Altai Mountains, Great Lakes and Sands
Western Mongolia is a timeless landscape, home to Mongolia’s most fascinating and diverse ethnic groups: Kazakhs with their thriving, age old eagle hunting tradition, descendants of various Oirat Mongol tribes, and shamanist Tuvans. We will be hosted by these hardy herders on this dramatic journey to these rather unknown parts of Mongolia. The nomads’ livelihoods have been shaped by different life zones between the Gobi, Siberia and Chinese Xinjiang, dominated by the eternally snow-capped Altai Mountains. In the Great Lakes Basin, there are more extensive sand dunes than in the Gobi, and here they border directly on great saltwater and freshwater lakes with a backdrop of snow capped peaks. These mountains are habitat to Snow Leopards and their main prey species, Siberian Ibex and Argali Sheep. Takhi wild horses have been reintroduced to the Khom plains and Saiga Antelopes still roam the dry steppes around Dörgön Lake. With the largest reed-beds in Central Asia, and a high diversity of landscapes, the Great Lakes Basin and the neighboring mountains also offer great birding.
Brief Outline Itinerary
We will be hosted by local nomadic families who participate in conservation efforts of WWF Mongolia and the TAKHI Association, both of whom practice people-centered conservation. Nomadic Journeys is supporting the community enterprise ’Altain Nuudelchin’ (Altai Nomads), facilitating the diversification of nomadic livelihoods without affecting their mobile lifestyle. Through this partnership we can offer an exclusive camping experience, denoting wilderness camps set up at each new location for your private use with uninterrupted views of pristine landscapes. Your visit directly contributes to the livelihoods of local herders who share their lives in this demanding environment with numerous predators.
You may arrive at or depart from the airports of Ölgii, Hovd or Ulaangom. This itinerary may be built from any of them.
Itinerary & Map
Day 1 : Ulaanbaatar
Upon arrival by air or train to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, you are met at the airport and transfered to your hotel. Your guide will be on stand-by.
Day 2: To Altan Hökhii Mountain
A three hour flight will take us to one of the regional airports at Hovd or Ulaangom. We drive for half a day to Altan Hökhii Uul, a free-standing mountain in the central Mongolian Altai range. Altan Hökhii is facing the eternally snowcapped Tsambagarav Mountain National Park in Bayan-Ölgii, though separated from it by the Hovd River. We spend the first night at our private camp, which will be deployed at a considerable altitude, so even in July and August it might be quite cold at night. It is advisable to dress in layers.
Day 3-4: Altan Hökhii Mountain
The nomads here belong to a small ethnic group called Myangad – who were part of the larger western Mongolian Oirat federation. These are truly traditional herders, who migrate with pack camels between their seasonal pastures located at different elevations in the mountains and on the surrounding arid plains. The Myangad are famous for being good horse trainers, but face severe challenges herding livestock in close vicinity to numerous predators including Snow Leopards at higher altitudes and large numbers of wolves lower down. We will have the opportunity to learn about nomadic life. Excellent for day hikes. There is a fantastic large Ovoo (ritual cairn) on the top of Altan Hökhii Mountain (though hiking to the very top is reserved for men only, for religious sensitivities).
Day 5: To the Khom Plains
We drive full day southeast into Zavkhan province and the Khom plains, a semi-arid grassland with rather few nomads, surrounded by lakes, rivers and large sand dunes. Our camp will be set up next to a nomadic host family, that migrates between Baga Lake and the Seer Hills. The exact location is therefore dependent on the season. The French Takhi Association, a partner of WWF Mongolia, has been working on the reintroduction of Przewalski’s Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) between the Seer Hills and the Zavkhan River since 2004. Now the project has recently been transferred to a local NGO. Called takhi in Mongolian, the Przewalski’s horse is the last remaining species of wild horses. The story of its reintroduction is quite amazing. Made up from individuals gathered from zoo parks across Europe, the herds have been consolidated in France and brought to Mongolia in a spectacular airlift. We will meet with the team of Mongolian Takhi rangers.
Day 6: To Seer
Explore the plains, and the strictly protected reserve with the Takhi close to Zavkhan River. Visit the Seer Hills escarpment, and do some birding along the nearby Zavkhan River. At Seer we are likely to come across Mongolian Gazelles (Procapra gutturosa), Black-tailed Gazelles (Gazella subgutturosa) and have a reasonable chance to see Siberian Ibex (Capra sibirica). Viewing of Takhi here is a fully private experience, as this is a truly remote corner of Mongolia.
Day 7-8: Mongol Sands and Lakes
Explorations of the area from our private camp. If not already there we drive to the saltwater lake of Baga Nuur (Small Lake), immensely rich in birdlife, spectacular even for non-birders. Large congregations of tens of thousands of Pallas’s Sandgrouse (Syrrhaptes paradoxus) sometimes descend at this lake to drink and enjoy the water, as well as large numbers of Ruddy Shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea). Adjacent to Baga Nuur are the biggest and longest sand dunes of Mongolia, Mongol Sands. They are more spectacular than the widely known Hongor Sands in South Gobi, as here the sands contrasts with rivers and lakes! The lakes expand in spring and shrink again at the end of summer, thus creating a variety of wetland habitats in otherwise arid surroundings. The Khom channel also marks the northernmost extension of Saxaul, a small, extremely salt-tolerant Gobi tree. We can expect to see many bird species restricted to the Eurasian steppes and desert biomes. Drive to nearby Dörgön Lake for birding. We can expect to see Pallas’s Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus), White-tailed Eagle (H. albicilla), Asian Dowitcher (Limnodromus semipalmatus), White Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia), and Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni). With some luck we will also identify the rare Relict Gull (Ichthyaetus relictus). The lake harbors fish species such as the Altai Osman (Oreoleuciscus sp.) and the Mongolian Grayling, the largest species of Grayling (Thymallus revirostris) in the world. Two thirds of the fish species are endemic. We will visit local nomads and their gers and livestock on foot or on camel back, to learn more about their livelihoods.
Day 9: Camel Ride across Mongol Sands
Today we will saddle up and traverse the giant sand dunes by camel (or on foot), enjoying majestic views over Dörgön Lake. We now enter Gobi Altai province, following the lake shore, which here forms a wonderful beach, something of a Mongolian Rivier if you like. There is a spectacular ovoo here, named Janjin Ovoo, a ritual cairn, sacred to the locals. We are met by our vehicles mid day and drive back across the Chandmani plains. This is Saiga Antelope habitat where WWF Mongolia is working with local herding communities to protect this rare antelope. In pre-historic times millions of Saiga roamed the Eurasian plains with mammoths, wooly rhinos and bisons. Up until the 1800s this rather bizarre looking antelope with its characteristic bulbous nose, could still be found from the Carpathian Mountains to Mongolia and Dzungaria. Today only about 50,000 remain in Russia and Kazakhstan, with only a very small population in Mongolia. They are very skittish and hard to see, as they tend to run if they hear a vehicle within a distance of 2 or 3 kilometers. WWF is working here to motivate herders to act as Saiga rangers and protectors. We now re-enter the Khar Us Nuur National Park crossing the Dörgön Steppe westerly towards the village of Chandmani, famous for its claims of being the place of origin of throat singing (hömii). We continue toward Jargalant Hairkhan Mountain, which is usually snow-capped until July. Small stands of birch grow on its lower slopes. We drive around to the western side of the elongated mountain and set up our camp in one of the valleys, in an elevated place, facing Khar Us Lake. In mosquito free times, early and late in the season, we usually pitch camp at the lake itself. Many nomads will then have settled there.
Day 10-11: Jargalant Hairkhan Mountain
We hike into the Rashaant Valley of Jargalant Hairkhan Mountain. It is a unique valley which hosts a sacred spring, famous for its healing properties. Locals come here for eight types of traditional treatments. Poplars grow directly out of the rock, which is a wash out. The ravine is covered by ice and snow for most parts of the summer, and we will hike up to the end of it, where there are three small waterfalls, coming off the snow and glacial melt, producing a waterfall being 22m in a single drop. With some luck we will see Siberian Ibex and Argali Sheep, the prey species of the Snow Leopard. This rare leopard finds excellent habitat here and WWF has placed remote sensor cameras to monitor the population. Our local hosts are partners in conservation programs of the area, with both WWF and the Snow Leopard Trust. Birds include Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), Chukar Partridge (Alectoris chukar), Altai Snowcock (Tetraogallus altaicus) and Wallcreeper (Tichodroma muraria).
Day 12: To Tsambagarav Uul National Park
We drive for half a day to reach the provincial capital Hovd, a small multiethnic town, inhabited by several Mongolian ethnic minorities, as well as by Kazakhs. We visit the museum on the main square and in the afternoon continue the drive to Tsambagarav Mountain. The options for our camp locations are dictated by the seasons here. Only in the summer months, do we set up camp at high elevations. Early and late in season we will camp at lower elevations such as Khar Khatuu Valley or at the foot of snow-capped Sair Mountain with its peak at 3990 meters above sea level.
Day 13-14: Tsambagarav Uul National Park
Two days for explorations of this little travelled part of Bayan-Ölgii. We now are hosted by Kazakh nomads. The Kazakhs are a Turkic people who adhere to the Sunni muslim faith. Their gers are distinct and more elaborate than Mongolian ones. They are actually called yurts, just as in Turkish, Russian, English and most other languages. Here locals speak Kazakh as a mother tongue although Mongolian is widespread. Ask anyone in Kazakhstan proper where the most cultural intact part of their country is located and they will point to this area, outside their country, in Mongolia. Learn more about Kazakh traditions and you will notice a big difference with the Mongol nomads. There are also Halkha Mongol people as well as Uriankhai. Many local families here specialize in eagle hunting. Golden Eagles are captured and trained to hunt foxes from horseback in the winter months. During the summer, you may see the eagles perched and tied around the family yurts. We will explore the surrounding mountain area.
Day 15: To Ulaanbaatar
We drive a few hours to the provincial capital Ölgii (or Hovd) in time for the flight to Ulaanbaatar. If there is time, we will visit local shops for handicraft. In Ölgii and Hovd you will see mosques rather than Buddhist temples and the market is called bazaar. In Hovd both cultures exist side-by-side. Fly to Ulaanbaatar (3-4 hours). We will be met at the airport and transferred to the hotel.
Day 16: Ulaanbaatar
We depart mid-morning for a visit to Gandan Monastery, which is a Yellow Hat (Gelug-pa) lamasery. It has survived a fair bit of the purges in the 1930s and was already reopened during socialist times, to portray religious freedom for visiting tourists from Cuba, Hungary, and the USSR. At the time tourists were invited to take photos. Today, photos are restricted at this, at times very lively, praying site. We continue to Sukhbaatar Square and visit the National Museum of Mongolia.
Day 17: Fly Out
Transfer to the airport or railway station and depart homewards or to your next destination.
Dates and Prices
PRICES ex Ulaanbaatar: 2017
USD 3950 per person (minimum 2 members)
USD 640 per person
Includes: Guide. Domestic flights and all transfers. All meals outside Ulaanbaatar. All overnights in our Tentipi tent camps, Park entry fees.
Excludes:International air or train tickets. Lunch and dinner in Ulaanbaatar. Laundry. Visa fee.
DATES ex Ulaanbaatar: 2017
Mid April to Mid October
Subject to confirmation of domestic flights.
Operations: The trip may operate in the reverse direction, due to flight schedules at the time of booking. We may use any of the westernmost domestic airports such as Hovd, Ulaangom or Ölgii to access the trip. Please note: Altan Hökhii Mountain will only be included in the itinerary from Mid-June to mid-August, due to the migratory patterns of our hosts, who are local herding families.
Modified trip length: It is possible to adjust the itinerary to shorter trip lengths according to your time frame and interest. There are four key destinations (Altan Hökhii Mountain, Tsambagarav Mountain, Jargalant Hairkhan Mountain and Mongol Sands). It is possible to omit one or several of these and build a shorter itinerary according to your wishes, which then also operates at a reduced cost.
Seasonal particularities: There are swarms of mosquitoes and bugs around Hovd River, Khar Us Lake and Khar Lake in the peak of the summer months. This is one of the reasons for local nomads to abandon the lakesides, the Khom straits, Baga Nuur and the rivers. Applying our 360° travel concept, with its mobile private wilderness ger camps, we just move along according to these patterns. The migrations of the true nomads do not follow strict dates, rather they adapt to the cycles of climate itself and the transitions between winter and summer. The presence of the inland lakes moreover creates something of a micro climate why the lower elevation areas here are generally milder than elsewhere in Mongolia.
Adventure Level: This is a moderately paced trip, avoiding long back-to-back jeep travel days. We like to spend a couple of days in most locations in order to explore the area, and visit the local communities. Travel days are generally limited to 5 hours of driving time, and there will be only two full day drives of 6-8 hours. Activities include day hikes, the length of which can be tailored to your fitness; the ability to hike 10 or 12 km (6-7 miles) in rugged terrain will enable you to make the most of this trip. There is a 4-5 km camel ride which will require 2 or 3 hours in the saddle, alternatively you can walk, or take the vehicles the long way round.
Accommodations: Outside of Ulaanbaatar you will stay in our Tentipi tent camp, specially set up for you ahead of your arrival at carefully chosen locations with uninterrupted views of pristine landscapes. The camps will be situated close to one of our local host families and herder communities, who are members of local community enterprises. There is a separate traditional Mongolian marquee style tent for dining. Compost style toilets, and a safari style shower are also set up in traditional Mongolian tents. The shower tent will have a wood burning stove when it is fresh or cold in the evenings. If the flight schedules are unfavourable, we will need to change one overnight to be in a small two-star hotel in Hovd or Ölgii.
Transport:The majority of travelers join from Ulan Bator why domestic flights to/from western Mongolia is included. We may fly to/from any of Ulaangom, Hovd or Ölgii airports. The flight schedules are published in the spring only. We will then tour the region by Lancruisers, and have a Russian 4wd minivan as a support vehicle for expedition equipments and support crew. You may also join in Ölgii, when arriving from Gorno-Altaisk and Barnaul in the Russian Altai Republic.
Staff: A Mongolian English speaking guide will accompany you at all times. Other language guides (French, German, Italian, Korean, etc.) are available upon request. Please enquire. Our camp entourage always includes an experienced guide, as well as skilled cooks, who will prepare all meals. Vegetarian options are of course available. There are two drivers, as equipment and passenger vehicles will need to drive in different directions at times. When venturing across Bayan-Ölgii province there will always be a Kazakh/Mongolian/English speaking guide.
Our local hosts and partnerships:
WWF Mongolia, our partner conservation organization for this journey, practice people-centered conservation as does the Takhi Assocation. There has been considerable effort made from their sides to diversify the pastoral livelihoods through whatever additional income may be generated locally. Local community members have created the NGOs Altain Nuudelchin (Altai Nomads) and San Dalai Baigal Cooperative to develop community based tourism, and who partner with Nomadic Journeys for such ends. In 2012 and 2013 Nomadic Journeys hosted Natural Habitat Adventures, WWF partner in the US, for three snow leopard expeditions and at the time Natural Habitat raised the seed capital for Altain Nuudelchin. In 2015 Takhi Association and the re-introduction site of Przewalskii Horse have newly joined. Locals have been trained to work as rangers, and to regularly check the remote sensor cameras as an integral part of their herding work. You will meet these amazing herders on the trip.
You have the choice to stay another day or two in Ulaanbaatar or transfer out to your next international destination. We offer hotels in downtown at the same on line internet rates as well as outbound railway tickets to your first point in Russia or China.
- Hustai National Park, re-introduction site of Przewalskii Horses, is just a two hours drive from Ulaanbaatar airport why an option to spending time more in Ulaanbaatar. If desired.
Please enquire for this combinations. We can provide you the seamless travel solution for your onward journey.
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