Katu Yarik pass grand finale!

We had had more storms and rain overnight, which was not ideal for the sort of roads we were going to ride.

Vladimir had us up before 6am, as he wanted to leave the Yurt camp very early.

By 7am, after a quick coffee,  we were packed and ready to go. It started easy on the M52 riding north for about 60 km until Aktash.

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There, we stopped for fuel and then took a side road to Ust-Ulagan. The road started as decent gravel but soon turned into a narrow bumpy ride. At Ust-Ulagan we stopped again for more fuel, as we would not find any until crossing Lake Teleskoye.

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We then took a road that got worse and worse up and up the mountains.

We stopped at the Red Gates for pictures and also because Andrey’s bike was having some problems. The weather was rather bad, grey, cold and occasionally wet.

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After some investigation on the electrics, we continued, keeping up with Vladimir at a reasonable speed. I was glad we did the excursion in the mountains the day before, so I was quite comfortable with my bike and I knew it could fly and skip over big lose stones and rocks and was easy to control. I felt my position standing on the foot pegs was improving, giving more balance and control.
After a while we stopped again by a mountain pass.  We had a snack and tea in a little café and, after more investigations; Vladimir decided to swap the battery from Andrey’s bike to Alistair’s bike. Alistair’s bike was the only one with a kick-start and the battery was presumed dead.

So we continued, up and down the mountains until we got to the top of the Katu-Yarik pass.

The views were superb over the valley and the river Chulyshman, despite the bad weather, but the descent was quite scary. Well, there was no choice; we had to go down, so down we would go!

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I removed some layers as it was going to be hot, and we set off, Vladimir first, and the rest of us in our usual formation.

The descent was very steep, narrow, the track was covered with big lose stones and sand, and I had a big cliff on one side. There was no margin for errors!

I am not comfortable with big cliffs, so I started sitting on my bike but it was very unstable over the big lose stones running under my wheels. I was not feeling the foot (rear) brake when standing up, so it was scary. With such a descent I had to use the foot brake or the bike would go faster and faster. Such little engines are not powerful enough to brake using only the engine brake.

So in the end I adopted the position described by Vladimir, standing up on the foot pegs, putting as much weight as possible at the back by leaning back so the front wheel would be light and skip easily over stones, keeping my shoulders and arms relaxed, looking far ahead and memorizing the obstacles.

I slowly found the foot brake and went down, avoiding incoming traffic (tractors and 4×4!) by millimeters on my left and with only centimeters to spare on my right between the side of my front wheel and the big precipice. The bike, as usual, was superb and I finally got down into the valley.

I pulled next to Vladimir, waiting for me, down in the valley. For him it was easy!

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He had been watching me. He gave me a thumb up, flashing his usual big smile, saying, with his thick Russian accent “ Very good!”.

His constant advice had finally got through in my little head, and I had overcome, or at least managed, my fears!

After a long while, the rest of the gang arrived. Alistair’s back brake had overheated and was not working during the descent. They had stopped and decided to continue the descent, slowly.

We then got back on the trail. It looked more like a dry river bed to me, covered in big lose stones and with big potholes full of water. It was tough going and very tiring! By mid afternoon we stopped at a campsite by the river.

 

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As we got changed and had some very late lunch, it started pouring down with rain and more storms.

We had planned to take a small boat across the river and hike for about a mile up the mountain to see the Stone mushrooms. They look like the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia.

However, because of the storm, we decided give it a miss. Andrey, always keen to ride, decided to take off on his bike, to explore the valley.

After a light dinner, we opened a small bottle of vodka but it was not that tasty so we left it and went to get warm by a fire camp.  We then went to the Banya for a wash, Alistair and me first, then the rest of the gang.

The next day was, again, an early start. Vladimir wanted us on the road by 6am, as we had to get to the boat at 8am. We would have breakfast by the lake. So we had an early night.

The next morning, we left at 6 and rode again that terrible river bed/ mud/ pools as fast as we could, well, as I could! I was tired and instead of avoiding every single pothole full of water I was just going through, carelessly, like riding a tank!

As we stopped for a small rest, Vladimir turned to me laughing, mimicking swimming, asking if I wanted to transform my bike into a submarine!

Damn, how does he do that?

He is standing on his foot pegs, sometimes far away ahead; he can’t possibly see me … surely?!

He really must have an eye on his back! Or else he is some sort of Russian style James Bond and has super gadgets to see everywhere?

To be fair, some of those water potholes were huge and deep enough!  Luckily, my boots kept waterproof!

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Eventually we made it to the south shore of the lake Teleskoye, the biggest and deepest in the Altai, and we stopped for a well-deserved breakfast: the usual pancakes, fried eggs, porridge, black Russian bread, all washed down with plenty of tea.

After that, we waited for the boat. Andrey, as usual, took off in his bike to explore the village while Anton and Vladimir were trying to trace our boat. I kept inside, with Alistair, having more tea.

The boat was finally found, about a mile down a very sandy track.

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We managed somehow to get all the bikes next to the boat and loaded them in, basically by lifting them into the boat!

Once all were secure, we set off.

Anton disappeared in the second cabin under the bridge, for a snooze while we were on the first cabin, fitted with 2 long sofas.  Andrey, joining us under the bridge, declared, with his dry sense of humour: “Vladimir is shitting in the ears of the Captain!” before lying down for a quick nap.

The crossing took about 5h30.

After a snooze and some tea, Andrey decided to give some more business advice to Vladimir, as there was nothing to explore in the tiny boat, while we watched the bikes getting more and more unstable with the bad weather and very rough water.

Eventually Vladimir leapt into action and tightened the ropes. I really thought for a while that we would lose some bikes to the lake!

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The other side had beautiful pastel houses and seemed very touristic. That side of the lake has asphalt roads and is easy to access, unlike the south side that is accessible by the Katu-Yarik pass or the lake.

Once we got the bikes off the boat, we rode to a little café for a late lunch. The weather was cold and grey and I put all my layers and waterproofs. As we set off, it started raining. We had 180km to ride, on tarmac, to Manzherok.

We arrived rather late at the Altai-Moto’s club house. We had a quick change of clothes, then went for some dinner in town.

We piled into Vladimir’s truck and we stopped to buy beer and some dry fish and dry meat. After dinner, we went straight to the Banya. The guys had included me by keeping their underwear, while I wore my bikini!

Andrey kept pouring water over the hot stones, clearly trying to bake us, and we got out into the ‘lounge’ area occasionally, to drink the beer, eat the tasty dried fish and meat, and cool down.

We talked, laughed and had a great time. I felt sad too, as we would be saying goodbye too soon. I had been riding with great guys; they felt like best friends, like family, we got on all so well.

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Soon, we left the banya, moved to our chalet and got ready to say goodbye to Vladimir and Andrey. Anton would stay with us in the chalet and would come with us to the airport in the morning, to help us for the check in.

This trip has been so intense, terrifying sometimes, feeling on top of the world next, it has been a roller coaster of emotions and pure joy. The background, the Altai Mountains, has been spectacular, the company, exceptional…

I am going to miss the guys: wonderful “Action Man” Vladimir, Andrey the Fearless and Thoughtful Sweet Anton.

I am going to miss the mountains too. This trip has been so much more than what I expected. We will be back some day; there is still so much to explore …

I thought my heart was set on the stunning Andes of south America, but, somehow, the glorious mountains of the Altai have managed to steal a little bit of my heart too and will keep calling.

For now, our plans are still to go back to the Andes at the end of next year, to ride again across the mountains for few months, but it will be very hard to ignore for long the call of the Altai.

If you want to ride with Vladimir, you can contact him via his website: see www.altai-moto.com and www.altai-moto.ru for details).

There is also a facebook account:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/466596253474801/?fref=ts

Don’t hesitate! You will have the best time of your life! I know I did!

Have you enjoyed this story? Do you have any thoughts? Leave a comment. Thank you!

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Back to Tudtuyaruk

In the morning, we left the hotel and made our way to Tudtuyaruk yurt camp. We had a good 250km to ride, mainly on alphalt.

Back in June last year, we met Anton and Vladimir there and spent an evening drinking Kazakh cognac and talking bikes. It was quite a coincidence.

Vladimir says there are no coincidences and that things happen for a reason. In any case, it was a strange feeling to be back there.Back to Tudtuyaruk yurt camp.

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It was a lot of riding, about 250km, with occasional stops to visit some ancient places like a ritual stones and carving dating back several thousands years.

We arrived at the yurt camp in the evening and were allocated a yurt for the whole gang.

Vladimir wanted to give me some tuition for riding off-road but it was a bit late that evening.

We had dinner in the kitchen / diner yurt. The place was like out of that famous bar in the Star Wars movie, the only thing missing was the alien band playing that crazy music!

One guy with long hair was wearing a massive giant bright yellow shaggy coat, another had some sort of Iroquois air style, another looked like a mixed of Indiana Jones and Han Solo, without the lasso but hat included, another, still, looked like out of a 60s hippy movie while a baby on his chair was strangely quite and staring at people. And that is just for the people that looked ‘normal”!

The following day was excursion day. I knew what that meant: tough trails ahead, although Vladimir calls them baby school motocross trails! This time I was determined to do the entire ride.

The weather looked actually dry that morning after the rain of the previous day, we decided to ride after breakfast.

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Vladimir took us through another exit from the campsite. It had a very steep muddy section. I made my way through best I could but not the right way, putting my right foot down. Vladimir told me off for that. He really wanted me to improve my riding skills and ensure I would keep my right foot (which controls the back brake) on the peg.

– “I don’t want you to go on your travels around the world not riding properly” he told me some time before. I feared I was becoming some sort of “project” for him, make me into a descent off-road rider. When I told him, with his usual broad smile, he denied… I had my suspicions though!
The excursion up the mountain was stunning. It was hard going for me, to start with, but we kept in formation. I was right behind Vladimir, who, despite riding standing up on his foot pegs, continued to have that supernatural power of seeing behind him what I was doing at any time! How does he do that!?

At first, I started slowly but soon got bored of slow and managed to go faster and faster.

The bike performed so well on lose gravel, stones or anything, that I grew more and more confident. We managed to get to the 1st step up the mountain through narrow treacherous mountains tracks.

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The last climb involved a very (very!) steep trail that would be hard to achieve, due to the lack of oxygen. Anton told me he managed once with Vladimir but they had to take the air filters out.

The heart of the Altai

After a fabulous breakfast that included yet more cheese, we strapped our bags into the motorbikes and got back on the gravel roads and tracks. They were fairly easy to ride and I tried to apply all the advice given by Vladimir who kept watching me in his mirrors. I struggled to find the correct standing position. I will get there in the end. But they say that practice make perfect, I am going to get a lot of practice in this trip I guess!

Mid-morning, we stopped at a small village and visited a little museum. It covered, among other thing, the discovery of the Denisova cave that we would visit later.  Evidence of a new prehistoric species of human ancestors was found there.

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As usual in these small villages, you would never know that this house is actually a museum, as there seemed to be no signs! Vladimir bought us ice-cream and then we were back on the gravel roads.

It was a short ride to our next camp for the night. Again, off the gravel road, we could see absolutely nothing that could indicate the place. It covered a massive building / hotel, lots of wooden chalets, a pool, river and, we found out later, much more!

We had lunch there, then a small rest.

Vladimir had an excursion on the motorbikes planned for us, up a mountain to visit a waterfall. So we soon got back into our motorcycle gear and rode the bikes into the gravel road then off a little track.

Andrew the Fearless took the track ahead of everyone, at the speed of light, flying through and disappearing into the forest. Alistair followed more carefully. I was behind him but soon got into difficulty. The track was very narrow, and has very deep ruts and gutters all over. In one steep section, the barely 20cm track I should ride was inclined toward a deep gutter and I just couldn’t get over it. Vladimir tried to encourage me, but at this stage, I was petrified.

We turned my bike back and, with Alistair coming back, Vladimir asked Anton to take me back to the hotel. Alistair decided to come with me too. Although I told Anton he could go on and we could go back on our own with Alistair, he refused. He was taking to baby-sitting me very seriously!

I felt angry and disappointed with myself, and sorry that Anton couldn’t have his fun up the mountain on his bike.

Andrey had totally disappeared, so Vladimir went up after him.

On the way back we crossed a small stream with soft gravel on a bend, Alistair passed first and I followed. While we rode up a hill I saw in my mirrors Anton taking a tumble and dropping his bike in the water. I couldn’t help but have a very uncharitable chuckle in my helmet.

Back at the hotel/holiday camp/reindeer farm/SPA etc… we visited the place.

The reindeers get their horns chopped off once a year. They are then boiled (the horns not the reindeers!) and left to dry. They are then sold to South Korea where they are used a medicine. Some Russians consider that the horns have indeed some health benefit. So the water that has been used to boil the horns is used for baths. When we looked at one bath the water just looked muddy, but lots of old folks seem to enjoy those!

After getting caught in a violent sudden storm, the rain calmed down and we got back to the main building/hotel for dinner. Anton showed us pictures of his 4 months old son Mishka. We talked about our jobs, the future, and the news… What always surprises me, when travelling and meeting people, is how similar we all are. I find Russians especially are very similar to Europeans in our views of the world and way of life. There have been constant negative views of Russia on the news and the reality is very different. I even had a colleague asking me if going on holiday to Russia was safe!

Several hours after our return, Vladimir and Andrey finally came back at dusk. They had gone all the way up and continued as far on the bikes as possible, to the waterfall. By the time they came back, the kitchen had closed and, unfazed, they replaced dinner by a couple of beers. We joined in, it would be rude not to! J  Apparently the storm bypassed them and they had no rain.

The following morning, Wednesday 1st of July, we were back on the road after a hearty breakfast.

Once again, the gravel road was reasonably manageable, and I tried once again to stand up in the correct position and steer the bike using my weigh on the foot pegs, with mixed success but getting much faster on the soft stuff than I ever dared in the past. I was learning fast and trying to keep up with Vladimir.

By mid morning we stopped for a coffee at Ust-Kan. We spent a night there last year on our way to Mongolia. There is a new hotel at the entrance of the town that was not there last year. So many memories!

 

Back on the road, by early afternoon, we pulled on the side. A man in a Russian van was waiting for us, by a small farm track. The van did not look like much, but Anton later told me that these vans were used in the army, once upon a time, and were 4 wheels drive. They were like tractors with the engine inside, in the middle of the 2 front seats! It was boiling hot inside once the engine started!

After Vladimir had few words with Sirbis, the man in the van, we followed him down a grassy muddy track for about a mile, then across a green valley to a few wood buildings. This was the home of Sirbis, our host.  One of the buildings was the traditional hexagonal low walls and pointy hexagonal roof. This was their summerhouse. We had seen similar constructions at the Altai Museum in Gorno-Altaysk.

The second wooden building was our home for the night, with terrace, a small entrance, a large living room and 2 bedrooms. I took one room with Alistair and the rest of the gang went for the other one. After a quick change we went to the kitchen / diner building for a late lunch. We were presented with various local dishes.

The soup was with potatoes and what seemed to be small cuts of lamb fat. There was a large dish full of lamb cutlets and what looked like mini sausages and were made of offal; more followed, potatoes, meat and more that I cannot remember. All this, like always, washed down with plenty of tea.

The views around where magnificent, surrounded by mountains.

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We were planning a ride to the mountains, with Irbis to guide us in his van. Without a guide, it would be impossible to find our way, as only herders go there in the summer to take their animals (cows, horses, etc…) to pasture. However, Irbis suggested doing it the next morning. This was a good decision as a massive storm arrived late afternoon and we would have been caught in.

We lazed around until dinner, with Andrey giving frequent business advice to Vladimir, who is too polite to tell him to mind his own business and Anton and us just chatting around and reading.

The evening passed quietly with a light dinner. We were then invited to to the family summerhouse (the hexagonal one!) to listen to Irbis’ brother in law singing, by the wood fire, as he was a talented throat singer. It was brilliant. We definitely were in the heart of the Altai!

back to Siberia

As I watch from the view point of the Katu-Yarik pass, I ask Anton, standing next to meet smoking, which way we go from there. He points to what looks like a very steep bad goat track down the edge of the mountain into the valley.

“Jesus! Christ!” my jaw drops to the floor. That’s a road? Anton laugh and tries to reassure me by saying : “It’s actually not as steep as it looks”. What he failed to tell me was that cars that are not 4 wheel drive have to be pulled up by a tractor; that sort of track!

But let’s start from the beginning! If you followed my adventures last year, you would know that just before we crossed into Mongolia, in a campsite, we met with Russian bikers. The guys were Vladimir and Anton. Vladimir is a professional motocross racer, and one of the best in Siberia, Anton is a computer programmer from Tomsk, and was helping with translation. My Russian is very basic!
The guys were so nice and interesting, I thought it would be nice to discover the stunning Altai with them. Vladimir was starting a guided tour company: Altai Moto  ( see www.altai-moto.com and www.altai-moto.ru for details).
So in the last few months I sorted the visas and plane tickets, and on Sunday 28th of June, at 8am, we landed in Gorno-Altaysk, the capital city of the Altai Republic, Russia.

Anton was there to pick us up. After losing 5 hours night with time change, we were dropped to a chalet in Manzherok, for a rest.

After a snooze, Anton came to pick us up again, on a 4×4 driven by Boris. Boris is part of the 4×4 club and a good friend of Vladimir.

We went to the moto-house, which is still under construction, to meet with the rest of the gang. Vladimir welcomed us and we were also introduced to Andrey, who would also join us in the tour. Andrey appeared quiet and observant. He is from northern Siberia and wanted to visit the region. He had never been off-road so would match our level of riding, or so I thought! But we would find out soon that this was  “Andrey the Fearless”!

Vladimir was his usual friendly, smiling and exuberant self. Standing next to him I felt like a hobbit. He is tall!

We also had the 1st meeting with our bikes. Anton brought his own Honda XR650L, while the rest of us would be on Suzuki Djebel 250 (and 200cc for me as I am too short for the 250!). Vladimir got the 200cc Djebel few months ago for me, as the 250s where too tall.

We then went to visit the Altai Museum, as this would show us all about the culture and ancients site we would be visiting during our trip. It was a very interesting visit and well worth it to start understand the traditions and way of life in the Altai.

It also had a good selection of local fauna, among them bears, wolves an big cats!
The weather was splendid with not a cloud in the sky.

Then it was time to get back to the moto-house for a very traditional Russian BBQ!

We got talking with Boris who showed us pictures of his “4×4 club” expedition to Mongolia last year. 3 of their cars got so stuck in the mountains that they had to be pulled out by helicopter! Very expensive!

The following morning we got to the moto-house, and after loading our bags to our bikes, we first rode to Gorno-Altaysk, to check if our border permits were available. Unfortunately it was not meant to be. Maybe next time! It was time to hit the road.

Our riding formation was to be the same for the entire trip. Vladimir first, then me, then Alistair, Andrey and Anton as sweeper.

On this first day we rode north West, leaving the republic of Altai to get into the Altai Krai. It was an easy day with mainly asphalt or good gravel roads, getting to know our little bikes.

Our stop for the night was a cheese farm down a little track! Yes, this was heaven for me! The farm had few  cabins for guests. The weather was incredibly hot and we were happy to remove all our motorcycle gear and change into shorts.

We put on our swimwear and had a walk to the river for a swim. After that we came back for a shower and dinner.

I got out the French saucisson I brought with me for an aperitif. We exchanged some of it for some home made cheese.

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Dinner included a variety of cheeses made at the farm. It was glorious!

Vladimir took the opportunity, that evening, to show us how to stand up correctly in the foot pegs and how to ride off-road. It was a very useful lesson. Many years ago we did a BMW off-road weekend session in Wales, but I don’t remember being told all what Vladimir said. From then on he was going to keep a very watchful eye on me!

It was our first day on the road, the weather was superb, the company brilliant, the motorbikes perfect, what else could I wish for?