Russia’s architecture is impressive, but its nature is truly surreal. From isolated places like Solovetsky Islands to the more popular ones like Lake Baikal, here you will fall in love with our planet. One of Siberia’s highlights is the famous Altai Mountains Range, which divides four great countries: Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. The range is so unique that UNESCO included it in its natural Human Heritage List back in 1988. However, we are talking about a humongous place, so we had to choose where to go. Between the much praised and isolated Teletskoye Lake and a bit less promising, yet more accessible Katun River we chose the latter.
I really don’t know where I got the idea of Altai not promising much. The place is outstandingly beautiful! We wanted to be in the middle of nature, but in a place suitable for walking. And Katun River has plenty! The idea was to go directly from Barnaul to Chemal, skipping all together Gorno Altaysk, the capital. However, this meant over 6 hours on a bus, so we decided to stop somewhere along the road. Ust Muny seemed the perfect stop. And yes it was!
Ust Muny, a village of less than 500 citizens, is actually the administrative center of the local rural community. It’s located at the confluence of rivers Muny and Katun (its name means the confluence of Muny). Basically it’s a bunch of houses along the main road. We stayed in the lovely Karym Hotel, where we enjoyed outstanding hospitality and delicious meals. Another great thing about rural Russia is that you get to meet rural Russians. What a bunch of nature loving people!
All we did was to stroll along the river and explore a small forest. This section, with its several islands, is especially scenic. Water never stops flowing, resulting in the most relaxing sound. Additionally, be sure to stay until the sun sets. The last rays of light create the most wonderful colors.
Early the next day we took a bus to Chemal, Altai’s main tourist center. The ride there takes you along Katun River so be sure to travel during the day. Likewise, grab a window sit on the right; the views are totally worth it. Bus tickets can be purchased from the driver directly on the bus. Chemal may be the biggest tourist center in Altai but it’s still a village with a population of 3600. However, unlike in Ust Muny there are a few restaurants, but with basic food.
The village is made of pretty wooden houses scattered all around. Though there are several guesthouses next to the road, it’s better to stay close to the river. We stayed at hotel Silver Springs, the best in town. We had booked a regular room, but once there we loved the place so much we had to ask for the best one. It was a semi-isolated suite on the upper floor providing us with the most outstanding views. Luxury and adventure!
What to do in Chemal
We spent three days in Chemal walking in all directions. Every day we would cross the village, observing local life. Everyone seemed happy, tending to their beautiful gardens, fixing their houses or just enjoying nature. In front of our hotel, there’s a beach, mostly empty with the exception of cows! We would walk there delighted to share the space with them.
A great place to enjoy the views of Rivers Katun and Chemal is up the hill. No worries, it’s pretty easy to go up. Go all the way to the end of the village, enter the forest and follow the small path. To your right you’ll see a bridge that takes you to St. John Monastery, a precious structure that still holds services for the local community. If you continue along the path you’ll get to a sort of basic amusement park, with a small dam. Be sure to be close to the river for killer sunsets.
Nights in Chemal are equally stunning. It was the end of the season so no restaurants were open at night! There were no public lights so we walked under the moonlight searching for supermarkets. As city dwellers ourselves, we were thrilled with the chance of reconnecting with the cosmos and its thousands of stars. We would go back to our porch to eat our supermarket dinner under the stars, resting next to the river, listening to the occasional moo. Isn’t that Zen?
From Altai we were flying to Krasnoyarsk. However, instead of going directly to the airport located at the outskirts of Gorno Altaysk, we decided to spend a night there. Hence we left by bus early in the morning and in less than 2 hours there we were. We stayed at Hotel Igman, located next to the bus station, with a nice balcony overlooking the mountains and very comfy beds.
In all honesty, the city doesn’t offer much and it’s a bit short of nice architecture. Nevertheless, it’s a real city with restaurants and all! Though it was fun for a while, we were tired of eating supermarket food. It was great to find a Traveler’s Coffee in town, one of our favorite coffee shops all around Russia. I am not embarrassed to say we spent most of the afternoon there, eating. Russian food, especially cakes, is tough to resist!