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 the best 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 attractive parts of the Altai lay in the east, with the ascent of legendary Mount Belukha, the sanatoria around Rachmanov springs, the beauty of Lake Markakol and the fishing in Lake Zaysan as the main attractions.
The West Altai is less spectacular, but equally beautiful. The whole area has been proclaimed a nature reserve in 1991 and is home to a host of mammals, birds and plants, of which some are endemic and threatened with extinction.
One problem with Altai trekking 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, and you will need to enlist the help of a tour operator to get a border zone permit.
There are several tour operators and travel agencies in North Kazakhstan who specialise in Altai travel. Have a look at the following:
Altai trekking routes
The restricted area where you need a permit is not that big, so if you can’t afford the extra cost and effort involved in getting a permit, there is still plenty of landscape left to explore. You will need a permit to go south from Katon Karagai into the Markakol Nature Reserve, and to go east from Uryl, at the end of the Bukhtarma valley east of Katon Karagai. This means that the West Altai Nature Reserve that stretches out to the Russian border from Ridder, is up for free-range exploring, all 56 000 ha of it. The area north and east of Zyryanovsk, though not so spectacular as the East or West Altai, is also worthwile and outside of the border zone.
But if you are looking for spectacular views, epic vistas and true unspoilt beauty, you need to be in the high Altai, up from Katon Karagai. There are no trekking routes here, or anywhere for that matter in Kazakhstan, so you will orient yourself on natural landmarks rather than red dots on a tree or stone. You might want to get a map as well.
Altai mountains map and guidebooks
If you need a map to plan your hikes, we recommend you to look at our overview of Altai maps. There are also 2 guidebooks in Russian that have maps and trekking routes of the Kazakh part of the Altai, these are Zolotye Gory and Bolshoi Altai Putevoditel. Ozon.ru ships outside of Russia as well.
One more book comes from one of our favourite guidebook publishers, Wild guides. Authored by a host of eminent biologists, the Guide to Endemic Plants of the Altai Mountain Country documents more than 300 endemic plants of Altai. If you are interested in botany and want to learn more during your trip in the area, this field guide is indispensible.
Weather, preparations and how to get there
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.
If you want to travel independently, the main gateways to the Altai are Ridder, Zyryanovsk and Katon Karagai. Ridder is a less-than-amazing mining town that serves as the jumping-off point for the West Altai nature reserve. It is served by frequent buses and occasional trains from Ust-Kamenogorsk.
Zyryanovsk, between Ridder and Katon Karagai, is also served by buses and trains from Ust-Kamenogorsk. From here to Katon Karagai and beyond, you will need your own transport. The road gets bumpier as you go along, so be sure your vehicle can handle it.
Lastly, the Altai is a surprisingly rainy place. Besides the unpredictable weather common to all mountain ranges, the northeast of Kazakhstan receives a lot more rain than the rest of the country, so keep it in mind and look at the weather report.