Oleg E. Kosterin

(translated by Geoffrey Harper)



(a) Place names are given in Cyrillic in parentheses, to help readers find them on a Russian map and to read road signs during the tour.

(b) Extra information of possible interest  group is given in footnotes.



When in the middle of summer you set out for the Altay (Алтай), even our hum-drum, monotonous, colourless and sun-scorched forest-steppe[1] landscape alongside the highway lifts your spirits. Why? Because you know that you are on the famous Chuya Trakt (Чуйский тракт),[2] the highway from Novosibirsk (Новосибирск) to Tashanta (Ташанта).[3] At the far end you will be within a stone's throw of the Mongolian border, with all around you the central-Asian high-altitude desert and fantastically coloured mountains looming in the distance. That is the Altay!

As you drive past the town of Barnaul (Барнаул) nothing around you seems to be changing, except that the countryside seems to be getting even flatter, the empty fields ever more extensive, and the air more stifling. But, believe it or not, you are already in the Altay! This evocative name is known to everyone, even to those who have never been to the Altay and have only the haziest of notions about it. The name somehow conjures up vague ideas of something like an earthly paradise, preserved from remote ages when people travelled there in the search for Belovod'ye (Беловодье).[4] In fact the Altay, as it can be seen nowadays as you traverse it on the Chuya Trakt, sometimes in just one day, is a sequence of amazingly beautiful districts, each quite unlike the next. Each deserves its own poetic name and could be the subject of many illustrated books.

The stretch from Barnaul to Biysk (Бийск) is the lowland plain of the Altay. It is a slightly undulating landscape, covered in fields, birch copses, extensive pine woods and slow meandering rivers – a domestic and welcoming countryside, ideally suited to the Russians' quiet and harmonious way of life. But even here something exotic creeps in: along the road you begin to see endless meadows – actually old fallow land – displaying every colour except green, such is the abundance of flowers. The dominant colour is a bright violet-dark-blue, due to Viper's Bugloss Echium vulgare – a pernicious weed but also an excellent source of nectar.

Approaching Biysk you catch sight of the river Biya (Бия) – one half of the Ob' (Обь), and a wide and quiet river whose waters are completely transparent. On its far bank is an endless pine forest, containing hidden lakes. You go a bit further, and now the road comes upon the river Katun' (Катунь) – the other main tributary of the Ob'. Entirely different from the Biya, the Katun' rushes along furiously with turbid greenish-grey water from melting glaciers. It is as if it hasn't cottoned on to the fact that it is now flowing through a quiet pastoral landscape, and imagines that it is still plummeting down through mountain ravines. Meanwhile you drive through a tunnel of poplars planted by the road alongside the foaming river. You might note perhaps with concern some bluish clouds on the horizon, threatening a late-afternoon thunderstorm, but suddenly you realize with amazement that one of the 'clouds' is something quite different – a mountain! And judging by how far away it is, it must be a mountain of no ordinary size! Along the northern edge of the Altay the mountains begin rather abruptly.

Eventually, at the village of Mayma (Майма), by-passing the capital of the Altay Republic, Gorno-Altaysk (Горно-Алтайск), you enter the mountains. The air suddenly becomes fresher, quite different from the sultriness of the plains. To the right of the road there is still the Katun', alongside which now stand guard very tall self-sown poplars, while to the left of the road begin to appear towering cliffs. And under them – what an abundance of plants! The eye is dazzled! From the plants' point of view mountains are very special places. Here on the sun-drenched cliffs grows one plant, on the boulders another kind, on the screes a third, in the shaded nooks a fourth, under the trees a fifth – and all much larger than on the plains. If you stop the car and walk up the slope a little, you soon discover that all kinds of insects are flying over the vegetation. There may be the same kinds of butterfly that we'd find around Novosibirsk, but here you'll see in an hour what might take several years to find near the city.

Well, it's time to continue on our way. What now follows is a strange part of the Altay, as if specially designed for health resorts and mass tourism. Everything around is picturesque and seemingly calculated to please and entertain. Judge for yourself: over on the left are some rather steep and jagged mountains, completely covered in trees, mostly our favourite, the white birch. In the valley and on the river bank stand beautiful and much loved pines. Down below flows the mighty, turquoise-grey river, spinning in whirlpools and foaming over the rapids. Out in the river are fantastic little rock islands, some bearing trees or small groves at the very edge of cliffs. And beyond the river the mountains are extraordinary, sharp peaks falling away to the water below as limestone walls, in places eaten into by caves.

This beautiful road now and then passes through neat little villages, one having the curious name 'Manzherok' (Манжерок). In the front gardens are tall apple trees, with the fruit now ripening (and tempting!). There are also tourist centres, and everywhere a lively trade is being conducted alongside the road. As you might expect in such a 'paradise', there are masses of tourists, and tents under almost every tree. It wasn't like this in the past. We drive past the Arzhan-Suu (Аржан-Суу) brook with – it goes without saying – the mandatory café. The foliage on bushes by the water can hardly be seen on account of the multitudes of little multicoloured rags hanging on the branches. The universal Asian custom of suspending, in conspicuous places and on the approaches to passes, token sacrifices to the spirits has been taken over by tourists and so, like everything that loses its meaning, it has been taken to extremes.

We cross the Katun' near the village of Ust' Sema (Усть Сема[5]) and leave behind its cosy valley. Now, be aware that the landscapes you'll see from here to the Seminskiy Pass (Семинский перевал) are comparatively unimpressive – like most of those in the Altay. The mountains become gentle hills, and only on the crests are rocks exposed, while screes descend the steepest slopes. Beyond the village of Cherga (Черга) there is a very impressive sheer cliff. The limestone outcrops disappear, and with them the pines. South-facing slopes are covered with steppe meadows, and if you stop and take a stroll you'll see how rich they are in the variety of flowers. In the dampest places you might easily stumble upon, for example, whole patches of flowering Lady's-slipper Orchids Cypripedium. They are far from rare here. Or a slope might be ablaze with the yellow flowers of Hemerocallis minor – particularly numerous around the longest village in the Altay, Kamlak[6] (Камлак; meaning literally 'shamans'). On north-facing slopes there are small and very dense groves of trees, mainly birch, but almost impenetrable on account of thickets of Spiraea. These groves are just like our familiar groves in the forest-steppe,[7] and it as if they had just been thrown into the mountains; the flowers are the same as those we are familiar with, but much larger, and all growing together. The further you penetrate into the Altay, the more Larch Larix sibirica you see. This most beautiful of trees has the advantage that it does not grow in a dense stand, cheek by jowl, but scattered and so leaving room for a rich variety of mixed herbs between them. This is the well known Altay 'park woodland' landscape. In places along the crests of the hills can be seen the dark outlines of the local 'cedars' [8].

Along the banks of the babbling brook Sema (Сема), which our route now follows, we begin to see orderly detachments of Spruce Picea obovata. They are exceptionally elegant, with a shapely silhouette and very dark foliage. The damp meadow in front of them is covered with tall tussocks. We are now beginning the ascent to the Seminskiy Pass. It is a simple matter of just ploughing uphill endlessly. But the landscape changes: slopes become steeper, we pass a single 'cedar', then another, and soon they are everywhere. Finally we break out onto the high-altitude plateau of the Seminsky Range (Семинский хребет), and we look around in amazement. Here is the real Altay, such as you may never see again!

On the smooth plateau, in whichever direction you look, there are enormous towering 'cedars' – dark, almost black, with broad, dense and slightly flattened crowns, veritable columns. From the lower branches hang, like grey hair or actual beards, the silvery locks of Old-man's-beard Lichen. The trees are spaced out, and once more this allows for an abundance of flowers; but now they are quite different from the ones seen earlier. You won't find these on the plains! The plants here are quite low and delicate, rather unassuming, but in contrast the flowers are simply huge. Particularly striking are the sky-blue Dracocephalum grandiflorum and Aquilegia glandulosa, and the painfully orange Altay Globeflowers Trollius altaicus – much larger than on the plains, and with a black centre to the flower. This is a subalpine meadow. In the hollows the vegetation grows taller, and here most noticeable is Veratrum lobelianum,[9] resembling a cross between maize and a small palm, and the thistle-like, dark-purple heads of the famous Maral Root (Маралий корень) Stemmacantha carthamoides.[10]

On the horizon over to the left rises an enormous but not very steep, greenish-grey mountain, bearing patches of year-round snow. This is Sarlyk (Сарлык), which in the local language means 'yak'. These gently sloping Siberian uplands are called 'gol'tsy' (гольцы), meaning 'bare land', lacking trees since they are well above the tree line. Our route along the Chuya Trakt passes through a number of wonderful places, but this is the greatest altitude we'll achieve; so it is worth pausing to look around.

Shortly we are on our way again. The descent from the pass is just like the ascent, and the river Tuekta (Туэкта), which we are now following, although flowing south, is very similar to the Sema except that there is more spruce. The mountains off to the side are getting larger and somewhat drier, but nothing is really very different from the surroundings of, say, Cherga. But now we are climbing once again, this time to the second pass on our route – the Chike-Tamanskiy Pass (Чике-Таманский перевал), which bears little resemblance to the first one. It is not very high, and there is hardly any change in vegetation on the way up. This pass doesn't even cross a range; it merely surmounts a side ridge of the Terektinskiy Range (Теректинский хребет). But the reason is that, on our way through the northern Altay, the river Katun' gets out of hand and plunges into wild ravines; so, to get back to its valley, we have to go to the inconvenience of climbing over even quite small side ridges. The Chike-Tamanskiy Pass was once a serious challenge for drivers, but a couple of decades ago a new road was constructed, and the journey became easier. Even so it still involves a capricious series of hairpin bends winding their way up the slope, so that if you look upwards from the road it is hard to believe that the white scar in the hillside above your head is in fact part of the same road, and that in five minutes you'll be there!

Beyond the pass, as if by magic we find ourselves entering quite a different Altay. It is a country of wild and jagged peaks with terrifying rocky slopes, seeming almost perpendicular and mostly devoid of plants. The landscape appears to be constructed of many layers, with a very complex structure; there are successive tiers of rocks and dendritic branching valley systems – all a great temptation to the artist with a sketchpad, although you feel it would be beyond you to portray it. Rivers roar down through narrow cracks somewhere far below. Everything is very dry and, strangely, this impression of aridity remains even when it is bucketing down! And besides, there is flowing water in plenty everywhere. All around there is a scattering of dark little Caragana bushes. The ground vegetation is a golden-grey colour, with everywhere the white candles of the woolly plant Panzerina lanata sticking up. Without exception everything is spiny. At every step enormous grasshoppers fly up from under your feet, the wings of each insect decorated with a pattern characteristic of the species; and each has its characteristic chirr. The butterflies here are mostly satyrids, which sit on the grey stones, the same colour as themselves, and fly up among the grasshoppers. On the Caragana bushes perch comical Capricorn Beetles[11] – chocolate-coloured with a white border.

We are now descending to the Katun'. One's impotence at being able to record the scenery reaches a climax. At each new scene you want to stop and take photographs, regretting not having stopped repeatedly earlier. You have to endure this endless torment, or just abandon the camera! The landscape is as dry and thorny as before, but becomes even more multi-layered. The mountains on the far side of the Katun' are steep and close set, resembling the wings in a theatre. At any time of the day and in any weather the light and shadows create wonderful effects.

The Katun' flows through a fairly flat and wide valley, in the bottom of which it has gouged out a deep canyon. And here is a surreal detail: about halfway up the lifeless rocky slope of the canyon there is a single line of very much alive, large spruce trees, all much the same size. They provide a scale by which you can appreciate the grandeur of the whole scene. We continue quite a long time through the same kind of scenery, skirting around enormous crags (called bomy in the local language[12]) overhanging the rivers Bol'shoy and Malyy Yaloman (Большой Яломан, Малый Яломан). During the Civil War the so-called Kara-Korum Highland Authority mounted an invincible defence on the crags, which the Red Army was unable to overcome.[13]

Near the village of Inya (Иня) we cross the Katun'. A striking feature is a series of cyclopean terraces along the Katun' valley, rising many hundreds of metres. Experts still argue about the origin of the phenomenon, but agree that it must have been some catastrophic events at the end of the last glaciation on a scale now difficult to imagine. Soon we come to the confluence of the Chuya and Katun' rivers, and here a stop is obligatory! Blessed are those who do not carry cameras! – for they have the time simply to admire the scene.

Our route now proceeds up the Chuya valley. At first the scenery is as before, except that the valley is much narrower, the opposite bank becomes increasingly forest-covered, and the sides of the valley are vertical in places, taking the form of earth columns of fine-grained grey material. An interesting feature is that the dry slopes are covered with rosettes of a curious plant in the pea family, Gueldenstaedtia monophylla, the leaves of which are not pinnately divided, as usual in the family, but rounded and greyish, rather like Cyclamen leaves. In the Altay it grows only here, and the same is true for many other species. A short way ahead appear the fairy-tale pink and white limestone cliffs called Belyy Bom (Белый Бом). Here, only on these cliffs and nowhere else in the world, grows Jadrintsev's Alpine Sawwort Saussurea jadrinzevii.

Beyond Belyy Bom the valley becomes less fearsome, although no less magnificent. Forest begins to fill the valleys, and meadows appear on the terraces. Eventually we see people out collecting strawberries, just as we do back home. The banks of the Chuya are sometimes precipitous, sometimes lower, and often larches are perched crazily on the edge where the banks have been undermined. Screes on the slopes of the valley take on a claret-red tint – due to cinnabar, a sulphide of mercury. The mountains on the far side of the valley become unexpectedly high, emphasized by the mixed spruce-larch forest determinedly clinging to the slopes. Sometimes, high up, the relief and trees appear in outline due to fresh snow which fell during the night. Finally, in the gap between the nearest mountains there appear the gleaming peaks of the North-Chuya Range (Северо-Чуйский хребет) – yet another unique spectacle on our journey.

At the village of Aktash (Акташ) a road branches off to Ust'-Ulagan (Усть-Улаган) – a region of the Altay renowned for its mercury mines and its boisterous if not entirely peace-loving local population. Here something quite unexpected happens: the Chuya temporarily makes a detour, leaving its magnificent main valley and diving into a ravine in the neighbouring hills. The explanation is, that at some time during the glaciation the main valley was blocked by a glacier, and it was easier for the river to carve a channel through the hills than through the ice.

At last the mountains recede and we enter the famous Kuray Basin (Курайская котловина). It was once a gigantic ice reservoir, then an ice-dammed lake, and now an extensive steppe, with in places systems of irrigation channels. By the way 'steppe' is something of a euphemism: the low vegetation does not cover the earth completely, but takes the form of a mosaic of rosettes. More accurately it is high-altitude semidesert of the Mongolian type. Over the ground during the day there rise currents of air which disperse the clouds. It is said that Professor I.V.Stebayev once lectured students here on the reasons why it never rains on the Kuray steppe – while it was actually raining! Here you may come across a herd of domesticated yak – sarlyki. To picture a yak, imagine a soft toy the size of a small cow! They have enormous crescent-shaped horns, and their thick soft fur-like hair hangs to the ground. Yaks don't moo, but instead snort, while gazing at you in a far from friendly fashion. In colour they can be black, white or with patches, but all the same they are still cows.

Receding into the distance the Kuray Range (Курайский хребет) displays the most unexpected tints – red, violet-brown, greenish. The mountains now once more close up, but the semidesert vegetation in the valley remains with us. Eventually we go past the so-called Red Gates (Красные Ворота), which are actually two violet-red rocks, and we also pass a brook with the characteristic name 'Ruchey' (Ручей, literally 'brook'). Once more the mountains recede from the road, and we enter the Chuya Steppe (Чуйская степь). Here is yet another new kind of Altay. At first the area recalls parts of Kazakhstan, with dry cley hills over which are scattered Caragana bushes with bright golden bark. Between the hills flow branches of the Chuya and also irrigation ditches, bordered by Laurel-leaved Poplars Populus laurifolia.

The Chuya Steppe unfolds before us. This large basin, at 1600 metres above sea level, has a rather severe aspect, much wilder than the Kuray Steppe. To the north rise in several layers the variously coloured, but mostly reddish, mountains of the Kuray Range. Even in the middle of summer the slopes and summits at a certain height may be sprinkled with fresh snow, which is arranged very delicately, bringing out the details of the relief. Over these mountains there usually tower other 'mountains', even more majestic – a mighty wall of clouds. Their tops are blindingly white, while below they are an oppressive leaden-blue, merging with the summits of the actual mountains. Overhead the sky is the usual pristine, clear, bright blue. On the southern horizon looms the dark outline of the South-Chuya Range (Южно-Чуйский хребет). The undulating surface of the basin is an endless and apparently lifeless plain, with expanses of stones and gravel, on which you can pick out a low and unique kind of vegetation. There are numerous shallow lakes, each with a wide border of enormous tufts of Chiya Lasiagrostis splendens, a grass characteristic of damp and brackish places throughout central Eurasia. In the middle of the Chuya Basin is the village of Kosh-Agach (Кош-Агач). This cheerless settlement is exposed to every wind. Its name means 'grove of trees', but of trees there is a distinct lack. Instead, over almost every building there projects a pole bearing a starling box. It is a weird spectacle. Far to the south can be seen Bel'tir (Бельтир) and other villages, as well as the green Chuya valley.

You can drive across the steppe in any direction you choose, just as if you were on a road. Now and then a flock of Pallas's Sandgrouse Syrrhaptes paradoxus will dash past – amazing Central Asian birds with hoof-like feet, related to pigeons. Here too lives a desert cat, the Manul Felis manul, and occasionally an antelope-like animal, the Dzeren Procapra gutturosa, or a Red Wolf Cuon alpinus will be found, but they are very difficult to catch sight of. Pikas (Ochotona sp) cheerfully whistle on the boulder fields, where they live and build their little haystacks; they are very trusting creatures, and if you venture into one of their habitats they are soon watching you from the tops of boulders. Ordinary domesticated camels are used by the local people for agriculture.

From here it is still 80 km to Mongolia. You can drive as far as Tashanta, the last Russian settlement in the border area, or, past the border post, on southwards to the river Tarkhatta (Тархаттa). Along this valley you can reach the famous Ukok Plateau (плато Укок) where Scythian mummies were found, and then into the Jazator (Джазатор) valley. Along the road there opens up yet another Altay world, the Altay of fantastic plants that seek out the cold and drought of high altitudes. However often I venture along the Tarkhatta valley, every time I want to stop the car and remain here for the rest of my days! Along the gravelly slopes are scattered the round and very spiny silvery cushions of Oxytropis tragacanthoides, a member of the pea family. In the same family is Hedysarum gmelinii, which forms rosettes covered in pink flowers. Thickets of the strange pink-flowered plant Comarum salesovianum stick up here and there – a smallish shrub with feathery leaves and white flowers. There is also Biebersteinia odora, a plant with very long, fragrant, feathery leaves and yellow flowers. These are Asian alpines, found only high up in the Altay and Tien-Shan ranges. The flowering Dracocephalum plants look like blue plates, and a second species of Panzerina holds aloft its inflorescences like candelabras of wax candles. Between the bushes and boulders the Clematis-like liane Atragene sibirica forces its way through, displaying its large white flowers, with four long pendent petals. There are many other flowers here. Overhead fly Alpine Choughs Pyrrhocorax graculus, uttering their shrill cries. Here too are Mountain Sheep Ovis ammon, locally called Argali, but seeing one is almost impossible.

There are yet more 'Altay worlds', not found along the Chuya Trakt. There is for instance, on the Katun' Range (Катуньский хребет), the Akkem valley (Аккем) from where the completely white, double-peaked mountain Belukha (Белуха) can be seen – the highest in Siberia (4506 m), with its c.1500 m sheer wall. Alongside it, as if on guard, stand two black giants with snowy caps. Belukha is reflected in the waters of a lake, along the shores of which grow huge alpine plants, fresh and flawless, one after another, looking as though they had been specially planted.

However many times I come to the Altay, it always feels like a dream come true – whether it is the severe undulating Ukok Plateau, covered in grey Kobresia[14] tundra, with the southern horizon dominated by the white massif of Tabyn-Bogdo-Ola (Табын-Богдо-Ола)[15] with the cupola-shaped mountain Nayramdal (Найрамдал), where the borders of Russia, Mongolia and China converge; or the pine-covered limestone cliffs in the Anuy (Ануй) valley, with its caves and waterfalls; or the western side of the Altay, where the smooth foothills are decked in luxuriant meadows, recalling the landscapes of Dauria[16], merging to the east with the majestic forested mountains, while to the west it suddenly drops away, along an unnaturally straight escarpment, onto the remarkably large and flat West-Siberian Plain (Западно-Сибирская равнина), which loses itself in the haze on the horizon.

Few there are who can boast that they know all of the Altay. But if you have just one chance to visit the area, then an excursion along the Chuya Trakt from Barnaul to Kosh-Agach is to become acquainted with a several fabulous 'Altay worlds', each more amazing than the last.



[1]    The forest-steppe is a vegetation & landscape zone in northern Eurasia between forest to the north and semi-desert to the south; it comprises patches or strips of deciduous woodland in a matrix of steppe or prairie.

[2]    The Russian word 'trakt' means 'long-distance road', such as the one from European Russia to Siberia made famous in 19th century Russian history when thousands of exiles passed along it. The Chuya Trakt is now the M52 highway.

[3]    This is the last Russian settlement, 20 km short of the Mongolian border.

[4]    'Belovod'ye' means literally 'White Water', and is a legendary land of freedom in Russian folklore, a kind of Shangri-La or Shambhala (which Roerich wrote about extensively in relation to northern Tibet).

[5] 'ust' ' means mouth.

[6] Kamlak is between Ust' Sema and Cherga.

[7] The birch groves in the forest-steppe are so characteristic that they are given the Russian name 'kolki' (колки, singular 'kolok', 'колок').

[8] The 'cedar' in the Altay is in fact a pine – Siberian Pine Pinus sibirica.

[9] Veratrum lobelianum is a stately plant with characteristic plicate (longitudinally folded) leaves; it is poisonous, and usually indicates over-grazing.

[10] 'Maral' is the Siberian name for Cervus elephas, the same species as our Red Deer. The name 'Maral Root' (strictly applying to the root only, which has medicinal properties) is due to the belief that deer use the plant as a cure when they are ill. The plant is in the daisy family Asteraceae.

[11] Capricorn Beetles, Eodarcadion (family Cerambycidae).

[12] 'Bom' (бом) appears in place names from the Altay to Central Asia (e.g Kyrgyzstan); a village on our route is Bichiktu-Boom (Бичикту-Боом); and Belyy Bom (meaning 'white' cliff') is mentioned shortly.

[13] Nationalists seized power in Ulala, as Gorno-Altaysk was known until 1932, after setting up the Kara-Korum Highland Authority (Каракорумская управа) in February 1918.

[14] Kobresia is a plant genus in the sedge family.

[15] The literal meaning is 'five sacred peaks'.

[16] Dauria is the area around the southern end of Lake Baykal, far away to the east.