The Altai Republic forms a mountainous little corner of the largest country in the world. It is, like the corresponding areas of Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, predominantly Kazakh, although my limited Russian remembered from a visit to the northern Caucasus many years ago seemed to be understood (“beer, thank you”). Unlike our alternative route choice to get to Kazakhstan, which was to go through Xinxiang Province in China, the predominantly Muslim population in these parts is not being systematically persecuted in a highly questionably “re-education” project. The Kazakhs here, and in Mongolia, are fantastically friendly, warm and welcoming, and produce some excellent food! After stuffing ourselves at a local restaurant we slept in the car park of the Kosh-Agach Hostel and chatted to some twitchers here on holiday, whilst paying less than a fiver to use the facilities. A hot shower was most welcomed (by us and we suspect the other guests).
Unknown to us when planning this route the Chuyskiy Tract, the road connecting the border with the city of Barnaul, forms one of Russia’s most picturesque drives. Winding down through the mountains the steep sides and immense rivers were a marked contrast to the wide open spaces of the Mongolian steppe. Small high mountain villages, constructed from gorgeous dark timber huts and houses with cheerful blue roofs, are interspersed with single room holiday chalets and Russian saunas (banya). Roadside stalls sell local honey and vegetables, and ring-bound bunches of birch cuttings for the customary self-flagellation. The valley has a very alpine atmosphere and is certainly worthy of more exploration than we were able to give. It is also, true to that most Russian of stereotypes, kept alive by a continual stream of Ladas in varying states of rusting decay. Ladas ploughing fields, Ladas towing huge bales of hay, Ladas overtaking us on blind bends and summits, and Ladas sat on bricks awaiting new springs, engines, or possibly even chassis. We don’t think they are ever allowed to die.
Knowing that the landscape outside the Altai Republic changes to flat agricultural plains, we set about searching for a campsite for the night. After one aborted detour into a local rubbish tip we stumbled upon a picnic site by a river which looked promising. Closer inspection found another vehicle already parked up, and even closer scrutiny found it to be another Hilux, fully kitted out for overlanding, from Germany. Steffi and Frank were, we think, as surprised as we were to meet other Europeans in this remote area and immediately invited us to camp next to them and offered to cook us dinner. They have been driving from Germany for two months, taking almost the exact reverse of the route we are planning. We shared stories and beers around our first camp fire of the trip whilst thoroughly scrutinising each other’s rigs (overlanding vehicle setup, before you ask Gill…). Turns out they also have two VW campers, giving us plenty of ideas for Muddle’s (Cas’s T25) future when we get home. We enjoyed a good Scottish breakfast before parting the next morning, though we’re not sure Frank is completely sold on porridge.
Barnaul is a small city in the Altai Territory, north of the Republic. After the limited supply choices up until now, the more western shops and organised streets were welcome relief. Modelled on St Petersburg, Barnaul has a very European feel with wide boulevard streets lined with trees and baroque buildings. For the first time since leaving home we almost cleared the shopping list, finding herbs, actual liquid milk and canisters for the windburner stove which should keep us in ready tea and coffee til the end of the trip, much to Cas’s delight. Mike was just saying it was nearly a clean sweep, but for the lamentable lack of whisky, when we passed Drink King. We didn’t hold out much hope to be honest, but were soon happily wending our way towards the border ‘fully’ resupplied.
On the way out of the city we passed what looked like huge areas of allotments with elaborate ‘sheds’. In fact, they were homes with intensively cultivated gardens as this is how much of the population lives. The landscape heading south from Barnaul is flat and largely given over to agriculture. Small communities, remnants of the Soviet collectifs, join forces to farm this windswept plain, and we tucked into the fields behind one of these villages to camp for the night. The border crossing, as my school reports used to say, “showed signs of improvement” for us, and we were through in two and a half hours and heading towards Almaty, a mere 1500km away.
Thanks to: our German overlanding friends for a great evening in the Altai!