The snow-capped peaks of the imposing Altai Mountains, the highest reaching over 4000m above sea level, dominate the landscape of western Mongolia. This is one of the wettest region in the country, with countless lakes, glaciers, springs, streams dotted throughout the mountain and green valleys. It is spectacular summit, covered in glaciers, and the home of the snow leopard. The Altai Mountain which belongs to the province of Bayan Ulgii is particularly attractive to mountain and rock climbers, who come from all over the world to scale the heights of Tavan Bogd, the highest peak in Mongolia (4374m). There are around 35 glaciers from Tavan Bogd, including the 20 kilometers long Botanin Glacier. West of Tavan Bogd is the 12 kilometers long Perzevalski Glacier. There are Sergal and Dayan lakes are great opportunities hiking. Mongolia’s largest ethnic minority, the Kazakhs, live in Bayan Ulgii province and continue to uphold their ancient traditions such as hunting with eagles and weaving intricate wall hangings.
Mongolia’s past has no intention of fading away – fortunately. And, one of the most outstanding features of the region is its deep appreciation for history. Everything here is valued and kept well within reach, from ancient artifacts and architecture to old country traditions.
Peaceful and harmonious co-existence of more than 10 ethnic groups makes up the unique fabric of Khovd aimag, prime destination for any traveler in search of ethnographic and cultural experience. The many man stones, deer stones, and Turkic tombstones are a strong evidence of the rich social structure of the area.
The permanently snow-capped Tsambagarav mountain at an altitude of 4,208 m straddles the border between Khovd and Bayan-Ulgii aimags and is accessible from either side. While travelling in the region you can engage in activities like camping, trekking, horseback riding, and rock climbing.
The rock paintings of Khoid Tsenheriin Aguu or the Blue Caves dating back 20,000-15,000 years ago are rightfully considered as world class evidence of the Upper Paleolithic period. Numerous symbols and animals painted with rosy and brown colors deep inside the cave depict a quietly standing stag, a buffalo with horns, oxen, ibexes, elephants, ostriches, and two-humped camels either separately or overlapping each other.
The rugged beauty of Bayan-Ulgii aimag with its pointed mountain tops reaching for the sky and vast valleys crisscrossed with meandering streams has always stood out of the Western aimags of Mongolia. Bayan-Ulgii is the home to the second largest ethnic group – the Kazakhs with their unique culture who continue to hunt with trained golden eagles besides herding goats.
The Altai region is abundant with significant archaeological sites dating back to Paleolithic era, evidences of human habitation as far back as 40,000 and 12,000 years ago. Bronze age petro glyphs, man stones from the later Turkic period and deer stones along with khurgan or burial mounds can be found. Elaborate graves of Scythian warriors and princesses have also been discovered in this region rich in natural wonders and archaeology. The Tsagaan Salaa and Baga Oirog rock paintings depicting prominent hunting scene and livestock are important monuments of the art of the transition from ancient hunters and gatherers' society to livestock breeding and the beginning of the classic nomadic economy in Mongolia.
The Altai mountain range stretching for 900 km across Russian, Mongolia, and China and the Tavan Bogd National park have always stood out from any other part of Mongolia. The highest mountain peak, the Khuiten Uul at 4,374 meters (14,300 feet) flanked by four other peaks along with the Potanin river, the source of a massive glacier, are commonly known as Tavan Bogd or the Five Saints. The range is home to Argali sheep, ibex, marla (large Siberian deer like elk), brown bear, marmot, fox and wolf, as well as the endangered snow leopard and lynx. Birds include saker falcons, Altai snow cocks and golden eagles. Camping out at the foothill of the Altai Tavan Bogd after a day of mountain climbing or hiking and horseback riding across the diverse terrain and being hosted by friendly Tuva people for a couple of nights is an experience you would cherish for the rest of your life.
Uvs aimag has rich ethnographic composition made up of Durvud, Bayad, Khalkh, Khoton, Torguud, Zakhchin, and Uriankhai ethnicities. The aimag is famous for historical and cultural sights such such as stone figures, various types of rock drawings, including drawings of ancient sea-fauna and flora on the rocks of the Yamaat peak at 9843 feet (3,000 m.) above sea level.
National Parks such as Khan Khohii and Khyargas Nuur are home to snow leopard, wolf, and musk deer. Uvs aimag is blessed with numerous lakes and rivers that easily position the aimag as a prime ornithological destination.
The twin peaks of Kharkhiraa Uul (4037m) and Turgen Uul (3965m) dominate the western part of the aimag and are interestingly equidistant from Achit, Uureg and Uvs lakes. The mountains play an important role in feeding the Uvs Nuur, part of the Uvs Nuur Basin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The peaks offer superb trekking routes as well as opportunities for white-water rafting and kayaking. The Khoton people, known throughout Mongolia as shamans, are the largest ethnic group. Remains of Uigur statues and relics are scattered around the area.
The Uvs Nuur, the largest lake in Mongolia is five times saltier than the ocean and devoid of edible fish and of outlets. The lake’s surface is at an altitude of 759 m that makes it the lowest point in Western Mongolia, ideal for research of global warming. There are 38 rivers that enter Uvs Lake. Ornithologists have documented over 200 species of birds around Uvs Nuur, including cranes, spoonbills, geese and eagles, as well as gulls that fly thousands of kilometers from the southern coast of China to spend a brief summer in Mongolia.
Altan Els or Golden Sands, part of the Uvs Nuur Strictly Protected Area is another wonderful area for wildlife viewing and lies on the border of Uvs and Zavkhan aimags.
Khyargas Nuur National Park has wonderful hot springs. South of Khyargas Nuur at the end of Zavkhan river lies a freshwater lake Airag Nuur where more than 20 breeding pairs of migratory Dalmation pelicans are found every year. Khar Us Nuur or Ulgii Nuur and Uureg lakes round off the many lakes of Uvs aimag each with its own natural beauty of flora and fauna. Lastly, Achit lake the largest freshwater lake in Uvs offers stunning sunsets and sunrises and great fishing.
Zavkhan aimag is well endowed with many rivers and lakes. In addition to 808 km long Zavkhan river responsible for the aimag name, rivers like Ider, Tes, and Khun meander through the province. Lakes Otgon, Telmen, Khar, and Kholboo vary in size. The eastern edge of Zavkhan aimag is the western flank of the Khangai Nuruu, the second highest mountain range in Mongolia, and a spectacular area of forests and lakes, dotted with snow-clad peaks, white-water streams and hot and cold springs of Otgontenger, Ulaan Khaalga, and Khojuul add to the natural attractions of the aimag. The wildlife is represented by the forest bear, deer, boar, musk deer, wild sheep, ibex, lynx, and antelope in mountains and black-tailed antelope in the steppe. Bird species include black vultures, golden eagle, great bustards, Dalmatian pelican and black stork.
The southern and western parts of Zavkhan present a stark contrast with its vast deserts, salt lakes and sand dunes where rain falls once or twice a year. The largest sand dune called the Mongol Els and Bor Khar sand coexist along the meandering rivers and lush green forests and valleys.
Otgontenger uul is located 60 km east of Uliastai, third historically significant settlement of Mongolia and capital of Zavkhan aimag has been worshipped for centuries (women are not allowed to ascend the mountain). At 3,905 meters the mountain is the highest peak in Khangai range and is favored by hardcore mountaineers and alpine explorers.
Khar Nuur nestled in the western part of Zavkhan aimag is surrounded by fine sand dunes and mountains covered in dense wood. It is one of the most stunning natural scenes so inviting and remote. The same holds true for salt lake Bayan Nuur in the Bor Khyariin Els sand dunes where locals claim have good fishing.
The beauty of the Gobi-Altai aimag coupled with sparsely populated mountain and desert environment has led to allocating a large portion of the aimag territory as national parks: Alga Khaikhan Natural Reserve, Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area, Eej Khairhan Natural Reserve, Khasagt Khairkhan Natural Reserve, Sharga Natural Reserve, and Takhiin Tal. The naturereserves jointly protect the Altai habitat home of snow leopard, argali, ibex, wild ass, Gobi bear, the wild Bactrian camel, jerboa, and antelope to name just a few.
Hiking through the Eej Khairkhan (Sacred Mother) Natural Reserve that took more than 100 years in making is a surreal experience. The Eej Khairkhan mountain at 2,275 m is located in Gobi-Altai aimag north of the Great Gobi Strictly Protected Area. The Nature Reserve came under state protection in 1992. For centuries, the Sacred Mother mountain was revered and worshipped by the locals in their belief that the mountain blessed families with children. The nine green framed stone pools and paintings of ibex, horsemen, and archers are some of the attractions for nature lovers.
Takhiin Tal or the Wild Przewalski horse steppe borders with the northern section of the Dzungarian National Park. In 1996, 8 wild horses were reintroduced to the reserve and today there are more than 60.
Dashpeljeelen Khiid is a small monastery built in 1990 and home to 30 lamas who perform religious ceremonies and daily praying. The monastery located in the Gobi-Altai aimag capital is an example of religious revival of the country. More than 35 spots of historical and cultural significance such as ruins of ancient cities, religious and cultural artifacts, burial grounds, etc are spread across the 14 soums of Gobi-Altai.