Altai is a Republic in the South of Siberia bordering Kazakhstan and Mongolia. It’s known for breathtaking mountain views, clean rivers, fresh lakes, abundant trees, and ticks. In Novosibirsk the citizens raved that it was one of the most beautiful places in Russia. And after visiting, I can say that there were both beautiful and not beautiful aspects of the region.
I had a long weekend from work and decided that this freetime meant the opportunity to visit Altai. Benji and I found a bus leaving at 11pm that Thursday night, that drove through the night and arrived in the early morning to Gorno-Altaysk, the capital of the Altai Republic. Since we decided this last minute, the bussing website explained that we had to call; booking online was no longer an option. Fortunately, the bus still had seats left. So we called, and all of those months upon months of Russian words and phrases being instilled into our mental language compartments paid off as the person we spoke to knew almost what we wanted. Once at the meeting point for the bus, we called the bus station again, but this time the bus lady seemed frustrated. We went inside a hotel to ask the receptionist to speak for us, only to find out that. “Ah, there are no more tickets.” We figured she just didn’t want to deal with foreigners, as this happens from time to time~
[quick blablacar search]
But since Benji and I had already invested time into renting a tent and sleeping bags, we were depressed that we wouldn’t be able to use them as intended. No matter though, getting denied tickets was just a minor inconvenience as there are other options, like BlaBlaCar, a long-distance ride-sharing service. In fact, with a quick search we found one leaving in forty minutes. How perfect. The guy from BlaBlaCar was leaving from the main train station. Ok, “Let’s get another Uber.” (By the way, Ubers here cost one to-two dollars to get pretty much anywhere in the city as opposed to five to fifteen dollars back in the US.) Arriving at the train station was simple enough, but trying to find the BlaBlacar driver was a whole other ordeal, spending time scanning and walking all over the station looking for our driver. But finally, we see him. No smile on this guys face. He’s with his friend. He up-charges us five times the advertised price. We start negotiating, and this guy is clearly not trying to do us a favor. Back and forth it was like a tennis match of haggling Benji and I. We got in the car, then back out, then in again, as the price lowers little by little. Finally, the guy isn’t budging, so we count our losses and get out of the car. We start walking away. We were upset, but thought about taking an early bus the next morning. Maybe 5 minutes later, he drives up to us, “Ok, get in.” It would be an understatement to say this guy was sketchy and we whispered in the back for a bit whether we should actually go.
After driving for fifteen minutes, we reached our first destination, the bus station, where we sat for about forty minutes. When I ask what we are doing at the bus station, the driver replied that he was waiting for another passenger. But during the wait, we get to talk a bit. He tells us, that him and his friend are from Mongolia and so forth… After about 45 minutes, another guy squishes in the backseat with us. During the 6 hour drive (instead of what was supposed to be a 10 hour ride), every time I woke up from the swerves and honking, there were people I didn’t recognize that replaced the previous passengers in the car. When the car finally stopped in Gorno Altaisk, I nearly kissed the ground.
When we were in the general area of Altai, the driver tried again to charge us more to take us to the specific village we wanted to go, but at this point, with so many people in here and the constant swerving and honking we decided that hitchhiking would be safer. “Dasvidanya, Greedy Driver!”
We wanted to camp in the town Askat, a few hours down the river from Gorno Altaysk. We started to walk around Gorno Altaysk and stopped for some cough drops at a chemist since the students are constantly spreading their illnesses to the foreign teacher. Also since there wasn’t any food on the drive here we got some snacks. We walked through the city, noticing the beautiful lush trees, a nice change since Novosibirsk trees had yet to replenish their leaves. After calculating how far we needed to walk to the main road, we got on a local bus to explore deeper into unknown territory.
Once on the main road, the scenery morphed into rolling hills in the backdrop, farm houses on the sides, and the sound of squawking chickens.
[This is pretty typical for housing in Altai region] [Walking along the roads] Within 10 minutes we got an older guy driving a van decorated with assorted Jesus magnets, stickers, figurines, etc. He had already picked up 3 women and a baby and dropped them off in various locations as we watched the scenery pass us by. After about an hour, he parked off to the side of a village and said “всё - (that’s all).” That was our drop off point. We started walking again through the beautiful towns, wooden and cut with turquoise blues.
It was warm outside, and with the scenic villages, it was pleasant.
[This bus did not stop BTW]
A few minutes after the picture^ a ride did stop, this time a small old car, and two guys native to Altai. They were friendly and wanted to talk with us, which made the hour-long drive pass quickly. We spent time attempting different questions such as “Why are you in Altai?” “Do you like Altai?” “What do you do?” and so forth… They laughed a lot and brought extra positivity to our travels. After about an hour, they dropped us off to the town we planned to camp in, Askat. We walked over the bridge to the small town.
[The bridge] [Sign indicating our final destination—]
The town consisted of a weird hippie summer camp, an art gallery by the famous Grigory Ivanovich Gurkin- a Russian landscape painter and the first professional artist of Altai, and various old wooden homes. We immersed ourselves through the pine forest to hike and find a spot to set up camp. The nature was lush and aesthetic. But this is where it began.… ..
dun dun dun…. .……….
We had heard there were ticks in the forest. We had heard that about 80% were infected with Encephalitis which covertly means your brain will swell after being violated by the tick’s thirst for blood and persistence to nest inside your skin. Unbeknownst to us, this was the worst month (May), in the worst year, thus far, for ticks.
As we waded through the forest, we saw one here, and one there. OK. Shrug it off. Until we laid down a towel to snack on some oranges. The towel quickly morphed into great crawling space for the little monsters. They started attacking from every corner making themselves at home.
I hope you can understand I didn’t feel the need to settle down and take photos, so I found a nice picture from the internet for those of you who have been fortunate enough not to encounter one yet.
After eating, and flicking them all off, we decided that Encephalitis wasn’t worth climbing the mountain. AKA why I’m alive to write this post now. We went back to the city and grudgingly trekked back through the streets deciding what to do.
At one point we sat by the rapids. As we peered over the rushing water, we cursed the ticks and Siberia. We decided that it wouldn’t hurt our ecosystem if we just eradicated the world-tick population. Don’t you think so? (You savages, Tick lives matter too)
After settling down, we decided that we would search for a clearing to camp in rather than in the forest.
Inside, we constantly checked for ticks, and some had indeed snuck their way in throughout the night.
In the middle of the night we heard a dissonant bell outside of the tent. Loud. We didn’t know if someone was going to tell us to leave in the middle of the night, but no one did! Such mystery!
Somehow we managed to finally fall asleep.
It rained all night and the weather got cool in Askat. I slept remarkably well. We woke up to even more rain pounding on the tent and the coolness turned to cold. We procrastinated getting back out to the tick-infested world.
[I was not keen on leaving my safe-space]
[Searching for possible predators!]
[Breakfast for the survivors]
We did finally leave the tent, and when we did we found out what the obnoxious bell in the middle of the night was.. COWS! We went to try to feed the ravishing family of cows our old carrots we brought. I hope they enjoyed the gesture.
After the long distressful night, we decided we were done, giving up, and heading home. We trekked back to the road and tried to hitchhike back. It was now cold and wet and we weren’t especially prepared. No one wanted to stop so we eventually hiked to the next town and decided to get tea to warm up.
[Guy trying to sell Benji honey and then giving us directions]
We got to brush our teeth in a sink, I defrosted my toes, and we sipped on tea, when I got a message from our Russian tutor Yulia. We had previously discussed how we were both visiting Altai the same weekend and she wanted to know if we had made it. “We are here,” we sang. Turns out, she was there with her husband Mike and her parents in Askat, looking through the gallery by Choros-Gurkin! Yulia thought she had saw us, but her husband Mike told her it was impossible we were there. She asked us if we wanted to tag along with them to see a monastery on an island and a dam/amusement park. How enticing that was. We trekked back to Askat and met up with Yuliya and her family. As I started to vent about the horrendous ticks, I think I scared Mike, because we stopped within 20 minutes and he bought and put on tick spray.
[Tick-absent selfie at the Dam #bestTravelingCrew] [Yuliya’s mom, Yuliya, and Benji with SIBERIAN BEAR WATCH OUT] [Getting comfortable with the bear]
We spent the day exploring with the family. [This was near the dam #dam]
[Crossing the bride to the secluded monastery] [Feeling rebellious after the sign said ‘no photos’]
At night Yulia’s father grilled up some veggies and fish over the fire, and kept claiming we were spies since we could kinda understand him. He thought we were fluent in Russian and were just pretending not to know.
[Yulia, I took this picture from your Facebook, I hope you don’t mind]
At one point, Yulia’s mother tells Yulia that she will not let us camp another night in this weather and we should bunk with Yulia and her husband at their lodge. We didn’t say no.
[Me feeding rabbits near their lodge]
The next morning they explain they are going to see a mountain one hour South.
[On the chairlift!]
[What is going on here?]
They were going to explore more further South, so we decided to part our ways and hitchhike from near the mountain.
[Who loves Altai???? US!!! (minus the ticks though)]
They drop us off near the highway. The weather is warm and breezy and everything lovely. We walk for quite a while through the different villages. We finally get a woman to pick us up who didn’t speak but took us the entire way back. We said our thanks, and caught a bus back to Gorno-Altaisk and bought bus tickets back to Novosibirsk. No more BlaBlaCar for now.
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