Altai Republic, Siberian Russia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Russia  , Altay,
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Altai Republic, Russia, June 6 - 7

The Altai Republic is a semi-autonomous region within the Russian federation inhabited largely by the Altai nationality, one of several ethnic groups in southern Siberia who are related to the Mongolians. While the Altai Province we first passed through upon reentering Russia is almost flat, the Altai Republic is an amazingly scenic mountainous region of forests, small villages of wooden houses, high passes, river valleys, deserts, glaciers, and Siberia's highest peaks that is now a UNESCO world heritage site.  This area would be a recreational paradise and a highlight of the trip, but we unfortunately had to move through it rather quickly because the border crossing dates Dragoman scheduled gave us only 4 days in Siberia.

Our first camp in the Altai Republic was at 4,500 feet in a beautiful river valley surrounded by larch forest just below Seminsky Pass.  The clear night and beautiful sunset gave way to a night so cold we all ended up passing around and drinking from the vodka bottle Russian style around a warming campfire to try to keep warm.  Although the scenery was something out of "A River Runs Through It", the movie that comes to mind about this experience is "March of the Penguins".  After a frigid night shivering in my sleeping bag I was awakened around 6:00 to a big commotion of laughing and giggling coming from outside my tent.  "Has a bear or deer wandered into camp?" I wondered; or maybe a cow tried to get into someone's tent.  I stuck my head out and inquired, "What's so funny?"  Carmen held up a shirt she had hung out to dry on a line the night before and giggled, "Warren, look what's happened to our washing".  Everyone's supposedly drying laundry had frozen solid and looked like pieces of cardboard.

The drive on our last day in Siberia was entirely through an extremely photogenic landscape of forested river gorges, glaciated mountains, and finally high dry plateau as we approached the Mongolian border.  Dozens of vintage cars passed us that day, all part of the 120 or so vehicles participating in a Peking-Paris Rally.  Watching this auto race go by was quite exciting but ended up creating some difficulties for us - when we arrived at the border post in Tashanta in the late afternoon we discovered the border was closed for the day to all but rally traffic heading in the opposite direction, forcing us to spend another night in Russia.

We set up camp near the border in a broad dry windswept valley around 7,000 feet surrounded by snow capped mountain ranges, scenery that reminded me a lot of southwestern Wyoming.  Before dinner a car came by and dropped off a thickly-bepectacled little old Russian man in suit and tie who joined us for dinner.  He then left for a while only to return with an entourage of younger guys in leather coats, this time bringing a few bottles of vodka for all of us to share with them.  It turns out the little man with the thick coke-bottle glasses was a local political boss and the lapel pins he passed out to us were for the Liberal Democratic Party, the far-right party associated with Vladimir Zhirinovsky.  I have to say, though, that for people associated with a supposedly fascistic, xenophobic political organization, these people were exceptionally hospitable to a group of foreigners passing through their neighborhood.  The party continued into the night and melded with our farewell party for Sasha, our guide/interpreter who had been with us since Saint Petersburg and would leave us at the border.

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