From Berel the track winds alongside the course of the Belaya Berel River, northwards and upwards for 31km, to the sanatorium of Rakhmanov Springs, located at a height of 1,760m in an idyllic landscape dubbed by local tour operators as 'Kazakhstan's Switzerland'.
A 4WD is almost essential, though vans can make the trip if the track is dry enough. Around 30 kilometres to the northeast, the road ends at Rachmanov's Springs (Rahman Kaynary), a small mountain village community situated near picturesque Rachmanov Lake, and boasting a health resort (www.altaytravel.com) that has counted a number of luminaries as its guests over the years.
In 1995 President Nazarbayev visited the lake resort; when the locals asked for a better-quality road to be built up to their home, the president refused, saying that it was vital to "preserve the natural beauty" of the region. This was a massive disappointment for the local community, but it is likely that the fragile ecology of this area would be ruined if hordes of tourists were allowed to rush in.
The sanatorium lies close to the northwest shore of the Big Rachmanov Lake, a body of water 2.6km long, sandwiched between forested slopes, its waters clear and cold, never reaching temperatures higher than around 12°C. But at the northwestern shore is a warm radon-rich spring, whose curative properties have been exploited since the 18th century. One story surrounding the discovery of this place runs roughly as follows. A hunter named Rachmanov shot a deer close to the lake. The deer tumbled into the waters of the lake, which proved so reinvigorating that the wounded deer, to the astonishment of the hunter, was able to bound off into the woods to its safety.
The lake and village got their name from an 18th Century hunter named Rachmanov, who discovered the nine hot springs that feed into the dark, mysterious lake in this remote corner of Kazakhstan. Rachmanov lived to the ripe old age of 102, and the springs soon became famous for their medicinal qualities.
Rachmanov Springs was a well-known sanatorium in the Soviet period, when it fell under the control of the Zyryanovsk Lead Enterprise. At its heyday, customers flew into Katon Karagai, from where they were brought up to the sanatorium by helicopter. The plan is to attract high-end tourists who will be flown in by helicopter (an exhilarating flight of a few hours instead of the 12 hours or more by van or 4WD), but there will be a limit of 120 guests at a time. (This of course does not count the numerous other tourists who make the long trip up by road and either camp or rent rooms at homestays in the village.)
It is now managed by the Ust-Kamenogorsk based tour operator Rachmanov Springs, who have modernised some of the accommodation, though a stay here is still a sanatorium experience as it would have been recognised in Soviet times. The accommodation is based around wooden chalets with shared facilities, in both renovated and slightly cheaper unrenovated chalets. Four meals are provided each day, stodgy Russian fare washed down by strong tea.
The main hot spring building is built around the largest spring pool. Complete with relaxation area, changing rooms and a tiled pool area with reclining loungers, the pool itself is gravel-bottomed, thigh deep and a soothing 40 C. Bathing is nude, and men and women bathe separately. Medical staff are on hand for specific treatments, and other spring pools in the close vicinity are now undergoing the same building treatment.
Medical treatments are carried out in Treatment Block Number 3, the name a legacy of the Soviet period when the sanatorium was larger, as there now is only one treatment block. The focus of the treatments is the radon-rich waters. You are assessed by a doctor at the start of your stay, and typically prescribed a daily bath in the warm pool strewn with rocks, coupled with a mix of radon-rich showers, massage and the consumption of herbal teas. The medical staff attempt at somewhat offputting length to dispel 'radon-phobia', assuring clients that the level of radon in the waters is not sufficient to cause any harm through controlled immersion. They claim considerable benefits for disorders of the skin, nervous system and spine.
Many people-mostly Russians and Kazakhs-come here to cure numerous diseases by soaking in the springs, but there is much more to this place than that: the clear lakes and beautiful cedar forests are an example of alpine environment par excellence-the main lake (there is another to the south) can be toured in speedboats driven by ex-army rangers, and the hiking possibilities are endless. The forested mountains hem the lake in tightly, waterfalls like the Veronica's Hair Fall cut through the granite like fine white tendrils from the perennially snow-dusted ridges, and there is even a location known as the Valley of Bears: Siberian brown bears are common here, growing to two metres in length and potentially very dangerous animals-hence the need for rangers and experienced guides.
Stays here are based around a standard programme of one week, and the Rachmanov Springs company organises weekly transfers from Ust-Kamenogorsk in UAZ minibuses or, if you are really unfortunate, a battered Ural lorry converted to an approximate impression of a bus.
You’ll find wooden cottages, some with kitchen, linked by boardwalks through pine forests, nestling in a mountain valley. This is a perfect base for exploring the Altay valleys, mountains, rivers, lakes and passes.
The scent of cedar, carpets of wild meadow flowers, and scurrying chipmunks and squirrels combine to make this an idyllic spot. There are some good walks from the resort. A pass up on the hills behind it offers an excellent view of Mount Belukha, provided the cloud that often shrouds that mountain has lifted. If you walk down from Rachmanov Springs on the road towards Berel, take the path on your right running beside a picnic hut just before the track crosses a small wooden bridge, 3km from the resort. The path brings you to an attractive waterfall. There is another in the hills alongside the Big Rachmanov Lake: hire a rowing boat from the resort to get to it. But you may find that your fellow guests spend much of their spare time in the woods, collecting mushrooms. I worry on their behalf: 'What if you pick an inedible one?' 'All mushrooms are edible. If you're unlucky, you may pick one that you only get to eat once.'
Mt Belukha can be seen from the Radostny Pass, a one-hour walk up from the resort. From July to September the resort offers a variety of one- to two-week group horse and foot treks and Belukha ascents. Shorter rides, hikes, excursions, fishing and rafting are available too. Packages for 12- or 24-day stays including transport are available. It’s also possible to camp or rent rooms in the nearby village.
Lake Yazevoe Taking the road back from Rachmanov Springs towards Berel, you pass across a small wooden bridge after 6km. On the sanatorium side of this, on the left-hand side of the road, is a small wooden chapel with a metal-covered spire. On a good day, there is a fine view of Mount Belukha from this spot.
Further back towards Berel a track to the right, signposted 'Belaya Berel Trail', crosses the Belaya Berel River and then passes through the hamlet of Kariayrik, at the far end of which is a barrier where you need to pay a fee to enter the territory of the Katon Karagai National Park (T206). Continue northwards along the track. A sign on the right-hand side points out the location of the Yazevoe Waterfall, a series of ten cascades covering a total length of 200m.The trees along the short path to the waterfall are covered with votive strips of cloth. Further on you reach Lake Yazevoe, which sits at an altitude of 1,685m. It is another picturesque mountain lake, 3km in length, offering excellent views towards Mount Belukha when the weather is right. The track continues northwards, eastwards and upwards to Kokkol, an abandoned wolfram and molybdenum mine and concentration plant.