Monday, 1 September 2014

Aug. 28-31: Novokuznetsk-Biysk-Altai Republic-Barnaul

Novokuznetsk, located in the heavily industrial Kemerovo Oblast, is notable for having formerly been called Stalinsk and for being Russia's third most polluted city. As such we spent all of an hour and a half there before hopping onto a bus to Biysk, in the Altai Krai. After six hours winding through hills and villages we arrived in Biysk and once again stayed just long enough to eat before getting a bus onwards. Two hours later we arrived in Gorno-Altaisk, the capital of the Altai Republic. Considering that the Altai region (which consists of Russia's Altai Krai and Altai Republic, as well as adjacent areas of Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia) is renowned for its mountains and that "Gorno-Altaisk" could be translated into English as "Mountainous Altai City", the landscape we passed through was pretty underwhelming: much of the way from Biysk to Gorno-Altaisk was completely flat and the hills that did appear as we neared the latter weren't much compared to what we'd already seen. In Gorno-Altaisk we got straight on the first bus to Souzga, the village 25km southwest of Gorno-Altaisk where we were staying.

The road down to Souzga saw the landscape becoming much more attractive, with steep hills rising on both sides. During our stay here we hitched further south down the road as far as Ust-Sema, and the scenery got progressively more impressive as we went, with the hills becoming real mountains. Manzherok, a village midway between Souzga and Ust-Sema, was especially appealing, with a startlingly beautiful stretch of river running past it, a ski lift that afforded us fantastic views, and not one but two inexplicably upside-down buildings.

In addition to its natural beauty, the Altai is of some cultural interest: the Altai Republic's population is 57% Russian, 35% Altai and 6% Kazakh (though the Altai Krai is much more heavily russified - Russians make up 94% of the population, and Altai a mere 0.1%). The Altai people are ethnically and linguistically close to Tuvans and Khakass, and like the Khakass, by religion they're a mix of Orthodox Christians and shamanists. The relatively developed tourist industry, built on skiing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits, capitalizes on the exotic Altai culture, portraying the Altai people as similar to Native Americans and selling lots of suitably ethnic souvenirs.

Unfortunately we could only scratch the surface of the Altai's treasures, as all of the most beautiful nature - as well as the bulk of the more traditional Altai and Kazakh communities - is located further south in the Altai Republic. Before we could make it that far we had to head back north to Barnaul, the 612,000-person capital of the Altai Krai. Coincidentally the city was celebrating the anniversary of its foundation the day that we arrived, so we spent our evening wandering through crowds of revellers and gawping at the unbelievably bad local bands playing on stages throughout the city.

The next morning Tamás took a bus to Novosibirsk in order to get a plane back to Moscow and then on to Budapest, while I got a bus bound southwards towards Kazakhstan.

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