Mongolia: Altai Tavan Bogd

If there’s one thing you can definitively say about Mongolia it’s that transport is difficult, expensive, and takes a long time. On a budget, solo, or in a group of two, this can become a real problem as the cost of getting to where you want to go is prohibitive. Rather than blowing a ton of money on private transport to and from Altai Tavan Bogd National Park (about 7 hours from Ölgii on a busted up dirt road) à la our Gobi trip  we decided to wait for a bit to see if any other solo travelers showed up and wanted to split the cost.

After a series of large groups coming through with all their things in order (booked in UB, no doubt), we were about ready to give up when S (name redacted for reasons which will become clear) showed up. She was looking to do a similar trip, and even the addition of one more person brought the per-person per-day cost down to something we could work with (around $30). This was inclusive of a day with an eagle hunter family in a nearby valley, a bit of horseback riding, a guide for the national park (more on this later), and transport to and from all locations.

A solitary ovoo marking the weather boundary.

In order to enter the park, one needs a border permit, issued by a local office and mediated by a local agency (the office only deals with locals). Processing is a formality, but only takes place Monday through Friday and takes a full day. It being a Sunday, we were happy to spend the first two nights in the valley with the eagle hunter while our paperwork was being processed, the guide and driver would come, paperwork in hand, to pick us up and take us to the park.

The rainfly is beginning to show the hardships it has been through.

The tour organization experience was awful. We booked it through our guest house, Blue Wolf, whose ger camp in the city was very pleasant. The woman “organizing” things had no idea what she was talking about, would give us contradicting information, and had only a rudimentary command of English. After bumbling our way through some discussion of itineraries, we were somewhat prepared for what was to come, but were still unclear on some important issues such as availability of water along the trail and food for the guide, which we hoped to handle as they came up. On top of all this, she came up with an arbitrary conversion rate between dollars (which the trip was quoted in) and Tögrög (which we paid in) which ended up overcharging us by $11 compared to the mid market rate at that time. When Oona called her out on it she fumbled around with excuses and even pretended to call the bank to verify, which is hardly believable given the totally fabricated conversion rate.

The market in Ölgii.
Inside a Kazakh yurt.

Seeing an eagle hunter in action was one of Oona’s top priorities upon coming to Western Mongolia, so we made it very clear during the discussions that this was to happen. Apparently our organizer missed the several dozen times we mentioned this, and upon getting to the valley claimed that we couldn’t see the eagle because we hadn’t paid for that. Up in arms and totally baffled by her ignorance, we managed to convince her that we’d pay when we got back to town, so we were to be shown the eagle the next day. A group of 22 Israelis was planning on staying with the family (we were camping about 500 meters away) that night on their way back from the mountains, and one of the tents they were using would be loaned to S as she was without. Once the Israelis showed up, the organizer handed over the tent (all 5kg of it) and headed back to town (good riddance, we say). She promised to supply the guide with a lighter tent for S when he came through two days later.

Oona making friends.

The next day we saw the eagle and took some pictures with it. The whole experience was clearly geared toward tourists, and the eagle hunter was no stranger to having his picture taken. He dressed in traditional Kazakh garb (and loaned us some sweet threads for the photo shoot) and posed with the eagle before handing it over to us. A full grown eagle is heavy, it turns out. This one weighed in at about 10kg, so holding it on one’s arm is actually kind of a workout. Unfortunately, during the summer they don’t hunt or train the eagles, so we weren’t able to partake in anything very exciting, other than holding the eagle and posing for pictures. Oona did manage to convince him to show us how he feeds it during the summer though (a bi-daily affair). He procured a sheep lung from a pocket and set the eagle up on a perch and tried to lure it to his position, the eagle was mostly uninterested, and he would need to step to within a few meters of the eagle before it would swoop to get it. We did a bit of laid back horse riding that day as well, and I was glad to learn that all horses are not as lazy as that bum Aligjee, ours from the day were chomping at the bit and were convinced to gallop quite easily.

Broke beak.
Looking majestic.
It hungers.
The feast.

The guide and driver showed up the following morning to whisk us off to the park. Apparently no smaller tents were found, so S was stuck with the huge one (which she learned was full of holes after the first night), although the guide had his smaller two person he could share, which remained a possibility. According to the itinerary we had laid out, we had a long day ahead of us with a 6 hour drive to the park entrance and an 18km hike to the base camp. In reality, we were spending the night at the entrance and the next day’s hike was only 14km, a fact easily conveyed by the guide’s much better communication skills. We had a leisurely start to the day and made it to the park entrance before sundown. The park entrance is right next to a river (from which you can safely drink, or at least we didn’t fall ill from it) and hosts a couple of gers, one permanent structure, and an outhouse.

On our way up to base camp.

We packed up camp the following morning and prepared to hike to the base camp, 14km up the road. The border police, who we feared would scrutinize our documents and kick us out for violating some arcane policy were more interested in taking group photos with us and giving us candy, so they’re not really much to worry about. There is some legal requirement to have a local guide at the park, but as it turns out enforcement is surprisingly lax, and we could have easily done without (as we had seen a few other groups doing). Some tour operators, like Kazakh Tours, will pay off the rangers for you in order to bypass this requirement, which, in retrospect, is probably a smart move if you know where you’re going (a topo map of the area and compass is a good start, GPS doesn’t hurt either). 

The no-frills base camp.

Either way, we were stuck with ours for the time being, so the four of us set off for the base camp. The weather was getting cold, and it started snowing partway through our hike. Weirdly, the road we hiked is very much drivable, so I’m not sure why transport wasn’t provided all the way to the base camp (there’s no parking, so the driver would have to head back to the entrance after dropping us off), but another truck drove by and we were able to offload some of our bags with them which lightened the load. We made it to base camp soaked and miserable, worried that our hike to Malchin the following day would be ruined by the weather as well. The bad weather turned out to be temporary, and by later that day we were already catching glimpses of blue sky and towering peaks (which were previously obscured by fog and low cloud cover). The base camp is a modest affair, with one yurt during the summer months (they packed it up the day we left) and one large metal storage container. The river passes by here as well, so drinking water is easy to come by.
We had a few hours to kill, so we went to explore the nearby glacier (the height and length of which is monitored by a couple government employees who live in the yurt). We came upon a spectacular hole in the ice with a small river flowing into it. We were told the hole does down 80 meters to the bottom of the glacier. 

The abyss in the ice.

S decided not to lug the heavy tent up from the entrance, and we banked on the fact that the guide could bed down in the yurt. This proved to be a bad call, as the guide hopped in the tent with her and was unable to keep his hands to himself. She politely declined many times, but her rejection didn’t make much difference to him and he started jerking off in the tent! Eventually he left and slept somewhere else (where exactly was not clear). Needless to say, this sort of behavior is not becoming of a guide or a human being in general, so we were all pretty unhappy with him from this point on.

It snowed a bit that night, but the skies looked reasonably clear in the morning, so we decided to head up to Malchin. Our guide accompanied us, but we kept our distance for obvious reasons. Eventually he sat on a rock and didn’t continue as we kept on the trail, citing altitude sickness. Some guide, huh? At any rate, we were happier without him and continued the climb up and up. The hike is only 6km from the base camp to the peak, but an elevation gain of 1000m makes it a difficult trek. There was light fog and heavy winds for most of the ascent, and for awhile we were wondering if we made the right call. Eventually we broke through the fog to beautiful blue skies and miles of visibility, so the hike was well worth it. From the summit (4050m) we could see to Russia and China and had beautiful views of the other four Bogds (Tavan Bogd means “five saints”, for each of the peaks). The tallest of them, Khuiten Uul, towered imposingly across the glacier. 

On the way to the summit.
Looking down on the glacier.
A small ovoo marking the summit.

Fortunately the weather remained good, because we had a long way to go. In addition to climbing the peak and getting back to base camp, we were to pack up our camp and hike the 14km back to the entrance by nightfall. We found our guide where we left him, and no longer requiring his help, we largely ignored him. The next 18km or so was fairly awkward, with him walking far ahead or lagging far behind. Our disgust with him was clear, but we had the same ride out so we had to deal with him for a bit longer. We made it back to the entrance just as it was getting dark and wordlessly set up our tent. S got the big tent from the jeep (which the organizer said would not be there, because our driver would drive back to Ölgii while we were hiking, which he didn’t do… At this point we lost track of how many times her fantasy itinerary deviated from reality).

A lonely lake on the way back to the entrance.

We spent the seven hours back to Ölgii mostly ignoring the guide again, but had a small exchange with him when we stopped to see some petroglyphs carved into rocks in the valley. The images were carved 4000 years ago, yet remain quite visible today.

Some petroglyphs.

Admirably, the owner of the tour organization agreed to compensate us for our bad experience (he paid us back half the price of our totally useless and offensive guide and the fudged conversion rate in addition to providing a free night at the ger camp), but it was a bit too little too late at this point. We were assured that they would no longer do business with that particular guide, but from the sound of it he’s opening his own business soon anyway.

The derelict “bu palace” (whatever that means) in Ölgii.

We spent all the following night bumping along the dusty road from Ölgii to Khovd in a shared van which ended up pretty light on people. The four passengers paid $15 a piece instead of the usual $10 in order to get things going. In addition to getting thrown against the sides of the van with the maniacal driver careening through desert, we were deafened by ear-splitting Kazakh pop accompanied by cheesy videos on an aftermarket TV screen.

We made it to Khovd and crashed at a cheap hotel for the night. The door didn’t lock, but we managed to shove a coat hanger in the handle to prevent it from falling open at least. We met an Israeli couple heading to the Bulgan border crossing and secured a spot in the van for us.

Our final road in Mongolia was perhaps a departure gift; it was paved the entire way, something we can’t say about any of our other trips in Mongolia. It was mercifully smooth, but we were shoved in there with so many other people as to negate any positive effects of the road surface. The trip itself was much shorter than we had read (outdated information, no doubt from before the paving), and we were in Bulgan after maybe 6 hours. The driver was continuing on to the border the next day, so he crashed in his car in the yard of some family he presumably knew and we and the Israelis pitched our tents outside. After not too much sleep, we headed to the border the following morning after picking up some random supplies around Bulgan.

Stay tuned for another post soon detailing the border crossing and our trip to Urumqi.

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