The heart of the Altai

After a fabulous breakfast that included yet more cheese, we strapped our bags into the motorbikes and got back on the gravel roads and tracks. They were fairly easy to ride and I tried to apply all the advice given by Vladimir who kept watching me in his mirrors. I struggled to find the correct standing position. I will get there in the end. But they say that practice make perfect, I am going to get a lot of practice in this trip I guess!

Mid-morning, we stopped at a small village and visited a little museum. It covered, among other thing, the discovery of the Denisova cave that we would visit later.  Evidence of a new prehistoric species of human ancestors was found there.

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As usual in these small villages, you would never know that this house is actually a museum, as there seemed to be no signs! Vladimir bought us ice-cream and then we were back on the gravel roads.

It was a short ride to our next camp for the night. Again, off the gravel road, we could see absolutely nothing that could indicate the place. It covered a massive building / hotel, lots of wooden chalets, a pool, river and, we found out later, much more!

We had lunch there, then a small rest.

Vladimir had an excursion on the motorbikes planned for us, up a mountain to visit a waterfall. So we soon got back into our motorcycle gear and rode the bikes into the gravel road then off a little track.

Andrew the Fearless took the track ahead of everyone, at the speed of light, flying through and disappearing into the forest. Alistair followed more carefully. I was behind him but soon got into difficulty. The track was very narrow, and has very deep ruts and gutters all over. In one steep section, the barely 20cm track I should ride was inclined toward a deep gutter and I just couldn’t get over it. Vladimir tried to encourage me, but at this stage, I was petrified.

We turned my bike back and, with Alistair coming back, Vladimir asked Anton to take me back to the hotel. Alistair decided to come with me too. Although I told Anton he could go on and we could go back on our own with Alistair, he refused. He was taking to baby-sitting me very seriously!

I felt angry and disappointed with myself, and sorry that Anton couldn’t have his fun up the mountain on his bike.

Andrey had totally disappeared, so Vladimir went up after him.

On the way back we crossed a small stream with soft gravel on a bend, Alistair passed first and I followed. While we rode up a hill I saw in my mirrors Anton taking a tumble and dropping his bike in the water. I couldn’t help but have a very uncharitable chuckle in my helmet.

Back at the hotel/holiday camp/reindeer farm/SPA etc… we visited the place.

The reindeers get their horns chopped off once a year. They are then boiled (the horns not the reindeers!) and left to dry. They are then sold to South Korea where they are used a medicine. Some Russians consider that the horns have indeed some health benefit. So the water that has been used to boil the horns is used for baths. When we looked at one bath the water just looked muddy, but lots of old folks seem to enjoy those!

After getting caught in a violent sudden storm, the rain calmed down and we got back to the main building/hotel for dinner. Anton showed us pictures of his 4 months old son Mishka. We talked about our jobs, the future, and the news… What always surprises me, when travelling and meeting people, is how similar we all are. I find Russians especially are very similar to Europeans in our views of the world and way of life. There have been constant negative views of Russia on the news and the reality is very different. I even had a colleague asking me if going on holiday to Russia was safe!

Several hours after our return, Vladimir and Andrey finally came back at dusk. They had gone all the way up and continued as far on the bikes as possible, to the waterfall. By the time they came back, the kitchen had closed and, unfazed, they replaced dinner by a couple of beers. We joined in, it would be rude not to! J  Apparently the storm bypassed them and they had no rain.

The following morning, Wednesday 1st of July, we were back on the road after a hearty breakfast.

Once again, the gravel road was reasonably manageable, and I tried once again to stand up in the correct position and steer the bike using my weigh on the foot pegs, with mixed success but getting much faster on the soft stuff than I ever dared in the past. I was learning fast and trying to keep up with Vladimir.

By mid morning we stopped for a coffee at Ust-Kan. We spent a night there last year on our way to Mongolia. There is a new hotel at the entrance of the town that was not there last year. So many memories!

 

Back on the road, by early afternoon, we pulled on the side. A man in a Russian van was waiting for us, by a small farm track. The van did not look like much, but Anton later told me that these vans were used in the army, once upon a time, and were 4 wheels drive. They were like tractors with the engine inside, in the middle of the 2 front seats! It was boiling hot inside once the engine started!

After Vladimir had few words with Sirbis, the man in the van, we followed him down a grassy muddy track for about a mile, then across a green valley to a few wood buildings. This was the home of Sirbis, our host.  One of the buildings was the traditional hexagonal low walls and pointy hexagonal roof. This was their summerhouse. We had seen similar constructions at the Altai Museum in Gorno-Altaysk.

The second wooden building was our home for the night, with terrace, a small entrance, a large living room and 2 bedrooms. I took one room with Alistair and the rest of the gang went for the other one. After a quick change we went to the kitchen / diner building for a late lunch. We were presented with various local dishes.

The soup was with potatoes and what seemed to be small cuts of lamb fat. There was a large dish full of lamb cutlets and what looked like mini sausages and were made of offal; more followed, potatoes, meat and more that I cannot remember. All this, like always, washed down with plenty of tea.

The views around where magnificent, surrounded by mountains.

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We were planning a ride to the mountains, with Irbis to guide us in his van. Without a guide, it would be impossible to find our way, as only herders go there in the summer to take their animals (cows, horses, etc…) to pasture. However, Irbis suggested doing it the next morning. This was a good decision as a massive storm arrived late afternoon and we would have been caught in.

We lazed around until dinner, with Andrey giving frequent business advice to Vladimir, who is too polite to tell him to mind his own business and Anton and us just chatting around and reading.

The evening passed quietly with a light dinner. We were then invited to to the family summerhouse (the hexagonal one!) to listen to Irbis’ brother in law singing, by the wood fire, as he was a talented throat singer. It was brilliant. We definitely were in the heart of the Altai!

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