Altai Tavan Bogd National Park

Altai Tavan Bogd National Park (Mongolian: Алтай Таван богд байгалийн цогцолбор газар) is located on the westernmost point of Mongolia in Bayan-Ulgii Province. This vast mountainous park borders China and Russia with views of Kazakhstan from the highest peak in Mongolia.

Tavan Bogd Mountains and glaciers.

Understand

The snow-capped Kuiten Uul mountain, 4374 m (14,201 ft), is the highest of the five peaks of Tavan Bogd Mountains (literally '5 Saints') that gives the park its name. It covers an area of 630,000 hectarce and is home to three large freshwater lakes and 34 glaciers, plus several waterfalls. The largest, Pontuninii Glacier, covers 23 km2. Tavan Bogd Mountains are considered sacred to local Kazakhs, Tuvans, and Mongolians. The park stretches from Russia along the Chinese border, following the Altai Mountain Range that divides China, Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, for over 200 km. Ancient tribes have left many artifacts, using the region for religious ceremonies. Today, tens of thousands of petroglyphs in the park are part of a World Heritage Site. In addition there are numerous Turkic Stone Men and stone burial mounds.

The busy season is from June to October when temperatures are warmer, snow has melted, and tour camps and shuttles are operating. The busiest time is August and September when the weather is best for mountain climbing. Also around the eagle festivals when tourist add a trip to the countryside. Though the park is still accessible year round with activities like snow skiing and eagle hunting during the cold winter months.

History

The Altai Mountains have been inhabited for around 12,000 years. The oldest images in the park are from 11,000 to 6,000 BC with hunting large mammals and ancient cultures. Thousands of years of petroglyphs show the transition from hunter-gatherer to pastoralism and later to the current semi-nomadic that developed over the last 3,000 to 4,000 years. Around 4,000 years ago, the use of horses and domestication of animals led to the rise of the Blue Turks (whose language is the root of Kazakh and Turkish). These successful warriors left upright carved stone statues known as Turkic Stone Men spread over the Altai Mountains.

Later in 700 BC, a group of horse-riding warrior nomads known as the Scythians starting from the Altai Mountains to conquer a region stretching to the Black Sea. They faded after being defeated by Alexander the Great in modern day Turkmenistan in 329BC, but not before leaving many stone burial mounds in the Altai. These mounds, or Khirigsuur, were designed to preserve bodies in frozen ground with horses, weapons, armor, and food for the afterlife. On such mound was discovered to contain a Scythian warrior in full battle regalia in a 2005 research expedition. In 100 AD, the Huns migrated through the region from the steppes of Mongolia to wreak havoc on Europe around 400 AD. Around this same time, reindeer herding tribes from Siberia, called Tuvans, began expanding south into the mountains.

The mountains and much of the surrounding region including the early Silk Road to the south fell under control of Turkic-Uighur Khannate (kingdom) after 600 AD until Genghis Khan conquered it along with most of Asia from 1260. The Uighurs and Turks were incorporated into the army of the Khan. After Genghis death, the empire was divided between his sons, with the Altai forming the border between the Golden Horde (Russia), Chagatai Khan (Central Asia), and Yuan Dynasty (China). The region changed hands several times due to infighting and dividing territories the Mongol Empire declined. The region fell under control of the Yuan Dynasty until they declined in 1370. The region was then ruled by independent Oirat Mongol tribes until conquered by the Qing Dynasty in 18th Century.

Between 1840s and 1940s, many Kazakhs moved into the Altai mountains to escape persecution and domination by Russians and later Soviets and Chinese Communists. Mongolia became a satellite state of the USSR after a long bloody civil war from 1911 to 1924. For the next 70 years, Tavan Bogd was an isolated border zone closed to all but a few ignored Kazakh herders and army patrols.

Landscape

Pontuninii Glacier
Horgan Lake in Tavan Bogd National Park

Altai Tavan Bogd has some of the most stunning scenery in all of Mongolia with towering white mountains, glaciers, deep lush valleys, and large lakes. The park is divided into 2 regions, the Tavan Bogd Mountains in the northwest and the Lakes Region to the southeast. The park stretches along the Chinese border from the Russian border to 200 km south following the Altai Mountains, which form the borders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. Glacial melt and annual snow fall supplies 3 large lakes inside the park that form the head waters of the Hovd River.

Tavan Bogd Mountains are the highest mountains in Mongolia, with Khuiten Uul ('Cold Peak') at 4374 m (14,201 ft) being the highest. These permanently snow capped mountains form a bowl around the Pontuninii Glacier, which covers 23 square km. The other peaks are Nairamdal ('Friendship', 4180 m), Malchin ('herder', 4050 m), Bürged ('Eagle', 4068 m) and Olgii ('Cradle', 4050 m). From the peak of Kuiten Uul, it is possible to see Kazakhstan 30 km away on a clear day. Khuiten Uul was renamed Ikh Mongol ('Great Mongol') by President Enkhbayar when he climbed it in 2006, though this is widely ignored and possibly reversed by the new government. There is still a monument at the base commemorating the accomplishment.

Lakes Region is a beautiful area surrounding 3 large fresh water lakes. Khurgan Nuur and Khoten Nuur are attached by a small channel with a many small creeks flowing into the lakes from surrounding mountains. Two of these creeks form waterfalls of 7 to 10 m in height. A small bridge crosses the channel. These lakes are full of fish and many species of bird. Dayan Nuur is a smaller lake 20 km south of the 2 larger lakes. Shiveed Khairkhan Mountain near the lakes has Argali Sheep living near its peak.

Flora and fauna

The national park, being one of the most isolated places in Mongolia, is home to many large mammals, majestic birds, several prized species of fish, plus countless wildflowers, grasslands, and larch forests. During the spring, the snow melts, valleys turn green, and millions of migratory crane, gulls, hawks, and other birds crowd the many lakes.

The numerous varieties of wildflowers and flowering bushes, many endemic to the Altai Mountains, attract tourists from around the world. Due to the dry climate, most are small, colorful flowers on bushes. The blue aromatic flowers of the Caryopteris, or Blue Mist, is the most common. Other common flowers are the Edelweiss, a white star-shaped flower, and the Geranium, a mountain flower found in many different colors. There are 974 plant species, of which 60 are found no where else, in the Altai Mountain range. These include 26 species of orchids and 35 ferns. The region is noted for its especially diverse range of colors of lichen and moss. Rare species of plants include Isoetus lacustris, Brunnera siberica, Erythronium sibiricum, and 2 species of monkshood. Flowers are best in the mountains while forests grow on the northern faces of mountains (due to most moisture being from Siberia). River valleys are green during summer.

The fauna of the park is noted for its many large animals, including the largest wild sheep, fastest falcon, and largest eagle in the wild. The number of large mammals has made it popular with hunters for millennia with gray wolves, brown bears, Beech marten, marmots, red deer, and the Corsac fox still being common today. While the mammoth, ostriches, and rhinoceros (visible on older petroglyphs) have long since gone extinct at least locally, many rare and endangered species still live inside the park. These include the Argali sheep, the largest wild sheep in the world, with curled horns of a male weighing over 20 kg, and the Ibex, with large backward curved horns, which both live on mountain peaks in pockets throughout the region. Before hunting was banned, people would pay over $40,000 to kill one of the Altai subspecies of Argali. The snow leopard and lynx are believed to be inside the park, but are so rare and elusive, their tracks are seldom ever seen.

The large predatory birds of the Altai is among its most stunning features. The Golden Eagle, with its 8 ft wingspan, is impressive already before being pressed into hunting at command by local nomads. Several species of falcon are found in the Altai including the highly prized saker, peregrine, gyrfalcon, and Altai falcons (possibly a hybrid of gyr and saker). The Cinereous vulture can be as tall as a man, has 10 ft wingspan, and can eat full grown livestock. Another impressive bird, the Eurasian Eagle Owl, and the snowcock are year-round residents. Many migratory birds pass through each spring and fall on transit between Siberia and Southeast Asia. The Eurasian spoonbill, relict gull, Black Kite hawk, and 6 of the 15 species of crane in the world.

Culture

The people living inside the park are one of the main draws. Kazakhs and Tuvan nomadic herders live inside the park and visiting them is part of most tours. The Kazakhs are the most numerous and the ones that do eagle hunting. They are known for their colorful large ger with rich embroidered wall hangings and their warm hospitality. Tuvans occupy the Tsagaan Gol valley and have different clothes, food, and language than Mongols. Tuvan men sing deep eerie long-songs using throat-singing, though very few Tuvans in this isolated pocket have mastered the art. Kazakhs live around the lake, as well as Tsagaan Salaa and Takhiltyn Havtsal (and most of the rest of the park). Those living inside the park have retained their traditional culture to a greater degree than probably any Kazakh in Central Asia. They have preserved their arts and music, and have practiced the ancient sport of eagle hunting continuously throughout the Soviet era when it was suppressed elsewhere. Many inside the park have never lived anywhere else and can't even speak Mongolian, the national language.

Climate

In the park region there would be snow until end of May.

Rainy season is from mid of July to Mid of August. Average temperature in Summer: Day: 16-25°C, Night: 7-13°C

Get in

Altai Tavan Bogd is 180 km from the provincial capital of Ölgii. You will have to start in the city unless you are going with a tour operator that gets the permits in advance. It will take 7 hour with stops (5 hours non-stop) due to the rough, non-existent roads, high mountain passes, and lack of bridges, though a very scenic drive. Most visitors to the park go as part of a tour group or with a guide, though plenty go without one. A trip to the park should be at least 5 days, 7 to visit the mountains and glacier.

By car

You can hire a Russian jeep or microbus and driver to reach the park from Ölgii, where the National Park Headquarters is located. Usually drivers gather at the Bazaar to find customers, just look for a jeep with "Tourist" posted on the window. Tour guides, hotels, and the Visitor Center can help you with arranging a ride, and get cheaper rates and better drivers (some drivers will drink vodka on the trip). If driving there yourself, ask a guide to draw you a route as paths will change and some rivers are passable only part of the year.

Altai Tavan Bogd National Park

By shuttle

Two tour companies offer shuttle services to either the Tavan Bogd North Ranger Station, which is 20 km from the Tavan Bogd Mountains Base Camp, or the Syrgil Rangers Station between the 2 lakes. These are offered during the busy season from June to October.

By foot

It is possible to hike, ride a horse, or mountain bike to the park from Ölgii or a nearby village. There are few restrictions when traveling across Mongolia, except for river crossings. If going from Ölgii, make sure to pack plenty of food, as village shops will have limited selection. Also make sure to consult with tour guides about which routes are best, and issue you may face, especially about river crossings and mountain passes. You can rent horses in Ölgii, and possibly in the villages with the help of a guide. Mountain bikes are available in the city as part of tour packages.

Fees/Permits

There are two permits required to enter the park, a park permit and a border permit. The Park Permit is 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). Each person should have one, which is 3000T for foreigners and 1500T for Mongolians. All visitors must go to a Ranger Station upon entering the park. There are 2 near Tavan Bogd in each of the 2 valleys approaching the mountain, plus an additional one in Syrgil between the lakes (after the Hovd River Ranger Station).

The Border Permits are 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. It may also be required if rivers near Tsengel are too high to cross and require taking a northern route to the mountains. The Russian permit is not required if you enter the park near the lakes. It will be best to take a local along when going to the border patrol, as they don't always like talking to people they can't understand (i.e. don't speak Mongolian or Russian). Permits are 3000T per group. If you plan to enter with one group and then separate in the park, get multiple permits. Anyone without a border permit with be driven back to Ölgii by the army at their expense plus a large fine. Also when entering from the lakes side, you will need to check in at the patrol station in Syrgil or one of the other stations near the lakes. There are 6 bases near the lakes and further south.

Petroglyph at Tsagaan Salaa
Turkic Stone man

Fishing Permits are available from June 15 to April 15. They are available at the Nature Protection Office next to Khaan Bank (XAAH БAHK) on the square in Ölgii, or the village government in Tsengel. Permits are 3500T and good for the entire trip. However, you may not need a permit if fly fishing and keeping only enough for a meal (though you should consult a guide for appropriate limits).

See

Spectacular scenery, countless archeological sites, and nomadic families sharing the same space means that there is much to see in all areas of the park. From the Tavan Bogd Mountains, that give the park its name, to the large glacial lakes to the south, each area of the park has a unique appeal including 3 areas comprising a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout the park are foxes, wolves, eagles, falcons, and more common animals. The more endangered animals are found only in small pockets of the park.

Waterfall in Tavan Bogd

Do

There are plenty of reasons why Tavan Bogd is the most visited National Park in western Mongolia. The park has many different activities that allow for an exciting and varied travel experience within the park. Most people trek between the lakes and the mountains, climb the shortest of the 5 Saints, and visit local nomadic Kazakh and Tuvan families. More adventurous tourists will climb the highest of the mountains, raft down the river, and skiing down the mountains.

Kazakh woman in a ger

Cultural Experiences

Visiting nomadic families inside the part is an obligatory part of any visit to the park and is possible both summer and winter. Even if you have visited families elsewhere in Mongolia, it is worth seeing Kazakh and Tuvan families. You can stop by for milky tea or a meal while on a trek, or stay the night. Some of the Kazakhs are eagle hunters, and you can ask to hold the eagles or watch their training during the summer months. Or you can watch the daily routine of a real nomad of herding animals, milking goats and horses, gathering dung, cooking, and cleaning. Depending on time of year, you get to see them move camp (which takes a day to break, move, and set up camp). The generous hospitality of locals has long been a draw to the park, though you should be prepared to give gifts of money or household goods. They are hosting tourists throughout the summer so they can't be too generous. Both Kazakhs and Tuvans speak different languages, that most Mongol tour guides don't understand.

Summer Activities

Fishing on Hoten Lake
Altai Nomad's Festival

Winter Activities

Kazakh Eagle Hunter

Tour Guides

There is not a lot of infrastructure in Mongolia in general, and Bayan-Ölgii especially. There are no paved roads or many places to stay or eat or even buy food outside of the provincial capital. The park is completely pristine, without even border fences between Russia and China. Therefore, most visitors use one of the several tour groups located in Ölgii for transportation, camping equipment, food, and guides. The largest companies offer unguided tour options to the main National Parks with only transportation and supplies, but no guide, cook, or other services, while other activities like mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, or going with an eagle hunter on a hunt will require a guide for most people.

Buy

Buy a good map of the area before you go. You can get topo maps and travel maps at the State Department Store in Ulaanbaatar. The bookstore on the 6th floor has maps of various regions and parks in Mongolia. You will not be able to buy one in Ölgii, but you could make a copy or print one off the internet. Several of the tour guides have good maps that they use.

There is only one small seasonal shop in Syrgal, a small clump of houses near the Rangers Station and bridge between Khoton and Khurgan Nuur (Lake). Don't expect to get supplies here. You may have to bang on the door to get them to open as customers are irregular. It is best to stock up on food and other necessities in Ölgii. There are several supermarkets and a bazaar in the city that carry a wide variety of food, fruits, vegetables, beverages, and Chinese goods. If driving to the park yourself, there is 80 grade gasoline available in the soum centers (villages). Prices will be slightly higher than gas prices in Ölgii.

Most prices are in Mongolian Togrogs (1560 = $1), though tour guides and tourist activities will be priced in dollars.

Eat

There are no restaurants in the park. Take any food you need with you. Local Kazakh foods are generally meat and...more meat, especially in the countryside. Goat, sheep, horse, camel and cow. Most food will be meat, flour, maybe potatoes, and a large amount of cooking oil.

You will most likely "go native" and eat with the locals. It's customary, and generally a nice thing, to bring some onions, potatoes, carrots, cabbage, a bag of noodles, or rice, as food items you can give to the woman of the house, who mainly prepares all meals. This is easy if you've hired a car and driver for your trip. You can get these items in any quantity at the open air Bazaar in Ölgii. A really interesting place to go. Your driver or guide can help here. You'll also want to take along bottles of water for the ride. Also bring any herbs, tomato sauce, or soy sauce to help make the food tastier to your personal preference.

If you are really staying with locals in the park, it's also nice to give a needed household item as a token of your appreciation. Candles, packets of matches, a small block of green tea, and of course candy or chocolates for the table and kids. It's not mandatory of course, but a nice gesture.

Drink

Again, no restaurants in the park. Bring bottled or boiled water with you and the means to purify or boil water when camping and traveling. Lots of water around, just take the usual precautions. When with the locals, there's always the usual favorites, milk tea and koumis (a fizzy, sour fermented horse milk).

Sleep

Camping with a mountain view

There is no permanent year-round lodging inside the park. Some gers (felt tents) are set up inside the park during the summer for tourists to stay. Even the residents of the park leave during the winter to go to their winter pastures.

Lodging

Most of the tour companies who travel in the park will bring you to their own pre-arranged accommodation, either their own lodge or camp set up. There are a few very scattered ger (yurt) camps around, but you'll have to check with the park office for their current locations.

Inside the park, there are no commercial lodges, hotels, backpackers, etc. There are small hotels in the nearby villages of Tsengel and Altai. Though, these are a considerable distance from much of the park. Independent travelers can find lodging with local Kazakh herders if they want to get a very enjoyable and interesting local experience. If you do this, pay them for your stay. Income opportunities for these people are very limited. Four to eight dollars a night is currently acceptable and good value for the experience. When traveling further into the mountains, there is no lodging.

There are now several herder communities who have gotten together and can provide some primitive services such as accommodation and guiding. Check with the park information office to find where these are if you want to visit a real community based tourist venture. It can be a great experience, but be prepared for basic, very basic. The local tour companies can book lodging with local herders for you. They have agreements on the rates and take a 10% fee for booking (as required by Mongolian law).

Camping

If traveling with a tour company they will (or should) have everything you need for a comfortable camping experience. Take pains to make sure they are reputable and do have what you need. Ask the park information office about good camping areas in the park.

There are very few designated camping sites around the park, so it's basically up to you where you want to put your bones for the night. If around a herder family, it's a common courtesy to ask if you can camp close to their ger (yurt). Most will enjoy having you there, and you will be secure for the night.

The same rules for camping apply here as anywhere else in the world. If you pack it in, pack it out! This is especially important in and around the base camp area for the Tavan Bogd (five kings) range, where serious high alpine climbing can be had. It is a very fragile area and easily impacted by human use.

AS for camping toilet needs. There are no toilets. If you don't know how to "shit in the woods", you'll want to practice a bit before undertaking a Mongolian adventure. Also, there most likely won't be any woods. Don't worry; Mongolians aren't prudes.

Stay safe

Riding past a glacier

When traveling in the park, especially if you're an individual or an independent group, it's best to register with the park office and let them know your intentions. There is no "rescue" service of any kind in Mongolia, but at least they'll know where to begin looking for you if you do go missing or get hurt. Locals are very kind and helpful, but if you do get seriously injured, it will basically be up to your own initiative and strength to get you out of there. Good seasonal clothing, first aid kit, backcountry equipment for the activity you're planning, a good map, and a little knowledge of the area are essential.

Wildlife

There are wolves, bears, foxes, and other potentially dangerous animals inside the park. Locals will warn you to watch out wolves especially when traveling alone. However, attacks on people are very rare, and wolves are afraid of humans. You stand a much better chance of being bitten by a dog near one of the encampments. Another concern is diseases carried by animals. Locals eat marmots, though this can be dangerous, as they carry bubonic plague. To ask if you are being served marmot in Kazakh say "soor bar ma?".

Border

There is no fence or markers for the border with Russia. The Chinese have placed concrete pillars on the border with Chinese flags on it. If you see one on a mountain peak, turn around. It is possible to get lost and wander into Russia if you are not with an experienced local guide. There have been 2 such cases in recent years of a tourist and a separate guide getting picked up by the Russian Army. They were turned over to the Mongolian Army and driven back to Ölgii at their own expense. A good map or GPS is essential if traveling without a guide.

Crime

When traveling alone anywhere, it's always a good thing to play it safe. There is potential to run into a few rogues along your route. It is a wild place and far from anywhere. That's what's appealing. Hopefully as a traveler you already have the experience to read situations as they arise when coming across certain individuals. When camping for the night, it's a good idea to ask a local herder to camp near their ger (yurt) for extra safety. If that's not possible, be discreet in choosing where to set up the tent. Though crime is very rare inside the park, most issues that do occur involve drunk men. Be careful when vodka is present.

Food and Health Issues

Be careful when drinking water or eating uncooked food from locals. Livestock are kept near rivers during the summer and water pollution from animals is an issue. Kazakhs adhere to Muslim customs of washing hands, though this can be more ceremonial than effective at times. Health issues can arise from falls, altitude, or cold weather. The entrance of the park is 6 to 8 hours away from the nearest hospital and another 4 hour flight to the nearest trauma center in Ulaanbaatar. There is no cell phone coverage in the park, so be careful and don't do anything too stupid. If you do need help, go to one of the 3 ranger stations or 3 border patrol bases (located at the north end of Hoton Nuur Lake, across the river from Syrgil, and on the south shore of the southernmost of the 3 lakes, Dayan Lake).

Go next

Altai Tavan Bogd is about as far away from the rest of the world as you can get. When you wish to return to civilization, turn around and go back to Ölgii. A few hundred miles past that, you will reach paved roads again.

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Thursday, March 10, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.