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Powerful place

 Why it is necessary to visit Altai  07/30/2012, 18:41
Powerful place
Photos by Elena Shkarubo

Right now I feel like I’m «United Russia» and «Channel One Russia» at the same time, because there’s a reason to be proud about what’s going on. It might be not so significant, and there’s always a counter-reason for every reason, but here’s what happened.

Sib.fm’s correspondent headed for the Altai Mountains with a group of Siberian modern artists on Wednesday, 25 July. Fakestival, a festival of fake advertising organised by a Barnaul studio, was to open the following evening.ight now I feel like a member of «United Russia» party and a news presenter at once, because there is a reason to speak with pride about what’s going on. This reason might be not so sufficient, and certainly there is counter occasion to every reason, but here what has happened.

A reporter of Sib.fm with a group of modern Siberian artists went to the mountains of Altai on Wednesday, the 25th of July, where the Fakekstival — a festival organized by Barnaul studio of fake advertising started the next evening.

It seemed like a good idea to spend a couple of workdays and a weekend in Altai: meanwhile, the haze was thickening in Novosibirsk as a smokescreen from fires in the Tomsk Region came down over the city. The local airport in Tomsk had already been closed and weather forecasters were getting ready to declare that the concentration of smoke in the Novosibirsk air was 2.6 times higher than the permissible level.

The distance between Novosibirsk and the Altai village of Uznezya, close to which Fakestival was held, is about 550 kilometres. It’s about a 6-7 hour journey by car without stopping: there are zones with dangerous turns on the Chuysky Highway where overtaking is prohibited and sometimes you get stuck behind an old banger that’s barely crawling along.

After Srostki village, where famous son, talented Siberian writer and actor Vasily Shukshin, is remembered with a museum, monument on Piket Mountain and appropriately named streets, we approach the border of the Altai Krai region. This is where the Altai Republic begins.

After driving for a few minutes, we come across some roadworks, a common site in these parts, even at the weekend. A thick layer of road surface is being laid to widen the highway. A sign comes into view in a forest clearing on the right: Gorno-Altaisk Airport. The local air hub had long been on the decline, but has recently been reconstructed and several airlines have introduced regular flights from Moscow.

The republic’s transport network found a new lease of life after Putin’s decision to build himself a summer house there. Photos of the presidential estate and its mountainous backdrop have already found their way onto the internet and the «Putin’s summer house» special economic zone is a favourite discussion topic among locals. These days you don’t hear much about the plans to turn Altai into a state tourism and recreation zone, which would be no less «special» economically.

In Ust-Sema we turn left onto the Chemal road. The M-52 motorway, which will get you to the Mongolian border in five hours at the most, forks off to the right. If you continue straight on without turning, the Seminsky Pass is less than two hours away.

Every time is like the first time when it comes to the impression made by Altai. You clearly understand that it’s Switzerland, Austria and France rolled into one. Its area is comparable and the views are just as good — in places, significantly better than abroad.

We jointly and unanimously come to the main conclusion that everyone should visit Altai every summer, at least for a few days. It’s a sin not to, when such beauty is just round the corner.

Over the past few years, the Altai Krai and Altai Republic itself, where the majority of camps and resorts are concentrated, have greatly improved their potential for tourism.

Along the roadside in villages there are tents with souvenirs, rows of honey and mead on car bonnets, hanging headscarves and skullcaps, and mountain herbs ready to be infused. The range of other folk handicrafts is diverse, while adverts on telegraph poles promise fresh venison.

Wooden houses of all shapes and sizes have been constructed along the Katun River near built-up areas. Local people who have found the courage to confront the drinking culture and mass alcoholism have a lot of opportunities to make money: there is demand for housing, Russian baths, fresh agricultural products and national cuisine.

We tried out the hot-smoked grayling that women sell from makeshift stalls at the side of the road (looking for such a delicacy in the shops is pointless). The price depends on the grayling’s size and varies from 100-150 to 200-300 roubles ($3-9). As a matter of fact, there’s little water in the rivers this year and it’s really difficult to catch the fish; fishermen complain that they aren’t biting very well..

There are a lot of kebab houses on the Chuysky Highway (the best pork kebab we sampled cost 170 roubles ($5) on the Seminsky Pass). Almost any roadside café or other establishment serves rice pilaf, chorba soup, lamian noodles, samosas and flatbreads. Here and there, you can find khaan-tea on the menu, a salty drink with milk that tastes like tea and coffee at the same time.

You can find accommodation in Altai as your heart — and wallet — desires. The first option is to go «wild» and camp by the river, or just sleep in the car. The second option is to link up with a holiday resort and rent a cabin in a guarded area (from 1500-3000 roubles ($45-90) for the night) or pitch your own tent. There’s bound to be a good bathhouse on the riverbank.

The third option is to rent a room or house in a nearby village. The price depends on supply and starts at 300 roubles a head, but will more likely be 400-500 ($12-15). Your innkeepers will ask for 100-500 roubles ($3-15) to fire up the steam bath. If you’re lucky enough, they’ll offer you fresh vegetables for dinner too. To sum up, when it comes to board and lodging, Altai is not only perfectly affordable, but also diverse. You can even buy fresh mutton — signs and adverts concerning the subject are everywhere.

Good roads are another of Altai’s qualities, although modern motorways with a central reservation and two or three lanes on each carriageway haven’t made it there yet. The Chuysky Highway and adjacent roads have one lane of traffic in each direction. At the same time, the asphalt is smooth almost everywhere. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of areas that are impassable in any vehicle, including military Jeeps. These places can only be reached on foot, on horseback or by private helicopter, if you have one lying around.

A holiday in Altai can be both active and passive. At the tourist’s disposal: rafting courses of various difficulties, horses for hire, stag farm excursions, waterfalls and lakes, bike rides, hunting, fishing and so on. There’s even a little yellow and blue aeroplane that flies holidaymakers around.

You can visit the valley of lightning, a peony garden, a mysterious stone museum, an exhibition of the sights painted by artist Grigory Choros-Gurkin and fitness centres with saunas, massages and antler extract treatments. Or just drive around the surrounding countryside and passes looking for the best landscapes — there are some nice places to relax.

That said, the most important thing that happens to a person in Altai is when you wake up on the second day and feel like you’ve been reborn. And there’s not even a hint of a headache. Long story short, going there is a must.


Read this column
in Russian

But if you leave some litter behind on the banks of the Katun, Altai spirits will conjure up something bad for your karma. It’s even written on one of the mountain passes: everyone is rewarded according to his deeds and thoughts.

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