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Altay Mountains

In the far eastern corner of Kazakhstan the magnificent Altay Mountains spread across the borders to Russia, China and, 50km away, Mongolia. The Altai Mountains straddle four countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China. That segment falling within Kazakhstan, in the far northeast of the country, gives Kazakhstan some of its most delightful landscapes. The hassle of getting to this sparsely populated region is certainly well worth it.

Of all Kazakhstan's many regions, no other is so steeped in legend as the Altai. It is the original homeland of the Turkic nations, and contains impressive rock carvings and mysterious tombstones dating back millennia. The legendary peaks of Shambhala and Byelovodye, and the double peak of Mount Byelukha (considered the "navel of the Earth") are still the home of shamanism, giving the Altai a mystical reputation. Geologists, archaeologists, ethnologists, botanists and zoologists have all come here from around the world, drawn by this ancient mountain region's many treasures. The great German explorer Alexander von Humboldt travelled through the area in 1829, sponsored by Tsar Nicolas I to explore and report on what he discovered; the result was Von Humboldt's masterpiece, Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe.

Rolling meadows, snow-covered peaks, forested hillsides, glaciers, pristine lakes and rivers, archaeological sites and rustic villages with Kazakh horsemen riding by make for scenery of epic proportions. Deciduous forests at low altitude, with birch and aspen, rise to mountain taiga, with cedar, pine, silver fir, larch and birch all prominent. Above around 1,800m the forest gives way to mountain meadows, and then to tundra. The forests, which experience high rainfall, are rich in mushrooms and berries. Mammals found here include bear, maral deer, red wolf, elk and sable. There are many charming villages in the area, of log-walled cottages with corrugated metal roofs. Logs for winter heating are piled high outside.

Only a small part of this large mountain range in the heart of Asia is situated in Kazakhstan The major part of the Altai, with its continuation into the Sayany Mountains, is in Russian territory while another large section stretches into China and further into Mongolia. The mountains are incredibly rich in natural splendour, home to rare plants and animals, historical landmarks and other places of geological and anthropological interest. Not without justification is this region called the Altai, meaning "Golden Mountain" in Mongolian. Scientists called the Altai a "concise continent", a term that reflects the extraordinary variety of landscapes found within its relatively limited area: there is desert and steppe, low mountain chains covered from 600-2,000 metres altitude with taiga forest (accounting for 47 percent of the region), more than 300 high mountain peaks covered with glaciers (on Kazakhstani territory alone), and approximately 2,000 lakes and 1,200 rivers. Twenty- seven species of reptile, 36 fish species and 333 types of bird call Kazakhstan's Altai home. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has included the entire Altai in its list of 200 areas in the world with exceptionally important value in terms of biodiversity. Kazakhstan has acknowledged this by putting large areas of its share of the Altai under protection. Visitors to the Altai should be aware that they are guests in a by and large untouched realm and should behave accordingly.

There is a strong spiritual dimension to the Altai Mountains. Old Believers, who separated from the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church in the mid-17th century in protest at the reforms of Patriarch Nikon, found refuge in the remote valleys of the Altai. The graves in local Muslim cemeteries are distinctive: with five- or six-sided wooden pyramidal frames, a little picket fence around the base of the pyramid and a crescent moon at the apex. The size and striking form of Mount Belukha, whose peaks are often shrouded in cloud, have attracted many faiths. Shamans consider the mountain to hold particular significance: its double-headed peak suggests a certain femininity of form which made the mountain for them the female counterpart to Khan Tengri, the home of the male god of the heavens. The spiritual teacher Nicholas Roerich, who spent time in the area with his family during his four-year Asian Expedition in the 1920s, was gripped by the place. Perhaps here might be found the legendary Buddhist kingdom of Shambala, always believed to have been hidden somewhere in central Asia, beyond the peaks of the Himalayas. Followers of Roerich's Agni Yoga make pilgrimages to Mount Belukha.

The pop group Three Dog Night once sang about the virtues of the rain of Shambala in washing away troubles and pain, and certainly the Altai Mountains in Kazakhstan receive plenty of rain. One positive result of this is the abundance of mushrooms and berries to be found in the forests. After rains the locals take to the woods with plastic buckets. Another object of local harvest is the antlers of young maral deer. The antlers are a source of pantocrine, believed by adherents to enhance strength and sexual potency, and by some even to ward off the ageing process. The industry, which originated in the area in the 18th century with the Old Believers, involves organised stag farms. The antlers are removed from the young deer and boiled, forming a pantocrine-enriched broth. Several stag farms and sanatoria in the area offer visitors the opportunity of a rejuvenating bath in pantocrine-rich waters. The season for pantocrine treatments is a short one running roughly from the beginning of June to mid-July.

Some of the most scenically beautiful easternmost parts of Kazakhstan's section of the Altai Mountains, including both Rachmanov Springs and Lake Markakol, unfortunately lie in what is considered to be a sensitive border zone with China, for which a special permit is needed and you should allow several weeks for the permit application to be processed. To visit this area you need to plan well ahead to obtain a border-zone permit, which is required if you go beyond the village of Uryl (Orel).

It would be easy to spend several weeks or months in the rolling steppe, foothills, valleys and high mountains of the Altai, without losing interest or enthusiasm in the many and varied experiences it offers. Everything from inexpensive two-day excursions to lengthy Altai tours by car, bicycle, boat, on horseback or hiking are possible. The city of Oskemen (Ust-Kamenogorsk) is the most convenient starting and finishing point for trips. Since many of the finest areas are situated in the border area with China, the obligatory permits are required, though arrangements can be made through any authorised agency without too much trouble.

The climate in the Altai is uncharacteristic for Kazakhstan. Winters are long and harsh, with snow often more than two metres deep, while summers are relatively cool, especially in the mountainous areas. Rain is also more abundant, both in summer and winter.

The season of easiest movement and decent weather is short in the Altay – mid-June to the end of September. We can obtain the border-zone permit in 30 to 60 days. We can offer 12-day horse treks and foot treks in the Belukha foothills, with transport and border-zone permit included. Near Berel you can visit the excavations of a famous group of Scythian burial mounds, where in 1997 archaeologists discovered the amazingly preserved body of a 4th-century BC prince, buried with several horses and carriages.