Sunday, August 22, 2010

Russia Part I. – The Altai Region (July 15-20)

Preparing to visit Russia is a true lesson in bureaucracy! In order to be able to visit, you must first get a letter inviting you to visit Russia. Basically this involves you paying money to a tourist company and in return, they invite you to Russia. Then you can apply for your visa, however, in the U.S. you can no longer apply by mail. Instead you must have a company apply on your behalf. Of course there is a fee for this service, but unless you can visit the Russian Consulate in Washington, D.C. in person, you have no other choice. We ended up getting business visas since tourist visas are only valid for 30 days and our total time in Russia would be more than that. And as you guessed, business visas are more expensive than tourist visas.

Border sign for Russia

Sandwiched between our time in Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the Altai Region of Russia would be for us, our first taste of Siberia. We would re-enter Siberian Russia just south of Lake Baikal, but that would be weeks away and for now we were excited to soaking up Altai and its infamous beautiful scenery.

Our border crossing went off without any big problems. I was a bit nervous we may be asked for bribes by the officials, but they couldn’t have been nicer. We bought liability insurance at a gas station just past the border crossing for ~$50. It was a good thing that Stani had exchanged tenge into roubles while we were in Kazakhstan, because roubles were all they would accept.

In the first town we arrive in, Rubstovsk, we get pulled over by the traffic police. The police officer asks for our car documents, looks them over, and sends us on our way. No problems. We end up pulling off the road as the sun is setting and set up camp in a mosquito infested field belonging to a nearby farm. Because the mosquitoes are so bad, we eat dinner wearing mosquito head nets and walking around - not a very cozy dinner, but we survive.

Typical mode of transportation in Siberia

The next day we drive to Biysk. It’s raining pretty hard and we drive around looking for a hotel. We end up staying at Hotel Tsentralnaya, a comfortable and well-kept place that advertises it has wi-fi, but really doesn’t. Instead they direct us to a cool café nearby where we discover a truly incredible cappuccino. They are really works of art! The food here is really good too. We end up visiting this café many times during our two day stay in Biysk.

My perfect cappuccino

I really like Biysk. The older part of town is pretty run down, but it still has character. We visit an Altai history museum, a beautiful reconstructed Orthodox church and notice all the wooden houses around which are so typical of Siberia.

Siberian Wood House

Inside of Russian Orthodox church

We continue on to the Altai Republic towards the capital, Gorno-Altaisk. The region of Altai actually consists of two parts, the Altai Territory and the more picturesque Altai Republic. We stay at Hotel Ostrov Yuzhny, a house-hotel in the small town of Mayma, near Gorno-Altaisk, where we have a gigantic house including a kitchen all to ourselves, or so we think, about 8 people arrive around 4:00 am and take the remaining rooms. The Altai Republic is a popular vacation spot for Russians, but we didn’t know just how popular it was. The entire drive to Mayma, we are met by continuous streams of traffic coming the other way. Good thing they’re leaving when we are arriving! We later found out that there had been a festival of Altai culture just before we arrived, so there was even more traffic than usual.

Jars of honey being sold by the road

Lots of traffic in the Altai Republic

Beautiful wooden church in Gorno-Altaisk

Visiting the Altai Republic is definitely worth it, but there is the extra hassle of needing to register your visa specifically in the Altai Republic (this is on top of the regular registration that you must have done every three days with OVIR). We did this in Gorno-Altaisk thanks to the help of the friendly staff, Lioubov and Anastasia, at a tourist agency called AGUNA. In addition to the special visa registration, I had read in Lonely Planet that you also need a border permit to drive past the town of Kosh-Agach to the Mongolian border, which we would be doing. They said you need to apply with the FSB (formerly KGB) at least 10 days prior to your visit and that this should be done through a travel agency since the process was very complicated. However, numerous blogs of people who travelled this route said this procedure was no longer necessary. After our Kazakhstan registration episode, we wanted to be sure what was in fact the truth. Lioubov, the owner of AGUNA tourist agency assured us that a permit was not needed if we stick to the main road, M-52. With documents in hand, we begin the beautiful drive south towards the Mongolian border. Just past Mayma, we stop briefly at a suspension bridge near the town of Aya. It looks so rickety, but vehicles are lined up waiting their turn to cross. This is a popular town for vacationers, especially those looking to go rafting on the Katun River rapids. Just south of Ust-Sema, we start driving on the famous 400 km road called Chuysky Trakt or M-52 to the border. It’s a lovely winding road with forests, cliffs, a few mountain passes and rivers all around. After driving in steppe for so long in Kazakhstan and desert in Turkmenistan, this landscape seems like heaven! We drive all day and as evening approaches, find a campground, but they want $10. Even though this isn’t a lot of money, we opt instead to camp on our own and find an idyllic spot right next to the fast moving river. The ground is grassy and soft and the trees and river make it perfect. I’m so happy! Plus it’s free!

Cows on the road – a typical site

Chuysky Trakt

Rapid river campsite

The next day we continue of drive on M-52 to the border. After about 25 km, we stop briefly in the tiny village of Inya and see what Lonely Planet calls, “one of the most dramatically placed and memorable Lenin statues in Russia”. A few km further, we find a well-preserved stone idol near the town of Iodra. Altai is famous for its standing stone idols which were used as grave markers.

Lenin statue

Altai Stone Idol

As we continue towards the border, the landscape turns more rugged, but still beautiful. We have a picnic lunch at a spot that Stani calls “The perfect Toyota commercial site” because of the beautiful and expansive scenery all around us.

Our picnic lunch spot

Soon we see signs on the side of the road indicating that we are entering a border controlled zone and that permits are necessary. Thankfully there are no problems and we arrive at the border.

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