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River Guide • Altai • Karagem
Rivers by Region

Difficulty in August: 4 (5)
From: Karagem Meadows – Alt. 1920 m (6300 ft)
To: Argut Confluence - Alt. 1280 m (4200 ft)
Distance: 45 km (28 miles)
River Days: 2-3 (plus 1 day trekking in)
Average Gradient: 14 m/km (70 ft/mile)
Est. Max Gradient: 25-30 m/km (125-150 ft/mile)
Typical Flow in August: 20-30 cms (700-1000 cfs)
Best Season: July-August
First-hand Information: YES

Karagem area map
Karagem area map

The Karagem is a medium size right tributary of Argut, joining it right after its [in]famous Karagem Breach. The Karagem run is naturally continued by the Argut, and indeed nearly all groups combine Karagem and Argut as a single trip.

The river origins from a closed valley squeezed between snowy North- and South- Chuya Ranges and flows nearly straight west all the way to the confluence. The most difficult is first 8-10 km of the river known as “upper” or “first” gorge; the rest of it consists of mostly standalone rapids separated by easy water or even long flat stretches.

Being surrounded by many snowy peaks, the Karagem has significant glacier flow component. During sunny days water level rises sharply in the afternoon, especially in the upper gorge.

Access & Logistics
A rough local road forks the Chuya Road at the village of Ortolyk, just few kilometers below Kosh-Agach, the last major settlements on this route before the Mongolian border. This local road used to go to a small village of Beltir, but the village was recently destroyed by an earthquake and is now abandoned. The road still goes further and sharply climbs a 2800 m (9200 ft) Karagem pass before disappearing in swampy fields beyond.

In the past, the road went all the way down to the large terraces on the shores of Karagem, known as Karagem Meadows, and was used by locals to bring construction wood from there (the upper Chuya basin is almost completely woodless). Nowadays, though, the road is not being maintained anymore and in fact does not exist beyond the pass. From here you have to hike some 10-12 km down to the river; most likely by yourself as nearest villages are too far and chances to find any horses around the pass are pretty much zero.

The take-out is possible at the Argut confluence, where a rough road goes up the Argut, then along its tributary, the Djazator and along Mongolian border back to Kosh-Agach. This route is very long though (full day drive to Kosh-Agach); therefore it is much easier and makes much more sense to keep paddling down the Argut. See Argut description for details about the river and the take-out.

The entire trip must be planned completely self-supported; there are no settlements along the way. Emergency escape from the upper (most difficult) part of the river is better done by hiking back via Karagem pass; from the lower stretches you may use the road mentioned above to hike up the Argut valley to the Djazator village, situated at the confluence of the tributary of the same name (about 30 km or 19 miles). Note that local traffic does not exist on this road and you must be very lucky to find a vehicle around Karagem confluence.

River Description

Karagem Meadows to Kara-Airy, 15 km (9 miles) – 1-1.5 days
As the name of the put-in suggests, the river is pretty flat here and only after about 3-4 km the valley narrows and first rapids appear. Once started, the whitewater is quite continuous for the next 10 km all the way to the end of the upper gorge. As for any river of this type, it makes no sense to describe rapids in details; they are continuous and indistinguishable.

Approximately after 5 km, just in the middle of the gorge, a left tributary brings mudflow into the Karagem pretty much every spring. As a result, the riverbed here became so much littered with rock debris changing every year that makes it impossible to say what it will look like; you may come across completely unrunnable wreckage as well as easy straightforward rapids all the way down. In recent years people reported that the river became littered nearly to the end of the gorge.

The upper gorge is a heavy forested area; and as for any river not powerful enough to flush down all the trees falling into it, care must be taken about the logs, especially on the blind corners.

Kara-Airy to Argut confluence, 30 km (19 miles) – 1-1.5 days
As the upper gorge ends, the valley opens and a big tributary, Kara-Airy, nearly the size of the Karagem itself, comes in from the left.

The valley narrows again after 3-4 km; this section is sometimes referred as the second gorge and contains couple of easy rapids along with quite a big one, “The Screw”, class 4+ to 5- in high water.

The river then flattens again for the next 7-8 km before dropping into another long class 4/4+ rapid, “The Robber”, and flattens again for yet another 8-10 km.

The final set of rapids, known as “Chibit Rapids”, about 3 km long, starts on a smooth left turn of the valley, where Argut’s valley is already clearly seen ahead. These are quite powerful but straightforward rapids, all runnable from the boat. In the middle of the section road bridge crosses the river and it is possible place for the take-out, if you have a vehicle arranged to wait you there.

Most groups, though, continue 3-4 km down to the Argut confluence and then down to Katun. See Argut description for details about the river and the take-out.

The Upper gorge The Upper gorge The Upper gorge The Upper gorge
Mudflow in the Upper gorge The Upper gorge below mudflow The Robber Chibit Rapids and the road bridge

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