8 Reasons Every Traveler Must Visit Altai Republic

Published by hussam barazi on

It’s time to visit Altai in Russia, Siberia, if you’re searching for an untouched, raw paradise of adventure and sublime natural beauty.

Three countries converge at the frontier of the Altai Republic: Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China, cradling the region in seven climatic zones and an amazing variety of landscapes. Most of Altai is a huge National Park, an enormous yet sparsely-populated area. This picturesque corner of Russia is home to over 7,000 lakes, snow-capped mountains – including Siberia’s highest peak (Mt Belukha, 4,506m), shadowy forests, gurgling rivers, bears, wolves and even the ghost-like snow leopard.

When visiting Altai, you’ll witness how the unique topography unfolds into a mecca of adventure tourism where you can ski, raft, climb and hike through some of the most beautiful features of the natural landscape. Altai travel can also be quite relaxing, with charming highland villages, luxurious eco-resorts and mineral hot springs. Sit back and relax while you bath in mineral hot springs, climb the glaciers, hike the valleys or go for a leisurely ski with friends. Whatever your travel style, there is something for you on the list of 7 reasons you should visit Altai.

1. Visit Altai to hike Mountains and Glaciers

Also called “The Switzerland of Russia” or “open-air museum”, Altai is the home to the UNESCO world heritage site – The Golden Mountains of Altai, which set the scene for some of the most spectacular hikes on the planet, with sweeping valley views, distant snow-capped mountains and lush alpine meadows. There are few places in the world where one can encounter so many landscape combinations in such a small area.

©Yuri Taranik

Belukha Mountain

The real beauty of the Altai region is Mount Belukha, the highest peak of Siberia and Russia (4,506 m). It is actually 1,000 m higher than the surrounding mountain ridges, and it is one of the most popular attractions in the region among adherents of active tourism. Glaciers cover some 70 square km of its surface, as the mountain lies in a region of year-round snows. Those that have managed to reach Belukha’s ice-covered crest quickly get a sense of the enigmatic and mystical force of the Altai Mountains.

The climbing season usually begins in May and ends in September. In summer the temperature on the top of the mountains is about 6 C° on average.  However, even in summer it can get as cold as −20 C°, whereas in winter it can drop to a frigid −45 C°.

Aktru Glacier

There are nearly 1,500 glaciers in Altai, the result of having survived five different glacial periods. Aktru is the most accessible one. It is one of the most impressive places in the mountains and we highly recommend to visit it if you have more than 5 days at Altai.

©Riska Parakeet

The heights start from 1,500m and go up to 3,000m high. At the height of 2,500 m the mountains are covered by snow all year round. Among the main attractions are the “Blue Lake” located on the height of 2,840m and “Teacher’s Saddle”, from where you can have a view on Altay mountains hundreds of kilometres ahead. The path to the “Blue Lake” lies along the glacier itself, so it’s quite an interesting experience: the surface of glacier seems to look like a surface of another planet…

2. Visit Altai to Explore its Endless Lakes and Rivers

Teletskoye Lake

There are over 60,000 kilometres worth of waterways in Altai, there are about 20,000 rivers and about 7,000 lakes, including the famous Lake Teletskoye. It’s the largest and most beautiful lake in Altai, it’s definitely one of the most popular tourist attractions here. About 70 rivers and 150 temporary streams flow into the lake, the largest of them, Chulyshman River, supplying more than half of the lake’s water.

©Sergey Zastavkin

There are many other fantastic lakes popular among visitors, including Aya lake, Kucherlinskiye, Multinskiye, Shavalinskiye and Karakol Lakes, Manzherok and Darashkol Lakes. If fishing is your fancy, then there is also a plentiful supply of fish at the Ugul and Chulishman lakes, where you can fish until your heart is content. Common fish include trout, taimen, grayling, Peled, Perch and Pike.

The Blue Geyser Lake

The Blue Geyser lake is located in the Ulagansky district, close to the Aktash village. It descends 2 meters deep and it is roughly 30 meters wide. Its enchanting blue hues are a result of the thermal springs which simmer beneath the surface, forcing a sand-clay debris to the top.

©Sergey Zastavkin

As their form changes with the geyser, they can often be seen ‘dancing’ as they create new patterns in the lake. The lake itself is almost transparent, and its crystal clear surface is unwavering as it does not freeze even during the winter months. Staring into the heart of the lake, you can observe moss and sea grass swaying in motion with the thermal bubbles, almost as though the lake were breathing.

Seven Lakes Valley

In the shadow of Mount Ak Oyuk (3,670m) lay the impressive Ak Ouk Valley, home of the seven lakes – a picturesque landscape of mountain streams, pooling glacial runoff and mountain lakes. Each lake has its own unique charm and colour, characterised by the stones which line the bottom. Your visit to the seven lakes valley will be marked by wonderful hues of aquamarine, turquoise and piercing clear blue water.

Merging of Katun and Chuya Rivers

There is a place in Altai, where two majestic rivers Chuya and Katun merge, creating beautiful scenery. From ancient times the confluence of this two rivers is seen as sacred and respected place in Altai. This place even got its own name – “Chui-Oozy”, which is translated from the Altai “mouth of the Chuya River”.

©Ed Gordeev

3. Visit Altai to Enjoy White-Water Rafting

Altai rafting is a popular option for adventurers seeking to experience both the beautiful landscape and an adrenaline rush. Brave the currents through a complex system of waterways, giving rise to some outstanding rivers for rafting like the Katun, Charysh and Chuya. When you visit Altai, you’ll be rafting in the steps of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who rafted the Charysh river in 2003.

altai rafting

Extending from its source at the Mt Belukha Glacier, the Katun river carves a path through mountains, meadows and taiga, brining you an Altai white water rafting experience akin to the high water of the American Grand Canyon. The Katun river is one of the most favoured routes of rafting enthusiasts because of its breathtaking views and heart-stopping high water.

4. Visit Altai for Pristine Landscapes

The Altai republic spans 92,600 square kilometres, and it is a land where myths and legends are incarnated into reality. It’s one of those rare corners on the Earth where Nature decided to show everything it was capable of. Broad and boundless views of steppes, luxuriant varieties of taiga thickets, modest charm of deserts, severe splendor of snowy peaks, laconic beauty of tundra – the diversity of landscapes here is so rich, it is as if you are turning over pages of a geographical atlas!

Kyzyl Chin – The Rainbow Mountains

The Rainbow Mountains of Altai, or Kyzyl- Chin are a range of rolling hills, dowsed in hues of orange, burgundy, mustard and white.

©Pavel Filatov

Their majestic colour display is a result of different layers of coloured clay which is abundant in the soil of this region, and which gives it a Mars-like appearance. This area is also thought to have once been a sea, and so it is common to find fossils and ammonites throughout the terrain.

Stone Mushrooms at Akkurum

Emerging from 2 to 7 meters high from the mountainside like enokitake, these outcrops of stone have been weathered into mushroom-like stone figures. Age is also vary from tens to hundred years. The most amazing thing that it continue to grow. The reason is specific soil consisting clay and gravel. It has strong dry state condition, but it is destroyed by influence of moisture and carried away by torrential streams.

These fascinating natural carvings can be found on the banks of the Chulyshman River. You need to cross the river and climb the trail that runs along a steep slope to reach the two large «spawn». Triptakes 2-3 hours depends on skill level. It should be noted that the best time for photo of stone «mushrooms» is no later than 7.00 am, because mushrooms are in the shadow almost all day.

Katu- Yaryk Pass

©Dmitry Arkhipov

There are some outstanding vistas throughout the Altai region, but one of the best views comes from traversing the Katu-Yaryk pass. At 1,188m above sea level, it is one of the scariest high mountain passes in the world due to its loose gravel terrain, narrow roads and lack of barriers. If you’re brave enough to navigate the side of this cliff, you’ll be welcomed by exquisite views from the Chulyshman valley.

Uchar Waterfall

There are several stunning waterfalls in the region such as the Korbu, Kamyshlinksy and Tekelyu, but Uchar is one of the most spectacular of them all. The Uchar waterfall is located on the Chulcha river and is the largest waterfall in the Altai region, with a stream fall of 160 meters. The waterfall itself is relatively young, having evolved about 100- 150 years ago.

©Eugeny / 35photo.pro

The name, ‘Uchar’ is roughly translated to mean ‘inaccessible’, and this reflects the slightly difficult trail that one must traverse in order to glimpse its majesty. The path itself follows the valley to the waterfall, hugging the mouth of the Chulcha river. One of the easier ways to reach this monolith is by taking a boat from the top of Lake Teletskoye and across the water at Artybash village before following the road to the mouth of the river. The path requires river crossing and the navigation of boulders, so it is best done with a guide.

5. Take a Scenic Drive Along Chuisky Trakt – Siberia’s Silk Road

The Chuysky Trakt, which rambles on for about 1,000 km, starts in Novosibirsk (2,812 km from Moscow) and extends across Altai down to Russia’s border with Mongolia. Until the very beginning of the 20th century the Chuysky Trakt remained a dangerous mountain path that merchants and traders could cross only on horseback. It was only in 1901 that construction began on an actual road.

©Konstantin Beloshapkin

Nowadays, Chuisky Trakt (M-52 highway) is Altai’s most famous road, and in 2014 was nominated by National Geographic as one of the top ten most beautiful roads worldwide. They consider it to be on par with the Dalton Highway in the U.S. and National Route 40 in Argentina. The road is wonderfully scenic, snaking through the unique climatic zones of the region and taking you through taiga, steppe, meadows and fields as you cruise through the Altai Republic. 

6. Try Your Luck to Spot a Snow Leopard When Visiting Altai

There is a plethora of natural beauty and exotic wildlife sprawling the expanse of the Altai region, varies from big mammals to small birds (230 species) and fishes (20 species). It is home to some of the most beautiful animals on the planet including the eurasian lynx, corsac fox and the wolf. Staring into the peaks of crumbling shale and slate, you might be fortunate enough to spot the luxurious coat of a snow leopard, the ‘ghost of the mountains’, as he crouches in the shadow of boulder, eyeing the sleek contours of an ibex.

Camel and yak are a good Mongolian touch to the picture of the Russian Altai. Golden eagles soar high above the cliffs, casting shadows on the scene below with their 2,5m wing span as they scour the earth in search of foxes and other prey. Brown bears not only grace the terrain of Kamchatka, but their population extends as far east as Altai. Visit Altai to marvel at their hunting prowess, as they emerge from the depths of pine forests in search of hares and reindeer. Wildlife is also abundant in the mountains, and you should keep an eye out for the weasel, chipmunk and squirrel.

Some species of animals, which can still be found today in the Altai mountains, are disappearing. Among them the above-mentioned snow leopard and also the Siberian mountain goat.

7. Visit Altai to Immerse Yourself in a Unique Nomad Culture

Russia’s Altai Republic is home to just over 205,000 people, comprising ethnic Russians (57%), and indigenous Altaians (31%), Kazakhs (6%), Telengits (1%), Tubalars and other groups. For the sake of comparison, the state of Indiana is the same size but has a population of 6.5 million.

©Anton Agarkov

The indigenous inhabitants of Altai are a Turkic people, known as Altaians. They are alleged to be descended from the Paleo-Eskimo peoples, who reside in the Altai Republic about 1,5 million years ago. Many Altai people retain their native language and culture (including throat singing), as well as speaking Russian. There are also a variety of religions including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Tengrism. Many of the traditional peoples remain Shamanists – so your visit to Altai might include meeting an authentic Shaman – while others have converted to Russian Orthodoxy or Burkhanism.

The Altai Republic has long been regarded as an area of spiritual and occult significance, and Russian philosopher and painter Nikolai Rerikh (Nicholas Roerich) visited the region in the early 20th century in an attempt to locate the entrance to Shambala, the mythical enlightened land of Tibetan Buddhism. 

8. Visit Altai for its Rich History and Archeology

Altai is home to a wealth of historical and archaeological artefacts, including the ancient rock carvings, petroglyphs and drawings that continue to fascinate archaeologists today. Experts have been studying the area for more than a century, with each expedition deep into the heart of the valleys and gorges uncovering more fingerprints of the past.

©De Visu

Strangely some parts of the Altai Mountains have no petroglyphs at all, while others are like alfresco picture galleries from millennia past. One such place is remote Saldyar, on the banks of the Katun River, a place separated from the outside world by the high jagged peaks of the Saldyarskiy pass.

Karakol Valley

The Karakol valley is traditionally though to be a sacred place to the indigenous groups of the area and is the site various ancient burials. These burial sites, as well as the surrounding rock faces are also adorned with petroglyphs, giving the site a spiritual and cultural significance which persists in the mentality of locals today.

©Evgeniy Ivanov

About 5 thousand Petroglyphs can also be seen on 10km of the bank of the Chuya river, depicting images of people and animals on rock face. This sacred location is known as Kalbak-Tash and is presumed to have been an ancient church or ceremonial site.

Ukok Plateau

This is the most remote and isolated part of the Altai mountains, which is located in the heart of the Eurasian continent, at almost equal distance from each of the four oceans of the world. In addition, the Ukok plateau is considered to be the most mysterious region of the Altai, covered with legends. In ancient times, the Ukok was chosen by the Scythian tribes, who left numerous archaeological monuments, rock carvings, stone sculptures, burial mounds.

©Andrey Grachyov

The Ukok Plateau is stunning and silent grassland which comprises part of the UNESCO heritage site “Golden Mountains of Altai”, and the ancient society who used to inhabit the plateau is known as the Pazyryk people. It is also the site of major historical discoveries in the region, such as Pazyryk artefacts: ‘The Horseman’, and a 5th-century Pazyryk carpet, ancient rock carvings, and the “Ice Maiden” or the Princess of Ukok. Based on her burial site, she was a Scytho-Siberian woman who lived during the 5th century BC and is reflective of Pazyryk culture that survived in the Siberian steppe.

Aside from the “Ice Maiden”, the plateau is also the site of over five other tattooed mummies who were found belonging to the same Pazyryk culture, and who was so well preserved because of the permafrost within their tombs. The result of the work of archaeologists has been recognized as the epoch-making discovery of the twentieth century. Findings from the Ukok plateau were exhibited in the best museums in the world.

Patmos Island

The Island on the Katun River was named after the Greek namesake, and was consecrated by Metropolitan Makarios in 1855. A few years later on it was built an orthodox temple, that stood before the arrival of the Bolsheviks. In the 20s of the previous century, the church was destroyed and rebuilt only in the early 2000s, largely due to a muscovite, Viktor Pavlov, who had moved to Chemal. The Island walkway is now possible only by foot (not more than 5-to 6 people at a time) on a breathtaking hanging bridge.

Yet, it’s not the church which attracts the tourists here, but the scenery and the bridge which can hold up to 6 people at a time. Standing there, with the growling Katun river underneath and being surrounded by majestic Siberian nature, that’s what make this place very special.

Where Should I Stay When I Visit Altai?

©Les i More
©Les i More

When to visit Altai

A decision on when to go to Altai should be made depending on what you want to do there. Altai’s climate is known to be quite harsh. This region is famous for long frosty winters, and hot but short summers. But even in summer, the temperature may go down, so it’s crucial to have some warm clothes with you. Tourist season is in the full swing there usually in summer, and there’s no wonder: it’s the perfect time for people who would like to be involved in many different activities.

Generally, Summer starts at the end of May-June and finishes in September. During that time it’s quite warm during the daytime (about + 20 – 25 Celsius) and cool in the night (about +5-10 Celcius). During June and July, there may be quite a few rains, but August and September are the sunniest months (more than 60% of the time there’s no rain at all). In Summer, the snow is left only on the heights of 2,600m and higher and the winds in the valleys are not very strong. So the best months for travelling at Altai in Summer are July, August, and the first half of September.

Winter in Altai starts in October-November. That’s when it starts snowing and the mountains are covering by snow from top to bottom. The best months for travelling in winter are November and December. During that time, there’s mostly good weather and not very cold. The coldest months are January and February. The average temperature goes down to -15-20 Celcius. After that, in February and March, the weather is quite nice again. There are a lot of activities you may enjoy during this time, like skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, wildlife watching, and even swimming in frozen lakes.

©Olga Sazhina

The snow usually starts to disappear in the first half of May, so it is a beautiful Springtime in Altai at this period. During May, the Altai Mountains turn into a huge flowering glade and start blazing purple. This Rhododendron (also called Maralnik by locals) blooming period is the main event of spring in the Altai mountains; this insanely beautiful sight attracts many travellers from all around the globe. Local people believe that if Maralnik has blossomed, then spring has finally entered into its rightful stage.

How to get to Altai

Gorno-Altaysk is the capital of the region and is serviced by Gorno-Altaysk airport. The easiest way to visit Altai is a direct 4h20min flight from Moscow. You also can fly (4h) from Moscow to Barnaul, which is 300 km far from Altai. It is a beautiful provincial town, which surprises with the availability of good-quality accommodation, original restaurants, and friendly people. Novosibirsk, the city through which the Trans-Siberian route goes, is about 600 km far, which is very not that far for Siberian scales, and you can get to Gorno-Altaisk from there by hired car or regular bus.

As the centre of Eurasia, and one of the last untouched regions of natural beauty and wildlife in the world, Altai is host to major ecosystems which support a diversity of life. From pristine mountains and aquamarine lakes to the historically to exciting martian landscapes, Altai travel is one tremendous adventure waiting to happen. Now that you’re better acquainted with the natural beauty and exciting experiences that await you, be sure to include it on your perfect trip to Russia!

Categories: Early Bird


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