The flight to Barnaul was on some sort of bi-level Russian plane (absolutely no choice in airlines) with every seat taken. A Barnaul arrival at 6:30 am, and Len-Alp, the Russian tour organizer, had two mini-buses waiting for us with no food or water in it, and no time for breakfast since we had a 9-11 hour drive ahead of us. At first Len-Alp was going to pack 10 people in one vehicle the size of a Land Rover along with two other persons that they insisted had paid for transfers to the base camp even though they were not with our group! It turned out to be close to a 16-hour drive, and we finally found bottled water (carbonated – “with gas” only) along the way.
Rob, and the others had trained from Mongolia to Novosibirsk and from there to a small town on the way to Vysonik. Introductions all around, Rob organized some food and it was off again, arriving at Vysonik more dead than alive. It’s always a little bit ludicrous how many high-powered people sign up for off-the-wall trips like this. We had two executives from Goldman-Sachs (both women, one based in New York and the other, London), and an American Express Executive just to name a few.
Accommodations were in two-story wooden cottages housing four people each. There were no showers and communal toilets were in a separate, nearby building. Who cared at this point. Every other person here was Russian, all intending to camp and trek in the Altai. Tyungur Village is the only tourist base in the Akkem valley, set along the shore of a beautiful lake. Dinners were prepared by an experienced cook and the rescue service for this area is based here. Leonid, was going to be our Russian, English-speaking guide during this 90-mile trek and he and Rob instantly got busy organizing the trek.
The next morning, everyone hung out waiting for the horses to be loaded and final trek decisions to be made.
Mountain Travel Sobek group milling around in Tyungur Village, Siberia
First change in plans. There had been quite a bit of rain over the last week (actually, a lot of rain) which meant starting in the opposite direction on this circle trek since the bridge had been washed out. Off we went, with staff and horses following behind, through unbelievably sloppy, muddy trails. ex-Marine and I quickly discovered that Mike, Nan, Carl, Ann, Allyson, Bob, and Art were “jets” or “gazelles.” Anna, Brian, Liz along with us fell into fast, and Marlynne (by her own description) was the slow. Husband, Michael usually stayed with her. I’ve never seen fitter people or faster hikers in my entire life. Ann, from Colorado, runs the Pikes Peak Marathon regularly, a 26.2 mile course starting at 6,300′, summiting at 14,115′, 13 MILES UP, before turning around and running down.
There was just one leader, Leonid, our Russian guide, another jet who never stopped to look around and see if anyone was behind him, and Rob, handled shepherd detail. There was always at least half-mile to one-mile gaps between the “jets” and “tortoises.” It’s not that we minded being slower but it became nerve-wracking. Rob had never trekked here before and Leonid was always so far ahead and out of sight.
A long five to six-hour trek and the mud made it very difficult (not the terrain) as we plodded past Russian families who had already pitched their tents for the night, to our camping spot. Now we discovered that Len-Alp had FORGOTTEN, SOME of the TENTS, TOILET PAPER, DISHES, CUPS AND SILVERWARE. And….are you ready for this…there was no dining tent (not even a tarp in case it rained), nothing to sit on, and no toilet tent! What could we do but look at each other in amazement. Of course, it then started to rain and rained the entire night…that sure helped the mud situation. Leonid sent the horsemen back to get everything left behind, and the group erected whatever tents we had (spent the night three to a small tent), ate dinner out of a communal pot with fingers and went to sleep.
And now for a little description of the staff assisting us. A total of four. Leonid, two horsemen and remember the “cook staff” described in our brochure? There was one little 16-year old girl who cooked for all of us AND had to carry all the pots, pans and cooking equipment, on her back every day! Even though we had been assured that this was a fully-supported trek, i.e. they would put up and take down the tents, it was obviously not to be with such a minimal staff. ex-Marine was already giving me “looks,” muttering under his breath and this was only Day 1. By now, our congenial group was wondering if the prisoners in Soviet gulags had it better than us. (Gulug has become a general term describing Soviet slave labor punishment camps where approximately 50 million died between 1930 and 1950.)