As recently as January this year I had no thoughts, images or understanding of Siberia (or Russia for that matter) beyond frozen wastes and the vague concept that Siberia was a desolate place to which people with political and intellectual views contrary to the Russian powers of the time, were banished and forced to attempt to carve out an existence in a place so harsh that there was no time for them to think, to plot or cause the Russian authorities any sort of headache at all. Imagine my surprise then when I started to look into a route that would take me West from the Mongolian border near Tsaaganuur to the border area at Tashanta and from there on an 1000+km route through the Altai Republic and Altai Region to the city of Barnaul before heading East again on route to Rubtsovsk and the Kazakhstan border … all on asphalt … and all in a place that reminded me more of Swiss or Austrian rural charm than of desolation.
When I first started planning this part of the route the notion of ‘all on asphalt’ had no especially positive ring to it. It just so happened that there is a road, a famous road actually, called the Chuysky Tract (recently redesignated from the M52 to the P256) and it made sense to be on it. On leaving Mongolia and some of the most consistently physically and therefore mentally challenging routes I have been on to date, the emotions that I felt upon reaching silky smooth asphalt winding on for kms into the distance (often deliciously downhill) are only likely to be full appreciated by others before and after me heading the same way, geographically and locomotively!! It should be sufficient to say that several weeks on and I still stare lovingly and appreciatively at that sinuous black ribbon as it stretches out in front of me.
The Altai Republic in the Russian Federation and the Altai Region, both within Siberia, have turned out to be utterly stunning places with incredibly warm, kind and generous people who are about as far from my view of the Russian/Siberian stereotype as you can possibly imagine. There is no austere manner, no severity in baring. The people I have met have welcomed me with open arms in a way that I find overwhelming, coming as it does with the elements of Western social norms that I feel so comfortable with but coupled with a Central Asian generousity that unfortunately is not often replicated in Western Europe. Coming into the Altai Republic and Altai Region after spending the last year in China has been a total breath of fresh air and the change of location and social makeup have again affected (and in this case radically changed) my views on what I need socially in my life as a result.
I have always thought that the essential needs that we all, as common humanity, share were the most important things and that these shared essentials worked well as the glue that binds us together. On ‘leaving Asia’ (China/Mongolia) and entering a more ‘western’, more ‘european style’ culture I have realised just how important the little nuances in life and in social discourse are. I realised that for the past year I have not made the same jokes, utilised my body language in the same instinctive way, heard the same sounds (even when it’s in a language I don’t understand) or smelt the same fire/wood/earth/food/people smells that make up my complex, sensory, unconscious understanding of ‘home ground’. The other ideas and needs, those big ones which we know we all share – food, water, freedom, love – they are all still there but without having the ‘little things’ in evidence I am able to understand to a greater degree (retrospect often does this) how my life recently has been overshadowed by a sense of ‘cultural fatigue’.
Anyway back to the journey from the Mongolian/Russian border to Barnaul … a packed 8 days of cycling which I would have loved to spend much longer on but as a result of messing up my visa dates when I applied in Beijing this is all the time I have had!
Cycling from the Mongolian border checkpoint to the counterpart Russian checkpoint entails crossing a 22 km stretch of road within with the physical border between the countries is located but which is effectively a ‘no-mans land’ of windy mountain tops and grazing yaks utterly unconcerned with their political location. I had taken transport to the Mongolian checkpoint in order to get throught before they shut for the weekend and potentially any Easter holidays that might be vaild on the Russian side. I was lucky, I got through the Mongolian side at 4pm and made good speed up the track past the yak herds towards the actual border with its shut iron gates, flagpoles minus flags, imposing asymmetrical concrete monolith and selection of guards huts which I hoped contain guards as there was no one out on gate duty on such a cold, wet, windy, day.
Approaching the gates I still don’t see anyone so head up alongside the fence, past the flapoles to the huts and wave at the window hoping there is someone in there!! My luck!! A young guard comes out and opens the gate letting me through, looks at my Mongolian visa stamps and waves me off on the next part of the road, down a steep mountain road (on amazing asphalt) to the Russia checkpoint …..
Only at this point a senior guard comes rushing out yelling (in Russian of course) and gesticulating wildly that the Russian border checkpoint is shut. Had he been the first to come out of the guard Im pretty sure I would still be on the Mongolian side of the gate and spending a couple of days eating my noodles on my own, stuck in ‘no mans land’. He shoots back into the hut, evidently makes a call, and quickly returns grinning broadly, flashing his gold teeth and slapping his chest with both hands. “Ha!! Spasiba” he shouts and then flaps his hands at me to get on the downhill with all haste and speed … I dont need telling twice!! Waving to them both I hit the road at a pace suitable for guards being held at checkpoints past their work times and hope that the road is this good and downhill all the way.
About 3km on I am passed by an old 4×4 with trailer in tow … which screeches to a halt not far in front of me and out of which 2 older men jump and into which they proceed to haul me, Tilly and the bags. They point back at the border and it is evident that they have been commandered by the Russian Border Agency to scoop up way ward cyclists and deposit them at the checkpoint post haste in order that they can all go home for tea in as timely a manner as possible considering that their usual exits home have been scuppered by said cyclist.
This being the case I am happily set up on the floor in the back of the 4×4, out of the cold, wind and rain/sleet/snow that is threatening to fall heavily out of the heavy clouds in front of us. With a flash of a smile the passanger turns to me “Welcome to Russia” he says in that iconic, heavily accented way I am so familiar with from films (!!) and I am immediately handed stong black coffee, stronger homebrewed something alcoholic, a flask of meat, a loaf of bread, a bag of trailmix and a pen knife. Amazing!! All of it!! Im all too quickly cocconed in a warm, alcohol indused haze. I only have a couple of sips but I simply have no tolerence for alcohol!
“Beautiful?” he says waving at the road ahead and yes it is utterly stunning. Imagine steep, desolate, partially snowcovered hillsides with spring browns and greens countering ominous dark skies seen from the back of an old 4×4 and imagine the retro filter that you would put on such an image but without the need for such a filter… tadah!!!
“British spy?!” comes the next heavily accented and more heavily humoured comment. By which time, to be honest, I’m beside myself with joy at the situation and can barely contain my all too explosive, ‘high as a kite’ mirth. As sometimes happens I feel like I’m on a film set and that the things happening are too fantastic, too iconic, too incredible to be real. Im sad when too soon we reach the checkpoint and start the process of visa and passport checks as I assume that this is where my journey with these good men will end … but as I start to get my kit out they indicate that they can take me to the nearest town, Kosh-Agash. Wonderful!!!
But this is not to be …. Sadly Russian Border Control are not as intent on getting home for their borst in the speedy manner I had hoped and a young official, who informs me that he is a translator, comes out of the main building and over to me, smiling, and quickly assuring me that everything is fine but that they want to have a ‘quick chat to get to know other peoples a bit better’. Concealled sigh … outward smile!
Initially there are 2 uniformed officers and me squeezed into a small room with a large desk in it. Surprisingly this small room boasts a tea cupboard I would have been proud to have on the boat. The room is quickly made to feel even smaller with the arrival of a big, ununiformed man who is given the seat opposite me and who takes copious notes of everything I say … 30minutes into the ‘chat’ the guys in the 4×4 have to leave so Tilly is deposited outside the main building … 90minutes, Ive had 2 cups of tea and it doesn’t look like they are anywhere near finished with me …. 150minutes later, 4 cups of tea and I am free to go … feeling like these men know more about some aspects of my recent life than my mother!!
To say it was an ordeal is not wholey accurate!! To be completely honest I spent quite a lot of the time laughing at the questions and the situation. Not necessarily a good thing to do but considering that at times it appeared that the Russian officers were barely containing their amusement at what I was saying and what I had been doing, pretty appropriate really. I cannot be certain but Im fairly sure that the initial exchange between uniformed and ununiformed officers went along the lines of .. ‘what on earth are we questioning her for!!’ The indications towards me and barely concealed mirth were dead giveaways!!
Questions veered wildly from ‘how old are your brothers?’ (they were amazed, amused and disgusted that I couldnt remember their ages) to ‘what do you think about Islamic extreamism?’, which considering it was following on from a discussion about feminism, cycling and world travel provided an interesting tangent to follow. Questions about global or UK political standpoints were (Im sorry to say) met with ‘Im really not that great on politics and current affairs’ pop quiz style but my absolute favourite was ‘do you know the names of the UK secret service departments?’ (!!).
Who could possibly pass up the opportunity to say ‘well thats MI5 and MI6 right? … like in James Bond!!’ … ‘and do you know the difference?’ … ‘No idea!! But M has been a woman in the past few films and I liked that!!’ (more barely concealed smiles) Finally, they look ready to let me go. ‘OK … Thank you for your time Miss Hadley, sign here and here … yes this is just the information you have given us during our chat, if you want it all translated we can do that quite quickly for you. No? OK then please sign …. One final thing (this time the big man is making no effort to conceal his humour) .. Do you have cats?’ It appears that this stereotype/joke about single and he said ‘independant’ women is part of Russian as well as British humour. He abruptly gets up, extreamly pleased with himself, ushers me out of the building, signes us all out with (finally) maxmium efficiency, Tilly, kit and I are deposited in the back of his 4×4 (he advises I need to be well away from the border area to camp) and he drives me to Kosh-Agash himself.
The M52 from Kosh-Agash to Gorno-Altaysky is utterly stunning. When travelling East-West there is a lot of downhill as the road comes down from high Mongolia, through the Altay Mountains to the plains of Russia. This was a great relief as I spent most days battling simply horrific Spring headwinds. The road follows the Ob River and along the route I passed through numerous small towns and villages filled with log houses whose architect could have been the illustrator for the early pen and ink drawings of Grimms Fairy Tales. Cycling along roads empty but for the thankfully occasional, palpitation inducing, exceeding loud, extreamly fast driven car or van was wonderful. The weather was still cold in the mountains at night but felt positively temperate when compared with Mongolia. From Gorno-Altaysky through Biysk and into Barnaul the road becomes much busier, faster and generally feels more dangerous. The headwinds and drafts from the trucks and cars played tug-of-war with Tilly unceasingly and despite continuing to be a downhill or flat run I cannot say that I really enjoyed it. It is a very monotonous open, agricultural area which in early spring is possibly not the most interesting however as is always the case the people I met throughtout this area made it all worthwhile.
As I cycled I could see similarities between some of the ethnic Altai people and their near neighbours in Mongolia, and actually some aspects of Tibetan culture as well. Wild horses and herds of animals roam everywhere. There are mounds created on passes and at important sites that are very similar to the Mongolian Ovoo and the Tibetan Lung Ta. There are numerous water springs along the route which have recieved offerings and a site of petroglyphs whose beautiful open valley location leaves the mind free to create all manner of 5,000 year old scenarios for the artists who made them. The change in season and rapidly melting snow meant that mountain ridgelines are thrown into sharp relief, light and color contrasts are strong and everywhere I look there are reflection of land and sky thrown back at me in the pools of snow melt that currently hug the lands contours.
The day after arriving in Russia I found the limit of the closeness betwen Altai and Mongolia. I was unable to change Mongolian Tughrik into Russian Rubles … anywhere in the Altai .. anywhere in Russia. Economically and I would sumise politically then, there is no closeness. Not great news. I had rushed across the border with single minded determination, not with sensible thought and consideration and I was stuck. Most of my dollars had been in one of the bags taken in Mongolia and what I could change had to be done in one of the bigger towns with a currency exchange. I was glad I had picked up some food in Tsaaganuur but it wasnt a large amount. 3days later and I manage to change 40dollars and buy food, during which time a kind woman has invited me in for breakfast, little knowing that will be my main food for the day. 6 more days and gas, food and money is all gone and I am in Barnaul hoping that my ’emergency package’ of replacement ‘bits’ including my bank card has arrived at the post office. It hasn’t.
As I stand outside the post office wondering what my next plan should be I am approached by an older woman, Sveta, who points at the bike, gives me the ‘thumbs up’ and presses a bar of chocolate into my hand before waving and heading off down the street. About 20minutes later I am on a different street not far from the post office, just about to tuck into the bar of choc when the same woman comes past, starts chatting in Russian, takes my arm and steers me towards a cafe where she proceded to buy me lunch and keep up a onesided steady stream of conversation in Russian interspersed with some occasional words in German.
Again I consider what my next plan should be … fuel in belly aids the thought process … so I return to the Post Office to check again for wayward package and am approaced by a young woman, Olga, who speaks fantastic English, speaks to the counter staff for me and then as I am also trying to get a Western Union transfer sorted out, takes me to the nearest bank she knows to check that they can do this before giving me money for the night at a hostel and food for the day and then returning to her workplace.
Its difficult to explain just how quickly the concept of money changes when it is inexcessible or unavailable. The viseral process of giving meaning to pieces of paper becomes much more apparent when they mean something and have value in one place and are utterly worthless other than as their base constituent in another place. Especially when you need them. Likewise the concept of having no actual money inspite of having potential money … actual food being more filling than potential food.
The following day WU provides transfered money and Olga and I arrange to meet for a tour of the old houses of the city. Barnaul is, to my mind, a beautiful small city with a lot to offer. Of the trio along the Ob river (Gorno-Altysky, Biysk and Barnaul) it is the by far my favouite. Founded in 1730, Barnaul has long been an important adminstrative site for the region and as such there are still many beautiful, old buildings, mainly from the early 19th century, to be seen. Unfortunately here as everwhere else the price of land is leading to rows of old timber houses being demolished and new buildings springing up in their place. Barnaul also has trams … how can anyone not love trams!? Trams in red and yellow, complete with lace curtains, glide up and down the hills of the main streets and around the city, dinging their bells and rattling their cables. Luckily since I am with Olga I get to travel on one. My lack of Russian is a severe disadvantage when it comes to transportation.
Olga has been uterly wonderful and has been my guide and friend in the city over the past few days, which we have been exploring together. As she rightly said she doesn’t usually venture into these areas in her ‘normal’ daily life but she is seeing aspects of her city through the eyes of another. Nothing quite like taking a tourist around your area for revitilising your perspective!!! She also took me to a concert of songs from WWII, attended by her friends and collegues. To hear national music and see national images relating to the war bypasses any intellectual process of understanding and cuts right into emotions. To hear music I recognise from ‘home’, played with their regional/national style just increases the emotion and hearing the balalika played gives me that surreal ‘film set’ feeling. Its a strange and profound experience.
I’ve spent a really wonderful few days here and am sorry to be leaving Barnaul … the Altai … Russia. My ’emergency package’ appears to have gone AWOL and is sadly untraceable by either the Russian or UK postal services and my visa is due to expire in 2 days time … so I have to cut my losses and make a dash for the Kazakhstan border on the train. My time here has been all too short and the places I have seen and encounters with people I have had, all too brief but as usual I am incredibly grateful that my ideas and stereotypes have been challenged and new ideas produced. This area of the world is not an easy place to live with its mountainous or steppe terrain, strong winds and its opposing summer and winter climate (think +35° to -40°) but the people in this region have been some of the funniest, warmest, most generous and caring I have had the pleasure to meet.
- Tashanta/Tsaaganuur border crossing. M52/P256 Chuysky Tract.
- Cycled through Kosh Agash, Onguday, Gorno-Altaysky, Biysk, Barnaul..
- Train from Barnaul to stop nearest to Russian Federation/Kazakhstan border crossing.
- Tashanta to Gorno-Altaysky – limited traffic
- Gorno Altaysky to Barnaul – heavy fast traffic.
- Gas cannisters for MSR Omnifuel impossible to find until outdoor shop in Barnaul, (see photo).
- Change Mongolian Tughrik in Mongolia at border, impossible to exchange in Russia.
- Buy strong tick repellant or better still get tick-borne encephalitis vaccination – especially if wild camping.
- Hostel Barneo in Barnaul is very good – helpful, central and 350 rubles for a dorm.