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Mongolia Exploratory Treks
The Altai Mountains & Khovsgol Lake
Explore Mongolia, the 'Land of the Eternal Blue Sky' with us!
Mongolia is a remote region of boundless space and sky, endless steppes, the cradle of nomadic people and a land of diverse ethnic groups, religions and terrain. Steeped in legend, mythical Mongolia is a fabled land of golden steppes, the infamous Gengis Khan, nomads on horseback, gers and both Shamanistic and Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
We will do some trekking and exploration in the far western Altai Mountains at the border of China, Russia and Mongolia, the world of the Kazakh nomads, as well as the sublime Khovsgol Lake. A seasoned traveler related that his soul left his body to enter the rich earth of Mongolia. The trip will be eight days of trekking in the Altai Mountains and eight days of trekking near Lake Khovsgol with a bit of scenic off-road driving to connect the two.
This is Project Himalaya's first time in Mongolia so we are teaming up with a local Ulan Bator operator for what we hope is the 'best of' Mongolia. Next year's itinerary will be much more beefy!
NOTE: you must be booked on the trek with flights booked and deposits paid to get an invitation to Mongolia for your Mongolia visa, so book early.
Mongolia (or Outer Mongolia), a vast country in the heart of Central Asia referred to by its inhabitants as 'Blue Mongolia', is a country of eternal blue sky, nomads, yurts, desert and extreme contrasts. Protected by an immense blue dome, the Mongolians revere nature and the heavens and their protectors. To this day, Mongolian women offer the first sip of their milky tea to the sky gods.
Mongolia, its meager population (which has quadrupled since the turn of the century) of 2.7 million living in an area half the size of Europe, is sandwiched between Russian and China, and was caught in a tug-of-war for many years with Russia winning out. In 1990 Mongolia became democratic and instituted numerous political reforms; after many years of being closed, its now open to the outside world and it welcomes tourism but with a more basic infrastructure than other Asian countries in general. Twelve hundred years ago the nation we now know as Mongolia was made up of nomadic tribes, but now only half of the population continue their nomadic lifestyle, the other half living a much more modern life-style in cities and towns. The nomads produce approximately 20% of the Pashmina wool sold on the world-wide market.
Before the onset of communism when all but one monastery were destroyed and nearly half the monk population killed, Mongolia was second only to Tibet as a strong-hold of Tibetan Buddhism. Since the liberalization in the 1990s there has been a huge revival of Buddhism, and Mongolia now hosts over 130 Buddhist monasteries. There are also approximately 60,000 Kazakh Muslims and a small percentage of Christians in Mongolia.
The topography of Mongolia ranges from the Gobi Desert to high mountain ranges to the severe Siberian steppe ...
The Altai Mountains, the largest chain in Central Asia, guard the farthest western reaches of Mongolia, at the point where China, Russia and Mongolia meet. The Tavan Bogd or 'Five King Peaks' are the highest peaks in the Mongolian Altai range, the highest reaching over 4000 meters. In the summertime, the region is full of colorful wildflowers. Kazakh and Uriankhai nomads roam the plains with their flocks of sheep and herd of horses, camels and sometimes even yaks, living in their traditional yurts, called gers in Mongolia. The Muslim Kazakhs are famed worldwide for hunting with their Golden Eagles. The Uriankhai are Buddhist, and hunt in a more traditional way with bows and arrows.
Kharkhiraa Uul and Turgen Uul are twin peaks dominating the western aimag, home to the Khotan nomads, famed throughout Mongolia as shamans, grazing their flocks in the summertime.
Spectacular Khovsgol Lake, the crystal clear 'Blue Pearl of Mongolia' and its second largest lake, is home to three unique ethnic groups, the Dharkad, the Buriat and the Tsaatan (Dukha) people, all of which still exist as they have for centuries. The region is an enclave of Shamanism rather than Buddhism. Stretching over 100 kilometers into the Siberian taiga, Khovsgol is a popular fishing destination and home to over 200 species of birds. It is surrounded by beautiful, flowering meadows and bordered by the Khoridol Saridag mountains to the west.
Note that the trekking itinerary and campsites may vary slightly depending on the trail conditions and the trekkers' acclimatization rate.
*** This is an EXPLORATORY trek, Project Himalaya's first time in Mongolia, so the trek days may differ from what we expect or according to the discretion of the local guide (or the quirks of the jeep that takes us there). Mongolia is one of the most remote and difficult countries to travel in, and one of the most rewarding. Please be flexible, bring a sense of adventure along and enjoy!
*** The best advice my friend photographer/writer Michael Benanav who spent three months exploring Mongolia had for me was to 'Let it all go' and learn the phrase for 'Call off the Dogs'!
Day 1 - Arrive Mongolia (Ulaan Baatar/Ulan Bator)
Arrive in Ulan Bator (locally known as Ulaan Baatar), where about half of the Mongolia population now lives. You'll be met at the airport by a representative from Happy Camels and/or our guest house (TBA) and driven to the centrally-located guest house where your rooms are booked for you. Kim will meet you at the hotel although she may be out doing some trek shopping during the day. Take a walk around Ulan Bator to get yourself oriented; visit the main square with the impressive statue of Ghengis Khan or head up to the Zaisan Memorial on a hill overlooking the city. There are also several museums worth visiting for those who arrive early including the Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum and the Choijin Lama or State Oracle Residence Museum. There is also the Winter Palace of Bogd Khan, the palace of the last theocratic ruler of Mongolia, to visit if time permits.
As everyone is arriving at different times, we'll plan to meet at 6:30 in the guest house lobby for a briefing and dinner. Make sure to get your gear ready for our flight the next morning before we head to dinner, and have your insurance information and personal emergency information ready to hand over to Kim.
Day 2 - Fly to Moron
This morning we board a small plane for the spectacular flight to Moron, the capital city of Khovsgol Lake province. Depending of the arrival time we will wither stay in Moron for the night or start driving towards the Khovsgol Tsagaan Nuur Lakes.
Day 3 - Drive to Tsagaan Nuur Lake
Back in the jeeps, we head up a difficult road (read jeep break downs) towards the Khovsgol Tsagaan Nuur Lake, a spectacular drive which crosses several rivers (read sandals) and will take most of the day. The lakes in this region are full of fish; approximately twelve species of fish inhabit the lakes and rivers, the most well known being sturgeon, grayling, lennok, salmon and taimon. We will pass Bayanzurkh and Ulaan Tsagaan villages en route, where some of the inhabitants are Tsaatan although during the communist period the indigenous populations of Mongolia were scattered all over Mongolia.
Day 4 - Drive to Tsagaan Nuur Lake
Another sublime day of Mongolian driving during which we reach the Darkhadiin Khotgor Depression. The depression, originally formed as a glacial lake, is surrounded by several high mountains whose peaks reach a height of nearly 3000 meters. The depression is home to over a hundred and fifty alpine lakes.
We will pass Renchinlhumbe village and camp somewhere along the shores of Khovsgol Tsagaan Nuur Lake. This region is partially inhabited by the Tsaatan people, the reindeer breeders. Those people retreat high up into the mountains during the summer period in areas fresh enough for their animals to survive. During the harsh winter period they come down the mountains and settle in the area around the Khovsgol Tsagaan Nuur Lake.
Days 5-12 - Khovsgol Lake Trek
Our treks begins! We spend the next eight days trekking from the Khovsgol Tsagaan Nuur lake down to the stunning Khovsgol Lake, a trek of approximately 130 kilometers. We'll look for reindeer as support/pack animals, but if not available we will have horses porter our gear.
Our trek crosses several passes as we follow a spectacular trail along river valleys between the high peaks, with wonderful forests throughout. The trek ends along the shores of Khovsgol Lake, the Mongolian 'blue pearl', a huge 2,760 square km alpine lake (130 km in length and 40 km in width) surrounded by mountain chains over 2000 meters high, dense pine forests and lush meadows with grazing yaks and horses. More than a hundred small rivers and streams feed the lake with crystal clear water. Water leaves the lake through only one river, the Egiin, whose waters eventually reach Baikal Lake. The lake contains about 1.5% of the world's fresh water (excluding water contained in the icecaps).
Day 13 - Drive to Ogyon Lake
Today we will set of to Western Mongolia to reach the furthest western reaches of the country. We will drive along a rough road, crossing an arid, desert-like region, eventually arriving at Oygon Lake where we set up camp for the night.
Day 14 - Drive Alten Else Sand Dunes. Overnight Bayan Lake
Today we drive north of the Great Lake depressions, a region that stretches out from Uvs to Khovd aimag over about 40,000 square kilometers. The Great Lake depression is a semi-arid desert region bordered to the west by the Altai Mountain Range. In the springtime, melting snow from the Altai Mountain ends up in the depression's lakes. Being deprived of outlets to the sea, those salt lakes become giant evaporating points.
Tonight we will overnight at Bayan Lake, a small lake embedded into large sand dunes named Alten Else Sand dunes (the golden sand dunes), the world's most northern sand dunes.
Day 15 - Drive Kharkhiraa Mountains
During today's drive we pass Ulaangom, the capital city of Uvs province, where we will visit the local market to stock up with food and supplies for the next tier of our trek. After our short beak at the market we will go on driving on a rough but scenic road into the Kharkhiraa valley. We will reach the Kharkhiraa River where we will set up our tented camp. This river finds its sources in the Kharkhiraa Mountain and its water flows into the Uvs Lake.
Day 16 - Pass Uureg Lake. Drive Bayan Olgii
Today we will head for Uureg Lake, which lies close to the Russian border and Siberia. It is a large, beautiful slightly salt-water lake surrounded by glorious mountains and some snow-capped 3000 meters plus peaks. The mouth of the valley leading into the lake is lined with the summer gers of the local nomads. The scene is breathtaking and so are the people. We will have the opportunity to visit some families.
Before reaching the lake we will cross the Ulaan Davaa Pass, enjoying the views of the red mountains and sprawling valley floor. We will go on driving passing Achit Lake. Achit Lake is the largest freshwater lake in the province. It is on the border of Uvs and Bayan Ulgii provinces, and is an easy detour between Olgii and Ulaangom. It offers stunning sunsets and sunrises as well as good fishing. The lake is home to an astonishing array of water bird flocks.
Before reaching the lake we will cross the Ogotor Hamar Pass from which you will have breathtaking views of the region. We will spend the afternoon going for a hike around the lake ...
Day 17 - Drive Start of Altai Trek
Today we reach the western-most aimag of Mongolia, Bayan-Olgii. Unlike the rest of Mongolia which is dominated by Khalkh Mongolians, approximately 90% of Bayan-Olgii's population are Kazakh, almost all of them Muslims. Olgii, the capital city of the aimag, is a Muslim-influenced ethnically Kazakh city. Olgii’s mosque and madrasah (Islamic place of learning) is worth a quick look, especially on Friday at lunch time when weekly prayers are held although you may not be allowed inside. The mosque holds the offices of the Islamic Centre of Mongolia, and its unusual angle is due to its orientation to Mecca. We will drive to the stating point of our trek.
From Olgii we will driving on a rough but scenic road into the Khurgan and Khoton Lakes, two alpine lakes surrounded by glacial moraines and snow-capped mountains. On the way we will pass Tsenger village. On the way we will see some petroglyphs dating back from the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age. We will set up our tented camp on a truly idyllic spot next to Khoton Lake.
Altai Tavn Bogd Trek
*** We may do this trek in reverse, depending on the location of local nomadic families that we work with. Once at the Tavn Bogd massif we'll have the chance to climb Machin Peak (4050m).
We load all of our luggage on our pack-camels and head out on our trek through the mythical Altai Mountain region for eight blissful days of trekking. For the first two days we will trek along the shores of Khoton Lake, regions dotted with white, nomadic Khazak yurts and surrounded by majestic peaks. Khurgan and Khoton Lakes are spectacular lakes at an altitude slightly over 2,000 meters in altitude with small streams feeding into them that we will occasionally have to cross. South of the lake, looking towards China, you will see the snow capped Altai Mountain chain.
During the trek we will pass many nomadic Kazakh families, sometimes stopping to have tea or share a meal with a nomadic family, and will pass well preserved ancient burial sites, rounded stone tombs.
Three days into the trek we leave Khoton Lake behind and start trekking along the White Water River, a milky glacial river running through a lush valley rich in vegetation. The White Water River is one of the many rivers that find its sources in the melting ice of the glaciers of the Tavan Bogd massif. The White Water River valley is blanketed with colorful alpine flowers and home to many marmots as well as rare wildlife such as Ibex, so keep an eye on the surrounding rocky hill-sides.
We cross the Worship Pass at 3400 meters and descend to the White River valley; the White River, actually emerald in color, flows from the Potanin glacier, the longest in Mongolia. From the pass we'll have fantastic views of the five peaks of the Tavan Bogd massif, the highest peaks of the Altai range and its extensive glacier. The Tuvan nomads, now world renown for their throat singing, live in this valley so we should have a chance to meet them, see their gers and perhaps sample some of their local fare and vodka!
We ascend through wetlands, home to a large variety of birdlife including Golden Eagles, Black Vultures and falcons, and rocky outcroppings towards the base of the Tavn Bogd, or the Five King Peaks, and set up camp. En route we are treated to broad views of the Potanin and Alexander glaciers, with the snow-capped Kuitan Peak (4375 m), Nairamdal (4082m), Snowchurch (4071m), Malchin (4050m) and Cradle (4113m) - the Five King Peaks - providing an impressive back-drop.
We've scheduled a rest day to enjoy this idyllic setting ...
We start the day with a trek along the Potanin glacier for an hour or so and then start to ascend the scree-face of the smallest of Tavan Bogd’s peaks, the Malchin peak (4050 m), which borders Mongolia and Russia. Once on top, if the weather is clear, we will look out to Mount Belukha (4500m), to the west of us in Russia, the top of the Altai Mountain range. Descending gently back to the White River Valley, we pass the many valleys that funnel into our valley and provide the river with its large volume of water.
Day 26 - End of Trek. Drive Bayan Olgii
Sadly, we've reached the end of the Altai trek and will drive approximately six or seven hours back to Bayan Olgii where we spend our last night camping, enjoying a hot Mongolian meal and a few well-deserved beers to wash it down with!
Day 27 - Fly Ulan Bator
We fly back to Ulan Bator and spend the night at our guest house. Finally, a much needed shower! We'll head to dinner together in the evening, so put on your city clothes!
Day 28 - Ulan Bator
We have a free day in Ulan Bator today, so take the day and explore the city. Some options are to visit Gandan Monastery, home of Tibetan Buddhist since 1911, to visit the Chojin Lama Museum or to do one of several other things (see start of trek, UB). There are many restaurants and cafes in the city for those who want to just wind down or who have been sightseeing at the start of the trek, so everyone is free to explore together or on their own. We'll get together in the evening for our last dinner together and toast a wonderful trip!
Day 29 - Depart
We take you to the airport for your flight home. It's been an amazing journey through Mongolia, the land of the eternal blue sky.
Extra Days in Mongolia
If you would like to visit the Gobi Desert or spend more time in Mongolia, let us know and we'll help to make arrangements for you. Details and prices according to your specifications and time, but set aside at least five days for a Gobi trip.