Nestled in one of the very western corners of the country where the borders of Mongolia, Russia and China meet, lies the Tavan Bogd Mountains, the “Five Sacred” in Mongolian. Situated within the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, the collection of mountains including the five tallest peaks in Mongolia and the country’s longest glacier. A after a bumpy, muddy and snowy 6 hour drive from Olgii I arrived at the end of the road, to camp on the banks of the partially frozen Tsaagan Gol. The mountains towering up around me were covered in snow. The snow had come unusually early this year. It was quiet, cold and with barely any other travellers around it was really peaceful and beautiful. For me there was something completely magical about being surrounded by these tall, rough and rugged peaks.
Most of the nomadic Kazakh families that live in this valley with their herds of yaks, horses, goats or camels in the summer had moved off to their winter camps, either a small brick or wood house tucked into a more protected area of the valley or into Tsengel, one of the local towns. The few that remained were packing up to make their move. In the matter of a few hours, an entire ger can be packed up and loaded onto a truck or a convoy of camels. You have a large ger? You will need four camels. A small one? Two will probably do.
It is no wonder that the local Tuvan and Kazakh people consider these mountains sacred. Not only is the Khuiten Uul the highest mountain in Mongolia (4374m), but the beauty and quietly powerful energy this place has is very moving and inspiring. It is usually possible to climb Malchin Uul (4050m) without any technical equipment, but unfortunately the snow had some heavier and earlier than usual, and alone and without a guide it would be a silly move to attempt finding the snow-covered trails on my own. Instead I pleased myself with scrambling up the smaller peaks, at times shuffling through knee deep snow and exploring a lake tucked into the mountains with the only name the locals could give me for it was the “Green Lake”. It was almost entirely frozen over. I stood there for a while enjoying the view over the valley and mountains with complete silence around me, feeling the cold seeping in under my clothes while snow clouds brewed in the distance.
One day I went for a horseride with one of the locals up the mountains for a view over the Pontuinii Glacier, the longest glacier in the country (14km long and covers an area of 23 square km). Unfortunately it was a little hard to make out as the entire region was white! But I could get the general gist of where it was and how spectacular it would look in the summer, contrasted against the green hills and mountains.
Needless to say the days were cold and the nights even colder. The ger provided good shelter from the wind and when the fire was cracking it could be as hot as a sauna in there, but during the night when the fire died down all my water froze and getting out of bed to run to the outdoor loo was not the most inviting thing in the world. One night the sky was completely clear and full of stars and was begging to be photographed. I almost froze into a little icicle standing there taking long exposure shots and I was happy to slip back into my warm sleeping bag.
After a few days here the plan was to head down south to the Khoton and Khurgan lakes, located in the southern part of the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. However, about 20km into the day the car started to struggle and steam/smoke billowed form under the hood of the car. After a whole group of locals that pulled over to see what was going on had all poked their heads under the hood at the same time and were yelling and pointing, my driver Chaiza did some bush mechanics, pulled out the broken fan and a few other things, tied this to that with strips of leather and we managed to continue on. Very very slowly. The original 6 hour drive turned into 18 hours of driving. We rolled down the hills in a neutral gear and had to stop every 5km (or sooner if we were going uphill) to turn the car towards the cold wind and pour water on the engine. Luckily we had a good supply of cold glacial river water along most of the drive. This was certainly a test of patience, but I was just happy that this occurred now and not on the way back from the lakes or I would have missed the Golden Eagle Festival!
On the plus side I got to spend the night with the family of the cook in the little town of Tsengel, the centre of one of the 12 sums (districts) in the Bayan-Olgi aimag (province). The town is a collection of small mud brick or log homes on a dirt plot surrounded by wooden fences or beautifully stacked stone. The town is mostly a collection of these warm and simple winter homes, but also has a large school and a hospital. The head of the house, Kalima, was 75 years old, but with her weathered skin and arthritic hands and back she looked like she was much older. She was a total badass, still working around the house and in the summer she moves out to the summer camp and tends to their livestock. In the traditional Kazakh style the home was very colourfully decorated. The walls were covered in brightly coloured rugs and drapes, and the table was adorned with many small bowls of bread, boortsog, sweets, aruul, sugar, biscuits, chocolates and suuti tsai (salty milky tea). When we arrived the house was in darkness besides a candle burning on the table and the glow from the cow-manure-fuelled stove, which i realised was because the town’s electricity doesn’t get turned on until 8pm.
The home was laid out in a similar fashion to all the other winter housing I had seen so far. The first room you enter is the ‘cold room’, where food and other items are stored, then you enter the living area which is as usual centred around the stove. This home has another separate carpeted living room (this one you didn’t wear shoes in, the other one you had to) and bedrooms out the back. The windows are small and the roof is flat. It is simple but functional, and something we could all in our western materialistic world learn from.
With the engine smoking more and more the longer we drove we eventually rolled back into Olgii. Despite missing out on going to the lakes, I still ended up having a great time and wonderful experiences with the incredibly friendly local people.
The nitty gritty:
- I organised my transport out there through Blue Wolf Travel in Olgii. Due to the long drive, unless you are staying out there for quite some time, you pay for the driver to stay out there too until it is time to drive you back. They had a package price which also included a cook and I took that option. Both my driver and cook were really lovely. They didn’t speak much english, and my Kazakh was very limited, but we still managed to have some good conversations.
- Because of the close proximity to Russia and China, a permit from the military is required to visit this area, and having seen some of the border rangers I wouldn’t like to mess with them. They can only be organised though a tour company.
- Bayan-Olgii is the westernmost aimag/province in Mongolia – 90% of the population is Kazakh, and thus they also speak Kazakh (therefore if you get a guide, especially one that will take you through eastern Mongolia where they speak Mongolian and then into western Mongolia, you have to make sure that they also speak Kazakh). Olga is sometimes spelled Ulgii, and can be reached by either plane or bus from other parts of Mongolia.
- The Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is the largest and one of the many national parks in the Bayan-Olgii province. The Tavan Bogd mountains lie in this tucked away corner of the park that I visited.