Circling the Golden Mountains

The Altai Mountains lie in the heart of Asia, at the junction of steppe, desert, and taiga, and constitute one of the most pristine montane ecosystems on Earth. “Circling the Golden Mountains” is an attempt to circumnavigate the Altai by ski and bicycle and to tell the story of this region, its people and landscape, to as wide an audience as possible. Conservation across political frontiers is a world-wide concern, and here in the heart of Asia we find a vital laboratory. We intend to trace a 4,000-kilometer route through Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia, and Russia, and to carry skis on our bicycles and execute between two and three dedicated multi-day ski tours in each country, with peak ascents and roadside missions as spring advances. We hold an absolute dedication to a light, fast, and low-budget aesthetic, and unless we hold to this style throughout, the route will not be possible.

Our budget remains extremely tight. All help is deeply appreciated!

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Lowlands: Cycling the Kazakh Steppe

The road has no outlet. There is no bridge, and no ferry. The map is wrong, again. We are crushed, again. We followed the main road towards Ust-Kamenogorsk as our map had it, along the shores of the great reservoir of Bukhatarmskoye. But twenty-five kilometers from anywhere, the road turns to dirt and a branch drops to a languid shore and a rusted, abandoned ferry dock. The family smoking cigarettes on the dock offers us candy and cabbage rolls, and confirms our suspicions, pointing north to the road. “Nyet parom, nyet most,” no ferry, no bridge between here and Ust-Kamenogorsk, Oskemen in Kazakh. They indicate a barge in the lake, the ferry coming to take them west across to a road that leads to Samara. It is 240 kilometers to our railhead by that route, and when the boat docks and disgorges a small truck and two Ladas, we reluctantly wheel our bikes on board.

We had taken a leisurely lunch, knowing we would camp the night by the reservoir and then have an easy morning into Ust. There, we would reach the railhead and the end of our human-powered journey around the Altai. We were fifty kilometers away, after thousands. Moments before we were exultant, our ending close and within the easy reach of a morning’s ride. Now, we are again cast into uncertainty and high challenge. We sullenly eat crackers on a bench by the railing. A trio of weathered Russian and Kazakh men loosen the steel cable loops on the ship-side bollards, and the Odessa slips out of the dock into the narrow reservoir.

The north end of Bukhtarminskoye, near our supposed railhead, is marked by a dam. It impounds the Black Irytsh River into the fifth-largest reservoir on Earth, even raising it to the level of Lake Zaysan upstream, one of the largest fresh bodies in Central Asia, and by far the oldest lake on Earth. Most lakes last only a hundred thousand years, with a million years marking an ancient feature. Zaysan is at least sixty-five million years old, three times older than Baikal, the second-place holder to the northeast. The Black Irytsh and the Zaysan depression has long marked the frontier between territories tenuously connected to Peking or Moscow. Cossacks fished here, Oriat Mongols built the last steppe confederation here in the 17th century, and Soviet transports pushed upstream into China, carrying away ore. Today, the infrastructure crumbles to scale as the river, sucked dry for irrigation, is too low for much shipping.

We had spent almost two weeks in the watershed, both in China, the mountains along the Austrian Road, and down in the rolling Kazakh steppe along the rivers draining to the Irtysh. Leafy villages dotted our route through the grasslands, simple settlements following a comfortable pattern: spread a handful of shops and markets along the main road, and cluster log and concrete brick houses around it with gardens and hayricks. Every town has a mosque built since the fall of the Soviet Union, often including Timurid and Persian elements like blue tile domes and large brick arched entrances. They are village affairs, humble, and tell the story of Islamic revival in Kazakhstan, encouraged from within the country, and from without. Nearby, in the park, a moment to the dead of the Great Patriotic War – our World War II – stands behind rusted fencing. There is a lit flame, and wreaths cover the pedestal. Victory Day was the previous week, and even though they are no longer part of the USSR, the day is held in reverence. The death toll of that war in the Soviet Union is inconceivable. Fifty thousand died from this tiny, remote province alone, a drop in the ocean of the twenty-eight million Soviet citizens that perished in the fight against Naziism. In one small town, we are told that seven veterans of the war remain alive, but are very old.

We relish the sparse green of the villages, and eat ice creams on rickety benches while schoolchildren ask us our name and giggle at our strange accents. In Russian-influenced and settled Kazakhstan, we added cheese and butter back into our diet, along with tomato sauce and real ice cream bars. The wind, unfortunately, continued to plague us until the asphalt ran out on the outskirts of Terekty, and that new challenge gave us a reprieve until we finished the Austrian Road and returned to sealed roads. There, we pass between the mountain walls headed west. North, Siberia begins, while south, whence we came, Central Asia stretches in desert, and glacier. The wind assaulted us, again. We moved west through verdant pasture, crawling into a forty knot headwind for the tenth day. Our first night camping beyond the Austrian Road, we hide behind poplars and wake to several inches of snow. At the latitude of Seattle and the elevation of Pittsburgh.

As we near the far shore, the captain waves us up two stories to the wheel house. The sparse bridge holds a few notebooks, a throttle marked in stenciled Cyrillic, and a great wooden ship’s wheel. He shows us the controls, and jots down distances to our next town: seventy kilometers. We dock as the sun drops, and move a few kilometers on to a rise above the lake. We set tents, boil water, and settle in to our disappointment and our well-exercised muscle of moving on, laughing, and planning. In the last light, two Kazakh horsemen wander by from work in the hills along the lake. We chat, and before leaving one dismounts and urges me into the saddle. Reminiscent of childhood pony rides, the second shepherd holds my reins and we ring camp at a trot.

Photo May 20, 5 15 53 PM Photo May 13, 11 37 37 PM Photo May 14, 2 31 22 PM Photo May 14, 2 34 02 PM Photo May 14, 2 40 19 PM Photo May 14, 10 29 01 PM Photo May 15, 2 20 26 PM Photo May 18, 9 26 04 PM Photo May 18, 9 59 28 PM Photo May 18, 9 59 46 PM Photo May 19, 1 55 27 PM Photo May 19, 1 56 29 PM Photo May 19, 3 01 29 PM Photo May 19, 8 56 00 PM Photo May 19, 9 47 04 PM Photo May 19, 10 42 06 PM Photo May 20, 12 52 07 PM Photo May 20, 3 07 55 PM Photo May 20, 5 18 28 PM Photo May 20, 9 33 19 PM

 

 

 

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The Austrian Road: Cycling the Kazakhstani Altai

“Can you see the bridge?” Brian shouts down to me. A moment of confusion and elation pass between us. I am on the cobble marge of the Kara Koba, washing dishes from dinner with water from the stream. It is achingly cold, running fast over a polished, rocky bed. I face upriver, and below the obscuring larch and birch, I spot a span of rusted box girder. Brian sees my face, and knows what my the lightbulb expression must mean.

An hour before, we had stood at the old bridgehead and watched the track run out into space. Nearby a ford roared with the freshet, and we discussed our options for the crossing. The creeping shadow line of evening encouraged dinner, sleeping bags, and procrastination until morning. With no way across the river, we were crushed, again. Two kilometers of drifted switchbacks had filled our afternoon, depositing us on the floor of the valley wet to the waist and covered in mud. Rolling out of the snowbound forest, slush dropped from spokes and racks, and we moved into sun, leaving a postholed, pannier-plowed track behind.

Now, our deliverance appears right under our noses, and we jog up to the bridge and walk out on rough milled planks wired to ancient steel. Clear snowmelt runs below, wrapping rocks in foam and racing out of the gorge above: tomorrow’s work. The way seems clear, for this moment only, and we are giddy that another puzzle piece has reluctantly found its place.

This track, once a road, was built between 1915 – 1917 by Austro-Hungarian prisoners captured on the Eastern Front in the Great War. They toiled in these remote mountains at the edge of the Russian Empire, thousands of miles from the fighting. They cut this rough track through the mountains with shovel and pickaxe, rope and saw, bridging the Kara Koba five times in the wild gorge just upstream from us. They connected the valley of the Burkhtarma, once the northern route on the great Silk Road, with China and the basin of the Cherny (Black) Irtysh.

For their achievement, the track is still called the Austrian Road. The Czech, Slovak, Austrian, and Hungarian prisoners who labored in this remote wilderness left no trace save the occasionally level path cut into the hillside and over these successive passes and gorges. They worked and died as two empires collapsed around them: their own, and that of their captors. As the storm of revolution broke in 1917, this small work gang was surely caught in the middle. Were they repatriated by Trotsky in time? Or did they join the Czechslovak Legion in its long fight from Europe to the Pacific, and race the nascent Red Army along the Trans-Siberian Railroad in armored trains bound for Vladivostok and Allied evacuation to America? No one knows.

We left China in storm and wind, hoping our way would be smoother in Kazakhstan. Things did not start well. We were held at the border for seven hours as Chinese officers looked through the photos on our cameras and the Kazakhstan guards asked us about Jessica Alba, our homes (“Please tell us one thing your state is known for.”), and our plans for their illustrious country. All this, before they informed us our visas are fake and we cannot enter the country – Kazakhstan does not issue five-year visas to Americans. Except that they do. Once the immigration office in Astana finished its three hour lunch break, they informed our erstwhile captors that the rules had changed last year, and to let us go. One would think knowing current visa rules would be a top priority for boarder guards.

We followed the border fence north. The wind hounded us until the road turned to dirt and began to climb. The thousand-foot dunes of the Ak Kum desert (‘white sands’) reflected bright sunshine behind, and as usual the land gave no shade. We sweat, and salty Rorschach lines grew on shirt and hat as sandy gravel switchbacks turned desert to steppe, then to scrub and subalpine meadow. The air cooled as the road climbed, rising 3200′ in under ten kilometers, making it a bit steeper than the Mt. Washington Autoroad with a worse surface condition. Beyond the Mramorniy Pass, we rolled over the White Pasture of Akzhailau and ascended a second pass, Tikkabak, where conifers appeared and we caught our first glimpse of mountains wreathed in snow.

In this exertion, we worried about our border permits. We had arranged for them to be processed in February, but our contacts had failed us spectacularly and only informed us a few days before we entered the border zone that we did not actually have permission to be there. Our afternoon cycling along the actual border fence was one of worry and uncertainty, but as we climbed we committed ourselves to this route; it would add 350km to go back and around the mountains. With every checkpoint, police jeep, and document request, we escaped unstopped, still, miraculously, fixed on our goal. The rangers, soldiers, police, schoolchildren, horsemen, and shopkeepers that asked us our route all nodded, some pointing back the way we had come, saying the road disappeared if we went north long enough. Beyond the great lake of Markakol, a park ranger pulled his jeep over to tell us the Austrian Road would be impassible and we wont reach the Burkhtarma. When we insist, he smiles and wishes us good luck. We have found, so far on this trip, that everyone is nearly always wrong, and the only way to know what lies ahead is to go and have a look for yourself. If there are any grains of truth in their advice, they will reveal themselves.

A kilometer later, the next bridgehead appears, with the girders swept parallel to the far shore with planks sloughed off into the current twenty feet below. The mountainsides drop to the river in mixed meadow and taiga, and we scout the left bank, sure of our forward momentum. In two hours of heavy lifting, we portage along cliff bands and over frozen avalanche debris, walking in the river when necessary. The third bridge stands, repaired at some point with sawn telephone poles still sporting their wire hangers. On bridges four and five, the planks are gone, leaving only the bent, rusted girders, and we engineer solutions our mothers are encouraged not to ask us about. In nine hours of extreme effort, we make eight kilometers.

The track is mud, rock, and snow. It rises against mountains now considering spring in carpets of wildflowers, European globe-flowers and irises purple and yellow, ruthenica and bloudowii. Snowfields beckon above forest bands, but with such a slow day, our food won’t last and we are wary of what slow, grinding hardship will present itself on the morrow. The skis stay on the bikes, but we stop from time to time and gaze up at the ridges still holding their snow, at the Sarymsaty (‘Garlic’) Ridge, and onwards to Burkitaul and Aksubas Peaks, ‘Eagle’s Eyrie’ and ‘Head of White Water’, respectively.

The land is stunning, and utterly empty in this season. There is no one in the valley of the Kara Koba, the last mountain village of a few hundred nearly two days behind. We soak in the green, white, and blue, the moisture of a clean, alpine landscape. The steppe worked us, but here, despite the absurd physicality of the travel, we are revived. Cresting our last high point the next morning, we are confronted by the valley of the Burkhtarma. This is the Burkhatskiy Pass, and, along with the Tarbagatay Ridge, marks the vague, shifting ecological boundary between Siberia and Central Asia. To the north, we see Russia and Belukha, the great glacier-clad peak at the heart of the Altai Mountains. Three thousand feet below, the valley opens and we see the arrow-straight asphalt ribbon that will connect us again with civilization.

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Wind, Sun, Sand, and Food: Cycling the Chinese Altai

We make certain assumptions when looking at a map. It is a designed object, the recipient of refinement, and bears a certain authority in its geometry. But despite the weight of accumulated knowledge they exhibit, maps are not infallible. The person who designed our map of Xinjiang lives, I believe, in Budapest. I don’t think this person has ever been to this lonely spot in north China, but they created a layered image representing it that was then printed, and is now in a plastic bag in my hands flapping a tih-tih-tih staccato around my thumb and forefinger.

I am in a town that doesn’t exist, and on a road whose route is deviant from the world as known to our Hungarian cartographer. In this barren stretch, we rely on sparse settlements to restock. Beyond the kilometer marker where our village should be, an empty valley of rock, sand, and scrub stretches to the horizon. This is our third phantom village today, and evening has begun to draw the curtain on our misfortune. The road is not right, and the towns we expect for food and water do not exist.

We inescapably anchor our perception of spatial reality to what we see on the map, and when what we expect fails to appear, there is a feeling of betrayal. When I show a passing Kazakh horseman the map and ask directions, he shakes his head at the lines and road numbers. His spatial reality operates without grid lines, and a sweeping wave covering 100 degrees of the compass usually indicates the way. He, of course, won’t get lost, but we may. The road signs are in Kazakh written in Arabic script, and in Chinese. Numbers are in our familiar Arabic numerals, and are our only tenuous connection.

We camp behind a low brown hill, and use our last water to cook our last food. I find a scrap of rug fallen from a camel train and set it before Brian’s tent as an entry way to lighten the mood. I find a scorpion on it as I set it down, spoiling the gift.

The wind rises at 1AM, and we lose our sleep wondering if the tents will hold. They do, and at 6AM we move to the road and encounter an early morning resumption of the previous days direct, soul crushing headwind. Today it is stronger, and has come earlier. We make five kilometers in an hour, and are exhausted. There is little traffic, and we rage that the moment the road improves to fine asphalt, the wind rises to rob us of advantage. By the time we leave China, it will have become an assumption: if it appears as though we will gain some advantage, wait five minutes. Something – long climbs, rough surfaces, wind – will come along and put us back again.

With eighty kilometers to the next settlement and no water in bottles or landscape – not a drop to the horizon – we flag down a truck and are whisked into Beitun. I can think of no other activity comparable to cycling into a 35 knot wind. It is soul crushing. You can still crawl along without much risk, but it is excruciatingly difficult and slow. There is no rhythm. In this land, there is no where to hide and it roars in your ears the whole day long.

The steppe is utterly empty until we reach the abrupt edge of downtown. Our map uses font size to indicate settlement size. Beitun is marked as being the same size as Saribulak, one of the towns that did not exist. In reality, Beitun has 90,000 people in a compact city of modern buildings, leafy avenues, hotels, markets, and restaurants. It is the opposite of the countryside in every way.

Beitun is brand new, and under construction. It speaks of recent Han colonization, of a risen China appropriating its ethnic periphery and casting a web of super modern infrastructure across a landscape unaccustomed to such attention. See: Tibet, the Uighur lands in central and west Xinjiang. Here, in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, the people are not restive and the soldiers and police we see and interact with everyday are not overly suspicious of us. They are not guarded. The same 19th century Russian expansion into Dzungaria and the Kazakh Steppe that pushed the Middle Kazakh Horde towards Mongolia also forced many Kazakhs into China. The Manchu Qing dynasty that ruled China at the time had once been nomadic as well, and took an ambivalent view of the newcomers. Today, over a million Kazakhs live here.

Our road across China does not run through the mountains. The Chinese Altai is visible to the north in snow-flecked ridges hazy in air filled with wind-blown dust and sand, but we lack the time to access it. With our visa issue in March, we have six weeks instead of eight and must press on. The turquoise waters of Kanas, the native skiers of the Tuvan minority, they elude us in the hot, howling basin of the Black Irytsh.

We are weary from weeks of hard travel in the mountains, both by ski and bike. China is a nightmare. All day and night, the wind blasts out of the west. We are incredulous as the days add up. Seven, eight, ten in a row without a break or a calm or a direction shift, save when the road shifts a few degrees; the wind must shift to stay directly opposed. A hundred photos of the land describe nothing, it must be fought through in wind and slept on to be appreciated.

Leaving our two stops here, the small cities of Beitun and Burqin (named after the town in Palestine), proves difficult. We know that beyond the last building, where the leafy street ends and the land reverts to this particular brand of ultra-bare steppe, the wind will be waiting to meet us. So we linger, and eat. We wander markets and bazaars and Dungan noodle shops and collect tiny tissue-paper thing bags of sweet, savory, crunchy, baked, the known and the unfamiliar in these blended Han outposts.

We feast on the colors of the vegetable stands. Scallions and garlic fills pastry dough, and cooking oil moves in two gallon jugs to apartment, cafe, kiosk, food cart. We move through apples, nuts, fresh naan and fresh noodles, vitamins and minerals, we assume, filling the gaps left by two weeks in a Mongolia and the flavorless mutton diet that now seems such a stomach turning hardship. We eat ice cream, peppers, watermelon, and watch Kazakh dancers practice in a park. These towns feel like islands in a dry land.

When we leave Jeminay, we are ready for Kazakhstan, mountains, and an armistice with our environment. It does not abide. We camp in a poplar windbreak, and hunker as thunder rolls over the grasslands, heralding our first rain.

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A Rocky Road South: Cycling the Mongolian Altai

“Da, yes. Kurgan.” The shepherd pointed behind him without looking. He hunched low over his horse, hands pressed between stomach and saddle horn. He wore a knit ski mask, black leather overcoat, and dark corduroys with patches of thick quilting showing at the knees. He presented an intimidating figure high above, and the gallop that brought carried him across my path reinforced this menacing countenance. Brian had rounded the corner without noticing the stones, and I was alone.

Up the valley, where the shepherd pointed, a series of stone rings and cobble piles punctuated an angled plain. In the narrow space between mountain and river, these tombs showed on the surface in gray, weathered rock painted in crimson lichen. They hadn’t been excavated, and still held the remains of some long-dead chariot rider, goat herder, prince, or peasant. The Bronze Age denizens of central Eurasia – Scythian, Turkic, Indo-European – had ridden here, and buried their dead. Above the tombs – kurgans in Turkic – two standing stones marked another site. When I reached the first dark obelisk, I had heard the hooves and spotted the horse and rider hurtling across the plain.

“Turkic? Mongol?” I asked, pointing, trying to fill the silence.

“Kazakh.” Perhaps he misunderstood. The Kazakhs didn’t live here five thousand years ago. They didn’t really exist as a tribe or ethnicity until five or six hundred years ago, but this was a homeland now, and the tombs were, in a convoluted sense, those of their ancestors. While the Russians colonized the Kazakh steppe, many groups escaped over the border of the expanding Empire and settled here in western Mongolia. In Kazakhstan, some say that to find real Kazakh culture you need to look in the remote west of Mongolia.

Under the shepherd’s gaze, I calm and walk amongst the stones. I compliment his flocks, their health and number, and think I see him smile beneath the mask. Beneath hat and hood, zinc and sunglasses, I hide from the sun, while he wears a mask. I am in no danger. I walk respectfully, shake hands, and cycle away as he watches.

We were finally on a downhill run after crossing our last pass, the 3000m Rashin Davaa, and no major obstacles remained between us and China. The main road from Bayan-Olgii aimag runs southeast to Khovd, and then traces a huge loop southwest through a low point where Altai begins to taper into the Gobi. We see a shortcut on the map, a thin, dotted line that runs due south and reaches Bulgan soum and the Chinese border in half the distance. Already crunched for time due to the glacial pace of the Russian embassy, we roll the dice and trade the known for a chance at speed and wildness.

Instead of 800km on the main road, we cross the mountains over rough tracks and pitted roads. These jeep tracks show no sign of intentionality, but instead wander in a braid of ten or twenty lanes where one jeep followed another, and then bundle together over passes and rivers in washboard, sand, and boulder. With almost no information and the barest of navigation aids, we are certainly taking a risk. Not so much of physical harm, but of discomfort, despair, and time wasted. A friend in Olgii assures us there are towns, traders driving the route, and a public bus that goes everyday. In the event, we are passed by a handful of vehicles in five days, and only two dusty outposts with bare shelves mark the route. We eat ramen and carry water from one valley to the next, constantly fretting as bottles run down and we go without.

Over Rashin, we roll along the Buyant and Bulgan gol, descending from alpine to steppe to desert. We are dry. I wake each day with cracked lips and swollen eyes, dust in every pore and ephemeral daydreams of trees, green grass, and water. Scraggly poplars appear as we drop, and mud brick houses and gers show up along the river. We pass a string of Bactrian camels laden with baggage, household goods, and the stove, poles, felt and canvas of a packed ger. Women on horseback plod along with them as horsemen maneuver the flocks around the train. Bits of color trail the lumbering beasts of burden: bright felted rugs in swirling dual tone motifs, and bits of scarf or jacket were a young child has been bundled.

We rejoin the pavement as a sandstorm rages. The valley dissipates, the walls exploding apart, and the river is lost to sight. The mountains diminish. We turn into sharp hills of gravel and sand, and grind down towards China.

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The Five Saints Massif: Skiing the Mongolian Altai

To reach the valley of the Tsagaan Gol takes six hours on rough dirt tracks. From where the road ends, it is another twenty kilometers by foot, or, in this season, by ski. Where the jeep stops, a Tuvan family takes us in and fills us with milk tea and biscuits before spreading a felt mat on the boards near the stove. In the morning, they point up valley to to Tavan Bogd: the ‘Five Saints’, and etch kilometer numbers with fingers on the tabletop. These holy peaks mark the tri-corner border of Russa, China, and Mongolia, and mark the eastern heart of the Altai Range.

While we haven’t come to seek summits or cross the fifteen kilometer long Potanin Glacier, we do hope for snow, spring skiing, and a fifty kilometer loop along the eastern valleys of the massif. What we find is firm, wind-blasted snow, Arctic temperatures on the first day of May, and the incessant gusting fury of high Mongolia. We have many miles to go and braided Mongolian roads to follow, so I’ll let some of the images from this journey suffice.

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South Chuya Traverse: Skiing the Russian Altai

“That appears to be an unsolvable problem,” I said. I had just walked down the hill from a collapsing outhouse to hear Brian’s conclusions on the absence for our fuel bottle. Our meager possessions are laid out on the rim of a crumbling concrete foundation, but that vital red bottle was no where to be found, and our driver was just disappearing around the far hillside. We learned later that it had rolled under the backseat, and in our haste we didn’t notice its absence until too late. The driver had searched the car, and proclaimed it empty. We should have checked again.

He was clearly eager to leave us; he had never been to Old Beltir, and he appeared spooked by the decaying outpost. A 30 kilometer gravel road connects it to the main road, and there is little traffic anymore. In 2003 a massive earthquake leveled the village and tore apart the surrounding steppe and valley. Now in spring, snowmelt and ice fills the crevasses rent into the soil by the force of the disaster. In Beltir’s place is a sad collection of abandoned buildings, log huts sinking into gravel, and few outposts of habitation. Wind enough to knock down a careless walker howls through the melange of ruin and desperation.

I ask the three people I meet to call back to Koch Agash to see if we can get our driver to turn around. One boy, ageless at either 12 or 22 with features tight from sun, wind, and some childhood accident, asks for 10 roubles, a pittance, and then hands me a scratched pink cell phone with no battery. I try the town administration building, but it is bared and padlocked. This is an unsolvable problem.

Before us rises the Yuzhno Chuyisky – South Chuya Range – and our route rises from Old Beltir to a high plateau, and then up the Elangash Valley to a pass at 10,200 feet. Beyond, the Dara River drains glaciers to a track where we hope to flag down a truck supplying outlaying villages beyond the range. The track is 60 kilometers away. We consider our calories, tabulating the edible and considering speed and the unknowable conditions ahead. We decide to move ahead, knowing backward would be as difficult as forward. One safety net – a working stove – has been removed, and we will have to go faster, lighter, and more carefully. We walk through a cluster of homes beyond town with animals wandering and smoke blasting horizontal from warped stove pipes. We march into a treeless, rocky, beautiful desolation.

The following day, we pause in a storm 600m below the pass. Conditions have been deteriorating since morning as snow and sleet mixes with the 40 knot gusts in a horizontal white parallax. At the head of the valley, a last shepherd’s hut groans in the wind and we stop to lunch inside. Visibility drops, and we transition to jackets, hats, and then sleeping bags, the ultimate layer. The pass is no longer an option, and we split a bleached, toppled fence post to boil water for ramen. We sleep on platforms inside as spindrift leaks in through cracked plaster and logs blown free of their chinking.

By morning, the wind has shifted to our backs and calmed, and 6 inches have fallen. Blue sky appears in splotches. We trade boots for skis and move up towards the pass, leaving three pounds of now-useless pasta as a thank-you gift. All is ice, rock, and snow, and with no way to make water, we have a 3 liter window in which to reach open water on the Dara. We move quickly past the frozen headwater lakes of the Elangash, past the snow covered excavations of Bronze Age kurgans said to occupy the terrace between lake and mountain, and up the final slope to the pass.

Peaks surround us, and limitless options for descents. We wish for fuel, more food, and a week to dig in and ski. But time is short, and we make an attempt on a north facing slope above the pass where we can pick out a route that accesses the ridge with a few safe zones between. Halfway up the first stretch, a quick hand test reveals a expected soft wind slab from the recent storm cycle, only 10 centimeters, and a thick ice layer below. Five feet away, it is 2 cm with no energy in the snowpack, and ten feet away, more energy and 8 cm. Rocks poke through and shades of blue-white announce wind loading and clear evidence of the storm and very high winds. With so much spatial instability in such a tiny area, our line of reasoning is shaky. With evidence in multiple places of low or questionable stability, and the fact that we are in a remote range in south Siberia with a small team, we decide to ski from where we are, and continue down off the pass. We relay down 400 vertical feet of soft, we’ll-earned turns, with one unfortunate submerged rock and the resultant small tumble. The next day, we see a sizable crown and debris field on a similar aspect and angled slope as the one we decided not to ascend.

From the pass we ski down, dropping 900m of low angle terrain and dodging the emergent gorges of the infant Dara. At 2000m, the river comes to the surface below a large cornice, and we drink deep knowing our crossing and the inherent gamble was successful. That night, we dig in and kindle a fire below the first straggly larch grove. Dusk is clear, calm, and cold. We know that the earth will be open to space tonight, and it will be cold. In the frosty twilight, I amble out of the tent in boot shells to pee one last time, and am stopped by temperatures below zero and a panoply of stars and bodies beyond anything I’ve seen.

It is a wakeful night, and we eagerly descend into spring the following morning. We reach the road by 1pm, having completed in 3 days what we hoped to have 4.5 to accomplish: a 60 kilometer crossing of the South Chuya Range. Was it the first ski traverse? We have no idea. We sit on packs swaddled in jackets under a cold Siberian sun waiting. Five hours later, as we contemplate another night out with a handful of raisins between us, a giant, ancient Kamaz truck rattles over the rise. The driver, Sasha, is hauling empty gas canisters back to the road from a further village. He throws our gear in amongst the clanging tanks and laughs as we press hands to the vents of the robust heater in the cab.

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Along the Chuysky Trakt: Cycling the Russian Altai

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.

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Sewing, Waxing, Waterproofing: Preparations Video

Spring is here, and everything is melting. We’ve been stuck in New England for weeks, pleading with a bureaucrat in New York to process our last visa. Every puzzle piece is on the table but that one. Spring is here, and still we wait. I’ve spent some of this unexpected bonus time playing with the new camera and associated tools (toys?). I am comfortable telling a story through word and still photography, but video is new. I’ve never filmed before, or really edited anything, so this is a certainly a skill in progress. This added challenge is exciting, and more than a little intimidating, but part of what is driving us across this distant range is a love of challenge, as well as an interest in novelty: new ways of telling a story, new ways of travel, and new places to broad our understanding of the world. Enjoy: a tale of spring and delay.


Herding the details into rows and lines doesn’t take much time, but certainly affords the planner with a sense of peace. Here are a few photos from the gear piles. Some of this won’t make it on the plane, but much will.

gear1gear2a gear3 gear4 gear5 gear6 gear7

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Mapping Solutions: An Idea of Scale

When I first started running my own expeditions, sourcing maps was one of the most intimidating details for me. If you want to hike in the White Mountains or paddle in Maine, you can probably get by with an atlas and gazetteer, or a swing by a local outdoor store for a specialty map. Kazakhstan, rural France, or even more distant places in North America would at first seem impenetrable  without the right tools, and a novice could have trouble finding those tools. To be clear, I am talking about paper maps. The ability to read terrain and landmarks, and associate them with features on a topographic or physical map printed on paper is the key skill in expedition navigation, both in the front country and the wilderness. GPS and digital mapping technology are neat party tricks, as are compasses, but without a good paper map, you are not set up for success. Polar explorers, offshore sailors, and aggressive sea kayakers take note: I’m not talking about you. GPS and compass work is often requisite for their work. For other endeavors, you must rely on the reliable: paper won’t run out of batteries, it will never fail if taken care of, and its tactile utility will always give you a better sense of your place in the landscape than any digital crutch.

Let’s talk briefly about map scale, and then I’ll share some information about where to find maps in North America and what tools we are using in Central Asia. First, let’s focus on the heart of the Altai: Belukha. This glaciated massif rises on the Russia / Kazakhstan border, and at 4,440 meters  (14,567 ft.), it is the highest peak in the range as well as being a spiritual and geographic center-point. Using this reference point, we can talk about scale and mapping solutions.

Our Mapping Solutions
When I went across North America in a canoe, I mostly used pages cut from a dozen Delorme Atlas & Gazetteers, all physical maps with some topographic features at a scale of about 1:100,000 or 1:200,000. For areas with  smaller features, like the Boundary Waters, I used 1:50,000 scale topographic maps, both from USGS and from Natural Resources Canada. If I was hiking in a area with ever smaller features, like in southern Utah Canyon country or in tight mountain ranges like the the Wind River Range, I might use even larger scale maps like the classic USGS 7.5 minute 1:24,000 quad maps. Cycling or long distance paddling or hiking could leave you with thousands of sheet, hundreds of pounds, and very high cost. So, we use smaller scale maps when we can.

Every inch of Canada and the United States is mapped and available for free download as .tiff, .jpg, and .pdf. For $2 (b&w), these files can be printed at Staples or a local print shop with a 36″ printer, or purchased for a little more from the online stores and often printed on tougher paper with a bit of fiber in it. US maps are available from the USGS Map Store, while Canadian maps are available from Natural Resources Canada. For us, we need to rely on difference scales for different activities. Cycling happens on a (hopefully) fixed line, so we can use the excellent 1:2,000,000 scale physical / road maps from GiziMap, a Budapest-based cartography company that covers some very out of the way places. We’ll be using their Mongolia and China Northwest maps, along with a Reise Know-How sheet of Central Russia from the Urals to Lake Baikal at the same scale. I bet you could find these map series on Amazon, but I tend to use Omni Map, a local shop in North Carolina that ships across North America and has a detailed, simple website.

For backcountry navigation, we need a topographic map at a much larger scale. Thankfully (now, at least…) the Soviet Union’s Red Army General Survey mapped most of the planet during the twentieth century, and they did it in incredible detail. While you can get better, more up-to-do sheets of, say, Ireland, most of the USSR’s sphere of influence is still using this series or has produced a national update based on it. Getting these maps isn’t actually that hard. Free downloads of most regions can be found at Maps.Vlasenko.Net, while paid downloads of nearly everything can be found at MapStor. MapStor is more organized and comprehensive, but tends to have an annoying watermark on each sheet. The Vlasenko site may disappear at any moment, and their resolution often isn’t as good, but it is free and easy to browse. It is always fun taking a thumb drive into Staples and seeing their reactions, but it is all perfectly legal. Unfortunately, due to weight and availability, we’ll mostly be using 1:100,000 maps, meaning we’ll have to rely on larger features for navigation. Black and white is cheaper, and you can always mark them up post-print.

The Belukha region depicted in a 1:100,000 scale projection from the Red Army General Survey:

100s

And at 1:200,000, with the above area boxed in light blue.

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And at 1:500,000, again with the 1:100,000 image in light blue.

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And at 1:1,000,000, with nearly the entire Altai Range shown on one map – at least on the full sheet from which this screenshot was taken.

1000s

Finally, a detail from one of the 1:2,000,000 Gizimap physical maps we’ll be using for road navigation.

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Making Piles: Organization Timelapse

This project involves a special challenge: we must thoughtfully combine the equipment necessary for cycling, camping, and skiing, and somehow include and protect a robust photo and video set up. Then, this constellation of small necessaries all needs to fit on a touring bike and be propelled 4,000 kilometers through the Altai Mountains. Our weight goals are nearly impossible to meet, but we start in the same place as all trips: making piles, moving them, and making new piles. This ritual will be familiar to many. A certain portion of what you see in the video won’t actually be coming with us. One-third is removed immediately, and another third will probably find itself eliminated at the eleventh hour. Rugs from Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Dagestan delineate the explosion and form it along coherent lines.