in august 2008 we got on a 5 week trip to the altai mountains, russia, situated in southern siberia just north to kazaksthan and the northwestern tip of china.

we all somewhat felt like sharing the experiences we made, especially because we had such a hard time finding usable information on the net ourselves.

so here it is: a short compilation of stuff we found out, the route we took, some things that really surprised us and last but not least some visual impressions as well...
altai mountains


preparations

the initial idea for the trip to russia formed partly because we had never been there and partly because we got hold of a book describing hikes in russia. the book is called "Abenteuer Trekking - Russland", published by Bruckmann. it's not available at amazon, you may get it at ebay or flea markets. and yes, it's in german. the book covers several trekking destinations in russia, amongst others caucasus, kamchatka and the altai. we finally settled for the latter, mainly because kamchatka was too far away for our proposed one month trip.

so, after working out when to go, we had to make a plan on how to do the journey in detail. after lots of decisionmaking, we ended up with this:

  • fly from berlin to moscow and stay some days there
  • then, take the transsib from moscow to novosibirsk
  • get from novosibirsk to a small town called gorno-altaisk, by means of local trains and buses
  • do two major treks in this area: first to belucha and then head for the northeast and explore the area there
  • fly back from novo to berlin

for this to work, we had to check out several things: visa, flights, traintix, and maps:

  • first, the visa:

    one thing you absolutely need for trips to russia is a valid visa. everyone who comes from a former soviet union country may get it more easily and cheaper, all the others have to apply and pay for it. way to russia have a quite good description of the process here.

    you'll probably end up paying up to 140$/100€, depending on how much you rely on an agency to do the work for you or if you dare do deal with the russian embassy directly. if you live in germany, i can recommend goAtlantis, where we got our visa (including invitation) without any hazzle and really cheap for only 60€ each.

  • the flights:

    nothing much to say here, the only difficulty one might run into is booking one way flights from russia back home. websites i used before for this are e-flights and ebookers. both reliable, pay by credit card...

  • transsib tickets:

    you can only buy tickets for the transib within 45 days before departure of your train. probably the easiest way is through way to russia's train service. if you can read russian, RZD's own site is cheaper, but you'll have to pick up your tix in moscow. i recommend travelling 3rd class, as it's obviously the best value and yields the most memorable experience. here's what it looks like...

  • finally, maps:

    it's VERY hard to find any decent maps for altai. the best you can get at bookshops are 1:200.000 maps, which leave you more or less in the dark when trying to navigate in the mountains. BUT you can download very good maps at poehali.org for free! you just have to print them out somehow, though...


being there

nice accomodation in moscownice accomodation in moscow

We departured by plane in berlin and went to our first stop Moscow. We considered beforehand also a simple 2day trainride from Berlin to Moscow, but the necessity of another belarus transit visum including the effort and money to get it convinced us of the straight way. Our 3 days in Moscow were rather standard tourist stuff, we marched over the red square and got shitfaced with cheap potato liquor. Well done. Maybe to mention is our moscow hostel experience which offered disgraceful quality at a top end price, and beside that they aren't as easy to find as u might expect. As you probably know it, you'll going to need russian already in moscow. Not as much as in the Altai but still quite a lot. Which brings me to our two friends which guided us through the streets of stalinistic obelistic architecture, the rest of plain, simple, appealing comi propaganda and gucci & bulgari stores....sweet, sweet west knocks on their wrecked door...

the platzkart areathe platzkart area

Anyway, our trip really started when we did the small leap into the transsiberian train. Luckily we bought the cheapest tickets possible (platzkart), which we didn't regret. It is not bad, just imagine a regular sleeping wagon from middle europe and now wipe out of ur mind all the doors and move the hallway 30cm into the middle of the wagon while adding on this place another stash of two benches. Thats it. Easy contact to the locals included and at least in our wagon the people were kinda funny and interested in foreigners. Sad but true, our russian wasn't good enough to get as much to know about each other as we wanted to. But we were never afraid of leaving our stuff there unobserved or things like that. Just a small amendment, if u want space for ur own to hang out during the day u should book upper and lower benches in one quarter. Unfortunatly this wasn't possible for us over the internet via the RZB website.

the samovar planthe samovar plan

Another important point is food. Each wagon is equipped with a nice but strict & industrious conductor who makes hot water. So what u should bring is eiher dry food which just needs boiling water or u just eat bread, cheese and if ur not vegetarian also hungarian salami...

first view of novosibirskfirst view of novosibirsk

After 2,5 days we arrived in the beautiful, "unspoilt" heart of siberia, Novosibirsk. We didn't spend much time there - just an afternoon, but I guess we didn't miss that much. If u wanna stay there u should try to arrange something beforehand, because out of some weird reason they have no hostels and even getting a hotel room seemed to be not without any obstacles.

arrival in bijskarrival in bijsk

At the very same day we took an overnight train to Bijsk which was another little piece of beautiful russian civilisation. We focused on getting to the mountains so we passed through as quickly as possible, and if you're in search of a last postoffice before the wilderness, then you have to head down the mainroad over the tramlines, then to the left. You will find it but bring some time.

A couple of hours after we arrived in Biisk we left by Bus (200pP). The bus station is right next to the trainstation. We went to Gorno Altaisk, this is a rather small town, which was the only rural city we stayed over night on the trip home and had a great night.

belucha mapthe intended hike near belucha. but this never happened. see below...
gorno-altaisk bus stationgorno-altaisk bus station

Our first trekking area was (supposed to be) the Belucha region, there is a public bus which goes to Tjungur (see the map) but they didn't want to sell us tickets for the same day. So we had to use the private busses. These are small busses with about 10seats and the drivers hang out at the same autobus station. They found us as well pretty quick and started to tell us that there are the best and most comfortble way to get there. For a 1000Rubel, they tried to make us understand that this would be the same price as the public bus. Which was of course a lie (the public bus should be around 500Rubel and leaves Gorno Altaiisk in the early afternoon, but this just a guess because we never took this bus!!!).

Before we started we met a very nice and friendly czech couple who where there for hiking up the Belucha. They got the same geat prize but wanted to make this cranky registration before they leave for the mountains. So our driver brought us and 3 locals(who took the same bus but didn't pay the same great prize) to the nearby registration/military office. There we encountered a very nice and helpful lady with a bunch of papers we had to fill out. I am not sure if we would had ever managed to get this registration without the help of one of the 3 locals. He signed all of them and actually took responsibility for us that we're not going to do anything illegal, which obviously includes a broad spectrum of things in human rigths loving russia.

on the way to the border checkpointanother day waiting, another walk to the FSB container

Hours later we left with the stamp (never again was anybody interested in it). The bus trip took us about 6hours and the driving style can be described with one word: infurious! But then all our hope and excitement disminished at a FSB preborder Container 60km before Tjungur. We never completly figured out what the reason was for this, but interestingly Russia has this surprisingly all over to their border to Kasachstan, which means 70km before the border, they installed such a container checkpoint. To enter the so called borderzone you (every non russian) needs a certain permit. (see also this thorntree forum post and the original FSB announcement). First we thought this is just a ridiculous way to drain money out of us, but in fact this preborders are set up by the FSB and there is no inofficial way around them. So we had to fill out a paper and after 10days they said, we maybe would have been allowed to pass. But well, after 4 days of hoping and waiting we left. We had not the time, and the little campsite at the nearby river was not why we came to mother russia. So we had to cancel the two planned trips around belucha and decided to extend our last one (planned 10 to now 18days), which was in a different region (far away enough from any border). See the map down to the right for some details, a short description follows...

the alternative routethe alternative route
the starting pointthe starting point into the steppe
sunshine!good weather again!

We took the public bus back to Gorno Altaisk, which passed by the Preborder Container at around 8:00am, and we hopped of when the Bus arrived at the Chusky Trakt (major road to Mongolia). From there we hitchhiked to Aktasch and then further to Kurai. Be aware of Rip offs. Anyway we finally reached our trailhead, the bridge leading into the Kurai steppe. Built up the camp and slept full of expectations. The steppe is a plain, grass area, with a couple of dirttreks but as a hiker u can easily walk off the roads. We crossed the first half of the Stepp on the first day , while rain and fog was covering the great scenery of snow capped mountains.

Next day the wheather made a 180° turn and we enjoyed sun and heat. In general we had the experience that there's a constant change in wheather all the time. Usually you have rain and sun each day.

ascentascent...
the passthe pass
descentand down again...
the passa look back (the pass is marked)

So we marched until the entrance of the huge valley leading up to a glacier called Maschei. Close to the bridge over the river (the third campsite on the map) there also is a small hut where u can buy some stuff like, beer (150 rubels), cottage cheese, smetana, bread (an oil sponge) and of course Schaschlik. They also have a Banja there for 200 rubels each which is a unique experience in the russian wilderness. Until the tip of the glaciers tongue there isn't a real problem to follow or find the path. When the ascent to the pass starts you have to cross a couple of rockslides where the path often disappears. Just try to orient on our map. The climb isn't steep but long and at the end you have to cross a glacier. We didn't need crampons (which we also didn't have) but if you have rather harsh wheather conditions up there i can imagine you're going to need them. the last 100m is a 45° climb through sand an rocks. Watch out for the guys behind you! After reaching the top, the descent starts which is even worse. First there is again the 45° sand & rockslide and then you cross another huge glacier (incl. some minor crevasses) until u reach the first possibility to camp on the north side of the valley. A rough little shelter with little stonewalls surrounding it. We chose to go further until the lake (called Shablinskoje), which was not necessarily right - I suggest taking a whole day for the descent, because it is long and 90% over rockslides in varying sizes and different degrees downward. We arrived at the lake after 10h but keep in mind we had perfect wheather conditions and where actually far to excausted to balance over any more stones...

Due to the fact that we had extended our hike from 10 to 18 days, without really having an idea where to go, we stayed for two nights on that campside. There are also quite a lot of russians everywhere and a little shelter where they sell beer, vodka, snickers and oil-sponges. Thats it, and the bread u have to order one day in advance.

Another Russian hike group we met there refilled our supplies a bit with their leftovers and showed us some nice detour hikes to places of interest. When we left the lake we started our first side-trek. To get there we followed the river coming out of the lake to the north for 1 or 2km until the first big valley to the west appeared. A pretty wide and shallow river comes out of this valley, we forded this river right at the place where the two rivers meet and then found the path on the north side of the valley.

To reach the lakeside we followed the path for 2-3 km, due to the rough terrain and probably low frequency of tourists the trail tends to diminish once a while...stick to the river and you're fine. After passing a little camp site the trail turns north and we had to climp a 1-2km long steep path till the lower south end of the lake - where u find yourself standing in a little hip high pineneedle forrest with dedicated campspots(2) and a campfire place. The upper lake plateau is located in an astonishing surrounding of mountains, meadows and glaciers. We stayed 2 nights and made a daytrip before we returned back to the river crossing and followed further the path north out of the mountain range.

plateau viewnice view at the mountains

The upcoming two days where mainly standard hike-like - which means u pass through bushes and in our case due to wheather and the fluctuation of russians to and from lake Shablinsloje a lot of mud! The day before and after our second and last pass we crossed a mainly woodless plateau which is beautiful cause you can see miles ahead and back, with a unique view on the snow-capped mountains. Due to the fact that we still had some days left we went back to the first valley before the pass, where we got some supplies from the hut. on our 2 nights there we mainly relaxed, checked the banja and then followed a little path up into another valley. Watch out our map, the leading trail isn't as easy to find. Up there it was rather unspectacular, and we passed the time with collecting mushrooms and some dayhikes.

the last day hikingthe last day hiking...
chibitapproaching chibit...

To get back to the road, we did the hike to Chibit on two days, covering the mountainpart on the first day and the long stretched valley part along the Tshuya on the second. I love to remember this last day, we've been starved to the edge of comfortability and had to walk through the valley, with weeds shredded down to a golfcourse-like lenght and sun heating our exhausted bodies. We camped right before Chibit next to the river. We just entered the village to locate the busstop and to confirm the departue time (7:00am!). Unfortunately we spent all our money at the expensive mountain huts, so we could'nt buy anything at the magasin-shop. This HURTS! This night we finished all our food supplies before we went to bed for this last short camping night. Next day, we were lucky to find 5 seats in the bus, sort of minibus again, and the driver didn't even rip us off. So we had another adventureous ride of 5 to 6h before we entered Gorno Altaisk again, where we had a delightful lengthy orgy-like breakfast at a good old commi playground...power!

(bolshoje spaciba to felix for this neat text...)

aftermath

well, to keep it short: it was a very interesting little trip to summer siberia, with a lot of good stuff, but also some negative things happening. people were almost always friendly (but when they're selling sth., they can be a pain in the ass), the weather was changeful but nice, the countryside beautiful. sadly we hadn't been able to see the most interesting parts, which is even more sad cause it only was because of some mysterious borderzone. russia certainly has some quite nice areas to go hiking to, but dealing with the endless & hindering buereaucracy takes a lot out of the fun...



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