I recently got back from one of my most interesting international trips, the Altai Mountains. The specific area is the Katun Mountains which is on the border of Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. This journey was intense to say the least. I saw awe-inspiring views, almost got trampled by a horse, ate bland camp food, and met some really nice people. Hopefully you enjoy reading this post for there will be more to come.
I arrived in Vnykovnik with my mom at around 6:45AM. We got a quick bite to eat with much needed coffee, stored our bags for pickup the next day, and took the next express train to Moscow. From there we took the subway to Aleksandrivsky Sad to begin our walk around the city starting with the Kremlin; we decided not to go in due to the ridiculous amount of tourists. Around the corner we stopped by the mall for some ice cream then strolled around the Red Square taking in the beautiful sites of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. After continuing along the path across the Moscow River we took a break at a café for some lunch and more coffee. Fueled up we took a look at Russia’s fine art at Tretyakov Gallery. Tired from that we headed to a restaurant for more coffee; which had two hyperactive caged squirrels. The next stop was Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where I wasn’t allowed in because of my shorts. From the church we went through a park path to Arbat. Arriving at the end we got our fifth and final cup of coffee. By this point we were pretty exhausted and decided to go back to our dacha (summer home).
Having only 4 hours of sleep in 48 hours, I got 15 hours of sleep from 8 PM to 11 AM. Man I haven’t slept like this in years. The day before I walked about 8 miles and was pretty sore so we decided to hang out at the dacha, get dinner in the city, then go to the airport for our flight to Barnaul.
Day One- 8/11/15
Distance Traveled: 450 km (280 mi)
The journey from Barnaul to Tengura was driven by an absolute maniac. The original plan was for 12 hours of driving however we began at 8 AM and reached our destination at 2 AM. Everyone seemed to not care but every chance to pass other vehicles in our 20 person van with trailer was taken; some very narrowly. Some sort of game was being played where we would pass someone, they would pass us back, then we passed them again. This happened several times… After a few little stops for food and gas, we made it to their headquarters. Here we got our luggage packed into satchels and prepared for the trip. Once we left civilization and began driving on dirt roads he did not slow down. At all. It was so incredibly bumpy that the trailer broke and was scraping with each bump. Thankfully we were relatively close to the next village where the driver repaired it while we had dinner. Another 4 hours of driving to the village of Tengura was rewarded with a beautiful view of the Milky Way. We had a little snack, set up our tents, and went to sleep.
Day Two – 8/12/15
Distance Traveled: 16 km (10 mi) Elevation Gain: 640 m (2100 ft)
Five hours of sleep later our day begins at 8 AM with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. We had breakfast, washed up in the Katun River, packed our bags and got the horses loaded up. Our first interesting point was crossing the Katun River on the sketchiest piece of engineering I have ever seen. In America there would be a stupid amount safety codes broken; I mean the floor was composed of 2×4’s, some of which weren’t even nailed in! We continued through the small village Kucherla and traveled along a dirt road until we started gaining some elevation. We made it up to the peak of Kuzuyak (1500 m/5000 ft) for lunch, where it was unexpectedly cold. Then we went back down until around 5:30 PM to our campsite. We let our horses roam with the front legs tied on a big open field right next to the glacier composed river of Akkem. We set up camp, then I washed myself very briefly as the water was as you would expect glacier water to be. Afterwards I relaxed by the river with a book, ate borsch for dinner and went to sleep.
Day Three – 8/13/15
Distance Traveled: 24 km (15 mi) Elevation Gain: 1500 m (5000 ft)
My birthday! Woke up very tired due to the wind and rain keeping me up in the middle of the night. We had a quick breakfast, packed the horses and off we went. Much time was spent uphill, bushwhacking, going through streams until we got to a clearing for lunch. Here we could faintly see our peak destination, Belukha. After lunch we continued seeing great views of the surrounding mountains. We got to our destination after 14 km ( but decided to continue another 10 km so we could have another day at the base camp of Belukha. The views got better as we went however it was drizzling and I needed to put away my camera. We made it above the clouds to a peak of 2200 m (7217 ft) , then down to camp at 1300 m (4265 ft).This place was called Karaeeri and had a couple little log houses as well as an outhouse. We set up camp just before the rain began and had some whisky in our cozy tent. After the rain settled, we had dinner with some cognac for all!
Day Four – 8/14/15
Distance Traveled: 25 km (15.5 mi) Elevation Gain: 1000 m (3300 ft)
Wow, what a day! The beginning was foggy, ominous and a bit depressing. However after about 10 km the excitement began. The instructors told us to get off the horses because the trail was too dangerously steep. For the first 50 feet, my horse and I slipped a couple times. As I was thinking this isn’t that bad the instructor says, “Now comes the steep part.” Let me tell you now I have never feared for my life as I did that day. Due to the rain last night the entire trail was mud mixed with shit from the horses ahead of me. So at nearly every moment I was slipping down the mountain attempting to dodge horse shit, with this 1000 lb beast 3 ft away from me. At one point I began to slip for a good 10 ft while the instructor is screaming at me to get out the way. I frantically scramble to the side and I get a quick glance of my horse flailing it’s massive legs right into the spot I was a second ago. After that I made sure to stay as far away as possible. Man I wish I had a GoPro to capture that. At the bottom we stopped for lunch, not before cleaning ourselves up in the river. Then we ascended another mountain with the same steepness, however the path had rocks and was much more stable. Once at the top it began getting foggy, or cloudy depending on your perspective. We got off to lead our horses down another steep hill that wasn’t so bad. By the time we got down the clouds began clearing up and the views were amazing. Waterfalls and snow capped mountains surrounded our view. I’m an idiot though and didn’t wipe off my lens. Nearing the end of our voyage, we could see the campsite, lake Akkem with Belukha’s surrounding mountains. Belukha was hiding in the clouds however. Once more we got off our horses, where it was a bit steep, and led them down to the valley. We crossed a 1 meter deep river on the horses, passing a meteorology station, before getting to our campsite. Our elevation was 2000 m (6600 ft), so it was cold! We set up camp then got firewood which needed to be carried from about 100 m up a mountain due to the popularity of this site. While having dinner, Belukha cleared up giving some nice photo ops. Cleaned up then went to sleep.
Day Five – 8/15/15
Cold, snowy, and boring day. We were supposed to go to the seven lakes but were too busy warming up in the tent to hear them leave. I’m kind of glad because upon returning they said there wasn’t much to see because of the fog/snow. So I just chilled by the fire, napped, read. I did have to go for a fire wood trip which wasn’t pleasant. That’s about it for today.
Day Six – 8/16/15
I was woken up in the middle of the night by my parents. It was COLD. They said it was nice out so I did some astrophotography. However it was so cold that my camera stopped working before I could get a decent shot. After two days of miserable cold the sun finally came out and it was so warm I was able to take of my shirt. Our trip today was to the glacier named Radzavich. It was about 7 km (4 mi) round trip. On the way we crossed a couple sketchy bridges, went to a nice little church then continued on very rocky terrain. What a site though! The melting glacier river, along with the actual glacier and mountainous backdrop of Belukha made for an awe-inspiring view. Once back to the church we had lunch then back to the campsite where I found myself to be exhausted. I mustered up enough energy to go to the sauna. Here I went with three dudes I met on the trip naked (no homo). We jumped into the freezing Akkem lake three times before finishing up with my first decent shower in six days.
Day Seven – 8/17/15
Distance Traveled: 28 km (17.4 mi) Elevation Gain: 1000 m (3300 ft)
Slept with my camera in my sleeping bag to make sure it didn’t freeze up on me. Got some sweet shots today. We left to reach the peak of Karatiorek (3060 m/10,040 ft). This is definitely the highest elevation I have ever reached and the views were indescribable. Perfect weather- sunny and no wind. The views on the way down were also great. We had lunch with another great view of the mountainous landscape. Then we got to a point where we needed to walk for about 2 km. Finally we made it to the campsite which was a large field on the border of Kycherla River. Quickly caught some rays and bathed just before the mountains blocked off the sun. For dinner we had some groundhog soup which the instructor’s dog actually caught.
Day Eight – 8/18/15
Distance Traveled: 16 km (10 mi) Elevation Gain: 0
Last day. Today kind of sucked. Went through a forest path along the river back to Tengura. The problem was that once someone didn’t keep up in the line, they needed to trot to get back in line. I was in the back and so with several people ahead of me doing this, it happened to me every minute or so. This combined with stomach pains made for a horrible experience. All was well once back at camp. We got ice cream and beer at the local store. I hung out with my fellow Russian brethren and at night we went to the sauna.
We packed up, said our goodbyes to those who continued with the rafting trip, and went for another van ride home. The rest is just traveling back to the states. And that is my equestrian adventure through the Altai Mountains!