Altai is a sacred land between Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and China

Kazakh Altai

Altai is probably one of the last places on the planet that has preserved its unique nature and original culture. Despite the fact that the inhabitants of Eurasia have known about the "wild highland country" located in the depths of the continent since the time of Herodotus, this region still remains without deserved attention. Although a trip to Altai can become the adventure of a lifetime!

Altai (translated as “Golden Mountains”) is a kind of bridge that connects the immense Siberian taiga and the sun-baked deserts of Central Asia. It is located at the junction of several states, natural areas and cultural worlds. The highest point of this mountain region is Belukha Peak (Muztau), 4509 meters above sea level - it is also the highest point in Siberia.

The Kazakhstani part of Altai occupies almost a tenth of the territory of the entire republic. This is a region of extraordinary beauty, famous for its picturesque landscapes: from the deserted hills on the border of the Zaisan depression to snow-capped mountains and glaciers in the north. Glaciers feed numerous rivers and springsand lakes. Due to the abundance and unique color of water, the Kazakh Altai is sometimes also poetically called the Blue Altai.

Altai is famous not only for mountains, waterfalls and lakes: there are amazing archaeological sites, ancient burial mounds, rock paintings, as well as pantotherapy resorts, maral deer farms and, of course, the unique “Altai” culture.

This review is about the main attractions of the Kazakh Altai. It starts with the highest point - Mount Belukha

Belukha mount

Belukha (Muztau) is the highest peak in Altai and Siberia, it has 2 summits: Eastern (4506m) and Western (4435m). The slopes are covered with eternal snow and glaciers, from which the Great Berel and Katun rivers originate. The Altaians call it “The Home of the Gods” and “The Great Old Man”. Not only climbers and mountain hikers, but also disciples of various mystical doctrines flock to its foot. Belukha is shrouded in legends like in clouds. The peak is located on the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, in the north of the Katon-Karagai Natural Park.

In addition to Belukha, the foot of which can be reached on foot (trekking) or on horseback, the Park is also worth visiting the waterfalls:

enlightenedKok-Kol - the biggest Altai fall

enlightenedRakhmanovsky Falls, also known as Veronica's Hair

enlightenedYazovy waterfall, consisting of a dozen cascades

enlightenedArasan or Batyr's Mustache - a big fall on the Arasan River

Many of them are located near the Rakhmanovskie Klyuchi (Rakhmanov's springs) resort, which is also an Altai landmark.

Rakhmanov's Springs are the real embodiment of the fairy tale about "living water". The sanatorium is located on the shore of Big Rakhmanovskoe Lake at an altitude of 1760 meters above sea level. The lake is surrounded on three sides by majestic mountains covered with cedar forest. It was here that, in ancient times, sources of radon, a natural gas with healing properties, were discovered.

Altai Lakes

The purest lakes are another attraction of Altai. In the Katon-Karagai Park there are incredibly beautiful…

...Rakhmanovskoye Lake, famous for its healing springs and the transparency of the water: here you can look 6 meters deep!

...Yazevoe Lake, located on the way to Belukha and offering one of the best panoramas of the peak: in clear weather the mountain is reflected in its calm waters. This is the only lake in the region where ides are found!

...Lake Balance is located in the upper reaches of Belaya Berel. Formed by melting glaciers in the bowl of three peaks: Vera (2591m), Nadezhda (2709m) and Lyubov (3039m).

Katon-Karagay is also known as a region where deer (maral) breeding and treatment of deer's antlers are practiced. Altai is perhaps the only place in the world where treatment is carried out with antlers and the blood of maral (Altai deer). Watching and taking part in such a practice is a real adventure! Deer are bred on special farms: animals are not killed for treatment, but only their horns are cut off - this happens every year from June to August. Antlers and the blood obtained from them contain 18 of the 20 amino acids existing in nature. Due to its composition, antler products - and this includes pantohematogen, bath powders and tinctures - are used in medicine and cosmetology.

In addition to hiking, exploring natural beauty and healing, it is worth going to Katon-Karagay for historical discoveries: the Park has a unique archaeological monument of the 1st millennium BC called "Berel mounds". These are over 100 burial mounds of the Scythian period, in which famous gold items were found, the so-called “Scythian gold” - jewelry in an inimitable animal style, clothing and weapons. Many artifacts from the Berel Valley of the Kings have become exhibits in world museums.

Kok-Kol mine

By the way, lovers of not so ancient history should also visit the Kok-Kol mine in the Katon-Karagai National Park, located on the road to the foot of Belukha. This is a unique abandoned mining complex on the Kok-Kol pass at an altitude of 3,000 meters, where tungsten and molybdenum have been mined by hand since 1938. Now you can see abandoned mine adits, barracks, a forge and other attributes of this period of our history. A little scary, but a very impressive sight!

South of the Katon-Karagai Park is the Markakol Nature Reserve, with its pearl - Lake Markakol

This is a protected area, where pristine, virgin nature has been maintained for many years and the rarest species of animals are preserved. Lake Markakol, located at an altitude of 1447m above sea level, is surrounded by taiga forests and mountain ranges. Samovar Peak rises above the water surface: the peak, like a boiling kettle, is almost always surrounded by clouds. Rare plant species grow on the shore of the lake, and there is even a 700-year-old larch. Unique animals here include wolverine and musk deer. Musk deer is a beautiful animal: it is a mini-deer the size of a dog. The musk deer has large fangs, but the animal is not dangerous: it feeds only on lichen.

Markakol is also the coldest region of Kazakhstan. In the Markakol depression in winter, a temperature of minus 56 degrees Celsius was recorded.

Lakes of Altai

Other attractions in the area include the Old Austrian Road, connecting the village of Markakol, the village of Urunhaika on Lake Markakol and the valley of the Bukhtarma River. The road is almost 150 km long and offers impressive views, but you need an SUV to overcome it. The road was built between 1914 and 1916, during World War I, by prisoners of war from Austria-Hungary, mainly Czechs and Slovaks. Starting in the desert-steppe part near the village of Markakol, it goes north through the Marble Pass, from which the sand dunes of Kyzylkakum in China are visible.

The road passes by Lake Markakol, through the valley of the Kara-Kaba river to the Burkhat pass: from it the Katunsky ridge and Bukhtarma are already visible.

Altai views

Lake Zaisan is considered another “must visit place” of the Kazakhstan Altai

This is the largest lake in the East Kazakhstan region, its area is more than 1800 sq. km, and the border with China is only 60 km from the coast. It is surrounded by three ridges: Altai, Tarbagatai and Kalbinsky. 10 rivers flow into the lake, but only one flows out, the Irtysh, the main water artery of the eastern part of the country. From November to April the lake is covered with ice.

On the southern side there are many amazing historical monuments: the mausoleum of the famous folk healer, a kind of Kazakh Avicenna - Doskanuly Yrgyzbay. This is a place of pilgrimage with a museum and library, which houses about 4 thousand ancient books and treatises, including the works of Ibn Sina.

Another important historical place on the southern bank of Zaisan is the Shilikty mounds. There are more than 200 of them in the valley; they date back to the early Iron Age (1st millennium BC). As a result of excavations of one of the royal burials in 2003, about 5 thousand gold items made in the early Scythian style were found: these are figurines of animals, elements of clothing and jewelry. The gold of Shilikty is of a very high standard, and the artifacts found here are the earliest in the art of the Sakas, who inhabited the territory of Kazakhstan in the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages.

Shilikty burial mounds

The northern coast of Zaysan is no less interesting. Having left Ust-Kamenogorsk to the southeast, be sure to stop for a rest at the Sibinsky lakes and Tainty lakes (well, Altai is the land of lakes :)  And also don’t miss the historical sights:

- Ablaikit is an ancient Buddhist monastery-fortress, built, according to legend, by Ablai Khan. During excavations here, books in the Mongolian language and a library of Tibetan manuscripts were found. This library marked the beginning of the Asian Museum in St. Petersburg.

- Ak-Baur tract - Altai Stonehenge. This is a temple complex and observatory of the Neolithic era (3rd millennium BC). The rock paintings decorating the complex are made with red ocher - there are no such paintings anywhere else in Kazakhstan.

Kiin Kerish

The most amazing natural attraction of the northern coast of Zaisan are the “Martian Valleys” Kiin-Kerish and Cape Shekelmes

Kiin-Kerish is a deserted canyon where scarlet, red, yellow hills alternate with white patches of salt marshes and create a truly mystical picture! The bizarre landscape of Kiin-Kerisha was formed as a result of erosion in the Mesozoic, when dinosaurs lived on the Earth. In the clay slopes of the canyons you can still find the remains of ancient animals (crocodiles, turtles, salamanders) and plants similar to palm trees and magnolias.

Shekelmes is a cape extending far into the waters of Zaisan, a huge deserted area of sedimentary rocks. However, the bizarre shapes and bright colors of the soil give this place an unearthly charm: the cone-shaped mountains resemble pyramids or landscapes of Mars. Once upon a time there was the bottom of the ancient Tethys Ocean. At the same time, Shekelmes is a definite must-visit place on the map of Altai, because here you can not only swim against the backdrop of grandiose landscapes, but also see rare pelicans basking on the sandy shore!

Note: to visit areas bordering Russia and China, a special permit (border pass) is required, it must be obtained in advance. 






7-day trip by Kazakh Altai Horseback riding to Belukha, 11 days