We savour the last few days riding along the Chuysky track to the border town of Kosh Agach, and the go slow isn’t just because my rear wheel is cracked. The riding since the Altay Republic border has been through some of the most spectacular scenery of our trip to date, and we’re freewheeling on the last smooth tarmac we’ll have for a few months.
As we leave Aktash on the morning of my 30th birthday we quickly hit pay dirt on the scenery front. Just seven kilometres out of town, the real mountains start, with 3,000 metre plus peaks in view, all covered thickly in snow. Its warm down where we are and we duck under the shady shelter of trees for lunch in sight of the mountain range. We only pass one village all day, stopping at a small shop staffed by young children to buy ice-cream and water. We camp early next to a river, enjoying a driftwood fire and delicious dinner before dusk brings out a few mosquitoes and sees us retreat to the tent.
Out here the M52 feels much more remote. Car traffic is down to a dribble and in its absence we have the constant sight of small mammals (we think maybe marmots) scurrying across the road as we approach. We wonder if the local population, mostly with distinct Central Asian features, feel any affinity with the big money bustle of Moscow – even our days exploring the capital seem a long time ago.
We slowly climb along long straight roads, then just before Kosh Agach we emerge onto the steppe – no more forests or hills closely hugging our route but there are still mountains in the distance with tiny villages just specks before them.
To cross the border between Russia and Western Mongolia, cyclists are required to take motorised transport and its easy enough to organise a ride for the 200km from Kosh Agach to Olgii which is the first major town in Mongolia. We visit the market area and arrange for a lift in a van with little hassle.
Kosh Agach is very much a transit town, and as long staying tourists we’ve become a local curiosity. After visiting the nearby Anu Cafe three days in a row, the attendant gets an English speaking friend on the phone to ask ‘When are you going to Mongolia?’ They just didn’t expect us to still be in town. We’re also known at the post office where a staff member kindly lets us unplug the internet console so we can use the internet on our own computer. As internet has been scarce in the Altay Region we’re grateful to be able to complete a long list of chores.
There is fresh snow on the mountains surrounding Kosh Agach when we wake up on the longest day of the year, and we decide to go for walk to try and reach the snowline. Our plan seems more ambitious when we start walking across a large plain towards the nearest mountain. We climb halfway up a hill comprised of loose rock and look back towards the town which is now just a few dots on the horizon.
On our way back to the hotel, we spot what can only be a convoy of tourists, with cars adorned with stickers and piled high with spare tyres and petrol cans. Its a group of Mongol Challenge drivers, who’ve stopped at a mechanics on the edge of Kosh Agach to repair one of their vehicles. With not much entertainment to be had in the town, we quickly detour to find out what they’re up to and enjoy some rare English language conversation, before leaving them to find accommodation for 15 carloads of people.
With our wheel delivery to Olgii, Mongolia taking a week to arrange from England, we decide to leave our cramped hotel room for a mini adventure, backtracking 20 kilometres to a camping spot we’d spied on our way into the town. Fighting a strong head wind, we see two cycle tourists racing towards us. They’re a Swiss couple also heading towards Mongolia, with just a few weeks of cycling planned in the North before looping back into Russia. Our adventuring has suddenly gotten a whole lot more social.
The park we pitch our tent in is a well used area, but we clear away the litter in our immediate vicinity, make a couple of benches and create a portable shower which we use bracingly cold river water to wash with. One evening, we’re joined by a German motorcyclist called Olaf who is on his way back from his third trip to Mongolia. We talk late into the night and we’re more than chuffed when he shows us several improvements for our hand fishing line before heading on the next day. We spend a few hours dangling our line in the water but still don’t catch any fish.
Some people say that the Altay region is the spiritual centre of Russia and there’s truly something about the landscape here that touches the heart. Planning our ride back to Kosh Agach for a taxi over the border, we wonder if there will be any marked differences when we cross into Mongolia.