Alexei Martynenko


Journey into the Rocky Mountains of Altai

July 2002

“Mountains represent an incorporation of stern and bright beauty combined with fresh air and rare diversity in the nature. Winter and summer, luxuriant verdure and barren rocks, all this co-exists in total unity. Here the scorching sunrays give little warmth, the fresh atmosphere lacks air to breathe and crystal clear water can hardly appease thirst. Life in the mountains trains a man to be strong, enduring, fearless and confident”.
From the Encyclopedia

Our trip into the Rocky Mountains of Altai started unexpectedly. Already a year ago we planned to go there, but couldnít make it. The trip had to be postponed. The idea popped up again, when this May during the workshop in a small town of Guzeripple, Adyghee (Republic in the Caucuses) we were sitting on the bank of the river Byelaya (White). Enjoying the sun warmth and the unusual beauty of the crowding mountains, we decided once and for all to take leave of the busy bustle of work, at least for a while.

Therefore, on June 12th we took a flight to Barnaul. As usual I didnít have enough time to plan properly the practical side of our trip, moreover, I had a very vague idea about what we were going to do and where exactly we were to go in Altai. Pasha and I were so pressed for time that managed only to pack a set of most necessary things I bought a year ago. We took a traveling gas stove, a tent, sleeping bags, a torch, waterproof parkas and breeches as well as mountain boots. In case of losing our way we decided to take satellite telephones and a device for global positioning. In other words, we had everything we needed to make the best of our holiday.

In the plane Pasha and I began discussing a possible schedule for the period of staying in the Rocky Mountains of Altai. I liked his idea about visiting lakes high in the mountains. The walk there would possibly take us a few hours. In the airport of Barnaul we were welcomed by Andrei. We found out on the spot that he prepared a different program for us. He booked our stay at holiday centers and private hotels. It was quite clear for me that Andrei and Pasha havenít coordinated their plans. But I liked both Pashaís ideas and Andreiís offer. We approved the part of Andreiís program concerning journey in the mountains and 2 days staying at the holiday center “Tsarís hunting”. Our opinions differed though when we started packing things into the car. We couldnít decide what to take and what to leave behind. A few times I caught Andrei trying to load camp tables and chairs and each time I took them out of the car. As a result of mutual endeavor our car was packed up to the top including the back seat and it was decided to ultimately unload the furniture and store it back into Andreiís garage. Then we went to the local shops and in one of them bought a rucksack for Andrei because in the mountains it was quite embarrassing to carry things in a common bag. Finally, our journey started.

We were to go through the Altai Krai. Our point of destination was located roughly at 350 km from Barnaul. Having entered the territory of the Rocky Mountains of Altai we noticed a sudden change in natural environment. The surrounding rocks and blinding sun rays were inspiring and instilled the feeling that we were here on holiday and not at work. Before the trip I was worrying about two possible things, mosquitoes and lack of service. But as the matter of fact there were no mosquitoes, no flies, no gadflies and no midgets at all. The second problem we also tackled in no time. It became clear to me that we could perfectly do without any service. Inside our sacks we had everything for complete self catering. It took us no more than 10 minutes to make appetizing café and kasha (cooked grains) on our stove right on the bank of the river Katun. 5 minutes before breakfast we took a bath in the river. I remember one amusing incident. It happened at the restaurant in the holiday center “Tzarís hunt”. The waitress Oksana, after the question about the most delicious dish of the local kitchen answered: “Thereís none” and advised to go to another place closer to the main road. We were not in the least surprised at such a service. Rather we were amused and decided to stay and eat there. By the way, we found the food quite agreeable.

We found out that 13-14 is a special date for Altai. On this very day the local population is having a holiday “El-O-In” celebrated every second year. On this special occasion they organized in Chemal village a huge Fair. Numerous inhabitants of the district came to enjoy it. On July 13th there was a gala concert. Among pop musicians were Leo Leschenko, pop group “Guests from the Future” and Alsu. The sight was quite impressive. High on one side of a mountain they had erected a stage and an enormous TV screen. Crowds of spectators took their places on the field below. The musicians were practically indiscernible, but on the screen one could see everything in details. It was said that the number of spectators was 80.000. It surprised me, because I thought almost nobody lives in this distant land. But even in Moscow I never saw so many people wishing to attend a concert.

Next day we visited a local “Aiil” — a national type habitation. Made of logs, in fact it resembled a heated nomadís tent yurt. A local girl Solunai told us about traditions and habits of Rocky Altai district. It became clear to me that up to now I knew nothing about Altai, so I began absorbing this new information with greatest pleasure. For example, I learned to my amazement that the native people, having a very ancient origin, were still pagans and worshipped the Moon goddess. By the way we came right in the period of growing moon, when much is permitted: celebration of holidays, healing, marriage, traveling and starting new projects. One more historical fact struck me deeply. It came about that the Rocky Altai district became a part of the Russian Empire only in 1755 in the times of Catherine II. Before that, it was an independent country. With greatest pleasure I listened to the lecture about production of the national sour milk beverage resembling “kumis”, smoked cheese and araki — native vodka made also of milk. We were shown how to smoke cheese. The striking fact is that all that was produced inside Aiil. Right in the center they make a big fire which carries a double function, that of heating and that of a part of the technological process for production of the above mentioned delicacies.

We liked it very much at the holiday center “Tzarís hunt” and we were quite charmed by the girl Solunai. Even the waitress Olesya stopped sending us elsewhere. But we still had to go because we felt that one more day in the center could tempt us to completely relax and diminish to minimum our desire to visit other places we planned to see.

On July 15th we went in the direction of Chibit and straight to the South along the Chuisky trakt (high road). This wonderfully smooth road runs through mountain passes and in some points is 1600 meters above sea level. By 11 in the evening we reached Chibit. We were to sleep our first night in our tent and eat our first dinner there. We stopped at the side of the road and found out that the place was close to the bank of the river. In this very place we decided to put up our tent. It appeared to be not so hard a job, still easier it was to cook dinner. We had only to warm up byelyashi (stuffed doughnuts) bought on our way. Using our gas stove didnít look like a foppery now, it was quite justified.

On July the 16th I was awakened by strange sounds of wild animals, as I first thought. Cautiously, I peeped out of the tent, feeling a little scared. It came about, that the sounds were produced by huge grasshoppers buzzing like electric razors. I was staggered on the spot by the beauty of the place. The nature looked magnificent. High Rocky Mountains, with green spots here and there, the bright sun, rumble of the river, noise coming from the road, all this created a unique image of the place.

While cooking breakfast we saw a rider approaching us. He was an Altaian Seryoga, aged 68 and already tipsy at 7 in the morning. Pasha and Andrei began asking him about the shortest way to the Shavlinsky Lakes. Meanwhile I took his photo. We served him a small glass of vodka. He collected the leftovers of our kasha and left his mail address for us to send him his photo. After that he galloped off. Later on a few riders also came to us, only they were not so strikingly expressive. But I should admit, that one of them advised us to go to the village and find Vitally who could drive us up the mountain. The offer seemed sound and had sense, because the mountain really looked dangerously steep and I didnít feel like clambering up there. We got up at 7 in the morning but finished packing only by 12 . Getting ready turned out to be a rather complicated matter, more difficult than I thought before. We had to choose and take with us only the things we absolutely couldnít do without. And so, leaving behind everything I looked at as indispensable and locking it up in the roof rack of the car, we went to our destination.

In Chibit we quite easily found out the whereabouts of Vitally as well as his surname. Vitally said he would be happy to convey us uphill for a certain sum of ready cash. After that he and Andrei left us. In an hour they came back together with one more Altaian — Romashka, as he introduced himself. The latter informed, that he possessed a car, but his being addicted to the bottle for a month prompted him to hide the license. Unfortunately he forgot where the hiding place was. His whole family was mobilized to do the search. At last the documents were found. Now the time came to start our jip-safari. According to my watch, the temperature was +42°C, mineral water bottles became hot. Only people with strong nerves can survive on this type of the road. Frankly speaking thereís almost no road at all. Thereís a track for powerful cars like UAZ or GAS-66. It took us nearly 3 hours to get to the palace which is 2000 meters above sea level. There we had flat cakes and milk and soon moved further across a very even plateau. We could hardy wait to feel ourselves real tourists burdened with legless friends rucksacks. Then to our surprise we found out that rucksacks of new generation are not very heavy. In fact the thing is fixed not only on your shoulders, but on the hips as well.

All of a sudden the weather changed. We watched flashes of lightning on neighboring peaks. It looked like in the picture with an inscription “No climbing — danger!” We heard the sound of deafening thunder and realized that we are practically at the very top of the mountain. We walked and looked at many broken half burnt trees that were cracking and creaking in return to the attack of hitting darts of lightning. We felt scary. Only Pasha, as an experienced climber, looked unperturbed and labeled the whole affair as nonsense. It began raining. And then we saw a half destroyed house — “Kosh” in the local language. It served as shepherdís abode. Practically dry we entered the habitation. It was really half ruined; the roof remained solid only in the corner near the window. When the rain started it became cooler. I had to put on all my things: a singlet, a shirt, warm jersey, and my waterproof parka as well as two pairs of slacks. In twilight we met a group of tourists groping for their way to our shack. They were young people from Moscow, 3 girls and 2 blokes. They were intending to make a 17-day march and carried huge rucksacks on their backs. It took them 2 days to reach this place from Chibit. And it would be 2 more days till they got to the lakes. With our gas stoves we prepared tea for all of us. The atmosphere became warm and joyful. During dinner one girl gave us a bulb of garlic. On her motherís insistence she had packed 2,5 kilograms of it as a healing stuff in case of tickís bites. In return we took out our satellite telephones and offered them to call their relatives. They happily used the chance and we overheard them calling us a group of tourists with satellite wireless. The weather improved, stars appeared in the sky. We felt warm and satisfied. It took us quite a long time to put up our tent, we couldnít find a proper place. At last Pasha said he intended to put the tent inside the Kosh, all because of me, to make me comfortable as in 5-star hotel. And in fact, that nightJuly the 17th. I woke up at 8 in the morning still a little tired but at the same time in high spirits. I strolled pensively and happily to the mountain stream and its crystal clear ice cold water completely revived me. I did a few yoga exercises and felt myself as strong as a giant. At 10 we moved on with intention to soon reach the Shavlinsky Mountains. On our way we met groups of tourists coming back from the lakes. They doubted we would make it to the lakes today. Of course we arranged it with Vitally, that he would meet us in exactly 3 days at the first Kosh, and were not in a hurry. We walked happily enjoying the sight of the beautiful plateau 2000 meters above sea level, which was about 3 kilometers long. The sight was really breathtaking and resembled a moon landscape among warm earthly surroundings.

More than anything else I was afraid of carrying my heavy rucksack. But it turned out to be the other way round. Sometimes it seemed to me that my rucksack carried me and not the other way round. I guess it was my high spirits that helped as well as the fresh mountain air and our good company. Yes, the proper quality rucksack helped a lot too. In approximately 2 hours we came down to the small river Eshtycoll. Pasha and Andrei decided to take a dip. I was skeptical, because I heard that it was dangerous to bathe in mountain streams. Moreover water felt really icy. But heat and longing to freshen myself prevailed and I followed their example. Entering the stream I injured my foot and later it ached. After that we took a dip practically at every stopping place. I admit it was one of my most striking and wonderful experiences in Altai. In 5 minutes you are revived, strengthened and possessing high spirits. The feeling is indescribable, itís just breathtaking. You can describe it as something very fresh, rapid, noisy, bright, blinding, dangerous...

The weather favored us. We were told that before our coming it had been raining the whole month. By the way, after we left it started raining again. We were walking in hot air with the temperature of +30°C. The sun was shining brightly but the foliage of the trees softened the scorching sun rays. On our way we were followed by river noise : first it was Shabada and then Shavla. We practically had no problems with water supply, except that the water could not completely quench our thirst. We turned to the left and reached the lowest point 1670 meters above sea level. After that again we started to go upwards The path ran amidst bushes about 2.5 meters high. At about 6 in the evening the weather changed . The sky got covered with clouds and I forecasted rain like the one we had yesterday, at 7 in the evening. Exactly at that time it started raining. We felt exhausted. We had no idea about how long we were still to walk. Different people considered differently; one said it could be 3 hours, another one said it was 1 hour. Walking in the rain was very unpleasant, my feet almost immediately got wet. I regretted my not having packed my waterproof trainers. Donít know why, but I thought there would be no rain. We didnít feel enthusiastic even at the sight of the mighty glaciers. We decided to reach the place of out destination straight away, without stops. True, we had only 2 hours before it would get dark, and walking along mountain paths in the night was dangerous, even impossible, especially with our experience. After 10 hours walk we were completely drained out and soaking wet. We had a short snack on our way: we couldnít afford to spend more than 40 minutes to take it. Once we lost the way and it was only at 8.30 in the evening, when we came up to the lake located 1940 meters above sea level. It was a wonderful sight, but we, being dead tired, were able to appreciate it only in the morning. First, we had to find a place to put our tent and get dry. Strangely enough, but absolutely all more or less suitable places were occupied by different groups of climbers, tourists and other people. Climbers from Krasnoyarsk kindly invited us to settle down near them at the so called “glade of idols”. It was really strange that at such a long distance from civilization we found it difficult to find a place for our tent. Moreover, I drenched my feet and it always involved problems for me. We had to make a fire without delay. With my last effort I went to collect firewood, drenching my footwear even more. Andrei proved himself a real hero. He took a saw and went to cut logs. There remained only 10 or 15 minutes before it would get completely dark. We provided ourselves with firewood and Andrei made a flagstaff out of the top of a tree and erected the Russian flag near our tent. (See the picture). At the beginning I didnít think it reasonable but then saw that people got cheered up. I sat on my karimatis, put off my soaking wet sports shoes, shoved my legs inside my sleeping bag and lied down. My body was so tired that I couldnít move my tongue and was quite unable to speak. Like in an anecdote, I couldnít even utter “shoo!” We were extremely tired. Within one day we walked altogether about 28 kilometers burdened by heavy rucksacks. For the people without training it was hard experience.

In the evening after dinner Pasha and I were sitting near the fire in the company of the climbers from Krasnoyarsk. In the end Pasha and I quarreled not being able to come to an agreement about where the South and the North were.

On July the 18th we got up late, like on Sunday. The day before we were so tired that couldnít completely restore our strength during the night. Looking around I saw many people and it reminded me the atmosphere of a pioneer camp. I came up to the lake. The sight was fantastically beautiful. I never saw anything like that before. Squeezed between high and steep Rocky Mountains, the greenish water surface of the lake reflected 3 overhanging peaks covered with snow. Opposite to the impression of yesterdayís evening the glaciers didnít look gloomy. They were shining joyfully, and the sky in the sunlight looked violet rather than blue.

We ate wheat porridge with butter for our breakfast and then made a plan to go to the Upper Shavlinsky Lakes, taking very small rucksacks fit for radial outings. Additionally we packed a gas stove, a coffee-maker, sweets and a camera. This time our rucksacks seemed feather light. We enjoyed walking in fine weather. In about 2 hours we saw the first lake, and then the second one at about 2200 meters above sea level. We accommodated ourselves on the rocks and began taking pictures of this really “moon landscape” with the camera. Then we made coffee and it was extremely tasty.

In the evening 3 tourists from Byelokurikha approached us. All places round the lake were occupied and they asked our permission to put their tent near us. They walked with the group of 25 people but then left the group behind at approximately half a dayís distance. In one day they walked the same portion of the way that we had made the day before. We were surprised, learning from them that the leader of their group was a 75-year old woman, who carried a heavy rucksack on her shoulders and who was there 30 years ago. Entertaining each other with funny stories we took only a few drops of samogonka and still had a very good time.

On July the 19th we woke up feeling ready to go further and collected our things, reluctant to leave the place. But in any case it was impossible to stay, because our food and gas supply was coming to an end. Besides, on that very day Vitally was supposed to wait for us at the first Kosh. We realized, that it was unrealistic to walk 35 kilometers in half a day, still the first time during our journey we decided to hurry up. I felt more hale and hearty than the day before, but still was rather tired after yesterdayís long walk. At the beginning the first few hours seemed the most grueling to us. I was practically walking in my sleep feeling no wish to go anywhere. We were very much impressed by the great number of tourists walking in the direction of the Shavlinsky Lake; within one day we met at least 100 people. It was difficult to imagine how they would accommodate themselves. We greeted everybody having an impression that each group considered themselves almost the unique in this back of beyond. In about 3 hours walk we stopped for lunch near the river Shavla. The sun was shining brightly, the glaciers were glittering, the lovely river was goggling peacefully. After having a dip we lunched and felt completely refreshed and went further without any hurry, planning where to put up our tent for the night. The weather was fine, and it probably was one of the reasons we considered our walk nice and joyful. At 5 in the evening we reached the place where we planned to stay overnight. There we met tourists who asked, if we were from Moscow. They informed us about “UAZik” and a man and a woman waiting for us uphill. The Ďuphill” meant the plateau I was describing at the beginning of my story. To reach it we had to walk 8 kilometers more. We walked until the summit and then across the plateau, but didnít see any “UAZiks” Therefore, we decided to go to the distant Kosh that made altogether 35 kilometers walk in the mountains. At the upper Kosh we met a group of tourists from different places. They got to know each other through Internet with the purpose of visiting Shavlinsky Lakes. They had a guitar and were laughing and having a good time. We felt like joining them but unfortunately had little time to spare, knowing that the man was waiting for us. They told us about a shorter way to Chibit along the canyon Aroy. But we decided first to walk to the place where, as we thought, he was waiting. Having walked about one kilometer we stopped in doubt. What if nobody waited for us there? In this case we would have to go back. Besides, those 7 km we had to go in the complete darkness. It was already 9 in the evening and in a quarter of an hour it would be quite dark. Considering all pros and contras and our growing tiredness we came to the opinion that we would stay there overnight and walk the short way down in the morning. We came back, but didnít join the merry company because felt too tired for further communication. Therefore we decided to have dinner and then go to bed. Canned fish soup and tea with blackcurrant leaves I collected on the way seemed a masterpiece of cooking art to us.

On July the 20th in the morning I experienced numerous different but still agreeable sensations in my body. Ailments and pains that tortured me before the trip disappeared. I felt dead tired, exhausted and dirty, but at the same time satisfied and happy. For the first time we couldnít prepare breakfast, as we had no more gas. We mixed the leftovers of jam with ice cold water from the stream and made a sort of “compot”. We had it with cookies. The weather was fine. We started downwards from the spot 2150 meters above sea level, according to my altimeter. We knew the Chibit village was located 1260 meters above sea level. Climbing down was very difficult. First we thought it would take us no more than 2 or 3 hours. But 2 hours later at the height of 1600 meters I felt completely drained of my abilities and I had to mobilize all my strength and will power. We stopped and finished a small remaining piece of slightly rotten sausage and a bite of a flat cake — my last reserve. That time we longed for food, sleep and bath. And Chibit was still not in sight. Suddenly we saw a man coming out of a small hut. We happily greeted him and asked him, how far it was to Chibit. His answer both surprised and rejoiced our hearts. He said if we chose a road through taiga it would be 12 km. But in case we bought a ticket from him, we could cross the bridge to the other side of the river Chuya. 2 minutes of scary experience and — lo! — thatís it. According to him there was a “trassa” (highway) straight to the Chibit, that was quite nearby. He wanted 15 Rubles for one ticket. We negotiated and bought them at 10 Rubles each. The man seemed very smart. He laid running water tubes conducting water of the river into his house, he invented selling tickets for the bridge, though it was quite unfit for walking. One could only jump from plank to plank risking his life across the abyss of the rapid running mountain stream. But it could spare us 12 km walk. So we continued our way joyfully. When we reached the “trassa” we recognized as the one we traveled along in UAZik, and it was still at least 5 km to Chibit. The heat was scorching, according to my watch +35°C. Not a single tree along the dusty road. Not even a bush to cast a shade. Besides, I found out that we had almost no water. Last time we didnít think of replenishing our stock, not knowing there would be no more resource. We had only a little of the stuff called “durh” or dope stuff, made of sweetened water with lemon pieces, and about 2 glasses of pure water. This portion of the road was the hardest to walk. I always find it easier to walk on the plain, and that time I outstripped my companions. At last I found a bush and sat down in the shadow waiting for them. When they came up I took out a flask with water and after taking a gulp passed it to Pasha, who instead of drinking poured the water on top of his head. Surprised, I cried out involuntarily. Why! But Pasha said he would die if he didnít have his head immediately wet. I reprimanded him and said, the water was only for drinking. Then Pasha elicited the remains of lemon water from Andrei and poured them on top of his head. Chibit appeared in the distance and we were longing for a mug of cold kvas. On the way I noticed a group of cows in the mountain shadow. I asked Andrei to make a video recording of the scene, but his answer was, “Thereís no water in sight”. I asked again and he repeated his answer. On entering the village we forgot about everything, including our promise to Vitally to come to the appointed place at the right time as well as our not keeping the promise. We wanted only one thing — to get into our car and quench our burning thirst. When we came to Vitallyís house, there was only his wife. She told, he was still waiting for us at that place. And the day before they both had been waiting for us the whole day. We considered and decided to recompense their expenses. We paid her the before settled sum for driving us back and after she gave us a mug of cold kvas we added half of the sum already paid.

Having reached Chuisky trakt (highway) we finished our stored stock of beer, that by some miracle remained cool inside our car, and felt really and sincerely happy. Only then I realized, that the best and greatest joy and relaxation one can experience not in comfortable hotels, but by getting over hardships, through physical labor, collecting new experiences and sensations, feeling satisfaction after completing the purpose.

We stopped at the place with the name “White Bom”. There we dropped into a pub, a replica of soviet dining houses. Buckwheat porridge and a cutlet appeared to me heavenly delicious. Andrei drank beer and asked Pasha to drive the car instead of him. Like me, or may be even more so, he felt elated and forgot to put on his shoes, delighted to walk bare foot.

After we satisfied our need in food we wanted to take a bath. First we didnít know, how to realize our wish. We drove up to the river and decided to stop and make coffee. The temperature of the water in the river was about +15°. We considered it warm enough. Few minutes later I was already shampooing my hair, Andrei was all in soap sods and Pasha was standing in the water up to his waist and shaving enthusiastically. The three of us looked more like escaped convicts. On reaching Saturday evening “Tzarís hunt” in full swing of the season we were not at all sure to find there spare rooms for us. It came true exactly as we had thought. Andreiís familiar manager informed us that there were no rooms available. But when the well shaved Pasha turned to another manager, it suddenly came about that there was one vacant room to let. Like all other rooms this one was without a toilet. Inside there were only double-deck beds. After dinner with greatest pleasure I climbed on the top deck of the swinging bed and slept soundly.

Unfortunately I donít remember in details other days. Later we stopped at yet another hotel where they served in May baths with balm extracted from deer horns. There we rode horses. I liked the galloping very much and felt myself a born rider. Then Andrei and Pasha drove me to my native place in Kemerovo district to the village Postoyanny. I stayed there 2 days and then bought a ticket for the plane to Moscow. That was the end of my trip to the Rocky Mountains of Altai. It remained in my memory like a clear and colorful image. There are beautiful photos and this report to remind me of the journey.

Alexei.

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