Entering the Russian Altai Republic
The Altai Mountains are situated in central Asia where Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China all converge for the occasional Kumis Conference. It is a land of high, white-capped mountains, traditional nomadic homes (gers or yurts), eagle hunters, Russian tourist camps, deep gorges, fast flowing rivers and lots of flies.
I had heard much about the spectacular scenery from travellers I’d met, and my anticipation was riding high.
Setting off to leave my home for the past few days in Oglii, Mongolia, I left for the border well rested and my chain half hanging off. The chain was certainly past its best before date, and was now stretching at an alarming rate. In fact the bike wasn’t very well at all; she’d occasionally cut out on the go (blocked fuel breather?), felt like she was running on two cylinders, all the brake pads were nearing the bone, the sprockets looked like tiger shark teeth, the panniers were half falling off, 2 indicators were missing and the rear tyre was approaching baldness; yes, Mongolia had certainly taken a toll! Apart from all that, she was wonderful.
My family at home had new a new chain, sprockets and brake pads for me and were just waiting for me to send them an address so they could DHL them out to me. I thought it best to ride to the next large (modern) city in Russia, Barnaul – nearly 900km away, to get this done.
I’d been told the 100km road from Oglii to the Mongolia/Russian border was surfaced all the way, so I pumped my tyres back up to 36 psi. Had I have known it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered! Instead much of the ‘road’ was either being built or resurfaced and I found myself skidding over large sections of muddy ‘diversion’ tracks like a beginner on ice skates. It didn’t help that it was raining, and the tracks were becoming boggy. I should have stopped to reduce the tyre pressures again, but I kept hoping any minute the surfaced road would re-appear.
It didn’t, for what seemed like a long time.
When the tracks eventually led back onto the completed road, I came across two Germans on Yamaha XT660 Ténéré motorbikes and stopped to give them my Mongolian map.
The border opened at 9am and I was there just before, behind about 5 cars. It took an hour to get through the Mongolian side and one and a half to get through the Russian side; not bad at all.
I must admit I was somewhat relieved to be back on good tarmac. On the smooth road the injuries to my Tiger seemed more pronounced as rode along in a surging motion, the tachometer undulating rapidly. I guessed it was a combination of the worn chain (with one very tight spot and the rest almost falling off) and a damaged spark plug; at least that’s what I hoped it all was, and nothing more serious. I wished I’d carried more spare spark plugs. In any case, she was still moving and it didn’t appear to be anything too serious that would indicate an impending explosion.
There is only really one main road through the Altai Republic, the ‘Chuysky Trakt’, which affords beautiful views of forested, snow-capped mountains, rivers and narrow gorges as it snakes alongside the Altai Mountains.
The first town I came across of any size was Kosh-Agach, which is famed for being the driest inhabited place in Russia. Well, it must have been my lucky day, as it was pouring down with rain when I was there.
As I rode on towards the next small town of Aktash the scenery gradually became more dramatic, helped by the sun’s appearance as it started peeking out from behind the clouds.
The weather eventually changed from rain to boiling sunshine, at which point I wished it was raining again. I stopped by a nice stream for lunch but was immediately assaulted by millions of biting flies and Mosquitos. I tried to suffer it for a while, eating my lunch through my visor, but it didn’t really work and I shot off to find somewhere else.
Riding through Aktash I saw an interesting looking side-road branching off over a river and toward the mountains. On my iPhone App (Maps with Me) the tracks led alongside a river and toward a couple of campsites, so I thought I’d try and find them. Soon the side-road had somehow changed into a narrow, rocky track and I found myself weaved my way up a very large, steep mountain. To the right the track dropped down a near vertical cliff to a fast flowing river in the canyon below. I definitely didn’t want to fall down that one!
The views were spectacular, but the Tiger was having difficulty at times hopping over the rocky, steep incline loaded up with all the luggage. I had to be in first gear for most of the climb, and soon I had a bit of a problem – the bike overheated.
I pulled over on the side of the track to investigate and let her cool down. The coolant in the expansion reservoir was boiling rapidly. I checked the fan, and it was working, so I guessed it must have just been a combination of a really hot day and the prolonged, steep, awkward climb in mostly 1st and 2nd gear.
Once she had cooled down, I had no choice but to replace the lost coolant (which had boiled over) with drinking water (should have been distilled water to avoid corrosion, but I didn’t have any). I planned to do a coolant change in Almaty anyway.
At this stage, considering the track didn’t appear to be getting any better, I thought it prudent to turn the bike around and coast back downhill to the main road.
She made it back to the road with no problems and as I rode on northwest the temperature gauge seemed to remain fine. The road closed into a pretty valley with a fast river flowing through it, and I came across a weird monument of a pick-up truck.
By now it was getting late and when I saw a few tents camped along the banks of a nice looking river, I decided to join them a bit further along.
I had been slowly roasting in my bikers clothing all afternoon, and so before I pitched the tent I took a dive into the river and lay in ecstasy in the cold, mountain water.
Luckily there were hardly any biting insects around, so I sat outside the tent, cooked up a great dinner and had an early night.
In the morning I was awoken by a herd of cows tying to mate with my tent. One of them stuck around for a while to try and eat my breakfast.
It was going to be another really hot day, so I took my time to pack away and enjoyed another swim.
A couple of hours up the road I passed through Manzherok. I’d read there was a nice lake there so I took the short detour to go and see it. It was a nice lake indeed, but it was packed with tourists – more people in one place than I’d seen in quite some time. I didn’t like it; was I becoming antisocial in my old age? I don’t think so – it was just too busy and I couldn’t find a free spot to park and swim. Instead I rode back into town and did some shopping in a great fresh food market I found. I was excited to see whole chickens roasting on rotating spits, so I bought one immediately – yum!
A couple of miles further on, I took a track leading through some woodland and found a nice shady spot by the river to devoir my chicken, all on my own. That was more like it!
I wanted to camp at a lake called Lake Teletskoye (‘Golden Lake’), which was 3 hours off the main road to the east via a city called Gorno-Altaysk. The road was good and the journey actually only took me a couple of hours. When I arrived, the journey had been well worth it – the lake was beautiful.
78km long, 5km wide and 330m deep, Lake Teletskoye is the biggest lake in Russian Altai Republic, and of course I jumped right in for a swim to cool off after my sweltering journey.
The tourist town at the western head of the lake is called Artybash, full of speed boat touts offering trips up and down the lake, so I passed through and found a great campsite in a large field with a shop, bar, restaurant and toilets for a couple of quid. The field actually sloped down directly into the lake and I picked a great spot right on the lake edge, hoping it wouldn’t rain and flood me out (it wasn’t forecast to).
As I was setting up camp, a Russian guy & his girlfriend stopped by to chat and very kindly invited me over to their tent for dinner. They had a BBQ and put on a delicious spread, and I ended up making several trips to the bar for take-away beers to compliment the evening. Yet again it was a night sponsored by Google Translate, but that didn’t matter.
In the morning I woke to a wonderful view of a perfectly peaceful lake through my tent.
A few minutes later an eerie mist covered the lake until the rising sun eventually burnt it off.
To get to the next city of Biysk there were two routes; one went back west the way I had come via Gorno-Altysk, and the other (recommended by Google Maps) went north and then west. I thought I’d take Google Maps’ recommendation and set off on a good road running north. However, I soon realised this was a mistake as the road rapidly turned into a nightmare track of loose, large stones. Then it started to rain and part of the road turned to slippery mud. It was horrible, but I’d come so far I didn’t want to turn around, and of course I kept thinking the tarmac road would suddenly reappear. It’s funny, because I was under the impression all the difficult off-road riding had been done in Mongolia, but I suppose you can get a difficult track anywhere in the world.
Eventually I arrived in Biysk and the road surfaced again after what seemed like forever. Then it was plain sailing all the way to Barnaul on a fast multi-lane new road. On the way I pulled off onto a rough track for lunch and was instantly covered by millions of annoying midges, so much so that I couldn’t stay and had to ride off to find somewhere else.
Who would have ever thought I’d need a room with air-conditioning in Barnaul, at the foot of the Altai Mountains? The small, cheap ‘broom-cupboard’ room I’d booked in the centre of town was like a sauna. Instead reception gave me a tiny fan which was much better than nothing. I could tell I was back in Russia as the bed sheets were too small for the bed. Why, oh why??
I called a guy called Andrey Aksenov who had been keeping a brand new Heidenau rear tyre for me that I’d ordered several weeks before from Denis Panferov in Moscow.
Denis Panferov, Email: email@example.com Tel:+7-495-507-9530 / Cell:+7-925-507-9530
Andrey turned out to be a top guy, met me at my hotel with the tyre, and took me to a nearby garage that could fit it for me for a couple of dollars (saving me the hassle of doing it myself).
At the garage there was already another (Russian) rider on a KTM having his front wheel changed, so I waited and chatted to him for a bit. When his wheel appeared, the mechanic had put his tyre on the wrong way round (they have a direction of travel), so off it came again! At this point it was obvious the mechanic was used to changing car tyres but had little experience of changing motorcycle tyres.
When the wheel came back for the second time, the mechanic couldn’t put it back on the bike as the callipers were seized, so the KTM rider had to sort it out himself. By now I could see the mechanic had had enough, and the result was he refused to change my tyre. So, out came Google Translate and I managed to persuade him to change the tyre only, and I would remove and replace the back wheel myself. He agreed, and in a jiffy I had a brand new rear tyre – happy!
After speaking to a couple of people and reading some internet posts, it became apparent that having spare parts posted to Barnaul could be expensive, take several weeks and involve problems with customs. Not wanting to hang around for that long in one place, I started looking at other options. I found one in a fellow Triumph Tiger rider called Anton Larin living in Almaty, Kazakhstan, which was my next port of call (thanks to another Tiger rider, Dave Shucksmith, putting me in touch with him).
Anton had the only Triumph Tiger in all of Central Asia (to our knowledge) and had imported it from the US. After making contact with him via the Tiger 800 website forum, I was amazed at his hospitality and willingness to help me on my travels. After a couple of exchanges he ended up very kindly ordering me a new chain and sprockets which would be delivered in Almaty in around 5 days. This worked out well, because my Kazakhstan Visa didn’t start for another 5 days, and it would take me 2-3 days to ride the 1600km.
I used this time to rest in Barnaul, look around the city and finish my Mongolia blog, but soon I had itchy feet and moved down to Rubtsovsk on the Russian/Kazakhstan border, to bide my time.
On the way down to Rubtsovsk the flat, expansive green fields almost reminded of Norfolk back home in the UK.
As there was even less to do in Rubtsovsk than Barnaul, the time dragged a bit and I couldn’t wait to get going into Kazakhstan. That taught me a lesson on being a bit more flexible when applying for visas and their start dates, although this is a difficult thing to try and do in Central Asia – the land of the forever changing and PITA visa application procedures.
Eventually though, the day came, as it always does, and I was off!