Don’t undo your bootlaces until you have seen the river.
As we sit in dusty, windswept Ulgii, one of Mongolia’s westernmost cities, and await our delayed flight back to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian proverb swirls around in my head. At first, it seems similar to our American saying, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” But this piece of Mongolian wisdom is far more nuanced, forewarning its believers of surprises, challenges, and—quite literally—rivers around every corner. Our flight eventually departs 11 hours late, and we’re unsure if it’s because of weather, a mechanical issue, or the flight crew needing sleep. We never find out, nor does it matter—it’s just another unknown in a country of unknowns, unlike anywhere I’ve ever experienced.
Truthfully, we had been beckoned to Mongolia for a bikepacking trip in the Khangai Mountains, but we’re always lured by the proposition of trekking in high mountains. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the sacred and dramatic Tavan Bogd massif, a group of five jagged, towering peaks in Mongolia’s far west on the borders of Russia and China and a mere 19 miles from Kazakhstan. The summits and glaciers that loom over the high desert valleys have drawn people from across the world for millennia, now serving as the home to local Tuva tribes, Siberian ibis, and elusive snow leopards. So naturally, after an epic bikepack in the Khangai Mountains of central Mongolia, we hopped on a plane and flew to Ulgii in the Bayan-Ölgii Aimag.
Day 1: The Drive to the Trailhead
We bump along in our rectangular van I’ve nicknamed Pumpernickel—a Russian word meaning “loaf of bread” that’s also slang for this type of vehicle (and painfully accurate). Brian and I, along with our 19-year-old guide, Elaman, pregnant cook, Delgermaa, and highly skilled driver, Birlik, slowly make our way through the mountainous desert landscape of the Tsagaan Gol valley. The snow-capped Shiveet Khairkhan and Altai range pull us into the distance, tracing the Chinese border to the south and Russia to the north.
It strikes me that I’ve never been somewhere so remote, despite an impressive travel log including India, Tanzania, Thailand, Malaysia, Peru, Ecuador, and so on. The landscape is vast and empty, and I feel as though I’ve been transported back centuries, or even millennia. We see no one as we cruise by Turkic Stone Men—ancient stone statues built between the 6th and 9th centuries—which serve as another tangible reminder that the culture and people that dominate this land have been here for thousands of years. But soon, the nauseating smell of Pumpernickel’s petrol yanks us back into reality and reminds us that we are indeed in the present, and we continue on towards the Tavan Bogd.
We cross gushing rivers and drive, at maximum, 10-15 miles per hour on imperceptible jeep tracks that are surprisingly included on maps. Brian battles motion sickness, heightened by the smell of the gas, but we are both awestruck by the beauty and expansiveness that surround us in every direction. Pumpernickel has her first (of many) breakdowns, but thankfully Birlik is a jack of all trades—he’s able to clean the fuel filters with his mouth, and promptly chases the petrol with a celebratory cigarette.
Although this is a travel day, the landscape of the Tsagaan Gol is breathtaking and unpredictable. After about six hours in the van, we break to explore petroglyphs depicting deer, elk, snow leopards, horses, and men in the upper valley. These carvings are thought to have been etched between the Bronze Age (some 3,000 years ago) and Iron Age (around 1,000 BC). They open a window to the remarkable transition from hunting to herding, and ultimately to the domestication of horses and creation of a more modern nomadic lifestyle. It’s like a story book unfolding before our eyes. In many parts of the world, UNESCO World Heritage Sites draw hordes of tourists, cordoned off to protect them from vandals and ignorant bystanders. But here, we are the only viewers, allowed to examine these works of art as closely as we wish. We try to fathom how small we are in the much larger history of the world, and both silently bask in the peacefulness of the valley and mountains as dusk begins to fall.
Don’t undo your bootlaces until you have seen the river.
We’re tantalizingly close to the trailhead but are soon informed there’s been a hiccup: the river is too high and we must return the way we came, cross a bridge, and drive along the other side of the valley to reach our destination. While this only adds around 50 miles, it’ll take us five or six more hours at our painfully sluggish pace.
Since it’s already getting dark, we attempt to set up camp and plan to continue our journey the following day, but we’re quickly ambushed by mosquitos. On our second attempt, we find a lovely location on the valley floor, pitch our tent, and watch questioningly as Elaman and Birlik attempt to set up their shelter, poles stretched incorrectly, leaving the corners several inches off the ground. With food on our mind, I look to Delgermaa. Earlier today, I was told that although it was confirmed a month prior that our chef could accommodate my vegetarian diet, it was also assumed that I would be fine with meat for two days of the trip. Not quite the strictest interpretation of “vegetarian,” but it makes Brian and me erupt into laughter. It’s all part of the adventure.
Don’t undo your bootlaces…
Day 2: Trailhead to Basecamp
We wake the next morning to an early start, five hours of driving, and another breakdown (or was it two?), reaching the trailhead around 11am. Though Brian and I have very lightweight gear and can easily carry it, the rest of our set-up requires a camel to transport the load. Unfortunately, the only camel available is “too angry,” so we wait. Hours pass, and we’re assured this is normal. In the late afternoon, it’s decided that Brian and I, along with Elaman, can commence the four-to-five-hour journey to basecamp along the Potanin Glacier. Once another camel becomes available, Delgermaa will join us. We head out with our gear and convince our guide to bring along a sleeping bag. Up until now, he’s only carried a small backpack stuffed with a random assortment of items, like instant coffee (but no stove) and a jar of jam.
Finally on foot, we’re able to truly enjoy the splendor of this landscape. We gradually climb higher over boggy and uneven terrain speckled with wildflowers. As we wrap around a corner and head north towards the Russian border, the Tavan Bogd massif reveals itself. First, Malchin (4,050 meters), then Nairamdal (4,100 meters), Khüiten (the highest peak in Mongolia; 4,374 meters), Bürged (4,068 meters), and Olgii (4,100 meters). Two glaciers—the Potanin and Alexander, named for the Russian explorers that discovered them—spill from the jagged peaks.
Once we reach basecamp, we realize we’ve forgotten our tent poles in a bag that the angry camel refused to carry, so we crawl into our sleeping bags. The three of us doze off under a clear sky, and our cook arrives on horseback around 10pm to find us all asleep under the stars.
Day 3: Summit Attempt of Malchin
The local Tuvas believe that Khüiten is sacred, and if climbers “conquer” its summit, bad weather soon follows. We knew an expedition had summitted the day before we set out, but were optimistic that the early morning sunshine that glistened off the glaciated peaks was a good omen. So after our customary breakfast of eggs, cucumbers, and tomatoes, we set out to ascend Malchin—an almost-perfect triangle that tops out at just over 4,000 meters. It’s possible to scramble up, avoiding the snow and making it a non-technical climb, and we’re excited at the prospect of earning views into Siberia.
Don’t undo your bootlaces…
After a couple hours of hiking—during which we trace glaciers that flow between the rugged peaks, watch dramatic clouds form, and stand in awe of jaw-dropping views—a huge storm rolls in. We take cover in the talus to wait it out, but it soon becomes clear that our views into Siberia aren’t within reach. Disappointed, we retreat back to basecamp. Within hours, the skies have cleared, but our window of opportunity for peak-bagging has closed. Instead, we savor the glorious scenery, play by the glacier, and go for a run in the wildflowers. It’s easy to see why civilizations have revered this area for thousands of years. The vastness and timelessness of the terrain make us feel connected to the natural world and humbled in ways we haven’t before experienced—we feel small and insignificant, in the best way possible.
Day 4: Hiking from Basecamp to our Van
The wind howls through the night, snow pelting our rainfly, and we awake early the following day to find several inches accumulated on our tent. We spend most of our morning periodically clearing the heavy snow off of our roof and watch as the storm slowly lays its thick blanket of fresh powder over the valley and surrounding peaks. We abandon our hopes of a second summit attempt and instead set our sights on Pumpernickel to begin the long, slow journey back to town. We pack up and say goodbye to the row of giants above us. As we pick our way down, the sun peaks through the clouds and illuminates the crystalline cover that now encases the mountains. We pause to take in our last view of the Five Saints.
Once back on the road, we learn that this small area of Mongolia is home to the few hundred remaining Kazakh eagle hunters, and eagerly agree to visit one of our driver’s friends named Baytie who happens to be one of them. But as with almost everything else on this trip thus far, the drive proves a bit more than we bargained for. Because nomadic life dominates Mongolia, most of the population outside of Ulaanbaatar lives in gers in the summer months. These yurt-type dwellings are portable and families move around frequently to allow their livestock to graze on fresh and fertile grass—which makes it particularly difficult to find a specific ger in a land of many. We drive across bogs, rivers, and bumps and pass countless abodes along the way, questioning how we could ever know if we’ve found the right one since they all look identical. Brian gets so motion sick that he has to walk alongside Pumpernickel, only forcing himself back in when territorial dogs approach and threaten his safety. As the sun lowers, we eventually spot a ger with a magnificent golden eagle perched outside. Our question now seems silly.
The inhabitants of the ger welcome us warmly, including 80-year-old Baytie who’s training one of his sons and two grandsons as future eagle hunters. Unbeknownst to us, the small village in the area is set to celebrate Naadam, Mongolia’s annual festival where men compete in wrestling, horse racing, archery, and other sports. Because of the timing, the eagle hunter’s family members have all traveled to attend—all two dozen of them.
The family has a specially prepared pot of freshly slaughtered sheep boiling on their wood- and dung-burning stove in the center of the room. A car battery is wired to indoor lighting, illuminating the rich textiles, photographs, and meat hanging on the walls. We sit around and try to communicate with facial expressions and gestures, and they appear as fascinated by us as we are by them. Our guide serves as a translator and we learn that Baytie’s eagle is a champion—she won last year’s Golden Eagle Festival where the birds and their trainers work together to catch small animals like foxes and hares. At eight years old, she’s slated to compete once more before being set free. After a lengthy conversation and tired from a long day, we decline the family’s generous offer to sleep in the ger and retreat to our tent, leaving them to enjoy their boiled mutton, fermented cheeses, and alcoholic mare’s milk.
Even in the moment, we recognize this as an experience we will never forget. We’re touched by the kindness and graciousness of this family that does not know us, by the magnificence of the eagle hunter and his champion bird, and by the opportunity to sit back and observe a simple, pure, joy-filled life in this incredible place.
A Reflection on our Mongolian Adventure
It’s hard to convey in words, or even pictures, the experience that we had in the Altai Mountains. As is often the case, we were lured by the scenery and high mountains that Mongolia promised, but came away most awed by the cultural experiences. That said, we wish we had more time to experience everything—if we do it again, we’ll give ourselves more time to allow for slow travel, vehicle breakdowns, swollen rivers, inclement weather, angry camels, and delayed flights. The Altai range offers surprises and delights around every corner, but they revealed themselves on their own schedule and we often found ourselves at their mercy.
Guided, Supported, or Independent?
Our extensive research prior to landing in Ulgii provided us with little clarity on whether a local guide was required or simply recommended. We opted to treat our adventure as a reconnaissance mission and to support the local economy by hiring a guide, driver, and cook to accompany us on our adventure. During our journey, we learned a lot that will potentially help future travelers.
It’s questionable whether or not a guide is technically required for those trekking in the Altai Mountains, but most information we read and discovered pointed to “yes.” Rumor has it that border patrol agents will only communicate with Mongolians, which would make any mix-up very difficult and, most likely, pricey. We have also heard that foreigners who mistakenly enter China can be detained for long periods of time.
For travelers content with hiring a guide, it’s important to note that not all companies are the same. We’d recommend doing some research to find a service that meets your needs. In our case, our “guide” was a 19-year-old college student who served as a helpful translator. He was keen and eager, but was by no means a mountain guide. While this was fine for us because we are self-sufficient, had our own gear, and are confident in making decisions about safety in the mountains, it’s imperative you know what you need ahead of time and can make sure your guide is well-equipped to help.
An alternative option for those hoping to go unguided would be to have a tour company purchase the permits and arrange transportation. Once at the starting point, you can hire a local with a camel or horse to join you on the trek. Though not a “guide,” having a local is probably adequate, although in our opinion not the safest bet. If this all sounds unclear, that’s because it is. Our recon mission didn’t provide definitive answers—Mongolia is, after all, a land of unknowns.
Two permits are required to access the Tavan Bogd region: a border permit for anyone who will be within 100 kilometers of the Russian and Chinese borders, and a park permit to enter Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. We needed both. Only Mongolians are able to obtain these permits for foreigners, so unless you have a Mongolian friend, a tour/guiding company can take care of this in Ulgii.
International flights land in Ulaanbaatar, the nation’s capital. From here, you can hop on a short flight to Ulgii (under two hours). Alternatively, a bus runs three times each week for around $30 one-way, but keep in mind the drive will take at least 24-48 hours. If you choose to fly, there are two domestic airlines that fly this route (Hunnu Air and Aero Mongolia), and we flew return with Aero Mongolia for under $250 each. That said, be advised that the flights are notoriously delayed and often run off-schedule. For our flight to Ulgii, the plane departed four hours earlier (yes, earlier) than expected. And as we mentioned previously, our return flight to Ulaanbaatar was delayed by 11 hours.
We highly recommend hiring an experienced driver. We’re used to driving a van on 4WD roads back home in Canada, but can honestly say that the ever-changing route to the Tavan Bogd would be terrifying to self-navigate. If you do wish to rent a vehicle and drive, be sure to have a .gpx track to follow, but be prepared to get stuck in bogs and rivers, as well as fix mechanical issues due to poor gas, dusty roads that clog fuel filters, and numerous flat tires. Gpx tracks are also mere suggestions as rivers shift, bogs appear, and routes change. A trusty driver that doubles as a mechanic is worth his weight in gold.
What We Brought
We faced all four seasons in a matter of four days, and are thankful we packed for the unexpected. For a tent, we brought the Big Agnes Copper Spur 3 Platinum (the three-person version, for the added space). It held up with ease in the snow storm, and similarly kept us dry and protected on our bikepacking trip in the Khangai Mountains, where daily storms were the norm. Inside, we each had a Western Mountaineering Summerlite sleeping bag and a Exped Synmat HL Duo sleeping pad. On our backs, we opted for smaller daypacks over large backpacks (the Black Diamond Speed 40 and Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25), both due to the short nature of the trip and the fact that a camel/horse was carrying some of our equipment.
We did not need to cook for ourselves, but we did use the Primus OmniLite Ti and 1-liter bottles on our bikepack. Make sure you have a multi-fuel-compatible stove, specifically for unleaded petrol, as that’s about all you’ll be able to find in Mongolia. For water, we used the MSR Guardian as our purification system. Most of the water along our route wasn’t exactly clear, so we highly recommend a similar system. Finally, for safety, we brought along our Garmin inReach Explorer+, as well as Goal Zero Nomad solar panels and batteries.
What We Wore
Mongolian weather is notoriously unpredictable, and—as we experienced—sun in the morning is no indication of what conditions will be like later in the day. We made sure to pack and layer appropriately, and recommend talking to your guides beforehand to get the scoop on what you might expect during your travels.
- Hardshells: Montane Spine and Arc’teryx Alpha FL
- Down jackets: Arc’teryx Cerium SL Hoody and Feathered Friends Eos
- Baselayers: Icebreaker Merino long-sleeved layers/long underwear and t-shirts
- Hiking pants: Arc’teryx Gamma LT Pant and Arc’teryx Lefroy
- Insulated Pants: Patagonia Nano-Air
- Running shoes: Arc’teryx Norvan LD and Altra Lone Peak
- Boots: Scarpa Zodiac Plus GTX and La Sportiva Trango TRK GTX
Other Helpful Tips
- Be sure to check your flight’s status and time periodically, specifically on any day you’re traveling within or outside of Mongolia.
- Most of Bayan-Olgii’s population is Kazakh (around 90%), and the native language is Kazakh, not Mongolian.
- Check with a travel clinic about immunizations, but outside of the typical ones (hepatitis A and B, tetanus, and typhoid), you might want to consider the rabies vaccine. The dogs in Mongolia are large and quite vicious, and some do have rabies. We learned that it might be difficult to be treated in Mongolia, and if you’ve been vaccinated, you have a longer window of time to receive treatment following exposure.
- Depending on your objective, be aware that the altitude can be over 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) along your route.
- Bring along medication if you are prone to motion sickness. The roads and driving are nauseating.
- Visit a ger! You won’t regret it.
- If you have dietary restrictions, make sure you have a phrase book or phone app to clearly convey this. Otherwise, expect to eat a lot of carrots, cabbage, and potatoes—and tons of mutton in every form: in steamed or fried dumplings, friend with noodles, boiled, in soups, in patty form, etc.
- If you opt for a guided trek, it’s worth having the itinerary written out in detail. Make sure both the driver and guide agree on the details.
- And finally, don’t undo your bootlaces until you have seen the river.