Russian Altai Region – Taking the road less travelled from Kazakhstan to Mongolia
How we tried to fill in the missing piece of road for the shortest crossing of the Altai, bumped into Adam in the back of beyond, flouted permit laws and immensely enjoyed the non-corrugated gravel roads of the southern Altai.
After we crossed through the Russian border we said goodbye to Andrew and Jon as they sped off to Barnaul to find a TIG welder. As we perceived the border to take some time we hadn’t planned anything further than Rubtsovsk so we rolled in early to find a hotel and a good welder to put our awning back on for us. After yet another night in a cosy hotel (we were only there to register!) we hit the road east. Back in Almaty Michael told me about a track he had found using Google Earth that linked the existing road with another 30-40km further east making it the shortest possible crossing of the Altai to Mongolia. Our Russian Atlas showed something similar with a ‘path’ also linking these roads which ran for some 60km. Advice from other adventure bikers was to take these small roads anyway as they passed through traditionally Altaic villages. So a small detour to see if this route was possible seemed like a good idea.
We left Rubtsovsk a little late that day but still managed to cover a lot of ground due to the great conditions of the roads. Passing by small villages full of wooden houses there was little sign of activity, each one as sleepy as the next.
The following day on route to the point of our ‘missing piece’ we passed a few signs stating: ‘Permit Holders with Authorized Documents Only Beyond This Point’. It was written in English also, so there was no getting out of this one! We knew that there was a Permit system in place for the Altai region that came close to the Chinese border, we just didn’t think we would get that close! The permit is also a lot of hassle to obtain, although it is free apparently. I digress. Passing through the village of Sentelek we continued on a route marked on Open Street Map (OSM) when we spotted a bridge across the river, just next to the bridge was a small lonesome figure and a bike… Adam.
Adam had got here the night before and not moved much due to the rain (he hates rain). Turns out Michael gave him the GPX track for his Google Earth cyber foray and he to was keen to investigate. We looked at the options.
Option one: OSM showed the bridge crossing and a complete dashed path through following to the north of the river.
Option two: Michael’s GPX track showed a track following south of the river
Option three: Try to find the road that our Russian Road Atlas was showing.
After three hours of catching up, eating lunch and talking total bollox two ridiculously unfriendly Russians turned up on two ridiculously big horses. They spoke Russian so fast I swear I heard a sonic boom. But as usual when you tell Russians that you don’t understand, that you only speak a little Russian and could they speak slower please, they just repeat themselves but this time at Mach two.
The jist of their blathering’s was that there was only a track for horses and pushbikes on the north of the river and that maybe, just maybe we could make it through on the track to the south of the river. So off we went with Option two. Less than 2km down the track we came to a farm and no through road. The two brothers there were all smiles and said there was no route through. So quite quickly we were onto option three. We took the road to another village west of Sentelek and followed a dead end road on OSM. It was right, it was a deadend, another farm (of sorts) the guys there were very helpful and suggested we backed up a valley or two and there was a way through. They did however seem doubtful.
In our travels across the former USSR we quickly worked out how to decipher the road conditions from speaking to Russians. If they say the road is good, it’s ok in a standard 4×4. If they say its bad but then see your Land Rover and put their thumbs up smiling saying ‘normalne!’ expect it to take three times longer than you planned and to use low ratio gears, often. If they say its really bad (even after seeing your Land Rover) then expect Camel Trophy escapades along with questioning tones of ‘why are we doing this again?’. Now, it wasn’t until this point that we heard them basically say ‘there is no road’, but the guys on the farm were a little more positive so off we went for another look.
The track skirted around fields for sometime as we slipped it into diff-lock to negotiate the soft mud and washed out gullies. We drove on for some 10km following a heavily rutted two track trail before dropping down a rocky gully to a river. Crossing the river we found a path but the tracks all but disappeared. We drove up steep inclines into holes and around fallen trees. Eventually we were presented with a steep ravine. Grass and mud,, little else. Getting down wouldn’t have been too bad but climbing the 100 vertical meter slope on the other side seemed impossible and the only tree to anchor off was at the top. We went through the options. Adam didn’t think it was too much of a problem for the bike and having us there as back-up helped if anything did go wrong. For us it would have been an extended winch up from the bottom with a tie off half way (somehow) and re-rigged. I think we could have made it through. The final crux however was, in the event we returned the same way (which seemed most probable) how would we get back down the ravine? There was no room to manoeuvre down there so either way, we were a little screwed. It was there and then we bottled it, turned around and made our way back to the river to camp. We cranked up the wood-burner, had a few beers and talked bollox the rest of the night.
The following morning was bright and beautiful. There was no reason to rush off. Adam was still thinking of returning up the track on his own though. We made a load of pancakes and just relaxed drinking coffee through to the early evening. Adam slowly packed up and decided to give it another go. He left around 1500 with a ‘see you in Siberia!’. We slowly packed up but at 1630 it didn’t seem worth it! In the event, we left and made good progress right through to around 2100 as the evening was still light. With little to see we cracked on the next day and made it to the junction where we thought Adam might come through. Knowing he was going to take the Tuva Track we joined the M52 and headed south toward Mongolia. We didn’t see Adam at all that day so we thought he must have turned back or turned off the M52 before we saw him. Now back on excellent asphalt we careered south east toward the border of Mongolia mindful of getting in before the start of the Naadam Festival and the potential closure of the border for such festivities.