In the ail this morning we all shared a last breakfast consisting of buckwheat kasha, chunks of beef in a gravy, bread, butter, freshly harvested honey, and tea. It has been a very meat and bread-product intensive few days. Make that a week at least. I like my meat, but beef or lamb thrice daily for over a week with not a single leafy green vegetable for miles is a bit hard on the system. Add to that the fact that the average Russian’s entire liquid intake comes in the form of copious tea and an occasional glass of juice, and you can do the math.
At this point, the Gazelle is clearly suffering from some issue that would be grounds for a long visit to a mechanic’s shop in the US. Here, of course, it just keeps on ticking. Never mind the occasional smell of exhaust in the cabin. Or the horrible sounds the engine makes when idling. Or the sounds of slipping belts and grinding gears. We have an excellent driver, a fellow named Nail who was born to two Tatar parents, grew up in Uzbekistan, and has ended up in Altai Republic. Always grinning, we all agree that none of us could have driven through the mud that he has gotten us through without getting stuck.
We retraced our steps back through the beautiful valleys and picturesque villages south of Gorno-Altaisk. Crossing back over the Katun River, we stopped briefly to check out the new Biryuzovaya Katun Resort (aka the “Turquoise Katun”). Declared a Special Economic Zone in 2004, the federal government will invest over $40,000,000 in this project. A paean to the one-stop consumer vacation, it has a huge artificial lake, a fake full-sized pirate ship, and waterslides. Supposedly when complete it will have a capacity of 3500 visitors/day. It is ginormous, unattractive by my personal standards, and reeks of corruption and government excess. Not to put too fine a point on it.
A few years back, Russia decided that legalized gambling had gotten out of control and decided to ensure that the federal government got its share by shutting down ALL gambling across all of Russia and then creating just four Special Gambling Zones. Conveniently, one of these zones is just a quick hop over the hilltop from the Turquoise Katun Resort into the next valley. I wait with great interest to see how this all plays out in the next 5-10 years. The silver lining is probably that this resort and other similar smaller ones nearby will scoop up most of the casual and non-low-impact tourists who might otherwise travel further and wreak havoc with illegal campfires, graffiti, and harmful off-road driving.
After lunch and a quick internet fix at a nearby café, we set off for another 3 hours’ drive to the village of Artybash. The landscape east of Gorno-Altaisk is quite different at first, with gently rolling grassy hills spotted with mostly deciduous trees. It gradually changed into a mixed deciduous forest of birch, mountain ash, snowball trees (the Russian kalina), and lots of what looked an awful lot like tall weeds of all sorts. Turns out the old evergreen forests here were heavily logged immediately following World War II and into the 1980s. The resulting mixed bag of new growth is the result. Growth is very slow here thanks to cold, cold winters and wet soils, so many of the new trees are still quite small. The villages in this region are also different, but more subtly so. Greater commercial logging and the presence of timber mills means that many of the cottages we saw were built with milled lumber rather than the log cabins we saw in the southeast and central regions. And the almost complete lack of ails in this region reveal that there is very little in the way of an indigenous population. There are indigenous Teleuts and Tubalars, but they are a bit further to the east and north.
We stopped at the top of a small hilly pass when we saw a roadside stand. In addition to the usual sorts of souvenirs, the ladies were hawking a variety of fresh wild berries – raspberry, strawberries (the size of my fingernail), blueberries, and some sort of raspberry or huckleberry relative. Wild berries in Russia have such intense flavor in comparison with anything I’ve ever had in the US, no matter how freshly picked. To make it even more heavenly, for about 80 cents they made up a blinchik (crepe), threw on a generous dollop of fresh clotted cream, and a handful of mixed berries. Wrap it up burrito style – heaven!
Continuing on, we drove into thick forest known as “black” (chernevaya) taiga. Tall and dark pines, birch, and spruce with a mixed and dense understory – this would be difficult territory to travel on foot. Not long thereafter, we met up with the Biya River. It is the only outflow from Lake Teletskoye (our final destination), and it is a BIG river, still traveling very high along its banks thanks to a long, hard winter succeeded by a cool wet summer. Impressive. Soon we arrive at the Yurtok Resort, a collection of teeny two-bed cabins in a long row along with a nice community building for meals and recreation. It is immediately on the banks of the river, and apparently when the spring flood peaked in June, the Biya overflowed its banks 30 feet across to the cabins, washing out some of the resort’s facilities with ease. Luckily, the banya survived intact. We enjoyed a wonderful steaming and scrubbing and relaxing evening in it after dinner.