Western Mongolia is a region in Mongolia covering the provinces (or Aimags) of Bayan-Ölgii, Hovd, Uvs, and Zavkhan. It is the most remote region of the country with paved roads from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, ending 200 miles before reaching the eastern most point of Zavkhan. It is also the most ethnically diverse, mountainous, and scenic region of Mongolia, with thousands of years of history. The region is home to the Kazakhs, a Muslim tribe from near the Caspian Sea, and Oirats, or western Mongols, which can be divided into 10 different tribes, as well as Khalkhs, or eastern Mongols. In addition to the ethnic diversity, the region is home to the Altai Mountain Range, with the highest peaks in Mongolia, Lake Uvs, a large saltwater lake, and many smaller lakes, mountains, rivers, forests, and steppe. Spread throughout the region are countless archeological sites with petroglyphs, cave paintings, standing stone monuments, monasteries, and ancient forts that date back as far as 10,000 years.
- Hovd in Hovd Aimag has a Manchu Fort and cave drawings outside the city. The most diverse city in Mongolia with 10 tribes.
- Ölgii is the center of Kazakh culture in Mongolia, and starting place to see eagle hunters, Turkic Stone Men, petroglyphs, and the national parks.
- Ulaangom home to Tuvans and Dorvod tribes, near the large salty Uvs Lake.
- Uliastai capital of Zavkhan, one of 3 permanent settlements in Mongolia to predate the 20th century.
- Altai Tavan Bogd National Park home of 'Five Saints' Mountains and Kazakh Eagle Hunters. Has a World Heritage Site covering ancient cave images.
- Tsambagarav National Park has the 2nd highest mountain in Mongolia and plenty of wildlife.
Western region of Mongolia has for much of its history been on the boundary between civilizations, between Chinese dominated Asian culture to the east and European cultures to the west divided by the Altai mountains and the Tibetan plateau to the south with only a narrow gap just south of what is today Mongolia. This location near the crossroad of civilization has left the landscape littered with history of many groups either originating in these mountain valleys or passing through on their way to conquest. Over the last 10,000 years, the Blue Turks, Scythians, Tuvans, Hun, Mongols, Uighurs, and Kazakhs all spread out from or through the region to take over more settled peoples. It wasn't until the 1930s that all of the Altai mountains was firmly controlled with fixed borders by outside powers, and even then only after many years of bloody resistance. This legacy of independence can still be seen in the customs of the diverse population which can be broadly divided into Kazakhs, Tuvans, Khalkh Mongols, and Oirat Mongols (which can be divided into roughly 10 distinct tribes). These groups have adapted their cultures to handle the difficulties of living in this cold, dry, mountainous place. This region with the Altai Mountains in the west, Gobi Desert in the east and south, the Great Mongolian Lakes depression in the north and center, and forests, steppe, and deserts mixed throughout support some rare and spectacular wildlife. Large and endangered animals call the region home including snow leopards, the Govi Bear, Argali sheep, ibex, antelope, gazelle, falcons, golden eagles, wolves, foxes, and many more. Many more birds use the many lakes as rest stops on their annual migration between Siberia and Southeast Asia.
Mongolian is the official language and is spoken by almost everyone in the region, although Kazakh is the native language of most of Bayan-Ölgii and some in Hovd. In the countryside of Bayan-Ölgii, particularly near Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, Kazakh is the primary language and some people will have only limited knowledge of Mongolian (This can be a problem with Mongolian tour guides). Russian can be used occasionally among middle-aged and older people, while English is only spoken by very few people.
Flights for Ulaanbaatar to airports in Ölgii, Hovd, Ulaangom, and Uliastai (at Donoi Airport) daily or several times a week on Eznis, AeroMongolia, or Hunnu Air. There is also a flight to Tsontsengel in Zavkhan on Sky Horse Aviation. Direct buses from the Dragon Center in Ulaanbaatar to each Aimag Center also available several times a week. These buses take 48 hours to Ölgii and 40 to Hovd or Ulaangom under ideal conditions (can be much longer). It is sometimes possible to get a shared jeep ride between Aimag Centers like Altai (Govi-Altai) to Hovd or Tsetserleg to Ulaangom or Uliastai via Tosontsengel village in the northeast corner of Zavkhan.
It is often easier to get into the region than to get around it. While every provincial capital has direct flights and nonstop bus route connecting to the capital, transportation between provinces usually means spending several hours stuffed like a sardine inside an overcrowded Russian jeep or van. There is regular 'shared jeep' transit to the villages from the capitals, and between some, but not all neighboring provinces. Shared jeeps meet in the 'black market' in most cities and mostly leave in the afternoon. Drivers going between cities and surrounding villages on regular routes mostly live in the village and leave the village in the morning and return in the afternoon. If you are planning on hitchhiking or taking public transit across the region, plan on going through Hovd instead of Ulaangom to get to Bayan-Ölgii, as Hovd serves as the business and political center of the west.
The diversity of people, history, landscapes, and animals makes this remote region worth the effort to visit. The archeological history of the region dates back several thousand years, with petroglyphs, Turkic standing stone statues, various tombs, monuments, and artifacts spread throughout the deserts, mountain passes, steppe, and forests of the area. The descendents of these ancient artisans today still herd animals in a semi-nomadic lifestyle that is similar to the times of Genghis Khan with small variations depending on which of the roughly 12 tribes and nationalities live here. Though often much harder to find than the cave drawings or nomadic ger-dwellers, many rare and endangered animals inhabit the region including the snow leopard, Argali sheep, ibex, Przewalski horse, and more common animals like the grey wolf, Corsac fox, golden eagle, lynx, brown bear, and many smaller animals.
- Altai Mountains forms border between China and the provinces of Bayan-Ölgii and Hovd, as well as covers most of both provinces, while the Tannu Ola Range forms the border between Russia and Uvs province, and the Khangai Mountains cover most of eastern Zavkhan. Collectively, these mountains completely surround Western Mongolia and create some of the most stunning scenery, including the 8 highest mountains in Mongolia and 12 of the top 14 highest. The highest peak, Tavan Bogd, is 14,350 ft high and straddles the border with China and Russia.
- Rivers and Lakes of Western Mongolia collectively form what is known as the Great Lakes Depression, a self-contained watershed that drains into several large saltwater and freshwater lakes mostly in Hovd and Uvs provinces. The largest lake is the saline Uvs Lake near Ulaangom. Other large lakes are the Khyargas Lake also in Uvs, and the interconnected Dorgon, Khargas, Khar, and Airag lakes just east of Hovd which form the Khar Us Nuur National Park. These lakes are supplied by the Khovd River, Zavkhan Gol, and Tesiin Gol. The Khovd River flows from Tavan Bogd Mountain in the Altai Mountains to Khar-Us Lake, the Zavkhan Gol flows from the Khangai Mountains to the Khyargas Lake, while the Tesiin Gol flows from the Tannu Ola Mountains to Uvs Lake. There are several waterfalls and glaciers near the headwaters of each of the rivers and various tributaries. These rivers and lakes support numerous species of birds and several species of fish. The lakes are a major stopping place for many endangered migratory birds.
- Petroglyphs and cave drawings dating back some 15,000 years are found in abundance all over the Altai mountain region. With the region serving as a crossroads of many ancient nomadic civilizations, the images found on rocks and inside caves trace the evolution of pre-historic man as he develops tools, learns to use horses, domesticates livestock, and becomes fierce steppe warriors. Especially good collections of petroglyphs (means 'etched in stone') are inside Altai Tavan Bogd National Park and just outside of Hovd. These petroglyphs start with ancient Turkic tribes hunting mammoths, elephants, and deer with spears to drawings of the horse-bound raiders of the Mongol Empire several thousand years later. In between are images of the Scythians, Huns, Tuvans, and Uighurs, which spread out from these mountain passes, before occupying parts of Europe, the middle east, India, and China.
- Standing Stones made by ancient Turks, Tuvans, and possibly other groups mark the landscape of mountain valleys across western Mongolia. The most prevalent form of stone monolith is the Turkic Stone Men, which range in size from 2 feet to over 6 feet in height and weighing several hundred pounds with face, hands, tools, and other features carved into the rock. The Flying Deer Stones, where the deer appear to be flying, are believed to be made by reindeer-herding Tuvan tribes, and are highly regarded by archeologists. These stones and other blank monoliths usually are part of massive stone complexes that served as either burial mounds or shamanistic temples. An excavation at one burial mound in Bayan-Olgii turned a complete mummified remains of a Scythian warrior and horse in full battle armor in 2006. All together, there are over 1,000 standing stones, including at least 50 deer stones in the Altai range of western Mongolia.
- Though the local nomadic tribes didn't start building permanent Historic Structures in great quantities until very recently, several Buddhist monasteries and Manchu forts date back a few hundred years. The mud brick walls on Manchu forts still stand outside of Hovd and Uliastai, which served as provincial capitals of western parts of Outer Mongolia up until the Revolution of 1911, and among the only settlements in Mongolia to developed before the 1930s. These two cities also have ruins of Buddhist temples and other historical structures. Most other buildings in the region have been built by the communist government or under democratic rule including many mosques and Buddhist temples and monasteries to replace those destroyed in the anti-religious purges of the 1930s.
Events and Holidays
Every city and town hosts an annual Naadam Festival each summer that features the '3 Manly Sports' of wrestling, horse racing, and archery. Though the dates vary, cities usually host their Naadam during the first week of July, and village (or soum) Naadams are either before or after and tend to be set a week or 2 in advance. Villages also usually skip the archery portion due to lack of competitors, except in Uriankhai villages in Hovd and Bayan-Ölgii. The horse races are long races of up to 30 km featuring child jockeys as young as 8 in what appears to be a disorganized free for all.
- Eagle Festivals in Bayan-Ölgii are the most popular tourist events in the region. The main Golden Eagle Festival in Ölgii in early October features as many as 70 golden eagles and their Kazakh masters in addition to many other entertaining activities like Kokpar (a form of tug-of-war over a goat skin while on horseback), and Kyz Kuar (a horse race between a man and woman, where the man tries to hold the reins of the woman's horse while she whips him). Another smaller eagle festival is just outside Ölgii on the last weekend in September.
- Nauryz on March 22nd is the traditional new years celebration of Kazakhs living in Hovd and Bayan-Ölgii. Usually involves visiting friends and family over multiple days to eat Nauryz Koje soup, meats, and sweets. In Ölgii there is a parade, horse races, and festival on the 22nd.
Being the home to so many different Mongol tribes and the Kazakhs, with a different religion, language, and customs. Western Mongolia provides a chance to see many different variations of Central Asian nomads within a relatively short time. The time spent enjoying the bottomless hospitality will be the highlight of any trip.
- Mountain Climbing
- Eagle Hunting
- Ice Fishing
- Skiing is possible through organized tour groups at Tavan Bogd and Tsambagarav National Park. These trips are for advanced skiers only as they require climbing 14,000 ft mountains and then skiing down. Blue Wolf Travel offers trips to both mountains in April and May when the snow is thick and fresh.
Of all the tribes living in western Mongolia, only the Kazakhs have a distinctly different style of food (at least to a more discerning observer). All the food covers the same food groups typical of Mongolia; mutton, flour, dairy, and some root vegetables. The one difference is that Kazakhs follow Islamic standards of hygiene, which means their diet differs in that meat is drained of blood, as opposed to Mongolian custom of keeping it in the meat, and food is saltier. Which will be much appreciated burst of flavor after a few weeks of eating Mongolian food. Kazakhs also serve a few different dishes in addition to Mongolian dishes like fried mutton pancakes and boiled mutton dumplings. Many of these dishes include horse meat. Kazakh food is found in Bayan-Olgii and Hovd provinces. Try to be-friend a local and go to dinner.
Even in the remote western region of Mongolia, many full-service restaurant can be found in the provincial capitals. Most are Mongolian, but there are also Korean, Turkish, Chinese, and American style restaurants. All provincial capitals and many of the larger towns will have small cafes serving greasy mutton dishes washed down with milky tea. If you wish to cook for your self instead, it is best to stock up in the provincial centers or before you go out west. Fresh fruit and vegetables can be found in the market, while canned foods, snacks, and other necessities are best to buy in the stores. If you can't find an item in the first store, try several more. No store will have everything, and each one will have something different.