Every visitor to Altai Republic travels this storied road, a piece of the region’s cultural heritage. Largely a 2-lane highway, Chuisky Tract stretches 963 km (598 miles) from Novosibirsk to Russia’s border with Mongolia, snaking across Altai Krai and Altai Republic and on into Mongolia. In 2019 the Russian edition of “National Geographic Traveler” included the highway on its list of Top 10 Best Road Trips in the world. It even has its own museum (within the Biysk Cultural Museum). The modern road’s history is a complex story, reflected in its nicknames of “the road of life and death,” and “road of bones”. The road’s history is also closely intertwined with that of Indigenous peoples in Altai.
People have traveled this route for centuries. Initially a dangerous, rugged mountain path used by ancient travelers for trade with Asia, this Siberian part of the Silk Road was engineered, constructed, and paved over several decades in the 20th century.
Recognition of the necessity to build a road suitable for commercial transport came toward the end of the 18th century, as trade grew between Siberia and Mongolia, when Russian merchants were hindered by the lack of a road that could accommodate wagons. For millennia, many also traveled the route for religious pilgrimages and cultural reasons. Because the costs for the road were high for building the road, the Russian Empire directed its funding instead to railroad construction. In 1893 the Tomsk Governate allocated funding (still woefully short of what was needed) for road construction and merchants pitched in. By 1902 a road suitable for wheeled transport had been laid. It did not take long, however, before wagons destroyed the road and returned it to its original condition.
In 1914 a survey team was dispatched to determine optimal placement of the road, but actual construction was delayed until 1928. Local residents and prisoners from nearby Soviet labor camps—mostly dispossessed Altaian and kulak peasants—served as builders. By 1935, a dirt and gravel road stretched from Biysk to Tashanta at the Mongolian border. The proud achievement, however, cost many lives, owing to atrocious living conditions, starvation, and back-breaking labor (shovels and pick-axes). It’s no mystery why the road is called the “road of bones,” a reference to the thousands of unmarked graves along the route.
Construction of a paved road began in earnest in the 1950s, with added funds, mechanized equipment, and personnel. Novosibirsk became the road’s starting point in 1961. The next few decades saw a number of improvements, with the construction of new bridges, an asphalt covering, and the laying of a new road across Chike-Taman Pass. The road achieved federal highway status in the Post-Soviet period. Today, the road’s scenery includes wild rivers, vast steppe valleys, rocky mountain ridges, and glaciers, occasionally dotted with villages, archaeological sites, and Altaian people going about their daily lives.
In 2020, a monument was erected to recognize the efforts and sacrifices of Indigenous Altaians who labored and died under horrific conditions to build Chuisky Tract. The design, created by Krasnoyarsk-based artist Archyn Badanov (a native Altaian), integrates local community input about traditional aspects of clothing and other elements to ensure historical accuracy.
Badanov’s design features a man leaning on a shovel and holding a drinking bowl. Next to him, a woman sits with her left hand holding a tobacco pipe. Leaning against the woman’s left leg is the Altai traditional leather jar, known as a “tazhuur,” which holds the fermented drink they are sharing. During their research and community outreach, the monument committee collected significant archive materials about the Chuisky Tract. The committee plans to install additional historical signage and make the archive materials available to researchers for additional study.