37 – Trekking the Altai and rafting the river Katun

Back after 10 days of being wonderfully unaware of the outside world. I kept a hand written diary (something I managed to avoid when I was a teenager, and it’s a bloody hard work). I have 6 hours to kill at tiny Gorno-Altajsk airport, so here it is:

the mighty Altai

July 11

The morning starts well. I managed to meet the rest of my trekking buddies at the train station at Barnaul, despite the language barrier in our whatsapp communication. Everyone is Russian and looks as jet-lagged as I am. 400 km/4 hours drive to the village of Barangol, where I leave all the stuff I don’t need for trekking and prepare myself on the possibility of never being reunited with my computer (a fear later proved absolutely unnecessary). We change means of transport and board a bus that is possibly older than me and set off for the mountains. Supposedly another 400 km / 8 hours drive to a place off the village of Multa. The bus of course breaks after roughly one hour. Overheated, guessing from the smoke that fills the cabin, because the guy drives the thing as if he has stolen it. The good thing with pre-electronic-age vehicles is that everything can be repaired if you know what to do. The driver does, although using water from a nearby stream to fill the cooler seems a little dodgy. However, it does the trick and we can continue our bumpy ride after another hour or so. The scenery is amazing. Gentle hills covered with birch trees make space to proper mountains and cedar forests as we gain altitude. We stop for a break and snack at a roadside market. The Russians recommend something called cheburyok, fried pastry filled with minced meat. Probably roadkill, given the amount of cows and horses that roam freely along (and quite often on) the road. Something goes wrong and the drives takes forever (12 hours instead of the promised 8), we arrive at the campsite shortly after midnight and build the camp in pitch-black darkness. I share the tent with Sandy, a woman from Hong Kong, who has been told that I speak russian, and I will translate for her. Well, good luck with that.

July 12

Wake up at seven. Alexiy the guide cooks oatmeal for breakfast. I hate oatmeal, always hated it, and only take a bit of it out of politeness after having been urged three times. The Russians, however, swallow industrial quantities of that stuff. I will lose this attitude very soon. Big military GAZ vehicle arrives at about half nine to take us up to the Lower Multyn Lake. The drive is quite an experience. The closest thing I can compare it to would be the boat trip I took in Canada on not so pacific Pacific. We have lunch at the touristic base at the lake, pack all provisions for three days and set off for Middle Multyn Lake where we are going to build the camp and do round treks from. The walk is only 6 km, but the pace is excruciatingly slow, and with all the tents, food and cooking equipment on out backs it’s no fun at all.

The group: Sandy from Hong Kong; Sergey, Tanya and Maria, a family from Krasnoyarsk. Tanya is a university teacher and speaks excellent english and makes my and Sandy’s life so much easier. Then there are Maria and Denis from Krasnoyarsk, Alexiy from Moscow and Artem from somewhere in the Urals. Artem is very handsome in kind of a cold way and doesn’t talk much. The man who plays the strong and silent type normally means shortcut to a disaster in my world. Also, he looks at me as “Lenin at the bourgeoisie” every time I smile at him. I smile at most people, and I am not even flirting (much). OK, challenge accepted. Let’s see if I can make the young man smile back.

First success in that field comes early, when I jump into the ice-cold lake as soon as we build the camp, and all the men follow my example. We cook dinner, and I am telling you, nothing ever tasted as good as that borshch – even without sour cream – especially if you cooked it yourself and carried all the ingredients for what felt like eternity. Highlight of the day: my first russian banya. It is said that the French are so good in making perfumes because for centuries they were using them to cover bad body odours. It was only when russian Cossacks arrived to France when the frogs were taught to wash themselves in a bath. Probably not entirely true, but I am sure the Russians like the story (who doesn’t like to take the piss out of the French, after all). Anyway, never would I have imagined I could take pleasure from being whipped with birch twigs by a naked blonde russian lady, but I am telling you, I would take that beating every night.

Here’s wher we build the camp at the Middle Multyn Lake

In the evening everyone sits by the fire. Tanya translates as much as she can, but I find that I am able to follow most conversations. The Russians however are not able to understand me when I speak Czech. Maybe it’s because I am accustomed to hearing two very similar languages from my childhood (Czech and Slovak) so I can deduce more easily what things mean in Russian. I am able to follow even quite complex conversations and I laugh at their jokes, although I only can contribute in english, but the good thing is I don’t feel excluded. I remain by the fire till way past midnight with Artem, who suddenly starts speaking a decent english, and we chat in a mixture of languages until the rain drives ut to our (respective) tents.

July 13

Trek to the Upper Multyn Lake. The rain lasted all night, and even though the morning is clear, the paths are a mud bath, so the 12 km trek with hardly any profile takes us almost 8 hours. The scenery is beautiful, if you manage to look at it. Most times all my concentration is dedicated to looking where I put my feet, because if anything happened, I would be dead within 5-50 hours, because even if anyone found me there, there is no cellphone reception for hours and hours of drive, and quite frankly, the ride back to the valley on that GAZ would probably finish me off.

July 14

Most people are shattered by yesterday trek, so it’s only me, Artem and the two Alexiys who sett off for the hike to Poperechnoe Lake. The pace in the small group is much quicker, and we arrive there in as decent time as the path permits. The rains turned it into a full-blown torrent, and the fact that it’s shared with horse trekkers doesn’t help. Adds horse shit to the mixture of mud and water, if anything. Thunderstorm and torrential rain hits just as we are having lunch by the lake and there is nowhere to hide. We come back to the camp completely soaked and miserable and I feel like I am never going to be able to get the mud off my feet again (or dry my shoes come to that). Fortunately the banya is ready, and I take it to the next level by jumping to the icy  lake after each round. Foodwise: I would have never believed that I could consider overcooked pasta mixed just with canned pork a meal, and a delicious one come to that (and even go for a second helping), but camping in the middle of nowhere quickly put my eating standards into perspective. Anything hot would have comforted me today. Not a drop of alcohol yet. Were all the Ruskies not supposed to be alkies? CErtainly not this group. Discussion about home-made alcohol comes up, and the guys find it very amusing when I explain that what we call “home-made” in the Czech Republic actually comes from a professional distillery (so that the state can tax it). What, tax on vodka? There would be a second revolution, I guess.

July 15

No real hikes today. We pack up the camp and move back to the lower lake, where we will stay overnight. The backpacks are considerably lighter as we finished all the food. Afternoon dedicated to chilling and relax. Artem sets off on his own to the other shore of the lake, because he wants to take some photos. I consider the idea of joining him, but then figure he maybe wants to be alone, same as me, after all. Instead, a pack of cards appears on the table, and the Russians teach me durak, the local (more viscious) version of arsehole. It is great how being deprived of modern technologies drives people together. We sit by the fire every night, eat together, drink tea, chat about anything, and manage to, regardless the language barrier, because talking to each other is the only thing we have to entertain ourselves.

July 16

Last trek of this part of the journey. Sandy and Sergey with Maria stay at the camp, while the rest of group sets for Lake Kuyguk in the neighbouring valley. It’s the most beautiful of the hikes yet. We ascend through the valley against the stream born in the lake, when after 3 hours a mighty waterfall appears in front of us. We climb alongside the fall and find ourselves at the shore of a beautiful blue-green lake encircled by mountains capped with snow. It’s a fantastic day, too. We return to the camp at about 4 pm, just in time for the last swim in the lake before the GAZ arrives to take us back to the place where we camped the first night. What I was carefully trying to avoid for the entire time happens while we sit by the fire in the evening. They ask me what do people in my country think about Russian activity in Crimea. I manage to give a diplomatic answer without hopefully offending anyone, as I really don’t want a discussion about politics to ruin everybody’s holiday.

July 17

A bus arrives in the morning to take us back to the civilization, unfortunately. Most people get on their cellphones, and the convivial feel in the group is lost to whatsapp and facebook. We stop in a Mongolian cafe for lunch. Artem teases me by not wanting to translate for me, but the joke backfires as I (both to mine and his great surprise) order in (broken) Russian, but still manage to get what I wanted. Me, Artem and Alexiy continue to the rafting part, while the rest of the people return home. We stop at a cafe to wait for a bus that is supposed to pick the three of us up and take us to the rafting base. The bus arrives alright, but speeds right by us without stopping. So our driver orders us to get on board and starts chasing the other vehicle on the winding mountain roads. Priceless. Unfortunately this all happens a little too quickly, so I don’t get the chance to properly greet all members of the group. Eventually we join the rafting group on the bank of Katun river, keep the indispensable minimum to be carried in our drybags, and send the rest of stuff back to the base in Barangol. That’s now two pieces of luggage – including all my documents – that I pray to find there upon my return. We sit by the fire with the boys until late and drink a bottle of mead that I bought while waiting for our ride earlier. The nights are considerably warmer here, and I am thankful I don’t have to be wearing three layers beneath the sleeping bag to avoid freezing to death at night.

View at river Katun from the first camp

July 18

First day on the river. This groups wakes up later (around 9) and sets off way past noon. Also, their concept of breakfast si a bit unusual. I just about started to put up with oatmeal, porridge and sweet polenta in the morning, but these people eat buckwheat with stewed mutton for breakfast. I understand the reason quite quickly. Loading the rafts with all our stuff is a pain in the neck, and stopping for lunch and unloading the boats is out of question. So drop the attitude and eat. One of the guides said some italian tourists were supposed to join the group in two weeks. I hope they are ready for this kind of catering and not expecting croissants and cappuccino. Anyway, our group is formed by two rafts of seven people (plus instructors), a couple from Moscow on a catamaran and a rescue kayak. Short instruction follows, and we push the rafts off the bank. The first day is kind of a warm up, to get us used to the commands. There are a few waves, but no rapids. The scenery is completely different to the Multyn district. The mountains are rocky and bare, and kind of haunting. An occasional birch hems the river, and later we build a camp on a sandy beach populated by thousands of locusts and covered by wild thyme. The new group is nice, and there are some people who speak excellent english, so I can venture into more complicated conversations. Artem is grumpy for some reason known only to him. He retreats on the rock above the camp and sits there alone for a good hour. I had done the same thing earlier, so I let him be. He eventually comes down, and we lay by the fire and watch the stars.

July 19

Surprise in the morning. We left our life vests to dry on the bushes and discover a little baby owl hiding below them. The poor thing is frightened and doesn’t move, but eventually manages to fly away. We sett off about 11 am. It’s going to be a demanding day. The river becomes faster and we get through some serious rapids. It’s a shame I had to send my camera to the base in Barangol, but it’s too risky to keep electronics on the raft, as we are soaked most of the time. The drybags do their job, but one never knows. The water is great fun, although the day is long and tiring, especially given not everyone on the raft paddles as they should. We camp on a beach that has a “shop” (selling beer and vodka) and more importantly, a banya. We are the last to arrive, so it’s our turn only by midnight. But sweating in the dark and cooling down in a gelid creek has its undisputable charm.

July 20

Last day on the river is much calmer. Which means more paddling, as the stream isn’t strong enough to carry the weight of the raft on its own. It’s also hot and sunny, so we cheer up the slow parts of the river by throwing each other off the raft and swimming fully dressed in the cold water, We ask Kolja, our rescue kayak, if we can try what would happen if we fell off the raft and had to be saved by him. He agrees and first Artem and then me descend the rapids hanging at the back of the kayak, which is awesome. The adrenalin kicks in and I even forget how cold the water is. We arrive at the base and pack everything up, then transfer to Barangol, where some of us spend the night, while others continue to Barnaul.

Rafting the Katun

I have no idea what day of the week it is. I have no news from the outside world, nor do I care to have them. I have not seen my face in a mirror since 10 days. The fact that my eyebrows must make me look somewhere between Frida Kalho and Brezhnev doesn’t bother me in the slightest. My legs are covered in bruises, scratches and mosquito bites and desperately need a shave. Mi lips are sunburnt and broken and bleed every time I eat, talk, or even laugh (which is a lot). The fear of how my hair look like has completely abandoned me, I hide it below a bandana. And it’s awesome. OK, I am looking forward to wearing some clean clothes, having a proper shower (or using a proper toilet come to that), and to sleeping in a normal bed. And it would be nice if my shoes (both the trainers and the hiking boots) ever dried.

Rafting the Katun

Time to say goodbye to my new friends, especially one special silent man, whom I wish I could understand better.

That’s Kacenka reporting from Gorno Altajsk airport. I’m heading to Novosibirsk, where I board the Transsib train to Krasnoyarsk. Over and out.

Note: I did this adventure through Altay Tour travel agency, which I highly recommend, if anyone wants to travel to Altai. I would not recommend doing this on your own, especially if you are not Russian, as you need a special permission to enter the area close to the southern border. The agency is very skilled and professional. Just don’t expect sherpas, facilities with hot water (banya is as good as it gets, and it’s really good) and don’t be a pussy when it comes to eating. Also, don’t expect anybody to care if you are a vegetarian. For everything else: Chimba! (The Altai dialect expression for “awesome”)!

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