The Altai mountains are divided between Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. It’s a glorious place to be, desolate and bucolic all at once, with natural life undisturbed by the people that live in these mountains. For once, the word epic is really in its place when describing the Altai mountains. Some of the panoramas are breath-taking. The whole place breathes peace and quiet.
Some flowers have only recently been described, and it is home to large animals such as bear, maral deer, red wolf, sable and elk. Roaming the Kazakh Altai is a feast for the tastebuds as well: the forests in summer display an abundance of musrooms and berries ripe for the picking, and the Altai beekeepers produce the best honey in the country. In short, it’s where you need to be.
Hiking is a great way to experience Altai. Trekking can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be. There are peaks over 4000m for adventurous souls and gentle-sloped mid-mountain meadows for nature lovers, but you can also wander from village to village, challenge men to a wood-chopping contest or flatter ladies with compliments on their cooking skills.
The most famous parts of the Altai are in the east, but that does not mean the rest is not of interest. The Katon Karagai valley has many side valleys you can explore, and it gradually narrows into the ascent of legendary Mount Belukha and the lake and hot springs around Rachmanov springs, and the beauty of Lake Markakol the main attractions.
The West Altai is less well-known, but equally beautiful. The whole area has been proclaimed a nature reserve in 1991 and is home to a host of rare mammals, birds and plants.
Border zone permit
One problem with trekking in Altai is the border zone permit. A few of the most stunning attractions of the Kazakh Altai, like Lake Markakol and Rachmanov springs, are in a border area with China deemed sensitive by the government. It isn’t a terrible process, but you need to start in advance.
The restricted area where you need a permit is not that big, so if you can’t afford the extra time and effort involved in getting a permit, there is still plenty of landscape left to explore.
Mount Burkitaul (3373 m), 18 km southwest of the town of Katon, is popular with mountaineers for its beautiful pyramid shape. At the base of the mountain are large stands of birch teeming with mushrooms, but higher up, it’s classic, stark taiga forest. Burkitaul can best be reached from the village of Topkayin.
Belukha and Rachmanov Springs
Climbing Belukha is for real mountaineers, but hiking to the foot of the mountain, the cascade and the upper base camp is within everyone’s grasp. A good base for tours on foot is Kokkol, a ghost town built under a thundering cascade in the 1930’s to mine for quartz, wolframite and molybdenum. From Kokkol, it takes 2 days to hike to Rachmanov springs.
At Rachmanov springs, the hiking possibilities are endless. Lots of bears, though, but also beautiful alpine meadows, taiga, waterfalls, plant life, granite architecture, etc.
Beyond Katon Karagai valley
For hiking north of Ridder, see our article on the West Altai reserve for route tips and a map.
Connecting Katon and West Altai is possible. Real explorers can start from Turgusun, wherefrom the road leads north to an old Old Believers village called Kutikha, and onwards to a protected zone called Nizheturgusunk. From there, you can hike to the Black Knot area.
Similarly, connecting Katon Karagai valley with Lake Markakol is possible. It’s a 2-day hike along the Austrian Road, with possibly some difficult wading.
It took us some time to find reliable partners in this part of Kazakhstan, but we can now organize almost any kind of transport, organised trek or permit in Altai. Small jaunts and homestays or long 2 or 3-week treks deep into the woods.
One big issue is language skills. Good guides who know the terrain and who know English well – we haven’t found them yet in Altai. Bringing along a translator costs extra and drives up the price for tours.
Kazakhstan’s Altai is a remote place. As you travel deeper into the mountains, people, houses, roads and Starbucks franchises disappear from your sight, then from your mind. So make sure to prepare adequately.
Altai is a surprisingly rainy place. Besides the unpredictable weather common to all mountain ranges, parts of Altai are the rainiest bits of the entire Former Soviet Union. Expect rain. Also remember, this is Siberia: summers are short.
Bears are common once you are off the beaten track, and mosquitoes are a real nuisance in summertime. In winter, hiking is for bad-ass explorers only; skiing in Altai, on the other hand, is excellent, if you are an advanced skier.