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Home » Altai Republic (Russia) Travel Guide: A Journey through Twisting Mountain Roads

Altai Republic (Russia) Travel Guide: A Journey through Twisting Mountain Roads

Altai: Land of Shamanic Traditions and Otherworldly Scenery, Complemented by First-Rate Tourist Amenities

Popular ski resorts and rugged nature reserves, where few human feet have trodden — all this is the Altai Republic at once. In 2020, the region was visited by 2 million tourists — twice as many as the year before. But at the same time, untouched nature has been preserved here. We tell you where the most picturesque landscapes and unique archaeological sites are located, when and where you can see the mummy of the Altai princess, and how to reach the remote lakes where the Old Believers hid from persecution.

How often do tourists encounter bears — and who is much more dangerous than these animals? How to plan a trip and what customs and traditions of the Altai people should be remembered so as not to offend anyone? Where to stay and what to bring back from the trip? And what to pay attention to when traveling on one of the most beautiful highways in the world — the Chui Tract — and beyond its borders.

In Russia, there is the Altai Krai and the Altai Republic — these are two different regions. The Krai is located to the north, and its landscapes are mostly fields and steppes. The Republic is to the south — it is mountains and taiga, sometimes also called the Mountain Altai.

Gorno-Altaysk is the capital of the republic and its only city

All the main attractions of Gorno-Altaysk can be explored in a day. The city won’t astonish you with beautiful architecture, but it’s cozy: there are many pleasant parks and squares. Founded in 1830, Gorno-Altaysk grew from a small settlement of the indigenous Teleut people. However, the first humans lived here over a million years ago: the site of the city was one of the oldest settlements of primitive man in Eastern Asia — the Ulalinka Site.

The view of Gorno-Altaysk from Mount Tugaya is perfect for hiking. Photo: Nick Night / Unsplash.com
The view of Gorno-Altaysk from Mount Tugaya is perfect for hiking. Photo: Nick Night / Unsplash.com

All the most interesting antiquities are gathered in the National Museum. It is a must-visit to better understand not only Altaian traditions but also East Asian culture as a whole. Altai is the ancestral home of the Scythians and Turkic peoples (Altaians, Turks, Kazakhs, and many others). In 552 AD, the ancient Turks created a state — the khanate, and here the Turkic script originated, with the Altai Mountains being a part of the Great Silk Road.

In 2012, the museum underwent a major reconstruction and is now modern and accessible — equipped with ramps and an elevator. The collection includes archaeological finds from frozen burial mounds, deer stones, statues, runic inscriptions from the Turkic period, and shamanic attributes — in a couple of hours, you can visualize all the main stages of the ancient history of the Altai Mountains.

Leather vessels for liquids and granular products with national ornamentation. Photo: A.V. Anokhin National Museum / vk.com
Leather vessels for liquids and granular products with national ornamentation. Photo: A.V. Anokhin National Museum / vk.com

Visitors often come to the museum specifically to see the mummy of the Ukok Princess — for whom a separate hall was built. In 1993, on the Ukok Plateau in the Ak-Alakha River valley, archaeologists excavated a burial site dating back to the 5th–3rd centuries BCE. In the tomb, a Scythian woman lay in a sleeping position with six horses. The perpetual permafrost preserved her numerous tattoos and clothing: a silk blouse, a woolen skirt, felt stockings, and a fur coat. Her head was adorned with a complex hairstyle nearly a meter high — made of hair, wool, felt, fabric, leather, and carved ornaments. Scientists took the mummy to the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography. Later, it was established that the woman died at 25 from breast cancer.

Ten years later, a devastating ten-point earthquake occurred in the Kosh-Agach region, the consequences of which are still seen as fractures and cracks in the ground. Religious people took this as a sign: the Ukok Princess was angered and wanted to return home. Some believed it was enough to bring her back to Altai, while others insisted that her body should be reburied. Eventually, in 2012, the mummy was brought to the Gorno-Altaysk National Museum.

But the disputes did not end there. In 2014, a severe flood hit the Altai Mountains, destroying hundreds of homes. Two months later, a major hailstorm with hailstones the size of chicken eggs shattered windows and slate roofs, destroyed gardens, left dents in cars, and felled trees. A couple of weeks later, the Council of Elders of the Altai Republic decided to bury the princess, and their decision was approved by the head of the region. In 2015, representatives of the Turkic Spiritual Center filed a lawsuit in the city court for the return of the princess to the Ukok Plateau, but were denied. The court justified this by stating that burial would lead to the loss of a scientific and cultural object.

You can only view the mummy of the Ukok Princess during the waxing moon — in the traditional culture of the Altaians, this is the best time for public and family events, religious and ritual ceremonies. Photo: A.V. Anokhin National Museum / vk.com
You can only view the mummy of the Ukok Princess during the waxing moon — in the traditional culture of the Altaians, this is the best time for public and family events, religious and ritual ceremonies. Photo: A.V. Anokhin National Museum / vk.com

As a compromise, the museum management devised a schedule for displaying the Ukok Princess. You can only see her during the waxing moon, not any day as before. In traditional Altaian culture, this is the best time for public and family events, religious and ritual ceremonies, and important beginnings. The museum’s website publishes a schedule with possible visiting dates. An adult ticket costs 250 rubles (2.53 euros), a family ticket (two adults and no more than three children from seven to 16 years old) — 450 rubles (4.55 euros).

The permanent exhibition of the museum features paintings by the main Altai artist Grigory Choros-Gurkin, a student of Ivan Shishkin. In Altai, Grigory Ivanovich is loved not only for his talented epic landscapes but also for his active public work. In 1937, the artist was falsely accused and executed in the NKVD prisons. Today, a street where the museum is located is named after the painter, and the name could have been given to the airport. In 2018, the Public Chamber proposed to name 47 Russian airports after distinguished compatriots, and online voting was conducted nationwide. Most residents of the Altai Republic chose Choros-Gurkin, but followers of Nikolai Roerich from other regions also joined the voting — the traveler visited Altai in 1926 during his Asian expedition and was also included in the list. Eventually, Roerich won by a small margin, which upset the locals so much that they decided not to name the airport after anyone.

The painting 'Khan-Altai' by Ivan Shishkin’s student and the main Altai artist, Grigory Gurkin, dates back to 1912
The painting ‘Khan-Altai’ by Ivan Shishkin’s student and the main Altai artist, Grigory Gurkin, dates back to 1912

The play ‘The Ascent to Khan Altai’ by Andrey Borisov, about the life of Gurkin, is usually one of the most popular productions in the drama theater. From the theater, you can walk to the city park and the ‘Blue Altai’ cinema. There are no particular entertainments here, but it’s a nice place for a walk: the building stands near a small lake, and almost from there starts the promenade of the Maima River. Along the bank, there’s a boulevard with gazebos and a bridge leading to the foot of Komsomolka.

Opposite is Mount Tugaya, which is great for hiking. To reach the observation deck, one must climb 750 stone steps. From this point, the entire Gorno-Altaysk is visible. Next to the mountain, there’s a stadium and a spring, adorned with marble statues of fairy tale heroes — Yrystu and Alyonushka. Sometimes there’s even a queue for the water.

Just a couple of minutes’ walk from the spring is the ‘Enchi’ ethnogallery in the printing house building. On the second floor, paintings by local artists, felt, cedar, stone, and clay souvenirs, musical instruments are sold, and you can try on national clothing. On the first floor, there’s the ‘Typografia’ restaurant (35 Kommunisticheskiy Avenue), serving Altai cuisine: meat snacks, which are various types of boiled meat with onions; ostrich fern, which tastes like mushrooms when cooked; grayling, the most common fish in the Altai Mountains. Altaians, being former nomads, predominantly prepare dishes from meat and milk. The average bill is 500 rubles (5.05 euros), and local dishes should be ordered in advance, as 90% of the menu is European cuisine. In the ‘City’ cafe-bar (26/1 Chaptynova Street), you can try burgers with maral meat — Altai deer (450 rubles (4.55 euros)) and lamb dishes (about 500 rubles (5.05 euros)). There are a few other local dishes typically eaten in Altai. Chegen is a sour milk drink similar to kefir or ayran; boorsoki are small doughnuts fried in deep oil; Altai flatbread made from dough; talkan — ground barley grains added to tea or water with salt and butter; chokchok — a dessert made of talkan and honey; kurut — dry cheese.

The Chui Tract – one of the most beautiful roads in Russia

The road to many attractions passes along the Chui Tract. Meandering rivers along the tract, mountain gorges, green valleys, and steppes will alternate with each other. All the main natural monuments seem to be strung along this road.

The road to many attractions passes along the Chui Tract
The road to many attractions passes along the Chui Tract. Photo: Ludvig14 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the Russian Empire, a ‘tract’ was a term used for an improved dirt road or, in general, a major well-traveled route connecting important settlements. But today in Siberia and the Urals, some roads continue to be called ‘tracts,’ mainly historical ones.

The site of the modern Chui Tract was once the Mungal Tract, references to which can be found in Chinese chronicles dating back a millennium. By the mid-18th century, it was a trade route with Mongolia, consisting of a narrow pack trail winding among passes and ridges. In 1914, the road began to be widened and improved for vehicle travel.

The Chui Tract is a federal road, and its condition is noticeably better than that of regional routes. For example, the Teletskoye Tract is also very beautiful, but its surface is significantly worse. The road from Aktash to Ulagan to Balyktyul is a dirt road that occasionally turns into asphalt.

For a long time, the site of the modern Chui Tract was the location of the Mungal Tract. In the mid-18th century, it was a trade route with Mongolia, consisting of a narrow pack trail that wound among passes and ridges. Photo: Taksla (CC BY-SA 4.0)
For a long time, the site of the modern Chui Tract was the location of the Mungal Tract. In the mid-18th century, it was a trade route with Mongolia, consisting of a narrow pack trail that wound among passes and ridges. Photo: Taksla (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Manzherok — a bike park in summer, a ski resort in winter, and a cable car operating year-round

The village has many comfortable tourist bases, hotels, and campgrounds — and therefore, it’s always full of tourists. In summer, people come here to ascend to the observation deck on Mount Malaya Sinyukha (1020 meters) via the gondola cable car. On weekdays, an adult ticket costs 500 rubles (5.05 euros), on weekends and holidays — 600 rubles (6.06 euros), and guests staying at hotels on the resort territory receive one trip as a gift. From the top, there are views of the Katun River and Manzherok Lake — it’s warm enough, and people even swim in it in summer. The rarefied air tints the mountains in a bluish shade, which is why Sinyukha got its name.

Tourists visit Manzherok to ascend to the observation deck on Mount Malaya Sinyukha (1020 meters) via a cable car. Photo: Post Scriptum Soul (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Tourists visit Manzherok to ascend to the observation deck on Mount Malaya Sinyukha (1020 meters) via a cable car. Photo: Post Scriptum Soul (CC BY-SA 4.0)

At the top, there’s a café with a standard selection of sandwiches, pastries, drinks, and souvenirs. You can also paraglide with an instructor — 10–15 minutes in the air cost 5000 rubles (50.51 euros), including photos and videos of the flight.

Bike rental ranges from 300 to 5000 rubles (3.03 – 50.51 euros) per hour, depending on the specifications. ‘Manzherok Bike Park’ is the first professional bike park beyond the Urals with four tracks of varying difficulty. The ‘Green’ track is for beginner riders, with a length of 1850 meters, starting from the middle station of the cable car. The ‘Blue’ track has a low level of difficulty, a wide and smooth 1700-meter-long route, also starting from the middle station, featuring jumps and simple turns. The ‘Red’ track, with a medium level of difficulty, includes two routes of 700 meters each and one of 3000 meters, with steep descents and sheer sections. And the most challenging one is the ‘Black’ track.

The park also has a 4.5-kilometer walking trail, a wooden extreme park, and a dirt pump track.

'Manzherok Bike Park' is the first professional bike park beyond the Urals with four tracks of varying difficulty. Mountain bike rentals range from 300 to 5000 rubles per hour, depending on the specifications. Photo: Post Scriptum Soul (CC BY-SA 4.0)
‘Manzherok Bike Park’ is the first professional bike park beyond the Urals with four tracks of varying difficulty. Mountain bike rentals range from 300 to 5000 rubles per hour, depending on the specifications. Photo: Post Scriptum Soul (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On the mountain, there’s a shaman’s hut, where from time to time one can meet a shaman (usually during the waxing moon). This is specially designed for tourists and is more of an educational and entertainment format. Normally, folk healers are not very public people, they live the same life as everyone else, and in a crowd, they are indistinguishable from ordinary passersby. Locals find them through recommendations from acquaintances. Agencies often offer various tours under the name ‘Trip to a Shaman’. But whether there will be a real shaman at this meeting is unknown.

In winter, six ski runs of varying difficulty levels open on Malaya Sinyukha. There is a separate slope for beginners, and instructors are available to teach — a one-time lesson costs from 1800 rubles (18.18 euros) per hour. For children with special needs — cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, hearing and vision impairments — specially qualified instructors conduct the lessons. They teach rollerblading in summer and skiing in winter — from 1200 rubles (12.12 euros) per hour.

In winter, six ski runs of varying difficulty levels open on Malaya Sinyukha. Photo: Post Scriptum Soul (CC BY-SA 4.0)
In winter, six ski runs of varying difficulty levels open on Malaya Sinyukha. Photo: Post Scriptum Soul (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Chemal — an abandoned hydroelectric station, rafting, and views from Mount Camel

It is believed that Chemal is the warmest village in all of Siberia. It has a mild climate, and there are many sunny days throughout the year — averaging 20 per month in summer. The area is known for its gardens, such as the popular ‘Peony Garden’ ecopark. The park features a guest house, a restaurant with tasty pizza (average check 700–800 rubles (7.07 – 8.08 euros)), and a nursery for ornamental plants.

Patmos and Chemal Hydroelectric Station. Altai has its own Patmos. But here, it is a very small islet — a rock with sheer walls in the middle of the Katun River, accessible by a suspension bridge. It was named after a monastery built in the 19th century. During the Soviet era, the hermitage was destroyed. In 2001, a church of John the Theologian was built on its site.

A suspension bridge leads to Patmos Island. Photo: Ludvig14 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A suspension bridge leads to Patmos Island. Photo: Ludvig14 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

From the bridge towards the hydroelectric station runs a one-and-a-half-kilometer goat trail, in places with wooden or stone steps and railings, and in others, it’s made of clay soil. It’s better to walk here in clear weather — it’s not very safe in the rain. The trail leads to the Chemal Hydroelectric Station by a challenging but short route. This is not the only way — you can bypass the forest and Mount Beshpek via Sadovaya Street. The hydroelectric station was built in the 1930s, but today it is not operational. Various extreme attractions, rafting, and souvenir shops are located on its territory.

A one-and-a-half-kilometer goat trail leads towards the Chemal Hydroelectric Station — a short and challenging path, but very beautiful
A one-and-a-half-kilometer goat trail leads towards the Chemal Hydroelectric Station — a short and challenging path, but very beautiful

The most interesting souvenirs are sold in Askat — a village of artisans in the Chemal district. A clearing with workshops is located at the entrance, where you can also watch the local craftsmen at work. In the village itself, there is a linen shop and the Golovan’ master’s estate. About a kilometer upstream of Askatka is the Silver Spring — the stream’s waters are rich in silver.

Camel. A mountain with a height of 927 meters on the southeastern outskirts of Chemal, near the hydroelectric station. A well-trodden trail leads to the top, which is clearly visible even from afar. No special preparation is needed to get there, and the views of the surroundings are magnificent.

View from Mount Camel — trekking up the mountain is easy, no special preparation is needed
View from Camel Mount — trekking up the mountain is easy, no special preparation is needed

Rafting. The Katun River in the Chemal and Manzherok areas is suitable for beginner rafting. Many popular and uncomplicated routes start on the shore near Patmos or the Turquoise Katun. A three-hour rafting trip with all equipment will cost about 800 rubles (8.08 euros). Rafting on the Chemal River is a bit more challenging and costs around 1500 rubles (15.15 euros).

Karakol Lakes. From the village of Elekmonar (eight kilometers from Chemal), you can go trekking to the Karakol Lakes. Suitable for those who don’t travel further along the Chui Tract but want to see mountain landscapes. The main advantage is accessibility — almost to the lakes, ZIL trucks go, and the last part of the route can be walked or reached by a more passable GAZ-66 vehicle or on horseback. Commercial tours usually take a whole day. If you want to stay in a tent or spend a day or two at a recreational base, you can organize the trip independently, paying separately for transportation to and from each side, or walk the entire way.

Trekking to the Karakol Lakes is suitable for those who do not travel further along the Chui Tract, but want to see mountain landscapes. Photo: Yana Krasnopevtseva (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Trekking to the Karakol Lakes is suitable for those who do not travel further along the Chui Tract, but want to see mountain landscapes. Photo: Yana Krasnopevtseva (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In the Karakol Valley, there are many sacred places for the Altai people: the Bashadar burial grounds with sacrificial layouts, the Nizhnee Sooru site, where, according to legends, evil spirits dwell. On the left bank of the Karakol River, on the Bichiktu-Bom mountain, you can see petroglyphs from different eras. Another sacred place is Lake Arygem with its pure spring water and the Arzhun-Suu mineral spring.

On the way to Aktash — passes, ancient petroglyphs, and high-altitude lakes

Aktash is a village from which it is convenient to reach attractions towards Ulagan and Kosh-Agach. Along the way, there are many picturesque landscapes: you will have to overcome two passes — Seminsky and Chike-Taman and you can see the confluence of the Chuya and Katun rivers.

Seminsky Pass (1717 meters). Located at the 583rd kilometer of the Chui Tract. The ascent from the northern side stretches for nine kilometers, the descent to the southern side — 11 kilometers. Over this short distance, several vegetation zones will change: steppe-forest, forest, and high-mountain. There is an observation deck at the top where you can eat and buy souvenirs.

Over the span of 20 kilometers on the Seminsky Pass, several vegetation zones will change: steppe-forest, forest, and high-mountain. Photo: Eaz102 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Over the span of 20 kilometers on the Seminsky Pass, several vegetation zones will change: steppe-forest, forest, and high-mountain. Photo: Eaz102 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Tavdinsky Caves. A complex of 30 caves represents a kind of prototype of a multi-apartment building. People lived in these caves for several centuries: during excavations, artifacts from the early Iron and Bronze Ages were found.

The Barangol Necropolis consists of kurgans of the Pazyryk culture, which are scattered on both sides of the Chui Tract. Between the villages of Barangol and Ust-Sema, there is a six-meter Kamyshlinsky Waterfall with two drops.

Chike-Taman Pass (1460 meters). The road to the pass winds up endless twists of serpentine, and at the top, there is an observation deck with a view of these steep turns. On the platform, there are also several cafes and souvenir kiosks.

View from the Chike-Taman Pass, its height is 1460 meters. Photo: Iigors (CC BY-SA 4.0)
View from the Chike-Taman Pass, its height is 1460 meters. Photo: Iigors (CC BY-SA 4.0)

After the Chike-Taman Pass, there are many natural monuments: rock images, caves, kurgans. After the village of Inya, perhaps the most interesting of them is the Kalbak-Tash site. It is the largest complex of petroglyphs in Altai and practically on the side of the Chui Tract — it doesn’t require a long and tiring walk to reach. The oldest images are about eight thousand years old. Scientists have deciphered only about three thousand of them, and that’s far from all. If you look on your own, most of the drawings can simply be misunderstood. Therefore, it is best to go on a guided tour.

Kalbak-Tash site — the largest complex of petroglyphs in Altai, with the oldest images being about eight thousand years old. Photo: Rost.galis (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Kalbak-Tash site — the largest complex of petroglyphs in Altai, with the oldest images being about eight thousand years old. Photo: Rost.galis (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Yalomanskaya Fortress (settlement) — an ancient structure at the mouth of the Bolshoy Yaloman River. A little further — Ayr Tash Stone Gates — a place where the Chui Tract is squeezed between two sheer cliffs. Ininsky Bridge — the first and only two-chain suspension bridge built in the Soviet Union.

The bridge over the Inya River — the first and only two-chain suspension bridge built in the Soviet Union. Photo: Ludvig14 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The bridge over the Inya River — the first and only two-chain suspension bridge built in the Soviet Union. Photo: Ludvig14 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Chuy-Oozy — the confluence of the Chuya and Katun rivers, a sacred place for the Altai people. It is a cliff from which one can see how one river flows into another: the waters of the Chuya are muddy, those of the Katun — clear. Nearby is the eponymous nature park — a large ancient sanctuary with a huge number of rock drawings and kurgans. For example, the deer stone Adyr-Kaya, presumably erected two to three thousand years ago. It is a plate of greenish slate with a cut top. It was from this stone that the study of the deer stones of the Altai Mountains began.

Chuy-Oozy — the confluence of the Chuya and Katun rivers, a sacred place for the Altai people. Photo: Yana Krasnopevtseva (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Chuy-Oozy — the confluence of the Chuya and Katun rivers, a sacred place for the Altai people. Photo: Yana Krasnopevtseva (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Shirlak Waterfall (Maiden’s Tears). Another attraction that is easy to reach. It is clearly visible even from the road when traveling along the Chui Tract towards Chibit and Aktash.

Chibit Village. From here start the routes to the Shavlinsky Lakes, which formed due to the melting of the North-Katun Glaciers. The Lower Shavlinsky Lake is the most accessible for unprepared tourists, to which one can get from Chibit on horseback. The road is quite long — 35 kilometers, but there are many stops along the way. More prepared hikers can continue the route to other Shavlinsky Lakes and passes of the North-Chuya Ridge. Through the passes, you can reach the Maashey Glacier, go to the Karakabak Lakes or the Abyl-Oyuk and Kamry Lakes, and reach the watershed of the Kurundu and Yungur rivers. All these are challenging routes for experienced hikers.

In addition, Chibit often hosts various water racing competitions: here flows a very difficult section of the Chuya. Nearby are two waterfalls: Big Ular and Upper Karasu (Little Ular).

Upper Shavlinsky Lake at the foot of the main ridge of the North-Chuya Range — it's more difficult to reach than the Lower Lake, but the incredible landscapes are worth the effort. Photo: Andrei Chugunov (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Upper Shavlinsky Lake at the foot of the main ridge of the North-Chuya Range — it’s more difficult to reach than the Lower Lake, but the incredible landscapes are worth the effort. Photo: Andrei Chugunov (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Aktash — an excellent base for exploring the surroundings

In Aktash, tourists are offered jeep tours around the area. A trip in an off-road vehicle along selected routes will cost about 2500 rubles (25.25 euros) per person. However, some attractions can also be reached with your own car.

Relay Station. An operating radio tower on Mount Verkhnya. From a height of 3000 meters, fantastic views of the North-Chuya Range and the Kurai Steppe open up. It’s better to go there in clear weather, otherwise, you won’t be able to see all this beauty due to the clouds.

It's better to go to the relay station in clear weather, otherwise, the beauty of the North-Chuya Range might be obscured by clouds. Photo: Rost.galis (CC BY-SA 4.0)
It’s better to go to the relay station in clear weather, otherwise, the beauty of the North-Chuya Range might be obscured by clouds. Photo: Rost.galis (CC BY-SA 4.0)

‘Mars-1’ and ‘Mars-2’. A place that gained fame a couple of years ago when a blogger traveling in Altai dubbed these mountains ‘Martian’ on their Instagram. They are located approximately nine kilometers southwest of the village of Chagan-Uzun, and their red color comes from compounds of iron and manganese. You can drive to ‘Mars-1’, but ‘Mars-2’ requires a walk.

According to locals, they knew about the red mountains before — but didn’t consider them anything special. It’s also preferable to visit the ‘Mars’ in clear weather — the mountains acquire a Martian color only when the sun is shining. On a cloudy day, it all looks less picturesque.

The red color of the Martian mountains is given by compounds of iron and manganese. Photo: Ludvig14 (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The red color of the Martian mountains is given by compounds of iron and manganese. Photo: Ludvig14 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Geyser Lake is located six kilometers from Aktash. A wooden bridge leads to the lake, and on the way, you have to pass through the territory of a tourist base and pay 100 rubles. Of course, there are no geysers at the bottom of the lake, but springs. There are also three layers of clay: blue-black-blue, and the springs constantly create new patterns on the surface from these layers.

Red Gates. Rocks between which a narrow road winds, if you go towards Ulagan. The composition of these rocks includes cinnabar — a mercury mineral.

Uchar Waterfall. The largest waterfall in the Altai Republic, located within the Altai Nature Reserve.

Uchar Waterfall — the largest in the Altai Republic. Photo: Serge By. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Uchar Waterfall — the largest in the Altai Republic. Photo: Serge By. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ulagan. A major district center with supermarkets. This is where civilization ends. Attractions along the way include the Stone Mushrooms in the Akkurum area, the Katu-Yaryk pass, and the Chulyshman river valley — also very popular places.

Kosh-Agach District — trekking to the glacier, lakes, and megaliths

Kosh-Agach is the coldest point in the Altai Republic during winter. The village is situated in an intermountain basin, hence it has a sharply continental climate. At the same time, according to meteorologists, the Kosh-Agach region is one of the sunniest in Russia. Since 2014, the country’s largest solar power station has been operating here.

Akturu Valley. To get to the ‘Akturu’ alpine camp, first, from the village of Kurai, one must reach Perevalka — an intermediate camp. From there, you need to travel either by a special vehicle or on foot. In ‘Akturu’, you can stay in a cabin, cottage, or tent. The area has baths, a cafe, and showers. The camp’s programs with excursions, accommodation, transportation from and back to Kurai cost 24,000–32,000 rubles (242.43 – 323.24 euros) per person for five days.

Aktru Peak and the Big Aktru Glacier, eight kilometers long. Photo: AlexeyBaturin (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Aktru Peak and the Big Aktru Glacier, eight kilometers long. Photo: AlexeyBaturin (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The easiest route to the Waterfall Stream and the Small Aktru Glacier takes two to three hours. It does not require any special preparation and is suitable for families with children. A guided tour for a group of five people costs 3000 rubles (30.30 euros). The Big Aktru Glacier (eight kilometers long) and Blue Lake are located 12 kilometers from the camp.

On a separate day, you can ascend to the Teacher’s Pass. The name is associated with the sports society of the same name, which opened a training camp here for teachers in the late 1930s. This pass leads from the Aktru valley to the valley between the peaks of Kyzyl-Tash and Jubilee. From the pass, one of the peaks of the North-Chuya Range, the Dome of the Three Lakes, is visible. It offers a beautiful view of Mount Belukha.

View of the Aktru valley from the trail to the Teacher's Pass. The name is associated with a sports society of the same name, which opened a training camp here for teachers in the late 1930s. Photo: AlexeyBaturin (CC BY-SA 4.0)
View of the Aktru valley from the trail to the Teacher’s Pass. The name is associated with a sports society of the same name, which opened a training camp here for teachers in the late 1930s. Photo: AlexeyBaturin (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Throughout the Chuya Steppe (the upper course of the Chuya River), there is a huge number of archaeological monuments. For example, in the Elangash river valley, there is a complex of rock paintings stretching 18 kilometers in total. 20 kilometers southwest of the village of Kosh-Agach is the Altai version of Britain’s Stonehenge. An ancient megalithic complex of giant stone slabs over four meters high, arranged in a circle.

Teletskoye Lake — the second largest after Baikal

The village of Artybash is located on the shore of the second-largest freshwater lake in Russia. In Altai, Teletskoye Lake is called ‘Altyn-Köl’ — ‘Golden Lake’. Today, its surroundings are a protected nature reserve.

In summer, a ferry operates on Teletskoye Lake: from Yelangash (Artybash) to Cape Kyrsey (the southern shore of Teletskoye). You can admire the beauty of the lake and all the attractions along the way to Aktash. It also operates in the opposite direction. The ferry crossing for a passenger car costs 10,000–12,000 rubles (101.01 – 121.21 euros), motorcycle — 4,000–6,000 rubles (40.40 – 60.61 euros), pedestrian tourist 1,000–1,500 rubles (10.10 – 15.15 euros).

In the northern part of Teletskoye Lake, there is the large settlement of Artybash, while the southern part of the lake is wilder. Photo: Grozovsky (CC BY-SA 4.0)
In the northern part of Teletskoye Lake, there is the large settlement of Artybash, while the southern part of the lake is wilder. Photo: Grozovsky (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The most popular waterfall of Teletskoye, Korbu, can only be reached by water. It is 12.5 meters high. Near the bridge connecting Artybash and Yelangash, there are pleasure boats. For 1500 rubles (15.15 euros) per person, they offer tours to view the waterfalls, lasting a couple of hours. If desired, you can also go on the ‘Pioneer of Altai’ ship — but it takes five and a half hours and is more expensive — 1800 rubles (18.18 euros).

Near Korbu is another waterfall, Kishte. It is considered to be the loudest waterfall, although Korbu is taller. You cannot walk near it — it is surrounded by rocks and water, but the boats approach it closely. Opposite is the 80-meter Ayu-Kechpes, and on the western shore is Chedor, near which you can also disembark and walk, as near Korbu.

In Artybash, there are small private museums, such as ‘Ethnopark on Teletskoye’. It consists of three yurt-museums, one of which recreates the exhibition of a traditional Altai dwelling: with a hearth in the center, and division into male and female sides. The exhibits — various household items — were shared by the indigenous residents of Altai villages over two years before the opening. The museum owner, Synaru Anatpaeva, treats visitors to herbal teas and chegen — one of the most beloved and popular national drinks in the Altai Mountains, made from fermented boiled milk. During such tea sessions, she talks about the traditions and customs of the Altai people, recalls legends about the attractions. Tourists ask about things they find interesting, such as wedding rituals, shamanism, or the history of the people.

National costumes and musical instruments are part of the exhibits of the ethnographic park. In summer, on weekends, concerts are held in the park where you can listen to ethnic Altai music. Photo: Ethnopark on Teletskoye / vk.com
National costumes and musical instruments are part of the exhibits of the ethnographic park. In summer, on weekends, concerts are held in the park where you can listen to ethnic Altai music. Photo: Ethnopark on Teletskoye / vk.com

In summer, on weekends, concerts are held in the park, where you can listen to ethnic Altai music. In addition to tours, there are workshops on felting, after which visitors leave with souvenirs made by their own hands. The ticket to the ethnographic park costs 400 rubles (4.04 euros), and the museum is closed in winter.

Uimon Valley and Mount Belukha

In the 18th century, Old Believers fled to the Uimon Valley to escape persecution. Later, local legends even suggested that the free country of Belovodye was located in these areas. Indeed, they are suitable places to hide: even today, the road to the villages of Uimon is very difficult and in places dangerous. Gromotukha Pass is a boundary with steep turns and a mound instead of asphalt. After it begins the valley. Mainly, people come here to see the Multinsky Lakes and conquer the highest point of Siberia — Belukha (4506 meters).

Multinsky Lakes. This is a cascade of lakes on the northern slope of the Katun Ridge, formed by a melting glacier in the upper reaches of the Multa River. 30 kilometers from the lakes is the eponymous village. There are several ways to get here: on foot or by truck GAZ-66 (popularly known as ‘shishiga’) or UAZ through off-road — muddy tracks, serpentine, and turbulent rivers. The trip from Multa to the lakes costs 1800–2000 rubles (18.18 – 20.20 euros), from Ust-Koksa — 2000–2500 rubles (20.20 – 25.25 euros).

View of the Upper Multinsky Lake. Vehicles cannot reach here, so you have to walk. Photo: Anjstray (CC BY-SA 4.0)
View of the Upper Multinsky Lake. Vehicles cannot reach here, so you have to walk. Photo: Anjstray (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In Ust-Koksa, there is the largest selection of accommodations, so tourists usually stay here. It is a district center with a population of about 4000 people. The village has a small airport and a bus station. Due to good transport accessibility, it is convenient to plan different routes from here. Tourist bases typically have their own off-road vehicles for taking guests to local attractions, or they collaborate with local drivers.

Another option is to stay closer to the lakes, in Verkh-Uimon, Multa, Maralnik, or Zamulta. These are small villages with populations of 600-700 people, so there are fewer hotels and tourist bases, but many locals rent out houses (from 1500 (15.15 euros) per day). There is not much difference in price. In Ust-Koksa, accommodations are more comfortable and there is a wider choice, but in nearby villages, this is compensated by much more beautiful landscapes — for example, the Gromotukha River and the pass of the same name.

Tourists usually visit three to five of the largest lakes, but there are a total of 42. The Multa River flows through the Upper, Middle, and Lower Multinsky Lakes, and they seem to flow into each other. Transportation usually only goes as far as the Lower Lake — beyond that, vehicles cannot pass. To reach the other lakes, you must cross the river or go around on foot.

Near the Lower Lake, it’s convenient to stay with a tent, where there are a couple of dozen camping spots, several small cabins (400 rubles (4.04 euros) per person, with outdoor washbasins and a fire pit) and a bathhouse (1000 rubles (10.10 euros) per hour), and electricity is provided by generators for a couple of hours a day. In the nearby ‘Multinsky Lakes’ mountain camp, rooms with a bathroom and a warm shower cost from 1200 rubles (12.12 euros) per day, and staying in your own tent on the territory costs 100 rubles (1.01 euros) per day.

Tourists usually visit three to five of the largest lakes, but there are 42 in total. The Multa River flows through the Upper, Middle, and Lower Multinsky Lakes, and they seem to flow into each other. Photo: Pavel Baydalov (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Tourists usually visit three to five of the largest lakes, but there are 42 in total. The Multa River flows through the Upper, Middle, and Lower Multinsky Lakes, and they seem to flow into each other. Photo: Pavel Baydalov (CC BY-SA 4.0)

To cross to the opposite shore of the Lower Lake, tourists use a motorboat to further access the other lakes. If there are four or more people, the cost is 350 rubles (3.54 euros) per person one way; for one to three people, it’s 1000 rubles (10.10 euros) per boat. It’s also possible to walk around the lake along the shore, about two kilometers.

The shore of the Lower Lake, which serves as the start of the route, is rocky, while the opposite shore is sandy, giving the water a turquoise hue even on cloudy days. The Shumy, the threshold where one lake flows into another, can only be crossed on foot to the Middle Lake. The Upper Lake is another five kilometers away, and a little further is the Katun Biosphere Reserve. Passes must be obtained from the game wardens (150 rubles (1.52 euros)), and a passport is required. A trail through the reserve leads to Lake Kuyguk.

Shumy — stone thresholds at the places where one lake flows into another. Photo: Pavel Baydalov (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Shumy — stone thresholds at the places where one lake flows into another. Photo: Pavel Baydalov (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Belukha is 1000 meters lower than Elbrus — the highest peak in Europe, but climbing it is considered more challenging. The mountain changes significantly each year, and the weather around the summit is very variable, with rocks falling due to glacier movements and frequent avalanches. Conquering it without mountaineering experience is not possible.

A trek to the foot of Belukha and back typically takes 10–14 days
A trek to the foot of Belukha and back typically takes 10–14 days

Therefore, travelers mostly go trekking to the foot of Belukha, but this also requires good physical preparation. Additionally, one must be mentally prepared for rain and cold nights. The routes can vary slightly, but usually, the entire journey takes 10–14 days. Along with guides, tourists set out from the village of Tyungur and visit Lake Ak-Kem, which reflects Belukha, the Ak-Kem Glacier, the Tekelyu Waterfall, the Valley of Seven Lakes, Kucherlinskoe Lake. Some tours include rafting on the Katun. On average, including transfers, the tour costs 25,000–30,000 rubles (252.53 – 303.04 euros).

Customs

Nature Worship. The locals greatly respect and value nature and react painfully when they encounter careless or disrespectful behavior. In June, Altaians were outraged by a video in which a Moscow blogger, for some reason, shot at the Katun River, which the indigenous people have revered since ancient times. The reaction was even sharper when a Novosibirsk company launched a mattress into the Geyser Lake with a very fragile ecosystem for an advertisement shooting.

This indignation is easy to understand, and it’s not just about the fear that the pristine beauty could be destroyed. Many Altaians still worship spirits, visit shamans, and perform traditional rituals. Nature is a cult, an animated sanctuary, and a source of pride. It is also a force with which people are closely connected, as the lifestyle of village residents remotely resembles that of their ancestors: many still engage in agriculture, hunting, and livestock breeding.

Influence of Traditions. Tourists often do not know that the colorful ribbons tied to trees in Altai are not for making wishes. Here, it is part of a religious ritual. But due to unawareness, travelers tie any piece of fabric they find to the branches, sometimes even cutting up their colorful clothing. In reality, tying ribbons is an offering to the spirits, for which people specially prepare.

Colorful ribbons in Altai are not left for making wishes. Here, they are part of a religious ritual. Photo: Alexandr Frolov (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Colorful ribbons in Altai are not left for making wishes. Here, they are part of a religious ritual. Photo: Alexandr Frolov (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The ceremonial ribbons are called ‘d’yalama’ and ‘kyira’, and they come in four colors, each symbolizing different phenomena. White symbolizes Altai faith and purity; yellow represents the sun and mountain peaks; green symbolizes plants and taiga; blue represents rivers and lakes. The ritual is performed at the new moon, in the morning or during the day. Ribbons are tied on the eastern side, in pairs — because everything on Earth has a pair. Before this, the new fabric is consecrated — fumigated with juniper. One ribbon is usually placed slightly higher as a sign that good is always stronger than evil.

The Altai people still observe old traditions, which are reflected in their daily life and creativity.

The archaeological complex Adyr-Kan, or Chui Deer Stone, is a major ancient sanctuary. The stone warrior is several thousand years old. Photo: Andrey Kurgan / Unsplash.com
The archaeological complex Adyr-Kan, or Chui Deer Stone, is a major ancient sanctuary. The stone warrior is several thousand years old. Photo: Andrey Kurgan / Unsplash.com

Inscriptions on Rocks. Eight thousand years ago, our ancestors left petroglyphs to pass knowledge to other generations. However, writing one’s name in paint on rocks today is of dubious value. Moreover, local volunteers struggle to restore the mountains to their original state. Since 2019, participants of the ‘Clean Altai’ project have been cleaning rocks of inscriptions along the most popular tourist routes: the passes of the Chui tract and the cliffs along the Katun, on the way to Ulagan. The work is costly and labor-intensive: there are many inscriptions, and volunteers spend hours removing paint with a sandblaster from a small area. On challenging passes like Chike-Taman, volunteers require the escort of road services due to the very steep and narrow turns.

What to Bring Back Home

Tourists usually buy honey and herbal balms based on honey, herbal teas, pantogematogen (a drink made from maral antler blood), local natural cosmetics, chocolate with pine nuts, and various cedar souvenirs. Near the passes and close to the attractions, there are always many souvenir shops. However, everything is significantly more expensive in such places, and the balms are often left in the heat for a long time, contradicting storage conditions. Therefore, it’s better to check out the same items at local markets in district centers or specialized phyto-pharmacies. In Gorno-Altaisk, such a pharmacy is located at Protocnaya Street 16/1.

Tips

Traffic Jams. During the summer, many residents from neighboring cities — Biysk, Barnaul, Novosibirsk, Kemerovo, Tomsk — come to the Altai Mountains to spend the weekend. Typically, they choose tourist bases and resorts near the city: Manzherok, Ayu, Biyuzovaya Katun, Chemal — places that can be visited in a day before returning for the start of a new work week. Therefore, starting from Friday evening and throughout the weekend, there is increased traffic on the Chui tract, sometimes leading to traffic jams. Serious collapses are rare, but it’s useful to know this feature to plan travel time — for example, not to miss a flight.

Wild Animals. The most common animals you’ll encounter are harmless rodents like chipmunks or squirrels, not bears. In the forests, be cautious of snakes. The likelihood of encountering a bear during a stop is very low — the brown bear is a cautious creature and usually does not want to encounter humans. In the summer of 2021, bears were spotted several times at Teletskoye Lake — where the Katun Biosphere Reserve is located. Who is more dangerous in such encounters — human to bear or bear to human — is a debatable question. In most cases, bears are scared of humans and run away, especially if the encounter occurs in a populated area.

Tick Season starts in spring and ends in autumn. Park areas and tourist bases are treated for dangerous insects, but if you plan to hike or take long walks in nature, it’s better to get vaccinated against tick-borne encephalitis (the most serious disease transmitted by ticks) before the trip. The procedure usually consists of three stages. The first vaccine is given in the fall to prepare for the spring-summer epidemic, then another one in early winter. The third vaccination is done 9-12 months after the first. After that, the body will develop immunity for about three years.

If you don’t want to bother or if there’s little time before the trip, you can buy tick insurance. It’s sold by most insurance companies and costs about 400 rubles (4.04 euros). This amount can save money if you are bitten by a tick infected with encephalitis or Lyme disease. Without insurance, immunoglobulin injections for a person weighing 60-70 kilograms will cost at least 8000 rubles (80.81 euros).

Where to Stay

Accommodation in the Altai Mountains can be found to suit any taste and budget. If you go during the peak tourist season, it’s better to book accommodations in advance — at least a couple of months ahead. In Altai, the rule is – the closer to district centers, the greater the choice of comfortable accommodations.

Finding a place for a tent is not difficult. Tourists most often stay near the banks of the Katun River, where there are many organized camping sites. However, it’s most comfortable to camp on the territories of tourist bases: they are usually guarded and treated for ticks, and amenities include a bathhouse or shower. The price per person is on average about 150 rubles (1.52 euros) per day. But there won’t be much unity with nature or romantic campfire gatherings here.

Finding a spot for a tent in Altai is not difficult, but in large settlements, many convenient locations are occupied by private tourist bases, and setting up a tent on their territory will incur a fee. Photo: Alexander Klimm / Unsplash.com
Finding a spot for a tent in Altai is not difficult, but in large settlements, many convenient locations are occupied by private tourist bases, and setting up a tent on their territory will incur a fee. Photo: Alexander Klimm / Unsplash.com

The perfect combination of comfort and nature is glamping, but they usually only operate in summer. Glamping sites are often located in beautiful natural areas, and tourists stay in large tents, sleep on soft beds, and the site has showers with hot water and offers meals and organized excursions. Prices vary depending on the level of comfort. For example, a double yurt in “Ethno House Yurt” in the village of Aktash costs 1500 rubles (15.15 euros) per day, with shower and toilet in a separate building. In “Cheposh Park,” the minimum price for a double tent with a shower is about 5000 rubles (50.51 euros).

Here are a few more options: “Saikol” three kilometers from the village of Kurai, Cloud Park Altay in the Chemal district, the tent mini-hotel “Forest and Sea” in the Kosh-Agach district, and “Taigala” near Chibit.

In 'Cheposh Park', the minimum price for a double tent with a private shower is about 5000 rubles. Photo: Cheposh Park
In ‘Cheposh Park’, the minimum price for a double tent with a private shower is about 5000 rubles. Photo: Cheposh Park

Transport

How to Get There. In 2023, traveling from Europe or the UK to Gorno-Altaysk in the Altai Republic involves a series of connecting flights, as there are no direct flights to this destination.

One option is to fly to Istanbul, Turkey, utilizing airlines like Turkish Airlines, which offers extensive connections from various European cities. From Istanbul Airport (IST), you can then take a flight with Pegasus Airlines or Turkish Airlines to Russian cities like Moscow or Novosibirsk.

Another option is to fly to Yerevan, Armenia, with airlines such as Air France, Lufthansa, or British Airways offering flights to Zvartnots International Airport (EVN) in Yerevan. From Yerevan, you can take a connecting flight to Moscow with airlines like Aeroflot or Armenia Aircompany.

Direct flights to Gorno-Altaysk are available from Moscow, Kazan, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk. With the start of the summer tourist season, Nordwind Airlines offers direct flights from St. Petersburg. A round-trip ticket from Moscow to Gorno-Altaysk costs on average between 6000 to 15,000 rubles (60.61 – 151.52 euros). It’s also possible to fly to Barnaul (700 kilometers from Gorno-Altaysk), Novokuznetsk (800 km), or Novosibirsk (900 km), and then travel to Gorno-Altaysk by land transport. A ticket to Novosibirsk costs 5000–10,000 rubles (50.51 – 101.01 euros), plus an additional 3000 rubles (30.30 euros) for a bus and another seven hours on the road.

The nearest railway station to Gorno-Altaysk is located in Biysk, 100 kilometers away. To reach the capital of Altai, you’ll need to travel by bus or taxi. From Moscow to Biysk, the train journey takes two days, and a one-way ticket costs about 7000 rubles (70.71 euros). There are also trains from Novosibirsk and Barnaul.

These routes may involve overnight layovers, so it’s advisable to plan for potential stays in transit cities.

Getting Around the Republic. During the summer, Let 410 planes from “Siberian Light Aviation” with a capacity of 19 passengers fly to remote district centers from Gorno-Altaysk. There are flights to villages like Kosh-Agach and Ust-Koksa, with one-way tickets starting from 1500 rubles (15.15 euros). The journey takes about an hour. It’s a great opportunity to quickly reach your destination and experience flying in a small plane. Bus number 103 runs from the airport to the bus station in Gorno-Altaysk. A taxi ride would cost about 300 rubles (3.03 euros). Traveling to Kosh-Agach from Gorno-Altaysk by car takes no less than eight hours.

Daily scheduled buses run from Gorno-Altaysk to the most popular tourist destinations. The bus station does not have its own website, but it has an official Instagram account with a link to E-traffic, where you can view the schedule and buy tickets. Main destinations include Manzherok (about 120 rubles (1.21 euros)), Chemal (350 rubles (3.54 euros)), Onguday and Shebalino (400 rubles (4.04 euros)), Turochak and Artybash (500 rubles), Ust-Koksa and Multa (1000 rubles (10.10 euros)), Kosh-Agach and Tyungur (1500 rubles (15.15 euros)). An alternative is to find carpooling options on BlaBlaCar or rent a car. For example, on Booking Car, the minimum price for a car is 1700 rubles (17.17 euros) per day. Car rental services “Za Rulem” (Communist Avenue, 81, bldg. 2) and Arget (Biyskaya Street, 23) offer cars for an average of 2700 rubles (27.27 euros) per day.

Renting a car in Gorno-Altaysk starts at 1700 rubles per day. Photo: Andrey Kurgan / Unsplash.com
Renting a car in Gorno-Altaysk starts at 1700 rubles per day. Photo: Andrey Kurgan / Unsplash.com

When to Visit

In Altai, the climate is sharply continental: winter doesn’t hold back on frosts, and summer on heat. The weather greatly depends on the region, but in Gorno-Altaisk and the nearby villages, the warmest month is July. The average temperature is around plus 19 degrees Celsius, and heat up to plus 36 degrees can last for a couple of weeks. Nonetheless, even if traveling in the middle of summer, you should bring warm clothes. For example, the temperature on mountain passes is five to six degrees lower than on the plains.

Winter. In winter, people primarily come to Altai for picturesque landscapes and ski resorts. In Gorno-Altaisk, you can ski or snowboard on Komsomolka (402 meters) — an easy track suitable for beginners. The neighboring Tugaya mountain is designed for those with more serious sports training. But lovers of active recreation often choose ski resorts outside the city: ‘Manzherok,’ ‘Teletsky,’ or the ‘Semin Pass’ training center. Initially envisioned as a base for training athletes, it is now open to tourists.

Spring. At the end of April to early May in Altai, the red rhododendron blooms — this endangered shrub covers the mountains and rocks with bright pink flowers. Residents of nearby cities often come during the May holidays to see the bloom. There is especially a lot of rhododendron in the Mayminsky, Chemalsky, Ongudaysky districts, and beyond the Chike-Taman pass. Spring is also the best time to see waterfalls as they are full-flowing.

Summer and Autumn. In summer and autumn, there are more options available — from contemplating natural expanses to trekking in the mountains or off-roading in uninhabited areas. By mid-September, one of the main rivers, the Katun, becomes strikingly turquoise — the water changes color several times a year.

By mid-September, one of the main rivers of Altai, the Katun, becomes strikingly turquoise. Photo: Andrey Kurgan / Unsplash.com
By mid-September, one of the main rivers of Altai, the Katun, becomes strikingly turquoise. Photo: Andrey Kurgan / Unsplash.com
Travel Guide Author: Victoria Khrustaleva

Cover Photo: Alex Kotomanov

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