The Altai Mountains are the divide between Mongolia on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. The highest peak is Huiten Uul (4373m), which is one of the five at Tavanbogd (literally “the five sacred”) where the three countries join. Only Mt Belukha in the Russian Altai is higher. Scattered among the Altai Mountains are some 20 glaciers, the Potanina glacier being the largest. This is the only region in Mongolia which offers enough variety to trek for a week or more in any single place.
The people of the Altai are diverse. On the Mongolian side, the Kazakhs are in the majority. They started to graze their sheep and goats as late as in the 1840s in the summer time. They started to remain year around as late as in the early 1900s. The Kazakhs are a Turkic speaking Muslim people. The mosque in Ölgii has been refurbished and the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca has been resumed. However they are also quite secular as a result of religious controls in the communist times. The major language in Bayan-Ölgii province is Kazakh, although most people are bilingual in Mongolian. Due to long isolation Kazakh traditions and practices are more intact here than anywhere in Kazakhstan. Many Mongolian Kazakhs have been allowed to migrate to Kazakhstan and Turkey, and there have been talks between Kazakhstan and Mongolia to allow all Mongolian Kazakhs dual citizenship. This part of Mongolia has more contact across international borders than elsewhere in the country.
Altai Tavanbogd National Park divides Mongolia and China and Silkhemiin Nuruu Nature reserve divides it with Russia. These are part of the main Altai Mountain ranges. Altai Tavanbogd National Park also boasts a lake area, with several lakes such as Hoton and Dayan Nuur.
Separate to the main ridge are the Altai Mountains in Uvs province, and the glacier-embraced twin peaks of Turgen and Harhiraa Mountains. A standalone large mountain is Tsambagarav Uul National Park, located on the border between Hovd and Bayan-Ölgii provinces, conveniently located between Hovd and Ölgii. Further south is also Hökh Serkhiin Nuruu Nature Reserve, another ridge of the Altais.
The local people are hardy pastoralists of diverse cultures. Most Kazakhs live in adobe houses in villages in the valleys in the winter. and migrate to mountain pastures in the summer. They have larger yurts than the Mongols. The Kazakhs have also revived the tradition of hunting small mammals, especially foxes, with Golden Eagles. The BBC Human Planet series aired kazakhs hunting a fox in 2011. The Eagle Festival is at the end of September each year, marking the start of the hunting season (which is a winter time activity).
The Great Lakes Basin, together with the Altai Mountains and Lake Hövsgöl, make up the Altai Sayan region, one of WWF’s global 200 Ecoregions, so designated for its extraordinary value as biodiversity hot spots.
The Great Lakes Basin forms part of the Central Asian enclosed basin into which rivers such as Hovd and Zavhan drains. The landscape is quite similar to the highland region of Changtang in Tibet, with the addition of numerous big lakes. In the distance there are the snow-capped mountains of Harhiraa and Turgen in Uvs province, Tsambagarav Uul and Höh Serhiin Nuruu straddling the Hovd and Bayan-Ölgii provinces. Jargalant Hairhan Uul is a stand alone ridge in the middle of Khar Us Nuur National Park.
There are many Mongol ethnic groups in Hovd province, but they can’t be easily distinguished from each other. There are also some ethnic Kazakhs.
The Khangai takes its name from the Khangai Mountains in central Mongolia. However, this region is also spoken of as being the opposite to “the Gobi” in more general terms, covering all forested areas (including Khan Khentii) and all partly forested areas that there are in the country. These are known as “The Khangai”, which is all of northern Mongolia, inlcuding a couple of thousand rivers draining out north and east.
In the next few pages you will find a further description of the travel destinations within the Hangai region which includes Lake Khuvsgul, the Darhad depression, Amarbayasgalant monastery and the Onon River.
Khuvsgul is the twin lake to Lake Baikal and is located completely within the taiga lifezone of northern Mongolia. Khuvsgul is the second largest lake in the country, after Uvs Nuur. It lies in a narrow basin of alpine peaks which soar over a mile above its clear surface waters at 1645 meters above sea level (1200 meters higher elevation than nearby Lake Baikal).
Khuvsgul is extremely transparent and so pure you can actually drink it. Normally you can see to a depth of 16-18 meters and even to 25 meters (82 ft). The lake is the deepest in Mongolia (262 m/860 ft). It is nearly 640 km long (400 miles) about 200km away from Lake Baikal. Both lakes were created by the same geological movements of the Baikal rift some 5 million years ago. Seals were locked into Lake Baikal, but do not exist at Lake Khuvsgul. For Europeans it is a remarkable experience to hike around this large body of water. No wonder Lake Khuvsgul was declared Mongolia’s first ever national park.
Over the last ten years there has been massive development of ger camps along the western shore of the lake. Most visitors go to these camps, or to the village of Hatgal, on the southern tip of the lake.
Khan Khentii is a forested wilderness area – three times the size of Yellowstone – northeast of Ulaanbaatar. It is mostly Larch forests, the uppermost treeless parts being the Hentii Mountains, with numerous bogs, swamps and rivers between the ridges. It is a impenetrable, uninhabited wilderness. There are no people to ask for directions. Hiking or riding in a straight line is almost impossible as the numerous streams which become rivers here bisectsthe ridges creating marshland and bogs , which are the sources of the Tuul, Herlen and Onon Rivers, just kilometers from each other. In this sense, this source of rivers is the watershed of Asia. The Herlen and Onon flow into the Amur which in turns empties into the Pacific Ocean as the longest free-flowing river of Eurasia. The Tuul River flows past Ulaanbaatar, joins the Orhon and Selenge Rivers which empty into Lake Baikal, which eventually ends up in the Arctic Ocean. Therefore it is not just matter of knowing where you are (having a GPS perhaps…), it is a matter of knowing the routes where one can cross safely.
The central grasslands pretty much are well connected with Ulaanbaatar which they surround in a radius of 500km north, east and west. Roughly. Yet, some of the nearby destinations are seldom visited. There is a north-south corridor of grasslands between the Russian frontier and Ulaanbaatar, having Hangai areas on both sides of it.
The Eastern Steppe is the last big remaining intact grassland in the world, as the puzta, Ukraina, Pampas and the American prairie largely have been converted to farmland. It is a remnant of an imperiled ecosystem and among the least protected of all terrestrial types on Earth. This is why all major conservation organizations are engaged here.www.wwf.mn, www.wcs.org/mongolia and www.nature.org/mongolia/
The Mongolian gazelle migration is a wildlife spectacle that occurs in a totally fenceless area the size of Texas. The Mongolian gazelle give birth to their calves in late June, concentrating wherever there has been the best precipitation Wildlife biologist Kirk A. Olson has been researching them for many years and he has seen a mega herd of 250 000. On our trips, sometimes we see none. Sometimes thousands. One of our best trips off the beaten tracks in eastern Mongolia is Eastern Great Landscapes.
Ganga Lake (Sukhbaatar province) has a spectacular whooper swan migration in October and nearby Altan Ovoo has a famous Naadam Festival every four years. Many famous horse trainers in the Mongolian equestrian racing tradition are from Sukhbaatar.
Nömrög Nature Reserve is on the eastern most tip of Mongolia in Dornod province, and really perhaps not a part of the steppe lands. As it consists of Manchurian forests, thus more like a Hangai region. It is the only patch of Manchurian forest in Mongolia, with the rare Ussurian Moose. The Nömrög River empties into the Halh River, bordering China. You will want to travel here late in season when there are fewer mosquitoes. It is quite inaccessible and visits require special permits being in border zone with China and also a strictly protected area.
Höh Nuur (Blue Lake) in northern Dornod province is the lowest elevation of Mongolia at 550 meters above sea level.
The Gobi is a general Mongolian description of the entire South, one third of the country. It is not a complete desert, as often perceived by Westerners. It is claimed to hold 33 different ecosystems of which only 3 per cent is sand desert. Most of it is semi-desert. There are also small mountain areas with snow leopards and its prey species argali sheep and Siberian ibexes. Arguably, these are not desert species. In fact, since Nomadic Journeys have done trips for The International Snow Leopard Trust, we know the densest area of Snow Leopards in the world are to be found in the South Gobi.
The mean elevation of Mongolia is about 1400 meters above sea level (5000 ft), which enhances the sharp continental climate. Mongolia has the highest atmospheric pressure in the World and the pronounced elevation – and the distance from the moderating effects of the oceans – makes Ulaanbaatar the coldest capital city on Earth. This fact does not rule out extreme heat waves in the middle of the summer. Heat waves have in the last two years, during specifically hot days in the end of June and early July also carried with it large quantities of flies and horse flies in forested areas. Due to warmer previous winter, this enhances survival conditions for such insects.
In Mongolia the Central Asian desert zones meet with the Siberian taiga, hence, Mongolia is a transition zone with climatic extremes. Most of the year it is very cold, especially at night. Precipitation is low and skies are usually clear during the wintertime.
Summers, however, are very pleasant just as in the US and Europe. There is a short rainy season in July and August during which most of the annual rain will fall. Around 70 percent of all precipitation falls during these three summer months. When raining it tend be heavier and shorter, if extended it may cause floods locally. Occasional strong winds can come and go quickly.
Spring and fall pass very quickly. Even if this sounds like a lot, precipitation during the summertime it is just about the same as in Europe at the equivalent time.
Mongolia is known as the Land of the Blue Sky and throughout the year, there are 278 sunny days and 9-23 cloudy days.
All in all, the weather pattern is very variable over short periods of time.