Ridder is the gateway to the northern and western part of Kazakhstan’s Altai. While the town of Ridder itself is not much of a draw in itself, its surroundings most definitely are.
Tremendous tracts of taiga forest harbour big wildlife like elks and bears and wildflowers galore, while the nearby hills and mountains are a year-round playground for pioneering hikers, mountainbikers, rafters and skiers.
If your idea of a good time instead revolves more around singing folk songs, sweating in a village banya and sleeping in a wooden gingerbread house, going berry and mushroom hunting and discovering the history of Old Believers in abandoned settlements, well then, welcome!
Ridder was founded by Philip Ridder, a Saint-Petersburg mining engineer of Baltic-German descent. In 1786, Ridder led an expedition that found large deposits of lead and zinc, silver and gold in the ground: the Ridder mine was born.
Mining and ore processing have been the cornerstone of Ridder’s existence ever since, while the villages in the surrounding taiga served as hideouts for recluses and religious fanatics determined to not have anything to do with modernity.
Eventually modern life did catch up with this forgotten corner of Siberia. The city was renamed Leninogorsk in 1941, and after World War II, the city had a 30,000-strong German prisoner of war camp under number 347 working the mines.
In 2002, the city was renamed to Ridder once more. The name of Kunaev, the party chief and predecessor of president-for-life Nazarbayev, was suggested as well (Kunaev was a mine director in Ridder at one point) but that did not happen. Somehow.
Cold and dark in winter, polluted and lacking in economic opportunities, you won’t find pictures of Ridder in Kazakhstan’s official country marketing. The local saying goes that in Ridder, you are either a world-class wintersports athlete, or a drug addict.
It’s a rough way of putting it, but it rings true: half of Kazakhstan’s winter Olympics team was born in Ridder, while the local bazaar has ads for rehab and addiction treatment prominently displayed above the melons and the carrots.
Ridder is still a mining town, with the chimneys of lead and zinc processing plants belching out toxic fumes that hang over, what is in essence, a lovely mountain town. Work in the mines and factories is hard, dangerous and underpaid, and there are only 2 refuges for the city’s youth: sports in the beautiful mountains surrounding Ridder, or substance abuse.
Astana’s bureaucrats have shown little concern for the social ills of Ridder, but they do worry about another aspect of Ridder: its majority-Russian population. With Russia’s take-over of Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in mind, the government has started a project of Kazakhification, offering free housing to oralmans, ethnic Kazakhs who have returned to Kazakhstan after independence.
Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest the program has had mixed success: southerners find Ridder, in their own words, too damn cold.
Sights in Ridder
The regional history museum (OSM / Gmaps) is worth a look, but be aware the museum is monolingual. If have an interest in Old Believers, it is worth asking for the old museum guide who is very knowledgeable. Other museum workers are not.
The museum inside the administration of the West Altai National Park mostly consists of displays of neglected stuffed animals, blown up pictures of local landscapes and a rock collection.
Apparently, Kazzinc also has a museum. We haven’t visited yet.
The 150 ha Altai Botanical garden ( Gmaps / OSM) on the outskirts of Ridder is focused on the Altai and Far East of Russia. Started in 1935, it is the second-oldest in Kazakhstan and with a bigger variety than other botanical gardens in Almaty, Karaganda and Zhezkazgan; the garden has 5500 species, including 2000 local ones. You will find lots of peonies and allium, as well as a sizeable dendrarium.
Employees are happy to guide you, but only speak Russian. Entrance is free; open Mon-Fri 8-12 and 13-17.
Longest wooden pipe
What locals call the longest wooden pipe in the world (haven’t been able to verify) is located in the suburbs. It is made from long-lasting larch wood and brings in drinking water from the mountains.
Things to do
The area around Ridder is a ski touring destination. Some ski lifts exist, but facilities are otherwise non-existent. It’s all about the backcountry for the foreseeable future. November – December and late February – early April are the best times (deep winter is usually considered too cold even for locals), although the highest regions are skiable from October until early June. All info at skiing in Kazakhstan.
It’s a pioneering area. Although people have been hiking here for a long time, there are few descriptions or routes publicly available (we have a trove of 20 gpx tracks for download, from Velopehota); you need to plan out your own route or get in touch with local hikers in advance if you plan to do it independently.
One easy route goes from Poperechnoe to Radon Lake in a day. From Radon Lake, you have different options for a tour of a week or longer.
If you would like to do it with a guide, get in touch.
Mountainbiking and rafting
The same goes for mountainbiking and rafting. There isn’t a lot of information available, so you will need to make contacts with locals or find your own way. Sports shops in Ridder have mountainbikes for rent, as well as all you need for rafting and fishing.
(Photo-)hunting and birding
Hunting and fishing is promoted by local powerbrokers. We cannot help you with that. If, on the other hand, you would like to photo-hunt birds, wildlife or plantlife, we would be very happy to help make that happen. 2 examples:
The whole area around Ridder is ripe with opportunity for nature lovers: the chapter below goes into more detail.
Poperechnoe and West Altai Nature Reserve
Poperechnoe is a typical Siberian village 90 minutes drive from Ridder. A summer folk festival is the yearly highlight, and some inhabitants have experience hosting tourists. It is the perfect base to explore the surrounding nature, meet villagers, and stuff yourself with homemade delights that are good for the soul, but oh so bad for the cholesterol level.
The West Altai Nature Reserve lies just east of Poperechnoe. The reserve protects 50 000 hectares of land with all the features of south-Siberian taiga.
Abandoned settlements and taiga
If you had a brief look at the map, you may have noticed the big blank spot above Ridder. On the Russian side of the border, there are a number of nature reserves. On the Kazakh side, it is 5 000 km2 of unaldulturated, unattended, uninhabited taiga, an area roughly the size of Trinidad and Tobago. Uninhabited, that is, except for bears, moose, elk and a few offspring of Old Believers who settled in the area about 200 years ago.
The best way to explore the area would be to leave Ridder well-prepared in a very good vehicle: a 4WD is ok, but some locals prefer a small tank. Make your way up along the Black Uba towards the settlement of Ermolaevka. People still live there. Deeper into the taiga, explorers can find now abandoned settlements.
About 3 hours drive on the road to Ermolaevka lies the Black Uba hunting base. Although run by passionate hunters and primarily in use for that purpose, birders and wildlife watchers can also use the base. Although the state of the houses is good and it is an excellent location to see wildlife, it is expensive and we have personally not had good experiences with the owners.
Of course, autonomous hikers, rafters and mountainbikers might also want to tackle the region on foot, by boat or on a bike. Here is a report (ru) of a raft-hike expedition.
Transport and permit
Train and bus
infor.kz is Ridder’s main online infoportal. It is the number one place to find out anything going on in Ridder. It has addresses of all organisations and businesses, as well as timetables for buses and trains.
Locals advise to not take a late train or bus in winter; rolling equipment does break down at times and if you get stuck at night in -35, it gets really scary really quickly.
Trains only run to Oskemen, they are few and far between and they take about twice as long to arrive. Only for fanatics. Keep in mind the train station is still called Leninogorsk on most booking platforms.
Car and bicycle
The scenic road to Ridder from Oskemen is perfect tarmac (90 minutes). For foreigners, there is no legal nearby border crossing with Russia, Oskemen is your way in. En route, the bazaar at Cheremshanka, known for its once-humongous poultry factory, is a good place to shop for honey and mushrooms on the way back.
Bicycles are for rent in 5 different bicyle shops on the main Nezavisimosti prospekt. An easy cycle goes along the Gramatukha river.
Ridder’s ambulatory claim to fame comes as the final stop on the 8 000 km-long E40 road starting from Calais, France. Don’t expect much: there is no sign for your selfie yet (we’ve talked to the Ridder tourism agency about it, they’d think about it). Actually, there have been few bits of highway for the past 4 000 km so we are not quite sure what the E40 name is supposed to endorse.
There is no need for an Altai permit anymore as a foreigner to visit Ridder and its surroundings. Only for visits very close to the Russian border, including the West Altai Nature Reserve, do you still need a border permit.
Memories of the Soviet Union are slowly fading away across the region, but here is your chance to stay in an old-fashioned Soviet hotel that has seen very little renovation. Built in the 1950’s, Hotel Altay is being kept up to some extent. The interior design is full-on Siberian village and it smells like the Soviet Union, but it is clean, hot water works and the location is very central. For ostalgics.
Tourist is a clean option near the bazaar for a similar price to the Hotel Altay, but with newer rooms. The location is not ideal, though, and we got a bit of a brothel-vibe (perhaps unwarranted).
The Zhili-Bili Mini Hotel is new since late 2018. We haven’t visited yet, but it seems to be the standard converted appartment. It is right in the center of town, so this could also be a good option if the essentials prove to be in good order.