Olgii, the capital of Bayan-Ölgii Province in western Mongolia, is a vibrant city with a rich cultural heritage, located in the heart of the Altai Mountains. We visited Olgii and the Altai region for several weeks, during our Mongolia travel.
Things to See and Do in Olgii
Explore the Kazakh culture: Olgii is the center of the Kazakh community in Mongolia and offers visitors a chance to learn about this unique culture and its nomadic heritage. Visitors can attend traditional Kazakh events and festivals, such as the Golden Eagle Festival, and interact with local nomads to learn about their way of life.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
The Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is located in the heart of the Altai Mountains and offers some of the most stunning natural scenery in Mongolia. The Altai Mountains offer some of the most breathtaking trekking opportunities in Mongolia, with scenic trails, lush forests, and towering peaks. Visitors can go on a guided trek and experience the beauty of the Altai Mountains up close.
Other activities include horseback riding to explore the area and exploring the glaciers, lakes, and peaks of the Altai Mountains.
The Ethnographic Museum in Olgii provides a comprehensive overview of the culture and history of the Kazakh people, as well as the other ethnic groups in the region. Visitors can see a variety of artifacts, including traditional clothing, weapons, and household items.
The bazar in Olgii is a colorful and bustling market where visitors can buy traditional Kazakh handicrafts and souvenirs, as well as sample local food and drink. The bazaar is a great place to interact with local people and learn about their culture.
This mosque is the largest in Mongolia and serves as the center of the Kazakh Muslim community in the region. Visitors can see the intricate architecture and decoration of the mosque, as well as learn about the Islamic religion and its role in the Kazakh culture.
Kazakh Eagle Hunters
The Kazakh people of Mongolia are famous for their traditional sport of eagle hunting, which involves using trained eagles to hunt small animals. Visitors can go on a tour with local hunters to see this unique and historic tradition in action.
Eagle Hunting Festivals
Attend one of the two eagle hunting festivals to learn about the ancestral traditions, like the Golden Eagle Festival.
Altai Itinerary from Olgii
See a short 7-day itinerary for a road trip in Olgii and the Altai Mountains.
Day 1: Arrival in Olgii
Upon arrival in Olgii, take some time to explore the city and acclimate to the high altitude. Visit the local market to get a taste of the local culture and pick up any supplies you may need for the road trip.
Day 2: Drive to Tavan Bogd National Park
Today, start your road trip by driving to Tavan Bogd National Park, located in the heart of the Altai Mountains. This beautiful park is home to some of Mongolia’s most stunning landscapes, including glaciers, high peaks, and alpine meadows. Spend the day exploring the park, taking in the breathtaking views, and maybe even spot some of the region’s abundant wildlife, such as argali sheep, ibex, and eagles.
Day 3: Explore Tavan Bogd National Park
Spend another day in Tavan Bogd National Park, exploring the various hiking trails and taking in the incredible scenery. One of the must-see sights in the park is the Khuiten Peak, which is the highest peak in Mongolia. The hike to the top of Khuiten Peak is a challenging one, but the views from the summit are well worth the effort.
Day 4: Drive to Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
Today, continue your road trip by driving to Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, located in the neighboring province of Bayan-Olgii. This park is home to even more stunning landscapes and diverse wildlife, including the endemic argali sheep, ibex, and snow leopards.
Day 5: Explore Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
Spend the day exploring Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, taking in the incredible views and maybe even spotting some of the region’s abundant wildlife. One of the must-see sights in the park is the Khogno Khan Nature Reserve, which is a pristine wilderness area that is home to many rare and endangered species.
Day 6: Drive to Ulaangom
Today, drive to Ulaangom, a small town located in the heart of the Altai Mountains. This town is a great base for exploring the surrounding countryside and taking in the local culture.
Day 7: Explore Ulaangom
Spend the day exploring Ulaangom and the surrounding area. Visit local markets, meet with the local nomadic communities, and maybe even try your hand at horseback riding. This is a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture and learn about the traditional way of life in Mongolia.
Day 8: Drive back to Olgii
Today, drive back to Olgii, completing your road trip through the Altai Mountains.
How to Plan a Trip to Olgii & the Altai
How to Get to Olgii
Olgii being in the Western part of Mongolia, you will mostly first arrive in Ulaanbaatar international airport. There are several options for traveling to Olgii, including flying from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, or taking a long-distance bus or train. Some travelers also drive to Olgii from nearby countries, such as Kazakhstan and Russia.
Fly from Ulaanbaatar
From the capital, you can fly to Olgii a 3-hour flight for about US$600 for a return ticket
Or take a +30-40-hour bus over mostly dirt road. The bus stops at a few places for food, but be prepared with your own water and snacks if they don’t. The ride was hot and uncomfortable, my feet over burning pipes and our knees crushed by the tiny space and the bags. Bruno managed to sleep through most of the ride though, I am not sure how he did it. But on the flip side, we traveled with the local people, experienced the longest bus ride of our live, met fellow travelers with whom we would trek the Altai mountains later on, and more importantly we met with Bek, a Kazakh visiting his family in Olgii. Through him and his sister, we would organize our week long stay with the family in Sagsai. So I think the no pain, no gain has never been more true!
Independent Travel or Guided Tour?
ou can go to Olgii by yourself and organize your transportation via your hostel like we did. Many find it easier to organize the visit through a tour company which will arrange ger stay, transportation and most likely an English-speaking guide. Usually such a tour lasts about 4 to 5 days from Ulaan Baatar and costs from $1,5000 per person.
A guide can provide valuable insight into the culture and history of the region and can help visitors get the most out of their visit to Olgii. You can also hire a guide for specific activities, such as trekking or eagle hunting. If you are planning on trekking in the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, a guide is compulsory, as well as a hiking permit.
The city is very walkable and we did so from one side of town to the other across the bridge in about one hour. If you need transportation, these can be arranged by your accommodation, or you can grab one of the readily available taxi.
Where to Stay in Olgii
They are limited accommodations in Olgii. Most of the ger camps are managed by tour operators, though a few homestays and hotels are also available. Note that in ger camps, amenities are rather basic. Usually a shared bathroom with hot water for only one or two persons (until the tank refill and reheat), restrooms will be traditional squatting, or a western toilet if you are lucky.
We stayed at the Traveler Guesthouse which had a couple of gers, which are like dorms and contains around 6 beds. Each bed are plenty blankets to keep you warm, a central wood (well, yak and cows poos) that is heated mostly at night, or in the early hours of the day. The place was clean, and the staff helpful, even if only the manager spoke English.
What to Know about Olgii
Olgii felt very safe. We walked day and night, through narrow streets and busy market without any issue. A drunken guy almost tried to grab a bottle of water (maybe he thought it was vodka?) from my backpack side pocket but a shop owner saw him and told him off. The Kazakh of Olgii might not be readily welcoming like in some parts of Southeast Asia, but a smile on your face, a nod of the head, and say Hello in Kazakh will change that in a second.
Banks & ATMs
There were several ATMs that accepted Visa and Mastercard, especially around the main square. If one doesn’t work or run out of market, try another. If you don’t have an American debit card, you might be subject to high credit card fees. You can also go inside the banks to change directly at the counter – make sure you have your passport with you if you do. The bank will first issue you US Dollars, or Euros, which you then change into Mongolian Tugrik (MNT). Not ideal in terms of exchange rates and fees, but at least you can get local currency.
Shopping & Supermarkets
If you are looking for gear or souvenirs, head to the Black Market. Primarily focusing on the local population, you will find everything from construction nails, furniture, stove, pots, kids’ clothes, and horse tacks and saddle. But you will also find a few craft shops where you can buy exquisite bags or broderies.
There are several supermarkets in town, some better stocked than others. You can find cookies, snacks, fruits and vegetables, coffee, sugar, bread.
Camping & Hiking Gear
If you are planning on hiking in the Altai mountains, you might need to rent or purchase some hiking and camping gear. The selection is minimum and not lightweight. We did find a stove, gaz canisters, and a small cooking pot. But no luck on a small 2-person tent ( tents were for 3 or 4 people and thus heavy), and on mattress. Bruno got the idea of buying insulation foil which worked great. Not the most compact option, but light and cheap, and efficient. Similarly no freeze-dried food available so you need to stock up with instant noodles, oatmeal.
In conclusion, a visit to Olgii and the Altai region offers a unique cultural and natural experience, with a wealth of activities and attractions to explore. From learning about the Kazakh culture to experiencing the beauty of the Altai Mountains, Olgii is a destination that offers something for everyone.
If you are looking for more trip ideas in Mongolia check out our Mongolia travel blog posts. For other Asia travels, see some of the destinations we visited and wrote about:
Turkmenistan | India | Papua New Guinea | Sri Lanka | Vietnam
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