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Introducing Chemal

At the attractive junction of the Chemal and Katun Rivers, ever-expanding Chemal is heavily touristed in summer but remains a good base for regional explorations and makes a very pleasant day trip from Gorno-Altaisk, 95km further north.

Chemal bus station (22517; ul Pchyolkina 62) is opposite a cute brick church (ul Pchyolkina 69a) with a metal-spired wooden tower. Walk two blocks south past the central shops and a small park, then turn right to find the Altaysky Tsentr (22327; ul Beshpekskaya 6; individual/group R100/300). This comprises three Altai-style wooden ail-huts with pointed metal roofs. One is an Altai library, another celebrates Churos-Gurkin's ethnographic work, but most interesting is the traditional 'home' ail (tent-like dwelling) where septuagenarian curator Alexander Bardin demonstrates Altai crafts, shows how traditional fire-stones work, explains sheepskin nappies and brews talkan Altai tea. It's well worth the entry fee if your Russian (or Altai/Kazakh/Turkish) is good enough; opening hours vary.

Ul Beshpekskaya becomes Sovetskaya ul and, after 700m, dead-ends at a pedestrian suspension footbridge. This dizzyingly wobbly construction leads across a small canyon to a craggy island in the Katun River on which is perched the tiny wooden Ioanno Bogoslavski Chapel (9am-7pm), rebuilt in 2001 to the original 1849 design. Beside it, the rock miraculously shaped like a Madonna-and-child sculpture is supposedly natural.

A narrow but well-trodden footpath winds high along the Katun riverbank into the Varota Sartikpayev Canyon, an important place within Altai mythology. Despite power lines and summer crowds, views remain very pretty. After walking for about 15 minutes you emerge behind a small 1935 dam (GES in Russian, an acronym for hydroelectric scheme) backed by souvenir stalls. Here you can make 15m bungee jumps (pryzhki ve vodu; per jump R90; 10am-1pm & 2-7pm May-Sep) into the frothing outpour waters or 'fly' across on the kanatnaya daroga (per ride R150), an amusing elastic-pulley contraption. For much more peaceful Katun views walk, drive or cycle at least 3km further south.

El ekmonar, 5km north of Chemal, is the starting point for multiday hikes or horse rides to the seven attractive Karakol Lakes amid picturesque bald mountaintops. The lakes are approximately 30km beyond Elek- monar - start up ul Sadovaya. A sturdy 4WD could get you most of the way.

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