You will be met and transferred from the airport to the group hotel. Following an orientation tour of the city and a traditional Mongolian concert, we will meet in the evening for a group dinner and briefing. We will also be making our charitable donation to a representative of Autism Mongolia.
Following breakfast we transfer to the airport for a flight to the far western town of Ulaangom (the capital of Uvs province). Uvs is home to several ethnic groups, the majority of whom are Dorvod Mongolians who speak a dialect that differs from the Khalkh Mongol language of Central Mongolia. Uvs is particularly famous for its strong tradition of wrestling. As we fly in, you will see just to the north of the town a large body of water known as Uvs Nuur which is by area the largest lake in Mongolia. In Ulaangom we will lunch together in a restaurant before travelling by Russian four wheel drive to the village of Tarialan. The drive will be around one hour and just beyond the village at the entrance to the gorge on the Kharkhiraa river we will unload and make camp. Here we will meet the local team of horsemen with the camels who will be portaging our equipment and travelling with us over the Kharkhiraa pass.
PLEASE NOTE: This day a contingency day intentionally built into the trip to allow for uncontrollable changes to the itinerary such as the ever changing schedule of the domestic flights. Should the flights run to schedule, and there are no other hold ups (such as weather-related events) we'll have have an extra day in the mountains. Your leader will determine the best options for the group depending on the prevailing conditions and flights.
Our route takes us into the mountains via a gorge through which the Kharkhiraa river flows. Aspen forest grows along the bank, and the combination of the mountain shadows and glacier-fed waters makes it a spectacular start to the trek. River crossings will be made to avoid cliffs (these cliffs appear on different sides of the riverbank as the river twists and turns hence the need to cross). These crossings will be made with the aid of horses, and perhaps tractors depending on the conditions. This is the way that the Khoton people migrate themselves from the plains near Tarialan into the mountains for summer. If we are lucky we will meet some families moving in camel trains into the mountains, children and babies strapped into the cane baskets high up on the back of the camels. The Khoton people are a strongly nomadic tribe numbering about one or two thousand and live primarily in the Kharkhiraa mountains. Their history is very murky. No one really knows where they came from or when although they believe they have Turkic origins. They have adopted many Mongolian customs, but their language is different, and their facial features differ from Mongolians. By evening we will have left the plains long behind and the canyon-like valley will have given way to a wide river plain. We make camp among ancient Turkic grave markers.
Approx distance: 13 km. Elevation gain: 300m
A day of winding our way upwards when we may catch a glimpse of the ice-encrusted peaks of the high Kharkhiraa rising as spectacular pyramids and domes. Along the way we will meet with many nomad families who are making the most of the alpine pasture. We may have a chance to visit a ger and drink their 'salty tea.' Keep in mind that the Kharkiraa as a whole only sees about 30-40 foreigners a year. On our way today we will pass more Turkic grave marker stones and camp near a nomad camp on grassy steppe. The Turkic grave markers and 'kurgan' graves date back to the bronze age (about 2,000 years ago) and can be seen as circular piles of rocks surrounded by squares or circles. In one Kurgan up to 45 people would have been buried with many horses. They are the distant nomad ancestors of the Mongols and Khoton people. In fact, the Kharkhiraa are part of the greater 'Altai' mountain range which is said to be at the very heart of Asia. Iranians, Turks, Mongols, Kazakhs, and many other people trace their history back to the people who came from the Altai and moved down to the steppe to tame horses, yaks and camels. Even today the Altai splits Russia, Kazakhstan, China and Russia and is the meeting point of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Shamanism. In the evening we will enter a deep valley and the peaks above will be hidden from view. Camp will be made once again in the vicinity of nomads.
Approx distance: 17 km. Elevation gain: 600m
After a possible stop among nomads for morning tea to watch how they make traditional vodka from yak yoghurt, the river valley makes a bend and suddenly before us the mountains will be revealed. The highest peak is Kharkhiraa itself at 4037m, encrusted in glaciers. This is a particularly surprising view since these particular peaks have actually been hidden until now. From here we make our way directly up towards the high pass in between the main peaks of the Kharkhiraa range. Near the base of the climb to the high pass we will make an early camp. There will be an opportunity in the evening to trek up towards the Kharkhiraa glacier at the headwaters of the Kharkhiraa River.
Approx distance: 17km. Elevation gain: 400m
We wake early and make our way up a steep pinch on the final climb to the pass (quite steep, but fairly short and on foot poses no real risks). The pass itself is a wide plain. You have the sensation that somehow you have reached the clouds because many of the glaciers are well below eye level and the summits are only about 1000m above. Weather permitting we will lunch on the pass together with the camels. The view expands again when we reach beyond the highest point of the pass. Conditions permitting the distant 'Sayan Mountains' of Russia will be in view and far below a series of alpine lakes pock-mark the steppe. From here there will be the option of descending to camp on the south side of the pass or climbing up to 3600m on Turgen mountain. This trek, which is the most challenging and steep of the journey, takes us to a high ridge from where the extent of the mountains, including Kharkhiraa peak itself, will will be in view. Glaciers flow down from below your feet to the east and to the west is the airy drop down to the high pass. The mountains right before us form a breathtaking amphitheatre draped in ice. We make the descent via different route to camp and won't arrive until late evening. Although this high trek is quite physically challenging and gives a real sense of mountain exposure it is a very safe route that anyone with a good level of fitness could complete.
Distance including optional climb: 15km. Elevation gain including climb: 1000m.
We will spend two nights camped at nearly 3000 metres on the Kharkhiraa pass, allowing for a day to rest and savour the mountain landscape, or join an optional trek around Khokh Nuur a spectacular, blue alpine lake at the end of a glacier on Kharkhiraa mountain. If the weather did not permit a climb to Turgen the previous day, this day can also be used to attempt a climb of the high ridge on Turgen.
Drive to Olgiy in time to visit Olgiy market in the afternoon. Olgiy itself is a fascinating mix of traditional Kazakh mud huts, gers, mosques and in the centre Soviet architecture. It has a distinct Central Asian atmosphere and as as the trading point, and capital of Kazakh culture in Mongolia is always bustling with both town dwellers and nomads who converge daily. Kazakhs are famous for their colourful embroidery and felt work and there wil be the opportunity to buy some of these handcrafts at the market. For our last night before heading back to Ulaanbaatar we will overnight in a ger camp, have the opportunity to wash in a local public house and enjoy a traditional Kazakh dinner.
Depending on weather conditions, there will be an option to walk to an alpine lake, up another 3500m ridge, or just spend the day with the Uriankhai family. In the afternoon we will begin our descent by 4WD to Tolboo nuur. En-route in the 4WDs we will climb three passes, Balkhit Uzuurin Davaa (2487m) and Buraatiin Davaa (2649m) and Ulaan Davaa (2214m) and finally reach the Tolboo valley. From the passes there are specaular views of the snowcapped Sairiin Uul (3981m) to the south. North of the small village of Tolboo is Tolboo Nuur (Lake Tolboo), a high-altitude (2079m) freshwater lake. A monument here remembers that here a major battle was fought between Bolshevik and White Russians in August 1921. The shoreline is treeless and water is clean, but quite cold even in August. We will make camp near the lake.
We take the four wheel drives to a 3000m pass between the Tavan Belchirii Uul in the north (3657m) and Tsast Uul in the south. In this area during summer Uriankhai nomads graze their herds. The Uriankhai are from the same ethnic group as the Tuva across the border in Russia and the Tsataan (reindeer people) in the central northern part of Mongolia. They are actually from Turkic origin, but adopted the Mongolian language and Buddhist religion (but with shamanistic influences). Their living conditions are poorer than the Kazakh nomads - gers are not as large and herds are smaller. The Uriankhai are actually the original inhabitants of Bayan Olgiy (the Kazakh came to Bayan Olgiy during the 19th century from China, at that time Mongolia was part of China), but are now a minority of about 10% in Bayan Olgiy and live in the more higher and remote areas of the province. After setting up camp with an Uriankhai family we will make a challenging trek up Tsaast uul mountain along the edge of a glacier to around 3600m where there are spectacular views right into the Altai, and back to Kharkhiraa and Turgen in the distance. After a long, but gradual descent back down the same route we will reach the Uriankhai camp, where we started the trek.
A four or five hour drive to the 4208m high Tsaast Uul (Snow Mountain). While approaching the mountain, following the Zuslan gol upstream, we have a good view on the snow capped mountain, which forms with Tsambagarav Uul (4102 m) a mountain massif on the border of Bayan Olgiy and Hovd province. We will camp with Kazakh nomads at a plateau at 2400m at the foot of the mountain (at the Bayan Olgiy side of the mountain) and see their hunting eagles. Here, for those who would like, we may have the opportunity to sleep in gers with local families.
Having reached the high point of the journey it is time to begin our descent to the west. We make our way among a myriad of hills and alpine lakes and get a different perspective of the Kharkhiraa mountains. Eventually we will begin encountering gers and nomads once again and will make camp along a river valley.
Approx distance: 19km. Descent of 600m, gradual.
A day of ever changing landscapes - from the river gorge and forest, to high plains, a sea of green steppe, a spectacular waterfall for lunch, and finally desert-like mountains and plains. We will meet more nomads and encounter ancient graves. Eventually arrive in the tiny settlement of 'Khovd Brigad.' This is actually just a summer camp of Khoton people in their gers (much like having a mobile village). The 'winter village' is Khovd Sum through which we will travel on our way out. By the time you set foot here it ds feel as if we have come a long way. This is as far as vehicles can make it, and we will be met here by our Russian jeeps.
Approx distance: 18 km. Gradual descent with some small climbs.
A spectacular, and at times challenging day of trekking. The river that began as a trickle at the high-pass camp is now sunken deep into a gorge below. We trek along the steppe above following the routes of the nomad camel trains and eventually descend into a forested gorge. Here a stream cascades down among boulders. The smell of fresh forest and water will be a change from the past few days. Here we will make camp and celebrate with a wash in the stream.
Approx distance: 17km. Gradual descent for most of day, steep descent to camp into gorge.
Early in the morning we catch a flight to Ulaanbaatar. The afternoon is free to relax in one of the capitals sidewalk cafes, do some last minute shopping, or visit other sights such as the Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan. A special group dinner followed by a private concert.
By jeep we will travel into the adjacent province of Bayan Olgiy. This is actually a province that is 90 percent Kazakh with a markedly different culture to the rest of Mongolia. Kazakhs are Muslim as opposed to Buddhists and we will see immediately that their ger homes are of a different shape and size. The Kazakhs trace their history to a break away group of Turkic nomads (who revolted against a Khaanate leader) about 400 years ago. Kazakh roughly means 'free steppe rider.' Since China, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan agreed on borders in the 1930s-40s Kazakhs have been unable to migrate freely as they used to. Kazakh culture as a result however has been largely preserved in Mongolia, unlike russified Kazakhstan. What we witness in Bayan Olgiy is truly a slice of history. Kazakh hunters even still train eagles for winter hunts of fox, wolf and marmot- a 2,000 year old tradition. Beautiful valleys lined with gers, deserts, snowy mountain ranges rising to 4000m and above, Bayan Olgiy has a rugged, timeless beauty. We will make it to the capital of Bayan Olgiy province, Olgiy where we will stay in a ger camp and have the opportunity to visit the museum and markets.
Trip concludes following breakfast. Transfers will be organised to take you to the airport.