On the 28th of July, my wife and I set off from Irkutsk, in our beloved Defender 110, Jeremy, for a two-week trip. Our destination: The Altai Republic, Russia. This ever-changing landscape can be found in Western Siberia on the border with Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. The unspoiled nature makes it a popular holiday destination for lots of Russians.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Setting off from Irkutsk to the sound of Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again”, we first drove 2000 km towards Novosibirsk, the capital of Siberia. A drive mostly characterised by seemingly endless farmlands but with a much-needed dash of entertainment provided by the constant swearing on the CB radio of the Russian truck drivers. After spending a night in the third-biggest city in Russia, we headed South towards Gorno-Altaysk, the capital of Altai. Once in Gorno-Altaysk, we said goodbye to the never-ending farmlands and hello to the beginning of what is considered one of the ten most beautiful roads… in the world!
Boring and seemingly endless roads made way for windier versions that would satisfy the needs of every asphalt cowboy. Once passed Gorno-Altaysk, the vistas became more rocky and impressive yet without losing any of its lush and green appeal. And when all of a sudden the majestic Katun (river with the Belukha Mountain glacier as its source) shows up with its beautiful turquoise colour, it makes for quite a picturesque scene. The side of the road here is generally teeming with people, all selling Altai’s famous and delicious honey. Well, most of it is just sugar in a bowl made in China, but the real, local stuff is actually very good.
As far as spending the night goes, there is definitely not a shortage of inexpensive campsites in this area. We generally prefer these over finding our own spot, mostly because of the amount of cows wondering about at night. They all seem to love scratching cars with their horns. As we continued our drive South, towards the Mongolian border, the scenery became more and more mountainous. The Katun disappeared but only to reappear moments later in all its glory, down in a canyon. This is definitely a good time to pull over for a second and take a few shots of your beloved Land Rover. Preferably when the sun is about to set behind the mountains and the evening light adds a touch of drama to your pictures.
SECOND GEAR - OUR BEST FRIEND
Next, after having fixed our radio (wonky fuse that had been “fixed” with a bit of copper wire by a local genius) we continued heading South. We could definitely tell we were climbing as second gear became our Defender’s best friend for quite some time. And just when we thought we had seen Altai’s nature at its finest, it had another surprise for us in store: the snowy peaks of the Belukha Mountain! It’s elevation of 4,500 metres and multiple glaciers make for one hell of a picture opportunity. We could have driven towards the glacier (after all, if a Defender can drive to the top of the Elbrus, then surely a glacier at a mere 4,500 metres of altitude shouldn't be an issue?), but sadly we didn’t have enough time.
A PLAYGROUND FOR LAND ROVERS
Continuing our drive, the scenery changed again and once in the Kosh-Agach region, one could be forgiven for thinking they were in Scotland. This steppe is a beautiful region mainly characterized by grassland and very moody weather conditions. The endless dirt roads however are the perfect playground for any Land Rover. Sadly, the Siberian steppe is as far South as we could possibly go as the border region near Mongolia was closed not only due to the pandemic but also to prevent the plague (yes, the plague!), which had recently broken out in Northern Mongolia, from crossing the border into Russia.
As we were heading back North, we noticed a waypoint we had entered earlier on the GPS labelled ‘Mountain Pass’. On our way to check it out, we came across a square in the village, where some locals organised tours in an UAZ to drive tourists to the top of the mountain. Not really needing an UAZ to get to the peak, we decided to go and check it out by ourselves. Thinking the climb wouldn’t be too long or technical, we decided not to air down, which in retrospect may have been a mistake.
The first couple of kilometres were fairly easy with just a handful of technical sections that only stopped a Honda CRV in its tracks. As we drove further, things became less technical but more and more picturesque with the peace and serenity of the place, only broken by the steady rumble of Jeremy’s 300Tdi. After having taken a few hundred pictures of Jeremy, we drove on and quickly found ourselves above the tree line in a very mountainous environment with multiple peaks towering above us.
The last 2km to the top of the mountain wasn't so much technical as scary, with the mountain to the right of us and a trouser-threatening drop on the left, reminding us of Death Road in Bolivia. Especially when another car was coming down while we were going up, on a road that was barely wide enough for one car, let alone two. And of course, we drew the short straw and found ourselves on the side of the almost sheer vertical 500m drop. The oncoming car stopped as close to the mountain as possible, we collapsed our mirror and crawled past him with an entire 30 cm to spare on the side of the drop.
A SIGH OF RELIEF
A deep sigh of relief and 500 metres later we found ourselves at the top of the mountain, at an altitude of 3000 metres above sea level (well, actually 2996 metres, but let’s call it 3000 shall we) where we were met with a stunning vista unlike anything we’d ever seen before. Endless peaks, a distant lake and what looked like the Himalayas in the distance. After having filled another memory card with pictures of Jeremy, we headed back down. This time, luckily without oncoming traffic.
We headed back North to spend a night in Novosibirsk after which we enjoyed two more days of swearing and cursing on the CB radio, courtesy of the Russian truckers. And for those interested, some popular topics here include: complaining about road works, complaining about the road police and where to find the guy who decided to abuse his fuel card and is now selling you some diesel for 39 instead of 49 Rubles per litre.
For those interested in travelling to Altai, you can always contact us. We’d be more than happy to help out. You can contact us via our Instagram page and also see what we get up to with Jeremy in the meantime!
Andy and Katerina