Up and down Lake Teletskoye

Lake Teletskoye is the largest lake in Altai Republic (easily). It is a rift lake, created by seismic forces. That’s obvious when you see it, because there are cliffs along parts of the shoreline, and 90% of the shoreline we’ve seen so far is very, very steep. It is very deep, and its waters (mostly glacial runoff) are so cold that there are few fish or plants living in it. An upside-down and backward L-shape, the only significant settlements are at the very upper left end. The entire top and right sides are 99.99% unoccupied because the 880,000 hectares stretching along those sides are the Altaisky Zapovednik. A zapovednik affords the strictest possible protection – no human visitation is permitted at all, with the exception of ranger patrols and limited authorized scientists. There is no such similar protected area type in the US, even very little of its type around the world. The Zapovednik is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Biosphere Reserve and it adjoins a number of other related protected areas in the neighboring Russian states of Tuva Republic and Khakassiya, as well as Mongolia. We’re talking about a HUGE swath of critical global biodiversity and landscape.


This morning dawned warm and still, and as a result, the lake was amazingly still. I chose to lounge in bed reading for a little while, so I missed seeing the fog burn off the mountains across the lake. Oh well!

Morning on Teletskoye Lake

Tourists visiting Korbu Waterfall, Altaisky Zapovednik

After breakfast, we piled back on to the Zurbagan for a day on the lake. Our first stop was only about 30 minutes south along the lake at Korbu Waterfall. Probably about 30 feet high, it is a major tourist attraction on the lake.

The Zapovednik (Reserve) has been working to develop sustainable tourism here, and in this location, they have recently built and leased out about a dozen little tea houses and souvenir stands on the walkway leading to the falls.

By the time we were leaving, there were about a dozen small to medium motorboats full of tourists. Drinking beer at 11:00 am, but I suppose “It’s 5 o’clock” somewhere applies specifically to vacationers.

After leaving Korbu (stuffed full of bliny and meat-filled fried bread and tea) we made our way south along the entire length of the lake. We stopped at each zapovednik “kordon” to drop off a passenger or two.

The entire zapovednik has 8-10 kordons, I think, and each one is home to 4-25 zapovednik staff and their families. Rangers, technicians, and visiting scientists live in these remote enclaves year-round, conducting patrols, educating visitors (only allowed in the immediate area of each kordon, and only under supervision), and conducting baseline scientific research on a wide range of indicators. We had another light lunch while on board, and we reached the south end of the lake by about 1:30, I estimate.

View of Bele

Here, the Bele kordon is one of the larger zapovednik communities. Yasha, a charismatic ranger, met us at the beach, which was covered in water-smoothed flat rocks, kind of like shale or stratified granite, if there is such a thing. Lovely to sort through and admire.

For the next three hours, Yasha led us on a charming and sarcastic tour of Bele, showing us where wild boar had recently rooted through the forest, where a bear had buried a calf it killed in order to age the meat a bit, and any number of other wonderful things. Not least of which was the stunning view that we gained while climbing up a steep, steep hillside.

Guesthouse interior in Bele

We had a tour of the village as well, visiting the 50+ year old fruit orchards, a resident artist’s shop, and a Stone Age stella atop a nearby intact burial mound.

This little stretch of the lake is favored by interesting conditions – it is immediately across the lake from the large Chulyshman River that drains down a deep valley from high steppes into the lake and some combination of air currents and a western exposure combine complexly to make this exact spot warm all year round. When the rest of the lake is frigid and windy and blanketed in snow, Bele is snow-free.

Due to these favorable conditions and its accessible beach, Bele and its surroundings have been occupied for thousands of years. Staff regularly discover artifacts when digging foundations, gardens, etc.

After finishing our hike, we were presented with an amazing spread of food for a pre-departure repast. Almost entirely grown and prepared locally, we enjoyed ukha (fish) soup, 2 other kinds of fish fried and steamed, cucumber sandwiches with homemade butter and bread, fresh red currants, bliny with tvorog (farmer’s cheese) and wild raspberries, lightly sweetened rolls with currants, amazing fresh honey, currant compote, homemade sour cream, and probably a few other things I’ve forgotten. We stuffed ourselves hugely. The three husky-like dogs and three puppies were quite disappointed that we didn’t drop much.

Feast in Bele

Bele Visitor Center

By the time we waddled back to the boat, it was time to head back. Not only was it now windy, but what had been a very light breeze from the south was now from the north and was big enough to produce impressive wind waves. The air remained warm, however, so we were all content to while away the time watching the scenery go by. It took about 3 hours to traverse the lake from south to north.

It’s not clear to me how well studied the lake is. At its deepest, Lake Teletskoye is about 350 meters deep. These days, it only ices completely over once every 25 years (used to be every 7), and most years only the coves and the section from Yailyu to Artybash at the north end freeze over. The winds generally flip-flop direction morning and afternoon. The locals say it doesn’t have much in the way of fish because of its cold waters.