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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rapid Transit

ON THE KATUN RIVER, Western Siberia - On maps, it is called Akkemsky Proryv, a two-meter-long stretch of rapids on the Katun River near the border with China. But as I studied the churning water up close, with its violent whirlpools and rushing currents, I dubbed it "the Cauldron".


And I was about to enter it.


I had not come to the Katun looking for river thrills. I was interested in the Altai region, located in the corner of Russia where it meets Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. My goal was to visit the mountain villages tucked into the remote valleys here in one of the least-explored places on earth. In this mountainous melting pot where Asia and Europe meet, alternate waves of Mongolians, Turks, Cossacks and Russians set up segregated villages where a two-kilometer hike to the next village brought a new language and culture.


The central artery of the region is the Katun River, a Class V river (the top level of rafting difficulty of navigable rivers) that has become the premier Russian rafting adventure for foreigners since it was first navigated by an international team in 1988. I would float down the Katun for seven days, stopping at the several dozen villages located on its banks.


I got more than I bargained for. The first sign of trouble came on my third day, at the Cauldron.


Studying the rapids, my gung-ho river guide, Sasha, wore a sly grin that I took as reason to be nervous. Fortunately, Alexei, the captain of our raft, was calling the shots. I clung to his cautious nature. I had never rafted before, so I was utterly dependent on these two men whom I had met only four days before.


Alexei had first warned me of this stretch of river as we flew to our put-in point. But at that time it was just a point on a topographical map. Now it was the Cauldron.


But we were safe, I told myself. From the river bank, Alexei and Sasha had studied the Cauldron and come up with its antidote: the Plan. We would pick our way along the river's right bank thereby avoiding the worst of the rapids. It was a cowardly plan, and I liked it.


We pushed off the bank and almost immediately things began to go wrong. We quickly moved much farther from shore than was mandated under the Plan.


"Backwards! " Alexei was yelling to paddlers Sasha and Gary, my photographer, as I held tight to the raft's ropes and stared straight into the Cauldron. From this point, a meter away, I could see that the water didn't just fall, it boiled. In a single moment, it seemed to be moving downstream, upstream, and straight to the river bottom in whirlpools. It roared.


"Backwards! " Alexei cried, but it was too late. For the first time since we had put in three days ago, I felt the Katun take ahold of us. In seconds we were in the heart of the Cauldron.


The first wave broke over me like an ocean wave. Then the raft sunk low and picked up speed in a wet ramp that led to the next wave. It was enormous.


Then I was inside it.


"Forward! " Alexei cried. Hadn't he called out "backwards" a few seconds before?


Suddenly the oar slipped from Alexei's hand and smashed Gary in the head. Gary slumped down low in the raft with me. He wore a dazed expression.


I glanced down and noticed for the first time that the raft was filled with water.


There was no way we could go on like this for the two-kilometer length of the canyon. I clutched the rope so tightly that had I died at that moment I am certain searchers would have found my corpse still holding on.


"Forward! " Alexei cried and then I understood what he was trying to do. There was a small inlet along the river's shoreline on the opposite bank. If we could make it there, we could perhaps halt the raft's progress.


In a flash we arrived. Ropes in hand, Sasha and Alexei leaped from the raft and began a tug of war with the Katun. The river pulled. Sasha and Alexei pulled. In this tiny bay, the power of the Katun was diminished and they were able to stop the raft.


Everyone was soaked. Alexei, the master of understatement, turned to me and uttered my favorite line of the trip. "Very technical rafting", he said.


Actually, we were suffering from a problem we had first spotted three days before, from the air.


As our plane circled above Barnaul, the capital of the Altai republic, we saw that the Ob River, formed by the confluence of the Katun and the Biya, was flooded over its banks. Heavy rains this spring raised the river to its highest level in 24 years.


Early in the trip, the high water - two meters above normal - was not a problem. We coasted along at a brisk 10 kilometers per hour pace, pretty much as I had planned in the safety of my Moscow office. It was an oddly pleasant sensation simply drifting along with the water. In the cocoon of the raft, it often seemed that I was standing still and it was the Altai landscape that was drifting past.


But there was an odd side to this sensation. In conventional forms of transportation, I control the pace of my work. But on the river, the Katun made the rules. As a result, most of my impressions of the Altai region are like snapshots in an album, joined together into one story only by the grace of the Katun.


The first such snapshot came the night before we put in. Taking a walk after dinner, Gary and I unexpectedly encountered a drunken man on horseback who introduced himself as an Altai cossack. The conversation turned quickly to his greatest fear for the Altai - the environment.


"They haven't been able to destroy nature here - yet", he said. "But listen to me, they are doing evil things with nuclear weapons over in Kazakhstan. They never tell the truth".


Just as quickly as he appeared, he galloped off, bouncing about on the saddle as though he could fall off at any moment.


We put in at 10: 38 A. M. the next day. Besides the raft, we had a smaller cata-raft manned by two guides from Barnaul, Viktor and Lyosha. At this spot, the Koksa River was fast but utterly smooth, and it was with no difficulty that we spent the next two days floating gently toward the Katun River.


We visited Ust Koksa, a regional center produced by a Soviet-era policy that combined and eliminated "unnecessary" villages. I asked an Altai woman who was cleaning a recreation center about the return of Altai culture. She seemed surprised by the question.


"Only the old people know about such things", she said.


We paused in two more villages, one cossack and the other Altai, before spending several hours in Verkhny Uinov at the Museum of Nikolai Rerik, the artist-philosopher-Altai traveler. But even better than the museum was the village itself, set magically on a grassy plain framed by snow-capped peaks and a tributary of the Katun.


With my plan going so well I was perhaps cocky when we reached the Cauldron. The Katun taught me a lesson in respect.


Once the raft was bailed of water and fastened to the shore, Sasha and Alexei began to formulate Plan II.


I too had been studying our next obstacle downstream, a cascade and giant whirlpool followed by another and yet another as far as I could see. "I'm afraid to get back into that raft", I said to Gary, "and I'm not ashamed to say that".


For a half hour Sasha and Alexei smoked cigarettes and studied the river. Finally, they presented us with Plan II: a portage. We would carry our things 150 meters up the steep rock face. Meanwhile, the more maneuverable cata-raft would go downstream to the end of the rapids. The raft would be released, without passengers, and then grabbed downstream by Viktor and Lyosha on the cata-raft.


It took us three hours to scale the canyon wall. It was a treacherous climb, with loose rocks and rootless shrubs. It began to drizzle, and the ground became even more slippery. The enemy now was the mountainside.


Camped that night on an inclined mountainside, my dreams were of falling. I awoke to discover I had spent the night sliding toward the tent door.


The next day, the release and recapture of the raft went off without a hitch. When I finally saw our raft again, it was tied up safely at the end of the canyon, directly opposite a plaque commemorating two rafters who had died in that spot two years earlier. The bodies were never recovered. I no longer questioned the correctness of Plan II.


Later that day, we reached the rafter's museum, a milestone for Katun rafters. Here on a grassy knoll where the Argut River meets the Katun, rafters pause to leave behind mementos of their passing: a broken oar, a poem, a bottle of vodka. A politically minded rafter erected a plaque scolding Lenin for bringing the "communist experiment" to Russia.


I wanted to leave something behind, so I dressed a wood figure of President Boris Yeltsin in a The Moscow Times T-shirt. Satisfied, we got back in the raft and continued the journey.


The river flowed on. Suddenly, the trees fell away and the landscape opened up as forest gave way to steppe.


I saw a man who lives alone tending bees. I saw Altai cowboys who live on the commission they receive for every pound of increase in the weight of their herds. Cowboys, little more than icons for cigarette advertisements in the United States, are making a comeback in the Altai. The river flowed on and the images whizzed by: Several precious minutes spent inside a traditional Altai yurt in the tidy Altai village of Yaloman; the spectacularly beautiful village at Tyungur; and the garbage-infested village of Inya, which was founded in the 18th century by Old Believers fleeing religious persecution in Russia, but which today doesn't even have a church.


On Day 7, right on schedule, we reached our exit point. Though not precisely as planned, the river had shown me a slice of the Altai. It is a region whose colorful, Eurasian heritage has been integrated, diluted and, ultimately, nearly destroyed under Soviet power. The ethnic villages that had impelled me to come have been transformed into poor collective farms that could be found almost anywhere in Russia.


We packed our things onto the bus, bid farewell to the Katun and began our journey home.


And the river flowed on.