The Austrian Road was built from 1915 to 1917 by Austro-Hungarian WW1-prisoners captured on the Eastern Front. With the help of nothing more than shovels, saws, pickaxes and cables, they created a legendary track through a remote wilderness in the far northeast of Kazakhstan, under highly unfavorable climatic conditions.
3 years for a stretch of about 60 kilometers – the suffering those numbers must hide!
The conquest of that Austrian Road by Michael Richter, a lone, 67-year old plant geographer with a 17-year old Pajero and no technical knowledge whatsoever, is the memorable tale that’s told here.
The road at a glance
The Austrian Road connects Kazakhstan’s northern Katon-Karagayskiy and southern Kurchumskiy districts with China and the basin of the Cherny Irtysh. It does not end there, but continues along the Chinese border. After passing the easy Marmara Pass, the road offers a sublime vista onto the white sands of the Ak Kum desert on the other side of the fence.
The track contains several bridges and fords and climbs from 990 m in the Bukhtarma Valley up to the 2137 m high Burkhat Pass. Afterwards, it runs mostly gently up and down towards Lake Markakol at 1445 m.
The journey begins
Traveling from Central Europe to Central Asia by car might be enough adventure for some. But if one negotiates the Chinese border zone without major problems, the search for more trouble becomes a dangerous drug.
A small problem at the start is the fuel supply. Starting from Öskemen, a full tank will not suffice to cross the fuel-consuming Tarbagatai (marmot) Mountains. However, the gas station at Uryl (Berel) can provide 80 octane. Depending on the frugality of your car, this might be sufficient (my 17 years old, petrol-driven Pajero did not suffer – at least not from the gas quality…).
The “gas station” of Uryl – only 80 octane available
The turn-off from the state road between Katon-Karagay (Qotanqaraghay) and Uryl lies between Chingistay and Enbek in the Bukhtarma Valley. When the winter snow melts, potholes and impassable sections become visible, especially on the southern half of the road.
With some luck, the actual situation can be deduced from talking to local travel agencies or those guarding the check points on the main road. In any case, even a short visit to the road is worth your while, because of the highlights offered just behind the northern entrance to the Katon-Karagai National Park, the largest in Kazakhstan.
The kind control posts did not bother me and it seems that they are rather happy if somebody passes. Traffic is absent, and one starts to think about the use of such road construction 100 years ago: was it of strategic importance to get into the northwestern Chinese border Zone, or was this just occupational therapy?
3D-satellite view from north towards the south, crossing two saddles of the Tarbagatai Mountains and an intermediate flat valley.
Friendly guards at the entrance of the Katon-Karagai National Park.
The road starts out narrow but solid, heading up to and then over the Burkhat passes, and in spite of its serpentine turns you feel neither uncomfortable nor lost; this will come later…
Before reaching the Burkhat pass a spectacular outlook over the Bukhtarma Valley 1000 m below already shows why the Katon-Karagai national park is one of the most interesting and picturesque parts of the Kazakh Altai.
On the valley ground steppe grass and wormwood wave, but the meandering river is accompanied by a dark gallery forest of willows and cottonwood. When the air clears, the Belukha Massif shows itself. The mountain slopes are covered by taiga-like coniferous forests: spruce, pine, larch and birch interfere with meadows, with a wide variety of colorful wild flowers.
Roadside picture down to the Bukhtarma Valley near the Burkhat pass. The road is still OK.
Once over the pass, the landscape changes. Instead of a steep bald slope, the mountain now turns gentle and hilly. Only the crest line shows attitude: vertical pillars and pinnacles of grey schistose stick out amidst dwarf shrubs, mountain meadows and a few solitary spruce trees.
Rocky outcrop south of Burkhat pass – a remote place for lonely freeclimbers?
Further on, the gravel road leads into a shallow and forested valley, which after around 10 km drains off into a wide high plain of grassland. This is the only place along the 60 km-stretch with an inhabited farm, the “House of the Huntsman”. No idea what the huntsman lives off, though. An old Soviet tractor, a jeep and a few horses – no human around – that´s it.
The “house of the huntsman” in the middle of nowhere.
When the going gets tough…
Crossing the plain southward, an important question arises for the first time: Is this still the right way?
The Austrian Road now looks like a farm trail with several lanes running parallel: that’s strange! My satellite image says I should continue straight towards the south.
A ford through a jolly creek with a stony stream bed leads from the opposite bank once again into an afforested valley, where the road and the channel run side by side for several kilometers. The “road” becomes more and more rugged; I am getting annoyed with the large puddles and potholes.
Again: Is this really the right way?
No fresh tire tracks, no footprints, no sign of recent human activities. I start to feel somehow uncomfortable and my eyes stop noticing the marvelous scenery.
To dispel my doubts I speed up the rate of picture taking. At least I will be able to enjoy the landscape when I get back home in case I survive this trip.
South of the hunterman´s house stream and trail run parallel over 12 kms.
New obstacles aren’t reducing my feelings of concern. On the contrary.
A slowly decomposing bridge asks me what I think the load capacity of its rotten planks might be. What about those mudholes, and the vertical brink into the half meter deep pit?
Getting off, inspecting, checking, brooding, resuming the inspection, getting on, hesitating, deciding. Finally, slowly progressing.
The road deteriorates…are we still going the right way…?
And then an unexpected surprise: Oncoming traffic! A GAZ jeep! Including an old driver (the hunter?) and a young boy! My careful question “Dobre dien! Markakol?”, combined with a forward sign of my left hand, gets a liberating answer: “Da, da!”
The mood changes instantly! No problem that the lane is too narrow for two cars, we will manage this tiny problem, the main issue is that there are still more people alive!
And it is a magical moment to blow all depressions away. I am on the right way. And if the old guy is able to make it, I will manage as well! (By the way, the old guy is for sure younger than me).
Fireweed and twilight landscape around Altaiskiy Pass
Once again keeping an eye out for rare flowers I find only excessive stands of fireweed instead of noble species of tulip and iris, which should occur in the area (one year later, when I visited Aksu Zhabagly Nature Reserve near Shimkent in late May, I realized that July was too late to get a glimpse of those brilliant members of Central Asian mountain grasslands).
But fireweed in full evening light is also not bad, and the setting of the towering peaks west of Altaiskiy Pass shows the national park at its finest.
Full of new encouragement I tackle the last kilometers and then – uuups, the worst has been saved for last! A deep swampy hole filled up with huge logs blocks the track. I get off to check the situation, but my skepticism does not fade. If the wheels slip off the biggest trunk the car might crash with the tires not touching ground.
But to turn back means once again navigating the tortuous 50 Kilometers and to have to do an additional loop way of around 500 kilometers via Balchenarymskoe, Kurchum and Terekty to reach my intended aims, Lake Markakol and the margin of the dunes of Ak Kum.
That is out of the question, and to cut a long story short: I crossed the mud pool, and that was it!
Major decision problem: Shall I try it?
Can you imagine how I felt after finally entering the fine gravel road, which leads from the villages of Sorvenok, Bobrovka and Vladimirovka in the east to Markakol in the south? Can you imagine the “German Autobahn-feeling” that entered my swiftly pedaling feet?
And can you imagine how happy I was when I finally became aware of the stainless mirror of Markakol lake in front of me?
Evening atmosphere over Markakol – a paradisiacal picture as prize for a stressful tour
After a day of complete isolation the atmosphere in the settlement of Urunkhanka reminded me of that of the world´s capitals. Looking for a camp site I first tried the official camp ground near the lake, but the owner turned out to be extremely unfriendly and he claimed a lot of administrative paper work.
So I said goodbye, left the place and passed the night on a hill right north of “town” enjoying a lovely vista over the lake and slept outside in my fantastic 1000-star-hotel. The “empty land” of the day was forgotten.
Next day I found out Urunkhanka is not a capital city after all with an estimated population of 500, most of them friendly, relaxed and of Russian origin.
The architecture was made up of whitewashed wooden walls, tin or plank roofs and assemblages of various generations of shithouses, crooked sheds and power poles gone awry, while broken and dented trucks and tractors decorated various front gardens. The whole resembled a typical Siberian village.
The best moments were in the evenings, when a special light fell over the lake and the valley winds started to bring fresh air from the mountains (Urunhayka means “evening breeze” in Kalmyk).
Urunkhanka – capital of the world…
Adequate vehicle for some sections of the Austrian Road
However, Markakol was not the last highlight of my trip.
2 more mountain passes waited for conquest; Tikkabak and Marmara Pass. This turned out to be an easy drive with great views of the 300m high, bright dunes of the At Kum sands right behind the Chinese border fence, completely different from the forested Tarbagatai.
Don’t imagine the Sahara, though. Instead, the Ak Kum sands resemble dunes found typically along the shores of Western Europe. No sea in sight though: just grayish shrubland, steppe grasses and poplar stands.
The final highlight: the dune field of Ak Kum
Chinese watch tower near Terekty
And then the great moment: touching a wooden pole of the Kazakh-Chinese border fence!
Standing on the furthest eastern border point of this solitary, self-driven journey. I could not believe it – a great feeling! On the other hand: what a shame that there is no chance for me to pace over, just to touch the sands and let it trickle through my fingers. And what a ridiculous idea to shape a 20 meter broad clear-cut lane with four fences and watch towers between two pleasant areas of nowhere.
One of the personal highlights of this journey was the fact that I was able to do this alone in spite of an advanced age (67) and finally – some of you might shake their head – although I do not possess any mechanical skills.
The local highlights are the view down into Bukhtarma Valley, the surroundings of Altaiskiy Pass, Lake Markakol as well as parts of Urunkhanka and the Ak Kum dunes. The ultimate take home message is: You have to suffer to see the best places.
But don´t worry – further south, around Lake Zaysan the landscape becomes steppic again, i.e. homogenous and for some people rather boring, especially if you compare it with the taiga and the alpine meadows you got to know before.
If you intend to do the Austrian Road: good luck and have fun!
Touching the Chinese border fence
Back to normal life: The friendly wishes of an unknown author worked well