paintings on fabric inside the ails

The row of postcards on the wall are invitations to relatives’ weddings that they’ve attended. Everything I heard about traditional weddings, especially rural ones with over one thousand guests, only confirmed my wish to see the celebrations with my own eyes.
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Before flowing into Lake Teletskoye, the turbulent Chulyshman River becomes calm and takes on the form of a large oxbow. After the snowy highlands, it feels totally like summer here. The phenomenon of the local microclimate can be felt most vividly in the village of Balykcha. It is so unusual to see poplars and flowering fruit trees! They say that apricots and even grapes have been acclimatized here.
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The automobile part of the route around the Altai Ring comes to an end at Cape Kyrsay. The next part of the journey is a 77 km boat ride across Lake Teletskoye. We rent a boat for our travelers as there is no regular water transportation on the lake. The boat trip around the lake to see the waterfalls and to visit Yaylyu, the main village and one of the forest guard stations of the Altai Nature Reserve, takes almost the whole day. On the other side of the lake, the villages of Iogach and Artybash are located at the north-western tip of Lake Teletskoye. This is already a totally different, more civilized part of the Altai Republic with guest houses and cafés.
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Related trips
The Altai Ring
The Altai Ring
  • 8 days
  • 1700 €
  • from May to September
  • Altai

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