unexpected mongolia: trekking in the altai mountains

In the beginning of July, I mentioned that I wanted to explore Mongolia. It’s a place travellers often overlook, and it was calling my name!

So I made it happen.

Phil (from my Chinese school) and I met back up in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and then flew out West to the Altai Mountains. The Altai are right on the border of China and Russia, and not too many people visit them because you can only get there by either A) a 60-hour bus journey on unpaved roads or B) an expensive USD $150 flight.

Because we were on a tight schedule, we chose to fork over the money and fly. We flew into Ulgii (Olgii), the capital of the Bayan-Ulgii Province. Don’t be surprised when you arrive; the capital city is, at best, a small town. It’s best to buy all of your food and gear in Ulaanbaatar (UB).

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We chose to do a 7-day trek along a lake, over a pass, and to the glacier. We followed a river the entire time, so water wasn’t a problem (with my Lifestraw).

Sidenote: If you want more details on my route/camping spots, email me!

Because we didn’t want a guide, we had to hand over USD $200 for a Spot Messenger. This was required to get our park permits.

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Transportation to the actual start of the trek is EXPENSIVE. At first, I didn’t understand why, but as soon as we started driving, it made sense. You’re driving into the middle of nowhere, along nonexistent roads. Your driver needs to be familiar with the area, as there’s no signal; he needs to be a relatively skilled driver, as you’re driving through mountains and rivers; the driver needs to spend a night at the drop off station, as it’s too dangerous to drive in the dark, and the drive is about 5 hours (if you’re lucky- it took us 7 hours to get there and 4 to get back). We paid around $160 for our drop off and pickup, which is a pretty good price.

The drive is also the bumpiest journey I’ve ever taken. The ceilings are padded (for good reason). We took an old Russian van there, and a jeep back. The jeep was significantly less bumpy, but I still caught air.

THE TREK

DAY 1

We were dropped off at the Ranger Station in between Khurgan Nurr and Khoton Nurr (two lakes), by the bridge. We walked up the West side of Khoton Nurr. Walking along the Eastern side is slightly shorter, but apparently a little less scenic.

We camped along the lake. I thought it would be warm (don’t make the same mistake), as the days were blistering hot, and the lady who gave us rental gear gave me a sleeping bag as warm as a sheet (AKA not warm at all). It was cold. Very cold.

It also rained.

DAY 2

We continued walking up the lake. It was still raining, but it was beautiful despite the weather!

We camped at the end of the lake, in a beautiful spot semi-shielded from the wind. The only downside was the mosquitos. Bring repellent, as they were HUNGRY.

DAY 3

It rained really hard and was frigid. I was in a bad mood. At the end of the lake, continue straight until you hit the ranger station. The road will split; take the left path along the river. The weather started to clear up, and I cheered up as soon as I got warm and saw the beautiful mountains on either side of me.

It rained again at around 2 pm, and the hail felt like getting hit with hundreds of BB guns. I had bruises on my legs from it : – )

 

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a very unflattering photo of my leg to show the hail bruises

 

 

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drying everything out after the rain/hail storm

 

We camped in the valley, by a pond. This was my favourite camping spot. It was gorgeous and I went for a bath in the cold water.

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DAY 4

This day is beautiful! There’s a lot of up and down, but the views are INCREDIBLE.

Wear STRONG DEET, as the mosquitos come at you in SWARMS. The 20% DEET mosquito repellent I had couldn’t stop them from attacking us.

Knowing when to turn towards the pass was a little difficult, but it’s when the VERY faint trail starts to turn right and go uphill. Camp before the pass. We camped on the trail going up to it, and it was our coldest night. We woke up with ice on the outside of our tent.

DAY 5

The pass! The pass is a whole lotta uphill, and a whole lotta beautiful views! It’s quite steep going up, and the trail ends at the top.

We followed the horse poo but went the wrong direction. If you aren’t absolutely knackered, turn left at the top until you get to the edge of the mountain. There’s the most amazing view of the land below you.

If your knees are aching (my old lady knees were KILLING ME), continue straight down.

You’ll go down an incredibly steep bit (be careful, I fell a lot), and then go into a valley where there are a few gers. We camped in the middle of their grazing fields (with their permission).

DAY 6

We walked along a plain, saw some nomads moving, and then continued into another valley. We stopped near a military base for the night. There was a nearby set of gers, and we got to stay in one! It was shielded from the wind, which was a fantastic surprise, but it rained in the middle of the night, leaked through the roof, and got our stuff (sleeping bags included) wet.

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DAY 7

We continued walking along the river and got out of the valley, and FROZE. The wind really picks up here. We made our way to the glacier (very beautiful and you’re basically in Russia!), then crossed over to the North gate, our pickup spot.

It’s WINDY here. The cold, lack of sleep the past five nights because of the cold, and pain in my knees and feet made me cry. I hated to be a crybaby but I was SO worn down. Despite the tears and frustration, I was having fun, and the most amazing views were 100000% worth it.

DAY 8

We were picked up in a jeep and taken back to Ulgii, where we were greeted with laundry service, food other than lentils, rice, and bread, and HOT SHOWERS.

* * * * * * * * *

THINGS TO KNOW

It rains often.

You might get stuck and have to cross a waist-deep river. This might be an hour detour.

Hail hurts more than you’d think.

Mosquito repellent is a necessity.

You will be very tired.

You will step in a lot of poo.

It is very cold at night.

Your feet will never be dry.

You’ll have the best time anyway.


Hiking in Mongolia is truly something special. The views are absolutely stunning, and the scenery, along with the lack of any other self-trekkers, was truly unlike anything I’d experienced before.

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