Trekking to the Blue Lake
While a disappointing amount of Altai is out of bounds to foreign tourists without the correct – and hard to obtain – permits, one place you can visit with fairly minimal effort is the Blue Lake halfway up the side of the spectacular frozen world of Mt Aktru (4044m).
The mountain lies within the protected Altai National Park and is only the highest of a knot of glaciated peaks surrounded by almost pristine conifer forest. The walk to the small, often frozen, turquoise-tinged lake, set inside a barren bowl of scree slopes, takes around six hours return. The route is fairly clearly waymarked as it wends its way through stunning old-growth forest and then up the edge of the massive glacier that drips off the side of Aktru before crossing a barren ridge and down to the lake. The walk itself is generally not too taxing and is remarkable for the changes of scenery in such a short distance.
Under certain weather conditions it's actually possible to walk up and over the glacier to get to the lake without the use of crampons and ropes. However, this should really only be attempted if you are with a knowledgeable guide who is aware of the glacier’s many moods. Between mid-June and mid-August there are likely to be plenty of other people walking to the lake and a guide isn't strictly needed (though avoid walking on the glacier). However, these are not just high mountains, they're high mountains in Siberia, which means the weather can change here very, very fast. Even in summer it can go from baking sunshine one moment to a snow storm the next. It's vital to come prepared with very warm and waterproof clothing as well as supplies to see you through the night if you get stuck by the weather. So, while a guide isn't obligatory, it's certainly a very sensible idea. Unfortunately none are available in the vicinity of the mountains. Contact a respected local trekking company in advance; Altair-Tur is recommended.
The base for the ascent to the lake is the bleak roadside village of Kuray. From here you need to get a 'taxi' (think more along the lines of a tank than a saloon car) for the gruelling 32km drive along an absolutely dreadful mud track to a parking and camping area under the trees (allow up to two hours for the drive). The smallest vehicle, which will hold four passengers, costs R7000 return. Vehicles often wait by the edge of Kuray village, but if not there's a very helpful, English-speaking information office also on the edge of the village and they will call a taxi for you (do not even consider attempting the drive in your own car).
The lake can only be reached between late May and September.