Reaching the marker sign for the border of the Altay Republic was a real milestone for us and being invited to join group photos with Russian tourists we felt like minor celebrities for a few minutes. A short distance down the road we found a structure representing the centre of the universe for the Tuva people and stopped for yet more photos. Tourist sites have been largely absent during our cycling in Russia to date so having two photo opportunities in the same kilometre was a novelty. Little did we realise that the landscape over the next week would provide a constant excuse for photo-taking.
The busy capital of the Republic, Gorno-Altaysk, was bypassed as we followed the Katun river through smaller settlements looking for a hotel where we could spend a few days. We knew we had to return to Gorno-Altaysk to register our visas, so although the hotel prices became cheaper as we cycled further so to did the distance we would have to cycle on our “rest” day. We settled in a guest house where a helpful English speaking staff member (and anthropologist) helped us arrange our visa registration, translated the traditional Altay menu (horse was on offer) and introduced us to a fellow Danish guest who was about to depart on a bear hunt.
In the midst of a Mongolia planning day with maps strewn around the room and panniers upended we were evicted from our room with hand gestures and notes written in Russian – note: if we can’t speak Russian we probably can’t read it either. We didn’t really understand why, but maybe there was a miscommunication over the length of our stay? They helped us move to a hotel across the road and we finished our planning day in an even nicer hotel with a water view and easy access for an evening dash into the ice cold river.
Leaving the comforts of our hotel rooms behind, we headed further south along the Katun river and a planned diversion to a small town called Chemal. With only a short 85km to cover we opted to stop early in our first official Russian campsite to date. The location was magnificent and we were glad to have our tent pitched as an afternoon thunderstorm echoed around the hills.
The next day, our first stop was to cross a swing bridge, which seemed to stretch out forever across the Chemal river. Emma was nervous of the bridge’s structural integrity – maybe Justin jumping up and down to show how strong it was didn’t help? The road to Chemal had been busy with traffic, the campsites we passed seemed very full given the stormy weather and the display of “no vacancy” signs outside some of the guest houses came as a surprise to us. Stopping in Chemal and talking with some Russian tourists we realised that our arrival coincided with a holiday weekend in Russia. This explained the hordes of people and the behaviour of passengers sitting side-saddle out car windows waving bottles of beer at us (if anything can explain it)!
Luckily we were offered some space to sleep at the otherwise full Pension Radna and decided to stay in Chemal for a few days catching sight of sparkling rainbows over the surrounding hills and feeling slightly guilty about having a rest day after only two days of easy cycling.
Returning to the main M52 road after leaving Chemal, things returned to normal with less tourists, less traffic and more cycling days on our part. In order to avoid the regular afternoon thunderstorms we tried to find camp spots around 4pm so we were tucked up in the tent listening to the thunder boom around us, rather than hunched over our handlebars with water filling our shoes.
One spot by a river saw us keeping a watchful eye on a nearby stream fearing it may flood our tent before the clouds cleared for a brief but colourful rainbow and sunset light show. The road continued climbing through small villages and wide open spaces with the scenery changing as hills become mountains and trees give way to grassy plains.
Reaching the first pass marked on our map we see a sign that indicates there is between 9km and 11km of climbing ahead. The sign is not kidding with a gradient of 10%+ the road seems to go straight up at times. Justin hitches a lift, holding onto a truck for 2km, while Emma bravely cycles the whole distance. The descent is more gradual letting us enjoy the scenery and one of the finest pieces of tarmac we have cycled in Russia.
Our free camp that evening looked like the previous tenants left only a few hours ago with flattened grass and river access where Emma tried her luck with some found fishing line and some safety pins. No fish were harmed during this experiment.
The next day we reached an unexpected pass with a further 5km of 12% climbing. Our legs are burning and with the time approaching thunderstorm’oclock we race down the descent to a forested free camp where our planned bike maintenance is given a rain check till the next morning. Our attempts to true Emma’s back wheel are not successful but we put this down to inexperience and continue onwards. The roads are now largely empty giving lots of opportunities for photos of us cycling against mountain backdrops. Somehow I take more photos in three days than I had taken in the previous ten.
The towns we pass through are increasingly basic with one town marked on our map having a single shop, no running water and two very inquisitive young boys who identify me as a “touristee”. Was it the big bicycle or my bad Russian that gave me away I wonder, while they try on my helmet and smudge my sunglasses. With the afternoon storm brewing and winds so strong we can only make 4km an hour on the flat a cafe and guesthouse miraculously appears.
Although the tea is welcome the place is fully booked for an international ceramics seminar. I ask one attendee why they hold the seminar in what seems to me the middle of nowhere. “Because it is a beautiful place” is the answer and I can’t really disagree with them. As the storm clears and we cycle on to find a sheltered spot to camp with views stretching down the valley, I think that this would make a good place for an international cycle touring seminar.