Stuart Butler heads out on the highway to Russia’s south and is left spellbound by mountain meadows, sulphur lakes and stark plains, in a landscape as mysterious as it is magnificent
Driving through Siberia: on the road to Russia's spectacular south
As she handed me a glass of green tea, the waitress told me that here, on the far side of the mountains, in the town of the last tree, life was different. We are, she said, no longer in Russia.
I was at the end of my trip along Russia’s Chuysky Trakt (Federal Highway M52), which I did by hiring a taxi driver for a few days. Hailed as one of the great driving routes of Russia, the Chuysky Trakt burrows straight through the heart of the Altai Mountains in the deep south of Siberia. Following an eons-old trade route linking Siberia with Mongolia and Central Asia, work first began on the Chuysky Trakt in 1913, but due to wartime interruptions it wasn’t completed until the 1930s. Much of the construction work was done by prison camp (gulag) labour and it is said that up to 12,000 people were forced to work on the road in temperatures that for a large part of the year are dozens of degrees below zero. Not surprisingly, the extreme conditions meant many prisoners died during the road’s construction and locals say that it is lined with skeletons.
Technically, the Chuysky Trakt runs for 953 kilometres from the Siberian “capital” of Novosibirsk right the way to the northern border of Mongolia. However, from the perspective of a tourist, the route is of most interest along its last half, from the small town of Gorno-Altaisk to the Mongolia border town of Kosh-Agach. Despite the road’s past, the scenery along the route makes the journey worthwhile.
Along its earlier, and lower, stretches, the Chuysky Trakt follows gushing rivers of milk-blue dotted with forested isles and lined by flower meadows of fairground colours. Every now and then, nature is interrupted by an idyllic looking village of wooden log houses and story book timber churches with golden domes and crosses.
Then the land starts to rise up and up, and flat farming land turns to hill piled upon hill. The first major geological feature along the route is the Semisky Pass. At 1.7km it’s actually the highest point along the road. However, despite the associated hype and line of tourist souvenir shops selling tat, the pass is something of a disappointment. The road rises up to it so gently that had my driver not pointed it out to me, I doubt I would have noticed it.
Beyond though and things quickly become more spectacular. Glossy conifer trees, lollipop stick-thin and straight, stretch off into the horizon, and the road cascades downwards around sharp corners before once again corkscrewing upward to the lower, but far more jagged and impressive Chike-Taman pass.
This pass signalled something of a climatic, floral and geographic gateway. Beyond the pass the big mountains suddenly leer up and the landscapes became infinitely darker and more forbidding.
Like any good road trip, travelling the Chuysky Trakt isn’t just about sitting behind the wheel and moving forward. The road is in fact a side-story to the sights and activities along the way. The irony with driving the Chuysky Trakt is that the first thing most people want to do is abandon the car altogether and set out into the surrounding wilderness on foot. There are walks for everyone here. From a ten minute stroll to a bubbling, luminous turquoise sulphur lake, to multi-day mountaineering expeditions up dozens of oxygen-depleted 4km high peaks.
The most popular walk however, and the one I chose to do, is the long and exciting day hike to the Blue Lake hidden in a scree-covered bowl on the far side of a huge glacier halfway up the side of the daunting Mt Aktru (4km). The walking trail to the lake runs through forest for a short distance before lurching sharply upwards, out and up above the tree line and on over a rock and scree landscape enlivened by hardy purple and white flowers.
The most exciting part of the trail came when I crunched my way across the Aktru glacier. A vast field of sparkly sea-blue ice that slurped down the side of the mountain. Beyond the glacier I dragged myself up a final scree slope and was rewarded with a view of a hazy blue, almost heart-shaped lake filled with miniature icebergs and made to look all the more radiant by its bleak stone surroundings.
Back in the car again after the glaciers of Aktru, the Chuysky Trakt hurries southwards and the scenery changes. One moment I’m craning my neck upwards to look at serrated mountain ridges, and the next the road had carried me through to the leeside of the mountains and I found myself staring out of the window at a horseman kicking up dust as he galloped across a high grassland plateau.
If the Aktru area had reminded me of Canada and the mountain meadows of lower-down hinted at Switzerland, then now, on the steppe surrounding the small town of Kosh-Agach, we were firmly in the world of Mongolia and Central Asia.
Kosh-Agach, which means Last Tree in Kazakh, is the last town in Russia before the frontier of Mongolia (and, slightly further away, China and Kazakhstan), and with its melancholy air it really did feel like the end of the road. It was certainly far from Moscow in every sense of the word. The pre-fab buildings gave it something of a temporary feeling. A “here today, gone tomorrow” kind of place.
Walking the streets I found myself drawn towards a roadside cafe with flashing red neon signs.
“Are you going to Mongolia?” the waitress asked me as she put my tea down on the Formica table. “No. I don’t have a visa. I’m going back the way I came to Novosibirsk and then onto Moscow”.
The waitress smiled and, her voice fading away, replied, “Moscow is far away”.
Outside the cafe the sun was going down, a cold wind sent dust whittling down half-empty streets and beyond the last town of Russia, a golden plateau light twinkled off the glaciers of distant mountains.