Mongolia or Bust! Our 500 km journey across the Altai Mountains (VIDEOS)

Taking a holiday to an ancient cultural crossroads filled with some of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth is a life changer and here’s why.

When my loyal producer and office heartthrob Misha offered to organize a trip down the Chuisky Tract, I first asked, “what the heck is this ‘tract’ that you speak of?” Then, after hearing the answer that it is a highway that goes 500 km through the entire Altai Mountain range down to the Mongolian border, I was sold instantly. The fact that a certain magazine with a yellow border around the cover called it “the most beautiful highway in Russia” was also a good selling point.

Misha assured me that the relatively new federal road that replaced the old Soviet highway-to-hell would not be “too bad”. Thankfully, he was telling the truth and we had one heck of an adventure, which I will tell you all about right now!

Here is our route

The Must Sees of Altai

The best place to start your journey along the Chuisky Tract Highway is Gorno-Altaisk, which is the big city of the region that is not particularly big. One thing I love about it is that it is surrounded by hills and mountains, so, if you choose to fly in, you will be in the midst of lovely green or white hills, depending on the time of year. About a decade ago, I was in the city, but I missed out on the chance to see its big regional museum that was then still under construction. This time, I was not going to miss my chance!

One of the reasons we know so much about Ancient Egypt is that the ultra dry environment preserved many mummies and other artifacts. Sadly, most of Eastern Europe is very wet, meaning its ancient history that was buried and/or was made of wood has been lost forever. Now, the Altai Mountains, below the surface, are so cold that they tend to freeze everything solid, keeping the nearly prehistoric world in stasis, just like in Egypt and, in some ways, even better. The museum is full of decorations based on the tattoos found on the still fleshy bodies of the region’s ancient inhabitants. This is kind of morbid, but very cool!

There are also petroglyphs from various time periods written all over the rock faces of the region. Keep your eyes open, because on any flat surface there could be drawings from before the dawn of Rome’s glory or the birth of the first Chinese Emperor.

Right after leaving Gorno-Altaisk, we headed over to Lake Teletskoye. World famous Lake Baikal tends to overshadow Russia’s other gigantic freshwater body that just so happens to be in the Altai Mountains. The lake offers all the things you would expect like adventure on the ice in winter and boat rides in summer. There are so many trees on all sides that many of you have never seen so much green in your life… even in winter! It is one of those mandatory “must see” locations of this part of Siberia, where, if you do not go there, Russians will badger you for the rest of your life about not doing so. Trust me, I get yelled at a few times every year for not visiting the Grand Canyon during my youth in America. Sorry Russians, Arizona was far away, too sunny and I was flat broke anyways!

Note from Tim: There are lots of very good road-side cafes along the big highway. Since all the food is unrecognizable and written in Russian just order ‘Lagman’ (lahg-MAHN). It is my favorite food on Earth and everywhere we went they made it very well.

The big hills around the lake are also excellent for skiing, which they say is very affordable compared to other countries. In fact, as I travel around Russia, it seems like Moscow and St. Petersburg, the two biggest tourist destinations, are the only ones that don’t offer anything of value related to skiing. They are simply just too flat. So, no matter where else you go in Russia besides the big cities, snowboarding is on the table, because there are plenty of affordable options out there and they just seem to keep building more ski resorts.

Next, we headed from serine calm waters to a very famous and violently thrashing river, with a strange pronunciation that they call the Katun. It is pronounced “kah-TOON” with the ‘N’ being as soft as a whisper. Not surprisingly, if Altai has some giant lakes, then it also has some very active rivers that are especially wild during the big springtime melt - all that water has got to go somewhere!

When director Misha said the Katun River was bright blue, he wasn’t kidding. In fact, at the spots where this river meets up with other creeks and tributaries you can see the color difference as its bright blue waves smash into muddy brown waters, just like the ones of the Cuyahoga River near my place of birth. It is hard to believe that these non-polluted streams could have such a wide palette of colors, but hey we have video evidence!

One thing though, if you are considering doing rafting here, I would definitely not recommend this area to beginners. The water was moving very fast and there seemed to be plenty of large sharp rocks. Altai is for experts only, friends!

Further down the river is what locals claim is the first suspension bridge in the world. Wikipedia seems to contradict this, but it was definitely the first bridge of its type in Russia and so, even though it has fallen out of use, it still stands as a feat of engineering for people to take selfies in front of. For any of you with a diploma from MIT, this is a must see location for sure!

Note from Tim: Do not try parking anywhere near the new bridge hanging above the historical one, the authorities were not happy with where we left our car. Take the time to drive all the way down to the old bridge and you will be okay. And, in general, the Russian government is very picky about anyone doing anything by and especially under bridges.

As the night was about to fall, I was filled with conflicting feelings. One the one hand, I am so lucky to have RTTT team members Julia and Misha, who somehow organized for a local oral historian/singer (a ‘Kaichi’) to perform for us in a traditional yurt over a glowing fire. But, on the other hand, we woke up before dawn, filmed all day and now we were going to be on the grind till 1 am. My eyes were definitely starting to close.

But, wow, was it worth it to fight to stay awake. Although, it sure helps to be able to speak Russian so you can understand the guy, most of the songs he sang were in his local Altai dialect anyway. The atmosphere was relaxing and a bit mystical as he sang songs of ancient deeds and the beauty of the land. Much in the way that hip hop is about bragging about one’s successes, black metal is about Satanic nonsense and wandering in the woods and country music is about divorce and pickup trucks, when asked, the Kaichi said every song was about the local land and animals.

The Kaichi also mentioned that he traveled to Moscow semi-regularly as a prize fighter, so I guess you’d better clap after every song or else! He also had some covers of songs by Viktor Tsoi, which is always appreciated.

Waking up refreshed from our mystical concert, we made it to the halfway point of our journey - Geyser Lake. This is one of those things where you are just going to have to watch our video to see just how amazing this small pond is. If any of you remember those lava lamps from the 1970s, it is kind of like one of those - an ever changing slowly bubbling pond of brilliant colors. This could be the most interesting natural phenomenon I have ever seen in my life. It is certainly in the top three and is something you absolutely must see on your journey along the Chuisky Tract Highway.

Note from Tim: There are lots of little cabin hotels that are popping up along the highway even in some very tiny places. If you want to go on our journey, there should be plenty of places to stay, especially in early spring, which is the off-season. There is a lot more infrastructure for tourists than you might expect, but, thankfully, not too much.

Also, we had to pay to park at Geyser Lake. It cost 100 rubles (less than $2) and they only took cash, so please grab some paper rubles if you can for situations like this. A few roadside cafes also demanded cash only.

Okay, so about 250 km down and about 250 km left to go! The trip was, so far, too easy for my colleagues. Everything we saw or did was relatively near the main road and required little extra effort, so, of course, now it was time to hire a local driver, to take us half way up a mountain on his modified UAZ jeep and then jump on some snowmobiles to go all the way up to one of the most isolated mountaineering bases in the world, giving us the opportunity to be eaten by wolves for sure.

My fears of being consumed by wildlife only got worse at the spot where we were supposed to transfer to the snowmobiles. There simply were no snowmobiles there waiting for us and, on top of that, a column of Soviet trucks with building supplies was completely sunk into the snow, nearly helpless. Little by little the column fought its way forward, making about a meter of progress every few minutes. This was not a good sign.

Finally, the snowmobiles arrived and they hauled us up to the cute mountaineering camp, which was thankfully quite well heated on the inside. Going miles on a snowmobile with the cold mountain wind in your face was a chilling experience. The camp was filled with cute dogs to play with and they had canned meat with macaroni to eat - perfection.

Note from Tim: Our backup cameraman and audio equipment wizard Albert came in jeans and sneakers on our adventure… in Siberia at the very start of spring, or should I say the tail end of winter! This was a huge mistake and he wound up having to buy clothing along the way, as everything he had got soaked with water or was torn. Please expect to get wet and get cold adventuring through the Altai Mountains!

I play Offensive Line and Tight End in the Eastern European Super League of American Football, meaning I have a ton of explosive energy, but that explosion doesn’t last long and my knees are kind of shot, so I volunteered Misha and Julia to go climb to the top of the mountain peaks to get some great drone footage, while I drank tea and did some sketching in my notebook. “It’s good to be the king”, as Mel Brooks would say. But if you are younger and can handle going kilometers uphill at a good pace, then this will be the alpine experience of your life. This is a mountain climber’s paradise.

After a few days, we came down from the mountains and “flew” our Infiniti to the surface of “Mars”, which is what the locals call a few sets of hills that are stained rust orange. Getting to Mars was easier for us than what NASA has to deal with, but there were plenty of challenges - and by challenges I mean rivers. Don’t tell the rental car company this, but we may have driven it through some forded highpoints across active rivers. We sure do take a lot of risks to make our YouTube subscribers happy!

My colleagues were thrilled by this unusual landscape, but I wasn’t. The Martian Mountain Ranges look just like everything else in the region, but they are a smidge orange - “whoopdeedoo”.  They are also extremely far away from the big federal highway, so for me personally, it was the big letdown of the trip.

And then, after a relatively short drive from Mars we hit the village of Tashanta, which is right on the Mongolian border… in other words, we made it! Five hundred kilometers of adventure along the Chuisky Tract Highway complete! We all posed for a celebratory photo at the town’s sign and took some time to just stretch our legs and walk around a bit. Victory was ours! Watch the second part of this big adventure right below. And don’t be shy, leave a like and subscribe!

The Must Eats of Altai

The Altai Mountains are nothing like Thailand. When I worked there, it seemed like all the fruit trees were eternally bearing fruit. Lunch was right there to be taken with a swipe of your hand. In Siberia, the greatest abundance that nature provides is grass and shrubs or, should I say, the animals that consume grass and shrubs. Yeah, the Altai mountains are not the most accommodating to veganism. So, get ready for grease and cheese, friends, because it is time to eat!

In Gorno-Altaisk, we checked out the ‘Typography Restaurant’, which has the highest ratings on all the travel sites and on Yandex. So, we were pretty sure that it would be good. They laid out a spread that you will not get in Moscow or St. Petersburg, which surprisingly bore resemblance to the food we had during our trip through Dagestan. The greasy beef, elk and thick dairy products were not only delicious, but great at keeping you warm! They also had a type of lighter alcohol that is somehow made from milk. It tastes, um, mysteriously smoothe.

The Ethno Hotel in Berendeyevka offered to show us how to make a quickfire local cheese and since we always want to maximize our content, we couldn’t say no. Plus, we all know that I’m cheap and never pass on the chance to mooch free stuff. The cheese making experience over an open fire was really fun and it was surprising to use an entire lemon in the process. Word to the wise though, if you try to repeat this recipe wear a short sleeve shirt or else your jacket will smell like a locker room for the rest of your journey. Any visitor to the Ethno Hotel in Berendeyevka can try to repeat our cheese experiment, just ask the owners. The cheese was very mild, but worked well with the local pine nuts at the center. A great camping option.

The Ethno Hotel also had various premade and aged cheeses to try and gave us the opportunity to press out our own pine nut oil. For those who watch our videos, you already know that I am a cheese fanatic, but what you may not know is that I really enjoy pine nuts (especially in honey). The problem is that, in Moscow, they are quite pricey. So, if you want to try them, definitely do so in Altai where it is way more affordable. And, for those who like animals, they have a petting zoo where you can meet the goats that made all the milk for the cheese and at least attempt to pet and hug them. This went well for Julia, but not so good for me. They must have sensed I am an apex predator!

The Inegen Tourist Complex took their service to a whole nother level and slaughtered an entire sheep just for us before we arrived. Local traditions use the entire animal at maximum efficiency, meaning that all the best and worst parts are going to get used for something. The meatier parts were just like at a high end restaurant, but the sausages on the other hand… they were full of horrors the likes of which men’s tongues cannot utter. But it was worth trying, especially for reaction footage!

So, what this means is, as soon as you sit down, grab the ribs, grab the pastries and stick your loser friends with the sausage and tripe and all that other nonsense. Local cuisine rewards pure alpha male aggression or at least that is how I see it.

The Long Road Home

Sadly, we couldn’t just leave our rental SUV with the border guards at the end of the line. We had to drive all the way back. And, on the very last day, after filming about the life of local legend Justus Walker in the middle of the night, five miles from his home and five miles from the next village, we blew a tire and had to walk all the way back to his house. I can say it was the first and only time I have slept on the floor of a cheese making facility and Justus helped us a lot with food, water and getting a new tire back on the Infiniti when the sun rose. So, special thanks to Justus Walker for helping us survive our adventure and you can see a video of him right here…

The Altai Mountains are a place I have been to many times, but my heart keeps pulling me back. It is a truly magical vast realm that is nothing like the dopey cities of the Midwest where I am from or the blandness of the outskirts of Moscow. Life here for a lot of people is hard, but at least they are truly living.

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