4th July 2018
Anna has recently returned from a recce in the wild Altai Mountains of Siberia, a land of stunning natural beauty and ancient traditions. She talks us through some of her highlights including a chance encounter with an animal that many scientists and local believed was extinct, or even mythical.
This is a REALLY hard one to choose, as the Altai Mountains in Siberia are filled with nothing but incredible views. I think I have to go with this epic view in Saylyugem National Park. I’ve never been somewhere so wild and beautiful where there wasn’t another soul in sight. No human soul that is, because here we came across some of the most stunning wildlife I’ve ever seen, from golden eagles and endangered vultures, to one of the rarest (supposedly extinct!) beauties in the world – the Saylyugem Bear.
What the Altai Mountains lack in high quality food they more than make up for in dining locations. Given our remote surroundings and therefore limitations with supplies, meals were simple, but our surroundings were always spectacular. Here you can see where we had lunch one day, sitting on the edge of the spectacular Little Aktru Glacier which we had entirely to ourselves. The second photo was taken the same day but this time for our dinner, where we had returned to base in the Kurai Steppe and enjoyed a delicious BBQ accompanied by some well-earned honey wine.
You won’t find your 5* luxury lodges in Siberia but what you will find, which in my view is so much better, is the warmest hospitality in one of the most beautiful parts of the world. I think my favourite night was spent deep in the heart of the Karakol Valley where we stayed on the small farm of a local lady who had grown up in the valley. Located next to a crystal-clear river and surrounded by alpine forest and rolling meadows, with the smells of home-cooked food escaping from the small homely kitchen, this truly was a piece of heaven in the simplest and best terms.
One of my all time favourite memories of this trip was driving up to Little Aktru Glacier. After finding the toughest Soviet jeep in Altai, we set off across the vast grasslands of the Kurai Steppe, up through alpine forest, driving along dry river beds and flowing rivers as there are no roads. Soon reaching the base of the valley, we then continued on foot to reach the small but majestic glacier, somehow escaping any crowds and just soaking up the epic view ahead of us.
Image Credit: Kaichi Travel
There’s no question that my favourite moment of this trip was finding what is believed to be the extinct Saylyugem Bear. Seeing any kind of wild animal in its natural habitat is a gift in itself, but to have what is supposedly one of the rarest animals in the world standing 70 metres below me was truly incredible. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of wow moments throughout my travelling life but this one topped them all. See here for the video!
Something I wasn’t expecting to like so much was the moody but magical music of Altai, in particular the surreal throat singing. During the trip I was lucky enough to hear not one but two incredibly talented kaichi perform age-old songs with the passion and skill of their ancestors.
For centuries the kaichi were respected storytellers of the mountains, passing between nomadic camps and sharing stories of the world as they sat around the fire with curious locals. They were masters of throat singing, and their sonorous voices were accompanied by a two-string ekelei, as they sang into the night about the heroes and legends of Altai.
Not reading up more on the history of the area before my trip. The Altai Mountains have a unique mystery to them, as they not only offer spectacular scenery but also an incredible variety of history and culture that has for a long time been closed off to the outside world and debated between historians. I explored ancient burial grounds dating back thousands of years, discovered almost perfect petroglyphs that had been carved into huge free-standing rocks in the middle of nowhere with no explanation, and walked through sites of worship that had been used for centuries by shamans. Whether fact or fiction, what is undeniable is that this area holds a very special kind of magic, that has drawn in communities and cultures for centuries, and definitely put me under its spell.
Bring layers! Everyone expects Siberia to be cold, but some of the areas I visited are known to be the driest in all of Russia, and we had some very hot sunny days. That said, apparently the week before I arrived (late May) they had snow! So come prepared, and you’ll definitely be rewarded with an unpredictable but unforgettable experience like no other.