Trip Report: Siberia's Kaa-Khem River
Vlad and I just returned from an amazingly epic trip to the Kaa-Khem River, located in Siberia near the Mongolian border. Our trip began with flights into Moscow, where we spent a couple of days exploring this historic city before flying to the city of Abakan in the heart of Siberia.
From Abakan, we traveled by van to Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic, which is a region in Southern Siberia whose residents are mostly Mongolian Buddhists living in small villages. Tuva gained notoriety in the US after physicist Richard Feynman attempted to reach Kyzyl in the 1980s due to his fascination with their nomadic culture and elaborate postage stamps.
From Kyzyl, we loaded our equipment into a 6-wheel Russian Military Ural truck and jumped in the back eager to see the Tuvan countryside. Just a few minutes out of town we reached a dirt road, which began our two-day drive through the Sayan Mountains along the Russian-Mongolian Border.
We crossed many river valleys, crossed several remote mountain passes, and encountered many native Tuvans along the way. When we finally reached the river near the village of Kungurtuk, we were ready to say goodbye military truck and hello river rafts!
Our first day on the river was a long one as we needed to row 25 miles of flat water in order to reach our first camp on the Sagr-Er River. The Tuvans in this region have a reputation for causing problems with foreigners so it was important that we made it to this camp out of their reach.
We arrived by nightfall and one of our fellow Russian rafters, Sasha, who loves to fish quickly pulled out his pole and stood in the cold water of the Sagr-Er. Within a few minutes he was pulling in a powerful fish, which we quickly recognized as a Taimen, one of the greatest prize fish in the world. As it turned out, Sasha had initially hooked a Harrios (similar to a trout) and as he reeled it in, the mighty Taimen ate the Harrios on his hook, leaving Sasha a beautiful Taimen with a nice Harrios in its belly.
The Melzeysky Cascade
By our third day we reached the Melzeysky Cascade, a series of 30 rapids flowing through granite bedrock.
The most difficult rapids were #3, #19, and #22. The Russian Catamaran broke part of its wooden frame after #19, so we stopped to have lunch and repair it. To do this Anatoli, another of our fellow guides found a piece of wood on the bank and created a brace that they used to strengthen the frame. Amazingly, the brace he built worked for the entire trip.
The Old Believers
On day 4 we stopped at Katazy Village, which is inhabited by Old Believers. These are people who left civilization during the time of Peter the Great because they couldn’t accept the reformations of the Orthodox Church. They showed us around their village including extensive gardens and greenhouses. We bought fresh milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, whey, and vegetables from them to supplement our food supply.
Russians describe "Cheeks" as a narrow gorge in the river with vertical walls on both sides. The Cheeks section of the Kaa-Khem consists of 10 rapids with rock islands and vertical rock walls on both sides.
This was a wonderful series of rapids and from #7 on they were fun and continuous all the way to the end. We stopped a few times to scout and set safety during this continuous stretch.
A few minutes past the Cheeks, we reached the confluence with the Kyzyl Khem, a larger tributary that joined us on river right. The confluence had artifacts left from previous raft groups of the past 30 years as well as a journal that each group stopped to write in. We noticed that a popular thing to mention is whether or not the group had caught a Taimen, and according to what we read, it seemed as if we were part of an elite few that had. We took some wonderful photos and added some notes (in English and Russian) to the river journal.
From the confluence we paddled about a mile downstream to a wonderful campsite for a much deserved layover day.
The Banya (Russian River Sauna)
We spent our layover day relaxing, hiking, playing cards, and putting together the Banya. This involved gathering 50 rocks to build a huge fireplace that would be used to heat up the rocks.
That night we built a shelter over the hot rocks and gathered inside. We would spend a few minutes in the sauna and then jump into the cold river. It was a wonderful feeling that everyone repeated as many times as they could. After a week on the river it was a cleansing experience, that also involved hitting each other with bunches of birch branches (guess you had to be there?).
The Lower Gorge
The lower part of the Kaa-Khem reminded Vlad and I of the Main Salmon in Idaho. Since the water more than doubled after the confluence with the Kyzyl Khem, we now had big waves in a big canyon. Much of the time there was granite bedrock along the river and beautiful granite islands.
The Drive to Abakan
Our last day was spent driving eight hours back to Abakan through Kyzyl. We reached the geographic center of Asia and stopped at a famous monument that marks this spot just below the confluence of the Kaa Khem and Biy Khem, which begins the famous Yenisey River.
The drive back to Abakan took us over the beautiful Sayan Mountains and through a wonderful Natural Park. Our trip ended with a nice dinner in Abakan where we relived our moments of adventure and savored the experience of a lifetime.