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Discover Altai, Siberia

The golden mountains of Siberia blossom for only three months a year. Photographer COLE PENNINGTON finds the window and takes in the view.

Published on Jun 6, 2016


SIBERIA ISN'T ALWAYS a rolling blanket of white. For a fleeting three months a year, the Altai region of central Siberia shakes off the snow and sprouts a kaleidoscope of wild flowers and greenery. The melt reveals roads that aren't on any map, and even in the halcyon days of summer these dirt trails will chew up and spit out the average car. In the Altai Mountains, the UAZ-469, or "Russian Jeep" reigns supreme, but our driver told us that when you fix one thing, two things break. So we opted for a Land Rover Defender, a capable off-road vehicle with military roots.

In Mongolian, altai means "the golden mountain." The UNESCO World Heritage range sits at the crossroads of Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

I piggybacked on a British expedition to the Scythian Tombs, where Pazyryk mummies from the third century BC were unearthed eight years ago. Japanese, Turks and Native Americans all claim this area as their land of origin. Local Altai—historically nomadic people who are an aesthetic blend of European and Mongolian—believe they are the descendants of the Pazyryk culture, while the Turks insist the Pazyrks migrated west into Turkey. Turkish visitors place flags around the area to reiterate to Russians that this land was once theirs. Our guides removed each fluttering little political statement. Not on their watch.

AltaiRoutes through the mountains and steppes are carved out every summer by off-road vehicles, so local knowledge is required to navigate these temporary trails.

Luckily, ancient politics took a back-burner on our nights spent camped out in the Aktry valley, eating Russian dumplings stuffed with reindeer meat and taking shots of vodka with local Maroshka berry juice. The vodka had extra heat, the berries a bit more sweetness, the view a dash more luster, for knowing the season was close to its end. Soon the snow would start to fall, and Altai would disappear into the flurry.

Aktry Valley, Altai
Traditional medicines contain coveted elixirs such as velvet reindeer antlers, cut up and steeped in a local spirit, said to boost virility.



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A Land Rover is perfect for navigating Altai's unforgiving terrain.
  • Frozen for most of the year, mineral-rich waterfalls, like the Korbu Falls on the bank of Lake Teletskoye, are popular stops.
  • The elusive snow leopard is a rarity in the wild. Catch a glimpse of the majestic cat pictured here at the Novosibirsk Zoo.
  • Caviar is plentiful in Siberia and you can buy the canned variety as a souvenir.
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