Mongolian Altai Adventure – Climbing the Top of Mongolia
Boundless green steppes where horses roam freely, rugged deserts where Bactrian camels rule, big blue sky contrasting with little white gers (yurts), a landlocked country watched over by the intimidating and fiery spirit of Genghis Khan – these were the images of Mongolia, which made my heart yearn to experience the wilderness of Mongolia! Last summer my wish came true and we planned to spend twenty days in Mongolia. Reading Lonely Planet’s Mongolia, made me realized there is so much more to Mongolia than my limited perceptions. Mongolia is incomplete without its lofty mountains, deep lakes, pristine rivers, and the incomparable hospitality of nomadic Kazakhs. Here is one of the stories from my unforgettable experience in the Mongolian Altai Mountains.
We planned to spend half of our visit to the Altai mountains. Altai, the cradle of Scythian-Turkic culture that straddles Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan and lies at the dead center of Asia. This confluence of cultures and borders, the stamping ground of Genghis Khan and generations of Silk Road traders, is now a remote, less-visited corner of the world. The plan was to quickly escape the capital, Ulaanbaatar by flying to frontier town Ölgii the morning after our arrival. Our best-laid plan met with strong winds, which Hunnu airplanes were not able to withstand. After eight hours of waiting at the airport and two hours of flight, we landed at Ulaangom, a small town five hours drive away from our destination because Ölgii runway did not have lights for night landing!
Prelude to Altai adventure started at the stroke of midnight. Peka, our only Mongolian contact, has arranged a driver to pick us up in the dead night to save the day. The drive to Ölgii was very surrealistic, we drifted in and out of sleep while being tossed around in a Land Rover crossing the moonlight bathed landscape on a find-your-own road. At 5 am, we were ushered into a traditional ger with four freshly made beds. After six hours of solid, dreamless sleep we opened our eyes to decorative rugs hanging inside the ger. A hearty breakfast helped us find our wits. It’s time to meet our team and let Mongolia work its magic. Peka had put together a perfect team for us – Bokka – fearless driver, Janka – master chef, Paska – mountain guide, Akhjan – guide-cum-translator.
Day 1 – Ölgii to the Altai Tavan Bogd Park Entrance Camp
Four exuberant visitors, two happy guides, a cook, a driver, and an overloaded Russian van (furgon) – a perfect recipe for a memorable adventure. We drove away from Ölgii to the entrance of Altai Tavan Bogd Park, which is home to Kazakh and Tuvan nomadic herders. Tuvans practice Shamanism and are known for their throat singing. Kazakhs are famous for their hospitality and tradition of eagle hunting. A few miles out, the asphalt died and the landscape opened out into vast steppe that varied in color from gloomy ochre to pretty pea-green. Bokka drove through the land which had no signage and no roads. He forded fast-moving rivers with ease. The remote landscape and lack of infrastructure can be both scary and exciting about traveling this corner. Limitless views of the countryside are punctuated by occasional gers. Mongolia has the least population density in the world and it is visually confirmed. One lunch break, several photo breaks, and a six-hour bumpy drive later we are at the entrance of Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, fully appreciative of padded interiors of the van. The prelude is over and we will begin our adventure tomorrow. For now is the time to soak up stunning scenery, breathe the purest air and let Tsagaan Gol (White River) wash our fatigue with its calming sound.
Day 2 – Entrance Camp to Base Camp
Today boots hit the trail and we took the first step towards the highlight of our Altai adventure – Khüiten Peak climb! Mother Nature is blessing our expedition with the beautiful blue sky speckled with a few wandering clouds. Two sturdy Bactrian camels, the natural trucks of Altai are carrying our gear and supplies to the base camp. The hike is a gentle uphill walk with two route options. We took a high and shorter path of 14 km. It passes through the wildflowers filled mountainsides and breathtaking scenery. Bokka, Janka, and Paska trotted away on their horses waving at us.
We ambled towards the base camp which is right next to Tavan Bogd. Tavan Bogd which means five saints are the highest mountains in Mongolia. These permanently snow-capped peaks form a bowl around the Potanin Glacier, named after a Russian explorer Grigory Potanin. Mighty Altai mountains are slowly rising from the horizon and we get a closer glimpse of 4374 m Khüiten Peak, the highest peak of Mongolian Altai. We revel in its views with excitement and humility. By the time we reached the camp, camels are happily roaming around, Bokka and Paska are basking in the soft warmth of afternoon sun. We followed delicious aroma wafting from the kitchen tent, where Janka welcomes us with a big smile and delicious Kazakh snacks.
Day 3 – Base Camp to Advance Camp
The next day, we woke up to yet another beautiful day. It is only about eight kilometers of a hike to the advance camp, which is upon the glacier. We slipped on the harness and secured crampons and axes to it, and waved goodbye to Bokka and Janka. Tavan Bogd kept getting impressive as we got closer. After hiking about 4 km, we reached the tongue of Potanin glacier. About 14 km long, it is the longest glacier in Mongolia. We strapped on crampons, wrapped gaiters, roped up, and started an exhausting march upward. Sunny weather of the past few days, melted the snow, making it harder to walk uphill in soft and deep snow. It was a bad time to realize that my boots were overdue for their retirement. Within 20 minutes of glacier walking, they were soaked. Though kids were climbing a glacier for the first time, they proved quite natural at it. After two hours of climbing, we made it to a relatively flatter space, surrounded by five saints. Paska poked around for crevasses and marked the “safe region” for our advance camp. We melted some ice for tea and watched the peaks turning orange as the sun went down. The temperature plunged quickly, forcing us inside our tents. Sleeping under these towering peaks with an overwhelming sense of silence and beauty was an unforgettable experience.
Day 4 – Advance Camp to Khüiten Peak to Base Camp
Clear blue skies – a perfect day for the summit! Khüiten Peak is surely calling us and we are ready to answer its call. At 4 am, the white landscape seemed ultra-bright reflecting moonlight. The silence of dawn was interrupted only by the crunching sound of ice beneath our crampons. We walked single file and deliberately avoiding any crevasse, all tied to one rope. After a long traverse, we reached the base of a steep section. Falling in a rhythm of axe front-point front-point shunk shink shink – we ascended tethering to the rope. The climb became gradual from here and the summit came in clear view. Soon we were standing on the top of Mongolia, taking in the divine sweep of earth and sky, uninterpreted by any sign of civilization.
The absence of border markers joyfully reminded me of John Lenon’s “Imagine”. We took many similar looking photos, shouted in the air with joy. Perhaps we jumped over to China and Russia; and peeked over Kazakhstan. Paska pointed four saints to us – Nairamdal (Friendship), Malchin (Herder), Bürged (Eagle) and Olgii (Cradle). With our happy hearts, we climbed down and glissaded to the advance camp for a lunch break. More climbing down, this time tackling deeper soggy snow. My boots and socks got soaked and heavy, making it even harder. Walking in wet, cold boots is miserable though misery was quickly forgotten when we reached base camp amidst Janka and Bokka’s applauses. Ah! the hot tea and warm kitchen tent. It was a long day and a very sweet day indeed. Akhjan translated our stories to Janka and Bokka, who listened aptly and laughed heartily (wonder what Akhjan was telling them!)
Day 5 – Base Camp to Park Entrance Camp
Altai gods are really happy with us! We got yet another gorgeous day to hike back to the park entrance. This time, we took a lower route and longer route along the canyon carved by Tsagaan Gol. It is an easy stroll compared to yesterday’s exhausting climb up the peak and down to the base camp. We started from the source of Tsagaan Gol (white river) and followed it down to the park entrance. Alexandra and Potanin glaciers feed this river, making it the most glorious during summer months. It was one of the most beautiful hikes – sweeping vistas of the mountains, an explosion of wildflowers, whimsical erratic rocks, twists, and turns of Tsagaan Gol – it was truly the best day in Altai Tavan Bogd. We stopped to admire the horsemanship of Tuvans kids galloping on their horses, the calmness of yaks meditating while chewing and the beauty of a chubby Tuvan baby. After much lingering to take photos, climbing on boulders, and relishing lunch we made it to the park entrance at our camp. Looking at the Tavan Bogd from a distance, we felt proud of our successful expedition and thanked for great weather while peeling sunburnt skin.
Time to say goodbye to Altai Tavan Bogd and Paska. He was impressed by our twelve years old son’s endurance and was kind enough to acknowledge our efforts as well. Firm handshakes were made and off he went to Ölgii. We stuffed ourselves with Janka’s delicious breakfast and packed our trusty Russian van for our next Altai adventure – eagle hunter family and lakes.
I looked back one more time before Khüiten Peak disappeared behind the horizon listening to Janka’s favorite Mongolian pop song.
Thanks to Discover Kazak Nomads for the great planning and execution of our Altai Adventure. It was truly a memorable experience – climbing Khüiten Peak, dining and singing with Eagle hunter family, attending a Kazak wedding, cheering wrestlers, staying with Bokka’s parents’ ger, and the list goes on. More posts on Mongolia will be coming soon, meanwhile, enjoy the video edited by Nia Mongolia Trip.
Enjoyed the story? These kids were 9 and 5 years old, when they first backpacked, here is the story you may like – First backpacking in Patagonia
It is a wonderful experience to explore outdoors with kids, read hiking with kids for useful tips to start hiking with the family. You may want to read the guide for backpacking gear, in case you are planning to invest in some quality gear.
Good to know before visiting Altai Tavan Bogd:
Ways to reach Park:
- Tour company – will take care of your permits, travel, food, etc.
- Hire a driver – If you have some time to spare in Ölgii, visit the local bazaar and look for a jeep with a “Tourist” sign on the window. Your hotel or Visitor Center can help you get cheaper rates and better drivers.
- Shuttle – Some companies offer shuttle services to either the Tavan Bogd North Ranger Station or the Syrgali Rangers Station between the 2 lakes during the busy season from June to October. Ask the Visitor Center at Ölgii to arrange one.
- Animal Powered – explore Altai in Mongolian style – on horseback. You need to make arrangements for your food and shelter.
- Self-powered – If you have no time constraints, hiking or mountain biking are options to consider. Though it will take lots of planning for food and shelter. Some routes may not be feasible due to river conditions.
- Park Permit – available at the Visitor Information Center in Ölgii or at one of the Park Ranger Stations near Tavan Bogd Mountains and on the Hovd River south of Tsengel (on the way to the lakes). 3000T for foreigners and 1500T for Mongolians. All visitors must go to a Ranger Station upon entering the park.
- Border Permit – required for going within 100 km of an international border of Mongolia. Permits for the Chinese border zone are available at the Border Patrol Office in Ölgii (near the river, 1 km west of the bridge). Permits for the Russian border are only available in Tsaagannuur village, near the Russian border crossing and 70 km north of Ölgii. The Russian border permit is required if going north of Pontuninii Glacier and to Khuiten Uul Mountain.
- Altai region is home to Khazak people, one of the most hospitable folks, don’t forget your smile while visiting Altai.
- In Tavan Bogd National Park, you must have one person with a Mongolian passport in your group.
- It is highly recommended to hire a jeep/van with a driver to optimize your visit.
- And of course, leave no trace policy applies to all wilderness.