Adventure Culture Mongolia Nature

Exploring the far… far west

on
October 12, 2018

This was our first expedition in our trip around Asia. We departed from Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, on a local flight to the city of Ölgii in the province of Bayan-Ölgii, a region where the majority of the population is Kazakh, the second largest ethnic group in Mongolia. As soon as we arrived we met our friend Taskhyn, a young guide who is starting his own agency and who helped us to organize the logistics for our trip.

Altai mountain range in western Mongolia

Across Western Mongolia

In the countryside of Mongolia there are no road which makes it very easy to get lost in the middle of nowhere. That’s why it’s necessary to have a local driver and a 4×4 car. An other option would be to rent or buy horses (actually, it’s cheaper to buy them than to rent them), but to do that kind of adventure you definitely need more time. We actually met Dani, a Spanish traveller, and also Jessy, a English girl, who had done this and sound as an amazing experience! We took the first option and enjoyed a classic “Uaz“, a kind of 60`s Russian van capable to overpass any type of terrain, climbing mountains, crossing rivers, ice, mud and snow, but be prepared for a non-stop bouncing trip (better if you skip breakfast!!!). To our surprise, in addition to the driver and a local guide/translator, we were surprised to have Janka, a Kazakh lady as part of the team. She was in charge of feeding us during the whole trip, cooking delicious local food (best thing could ever happen to us!).

We spent the first part of the trip at the foot of the snow-covered mountains of the Altai mountain range in the Tavan Bogd National Park, 6 hours away (bouncing) from Ölgii. We stayed in a very nice and big ger (or yurt, as it is called in the West) with a Tuvan family, (another of the 20 ethnic groups in Mongolia). The family received us with the classic salty milk tea, yogurt, tones of butter, small kind of stone cheeses (people who are lactose intolerant: take your pills!) and a couple of colourful “del” (traditional coat) to resist the cold weather. Our first night we had an amazing sky full of stars and romantically slept all together on the floor (me, with 2 camel skin sleeping bags to resist the cold). The next morning we grabbed the horses to explore the mountains and the Potanine glacier, a 12 km long glacier that limits with the frontiers between Russia, Mongolia and China.

On the next morning, we woke up and everything was totally white… it had snowed all night long. We now understand why the goaty were trying to enter inside the ger all the night, they were frozen. There is not doubt that… Winter is coming!

The next few days we moved south, saw some petroglyphs and stone sculptures from 3,500 BC. It’s crazy that these monuments, although so ancient, do not have any kind of protection. We also visited a very beautiful forest with waterfalls in the Turgen mountain range where we got lost for a while.

Nomad hospitality

Near the forest (and after 3 hours bouncing in the Uaz…), we stayed in the little winter house of Tanggul, Janka`s sister, and together with 7 people we slept tight but warm after eating “5 fingers” – a local meal made of meat, potatoes, onions and wantans that Janka prepared for us- and several shots of vodka. For people in the countryside of Mongolia, receiving people at their homes (even strangers) is something normal. As nomads it’s a strategy for survival and and also a good opportunity to socialize with others, as they are constantly moving to search good pastures for the cattle.

In our way back to Olgii, we also went through Tsengel, a small village where some Khoomii singers (or throat singers) live. We had the chance to stop and met one of them, it was really amazing! (check the post we made about them!). After stopping in Ölgii to finally have a shower in a kind of ex-communist sauna facility and attending to the Festival of Golden Eagle Hunters, we headed south to stay with an eagle hunter family. They were very nice hosts who killed a sheep to prepared us a welcome feast in which we had to eat even the brain of the animals (vegetarians: think twice before coming to Mongolia!).

During our stay they taught to shepherd the animals while riding the horse and took us to the mountains to show us how they hunted with the eagle. Alban experienced the strength of the eagle by landing on his arm while I could only keep the eagle few minutes on my arm, because it was really heavy.

Conclusion

If you come to Mongolia we definitely recommend coming to this area not only for the beautiful and impressive landscapes of the Altai mountain range, vast steppes, forests, lakes and mountains, but also to experience the cultural diversity of the country by learning how people from different ethnic groups (such as the Kazakhs and the Tuvans) live with their traditions, lifestyle and customs… an incredible experience!

The Altai

In summary

What we liked:

  • Going in low season (in October): lower prices and less tourists. It could be colder but is not as cold as in Winter and pastures are yellow/orange. You could find good and cheap warm clothes in the Naraam Tuul black market.
  • Hospitality of the local people.

What we didn’t like:

  • Accommodation infrastructure in Olgii is pretty basic, considering it’s the biggest town in the province. We recommend to stay in the countryside with a family, and better in a ger!.
  • Attending to the Golden Eagle Hunters Festival can be definitely a very interesting experience but we felt it had lost its authenticity, as we felt it had turn more into a commercial performance for tourists. Also, we felt very uncomfortable about some tourists who desperately tried to get a good shot of the hunters acting in a very invasive and disrespectful manner.

Useful information:

How to get there:

  • You can take a local flight from UB to Olgyi, look at Aero Mongolia and Hunus. AeroMongolia is very good and with modern airplanes, although a bit expensive in high season, that’s why it’s better to buy your flight with time. In both lines you can only carry up to 30 kilos including your carry-on bag.
  • A cheapest way to go is to take a bus. Much cheaper but must longer too, it takes approximately 2 days.
  • you can also hire a driver with a van in an agency in UB.
  • Last option, horse or camel, but that’s another story

When here:

  • You can hire a driver and his van, some of them speak some English and will offer you the classic tour depending on the number of days you want.
  • If you want a local agency, we recommend Western Altai, our friend Taskhyn travel agency, Western Altai.

What to take:

  • Your equipment will obviously depend on the season, but once summer is over, it can be cold and ger doesn’t have “central heating”, it’s hot during the day but the end of the night can be very cold.
  • It’s always welcome to offer small gifts for families who host you. Rather than candies for children who do not necessarily have a dentist in the area, it is better to give “useful” gifts such as coloured pencils or small sketchbooks. For families, skin creams (women will love you), toothpastes or soaps that are sometimes hard for them to buy. Men will appreciate cigarettes.
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Two animals from different worlds (France and Peru) but we share something in common: the need to explore.