Altai Explorer

Join us on this truly groundbreaking tour as we travel through the forgotten lands of Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. We journey to the heart of the Altai Mountains to a land steeped in shamanism and ancient traditions.

We start in Kazakhstan, flying from Almaty to the eastern capital of Ust-Kamenogorsk, the gateway to the Altai. Driving through pristine landscapes we cross the mighty Bukhtarma Reservoir and climb high passes, exploring waterfalls, canyons and lakes on the way. This area is home to the ‘Old Believers’, a breakaway sect of the Russian church who maintain traditional lifestyles. We stop to meet them and other communities along the way, discovering a unique culture in a hidden corner of Central Asia.

Crossing into Russia we continue through the taiga and across the mountains to discover the ancient graves and archaeological sites of a forgotten culture that dominated this region thousands of years ago. We travel through stunning and utterly remote countryside, looking out for wildlife and meeting people along the way.

Our final country is Mongolia where we meet the Kazakh people of the west, famed for their practice of hunting with golden eagles. We spend the night as guests of an eagle hunter, or berkutchi, and learn more about this fascinating practice.

After this we explore the untamed lands of Tavan Bogd and Tsambagarav. Here the mountains are home to isolated populations of Tuvan and Uriankkhai people, as well as the iconic snow leopard. We then leave the wilderness behind and fly to Ulaan Baatar.

This is an enchanting tour to a region that lies at the very edge of the countries it overlaps, with a captivating culture that is steeped in the practices of days gone by – off the map in more senses than one. This is adventure travel at its finest.

Altai Explorer

Highlights

  • See ancient Scythian burial mounds
  • Visit a community of ‘Old Believers’
  • Incredible mountain scenery
  • The magical landscapes of Tavan Bogd
  • Meet Kazakh eagle hunters
  • Get far off the beaten track

Day 1 - Almaty

Arrive in Almaty and transfer to the hotel. Depending on when you arrive there may be time to explore the city. Overnight tourist class hotel.

Almaty

The largest city in Kazakhstan, Almaty is a relatively new place having been founded only in 1854 by Russian soldiers, as a frontier post for their forays into the region. Awash with oil wealth, it is Central Asia’s richest and most cosmopolitan city, and retains much more of a Russian flavour than others in the region. It is no longer the capital though – this was moved to the smaller city of Astana in 1997.

With wide leafy streets and modern multi-storey buildings, it doesn’t particularly feel like part of the Silk Road and is quite different in character to somewhere like Samarkand, and its sights are from a more recent era. In Panfilov Park sits the impressive Zenkov Cathedral, one of the few buildings to date back to the time of Tsarist Russia and reputedly constructed without any nails. There are also several museums, including one for musical instruments and another dedicated to the repression faced by the Kazakh people under Stalin’s rule.

Day 2 - Ust-Kamenogorsk

Fly to Ust-Kamenogorsk. After lunch we head to the Bukhtarma Reservoir, one of the world’s largest, which we cross by boat. Upon arrival on the opposite shore we drive to the beautiful rock formations of the Kiyn Kirish cliffs, then continue to Cape Shekelmes. Overnight camping. (BLD)


Days 3 - 4 - Lake Markakol

Continue driving east towards the border with China. Crossing the Marble Pass we have great views of the surrounding area. Our journey takes us through the taiga landscapes of the western Altai, reaching our guesthouse in the village of Uranhayka on Day 3. On Day 4 we spend time exploring the lake and its surroundings. (BLD)


Day 5 - Berel – Uryl

Drive on the old ‘Austrian Road’, built by prisoners of the First World War, to our guesthouse in the village of Uryl. After lunch we visit the archaeological site of Berel, an ancient Scythian burial ground. In the 1990s archaeologists discovered the remains of Scythian nobles and sacrificed horses, giving a fascinating insight into this now disappeared culture. Overnight local guesthouse. (BLD)


Day 6 - Yazevoe - Rachmanovskoye

Continue to Yazevoe Lake, where we walk to the nearby waterfalls and explore the surrounding area. We then continue to Lake Rachmanovskoye. Overnight hotel. (BLD)


Day 7 - Rachmanovskoye

Take boats on the lake to the mouth of the Arasanka River, then ascend the Radostnyi Pass for views of Mount Belukha, the highest peak of the Altai region. Return to our hotel in the evening. (BLD)


Day 8 - Korobiha - Katon Karagai

Continue to the village of Korobiha, founded in the late 18th century by the ‘Old Believers’, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church that rejected innovations in the 17th century and live very traditional lives. We also visit a farm where local people cut, dry and process the horns of maral, a deer found in this region – a unique practice to the Altai Mountains. Overnight guesthouse or homestay. (BLD)


Day 9 - Ust-Kamenogorsk

A long drive as we return to Ust-Kamenogorsk, crossing the Osinovsky Pass. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BD)


Day 10 - Denisov Caves

A long day on the road as we leave Kazakhstan behind and cross into Russia, travelling through the Altai Mountains. We finish at the Denisov Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for archaeological discoveries of Neanderthals and early man, as well as now extinct animals. Overnight guesthouse. (BLD)


Day 11 - Ust Koksa

Visit the cave of Ust Kan, another archaeological site once home to stone age man. We then visit the ethnographic museum in Mendur Sokkon to learn about the customs of the Altai people, and in the evening we see a traditional folk concert. Overnight guesthouse. (BLD)


Day 12 - Verhniy Uymon

Visit the village of Verhniy Uymon, founded by Old Believers around 300 years ago. Visit the village museum and meet the local herbalist, learning about the healing properties of the plants found in the Altai Mountains. Overnight guesthouse. (BLD)


Days 13-14 - Red Mountains - Chibit

Drive to the ‘Red Mountains’, passing alpine meadows and lakes, connected by a waterfall. We then drive to Chibit, crossing four mountain passes and stopping to see archaeological sites and petroglyphs. Overnight guesthouses. (BLD)


Day 15 - Pazyryk Valley

We spend today discovering the burial mounds of the Pazyryk Valley, a series of Iron Age tombs dating back to the 4th century BC. The tombs are the graves of tribal chiefs and at the time of their excavation contained numerous artefacts from that time such as decorated felt hangings and Chinese silk, preserved in permafrost for centuries. The landscape here is stunning with canyons, waterfalls and lakes to explore. Overnight guesthouse. (BLD)


Day 16 - Kosh Agach

Drive towards the Mongolian highlands, crossing several mountain passes. It is a spectacular road journey on a good tarmac road following the Katun and Choy Rivers, almost to the tree line, up several valleys, until we almost reach the tree line. We continue to the Kosh Agach Plateau, and the town of Kosh Agach, populated by ethnic Kazakhs. Overnight guesthouse. (BLD)


Day 17 - Ulgii

We leave Russia behind and head into Mongolia. The tarmac roads disappear as we drive into Bayan Ulgii province, a stunning drive across the mountain steppes. The people here are Kazakh and Muslim, unlike most other Mongolians who are Buddhist. The people here are largely nomadic, often on horseback and herding their livestock. Overnight tourist class hotel. (BLD)


Days 18-19 - Tavan Bogd

Drive to Tavan Bogd, home to several Kazakh families. We spend time learning about their customs and also visit the Tsagaan Salaa petroglyphs, which date back to the Stone and Bronze ages. Overnight ger camp or camping. (BLD)

Tavan Bogd

On the frontiers of Mongolia, China and Russia lie the Tavan Bogd mountains, part of the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, the largest in Mongolia. This is a wild land of majestic peaks, lakes and rivers, and is home to Mongolia’s highest point, Mt Khuiten at 4347 metres. Wildlife is good here and includes the wild mountain sheep argali as well as ibex, and the area is littered with ancient burial mounds which provide tantalizing clues to the cultures that existed here in previous millennia.

Days 21-21 - Tsengel Khairkhan

We head towards Tsengel Khairkhan where we meet a traditional Kazakh eagle hunter and stay overnight with his family. While here, we are able to learn about the unique customs of the Mongolian Kazakhs, and how they work with the eagles. Overnight camping. (BLD)

 

Kazakh eagle hunters

In this part of Mongolia the majority of the population are Kazakh, not Mongolian, following rather different practices; the most renowned of these is the customs of hunting with golden eagles. Young eagles are taken from nests and brought to live with a family – only the females are used for hunting as they are larger than males, and supposedly more aggressive. Until the bird has learned to trust its ‘owner’ it is kept masked. Once the eagle is used to eating out of its owner’s hands and familiar with his dogs and horses, training can begin. This consists of having the eagle chase fox furs pulled by string (shakhyru) either by hand or from the back of a horse.

Eagles are used to hunt all sorts of mammals, foxes being a favourite due to the fur that they provide, and in previous years they even hunted wolves – with a wingspan of over two metres the birds are capable of taking down sizeable prey. Eagle hunters are known as berkutchi; the eagles are berkut. Hunting normally takes place in the winter months, from October onwards – the berkutchi ride out to the hunting grounds with eagles perched upon their arms, looking for high ground from which the eagle can spot prey. The eagle’s reward for this is usually the lungs of the animal caught, sometimes the tongue, which it will often rip from the animal while the hunter dispatches it. Eagles are kept for fixed amount of time – usually seven to eight years – before they are then released back into the wild.

The practice of hunting with eagles is around a thousand years old, and originates with the Mongolians – descendants of theirs settled around the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. When the Russians conquered the region in the 1860s, they began suppressing eagle hunting and other militaristic customs of the warrior-nomads. Many Kazakhs fled into lawless border region of western China and Mongolia. With the rise of Stalin and Mao, eagle hunting was suppressed entirely in the Soviet Union and China.

The isolated and largely ignored western region of Bayan-Olgii, Mongolia became the only place to continue the tradition. Though eagle hunting is undergoing a revival in the newly independent Kazakhstan, there are only 40 active eagle hunters, mostly displaying talents to tourists outside the largest city of Almaty, and a smaller number in Kyrgyzstan, compared at least 250 counted in a census of Bayan-Olgii and Hovd Aimags of Mongolia. Hunting is currently illegal in Kazakh regions of China, though a few eagle hunters can be found.

Days 22-23 - Tsambagarev Uul National Park

Drive to Tsambagarev Uul, where the steppe meets the ice. We spend our time exploring the area, which is the summer grazing ground for Mongolian and Kazakh families, who we stop to meet where possible (they are nomadic and can move between a large area). There are numerous glaciers and valleys to explore, and the park is a refuge for the snow leopard, although we will need to be extremely lucky to see one. Excursions are made on foot and by vehicle. On Day 23 we return to Ulgii. Overnight camping and hotel. (BLD)

Tsambagarev Uul National Park

The sacred, snow covered Tsambagarav Mountain at 4208 metres on the border of Bayan-Olgii and Hovd Aimags towers over the 110,960 hectares of Tsambagarav Uul National Park. The park is known for its stunning vistas and diverse wildlife. The park contains many glaciers, rocky gorges and glacial lakes, in addition to deer stones, balbal (standing stones), and Kazakh and Uriankhai nomads. Wildlife to be found here includes rare and endangered species such as the Argali sheep, Ibex, Snow Leopard, Rock Ptarmigan and Altai Snowcock.

Day 24 - Ulaan Baatar

Fly to Ulaan Baatar and explore the city including the Ganden Monastery and the Natural History Museum. Overnight tourist class hotel. (B)


Day 25 - Ulaan Baatar

Transfer to the airport for your flight home. (B)


Note that this itinerary may sometimes be subject to small changes as certain routes can become impractical from time to time. While we do our best to keep the itinerary updated, this is a pioneering trip through a remote part of Asia and as such you must be prepared for some flexibility to adapt to local conditions.

The single supplement will not be available in all locations, and on some occasions you may be required to share a room.

Altai Explorer
Altai Explorer
Altai Explorer
Altai Explorer
Altai Explorer

What's included?

  • Airport transfers

    We include arrival and departure transfers regardless of whether you book flights yourself, or we book them for you. If you’re booking them yourself, then please let us know the details so that we can arrange the transfers.

    Please note though that if you arrive earlier than Day 1 of the tour, and leave after the final day, we may need to make an additional charge for an airport transfer.

  • Accommodation

    Accommodation as listed in the dossier. The nature of the destinations that we operate may sometimes mean that we need to change hotels, but we’ll always endeavour to keep the same standards. Please be aware that as we operate in many countries where tourism is in its infancy, hotel standards may not be the same as you’re used to elsewhere.

  • Guides

    As this trip covers several different countries, you would normally have different guides for each, to take advantage of their specific knowledge regarding each destination. Please note that you will not be accompanied on the flights from Almaty to Ust-Kamenogorsk, or from Ulgii to Ulaan Baatar.

  • Meals

    As listed within the itinerary / dossier (B-Breakfast, L-Lunch, D-Dinner). These will vary from trip to trip – in some areas it makes sense to include all meals while in others there is a good choice of restaurants and we feel people might like to ‘do their own thing’ now and again.

  • Entrance fees

    Entrance fees are listed for those sites that we mention within the itinerary. If there are any other sites that you’d like to see, these would be at your own expense.

What's not included?

  • Visas

    We don’t arrange visas for our travellers, but if an invitation letter is necessary then we will arrange this for you. If you need any advice with visas then just give us a call, or alternatively a visa agency such as Travcour can assist.

  • International flights

    Many of our travellers arrive from different destinations and so we don’t include international flights in the cost of our tours. If however you would like us to book flights for you, then just give us a call and we’ll be happy to discuss your options.

  • Travel Insurance

    If you need any assistance with this, then let us know – although we can’t arrange it ourselves we can point you in the direction of a reputable provider that can assist.

Visas

All travellers will require a visa to Russia, which must be obtained before travel. Most travellers will also need an invitation letter, which we will provide if requested. Many travellers, including British citizens, will need a visa to enter Mongolia. For most citizens, Kazakhstan does not require a visa for stays of less than 30 days. If you are travelling after this point it may be necessary to obtain a visa.

Visa regulations can change however and so we recommend that you contact your nearest embassy for the most up to date information.

Health and vaccinations

We are not medically qualified and so we recommend that you speak to your doctor or nearest health professional for advice concerning recommended vaccinations. For more advice on vaccinations you can also visit www.fitfortravel.nhs.uk.

Insurance

It is a condition of joining our tours that you have suitable travel insurance in place, and we cannot accept travellers without insurance. All policies differ in terms of what they will cover, but as a minimum you need medical and health cover, which will cover you for the whole time that you are away. Most policies will also include cancellation cover, which will cover you if an unforeseen circumstance obliges you to cancel your trip. We recommend that you obtain your insurance as soon as you book your trip.

Please note that government travel warnings often affect the validity of your travel insurance, and you should check this with your insurance company.

Arrival and departure taxes

There are no arrival or departure taxes applicable for any of the countries visited on this tour.

Money

The local currency in Russia is the ruble, which can be obtained before you depart. Mongolian togrog and Kazakhstan tenge will be very difficult to obtain before you arrive. The best option is to bring US dollars for exchange purposes, and your tour leader will be able to assist you in exchanging them to local currency.

Credit cards will be almost useless until you near the end of the trip in Ulaan Baatar.

You will not have much need for money on this trip as for much of the time you will be in remote areas with no opportunities to buy anything.

Local conditions

When travelling to some of the destinations we offer you need to bear in mind that things won’t always work here as we’re used to them working at home. Travelling in underdeveloped and untouristed destinations requires both patience and a sense of humour. There may be problems with infrastructure, attitudes may be different, and maintenance may not be as high a standard as we would always like, but this is very much part and parcel of travelling in such a place. We aim to resolve any issues as quickly as possible, and thank you for your patience.

This is particularly relevant to this trip – this is remote region, some of which is largely isolated from the outside world and has very little experience of tourism whatsoever. We will be camping for much of the time, with no real facilities, and it is essential that you bear this in mind before joining this trip..

Travel advice

We keep a very close eye on the travel advice issued by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that we can keep you up to date with any warnings. At the time of writing the FCO does not advise against travel to the parts of Russia, Kazakhstan or Mongolia that we visit on this tour.

This relates to advice from the British government – other nationalities need to check the stance of their own governments.

Please note that the information contained above is highly susceptible to change, and while we endeavour to keep up to date we recommend that you use this as a guide only. Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Updated May 2019

Altai Explorer
Altai Explorer
Altai Explorer
Altai Explorer
Altai Explorer
Date(s)
Price (PP) Exc. Flights
Single Supplement
Trip Status
Date -
10 July 2021
Price (PP) -
£4,899
Single Supplement -
£465
Trip Status -
Guaranteed
Date -
09 July 2022
Price (PP) -
£4,999
Single Supplement -
£465
Trip Status -
Available