For adventurers looking to explore remote areas, Altai mountains trekking brings you by glacier-fed rivers, snow-packed passes, turquoise lakes, and high peaks. And a chance to hike where few people seldom go, besides the local Kazakh nomads watching over their livestock grazing in the summertime.
Trekking through the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park in the Altai mountain range was probably among the best treks we ever had. And if you don’t want to take my words for it, check out the pictures we took during our trip. They will speak for themselves! So if you are ready for new adventure travel, a trip of trekking Altai, Mongolia, is for you.
Your Planning Guide to Altai Mountains, Mongolia
If your first question is “where are the Altai mountains,” they spread across several countries: Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. On the Mongolia side, the answer is that the Altai mountains are close to Ölgii, Bayan-Ölgii Aimag (province), in the extreme west side of Mongolia. Among the many trekking routes Mongolia can offer, hiking Altai mountains should indeed be on the top of the list.
And as far as Altai mountains facts are concerned, make sure to specify ahead where you are headed. Precise which Altai you are talking about: Russia, China, Kazakhstan, or Mongolia. Especially as this region of Western Mongolia is also known as Kazakh Mongolia thanks to the unique cultural heritage from the people living there.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is the central park on this side of the Kazakh Altai.
Table of Content:
- Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
- Altai Tavan Bogd National Park Trail Description
- Where to stay along the Altai Tavan Bogd Trail
- How to Get to Altai Tavan Bodg National Park
- Altai Mountains Trekking: Food on the Trail
- Safety in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
- When to Go for your Altai Mountains Trek
- Altai Mountains Trekking Gear Packing List
- Altai Tavan Bogd National Park Trekking Costs
- Ölgii, Your Hub in Western Mongolia
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
The Tavan Bogd mountains are in the Bayan-Ölgii Province of Western Mongolia, with borders to the north with the Altai Republic of Russia, and to the West the Burqin County of China.
The name Tavan Bogd Mountains means the ‘5 Saints” makes sense when you stand by the five tallest peaks in the park. Starting with Kuiten Uul at 14,350 ft (4374 m), Nairamdal at 13,714 feet (4,180 meters), Malchin at 13,287 feet (4,050 meters), Bürged at 13,346 feet (4,068 meters) and Ölgii at 13,287 feet ( 4,050 meters) constitute the other giant mountains.
Tavan Bogd National Park is, however, more than the high peaks and circa 34 glaciers. Indeed, the park includes the beautiful flat area of the Lakes region. Composed of three freshwater lakes, Khurgan Nuur and Khoten Nuur linked by a small river, and the smaller Dayan Nuur south of the two central lakes.
Independent Trekking or Tour Operator?
Regardless of how your travel, you are required to:
- Have permits to enter the park, both Park, and Border permits
- Are not supposed to trek by yourself. A Mongolian must be with you at all time and needs to carry their ID documentation.
While you have to carry permits and cannot be entirely by yourself, you can trek:
- Independently with a guide: Arrange your trip in Ölgii for you and your party. Or put a party together in Ölgii and make new friends. Your guide will be on a horse, and if you so wish, you can rent another horse as a pack animal and have it carry your bags. We chose this option as we were not in shape to do the long 8-day hike with all the food. The horse carried a few items from our fellow trekkers but most of them wore their bags.
- Guided trekking tour fully organized by a trekking company, in Ölgii or outside Mongolia.
- Independently but equipped with a GPS tracker. This option was mentioned to us a couple of times, but it seemed this program was not available during our visit. I am not sure whether it stopped entirely, or was unavailable due as we were in the low season. It might be worth asking and checking the current availability once in Ölgii.
We decided to travel independently and managed to find fellow trekkers to share the costs of the trip. What a bunch of cool people we got to meet, and as of today, we are still in touch with them all. We even meet with two of them in Hong Kong and China again over a year after our trek. The spirit of Mongolia never left us…
Another option is to book a guided trekking tour. While more expensive, an Altai mountains tour comes with the benefit of an English-speaking guide, free of worry about shopping and cooking your food, and finding other people to share the costs. It all depends on your budget, your willingness to do-it-all yourself in a foreign country and language, and your flexibility should changes be required because of the weather or miscommunication. For us, it’s part of the fun traveling. For others, it’s their worst nightmare.
Regardless of how you want to travel, don’t miss the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, even if it’s only for a (long) day. Mongolia trekking should be high on the list of any adventurer. Indeed, this trek and this region of Mongolia were one of the highlights of our two-month stay in the country.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park Travel Permits
There are several options for trekking the Altai Tavan Bodg National Park, and all require you to have a “guide.” Given that the park borders both China and Russia, tourists are no longer allowed to travel freely through the park, thanks to a few previous visitors that wandered too close and even across borders, and landed in Russia or China without the proper documents and border crossing.
You do need to organize your travel permits to enter and hike in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, as you need two documents: the park permit, and the border permit. For both papers, you need your passports (no photocopies) and have your itinerary ready.
- The Park permit is available at one of the Park Ranger Stations in or on the way to the park, or from the Visitor Information Center close to the Central Square in Ölgii (inside the Mongolian People’s Party building). There are four ranger stations in the park: two along the Khovd River from Tsengel as you go towards the Lakes Region, and two in the North near the Tavan Bogd Mountain range. Cost: 3,000 MNT per person.
You need a rough idea of how your long Altai trek will be, the itinerary, and the exact names of the people in your trekking party. The agency where we rented our guide arranged the permit for us, which took about a day and a copy of our passports. Make sure the names are exact. Soldats at the army checkpoint in the middle of the park will go through the document and passport in details and will question any single inconsistency.
You might be able to organize it yourself, but since you need to have a guide, you might as well let the agency you are getting your guide from to do it.
If the option of getting a GPS is still valid, the permit bureau will be the place to obtain the device and authorization.
- The Border Permit is compulsory for anyone entering within 62 Miles (100 kilometers) of an international border of Mongolia. In the case of the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, there are two international borders nearby: China to the west, Russia to the north. These border permits are available at the Border Patrol office in Ölgii. Cost: 3,000 MNT per group (we heard it might be free some time). Some people told us that only the office only communicates with Mongolians, and requires a local person – be it guide or tour operator – to apply for you. Since we went through a tour operator ourselves, we can’t say one way or the other. Depending on how close you plan to trek to the Russian border within Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, you might need another permit from the Border Patrol in Tsaagannuur, another town about two hours north of Ölgii.
If you think you might split from your original group, ask for multiple permits. We did pass a military station in the first half of our trek, where military personnel stopped us to verify our documentation. They thoroughly checked and compared our permits with each of our passports. The senior officer questioned the name of one of our team members as his name on the permit had a typo and did not match 100% his passport. However, they let us pass after a short discussion. In any case, they were polite and welcoming, though down to the point and business. Note that our guide told us not to take any photos as we closed onto the military post.
Trekkers or any tourists caught without the proper permits will be fined (we hear up to US$150 and returned by the army to Ölgii). We did meet people in Ölgii who had traveled without any permit, but given what we saw, they got lucky. Given the proximity with the international borders, and how these costs might be right incentives for protecting the park environment, and that the costs are not horrendously expensive, we feel you are better off getting them and avoid any potential issue.
While you can, in theory, get the park permit when you reach it, some trekkers encountered a few issues. To be safe, get them before you leave Ölgii.
Sacred Mountains and UNESCO World Heritage Site
For the local Kazakhs, Tuvans from Russia, and Mongolians in general, the Tavan Bogd mountains are sacred. Throughout the region, religious signs such as Turkic Stone Men, burial mounds, and petroglyphs are a reminder of the presence of humans and traditional celebrations across the millennia.
As such, several sites with thousands of petroglyphs dating from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age are today listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites, including the Tsagaan Salaa rock paintings since 2011.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park Trail Description
The unmarked trail itself is not very hard, but be prepared to face long days. The average daily 12-mile (20-kilometer) distance takes you through mostly flat and rolling hills for the first half of the trek, and through a snow-capped pass towards the end. The section to the Potanin Glacier is yet another steep section, where the campground sits at roughly 10,170 feet (3,100 meters).
While the trail is not too difficult, the remoteness and weather conditions in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park can be challenging for those with less experience or not adequately equipped. As an experienced hiker, you probably have your gear already. Whether you do or need to get the equipment, make sure to bring 3-season gear. And this rating to cover from the sleeping bag to your outer layers. Even in summer, the weather and temperatures can drop quickly. As we trekked at the end of September, we experienced sunny days in mild temperatures but also snow a couple of times with below freezing temperatures at night.
Different options to hike and trek in the Altai range are available, from a day hike to a weeklong trip, and even longer if you decide to explore further. Whatever itinerary you choose, the trail needs to be mindful of the two international borders of China and Russia that line the park, and you will need to secure your permit accordingly.
The main trail, however, crosses the park from one entrance of the other. It is usually recommended to start from the South entrance (towards the Lake Region) and exit via the North entrance (Tsagaan Gol), as the trail increases in terrain difficulty, and you can finish with the Pontanin Glacier in the furthest North gate (Tsagaan Salaa).
Our itinerary was set to be an 8-day trip, including 6-day of actual trekking. We covered around 75 miles (120 km) in 6 days.
Note that we are not too sure about some of the names of the location. Maps are hard to come by, names are in Cyrillic, either Mongolian or Kazakh, and we had only limited communication possible with our guide. The names I am listed for Days 2 to 4 are the best of my knowledge and what I found searching after we returned from our trip. Feel free to let us know if we need to change any of these names.
Day 1: Ölgii – First Camp in Altai Tavan Bogd National
The first day went from Ölgii to our departure point in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. A long day of about 6 to 8 hours of rough drive that brought us to the freshwater Khurgan and Khoton Lakes. We drove by winter houses, where nomads move during the cold months with their livestock. We stopped at a ger which turned to be the house of our guide.
At night, we camped by Khoton Lake, one of the three lakes in the park with Khurgan and Dayan Lakes. Khoton Lake – and the start of the trek – sits at 6,600 feet (2,000 meters)
Day 2: Khoton Lake
The trek followed the 15-mile (25-kilometer) coastline of the Khoton Lake. The trail was mostly flat terrain through meadows and small creeks until we reached a site facing almost the end of the Khoton lake. Since we trekked in October, we enjoyed the yellow and orange of the fall colors – stunning against the blue sky and milk hues of the glacier rivers.
We camped almost at the end of the Khoton Lake, which provided with freshwater for a quick wash up and filtering.
Day 3: Takhiltyn Havtsal
The trail went along turquoise glacial rivers and over rolling hills. We traversed an area known as Takhiltyn Havtsal which sits between the northern side of the Khoton Lake and the foothills of the Tavan Bogd mountain range.
No lake in sight that night, but a small creek enough again for a quick cleanup and water filter session. We had our first snow that night, right as we finished dinner.
Day 3: Ag Su River
We woke up to white surroundings, the snow covering our entire area but melting quickly under the rising and warming sun.
The trail snaked along a river, making a rather long day as we could not cross straight in the boggy environment. We gained some elevation as the path started to raise and passed by a few glacier lakes nestled among pine trees.
We camped by the river, watching wild horses grazing by. The weather deteriorated as we saw a hail storm coming in while we tried to warm ourselves around a blazing campfire.
Day 4: Takalbai Pass
As we camped by the foothill of the tall peaks, the trail left the flat river bed of the Ag Su to take us up a 10,348-feet (3,154-meter) pass. The grueling hours went by faster as we met another herd of wild horses, snow-capped peaks, and a stunning valley opening in front of us.
The high pass presented about ankle-deep wet snow that quickly wet our feet. The hot sun made the crossing bearable, but the descent of the Northern slope was cold and challenging in the freezing temperatures and slippery conditions.
Day 5: Shiveet Khairkhan Mountain & Ranger Station
Up some, and down some, the trail saw us skirting boggy meadows, hiking over green grazing fields, and by a few isolated gers and winter houses. We met a couple of horses, wild yaks, and camels.
At the end of the long day, we reached the Shiveet Khairkhan Ranger Station in the White River valley. Shiveet Khairkhan is a sacred mountain for the Tuvan people and features several archaeological sites with petroglyphs showing grazing animals and hunters on horses dating back from the Bronze Age (third millennium BCE) up to the Scythian period and then the Turkic Period (seventh to eighth centuries CE). This area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Shamanism is still strong nowadays, and the Tuvan continue to practice religious ceremonies in the region.
Day 6: Potanin Glacier Base Camp
We woke up to a snow storm, our tents and surrounding heavy with snow. Our initial plan was to trek to the Potanin Glacier base camp that day, but given the weather situation and the fact the field would be at a higher elevation, we worried about the challenging conditions. Several of us did not have the proper gear for trekking in snow conditions, and due to the lack of phone services, we considered it unsafe to continue that day.
We found a ger willing to take us in as we pondered about our next move. The weather finally cleared to a blue sky, but it was too late for us to resume the trekking to the base camp. The guys on our team decided to go to Potanin Glacier as a fast day hike, which turned to be a great hike with incredible views. At night, we rested in the warm hut, considered we might have been camping at the base camp instead.
Day 7: Malchin Peak
What would have been our day hike to the Malchin Peak by the Potanin Glacier, we returned to Ölgii. If our actual plan had worked, we would have spent a second night at the base camp.
The Potanin Glacier is Mongolia’s longest, spreading along 9 miles (14 kilometers) across Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. The views from the base camp are just stunning, and a must-see when in the Altai mountains.
Malchin Peak is one of five peaks of the Tavan Bogd mountain and accessible from the Potanin Glacier base camp. The Peak sits at 13,287 feet (4,050 m) and doesn’t require any mountain climbing experience or equipment. However, be mindful of the rapidly changing weather conditions and do not take this climb too slightly, and come prepared for potentially rough conditions.
Day 8: White River Valley (Tsagaan Gol) to Ölgii
On that day, following the initial travel plan, we would have exited by the northern gate and then return to Ölgii.
In any case, the White River valley is yet another fantastic landscape. A few scattered gers and winter houses, a couple of herds of yaks, camels, and horses, and the infinite valley. The White River Valley is also home to Tsagaan Salaa Rock Paintings, part of the more massive Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai that include the Shiveet Khairkhan rock art sites, and is part of the same UNESCO World Heritage site.
Where to stay along the Altai Tavan Bogd Trail
The park offers no defined tourist accommodation – no hotel, no resort, no hostel.
A tour operator might be able to arrange a few stays in a ger, but these traditional Kazakh accommodations can be far away from each other and don’t have fixed location given their nomadic lifestyle. When not in a ger, camping in a tent is the only option. Whether organized and carried by your tour operator, or by yourself, depends on your travel plan.
If you know in advance that you will stay in a ger, make you that you and the tour operator bring enough food to cover your meals, and to some extent, the people in the ger. These families are all nomads living in hard conditions, and will most likely not have enough to share, even though their traditional welcoming culture will want to share whatever they little they have.
There are almost no designed camping sites, and you can pitch your tent anywhere you want. Just be mindful is your stay close to a ger or a camp, and ask for permission before settling down. As in any national park (or even any natural area really), the “pack in pack out” concept applies.
Note that whichever way you will spend the night, there is never any amenities. The area is a wild, remote, and there is no shower, no restroom. Just Mother Nature and the open spaces.
How to Get to Altai Tavan Bodg National Park
The park is about 111 miles (180 km) from Ölgii, and the rough dirt road takes about 5 to 7 hours depending on how many stops you do. The road crosses a couple of villages, creeks, and valleys before reaching the park entrance.
Due to the lack of public transportation, you need to arrange your ride up to the park. Whether you are traveling independently or through a tour operator, you will either hire a driver and his Russian minivan or 4WD drive to reach the park.
If you are traveling independently, several tour operators provide shuttle service during the peak season (June to October). However, these services only run a few days a week, so you need to contact them locally to see when they run for you to time your itinerary accordingly.
Alternatively, if you find other fellow travelers looking for the same trek, you can rent a minivan with driver from on these tour operators, and schedule your transportation back and forth. We were lucky to find four other trekkers almost as we arrived in Ölgii, and were able to do so.
Altai Mountains Trekking: Food on the Trail
There are neither restaurants nor stores in Tavan Bogd National Park, so you need to be self-sufficient. Either through you book a tour-operator run trip which includes food or you buy all your food ahead of your trek. Depending on the tour operator and the package and price point they offer, you might get from simple local Kazakh meals to more Western dishes.
Being the central town around that part of Mongolia, you can find a variety of food in Ölgii. However, forget freeze-dried food. Rice and potatoes would be your primary staples, though there is a wide variety of dry noodle soups. So if you can stomach these and are not picky about what you eat, you can find enough variation to keep it interesting over a week-long period. There are several supermarkets on the main streets of Ölgii, and you can also supplement with fresh fruits from the market.
Should you go with a tour operator and stay with local people in their ger, it is a customary gesture to bring a small gift. From candles, matches, tea, instant coffee, sugar, to cakes, and sweets will be appreciated.
Boil and filter your water as you go. With the increasing plastic pollution and the limited resources to manage garbage, prefer a reusable bottle of water and filter your water. A bottle like Nalgene where you can pour boiled water is a good option to use as a bottle warmer in your sleeping bag. When you visit or stay with local Kazakh or Mongolians, your host will treat with the traditional milk tea (and the sweets, bread, and cakes that come with it).
Safety in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
Mongolia overall and the Altai region are in general very safe for the travelers. However, common sense applies, and traveling with someone or in a group is recommended. Since you need to register for a permit, the park rangers will know roughly who and where one would be. This highly remote location in a rustic region and rescue options are limited and far away.
- While the wildlife includes potentially dangerous animals like wolves and bears, you are more likely to be bitten by a dog from one of the nearby herds or gers, as they protect the livestock or human camps.
- With two international borders lining up the park though without any actual fence to mark the separation, crossing into China or Russia is possible and has happened to a couple of wandering hikers. Such unauthorized crossing created diplomatic issues for the two countries and the hikers involved.
- Health-wise, the water from the river might be spoiled by nearby livestock. Improperly filtered water, unwashed or undercooked food might make you sick. Watch also for altitude sickness, and cold weather exposition.
- Any severe accident requires an 8-hour long drive back to Ölgii where the nearest hospital. With almost no signal in the park, you need to reach one of the ranger stations for them to radio out if need be.
When to Go for your Altai Mountains Trek
Peak Season: June to October
The primary season to travel and trek in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is from June to October. The temperatures are warmer (though not necessarily warm, mostly warmer than the winter conditions). The snow melted by the end of May though you will encounter snows on some of the passes. Tour camps and gers are present in the park and provide accommodation when necessary. Mountain climbers usually head to the park in August and September, the better months for mountain climbing.
Shoulder Months: End of September to October
End of September to October is also a lovely period if you want to time your trek with an Altai Kazakh eagle festival in Ölgii. These events also make for a busy period so reserve your bed or room in advance. Watch that even in mid-October, the weather can turn cold very quickly. It can snow overnight, which would force you to modify your trip like we had to.
July and August are the rainy seasons and might see some storms. The average temperatures in Summer are between 60-78°F (16-25°C) during the day and 44-60°F (7-13°C) at night. Come September and October, the day temperatures are around 60°F (15°C) and can drop to 5°F (-15°C) during the night.
Altai Mountains Trekking Gear Packing List
Though the trek is not that difficult, the remoteness and changing weather conditions are probably better for experienced trekkers. Beginner trekkers would enjoy their adventure with experienced tour operators or a knowledgeable team.
In addition to the regular hiking items, I would highly recommend the following trekking equipment:
- 3-season trekking clothes – layers, layers! We wore long-sleeve t-shirts and light fleece during the day but upgraded to full-fledged coat, beanies, and jacket once the sun set down.
- Trekking poles: even with somewhat flat terrain, the pass was steep, both up and down. I appreciated my poles as we descended on the rocky trail made slippery by the snow, and for crossing the freezing water of many creeks.
- Water sandals, like Teva, to cross these creeks. Walking barefoot on the rock bottom in freezing temperature is like sticking needles in your feet.
- Water Filter: The water from the lakes is appealing. However, given the nearby livestock living around it, make sure to filter it.
- Warm 3-season sleeping bag. In September, the night temperatures dropped in the lower 5°F (-15°C). Some of the higher altitude camps like the Potanin Glacier base camp are at 10,000-foot (3,050-meter) elevation. A 3-season or even winter sleeping bag is highly recommended.
- Sleeping mat. We did not have any regular sleeping mat so we bought thin construction insulation – a cheap and protecting alternative. While it’s not necessarily comfortable or the smallest pack, it weighs nothing and keeps you dry and insulated.
- Stove/gas: A must-have if you plan to travel independently, a stove is must-have. However, note that gas canisters are not readily available. Ask for tour operators as some of them might have some to sell, but most usually prefer to keep the few they have for their tours. A multi-fuel stove that works with different kinds of fuel would be a better option.
- A good first aid kit: This is a remote area, search and rescue might not be handy. And the nearest hospital is several hours away.
- A Topographical map: the choice is not huge but review this Altai mountains map 1:500,000 M-45 / L-45 Ulgii.
- A GPS system is also to be considered for additional safety.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park Trekking Costs
We had the chance to meet four other fellow trekkers in Ölgii, which composed our group of 6. We shared the costs of the Russian minivan and driver, and of the horse-mounted guide. Most of us traveled independently with tents and cooking gear. We shared the tent and cooking gear with one of them. Prior to the trip, we bought our food inÖlgii. Bruno and I also added a packhorse to bring our main bags and food, with a few things from our new companions.
Our guide spoke no English, but we managed thanks to Google Translate and other apps. That, and a good dose of interpretation, context, flexibility, and humor. Even though we could not communicate with him, Khurmet was a terrific guide. Patient, knowledgeable, and almost always with a big smile on his face.
- Costs shared among 6 people:
- Guide: US$40/day, for 8 days
- Ride to/from the park: About US$200 for one Russian minivan for up to 6-8 passengers, included both drop-off and pick-up
- Border Permit: 3,000 MNT
- Our costs:
- Packhorse: US$10/day, for 8 days, just for Bruno and me
- Food: around US$80 for a week of mostly instant noodles, and a couple of fresh items on the first days
- Park Permit: 3,000 MNT/person
Total Costs: About $330 for the 2 of us for 8 days.
Ölgii, Your Hub in Western Mongolia
The Altai region is quite remote, in the Western side of Mongolia. Ölgii is the central city in the area and can be reached via either a gruesome 30 to 40+ hour-bus ride from Ulaanbaatar on mostly dirt road or a flight from the Mongolian capital.
We took the long bus ride, which was an experience in itself. Some people do fly in or out to save time and enjoy amazing views from the mountain range at the same time. We did not get to fly as we exited Mongolia, continuing overland to Urumqi in China.
Where to stay and eat in Ölgii
Not many options in town, but enough for the adventurous spirits that make it all the way there.
A bed in a ger costs around US$8 per bed per night (20,000 MNT/Mongolian Tughrik). There are a couple of hostels in Ölgii to choose from, which are run by different tour operators.
We stayed at the Traveller’s Guest House, a no-thrill but clean hostel. The owner and manager, Nazgul, speaks English and can help organize minivans and is knowledgeable about the area. A couple of gers, a shared bathroom with hot water, Western toilets, but no kitchen. So you need to be self-reliable to cook your food. Restaurants and supermarkets are about 5-10 minutes away if not.
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