Although more and more tourists are making the journey, the area is still pristine and undeveloped. Along the one main road, a variety of hotels ranging from backpacker to resortspa centres plus cafes and souvenirs shops have mushroomed,, but if you leave the beaten path you will immediately dive into a different lifestyle. Peaceful villages hidden away in mountain valleys still practicing an agricultural way of life living almost entirely off their own land and livestock. Local shamans still practice their trade and cultural traditions are still honoured. The Altai is also home to some of the most prized honey in Russia.
Belukha is the highest peak in the Altai Mountains. It is part of the ‘Golden Mountains of Altai’ – a World Heritage Site. The mountain has 3 peaks; the highest being in the middle (4,506 m / 14, 784 ft). Belukha is situated along the border with Kazakhstan and only about 10 miles north of the Russian-Chinese border. Its position is approximately equal distance from four of the world’s five oceans – the Indian, Atlantic, Artic and Pacific. This makes it almost the ‘center’ of the Eurasia continent. The location supposedly gives rise to a strange airflow around the mountain – twisting in a clockwise irection creating a spiral similar in form to the Buddhist sacred symbol Yang.
The legends regarding the mountain are many and are as varied as the people, religions and cultures that hold the legends. The old Turkic legends say the goddess Umai lives there. Other legends say 3 gods, one for each peak reside in the mountain. This is one of the reasons why the indigenous Altai people stay away from the mountain. Buddhists believe Buddha Gautama came to India from here. Belukha is believed to be the door to Shambala , the land of blessed which is opened only to those that are pure in mind and body.
The mountain is accessible only by foot, horse or air (helicopter). The nearest village is almost 400 miles from the nearest operating airport and accessible by only one ‘passable/drivable’ road and a really shoddy bridge over the raging Katun river.
A description of a standard 11-day hike to Belukha follows. Depending on the needs of our clients we can ‘slightly’ shorten or extend the tour. The tour starts from Manzherok, a town 40 km (25 miles) from the Gorno-Altaisk airpot and the SkiBike Sport hotel.
Traveling from Manzherok to Kucherla
We will travel along Chuysky Trakt (M52/ P256) and Highway P373 from Manzherok to Tyungur (450km/ 280 miles) and then across the Katun river to the village of Kucherla.
In 2014, National Geographic ranked Chuysky Trakt 5th in their list of the 10 Most Beautiful Roads in the World. Chuysky Trakt starts in Novosibirsk and goes all the way to the Mongolian border (962km / 598 miles). Although Chuysky Trakt (formally Mungalskiy Trakt as per ancient Chinese records) has existed for centuries, the trakt only officially became a road in 1922. In the 1930s with the help of prison labor, the road was rebuilt. Today it is a modern 2-lane highway. We follow Chuysky Trakt until the turn off onto P373 towards Ust-Khan at which point we will be traveling primarily on graveltopped roads.
Along the way, we will stop for the local tea made from talkan (toasted barley) and souvenirs at Semenskiy Mtn. Pass. (Talkan was Ghengis Khan’s version of ‘fast food’.)
At 1894 m (6213 feet), Semenskiy Mtn Pass is the highest point on Chuysky Trakt. It is well known as a training center for cross-country skiers and bicyclists, as well as a good place to stop and buy souvenirs and stretch one’s legs.
At this point, we still have around 350 kilometres (217 miles) remaining to our destination for the night, Kucherla.
Evening: Camp in Kucherla (889 м / 2917 ft). Dinner over the campfire or in an ail (Altai national wigwam-type summer kitchen).
Hiking: Kucherla to Kuzuyak Mountain Pass
We depart our camp at Kucherla and to the trail head which starts immediately after the Kucherla River. We take a dirt road up to conquer our first mountain pass Kuzuyak at 1513
m (4,964 ft). This is the first test of our endurance and physical shape.
The name Kuzuyak comes from the words for ‘bird’ (kush) and ‘leg’ (aiak). The cedar tree at the top is covered with strips of fabric. According to Altai legends, upon death people become spirits in the place where they died. The strips of fabric (previously horse hair was used) are tied as a sign of respect to the spirits. Today, in Russia, people often tie strips of fabric or ribbons and make a wish in hopes that the spirits will grant them their wish.
Shortly after the mountain pass, we will stop for a quick lunch. On the descent down to our campsite, we will collect berries and herbs for tea after dinner. We will get about 5 to 6 hours of active hiking in before setting up camp along the shores of the rushing mountain river Oroktoyi (1100 m / 3,608 ft).
Evening: Camping. Dinner at the campfire followed by freshly brewed Altai herb tea and berries.
Oroktoyi River to the Tukhman Stream
We leave our campsite and stop for photos on the wooden bridges over the rushing, white waters of the Oroktoyi River. Russia is not a land of trails with ‘switchbacks’. Instead, the trails go almost exclusively straight uphill! We will spend the day moving from the river Oroktoyi (1,100 m / 3,608 ft) to the Tukhman stream (2,213 м / 7,260 ft).
Along the way, one could see anything from wild animals to berries and mushrooms which we often collect for a culinary treat during or after our day’s hike.
On Day 3, we get our first glimpse of the snow covered peaks of Belukha. We will camp near the stream Tukhman.
Hiking time for the days is approximately 7 hours.
Evening: Camping. Dinner at the campfire followed by freshly brewed Altai herb tea and berries.
Tukhman to Lake Kyuljduairi
On the fourth day, we will more or less keep our altitude (+/-300 m/980 ft) as we stroll across and along the mountain pastures towards our final destination for the day – Lake Kyuljduairi (2151 м /7057 ft).
The landscape constantly varies. We start with lush green alpine fields and then as we skirt the edge of the ‘Argut’ cluster of the Saylyugem National Park (http://sailugem.ru), we witness a dryer, tundra-type landscape before returning to lusher territories. The Saylyugem National Park is a new park, founded in 2010 with the intent of protecting endangered snow leopards and mountain goats, as well as the landscape. The ‘Argut’ cluster is considered one of the most pristine corners of the Altai. It is also home to the only known Snow Leopards (a WWF endangered species) in the Altai. The river valleys, as we shall see include woods made up of larch, spruce, fir, birch, poplars and pines typical of the alpine tundra community.
At lake Kyuljduairi, we recommend taking a revigorating dip before camp setup, sunset and dinner.
Hiking time: approximately 7 hours.
Lake Kyuljduairi to Tekelyu River
The fifth day is one of the most relaxed days, but it contains one of the best views and the magnificent Tekelyu waterfall. At first, we will climb to a plateau with a view of Belukha. One could sit and mediate on the rocks for hours.
After enjoying the view, we will go down a very steep hill with practically no switchbacks. As we descend in the Tekelyu river valley, we have a great view of the Skynchak cliff to our left. At the end of the descent is our campsite for the night.
After stopping for lunch at our campsite, we have the rest the day for exploring the Tekelyu river and climbing around at the Tekelyu waterfall.
Tekelyu is actually a cascade of waterfalls, but our hike will take us up to the lower and most spectacular waterfall. It has a shear vertical drop of 60 meters (almost 200 feet) which breaks onto the boulders below spraying water in all directions creating miniature rainbows.
If the water levels allow, the river can be crossed for a different view of the waterfall.
Upper Tekelyu waterfall seen from a distance. Skynchak cliff and glacier moraine. Note: We have combined Day 5 and 6 which gives the benefit of an added day for dayhikes around Belukha, but the hikers also did not have sufficient time to enjoy the Tekelyu water fall. Additional, we would arrive at Lake Ak-Kem (Belukha base camp) after dark. Hiking time: Approximately 4 hours + 1 hour to waterfall from campsite and back.
Tekelyu River to Lake Ak-kem (Belukha base camp)
We start the day with another practically straight-up climb to the top of the last mountain pass (Plato Saribel) before Belukha. As we clear the trees and enter the tundra the multiple waterfalls above the Tekelyu River are visible. Then as we reach the top of the plato, we are rewarded with a spectacular view of Belukha. After a rest and photos,we head down and across alpine-like, but surprisingly boggy fields towards Belukha. The trail leads us past the turnoff to the Yarlu canyon. By day, the canyon rocks are a light grey blue and as the sunsets, their color changes to a pinkish-red. Yarlu is also known as at the Valley of Edelweiss, since it is one of the best places in Altai to find Edelweiss.
Yarlu Valley (optional hike extension): The Yarlu Valley is considered to be an area with its own specific energy vibrations and hikers visit the canyon as a pilgrimage, meditating on the rock ‘shrine’ (Master Kamen) located at the end of the canyon trail. The canyon is closely associated with Nicholas Roerich, a Russian painter, writer, archaeologists, theosophist (http://www.roerich.org/museum-about.php) , who visited the Altai in 1926. We arrive at the white waters of the Ak-Kem lake and river and setup our campsite The Tekelyu cascadee of waterfalls from above. for the next 2 days. We camp on the left bank not far from the weather station and Russian Ministry of Emergency Services base (rescue services).
Hiking: 5+ hours depending on additional excursion into the Yarlu Canyon.
Day Hike to the Valley of 7 Lakes
We head up to the base of Ak-Oyuk mountain (3670 m / 12 040ft) which towers over the Valley of 7 Lakes. The old glacier valley contains a cascade of 7 lakes that are nestled into constantly changing landscape, from lunar to blooming bushes. The highest lake is at 2600 m / 8,530ft.
We will take time to have lunch and a dip into the cold water. Those who wish may cover themselves with the clay from the lake bottoms and relax in the sun – a health resort under the open sky!
The round trip to the Valley of 7 Lakes usually takes around 5 hours; however, the better the weather, the longer we usually stay. The Valley of 7 Lakes is a paradise for photographers and sun bathers alike!
Option: In the evening, a Banya on Lake Ak-Kem is recommended. Hikers can dive straight into Lake Ak-Kem from their steam bath.
Day Hike to the Mountain Spirits Lake
We start our day with a visit to the Chapel at the base of Belukha. The Chapel was completed in 2006 and is dedicated to all those who have ‘fallen’ during attempts to climb or rescue climbers at Mtn. Belukha.
From the Chapel we will head to the start of the glacier moraine and towards the Mountain Spirits Lake (2500 m / 8 200 ft) situated in the Kara-Oyuk ‘hanging’ valley (“Black Valley”) The lake is considered to be so sacred that indigenous Altai do not even dare to climb up to it. The lake is located in close proximity to the peaks of Belukha, but also is thought to be very close to the entrance to the world of spirits. Guides and locals will confirm that in ‘such a place of power, one can only go up in excellent physical condition and good spirits, otherwise it is better to refrain from climbing to the spot.’
Evening: A good dinner and rest for the next day’s hike to Kara-Tyurek.
The Kara-Tyurek Overpass
Today is the toughest hiking day. We take the Kara-Tyurek Overpass (Black Heart Overpass). We start at the campsite on Lake Ak-kem ( 2051 м / 6729 ft) and head virtually straight up Kara-Tyurek (3060 m /10,039 ft) for a total climb of almost 1000 meters (3,280 ft). The last section is through bare rocks with no vegetation. The hike/climb will take from 2.5 hours. The upper section of the trail to Kara-Tyurek overpass. The Mountain Spirits Lake in the centre of the Kara-Oyuk valley. Belukha is to the right. and up, depending on the group’s abilities. From the vantage point at the overpass, the view of Belukha, Lake Akkem, Mountain Spirits Lake and the Yarlu Valley are spectacular.
Note: As needed, loads on the horses are re-arranged so that hikers have the option to continue up on horseback.
From the overpass, we head down the rocks into greener territory and towards the Pine Field camping (2,141 м / 7,024ft) site. The group has the option of staying at the Pine Field site or continuing on to Kucherla Lake.
The hike from the Pine Field campsite (2141 м / 7024 ft) to Kucherla lake (1790 m / 5872 ft) is mostly downhill along the narrow Kucherla river valley and will take around 4-5 hours. Although the sound of the rushing mountain river is almost always present, the trail skirts the tree-covered hill on the right bank without even so much as a glance of the river. A last climb up a hill and then a gorgeous view of the classic glacier valley with Kucherla lake. The color of the water is a matte turquoise-grey.
Kucherla in Altai language (Kudyurlu) means ‘with saline soils’. The name is derived from the salt marshes that cover part of the plateaus along the chain of 3 lakes which start at the Katun mountain ridge watershed (water divide between the Ak-kem river and the Kucherla river).
We will camp along the lower and the largest of the lakes – Kurcherlinskoye. The lake occupies an area of 3 square kilometres (1.16 sq. miles). The shoreline is quite harsh with alternating moraine and rocky ridges. The southern portion, near the start of the Kurcherla river, is more fertile and green.
Option: Although the lake is accessible only by foot,horse or air, there is a tourist base with a Russian banya, basic cottages and a restaurant with local fare (requires advance reservation). A restful evening at the banya is recommended.
Hiking down the Kucherla River
We start our trek back to Kucherla (village). The distance back to Kucherla is approximately 35 kilometres and can be done in 1 or 1 1/2 days depending on the group’s abilities.
The trail follows the Kucherla river along the right bank. We keep mainly above the river, dropping down close to its shores from time to time. We travel through forests and across marshy fields and rocky ridges.
We pass by the Kuylyu Grotto which had been used for sacred hunting rituals. The artefacts found here date back to 3rd to 7th century BC.
Return to Kucherla and Departure
We usually spend out last night in the fields 9-10 km (5-6miles) from Kucherla. The next morning as we walk the last miles of our trip, we reflect on our unforgettable experiences.
If horses have accompanied us, one can take the opportunity to gallop across the fields towards the village.
Upon return to the village, we pack our cars and head back towards Gorno-Altaisk / Barnaul.
During the hiking trip, we provide tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads (not extra-light weight and best suited for use with pack horses). At Kucherla Lake there is the option to stay in simple ‘cottages’ with beds and electricity (diesel generator). Before and after the hike, we can provide/arrange hotel / bed and breakfast accommodations depending on our guests schedule and needs.
A standard menu is available for your review. We cook over a campfire. We also consume a lot of berries (blue honeysuckle berries, red and black currants, wild strawberries, raspberries) found along the route. Our tea is made of herbs collected during the day. We use unfiltered / untreated water from the many streams, rivers and springs. (There is absolutely no industry, farming chemicals or anything similar even close to this area. The rivers and springs are glacier and snow fed.) The water is not just alive – it is amazing, since you can literally taste the difference from one spring to another.
Itinerary: The itinerary can be adjusted for the needs of individual groups. Additional activities for groups visiting the Altai include river rafting/kayaking , other hiking and/or jeep tours (Chulishman River Valley, Teletskoye Lake, Plato Ukok, etc.), acquaintance with the local culture (museums, visits to Altai village to experience traditions, rituals and culinary delights, making traditional Russian dolls, etc.).
Pack horses: Most groups request that horses carry the group’s supplies (provisions, cooking equipment, tents, sleeping bags and other personal items).
Transfers and How to Get to Altai: Altai is easily accessible from Moscow. From Moscow, there are daily flights to Barnaul (about 3 hours drive from Manzherok – SkiBike Sport Hotel) and several flights per week to Gorno-Altaisk (40 km from SkiBike Sport Hotel).
- sun protection cream
- wool socks
- hiking books
- sandals / flip-flops
- appropriate hiking apparel including a windbreaker and layered clothing (including warm midlayer)
- extra underwear and socks