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River Guide • Altai
Rivers by Region

Altai map
Altai map

The Altai is the highest mountain range in Siberia, located at the very south, where Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia all come together. The range extends some 300 km west to east and south to north; the highest summit is Mt. Belukha (4506 m, 14783 ft) at the Kazakhstan border.

The area is quite populated by Siberian standards and road network is wide enough to allow access to many rivers without need to hike in. At the same time, coming off the roads you easily get into almost uninhabited places where it's unlikely to see anyone for the whole trip.

The locals are of Mongolian type, doing mainly stock-breeding and little agriculture. They speak a dialect of Turkic but Russian is no problem here too. The major drawback, with roots coming back to soviet times, is that many people are addicted to drink and it's easy to get a conflict with drunks around local settlements. Those who are not addicted to alcohol are really nice and welcoming people.

Type of Paddling
Typically self-supported multi-day runs of any level of difficulty. Most rivers are quite short and require no more than 2-4 days on the water, so it's a good idea to have a car to shuttle between the rivers. The car would be also a restock center, because local food supply is limited. Keep in mind that most rivers do not have road alongside and emergency escape may be difficult.

Season & Climate
July-August. September is still possible, but may be quite cold and wet. Late May and June is also possible but again it's rainy and it's high water season, because most rivers are snow and rain-fed (rivers around Belukha have quite significant glacier drainage). Climate is warm in the summer, but weather may be unstable and unpredictable. Depending on the year you can get very dry summer (and thus low water on most rivers) or very rainy (and high water with sudden floods). You never know what to expect unless you're there, because weather in the mountains is a thing in itself and forecasts do not work. Surprisingly, Altai is almost mosquitoes-free area. Rivers are mainly at moderate altitude of 500-1200 m, only those around Belukha starts at 1500-1700 m.

Getting There & Away
The biggest city in Siberia (and third biggest in Russia), Novosibirsk is located some 600 km north to the Altai Mountains and has numerous flights to virtually everywhere in Russia and many destinations in Europe. Another city, Barnaul, is 300 km closer but has limited number of flights mainly to Moscow. Both have numerous trains connections, although it's a long journey (reckon on 50-60 hrs from Moscow) and probably not a preferable choice.

Local access is done by a car via "Chuya Road", the main route to Mongolia, going from Novosibirsk and Barnaul, via Biysk, Gorno-Altaisk, Onguday, Chibit, Aktash, Kosh-Agach and Tashanta to the Mongolian border. The road is in quite good condition and has numerous local forks, allowing relatively easy access to put-in and take-out for many rivers. These local forks are often rough and in most cases a 4x4 vehicle is necessary.

Most of the area is free of any paperwork, except for small corner next to Chinese and Kazakhstan border, a borderland permit is required to go there. There are just a couple of rivers there, so extra fuss is unlikely worth doing.

Some valleys belong to the Altai Nature Reserve, and in theory you need appropriate permit to enter. The regulations are not strict though; you can easily get this in nearest office or directly on the spot for a small fee (about $1-2 per person per day).


The main water stream of the Altai, an easy big volume river with bouncing rapids. Roads come to many places allowing easy access, but there's no continuous road all the way down. Very popular for commercial rafting.

Upper Katun
Upper reaches of Katun flow clockwise around Mt. Belukha and the Katun Range and used to be popular medium difficulty trip in the past. Nowadays the obvious way to the put-in from the south involves Kazakhstan border crossing, which is difficult to make legal.

This is one of three right tributaries of Katun flowing north of Katun Range. The river is mainly glacier-fed with high water in June-July. The way to put-in requires hike up the valley as the road only comes to its confluence with Katun. The higher you hike the more difficult gorges you get, up to class 5 in the upper stretches.

The next valley east of Kuragan and is pretty much the same with regard to size and access, but difficulty is more evenly distributed across upper, middle and lower sections. Very scenic and beautiful Kucherla Lake is located in the upper valley; the river can be run straight from the lake.

The third river in this group has somehow lower volume and is rarely (if at all) run, perhaps due to lack of water for catarafts or too steep key sections? The valley is the major trekking route to Belukha and the famous Akkem Lake and Akkem Wall.

Ak-Alakha / Argut
Argut is the biggest tributary of Katun, flowing in a remote valley between Belukha and Chuya Ranges. It's a mighty and difficult big volume river, containing among others a suicide class 6 gorge, Karagem Breach, still waiting for a crazy kayaker to run it. It has been run in a huge bublik (double-doughnut inflatable) in 2003 though. Unfortunately upper part of the river (Ak-Alakha) requires the borderland permit.

This is the medium size right tributary of Argut, which joins Argut in its middle part, just below Karagem Breach (thus the name), so Karagem-Argut trip is an obvious choice. Requires short downhill trek from the road head.

Another right tributary of Argut and a very popular moderate difficulty, low to medium volume river, entering Argut not far from its confluence with Katun. Requires short downhill trek from the road head.

This is the next right tributary of Katun below Argut, a densely populated valley and here the Chuya Road goes to Mongolia. The river itself is medium to big volume and rather easy, very popular as start for the Chuya-Katun trips due to its easy access. Much less run upper gorge (Majoy Gorge) still offers satisfaction for big volume class 5 lovers.

Chulyshman is the main river of the eastern Altai and it's a classic run. The river is very beautiful and sunny, starting as a small creek on the Mongolian plateau and flowing down through series of gorges to become a mighty big volume stream when it finally enters Teletskoye Lake, the biggest lake of the Altai.

Being officially left tributary of Chulyshman, it's just as big as the Chulyshman itself. Famous for its Lower Gorge, extremely isolated and inaccessible, it is a must see river. Be warned, the gorge is difficult and in high water is hardly runnable, sudden floods are not unknown here and emergency escape is an epic climbing work.

Chulcha, right tributary of Chulysman, enters it just above Bashkaus confluence. Some 10 km up the valley a 200-years old landslide formed huge 150m cascade waterfall (don't even think, it's not runnable), and the gorge below the fall is a whitewater jewel. The closer you hike to the fall, the more chances to have some class 6 first descents.

Chebdar, left tributary of Bashkaus, opens a list of many rarely run rivers in a vast uninhabited plateau between Lower Katun and Teletskoye Lake. The river is a very narrow canyon-like dangerous gorge, impassable by the shore. Getting to the put-in requires hard 2-3 days trek over the pass.

Bolshie (Greater) Chili
This is the next river to the north and it comes directly into Teletskoye Lake. Last 10-15 km stretch before the lake is extremely steep and difficult, impassable by the shore gorge. Just like Chebdar, 2-3 days trek over the pass is a nice warm-up.

Pyzha is flowing north around Teletskoye Lake and it's quite easy river with easy road access from lower end of the lake. Worth to mention well-known Pyzha Falls, several cascade waterfalls in the middle stretch.

Kadrin is the right tributary of Lower Katun and is perhaps (along with Greater Chili) the least traveled river of the Altai. Contains several difficult gorges and one 12 m fall (perhaps unrunnable). Trek to the put-in is long and arduous and takes 3-4 days.

On the opposite, Sumulta is the most known right tributary of Lower Katun; a medium difficulty river with a moderate trek to the put-in.

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