The West Altai Nature Reserve, tucked into a remote corner of Kazakhstan on the Russian border, is one of Kazakhstan’s safest havens for wild life. With most other national parks famously corrupt, the bar is set low, though.
There is plenty to see in the reserve, from strange rock formations to forgotten history from the time of Russian settlement. And of course plenty of opportunity for wildlife spotting and botanizing.
But you are not free to roam. You need to pay a small entrance fee, and a park ranger needs to accompany you. Rangers only speak Russian. To visit the very end of the reserve on the Russian border, where you find the strange rock formations of Kamennaya Skazka (Stony Fairytale), you will need an extra permit as well.
If it’s independent hiking you are after, you can find plenty of it outside of the bounds of the reserve. You will encounter similar plants, wildlife and sweeping landscapes, without the need for permits or guides; find out more at Poperechnoe.
Terrain, fauna and flora
From IUCN: The West Altai Nature Reserve covers an area of 56,000 hectares. The reserve’s terrain is representative of a mid-mountain range with gentle slopes. Only the central part of the Ivanovsky mountain range (Vysheivanovsky Belok, 2778 meters) is notable for its extreme alpine topography.
Up to the forest border are small glacial lakes and brooks emanating from bogs, and 14 small glaciers on the tributaries of the Belaya Cuba River hold ice. The reserve could be divided in 4 zones: deciduous forest, mountain taiga, mountain tundra and subalpine and alpine meadows.
In short: a lot of forest. A lot of diversity in plant life and a good opportunity to see wild animals. Eagles are everywhere, bears are common. The Altai weasel is prominent here, as well as several of his cousins, like the stoat.
This Russian-language map of the reserve with highlights and trekking routes marked can give an idea of where you can go.
Interesting sights to visit are the 400-year-old cedar, the Monk’s Cap forest and an old triangulation point to measure distances.
Birdwatchers will want to head for Shcherbakov Lake, White Ulba Lake (Byeloulbinskoye) and Cedar Lake (kedrovoye ozera), and the Small Ulba reservoir (Maloulbinskoye Vodokhranilichshe), which retains a wooden dam and early electrical equipment from the time it was built in 1926.
The Promenade (gulbishe) is a colourful highland swamp where 2 rivers originate.
Petrophiles will not be able to resist the massive granite outcrops called Thunderbolt (chyortov palets) and Stone Fairytale (kamennaya skazka) and the strange stone river of Kamennaya Rechka.
Mountains of note are Kholsun (2598 m) and the Black Knot area (chyorniy uzel) where 4 mountain ranges come together at 2775 m height.
Outside of the reserve, Radon Lake is fantastically beautiful. It takes 1 day to hike there from Poperechnoe, but you can extend beyond for another 7-10 days of wilderness walking, looping to Alyoshkini Stochki.
Tours, booking and permits
We can help you with transport, booking accommodation and guiding services, as well as possible permits. Please let us know your interests.
Accommodation and transport
We advise you stay at Poperechnoe, but you could also visit the reserve as a day trip from Ridder.
The road is perfect until Ridder, after which it deteriorates to a potholed gravel road for the last 50 km. About 1h drive from Ridder. A 4WD is not necessary, but a higher ground clearance is definitely preferred.
Instead of coming in via the west through Ridder, real explorers could come in from the south. From Turgusun, the road north leads to an old Old Believers village called Kutikha, and to a protected zone called Nizheturgusunk. From there, you can hike to the Black Knot area. You will need permission in advance.