Altai: no other place in Kazakhstan conjures up a similar amount of heart-felt emotion and undisguised romanticism. Writers and religions situate their Utopias here, and scientist-adventurers like Alexander von Humboldt came to face wilderness behind every hill or tree trunk.
Remoteness surrounds the Altai with a singular atmosphere, one that spiritual seekers have sought out since the Scythian era. You spend a lot of time talking about ‘vibes’ when you are in Altai.
The Old Believers that used to hole up in the valleys here have died or assimilated, but new-born Christians have come in their place. Yogis trek to Mount Belukha to feel the vibes and find the mythical kingdom of Shambala, and New Age devotees come to search out the wisdom held by the shamans of Mongolian and Russian Altai.
Botanists, zoologists, fishermen and recluses find their own paradise here in communion with nature. It must be nature that affects the character here. People in Altai display a modesty and simplicity that has little in common with either Kazakh “wide souls” or Russian “maximalism”.
In terms of landscape, Altai covers the whole breadth of scenery to be found in Kazakhstan, transitioning from baking-hot steppe and desert plains to undulating hills planted with near-endless sunflower fields.
More eastward, as the elevation rises, clear lakes reflect the sky above and steep slopes of taiga forest remind us this is already Siberia. Right up on the border, snow-capped mountains pierce the clouds.
I have good hope Altai will remain a special place for some time to come, visited mostly by seekers, explorers, extreme sports fanatics and adventurers willing to go the extra mile in search of the miraculous. Everyone else won’t enjoy it anyway.
Ust-Kamenogorsk and Ridder
Ust-Kamenogorsk (Oskemen in Kazakh) is the gateway to the Altai. The smokestacks billowing gaseous exhausts over the city make Ust-Kamenogorsk a rather unhealthy town in Kazakhstan, but it is an interesting spot for industrial archaeologists.
1,5 hours drive north lies Ridder, another industrial outpost Soviet historians would enjoy. Mainly though, Ridder is a sportsman’s town at the base of mountain ridges covered in champagne powder most of the year. In winter, it’s daily life in Ridder to see a snow bum lean on a pair of skis next to a bus stop.
Ridder is also the gateway to the West Altai Nature Reserve. There is more snow and hiking pleasure in this large park if you can take care of yourself. If you prefer it less wild, homestays in the village of Poperechnoe are an excellent way to get into Altai village life.
Katon Karagai valley
A winding road along the Bukhtarma reservoir popular with locals leads up a fertile plateau, into the wide Katon Karagai valley. Famous for its top-quality honey and fish (and deer antler extract), its popular with bears – hikers be warned. At Berel, the Scythian grave mounds uncovered in the Valley of Tsars are an archaeological highlight of Central Asia.
The road, fine until that point, starts to deteriorate rapidly as it carries you along old mining sites, quiet ghost towns, pristine nature, hermits and terrible roads until you finally reach the exclusive health resort at Rachmanov Springs, and the foothills of Mount Belukha.
The shortcut to Lake Markakol known as the Austrian Road is out of use since a bridge collapsed in 2013. All hopefuls must now backtrack to the start of the valley and head down the southern road.
The southern road
The southern road out of Ust-Kamenogorsk leads past some of the most atmospheric steppe in Kazakhstan. Ak Baur is a minor petroglyph site with more kurgans in the surrounds, and the area around Asubulak invites for picknicks and neverending horse rides. The lakes here are not worth visiting at the moment, though.
At Kaznakovka-Kurshim, the ferry across Bukhtarma takes you straight into some of the emptiest badlands I have ever come across. If the time is right, you can visit extra-terrestrial landscapes at Kiin Kerish and Zhanytas with a guide (because you can easily get lost).
All of this leads up to the pearl of the Kazakh Altai, Lake Markakol. Peace incarnated, it is a home to a number of Red Book species. A place for nature lovers. In winter, ice fishing is the main attraction.
Returning along Lake Zaysan, you pass by the similarly named and best ignored town of Zaysan on your way to the border crossing with China.
For the furthest reaches of the Katon Karagai valley and the southern road, you need a border area permit.