My friend Jorrit and I had travelled on the Transsiberian railroad to Novosibirsk, and then down south on an overnight train to the Russian Federal Republic of Altai. Our plan was to hitchhike along the famous Chuysky Trakt (“Chuysky highway“) all the way to the Mongolian border. From there the plan was to stay in Russia and to cross over to the neighbouring Republic of Tuva, hopefully in time for its famous cultural festival to see some traditional wrestling and throat-singing.
The Chuysky Trakt is known as one of the most scenic highways in the world. Initially, the mountains are low and wooded, but their grandeur gradually increases. As the road winds on, the views along it grow more and more dramatic and it becomes clear that it deserves its reputation. Geologically the mountains along the highway are fascinatingly varied. In my eyes some of the landscape ressembled the Alps or the arid Central Asian Pamir mountain range, while other parts were unlike any place I had ever seen. And all this in a relatively small space only hours apart.
Within a few days, and with our share of adventures along the way, Jorrit and I made it to the last inhabited point on the Chuysky Highway, a place named Kosh Agach, just before the Mongolian border. Kosh Agach was a small town located in the middle of a flat, dusty steppe with the snow-streaked mountains having receded to the horizon. From there we wanted to make it to neighbouring Tuva, although we had not even heard of anyone having travelled that way. Despite the fact that on a map Altai and Tuva are next to each other, there was no road and apparently not even a dirt track connecting the two. There was certainly not going to be any bus we could catch, since anyone driving that way had to cut cross-country through forests and over fields. Straight from the beginning you were going over open territory, so even hitching was definitely off the cards. If there was no road, there was no way to know from where a car would leave and where to stand in order to catch it!
The only way to go seemed to be by renting a jeep with a driver knowledgeable of the area, even though we did not really have that much money to spend. The alternative, however, was going all the way back to the beginning of the Chuysky Trakt and then to make a big loop across the north of Altai to Tuva, which would take at least three days. That’s why we were going to try as hard as we could to take the direct route.
On arrival in Kosh Agach we noticed that “looking for transport” was exactly as tricky as we had assumed. My bachelor degree is in Russian and I am fluent in it. Without knowledge of the language we could have done close to nothing at all, there would not have been anyone to translate. Even so, at first we made no progress. We tried talking to the drivers of shared taxis in the town centre, but they simply let us know that they had absolutely no idea how we could get to Tuva. It became clear that even finding someone to drive us for a lot of money would not have been easy. Some people said they would call around, and would tell us the outcome a few hours later. We decided to hang around a little longer, had some food and explored the markets. When we heard back from them, the price the man on the other end of the phone named was exorbitant, and even then he did not seem 100% convinced he actually wanted to drive us.
We had as good as given up on our quest and decided to city-hitch our way to the town’s exit. A lady stopped for us in her beat-up Lada. On the way we talked about her job (she was a shopkeeper) and our failed attempt to travel to Tuva. Lo and behold! Our driver had some useful information. She said there was a quarter of town where all the Tuvans lived and we could probably find a lift from there. We changed plans given the fact that we now knew our next step. When we got out, we turned around immediately and caught another lift. The part of town she named turned out to be on the dusty outskirts of the town. We approached one of the few individuals we saw on the streets, and were given a man’s name and his address. He was said to be driving to Tuva frequently. We had to ask around a little more before we found his home. When we got there, a small man looking a bit disshevelled (tousled hair, shirt unbuttoned), opened the door. He blinked at us, blinded by the sun behind us, while I formulated our request. In the end he nodded and said we should come back tomorrow afternoon, he was driving then and he would reserve two seats for us. We felt immensely lucky.
When we came back the next day, we ended up spending a few hours more waiting in a neighbour family’s living room drinking milky, salty tea and watching TV.
When we were finally called outside, it was early evening. We climbed into a minivan that was already occupied by five other passengers and a lot of bagagge. Just after we had sat down, the vehicle started slowly wobbling its way through the dust. As soon as we were out of Kosh Agach, it began speeding over a mud path, heading for two small hamlets to the east of the town. When we left them behind, the tracks ended. We were not going to see road or habitation for hours. Sometimes there were ruts in the ground, signs of the passage of vehicles, sometimes it seemed like we were jolting along over untouched grass. We were going in a UAZ van, one of the strongest offroaders in the world, originally a military vehicle from Soviet times. For this kind of terrain we certainly needed all its strength.
We drove over hills and through forests, and we stopped only in the night, when arriving in the first Tuvan village. It was one in the morning and there was no one on the streets. All houses were surrounded by high walls that protected them from wild animals. We saw that drinking water was kept in closed metal containers outside homes; like in many places in Sibiria, people had to bring it from water pumps elsewhere in the village.
We were lucky to have the contact of a student of Germanic languages, the cousin of someone we met back in Kosh Agach. Our driver had been instructed to drop us off at her house. We were fed soup and had time to pet the cats and chat a bit, before sleeping a few hours. At dawn the UAZ came to pick us up and we were on the road again.
Two weeks later I was going to stay in Krasnoyarsk at the house of my acquaintance, the Russian travel writer Anton Krotov. When Anton heard about the remote places I had travelled through he asked, “did people in that village speak Russian?”, visibly very curious. It is well known that Russian colonialism never fully penetrated some parts of Tuva and that people there only speak Tuvan. I laughed and answered that in that village they even spoke German and English!
Anton personally knows 1000s of travellers and their stories. Until now, he told me that he had heard of only one single group of travellers who completed the crossing from Altai to Tuva. The only option that group saw was to walk for three days, camping on the way. That story made me consider our succesful and even relatively swift arrival in Tuva even more of a feat.
The second day of the trip, there was a road. We drove along the Mongolian border for a few hours before noon, all the while we saw maybe two or three other vehicles. The tarmac led us through a landscape of wide open steppe with lush green grass and colourful rocky hills. The border was demarcated just with sticks that were often right next to the road and sometimes a few meters away. The hills and the steppe shone in strong colours: red, yellow, green, even blue. The mountains just over the border in Mongolia were completely black, mysterious. I imagined I could just leave the van, walk into that landscape, and keep walking for days. If finally I’d be arrested for entering the country illegally it would not matter, the sheer beauty of it all would have been worth it.
I can honestly say that the ride through the Tuvan steppe was one of the most beautiful trips of my lifetime. The surroundings that met my eye were even more breathtaking than the imposing mountains of the Chuyksy highway had been, although that was already one of the most dramatic landscapes I had ever taken in.
The fact that I was now even more impressed was the result of several factors working in concert to fine-tune my sensory perception: there was a complete absence of expectations, since I was travelling somewhere I had neither read nor heard about, and the sheer surprise of encountering environs to which I had simply never before seen anything even comparable. Lastly, there was the slight adrenaline of “making it” after all the time I’d spent steeped in doubts about our progress. Just getting there switched on the reward receptors in my brain.
On the way we saw many yakh, sheep and camel herds. The colour of the earth was unbelievable. There were black mountains, red hills and pink-and-green plains. I know this is the tritest possible thing to say, but I don’t know how I could possibly describe that amount of beauty with words.
We arrived in the evening in Tuvan capital Kyzyl, where the yearly festival Naadym had already begun. Just before dusk we were dropped off at one of the sites of the festival, where everyone was already packing it in for the night. By accident we started talking to the first aid workers and they invited us to sleep in the medical tent, so that’s what we did. The next day we awoke right at the beginning of a dance competition for groups in traditional costumes. We were very lucky to be there on time.
This was a contest submission by Nina Nooit from The Tourist.