Overall rating 6.5-7/10. Verdict: If you accept the language barrier, you will be awestruck by a very authentic experience in a spectacular part of the world.
I am Hon from London and I recently embarked on a 15-day “private tour” trip through the Altai mountains, Gorno-Altaysk (RUS) - Chuyskiy Trakt (RUS) - Ölgii (MNG) - Khovd (MNG) - Golden Eagle Festival 2019 (MNG) - Altai Tavan Bogd National Park (MNG) - Russian Altai (RUS) - Gorno Altaysk (RUS).
I chose Leonid because I wanted to experience the ethnic and natural diversity the Altai Mountains contain, and he was the only person who operated this sort of trip in both Russian and Mongolian Altai. This, coupled with the fact that he himself is an indigenous person, are his unique selling points. Overall the tour itself was an excellent out-of-my-comfort-zone trip, where I witnessed fantastic nature in a good breadth of landmarks in a rather less-visited part of the world. The tour was extremely authentic, with no over-touristic gimmicks. If you want to really adventure and be a part of the local culture of this remote and wild part of Asia, this tour is for you. However due to myself being a foreign national, I have a few constructive suggestions for Leonid to make future tours for foreign nationals even better.
Leonid himself is an ethnic Altai-Kizhi of the Mundus Tribe of the Altai Republic in Southern Siberia, one of the 20-odd ethnic republics of the Russian Federation. He is very proud of his heritage, and despite the language barrier (more on that later), was happy to inform me about the unique culture of the Altai people. A bit on the reserved side though, but once he opens up with a beer, he’s quite a cheery man.
Planning was good - We prepared around 6 months in advance. I wanted to include two days to watch the Golden Eagle Festival as well as visiting the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. Leonid drew up a good 15-day plan for 1880 USD that comprised a nice selection of different highlights: Gorno-Altaysk, Kuray Steppe, Ölgii city, Khovd City, Golden Eagle Festival, Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. Due to work commitments I had to change the plan slightly in terms of dates, but Leonid was happy to accommodate this. As a Hong Kong passport holder crossing the Russia-Mongolia border was very straight forward (3 hrs out of Russia and 1.5 hrs in), as I did not require a visa for both countries.
Leonid was a safe driver considering some of the tough terrain we had to go through. Photo stops were permitted when possible. Bar a few minor alterations, the schedule was followed strictly with good timing - we did not miss any landmarks, which is good.
Homestays on the Russian side were provided by his Altaian family, who provided excellent hospitality and an excellent banya (Russian Sauna), together with laundry service. For this, I will be forever indebted to them. On the Mongolian side, it was a mixture of hotels, ger-camps in the cities, and local families in the National Park. I found the local families the best - although it was by no means comfortable, I got to see how local life is like in remote places.
Another good thing about Leonid was that he was happy to share his Mobile Internet - always a plus!
Here are a few notes and constructive bits of criticism/suggestions I have for this “private” tour, based on my observations.
- First and foremost, what was stated as “included” in his Indy-Guide tour description is somewhat misleading. He notified me early on that all hotels and guesthouses (ranging from 10-50 USD a night) are not included from the price. No problem, still not a bad deal. However, there are additional costs for various items stated on his initial schedule that emerged during the trip, unbeknown to me: Since the Altai Tavan Bogd NP was protected border territory, an extra local guide and a permit had to be purchased (around 40 USD/day), together with a local Sherpa guide to take you to the glacier through horseback (around 30 USD). Also, entry tickets for the Golden Eagle Festival (30 USD) were not included. Another driver/4wd was required to access Lake Dzhangyskol, which was inaccessible via normal vehicles (100 USD). These experiences were great, authentic ones but I sincerely hope that he either A.) informs this to potential travellers clearly on the “Not included” part of his Indy-Guide profile (at the time of writing it only states “lunch” as not included, and B.) states clearly these costs when the tour plan is discussed, or C.) include these in an updated tour price.
- Leonid spoke very little English, all communication was through translating between Russian and English through our phones. As a result, to me, at times he was more of a driver than a guide, potential non-Russian speaker customers should take note of this and have some expectations. That said, in the end, the language barrier wasn’t that huge of an issue for me, and that I trust that he has deep knowledge about the area in Russian. However, using phones to translate all of my questions/requests/thoughts/comments and all of his answers was simply not feasible, particularly if he is focused on driving, not to mention Yandex/Google translate do not work 100% of the time. What I recommend him to do is to create a little guide-book in English, or even an annotated map detailing all his knowledge about history and facts of the Altai.
- We did a trip to the Potanin Glacier of the Altai Tavan Bogd NP. This included a 2 hr horseback ride. However, due to snow and ice, we had to hike the final 3 or so km. There was no snack, no food, no hot drink for the entire 7 hour trip, and I was not notified about this. Coupled with the fact that we were 3000m high, the hike was very strenuous for me. More importantly, he did not have any first-aid equipment (he didn’t have any baggage with him!). The whole valley was very remote with the next settlement 2.5 hrs away. Not only should he have supplies - at least for himself for his own sake! It would have been nice was for him to warn/communicate to me the supply requirements beforehand - food, drink, first-aid, clothing - for each of the upcoming trips, whether I had food, and if not, stock up in a nearby settlement.
- Although initial planning went well, it turned out during the trip that he did not book any hotels in advance. Due to the Golden Eagle Festival, some hotels in Ölgii and nearby Khovd were fully booked due to an increased demand. In Khovd, we had to “find” hotels. Although I confirmed my participation only 1 month in advance, it would have been nice if the schedule and hotels were secured as soon as I told him about my flight confirmations, as that was more or less fixed. However, Leonid only gave me the exact schedule 3 days before the trip began, leaving me to wonder whether he left it *that* late to set the schedule.
Some of his itineraries were too “rigid” without giving choice for the traveller, although the issue were perhaps due to the language barrier. I am fully aware that this was by no means a luxury tour, but sometimes, allowing customers options would have been appreciated.
- As alluded to previously, some minor alterations were made - for example on one day, because we made it back to the town of Ölgii from the Altai Tavan Bogd NP at 2pm, it meant that we were able to head back to Russia on the same day (while the original plan was that split into two days), allowing more time to explore Russian Altai. While of course this was a good idea in the end, it seemed like he already “decided for himself” to execute this change. I felt like this should have been an option and the customer should have had a chance to decide the schedule to be changed after a 6 hour road trip on rough terrain. Who knows, maybe the next customer would want to get some souvenirs in Mongolia before returning to Russia.
- It would have been appreciated it if at possible, guests had some choice as to lunch/dinner - during the tour it was always his “designated” eatery. All road trip food stops were roadside eateries that served rather greasy meaty local food, especially in Mongolia. This may pose a problem for Western stomachs and vegetarians. Future travellers should consider stocking up instant noodles or snacks for example if they prefer not to risk it.
- Another example was at the Potanin Glacier, where due to the lack of supplies I was already very tired after the 3km hike. We stopped at a point ~500m from the edge of the glacier and I was too tired to continue but Leonid seemed have “decided for himself” to go down closer. This should also have been an option and the customer, should have had the say to rest or to carry on.
- Since I was a solo traveller, it was just me and him. I would have appreciated it more if during hikes he didn’t wander off far too ahead of me (as I was behind photographing etc. etc.) and kept more of an eye to ensure my safety, as we did not have proper hiking equipment and first-aid. Although none of the hikes were particularly technically challenging, some parts did contain icy cliffside bits, posing some danger.
Overall, Leonid was a good driver. The Altai region is very interesting, diverse and spectacular. The idea of a trip through both the Russian and Mongolian parts of the Altai mountains with a person who’s indigenous to the region, is indeed a unique selling point of Leonid’s tours. In this aspect, the tour in terms of what I got to see and experience was a very good and I am well satisfied and fulfilled with it. If he considers my suggestions, his tours as a service can have the potential to be a world-class experience for international tourists.