Altai is a mountain range in South Russian but don’t be mistaken by the word “South”. Temperatures rarely get over 20°C in summer, it rains almost every day and snow never melts on the peaks there.
Rave reviews from my best friend, who went to Altai 2 years ago, spoke louder than any Tripadvisor’s recommendations could, so we started packing. The only difficulty was getting there. All in all, it took us about a day and a half, but 3 flights and 2 long bus trips later we were in Elekmonar.
In Elekmonar, a small village at the foot of the mountain range, we met Olga, the owner of Mayak Altaya agency. Growing up in Moscow, she, as many others, got so called “Altai fever” after her first visit about 7 years ago. Charmed by Altai nature, she decided to dramatically change her life and moved from the hectic megapolis to rural area. Initially working as a horse riding instructor and guide, she later bought a few horses and opened her own travel agency.
The first day of our trip was spent at basecamp. The agenda was simple:
- befriend other group members,
- decide what and how we were going to cook during the next 3 days,
- pack essentials and raw food in archimacks (saddlebags)
- and pray for the next three days not to be too cold and rainy.
We failed only one task… The last one. :-)
On the second day our guides, Uncle Sasha and his 19-year-old son Yrys, woke up before sunrise to bring the horses from the pastures.
After the buckwheat porridge and herbal tea cooked on the open fire had nicely settled in our stomachs :-), we went to see our new best friends. We spend about half an hour learning the basics of saddling, (dis)mounting, riding up and down the hill, and then we were allowed to choose our horses.
And of course I accidentally chose the best horse in the herd. Or, maybe he chose me? Meet Mongol, a 14-year-old phlegmatic gelding, who wasn’t even interested in the piece of bread I brought him as an introduction present. :-)
A few minutes up the road, the group members started to complain about the horses trying to get rid of them by choosing to walk under low hanging branches. :-) Being a fanatical horses’ advocate, I tried to explain equine point of view – they go where they can fit themselves, without thinking much about riders. And why should they? So it’s a rider’s responsibility to watch out for branches and steer away. Horse sense in action.
The road to the second camp was not a piece of cake. A narrow rocky path, thickly covered with mud went mostly uphill, and I cannot help but think that these horses earn their winter hay in a hard way. But on the bright side they only work 3-4 months a year, and spend all the rest of the time on pastures.
We were approximately half way to the camp when the rain started. Tiny, almost unnoticeable drops at first; it got stronger and stronger every minute. Wrapped in oilskins and shivering from the cold and dampness, we were all thinking aloud “Are we there yet?” No, we were not. Only 3 hours of riding up and down hills later, we finally got there. After such a long way, that flat and almost dry spot under the pines seemed to be a heaven on Earth.
But before setting the camp, kindling the fire and changing to dry drier clothes, we had to take care of our horses. We were asked to unsaddle them, put bells on their necks, hobble the front legs and let them graze. And finally (and most importantly), we covered all the saddles with raincoats.
While hobbling, I noticed that Mongol had lost his left front shoe, so I was told to avoid stones and choose the softest possible paths the next day.
The rest of the day we were busy with camp duties: tent assembling, dinner cooking, and attempting to dry soaking clothes.
At midnight, wrapped in a few layers of clothes, I fell asleep lulled by the melody of the raindrops and horse bells.
When we woke up the next day, it was foggy but luckily not raining. One of the morning chores was to clean the horses from yesterday’s mud. (Well, as much as possible.) We didn’t have any brushes or combs, so Yrys taught me to brush like locals. First, you need to find a short 15-20 cm branch with the bark still on it, so it’s comfortable enough to scrape off the dried mud from horse skin. Initially, I was quite skeptical, but it worked perfectly. A few minutes later Mongol turned from muddy leopard appaloosa to an ordinary grey.
The next step was to clean his mane of burrs. It’s not common to cut or pull horses manes here, so some of them had quite extensive dreads. Also, I was told that for good luck one needs to untangle the horse’s mane with her hands, without a comb, as is tradition. Although, I suspect that the instructors just wanted to trick me into untangling as many manes as possible. :-)
Only half an hour away from the camp, on the way to the valley, the land looked completely different. No more trees and 4-foot-long grass (a.k.a. fast food for horses, which they ate on the go); just fog, short grass and blue flowers. I felt lost on an unknown cold planet, where sun and blue sky had never existed.
Later, ancient Altai gods took pity on us and the fog got thinner. We even could briefly see the lakes through the gaps between clouds.
And then we played… snowballs. Yes, even in July there are some shallow gullies where snow never melts. This is how I remember the Valley of the Seven Lakes: surrealistic pictures of people wearing oversize green oilskins throwing snowballs on a lawn covered with blossoming flowers.
For dessert, our guides offered us “Ice-cream for tourists” – last year’s snow mixed with sweetened condensed milk, but demand was very low. Probably a better advertising campaign would’ve helped :-)
The entire way back I was checking if Mongol felt okay. He didn’t noticeably limp, but he was deliberately choosing the softer path.
When our camp was on the doorstep, we stopped again. We tied up horses, gulped our simple lunch and followed Yrys to a waterfall. I personally will never forget that waterfall because I almost broke my left leg there. :-) Trust me… Summer in Altai is not the best time for splashing around in a waterfall (neither are the other seasons :-)). But thanks to an adrenalin rush and a group member who had spare dry trousers, I didn’t catch cold.
The end of that exciting day was spent trying… if not to dry, then at least to make our clothes less soaking wet :-) Have you ever dried wet clothes by the fire? It’s far more difficult and hopelessly interminable than you might think. So we had to stay at the fire place long after midnight, listening to Uncle Sasha’s stories about Altai traditions, horses and bear hunting.
One of my favorite stories was about the Heavenly Horse. Contrary to modern astronomy, recognizing 2 constellations – Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Little Bear), the ancient Altai people believed that it was one large constellation, where Polaris was an iron peg to which the Horse was tied by a winding rope.
On the last day, when we had got used to almost constant rain, suddenly (all weather changes are sudden here) the brightly shining sun appeared in the sky.
After breakfast, Yrys told me that he had rounded up all the horses except Mongol, which despite hobbles and a lost shoe, had wandered quite far away. So I had to catch him and ride him back to the camp bareback. That was my first bareback riding experience, but thanks to Mongol’s wide back, it appeared to be easier than I thought.
After I’d brought Mongol back to the camp, we agreed that I would swap horses with Uncle Sasha, As he knew the way better, he would choose softer paths for Mongol, and I would take his 10-year-old black Karat. (Karat actually means Black horse in Altai language :-))
That day we finally got some sun tan and saw how beautiful the road was, which we hadn’t noticed before due to the fog.
In the evening, Yrys taught me to catch a horse with a lasso. Well, I didn’t catch any horses – all of them went quite far away when they saw me with a rope – but after a few dozen attempts, I managed to catch a birch stump a few times ;-)
Saying goodbye, Uncle Sasha told me that they would like to invite me to work as an instructor. Well… I’d have to seriously think about it :-)
Leaving Altai, I bought a white onyx horse figurine in the small souvenir shop. It will remind me why I will always miss the remote sounds of horse bells when falling asleep.
Useful links: Site of Mayak Altaya agency: http://www.altaiforum.com/