Compared to our stay in Mongolia our time in Russia was a mere skirmish. Indeed, the border crossing to Russia did not just mark an important ethnic and cultural change but also a considerable geographical shift. As we crossed over the mountainous pass at Tashkent the arid and semi-desert steppe of Mongolia blossomed into lush valleys as we rode towards the fabled Altai Mountains.
From the border town of Tashkent it was a weeklong cycle towards Gorno-Altaysk, the capital of the Altai Republic; a semi-autonomous region in Russia of a similar size to the state of Indiana. Like much of the central Asian melting pot the Altai region is an ethnic English breakfast of Russians, indigenous Altaians, Kazakhs and Elengits. To cross the Altai region we followed the Chukyt Tract, the only road from Mongolia to Russia, carved through the Altai Mountains like the veins on ones foot. The Tract follows the Katun River, a major tributary of the River Ob the 7th largest river in the world which frames Cotswold green grass and plump cattle. The alpine trees and ubiquitous road signs create a fairyland that could have passed as Switzerland in this lonely corner of the globe
It was very quiet as we rode through the mountains; they have a mystical sense to them. There is an air of detachment that even the breeze does not disturb, as if the mountains have folded away long lost secrets. These ‘Golden Mountains’ (‘Altai’ meaning golden) can be seen as sitting in the centre of Central Asia and are unusual in the unforgiving Central Asian landscape. They act as an intersection between the taiga in the Siberian north, the semi-arid deserts of Mongolia and the steppe to the south in Kazakhstan. As we cycled through the avalanches of green falling down the valley’s I remembered how pleased I was to be surrounded by trees after previously seeing nothing more substantial than shrubs since Beijing. The Altai landscape has inspired previous wanders like the Russian painter and philosopher Nicholas Roerich who visited the region at the start of the 20th century. He was attempting to locate the entrance to Shambala, the mythical enlightened land of Tibetan Buddhism and staring at the white capped furnaces above it is easy to see why.
Will and I discovered whilst speaking to a local Altaian woman along the way that the mountains are indeed sacred to the followers of Shamanism. When in their presence one should not shout, pick the grass, get drunk or defecate on their peaks. This sacrosanct belief has millennia old history which is enshrined in world renowned petroglyphs and kurgan stelae in the cracks between mohawk’s of rising rock. There is something surreal, almost transcended, about running your fingers over an etching of a reindeer made thousands of years ago as we scrambled up the cracks of the valley walls.
As we left the mountains and entered the adjoining province, the Altai Krai, the anticipated Russia returned. It was not the metros of Moscow or palaces of Saint Petersburg but the real rural Russia. Where babushka’s with shinning gold teeth beat their sticks at their cows and small vegetable patches point to self-sufficiency, food security and poverty. Where an elderly man drawing his horse and cart was less memorable than the sight of a vodka bottle of a man, sleeping on his cart as the attached horse trotted along next to cemeteries of wooden orthodox crosses, reminding us of the religion which Stalin once tried to crucify.
Old collective farms lay desolate as only their long grey concrete shells remained amongst the tangle of bushes and trees. Decade old tractors and machinery stood in their dozen in farm yards as the faint echoes of socialist collectivism still haunted the land. It is a highly fertile region and the Altai Krai is the biggest producer of maize, rye and oats in Siberia if not Russia. Here with the flat slightly rolling plains we could have been so many places; England, New Zealand and Canada as a new John Deere tractor ploughed a large field.
It was the war memorials which also united the land with so many other cultures. They stood in most villages as the toll of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (1941-45) rang thousands of kilometres from the nearest battlefields. I was shocked by their frequency and the number of names which lined their walls as high as the mass graves which many are tragically buried in just as deep. Most however were not the memorials of European sensibilities. Animated soldiers full of furor and passion called out from sculpted black rock with wide mouths and fiery eyes. Ablaze was the red Communist star as politics still crowned the most shocking of human truths.
And perhaps the memories of former military might have risen in the resurgent nationalism and even militarism which we witnessed. Dozens of cars had the ribbon of the Order of Saint George flying from them. It is the symbol of the ultra-nationalist sect in Russia, equivalent of the BNP in the UK. Some vehicles had the Dushanbe separatist flag flying from them like a stale breeze. We were presented with one from the windscreen of a car outside the war memorial in Gorno-Altaysk as a gift from soldiers who purported to have fought in Ukraine (with the implications that has). Outside the same ‘Great Patriotic War’ memorial in Gorno-Altaysk, dozens of children aged roughly four to fourteen were being marched up and down by men in army uniform as if they were being trained for the years to come. On numerous occasions we saw shirts with Putin glaring from their fronts. An unforgettable one was him riding a wolf through the conquered wilderness. It brought back memories of the Ork’s riding wolves in Tolkien’s’ *Lord of the Rings *as they tried to extend their territory. As Kazakhstan approaches we will see the lengths of past influence as well as that of the present.