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MOUNT BELUKHA - THE HEART OF ALTAI

Text by Vitaliy Shuptar

The Altai Mountains and their highest peak, , have been attracting travellers from all over the world for many years. Some people come to seek the gateway to the legendary home of the of gods, Shambala; some Old Believers hold that this is the site of Belovodye; there are those who say that Buddha himself came here on a pilgrimage; still others who hold that this is where the Turkic goddess Umai has her home. Belukha is also visited by followers of Rerikh, by teachers and artists of every description, by ordinary tourists; by romantics. Despite their religious or mystical beliefs - or scepticism -  there is a sense that there is something unusual, something magical in these lands, a strange energy. And in truth one does feel something odd, something that might be some ancient spirit or mystical force. Altai means Golden Mountain in old Turkic.
The Altai mountains occupy an area that stretches 1,000 km from east to west and nearly 500 km from north to south. This area straddles four countries: Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia.
Belukha - the Kazakh name is Muztau -  is the most popular tourist destination in Altai. Perched on the border with Russia, it crowns the the Katunskiye Belki (or often merely Katunskii) range, its eastern peak towering 4506 meters above sea level. The 4435-meter high western summit is on Russian territory, as is the snow-covered col (Sedlo Belukhi in Russian; Belukha’s Saddle in English) 400 meters lower down between them.
The attraction that Belukha exerts on visitors is often described as magnetic. It’s said that the twin-peaked mountain resembles a saddle, and perhaps this has something to do with its pull, because the Altai was the cradle of the nomadic peoples who later spread across Eurasia, and horses had a special meaning for them; and in those days one was accustomed to seeing images of the really important things in life in places - such as mountains and clouds -  that gave them a significance that would be laughable to us nowadays.
Belukha was known of in Europe as early as 1793, but it was only climbed more than a century later, by Boris and Mikhail Tronov, who reached the summit on July 26th, 1914. The mountain and its foothills nowadays offer a wide variety of recreational opportunities, among them mountaineering, trekking, rafting, cycling and paragliding. The best time to visit is in late July and early August.
ROUTES
Most hikes start at the village of Rakhmanovskiye Kluchi  - Rakhmanov Springs -  which is 35 km from Belukha on the shore of Rakhmanovskoye Lake and can justifiably claim to be the centre of the resort area. Legend has it, incidentally, that the resort came into being long ago when Rakhamanov, a hunter, chasing a red deer he had already shot and believed to be fatally wounded, suddenly came upon a beautiful lake which he saw the animal he was chasing walk into. Expecting the deer to slow down and sink beneath the waters, Rakhmanov was astounded to see it instead suddenly regain all its earlier vigour and disappear into the surrounding forest. Well, a legend... But it is a fact that local spring water is rich in radon and that it is said to be extremely helpful in the treatment of some conditions, notably those involving impaired motor function.
Anyway... Hiking routes start at the lake and tend to aim for good views of Belukha. The most popular trek heads north-west from the lake along the Arasanka river valley to the 2,400-meter high Radostnyi Pereval  - Joyful Pass, in English -  from where the view of Belukha is excellent. Then come two fords over two rivers: the first over the Chornaya Berel and the second over the Belaya Berel. The Chornaya Berel is about half a meter deep at the most popular crossing-point, and the Belaya a little deeper, about 80 cm, and flows at between 10 and 12 kph. Once over the second ford, you’re virtually at the winter camp at Sersembai.
From Sersembai the path leads you alongside the Belaya Berel to a bridge which transfers you to the left bank of the river, shortly after which you reach the nizhnii lager - lower camp -  of Kokkol tungsten mine, closed since 1954. The mine is of course deserted and the lower camp consists of little more than a few abandoned houses, but that is often all the excuse one needs for a rest stop. Certainly this is popular place for a break, perhaps because the Altai’s highest waterfall, also called Kokkol, is a short walk away. Other places to visit from here are the Malyi Berel and Bolshoi Berel glaciers (malyi means small, bolshoi big) to the north. The Bolshoi Berel glacier is the starting point for routes up the mountain itself. One more place of possible interest accessible from the lower camp is the verkhnii lager - yes, upper camp -  about seven km to the east. Here the remains of the old tungsten mine are little more extensive: barracks, an ore-concentrating facility and, if you don’t mind the risk, disused mine galleries.
Another popular hike is to Lake Yazovoye, to the west of Rakhmanovskiye Kluchi, at an elevation of 1,656 meters. You can get there either from the village of Yazovka or from the winter camp at Sersembai. Lake Yazovoye hosts the annual Belukha festival, which is important enough to get a mention in the World Tourism Organization’s Calendar of Events. And there’s a  great view of Belukha from there.

ASCENSIONS
Mountaineers flock to the Altai in their thousands nowadays, partially because routes to the summit vary in difficulty from the simplest to the hardest. It should be noted, however, that all routes to the top are rocky and icy, and that despite the fact that Belukha is not terribly high, technique is always important, so it is always wise to climb with a qualified, professional guide. Equipment must of course be adequate.
Base camps are usually made at the Bolshoy Berel Glacier. From there you proceed to Mount Delauney, and from there to the eastern summit. There is an easier route, which takes you past the Gebbler glacier; but since Gebbler is in Russia, if you attempt this route without all the necessary Russian documentation, which will certainly include a visa and permission to visit a border area... well, you do it at your own risk. The Gebbler route starts at the winter camp at Sersembai, and takes you over the pass at Verkhneye Sedlo to Rossypnoi waterfall on the River Katun River. The ascent from the base camp beside the waterfall to the summit and back takes about four days.

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