Chuya highway

«Here is the path that human life follows from the known to the unknown, and on the sides are the traces of those who passed it thousands of years ago, and centuries ago, and decades».
In 1933, the journey along the Chuya military highway from Biysk to Tashanta and back took a whole month. On January 1, 1935, the Chuysky highway (tract) was put into operation. Since then, there have been only two drastic changes. In 1961, instead of Biysk, Novosibirsk became the starting point, and the length grew to 968 kilometers. And in 1984, a new road was built through the Chike-Taman Pass.

From centuries ago many paths crossed the steppes up to thick taiga around Ob river. They were challenging for nomads and their flocks as well as for cavalries and merchant caravans. The valleys would be striped with cliffs, the rocks were growing as flowers and the cold rivers flooded so much that couldn't have been crossed. Almost a century into being a part of Russia, but Altai was not possible to explore further than the place where the capital is based at now – called Ulala. The reason to overcome the difficulties was trade.

History ann culture
DOWNLOAD THE AUDIO GUIDE and listen to track # 26 about Chuya highway

Petr Dikarev

Philip Vasiliev
Sanyia Shkarban
Archive of the Anokhin's National Museum of the Altai Republic

Publication date:
March 19, 2021
By the middle of the 19 century the rumour had it that Mongolian Buddhists traveled from the Suok peak to south part of the Chuya valley in June every year to lay a wooden chip at the trunk of the sacred tree in canyon Baikhgach. They usually stopped at the Buraty river. Though the pilgrims were always accompanied by Chinese warriors, shepherds with sheeps – many people. The river became a place of gathering of people and merchants, so the fair got a name of 'cheru keldy' meaning 'the troops are here'. A good knife you could trade for 10 sheep, a forged hammer for 20 and a good musket for 200 sheep. Other goods were on demand too – gunpowder, plates, fabric, instruments – well, everything Altaians had bought in the north of Russia before the fair, though half cheaper. The game was a risk. The bravest would invest and travel with security guards to Katun upper part. That is when the Altaians learned what is now called 'predatory pricing'. The merchants had left no chance to the competitors and the guards would care about the bosses to walk away safely.

International trade was much more profitable than national. The deals with Mongolians would not stop for a day, storages and trading posts appeared, as well as motels, cafes and river crosses, the south way created a lot of employment. Only 30 years later the government got to get under control the place, when they cleaned the area up from the robbers, set up customs and trade inspection. The last task to be done was making the path safe and accessible for all kinds of transport. But the investments were not available since the Trans Siberian Railway was being constructed. In 1893 the government a little with the help of merchants. No regrets – in 1903 the road was reconstructed and the trade turnover increased 6 times. Though the road was destroyed rather quickly by the carts and caravans.

A very confident merchant Maznev from Biysk in 1910 tried to reach Mongolia on an expensive car similar to an automobile but never succeeded – he had to come back riding a horse. In summer 1914 a team of Shishkov – an engineer and future writer – got in charge of the road. He calculated the routes – left bank route over the same way it used to be, through villages Altayskoye, Cherga and Shebalino; and a new route along the right bank of Katun. The latter was chosen but in 1916 the project was paused – the country was taken away by World War I and other expenses were coming up.

They got back to the construction only in 1922 when the road was named governmental and had to be ready for cars to pass. The task was hard. Сhauffeur Nikolai Mikhailov and his partner in a light Ford met in Biysk the high authorities who came to assess the progress of the work. The inspection had planned to calculate the costs but gave up the idea of getting there by car and took a horse cart to drive over the Chuysky. The result showed it all – the car arrived to the destination 2 days later than the cart. First regular trips to Mongolia and back were serviced by SovMongTorg company. The critical conditions of the road and unreliable transport demanded careful and cold-blooded drivers, though the road is sprayed with blood of many of them.
In 1933 the road became the most significant in the region and got its name 'Сhuysky military highway'. The border levee, gravel and bridges were put mostly by the locals and the prisoners (who were the main working powers of Russia at those times). Those events are all heroic but tragic. However, the road was exploited during its construction and the way from Biysk to Tashanta on the Mongolian border took almost a month.

January 1, 1935 the highway was ready. During all these years only two significant events happened: in 1961 the starting point was moved from Biysk to Novosibirsk and the length of the road became 968 kilometers. The other event was the new road over Chike-Taman pass in 1984.

Now Сhuysky highway (also highway R-256) is a part of Asian route AN 4 from the capital of Siberia (Novosibirsk) through Biysk, Yarantay, Urumchi (Сhina) to Karachi (Pakistan). If you travel from the starting point of Biysk you will find a lot of features of a typical highway – gas station, cafes, motels. Though the real start of the highway is in Biysk – from kilometer 0 to Aktash, Aktash to Mongolia. The first part of the road is pulsing with tourists, bringing them from the cities to the mountains and recreational sites.
While traveling, take a break after Inya village at the viewpoint at the Sai-Sugat canyon to watch the Chuya river flowing into the Katun – the latter is ending here for now. The next hundreds of kilometers the road follows the river that gave it the name. Chuya is about 280 kilometer long, starting in swamps and creeks at the Chikharev crest bottom. The scientists in the 19 century were arguing which river flows into which.

Right behind Aktash village the infrastructure changes dramatically, for example the part from Kosh-Agach to the Mongolian border is almost uninhabited. Deserted Chuysky appears here as an image of the world in miniature – the line that the life of a human-being is following, from the known to the unknown, you would see the footprints of those who walked the way hundreds and thousands of years ago. Nothing will stop you now – you're just a tiny drop in Chuya steppe.

A Russian writer Vasily Makarov compared the highway to dramatic love. The road following a turbulent river creates a philosophical sense of its presence – they are like two creatures, who love each other passionately approaching each other, but then falling out they separate their ways for some time, not forever, as they can't live without each other.

There are few roads in the world that would cross four climate zones – from forest steppe plains to the high altitude tundra. What do you see now? Whatever it is – it is included in National Geographic list of 10 the most beautiful highways in the world. The Chuysky highway is exactly number 5. But who knows – may be it will get a higher place in your heart.


Trip is more comfortable with an audio guide. Download the most complete Audio Guide to the Altai Mountains ALTAI MOUNTAINS GUIDE, verified by researchers of the Anokhin's National Museum of the Altai Republic and listen to this story (track #26) and the rest of the tracks about nature, history and culture, archeology and activities in the Altai Mountains.
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