The cold wind blowing against our faces and the sound of crackling ice under our feet were surreal. We were crossing a freaking frozen river and we were thrilled! We explored just a tiny portion of the vastly and beautiful Siberia, but those 4 days visiting the Altai Mountains were more than enough to teach us some important lessons about Siberia, its people and why we should travel to lesser-known destinations in Russia.
We visited Altai Krai, a Russian region known by its mountains, lakes, winter sports and stunning nature. It’s the perfect holiday destination for locals and travelers that are up to explore hidden gems. Looking at Russia’s map you’re gonna find Altai region making borders with Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China.
During our trip to Siberia we stayed at Belokurikha, a charming town that is the perfect starting point for any winter adventure in the Altai Mountains. And it was in this tiny city that we discovered some crucial things about Siberia, and we bring it all to you as special travel hints that you won’t find in any guide book. That being said, let me tell you why we loved our first time in Siberia and why you should pack your bags and travel to Altai Mountains.
10 reasons why you’ll love to travel to Altai Mountains in Siberia
1 – Siberia is vast, much vaster than you expect
Siberia is the largest region of Russian territory, covering an area of 13.1 million square kilometers. But you can only actually understand the wilderness of Siberia when you get there, when you feel the wind blowing, when you see the neverending roads and contemplate the frozen horizon stretching to infinity. It’s beautiful, vast and raw.
2 – Nature is the invitation, but it is the people who make you wanna stay in Siberia
I know it sounds cliche to say that traveling is not only about places, but also about people. To be really honest, I’ve never expected that we would connect with Siberian people, and that they would become such an important part of the trip. Trust me, get through that serious Russian face and give Altai people a chance to connect, greet them with a smile and your open heart and you’ll understand what I’m saying. Yes, Nature is Siberia’s biggest asset, but it is the people who will help you enjoy it to the fullest!
3 – Altai Mountain is a land of powerful women
Meet Anna Beletskaya, the only blacksmith women in Siberia. This beautiful and strong lady works hard to build her reputation as an international master of blacksmithing, making not only Altai Mountains folk but the whole Siberia and Russia proud of her.
We also had the pleasure to meet and sing with Aychus, a woman whose mission is to keep the Altai ancient traditions alive. For the first time in my life, I listened to and played a jew’s harp, a mouth instrument made of metal that produces a hypnotizing trance sound. It is definitely not easy to play, but it is an important piece of the local culture and history that must be learned through generations, together with traditional dance, clothing, and food.
4 – Altai Mountains is a winter sport wonderland
Altai Mountains is a winter wonderland! Put your snowshoes on and go for a morning trekking in the forest or a snowmobile ride. If you prefer skiing or snowboarding you can literally do it from your hotel door. In Belokurikha, it took us less than 5 minutes to walk from the hotel to the ski facilities, plus 10 minutes to rent the equipment and then we were on the slopes.
Are you keen for something more adventurous? Something that will make your trip to Siberia a memorable one? So go on a guided tour to the Blue Lakes and be mesmerized by the Altai Mountains untouched beauty. Add to your itinerary a walk through the frozen Katun River, one of the biggest rivers in Altai region. Katun River is famous for its rapids, but during the winter it becomes a frozen white track surrounded by snow-capped trees and rocky cliffs.
Here is a side note: only walk over a frozen river with a local guide as it can be super dangerous. The frozen water has many cracks and holes, a wrong step can turn your adventure into an icy incident.
And also, don’t forget to go to Chemal village to visit the Patmos island, a small river island that hides a tiny and pretty Orthodox church. At this area, the Katun River is surrounded by cliffs. Just follow the path along the river and admire the stunning nature. We were so lucky to be there just before sunset and the light was amazing. No doubt Chemal is one of my favorite places in the Altai Mountains.
5- Altai is also a place of unique culture
The Altai people have a very distinct way of living, from how they build their houses to the shamanism religion. You can witness a bit of their culture at the restaurants that serve traditional food, the shops that sell arts and crafts, and also visiting sacred places in the mountains.
A visit to Tserkovka Mountain is a must, the mountain is famous for the views to Belokurikha town and also for the rock formations that tell the story of Altai people’s religion. The cable car ride to the top of Tserkovka Mountain is a beautiful and cold experience. The hotel staff gave us blankets for the ride, but even being completely wrapped from head to toe I was freezing all the way up and down.
6 – You won’t see bears everywhere
You might be disappointed but you won’t see bears in the Altai Mountains. I know this incredible animal is a symbol of Siberia, but the region is not as wild as you imagine and you will be safe walking down the forest.
7 – The language barrier is a real struggle
You don’t need to be worried about bears, but be prepared to face a hard time with the language barrier. If you can learn a few Russian words it will be very helpful, at least to break the ice and put a smile on their faces, and from that on mimics and Google translator are the best tools you can have.
But don’t panic, most hotels and tour companies have someone who speaks English in their staff to help you. The real struggle is if you venture yourself on going to small restaurants, local shops and taking the public transportation. But, you know, it can be hard but it can also be a great adventure.
We love to learn a few words before traveling to a destination where English is not so widely spoken. If you like doing the same, you can study Russian or any other language by yourself. Just follow our tips to learn a new language to travel here.
8 – Food is delicious, beer is good and you don’t need to drink vodka [if you don’t want to]
From the delicious pelmeni to local cheese, salted fish and honey beer, the food in Altai Mountain deserves a special chapter in this post. To be honest, I was expecting a heavy and boring cuisine, but it turned out the food in Siberia is delicious, packed with flavors that came in shapes of soups, fish with vegetables, cheese, and cold cuts, and honey biscuits.
Russia is famous worldwide because of its vodka. However, it’s definitely not the only local drink that you need to taste. Siberia has good beers, and you can try local craft beer at Bratchina brewery in Belokurikha. To tell you the truth, we didn’t drink a single drop of vodka in this Siberian adventure; we kept our body and soul warm with homemade honey beer brought by the video crew that was traveling with us. Spasiba, thank you guys, our Siberian drinking experience couldn’t be more local and stronger!
9 – Siberia is freezing but it’s also super hot.
There is nothing new here: Siberia is freaking cold, but it can be super hot too. If you go on a winter adventure you will be exposed to negative temperatures only when you are outside, and you can fight the cold weather with some winter gear. We are from Brazil and we are not ‘built’ for weather below 10ºC, so we packed a good pair of winter boots, woolen socks, thermal underwear, and rented a proper snow jacket and pants at the hotel.
Inside hotels and restaurants, the temperatures are super warm, not to mention the traditional Siberian Banya. If you feel like you need to relax your muscles, go for a Banya session. At this Russian sauna, the temperatures can go as high as 50ºC. You will sweat, the Banya guy will hit you with some medicinal branches and leaves, and after all that you’ll run outside and jump in the snow. Who said the cold weather was too bad?
And don’t forget the summer! During the hottest months, Altai Mountains is the place to be if you like rafting, trekking, and fishing. This part of Siberia changes completely during all four seasons, giving you the chance to explore incredible nature and do different activities throughout the year.
10 – You will need to go back for more
Altai Mountains is just a tiny part of Siberia and the perfect place for first a first Siberia trip. But I have no doubt that after a day or two exploring Belokurikha, the mountains and villages, you won’t want to leave this place, or you will be planning your next trip back. That is exactly what happened to us: we can’t wait to discover more of Siberia and the Altai region.
Practical guide to travel to Altai Mountains in Siberia
Got inspired? Wanna travel to Siberia next winter? Awesome!! So let’s go to the practical side and show you how to travel to Altai Mountains. You can also add to your itinerary a visit to Lake Baikal one of the most famous places in Siberia, and of course a few days in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
How to travel to Altai Mountains?
Altai Mountains is far from Moscow or Saint Petersburg, the two biggest airport hubs in Russia. But from both cities you have direct flights to Barnaul, the closest airport to Belokurikha town. The flight from Moscow to Barnaul takes approximately 4 hours and from Barnaul airport you will need a transfer to Belokurikha or to the city/hotel you’ll be staying.
As we were traveling in a group, we had a van waiting for us at Barnaul airport and the ride to Belokurikha took us about 3 hours. If you want a hassle-free experience you can ask your hotel in Belokurikha to organize a driver or a group transportation. Or you can do it by yourself, almost every 2 hours there are shuttle buses departing from Barnaul to Belokurikha, you can check the timetable here. Another option is to take a train from Barnaul to Bijsk and from there a taxi to Belokurikha. The train and bus station in Barnaul are beside one another, which helps getting information and choosing the best option.
How to get around Altai Mountains? How can you find a guide?
You will need a car to get around Belokurikha and visit the places in Altai region, and we highly recommend you to hire a tour guide or a driver. It’s dangerous to drive on the snow and with all those endless frozen roads you can get lost in a blink of an eye. You can book an official guide at the tourist information center in Belokurikha and If you need help don’t hesitate to ask your hotel reception.
Where to stay in Belokurikha?
We stayed at the Business-Hotel Rossiya and we don’t have enough words to recommend it. From the lovely staff to comfy and spacious suite, also by the food and all the attention they gave us. From the Business-Hotel Rossiya to the slopes it is a 5-minute walk, and you will be in the middle of the town with restaurants, shops and a thermal bath just around the corner.
If you want to be in the forest and spend your Siberian experience days in a truly winter wonderland, book a room or a chalet at Lesnaya Skazka. The name of this property means Forest Fairytale, and it truly is. We went there for the traditional Banya and had delicious lunch to complement the experience.
Did we inspire you to travel to Altai Mountains in Siberia? So start planning your trip now, I’m sure you’re gonna love it.
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