Sunday, 7 September 2014

the chuysky tract

the Big City
Descending down the road to Aktash we suddenly understand how high we've been for the last few days - the road is steep and seemingly endless.  Aktash is the Big City.  There's a bancomat (ATM).  There are shops.  There's a petrol station.  And, wait for it, there's a hotel.  We consider the hotel when the rain starts.  We haven't restocked our panniers when the black clouds down the valley move swiftly over us and the rain falls.  We check out the hotel but they want 25 quid for a dull room and no wifi. Fergeddit.  

can you get a pulse?
The skies clear and we optimistically do our shopping, refill fuel bottles and find a tap at a water pump on the street to fill our water carriers.  So, roubles? Check. Food? Check. Water? Check.  Petrol? Check. Gabor? Gabor? Gabor is cleaning his bike.  As we set off up the main road eastwards we are chased by more filthy black clouds.  Within twenty minutes we have the tent up in a copse of fir trees just off the road as the storm passes over.  Gabor is evidently not so keen on the pitch for his tent, but sod it, here comes the rain again.

The Chuysky Tract is the main road that runs through the Altai Region. Coming southwards from Biysk it bends eastwards through narrow valleys, over passes before opening out east of Aktash.  As we cycle along, mouths gaping wide with smiles, mouths gaping wide for oxygen, there's a rush of joy and bliss at being surrounded by big mountains, big country and big sky.  The sun is out again and we're in Siberia. Fantastic.

We roll into a village for food and water and meet the local drunks, who are always hanging around the shop when we turn up.  How to play it?  Most of them are harmless, shake hands, basic chit-chat, and then buddy, can you spare a dime? Ya nye panlimayu, I say with a shrug.  I don't understand, smiling.  I do understand that some of these men are too young to be alcoholics.  I do understand that the Altai has one of Russia's worst crime rates, the lowest wages, the most poor.  It's on the edge of the country, it's a long way from Moscow, and there aren't many ethnic Russians living here.  The women look like they bear the burden in these parts.

We are a bit careful when looking for the next camp spot - who wants a miserable drunk finding us?  But we also want a river, to wash.  And we also want The View.  The View consists of a range of mountains with snow on the ridges.  Glaciers.  Ice cream cornices.  We score 2 and a half out of three - the river runs around the back of the woods. Gabor is moved to rise with the sun to photograph The View, it's that good.

Gabor considering the view

Riding east the land is gradually opening out.  The mountains move further away.  We are climbing ever so gradually.  The road is quiet.  The scenery is loud.  The trees are on fire with vivid autumnal shades.  The hillsides are now barren.  Only the land around the river is fertile.  Copses.  Boggy grasses.  Pine forest is starting to thin out.  We pass one last village before camping down by the riverside behind thickets of what looks like hazel, but isn't.  A warm evening is followed by a frosty morning. 

Kosh Agach.  "Edge of the world shanty town."  Snow-capped mountains to the south.  Big wide expanse of barren land all around.  Rivers meandering across the high plain.  It's the Altiplano of Chile/Bolivia.  It's the desert mountain scenery of Tibetan Sichuan.  It's the Altai.  

Our hotel is homely.  Well, homely in the sense that you have to make up your own bed.  Otherwise it just feels like a woodshack motel, especially on the Saturday night when the hotel is full of who?  Who comes here, apart from crazy tourists on bicycles?  Well, Altais, Russians and Kazakhs, judging by the look of 'em.  It's carnage.  On Sunday morning drunks weave to their cars.  A man throws up in the shared bathroom to great audio effect.  Smokers in the showers - how does that work?  The skyline is low, the mountains hidden in grey cloud, the streets are empty.  It's Sunday morning and everyone has a hangover.  A day to spend warm in bed.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

from the woods to the hills

After a couple of days riding washboard dirt roads the appearance of tarmac comes as a pleasant surprise.  The river we are riding beside has become swift as the road climbs.  There's little farmland now - mostly forest and sometimes swamp.  The little villages we pass through have new houses or restored old ones - the lovely old wooden cabins might be holiday homes for city folk.  But there are clearly still a lot of locals living here too.  Some of the old houses lean.  Some of the locals do too.  Alcoholism must be a serious problem here.

the archetypal village house
camping bliss
After one last camp in the forest we turn up at Lake Teleskoye looking for Gabor, who we hope is still here.  There are a few souvenir shops, cafes and guesthouses with cabins. It's surprisingly low-key despite the good weather.  End of summer.  Where to begin looking for Gabor?  We opt to look for the internet first and end up asking the owner of a hotel who asks with a smile "do you only want the internet?".  We take a room.  Gabor is still here but it takes us a while to realise we can track him on the internet as he uses a tracking device.  Sure enough - he's down by the bridge at the head of the lake.  We quickly catch up and make plans.  After a couple of nights we will take a boat to the southern end of the lake.  The trouble is there aren't many tourists around to share the cost of the boat.  In fact it's looking decidedly quiet, especially after a day of rain.  We learn from the hotel owner that the tick season is over and there is a noticeable lack of mosquitoes around, so there are some advantages of being late in the season, although we shouldn't drop our guard.

the onset of Japanese Encephalitis can be swift and alarming

It's about 65km across the lake.  We ride in a small, fast boat that has cost us about 20 quid each.  The lake is wonderful - narrow with steep forrested slopes and big waves when we turn the corner to cruise the length of it.  The bumpy crossing brings us to a much quieter part of the Altai region - the Chulyshman valley has a dirt road connecting small villages of Altai people with the main road over two mountain ranges.  For the first time in Siberia Russian Slavs are in the minority - the Altai people look more Mongolian/Kyrgyz.  We have plenty of days to ride to the Mongolian border from here so our pace is easy-going.  And why not?  The road is rough in places but most of all the landscape is worth casting a second or third look.  In fact, why not sit down here and drink it all in for a while.  

What follows are several short days of cycling and some great wild camping places.  They have to be worked for - a big push up away from the road or over a dry river bed and through sand.  Whatever.  It's so much nicer camping away from the road - especially at the weekend when Russians turn up in their 4WDs and camouflage gear to go fishing or just camp in the last days of summer.  Our way back to the main road takes us out of the valley and over a pass to Balyktuyul.  The road climbs into the sky at a precipitous angle.  There are switchbacks.  We love switchbacks.  After all, switchbacks make climbing mountains easier.  But not these.  These have been cut out of the valley side in haste.  We push almost the whole way.  It's so steep we take it in turns to push one bike together.  Gabor is a slow starter so we miss the look on his face ( the "oh shit" moment) when he turns the corner and sees the track disappearing vertically.  It's a tough climb and he arrives at the top of the switchbacks two hours after we do.

from the bottom ... the top
rolling down from another great camp spot

sleepy Balyktuyul
The mountains in the distance are snow-capped.  Do we cross that range?  The land is lived in but empty.  The track climbs, winds, drops, twists, straightens out and climbs again to Balyktuyul where we hit tarmac.  Hooray.  There have been an endless number of short sharp climbs in sand and gravel that have required pushing and pulling, but now we're on tarmac.   Until we leave Balyktuyul and return to the dirt. Aha!  We have one of those "bad puncture" days when Gayle gets a flat, we go through all our spare inner tubes one after the other and either the patches fail or the rim tape on the wheel causes another puncture.  Finally, the rim is taped up and a new tube of patch glue is opened.  Gabor waits patiently throughout each pitstop, eating milk biscuits with jam.

We meet only two Aussies, Carl and Mel, on motorbikes.  No other foreign tourists.  It seems incredibly off the beaten track considering the beauty of the landscape.  We continue southwards towards the main road, passing lakes and swathes of autumnal forest.  It's hot in the sun during the day but the mornings and evenings are very chilly. End of summer for sure.

oh look, another lake