Day 1: Arrival in Barnaul
With the weather turning from blue skies to grey and cold nipping at our finger tips, we crossed the Russian border, leaving behind the pot holed mess of a road leading out of Kazakhstan. We were in a rush. Ten days in Russia and a list of things to do. Ryan had been tirelessly searching for parts for our bikes, and waiting for us in Barnaul were sprockets, oil filters and a hunt for tyres. We also wanted to use our ten days to the full and explore the Russian Altai mountains. Having seen a little of the Kazakh side of the Altai already we were desperate to get the city chores out of the way and begin exploring.
On arrival in Barnaul we checked into the quaint Hostel Izba, a timber framed old Russian building, that sat on a tree lined street in the middle of the modern, bustling city. In fact Barnaul was quite unexpectedly pretty, despite the cold, with lopsided timber buildings rubbing shoulders with glass walled skyscrapers and classic, colonnaded soviet government buildings.
After warming our frozen fingers and toes in the cosy hostel, we nipped out to get some dinner. And what a sight to behold! The supermarket was piled high wih fruit and veg, but more importantly PORK! We hadnt seen a pig in a bloody long time, and despite being gutted to leave behind the Islamic culture we had grown to love, we were ecstatic to leave the shop laden with ingredients for a sausage and mash dinner.
Day 2: Meet Babushka
At 9am Babushka arrived. Wearing a skin tight multicolored rose patterned outfit, and declaring her love for all things English, she wrapped us up in her enormous perfumed bosoms. If you ever meet a true babushka consider yourself extremely lucky. They are like your granny when it comes to fussing over you, like your mum when it comes to feeding you up, and like a bear when it comes to giving cuddles. Even though we had known her for five minutes, Babushka set about making us cheese toasties, flamboyantly telling her family history as she did so. She put on our laundry, made more food and tea (remember we told you about the Russians and their love of tea), then collapsed in a bundle on the sofa with a packet of chocolates to watch Russian Jeremy Kyle. She was still there a few hours later, when we returned frozen from our chores in the city. She demanded we ate borsch (Russian soup), and fussed around us, declaring us ‘mad’ for going out in the freezing weather and predicting doom when it came to our travel plans for the coming days. “Much better to stay, eat borsch and accompany her to a “museum open day” she lamented in her thick Russian accent.
Day 3: Excellent mechanics
After a couple of days relentlessly searching the city for tyres, Ryan had come to know nearly every motorcycle shop and mechanic in Barnaul. However he ended up in the basement garage of ‘Total’, a motorbike cum jet ski, cum skidoo shop. One of the weaknesses of the Honda XR400 is the timing chain tensioner (a small but key component that helps maintain the crucial rhythm of the engine) and despite Ryan having already replaced his snapped one in Turkey, it was giving us trouble again.
The mechanics were extremely helpful and friendly, even feeding Ryan biscuits and coffee whilst chatting away. Despite helping out for hours, they would not accept a single ruble in payment, something we have encountered time and time again on our journey. It was a relief to find 2 new tyres which would prepare us for the Mongolian “roads” ahead, finish the other mechanical jobs and jet wash the bikes ready to get muddy again on their next adventure.
Day 4: Into the cold
After a long lie-in in the world’s comfiest bed, final bike preparations and a farewell cuddle with Babushka, we finally hit the road and left Barnaul under blue skies late in the day. The temperature however remained low and as we camped on a hill top, we regretted leaving Babushka’s warm embrace behind! A snow flurry had us tucked up in the tent before ten, and we had to watch a couple of episodes of Game of Thrones to distract us from the freezing temperatures. The weather was not normal for the time of year, the locals told us. Bloody typical.
Day 5: The chosen one
Its not every day that you find out that you are the chosen one. Alas, we had made it little over one hundred kilometres down the road before we succumbed to the cold and the lure of a sign advertising a museum where we could shelter and warm up for a bit. Unexpextedly we arrived at a timber framed complex, and were wecomed into the ‘museum’ by two wonderful ladies and the local Altai Shaman.
Shamanism was outlawed under the Soviets, but since the 90s has seen growing popularity, with many people rediscovering their beliefs. The museum was a personal collection of artefacts from the Altai region, and after showing us around, the Shaman asked for Ryan’s palm.
What followed (and bear in mind our limited Russian) was the confirmation that Ryan is indeed the Chosen One. The first revelation came when the Shaman plotted Ryan’s birthday onto his Solar calendar. In a rather ‘Game of Thrones-esque’ description he was delclared as being born in the full light of the summer. In a stunning revelation, after Ryan shared his name, the Shaman could not believe what he was hearing. Apparently the two syllables represented the sun god “Ray” and the moon God “an” (bear with us). Then came the palmistry; Not only was Ryan to have a long life, he was constantly watched over by a guardian angel, a woman, perhaps a granny. From reading his palm the Shaman was then able to draw Ryan’s spirit animal. A horse with eight legs and wings representing his speed and adventurous spirit. We are not sure how much of the reading was made up, but Ryan is convinced the Shaman chanced upon a fact: He is indeed The Chosen One.
With that revelation in the open, it would have been rude for the Shaman to turn ‘the Chosen One’ out into the cold, and in a gesture of familiar Russian hospitality we were invited to spend a night at the museum. Lottie was cordially invited out with the women to complete the chores, which involved feeding the deer, cuddling the puppies and making borsch, and Ryan was given the duty of lighting the fire with a seven year old accomplice Kiril.
We settled down that evening to a roaring fire, good food and even wine, before we were asked (this is a usual occurance, we look pretty rough right now), when we would shower. Ryan took up the invitation to accompany the men to the village bath house. On the way to the bath house, the men stopped at a neighbour to ask if they might take some branches from his tree before stopping in at the mini market to pick up some tins of meat. Unexpecedly the bath house turned out to be in the garden of another neighbour. A long, low, ramshackle building, it consisted of three rooms: The first room where you strip, the second was the washroom containing a burner hotter than the sun, and the third, the sauna, upon entering which, you felt as if you were passing through the fiery gates of hell. Outside the outhouse was a small paddling pool of cold water, where after a round of beating eachother with branches and scrubbing each other red raw, you would splash yourself with cold water. After a few rounds Ryan was so hot he nearly passed out, and retreated to the house where he settled down to an Uzbek dinner and numerous rounds of home made vodka. Nastorve.
Day 6: The stunning Altai mountains
Thankfully, when we woke, the sky was blue and the temperature had risen to at least ten degrees. We said a fond farewell to our wonderful hosts and finally got underway to the Altai mountains. We were not dissapointed. From the flat agricultural plains a huge mountain range erupted before us. We stopped to buy some mountain honey and pickled wild mushrooms from one of the numerous roadside sellers, before heading down the Chemal valley, following the broiling river. At first the valley, although beautiful, was full with holiday lodges, huts and camps. But as we rode the winding road, they slowly gave way to rolling fields and forest. The track began to degrade and before long, we were riding a narrow gravel track passing through small villages perched on the side of the river.
The Altai region is a particularly interesting historical area, not only do many of the Turkic tribes claim their origins from here, it is also a site of much prehistoric human history. We can’t resist a petroglyph hunt, and were not disappointed when deep in the valley we did find beautiful deer rock carvings and even a sacred waterfall.
That night we pitched our tent on the river bank and beside a roaring fire, drank home made honey wine, and revelled in the starry night sky.
Day 7: Adventure fail
“Lottie! DO NOT MOVE!” Ryan had woken with a start to a rumbling growl outside the tent. As the sound moved closer we froze, the bleariness of sleep quickly evaporating into panic. “I think it’s a bear” Ryan said. We knew there were bears in the Altai, but they are extremely rare, and even in the remote spot we were in, we had not expected to encounter one. We whispered frantically about our best course of action as the creature roared again outside. Ryan decided he was going to take a look and slowly unzipped the tent door, trying not to make a sound. Staring at him from the bushes was a young cow! We couldn’t believe it! Needless to say Ryan will not be persuing a PhD in zoology on our return.
Relieved and laughing we set off on our adventure for the day. We hoped we could take a small track out of the valley to meet the main road, rather than drive back the way we had come. It started well, we passed a beautiful village nestled in a hidden side valley and local shepherds told us we would have no problem. They were wrong, about 20km up the track in the hills it began to deteriorate into a muddy mess. It had clearly been used by tractors or large trucks servicing the forestry, and as we climbed higher, the tyre ruts became deeper, muddier and steeper. Lottie nearly burned out her clutch on one of the trickier sections, and we became so worried about becoming stranded with no clutch, we made the decision to turn around. It was the latest in a string of failed adventure attempts and we were pretty downhearted.
Nevertheless, back in the village we satiated our lack of energy with ice creams and set up camp by the river.
Day 8: Meeting the crazy locals
I’m sure when you imagine us camping in the wild Altai mountains,you picture something like this….
Its true, beautiful scenery, clear flowing river with a perfect swimming hole, green flat grass to pitch a tent…you get the picture.
What I’m sure you dont imagine is this…
Having settled down in our picture perfect campsite in the Ina valley, we were cooking up a delicious dinner of bean stew when accross the other side we noticed a bedraggled looking man waving at us. We had been looking forward to a peaceful evening, and were a bit fed up of shepherds visiting our camp each evening for a stare. However, we had also been challenged by the hospitality we had been shown on our journey, so in a vow to emulate how we had been treated, we waved the man over.
In limited Russian we traded life stories, and the man began to look through our things to see what he might take. After sacrificing our sugar, half a loaf of bread and some dried meat to the cause we invited him to stay for dinner. We ran out of things to say pretty quickly due to our poor Russian, so instead we turned on some music, which turned out to be a winner. The guy loved to dance! Daft Punk was a particular favourite encouraging the Altai robot, and we were treated to an eclectic display of dance moves which had us in stiches until our bean stew was ready.
Day 9: Bronze age history and stunning riding
Lottie thought all her birthdays had come at once when she woke up to a puppy inside our tent. It turned out the adorable bundle belonged to our friend from the previous night. He had come to bring us some fresh milk from his cow, and thought it would be an absolute treat to wake us up with a few licks from a mangy puppy. We reluctantly left our cosy sleeping bags to accept the rather dodgy smelling milk and wave our pal off to work.
The weather was stunning, and Lottie spent the morning climbing up the nearest mountain whilst Ryan sketched a beautiful card for her birthday. Had we had more time in Russia we would have loved to spend more time exploring the valley, but after lunch we set off through stunning mountains, towards the Mongolian border.
One highlight of our ride was stopping to see an ancient carved deer stone. No one really knows what they were for, but it is thought they are at least a memorial to the deceased. In ancient beliefs they thought that humans were carried to heaven on the backs of deer, hence the deer carvings, and some of the stones feature a face. The stone was haunting, we had never seen anything like it.
As the day drew to a close the weather became cold and wet. We warmed up for a while in a supermarket, but eventually had to brave the cold to set up camp illegally close to the Mongol border.
Day 10: The end of the road
Leaving the tent for a pee at 5am is never a welcome process, but is even less of a pleasant experience, when you open the tent to a mini blizzard. With less than 24 hours remaining on our Russian visas, and camped illegally in the border zone, snow was the last thing we expected or wanted. Snow covered cows surrounded our tent and stared dolefully at us as we hurried to pack, skipping breakfast and the usual coffee, before our fingers froze.
Trying to sneak back onto the main road we had illegally left, we attracted the attention of some painfully bored (and we imagine completely frozen) border soldiers, stationed in the middle of nowhere on a dirt track. Having not bought insurance for our time on the Russian roads, being stopped by the authorities was possibly the second worst thing that could happen after waking up to a mini blizzard. Acting as if we were completely lost, and eternally grateful for their help in rescuing us from straying any further into prohibited territory, they sent us on our way, completely baffled.
By the time we reached the border the weather had intensified. The wind was howling, snow flew up inside our helmets and we were desperate to reach the border town of Tashanta to warm up with a coffee and some breakfast. Alas, on our arrival we discovered there was not a single cafe and had to settle for some borsak (deep fried dough-bread) and honey before rushing to the border.
What we hadn’t realised was that the Russian, Mongolia border sits atop a high mountain pass, and as you leave Russia, you enter a sparse desert environment. Needless to say it was freezing, and by this point the blizzard had truly set in. We bundled into the warm passport office along with all the truckers, only for the arrogant young guard to send us back outside to wait for half an hour. We were utterly frozen, the temperature had dipped to minus ten before wind chill, but the bikes were faring worse. The brakes had frozen, they would not start unless running incredibly rich, icicles clung to every surface, and once we had escaped the torture of the Russian guards, we had 23km of ‘no mans land’ to negotiate. The road was in terrible condition, usually sandy and rutted, it was now covered in a layer of ice. With no brakes and our engines going beserk, we had almost no control over our speed, and at over 40kph Lottie fell, jarring her back, and snapping her fuel tank mounting. There was nothing for her to do but clamber back onto the bike and ride with trepidation towards Mongolia.
Finally the border post came into sight, covered in mud and snow, tears and snot, we were allowed to stay inside the guard hut this time as the puzzled but sympathetic Mongolian authorities processed our paperwork.
And with a final stamp in our passport, Russia was behind us once again. Ten days was not enough to enjoy its incredible hospitaliy, stunning landscape, delicious food, and fascinating history. Luckily for us, this is one road we will have to travel more than once. When we leave Mongolia, it will be through the same border that we entered. The ‘no mans land’ will hopefully be swathed in sunlight not ice, the mountains will hopefully be as green and lush as before, and friends that we have made on the way will be waiting with warm embraces and a good old Russian cup of tea. Thank you Mother Russia.