The pass is low by most standards, but it behaves in our minds like one much higher. An alpine feel pervades with rimed larches and persistent flurries, and a road slick with last night’s storm. The sky considers sunshine, but for now a wet cold holds, and we crank uphill in a seesaw battle with sweat and chill. At the base, leaving the main valley of the Katun, we see our last farmstead before moving into the surrounding mountains.
This road, the Chuysky Trakt, was cut through the mountains in the 1930s by gulag inmates, and runs 1000km from the Trans-Siberian Railroad to the Mongolian border. We began in Gorno-Altaisk, the capital of the semi-autonomous Altai Republic, and will steadily gain elevation until we reach the highlands of Mongolia.
The trees fall back and a small, mostly empty line of market stalls and few ails (small timber huts) populate the crest of Seminsky. A man is roasted shashlyk – skewered meat beside one, and waves us over. He draws a number in the snow, we nod and go inside. A blast of heat announces the brick stove at the center of the octagonal log structure. It is a tiny cafe, with juice and chips on a shelf. The man returns, and slides the tender mutton off the skewer and heaps finely sliced onion on top. Hot sugary tea in plastic cups adds to the ensemble, and a plate of dry bread. Our first pass is complete, and with unexpected luxury.
Across the pass, we push bikes along a snow drifted ribbon of cracked asphalt to the half-abandoned Soviet-era ski base atop Seminsky. We nearly missed it in the low cloud, but on emerging from the ail, the sun had made an effort and a few cuts were revealed on the mountainside. Cabins dot a low angle slope, and a blue lodge like a Thundercats hanger stands boarded and drifted over. Most of the lift towers have thrown off their cables and sprout from the slope in rust and scale, but one T-bar still turns and less than a handful of people are taking turns on the unattended lift. We skin up the abandoned side in silence, enjoying moments of clarity in the cold fog. The descent is quick but soft, new snow on spring Siberian crust.
The road drops down and we find our way over plateau and valley back to the Katun, and a cold, dry steppe climate. The road is good, and easy to navigate: if you leave the spiderwebbed asphalt, you are going the wrong way. This 500 kilometer line runs through the heart of the range, and we follow it over passes and through small log villages clustered around shingled rivers. Confederations of sheep and goats wander thawing hillsides under the occasional watch of dog and motorcycle-borne shepherd. Cows and pigs march the paddocks closer to home, though the pigs fade from prominence as we transition to a Muslim minority in the mixed ethnic map of Russian, Altai, and Kazakh. The Altai here is religiously diverse, with Russian Orthodox, Islam, Tengrism, Tibetan Buddhism, and less organized belief systems often called Shamanism, but really more a blend of animism and ancestor reverence. As we leave the Katun Valley for the last time and begin to ascend the Chuya, we pass our last church in Aktash village and enter the Chuya steppe, a dry, barren, high altitude grassland hemmed in by mountains. Entering the frontier town of Koch Agash, we pass our first mosque, a humble green timber affair with a crescent moon of beaten sheet metal on the peak of the hall.
Here, we plan our first extended foray into the mountains.