ALTAI REGION AND NORTHEAST MONGOLIA

ALTAI REGION

Altai Region is a mountainous area in central Asia where Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan and China all come together. Situated between the Gobi Desert and the Siberian Plain, it is regarded as the homeland of the of the Mongolians, Turks, Koreans, Hungarians and Parzyrks (famous well-preserved 4,000-year-old Parzyrk mummies have been found here). Ural-Altaic languages are named after the region. Ancient petroglyphs found in the area are believed to have been made the ancestors of the Altay.

The Altai (also spelled Altay) region is one of the wildest and most interesting parts of southern Russia. It is a varied region with forest, steppes, wild river, lakes, deserts, snow capped mountain and abundant wildlife. On windward sides of the mountains are some of the wettest places in Mongolia, with glaciers, streams and numerous lakes. On the leeward side are some the driest areas. The most important rivers are the Biya, Katun, Bukhtarma, Kondoma, Ursul, Charysh, Kan, Sema, and Mayma. In lowland areas where the soils are accommodating there is some farmland. Otherwise most of the landscape comprised of steppes and meadows, some of which are used for grazing animals.

Natural vegetation in the region includes steppe grasses, shrubs and bushes and light forests of birch, fir, aspen, cherry, spruce, and pines, with many clearings in the forest. These forest merge with a modified taiga. Among the animals are hare, mountain sheep, several species of deer, bobac, East European woodchucks, lynx, polecat, snow leopard, wolves, bears, Argali sheep, Siberian ibex, mountains goats and deer. Bird species include pheasant, ptarmigan, goose, partridge, Altay snowcock, owls, snipe and jay, In the streams and rivers are trout, grayling and the herring-like sig.

Many foreigners and Russian come here to trek, mountain climb, white water raft, fish and hunt. Most do so as part of organized tours that are arranged abroad or in Ulaan Baatar. but it is also possible to travel around independently picking up guides in the cities, park headquarters or villages near the camps. The only way realistically reach the area is by plane and the only way to get around once there is by jeep or truck. In some places Kazakh is the dominant language. There have been outbreaks of the plague and reports of rabid dogs here.

Altai Mountains

Altai Mountains stretch for 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) across southwestern Mongolia from Siberia to the Gobi Desert. The mountains are of moderate height. There are several peaks over 4,500 meters. Those that are higher than 3,000 meters are snowcapped throughout the year. The region is rich in lakes and streams. The Ob, Irtysh and Yenisei all have their sources in the Altai mountains. The Altai people live mainly in the broad plateaus, steppes and valleys of the ranges, where water is plentiful. The Altai complex of mountain ranges embraces the water divide mountains for all of Asia: the South Altai, the Inner Altai and the east Altai. The Mongolian Altai is connected to this mountain complex, rising to the southeast of the Siberian Altai region.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The Mongolian Altai Mountains constitute a major and central part of the Altai mountain range located at the junction of Central Asia and Siberia. The Mongol Altai has many summits around or even exceeding 4000 meters above sea level and stretches for some 900 kilometers from the north-western part of the country to the south, through the territories of Bayan-Ulgii and Khovd provinces. Over 20 peaks are capped with eternal snow in the Mongol Altai Mountain Range. These include Altai Tavan Bogd, the highest peak, Munkh Khairkhan, Sutai Khairkhan and Tsambagarav khairkhan. Towards the southeast, the Mongol Altai Mountain Range gets smaller and transitions into the Govi-Altai mountain range. In the Chinese and Kazakh parts of the Altai, the slopes in the montane and sub-alpine belts are covered in forests, whereas the Mongolian Altai has a much drier climate. The high ridges of the Altai descend to large basins and dry steppes, that extend eastward across vast areas dominated by great inland seas in ancient times.” [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]

The climate is continental with extremes in temperatures between the summer and the winter. The mountains help to mitigate the extremes to some extent by causing a winter temperature inversion that produces an island of winter temperatures that are warmer than those in the Siberian taiga to the north and the Central Asian and Mongolian steppes to south and east. Even so temperatures drop as low as -48 degrees C in the winter. The mountains are a gathering point for precipitation in a region that otherwise is dry. The most rain falls in July and August, with another smaller period of rain in late autumn. The western Altai receives around 50 centimeters of precipitation a year. The eastern Altai receives less: around 40 centimeters a year

Highlands of Mongol Altai

The Highlands of Mongol Altai was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014.

The area is in Tsengel, Ulaan khus, Nogoon nuur soums of Bayan-Ulgii province and includes:
1) Altai Tavan Bogd National Park
Coordinates: 48 54 52.60N 88 4 33.06E
2) Siilkhem mountain National Park, Part "A"
Coordinates: 49 25 59.89N 88 33 28.53E
3) Siilkhem mountain National Park, Part "B"
Coordinates: 49 49 21.42N 89 44 56.84E

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: One of the proposed three serial property areas, the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park covers some 636,200 hectares, located in the north-western tip of Mongolia along the border with China and Russia. The heart of Altai Tavan Bogd consists of five sister peaks which are the highest mountain peaks in Mongolia and which give the park its name. The national park includes the beautiful ancient lakes of Khoton, Khurgan, and Dayan and is home to a wide range of species such as the argali sheep, ibex, red deer, snow cocks, and golden eagles. The National Park embodies the special attributes of high mountains, including but not limited to icy crystal rivers, vast mountain valleys and high altitude steppe landscapes of breath-taking beauty. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]

The second proposed component, Siilkhem mountain National Park, is located along Mongolian-Russian border and covers the Mongolian part of the Siilkhem Mountains (Sailughem in Russian language), which stretch northeast from the Altai Tavan Bogd and Ukok plateaus towards the western extremity of the Sayan Mountains. Their average elevation is 2,500 to 2,750 meters. The snow-line runs at 2,000 meters on the northern side and at 2,400 meters on the southern side and above it the rugged peaks tower up some 3,000 meters more. The Siilkhem mountain National Park consists of two distinct parts "A" and "B". Part "A" of the national park covers most northern distribution range of Altai Argali while Part "B" is one of most the important prime habitat of snow leopard.

The Altai represents the most complete sequence of altitudinal vegetation zones in central Siberia, from steppe, forest-steppe, mixed forest, subalpine vegetation to alpine vegetation. The site is also an important habitat for endangered animal species such as the snow leopard. Therefore, the World Heritage Committee in 1998 inscribed three sites in the Russian Altai jointly on the World Heritage List as Golden Mountains of Altai for its rich biodiversity and as the global centre of origin of montane flora of northern Asia under natural criterion (x). One of these three sites is the Ukok Quiet Zone on the Ukok plateau, which contiguous with the proposed three areas. Through its geographical location, the nominated areas can be fully complementary to the existing property "Golden Mountains of Altai". Because the proposed serial extension represents neighbouring, yet distinct ecosystems, dominated by dry steppe with patches of forests it would add to the representation of the complex landscape mosaic and corresponding biodiversity.

The Altai is not only famous for its rich biodiversity but contains rich overlay of different cultures from the late Palaeolithic through the Turkic period. This is represented by thousands of burial mounds, among them the Scythian burial tombs, hundreds of standing stones including Deer Stones and Turkic image stones and hundreds of monumental structures of khirigsuur type. Both nominated areas can fully represent this rich cultural diversity. The existing World Heritage site, the Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai is within Altai Tavan Bogd National Park and in the buffer zone of Siilkhem mountain National Park. In addition, the frozen burial complex in Olon nuur, Siilkhem mountain National Park which was discovered in 2006 by archaeologists D. Tseveendorj (Mongolia), H. Parzinger (Germany), V.I. Molodin (Russia) of Mongolian-Russian-German joint expedition. The partially mummified corpse of a warrior, which was found undisturbed and preserved in ice, provided important insight. This kurgan contained one of the latest burials of the Pazyryk Culture known today and dates to the early 3rd century BC, as confirmed by the finds as well as dendro-chronological analysis.

Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai

Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. According to UNESCO: “The numerous rock carvings and funerary monuments found in these three sites illustrate the development of culture in Mongolia over a period of 12,000 years. The earliest images reflect a time (11,000 - 6,000 BC) when the area was partly forested and the valley provided a habitat for hunters of large game. Later images show the transition to herding as the dominant way of life. The most recent images show the transition to a horse-dependent nomadic lifestyle during the early 1st millennium BC, the Scythian period and the later Turkic period (7th and 8th centuries AD). The carvings contribute valuably to our understanding of pre-historic communities in northern Asia. [Source: UNESCO]

“The Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai include three rock art sites in Bayan-Ulgii aimag: Tsagaan Salaa-Baga Oigor of Ulaankhus soum, and Upper Tsagaan Gol (Shiveet Khairkhan) and Aral Tolgoi, both of Tsengel soum. All three are located in high mountain valleys carved out by Pleistocene glaciers. These three property components include large concentrations of petroglyphs and funerary and ritual monuments reflecting the development of human culture over a period of 12,000 years. The persistent relationships between rock art, surface monuments and the larger physical context of rivers, ridges and cardinal directions create a vivid sense of the integration of human communities with the land they inhabited.

“The earliest images reflect a period beginning in the Late Pleistocene and lasting through the Early Holocene (ca. 11,000 – 6,000 years BP), when the paleoenvironment shifted from dry to forested steppe and the valleys provided an ideal habitat for hunters of large wild game. Later images from the middle Holocene (ca. 6,000 – 4,000 years BP) reflect the gradual reassertion of steppe vegetation in this part of the the Altai and the early emergence of herding as the economic basis of communities. Imagery from the succeeding, Late Holocene Period, reflects the transition to horse-dependent nomadism during the Early Nomadic and Scythian periods (1st millennium BCE) and the subsequent spread of steppe empires in the later Turkic Period (7th-9th c. CE).

“The Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai represent the most complete and best preserved visual record of human prehistory and early history of a region at the intersection of Central and North Asia.” The site provides “an exceptional documentation of the pre-historic and early historic communities in the northwestern Altai Mountains, at the intersection of Central and North Asia. The petroglyphic imagery includes animals such as mammoths, rhinoceros, and ostriches, executed in static profile contours. These animals inhabited North Asia when the region was significantly colder, drier and covered by rough grasses and forbs rather than forests. By the end of the Late Pleistocene (ca. 11,000 BP), the dry steppe was gradually being replaced by the forested environment of the Early Holocene (ca. 11,000 – 6,000 BP). This period is reflected in majestic images of elk, aurochs, and ibex, executed in profile silhouettes. There are very few sites in North Asia that include pre-Bronze Age petroglyphs in such number, variety, and quality.

Khovd Province

Khovd province is one of the provinces in the Altai region and the one that is easiest to get to (by air). It is an unworldly places where snow-clad peaks feed torrential rivers, breaking out of high mountains to feed land-locked lakes, fresh then salty, in the huge hot Lakes Depression of Western Mongolia. Khovd province has the highest peaks of the Mongol Altai Mountain Range, such as Munkh Khairkhan, Khukh Serkh, Tsambagarav, all reaching over 4,000 meters above sea level.

In Khovd Province, Mongolians make up the up majority of the population in ths area but there are also some Kazakhs as well as Hoton, Uriankhai, Zakhchin, Myangad, Oold and Torguud. The mountain areas are green and well watered and boasts 200 swift-moving rivers and streams and numerous lakes. As one moves away from the mountains the landscape gets more arid and the rivers disappear into large saltwater marshes.

Destination from Khovd include Khar Us Nuur, with lots of birdlife (See Below); Tsenkerin Aguos, a group of smelly guano-filled caves with some painting between 15,000 and 40,000 year old; and Tsambagarav, with snowcapped 4,000 meters peaks that area easier to climb than the ones at Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.

Khar Us Lake (40 kilometers east of Khovd), Mongolia’s second largest freshwater lake, covering 13,800 square kilometers. The delta near Kar Us Nuur is home to numerous bird species including wild duck, geese, wood grouse, partridges and even seagulls such as the herring gull and rare relict gull. It is a major stop for birds migrating between Siberia and the wintering areas of southern Asia. The areas with a lot of birds is difficult to reach because of mosquito-ridden marshes.

Khovd Town

Khovd (accessible by air,1,500 kilometers from Ulaan Baatar, from Ulaan Baatar in western Mongolia) is the starting point for hikes in the Altai mountains and lakes. A remote town of 35,000 located in a part of Mongolia with snow-capped mountains rising out of a barren cold desert. The town is comprised of few dismal buildings, including a museum, and some Manchu ruins but is surrounded by spectacular scenery: hundreds of yurts, pastures, rose-colored crags, eagles cruising in the skies, women doing laundry in the rivers, children galloping around on horse back.

Khovd (also spelled Hovd) is the main economic center of western Mongolia. Situated on the Buyant River and nearly surrounded by the Altai Mountains, it was founded in the early 1800s to serve as a strategic outpost for Mongolia's Manchu rulers. Merchants from Russia and Central Asia keen on trading with the Manchu soon arrived. Over the course of a hundred years or so Khovd grew into a trading center for agricultural products, butter, and wool. During the 20th century, several factories were built in Hovd. These industries include a woodworking factory, a food processing plant, and a wool-scouring mill. Today, an agricultural college is located in the town. One of Hovd's major attractions is the Local History Museum, which provides exhibits illustrating the ethnic groups and natural resources of Mongolia's western region.

You do not want to travel to Khovd from Ulaan Baatar overland unless you want to endure hours on end of bumpy, none-crunching jeep travel. It is probably to drive in from China, Russia or Kazakhstan. The flight there from Ulaan Baatar used to take 3½ hours on Russian A-24 propeller plane and cost about US$150 one way. Now flights on Aero Mongolia go four times a week and take about an hour and 15 minutes. A reasonably clean room in a hotel in Khovd costs about US$15. Showers are available for 50 cents at the nearby public bathhouse.

Altai Nuruu

Altai Nuruu (accessible from Khovd) is Mongolia’s highest mountain range. Describing a three-week, 250-mile hike here, Michael Benanav wrote in the New York Times, “The initial leg of my route followed the Buyant Gol upstream from Khovd some 60 miles, through a break in the mountains to the Altai range. After I and hiked for four strenuous days, fording the river countless times, the canyon opened up into a breathtaking amphitheater of sweeping green slopes pierced by rusty scraps, flecked by light and shadow.” [Source: Michael Benanav, New York Times, October 5, 2003]

“Over the next 14 days, I hiked another 190 miles, mostly south through a network of valleys...below massive glaciers, through rolling, grassy highlands, and between parched desert cliffs...I often spent time with the Altai’s nomads, few of whom had ever met a Westerner and man of whom belong to Mongolia’s Kazakh Muslim minority. I could not pass a ger without being invited in...My trek ended in Bulgan Sum. From there I hired a jeep for the 11-hour bounce (US$40) back to Khovd.”

Mt. Tsambagarav is another high mountains in the Altai range. It is 4,202 meters high. Travel agencies geared towards mountaineers sponsors mountain climbing expeditions to the summit. An ice ax and crampons are necessary.

Altai Tavan Bogd National Park

Altai Tavan Bogd National Park (far western Mongolia, 250 kilometers west of Khovd) embraces Mongolia’s highest mountains and the stunning lakes of Khoton, Khurgan and Dayan. There are a number of archeological sites with Turkic balbal stones. Tavan Bogd mean “Five Saints” — named after the massif’s highest peaks — Khiten, Naran, Olgi, Burged and Nairamedal. On the slopes is the 19-kilometer-long Potani Glacier, the longest in Mongolia.

Altai Tavan Bogd National Park includes very high peaks, snowcapped the whole year, and several large glaciers. The park covers 6,362 square kilometers in Bayan-Ulgii province including Tsengel Soum, Ulaanhus Soum, Sagsai Soum and Altai Soum. Altai Tavan Bogd and Tsambagarav Mountains are the highest peaks of the West Altai mountain chain. Huiten Peak in Altai Tavan Bogd is the highest point of Mongolia, reaching 4,374 meters above the sea level. Altai Tavan Bogd became a protected site in 1996.

Mt. Altai Tavan Bogd is the highest mountain in Mongolia. Located near wear Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan and China all come together, it is 4,374 meters above sea level and is covered year round with snow, ice and glaciers. The highest point is Huiten peak. You can on stand on the summit and be in Mongolia, Russia and China simultaneously . The second highest peak is 4,326-meter-high Mt, Minh Hairhan. Mountaineering-oriented travel companies sponsors mountain climbing expeditions to the summit. The route to the summit is via Potanin glacier. An ice ax and crampons are necessary. You will need to cross some large crevasses and climb on steep ice and hard snow.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The heart of Altai Tavan Bogd consists of five sister peaks which are the highest mountain peaks in Mongolia and which give the park its name. The national park includes the beautiful ancient lakes of Khoton, Khurgan, and Dayan and is home to a wide range of species such as the argali sheep, ibex, red deer, snow cocks, and golden eagles. The National Park embodies the special attributes of high mountains, including but not limited to icy crystal rivers, vast mountain valleys and high altitude steppe landscapes of breath-taking beauty. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]

Sutai Khairkhan Mountain: Sacred Mountain

Sutai Khairkhan Mountain (250 kilometers southeast of Khovd) is one the Sacred Mountains of Mongolia, which were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. It is located in Tonkhil and Darvi soums, Govi-Altai province; and Darvi and Tsetseg soums, Khovd province. Coordinates: N46° 38' 07" E93° 32' 35"

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The tradition of worshipping sacred mountains and waters is one of the outstanding cultural heritage elements created, developed and practiced by Mongolians since ancient times. The tradition initially developed and thrived during shamanic period and was later enriched with Buddhist ideologies and rituals. This significantly contributed to the preservation of our natural environment and wildlife as sacred and pristine. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]

“The tradition of worshipping mountains has very specific customs and rituals. There are many wonderful intangible cultural heritage elements associated with the worship of sacred mountains that have been preserved and continue to thrive, such as chanting sutras and sharing folk knowledge, legends, benedictions, odes, epics, folk songs, folk art and performing art.

Nomadic Mongols worship and revere the highest, lofty and beautiful of their local mountains. According to reliable sources, the khaans of the Xiongnu Empire, who established the first Statehood in the territory of Mongolia, and later Chinggis Khaan all revered the mountains, conducting and practicing them as rituals of state worship. In the legal sources such as “Khalkh Juram” (or Khalkha Rules) of 1709, especially beautiful and scenic Mongolian mountains and lakes were designated and protected by the State law, and in 1778, the Bogd Khan, Khan Khentii (Burkhan Khaldun) and Otgontenger Mountains were declared as State protected and worshipped sacred mountains.

State Worshipped Sacred Sutai khairkhan Mountain is located over the boundaries of Tonkhil and Darvi Soums of Govi-Altai province, and the Darvi and Tsetseg soums of Khovd province. Sutai khairkhan Mountain is one of the branch mountain of the Mongol Altai Mountain range. Elevated at 4250 meters ASL, the area bears the distinct natural characteristics of the Central Asian plateau and is home to rare and endangered plants and animals. The Sutra for the worship of the Mountain was created in the 17th century and called “Sutai khany san”. This sutra is currently being used in the worship rituals.

Bayan-Olgii: Land of the Kazakh Eagle Hunters

Bayan-Olgii(1,500 miles west of Ulaan Baatar) is Mongolia's westernmost province. Separated from the rest of Mongolia by the Khovd River and from Russia and China by the Altai mountains, it is barren place in the rain shadow of the Altai mountains. Most years it receives less than ten inches of rain. The soil is rocky and poor for agriculture. The region is besst known perhaps the place where Kazakhs still hunt with trained golden eagles.

Bayan-Olgii (also Ulgii and Olgiy) is inhabited almost exclusively by Kazakhs. In the 1600s, a small group of Kazakhs settled in Bayan-Olgii. A century later, the Manchus wiped out the Mongols that lived in the area and the Kazakhs took control. Because the region is so isolated, the Kazakhs have been able to keep their language, lifestyle and customs alive. After the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of the Kazakhs migrated to Kazakhstan. According to some estimates only half of 70,000 Kazakhs that lived in the region in 1991 remain today. There are also members of the Dorvod, Uriankhai, Tuva and Khoshuud minorities here.

The highlands of Bayan-Olgii (also spelled Ulgii) is Mongolia‘s “Roof of the World”, a remote land of high mountains, glaciers, steep slopes and rushing torrents. The region offers spectacular mountains, stunning lakes, deserts, pine forests, Hununu people burial grounds, Turkic balba stones, deer stones, kurgans (burial mounds), and several national parks, nature reserves and protected areas. . It is also one of the last places in the world where people hunt with eagles.

Olgii is the main town in Bayan-Olgii Provnce. It is dominated by Kazakhs and has a Muslim feel to it. Markets are called bazaars, Arabic script is visible and supplies come on from Kazakhstan. There is mosque and madrassah as well as a museum with a good exhibits on the Kazakhs. Olgii is also a good place to shop for Kazakh crafts. From Ulaan Baatar, Olgii can be reached by a US$320 roundtrip flight, US$250 one-way jeep trip, or US$35 five-day bus journey.

Kazakh Eagle Hunting

Sayat (hunting with golden eagles) is regarded as a national sport in Kazakhstan even though it is practiced mainly by Kazakhs in Mongolia. For some Kazakhs it is more than a sport. One hunter, known as a berkutchi, told Reuters, eagle hunting is “our tradition, and we, Kazakhs, simple can’t live without it. They say it is a sport, but this is wrong. It is an art, it is in our veins. If we don’ preserve the art, we we’ll forget our ancestors,” Hunters traditionally have worn a long, richly embroidered chapan overcoat and malakhai fox fur hat when they hunted, often in the winter. [Source: Candice S. Millard, National Geographic, September 1999]

Nick Kirkpatrick wrote in the Washington Post: In parts of China, Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia, using eagles to hunt is deeply rooted in a culture in which men worked with birds of prey as early as the 15th century. It’s a rite of passage for Kazakh boys in western Mongolia who learn the craft as early as 13. Passed down through generations, the tradition has a strict set of rules and practices. The hunts happen during winter, when teams of hunters chase their prey by horseback and release an eagle to make their kill. Hunting once provided furs and meat during harsh winters, but the tradition is battling a dwindling number of hunters. [Source: Nick Kirkpatrick, Washington Post, February 10, 2015]

The tradition of eagle hunting is more than a thousand years old. Genghis Khan is believed to have engaged in the sport. Marco Polo described it. In the Mongol era, it is said, a fine eagle and good horse cost the same price and both lent prestige to their owner. The Kazakhs inherited the sport from their Turkic and Mongol ancestors and were practicing it when they emerged as an ethnic group in the 15th century. As one falconer told National Geographic, “When Kazakhs came into the world, they were eagle hunters.”

Eagle hunting was once associated with the elite. The khan, or leader, often owned several eagles as well as dozens of other birds of prey. Now it is practiced mostly as a display for tourists in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. One of the few places it is kept alive as way of making a living is in the Kazakh-dominated areas of western Mongolia. There, hunters mainly catch foxes and marmots for their fur and meat. In Kazakhstan, eagle it is experiencing a rebirth. A sayat championship is held annually in Ekan Tau (150 kilometers from Almaty). It drew around 15 competitors in the 1990s.

Eagle hunting has disappeared from many places it was once commonly practiced and is no longer done out of necessity. It is now a sport and hobby practiced mostly in Mongolia and Kazakhstan and to a lesser degree in Kyrgyzstan in the Xinjiang region of western China, primarily by Kazakhs and some Kyrgyz. In recent years, it has made a come back and new people have taken it up/ Westerners tend to think of eagle hunting as a glorified form of falconry – and although hunting with hawks and falcons have many similarities, eagle hunters tend to look down upon falconry as a pastime for children and dilettantes.

Book” “Hunting with Eagles: In the Realm of the Mongolian Kazakhs,” by Palani Mohan (Merrell, 2015]

Uvs Nuur Basin

Uvs Nuur Basin (800 kilometers west, northwest of Ulaan Baatar) encompasses a large lake with a lot of bird life in a dry steppe area and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. According to UNESCO: “The Uvs Nuur Basin is the northernmost of the enclosed basins of Central Asia. It takes its name from Uvs Nuur Lake, a large, shallow and very saline lake, important for migrating birds, waterfowl and seabirds. The Uvs Nuur Basin is a naturally diverse and simultaneously distinct landscape unit surrounded by several large and high mountain ranges. To the North, the basin transitions into the Tannu-Ola Range, to the East are the Sangilen and Bolnai Ranges; to the West the Tsagaan Shuvuut and Shapshaskee Ranges constitute natural boundaries, while the Turgen Uul and Hanhohee Ranges are adjacent to the South. The steppe ecosystem supports a rich diversity of birds and the desert is home to a number of rare gerbil, jerboas and the marbled polecat. The mountains are an important refuge for the globally endangered snow leopard, mountain sheep (argali) and the Asiatic ibex. [Source: UNESCO]

“Shared by Mongolia and the Republic of Tuva in the Russian Federation, Uvs Nuur Basin is a transnational World Heritage property in the heart of Asia. The serial property comprises seven components in Mongolia and five in the Republic of Tuva, clustered around the shallow and highly saline Lake Uvs Nuur. Some components are contiguous with each other across the international border, while others are distinct units. Inscribed in 2003 on the World Heritage List, the total surface area is close to 898,064 hectares, of which 87,830 hectares belong to the cluster in the Russian Federation, with 810,234 hectares belonging to the Mongolian cluster. The central Uvs Nuur Strictly Protected Area in Mongolia covers almost half of the surface area of the entire property. While no buffer zones were formally recognized during the inscription of the property for its components on the Mongolian side, five of the seven components within the Russian Federation have buffer zones, totalling 170,790 hectares.

“The ancient lake basin and its surroundings boast an extraordinary landscape diversity ranging from cold desert to desert-steppe and steppe, conifer, deciduous and floodplain forests to diverse wetlands and marshlands, freshwater and saltwater systems, mobile and fixed sand dunes and even tundra. The property includes peaks up to some 4000 meters above sea level, towering high above Lake Uvs Nuur at around 800 meters above sea level The property contains remnant glaciers from Pleistocene ice sheets and numerous glacial lakes, and is of particular scientific significance for studying the evolution from the Ice Age to present-day conditions. Reflecting the landscape diversity, there is a rich species diversity which includes locally endemic plants and endangered species like the snow leopard. The entire basin has never been subjected to large-scale resource exploitation and has a longstanding and ongoing history of mobile pastoralism. The historical, cultural and spiritual importance of the landscape and many of its features are reflected in countless artefacts and archaeological sites and in the contemporary life, knowledge, resource use, songs and legends of local and indigenous communities.”

“There are important areas of different forest types and highly specialized vegetation in high altitudes, tundra systems and dry land ecosystems, including species and communities adapted to saline conditions. The more than 550 higher plants include relict species and a number of plants endemic to Mongolia and the Tuva Republic, with five species endemic to the lake basin. The various ecosystems support a rich faunal diversity, such as the argali sheep, Siberian ibex, Pallas's cat and the elusive and globally endangered snow leopard. The numerous rodents are of major ecological importance and include two vulnerable jerboa species and gerbil. The many ecological niches are occupied by an impressive density of breeding raptors. The property is also of major importance for waterfowl, as well as a stepping stone in the bird migration between Siberia and wintering ranges in China and South Asia.”

Ulaangom is the main town in Uvs Province. Hohe to about 30,000 people it is a pleasant but poor town that suffers from frequent power outages. It has a museum and a few remains from a monastery that was destroyed in the 1930s. Destinations from her include the picturesque Kharhirraa Valley (there are two Kharhirraa Valleys in the area make sure your driver takes ro to te father, more picturesque one),; the twin peaks of 3037-meter-high Kharhirraa Uul and 3,965-meter-high Turgel Uyl. There are flights to Ulaangom.

Uvs Nuur Basin

Uvs Nuur Basin(800 kilometers west, northwest of Ulaan Baatar) encompasses a large lake with a lot of bird life in a dry steppe area and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. The lake basin is isolated by mountains of the Western Sayan, Altai, and Ridge High Huhiyn Nuruu.

Uvs Lake is in the Western Lakes Basin, which covers 7,716 kilometers in four separate tracts: Uvs Lake, Tsagaan Shuvuut Mountain, Turgen Mountain and Altan Els (Golden Sands). The mountains have small glaciers and permanent snowfields, and are home to Argali, Siberian Marmot and Siberian Ibex. The lake basin of Uvs Nuur has spectacular landscapes, and more extreme ranges of ecological zones than perhaps anywhere else in the World: perpetual snows and permafrost of the Turgen Mountain to the desert sands of Altan Els (Golden Sands), the lake basin displays all the major ecological zones of Central Asia. The mountains have snow year round. Kharkhiraa Mountain reaches 4,038 meters above sea level, and Turgen Mountain 3,965 meters.

According to UNESCO: “The Uvs Nuur Basin is the northernmost of the enclosed basins of Central Asia. It takes its name from Uvs Nuur Lake, a large, shallow and very saline lake, important for migrating birds, waterfowl and seabirds. The Uvs Nuur Basin is a naturally diverse and simultaneously distinct landscape unit surrounded by several large and high mountain ranges. To the North, the basin transitions into the Tannu-Ola Range, to the East are the Sangilen and Bolnai Ranges; to the West the Tsagaan Shuvuut and Shapshaskee Ranges constitute natural boundaries, while the Turgen Uul and Hanhohee Ranges are adjacent to the South. The steppe ecosystem supports a rich diversity of birds and the desert is home to a number of rare gerbil, jerboas and the marbled polecat. The mountains are an important refuge for the globally endangered snow leopard, mountain sheep (argali) and the Asiatic ibex. [Source: UNESCO]

“Shared by Mongolia and the Republic of Tuva in the Russian Federation, Uvs Nuur Basin is a transnational World Heritage property in the heart of Asia. The serial property comprises seven components in Mongolia and five in the Republic of Tuva, clustered around the shallow and highly saline Lake Uvs Nuur. Some components are contiguous with each other across the international border, while others are distinct units. Inscribed in 2003 on the World Heritage List, the total surface area is close to 898,064 hectares, of which 87,830 hectares belong to the cluster in the Russian Federation, with 810,234 hectares belonging to the Mongolian cluster. The central Uvs Nuur Strictly Protected Area in Mongolia covers almost half of the surface area of the entire property. While no buffer zones were formally recognized during the inscription of the property for its components on the Mongolian side, five of the seven components within the Russian Federation have buffer zones, totalling 170,790 hectares.

“The ancient lake basin and its surroundings boast an extraordinary landscape diversity ranging from cold desert to desert-steppe and steppe, conifer, deciduous and floodplain forests to diverse wetlands and marshlands, freshwater and saltwater systems, mobile and fixed sand dunes and even tundra. The property includes peaks up to some 4000 meters above sea level, towering high above Lake Uvs Nuur at around 800 meters above sea level The property contains remnant glaciers from Pleistocene ice sheets and numerous glacial lakes, and is of particular scientific significance for studying the evolution from the Ice Age to present-day conditions. Reflecting the landscape diversity, there is a rich species diversity which includes locally endemic plants and endangered species like the snow leopard. The entire basin has never been subjected to large-scale resource exploitation and has a longstanding and ongoing history of mobile pastoralism. The historical, cultural and spiritual importance of the landscape and many of its features are reflected in countless artefacts and archaeological sites and in the contemporary life, knowledge, resource use, songs and legends of local and indigenous communities.”

“There are important areas of different forest types and highly specialized vegetation in high altitudes, tundra systems and dry land ecosystems, including species and communities adapted to saline conditions. The more than 550 higher plants include relict species and a number of plants endemic to Mongolia and the Tuva Republic, with five species endemic to the lake basin. The various ecosystems support a rich faunal diversity, such as the argali sheep, Siberian ibex, Pallas's cat and the elusive and globally endangered snow leopard. The numerous rodents are of major ecological importance and include two vulnerable jerboa species and gerbil. The many ecological niches are occupied by an impressive density of breeding raptors. The property is also of major importance for waterfowl, as well as a stepping stone in the bird migration between Siberia and wintering ranges in China and South Asia.”

Uvs Lake

Uvs Lake (1,000 kilometers west-northwest of Ulaan Baatar, on the border of Tuva Republic in Russia and Mongolia) is the biggest saltwater lake in Mongolia. Covering 3,500 square kilometers and set at an elevation of 743 meters high, it is located in a Strictly Protected Area where sand dunes of the Gobi, open mountains steppes, forest and high mountains all merge. Uvs Nuur (Lake) has no outlets. The water in the lake is five times saltier than the sea and is devoid of any fish life except where rivers discharge into the lake. Most of the lake is in Mongolia; a small part of it is the Republic of Tuva in Russia.

The climatic conditions of the region Uvs Nuur extremely harsh. The annual temperature variation here is more than 100°. Scorching dry summer followed by the strong winter cold. It is one of the coldest places in Mongolia. Winter temperatures of -57 degrees C have been recorded here. However, this region is home to many species of anima, including four dozen mammals species. The lake is a magnet for birds; over 220 species are recorded, including osprey, white-tailed eagle, and black stork. Over 100 pairs of spoonbill nest in the vicinity, also great white heron, whooper swan, great black-headed gull, white-headed gull and black stork can be found here.

In ancient times, the area of Uvs Nuur were populated by nomads — the Xiongnu, Mongol horsemen and the Yenisei Kyrgyz — who are great interest to archeologists and historians and have left behind burial mounds, deer stones, petroglyphs and runic inscriptions on stones. Currently the Uvs Nuur coast is practically uninhabited, allowing the ecosystem to exist undisturbed and intact. There is little economic activity around the lake other than limited herding. Only one kind of fish is caught: the Altai Osman

Around Uvs lake are a few tourist routes that can be visited with local tourist agencies. On the Russian side because the lake is located near the border you need to get a border pass. For Russian citizens pass is issued within 30 days, and for foreign nationals, within 60 days from the date of submission of the application. The lake is being studied by the Ubsunur international research center. The entire Uvs Nuur water basin is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (See Below).

The lake itself it’s a bit disappointing. It is hard to get to and appreciate. There is a lot of bird life but getting to the places where the birds are is hard to find. In Mongolia, Uureg Nuur and Achit Nuur are regarded as more scenic. The former is a freshwater lake surrounded by spectacular 3,000 meter peaks. The later is a larger freshwater lake with eagles and huge flocks of geese. Sights around Uvs Lake include Tsagaan Nuur Canyon, the home of the Duvud ethnic group, and Tsengel Hairhan Mountain, an area with a large number of Kazakhs.

Uvs Lake is about 80 kilometers long and 80 kilometers wide. It is a land-locked lake with clear but brackish water. Uvs Lake is located in an extensive tectonic cavity, known as the Great Lakes Depression, where there is a high concentration of saline and freshwater lakes. Several rivers empty into the lake, the largest of which is the Tes River (Tesiyn Gol). In Mongolia, the Nariin, Sagil, Borshoo and Khundlen rivers enter it, but none drain out. Over the centuries, the lake has been steadily drying out. Ten thousands years ago the area of Uvs Nuur was five larger than it is now.

Uvs Nuur shores are low and swampy, especially at the mouths of rivers, where extensive reedbeds have formed. There are also rocky and sandy coastal areas. The salinity of the water varies with distance from the rivers discharging freshwater into the lake. Uvs Nuur is not very deep, its depth does not exceed 20 meters. This allows the water in the short summer months to warm up to 25° in the upper layers and to 19° at the bottom. The lake freeze from October to May.

Zavkhan Province

Zavkhan Province (1,104 kilometers from Ulaanbaatar) is located in western Mongolia and is one of the difficult-to-reach places in Mongolia, where there are a lot of difficult-to-reach places. This is area has few people and sees few visitors but has diverse scenery including high mountains, sand dune deserts and green valleys. The province (aimag) is named after the Zavkhan River, which forms the border between Zavkhan and Gobi-Altai aimag. Uliastau is the main town in in Zavkahn Province.

Zavkhan's environment is considered "Gobi-Khangai" since it connects the Gobi Desert in the south with the western Khangai Mountain Range and the broad lake basin of Khovd aimag. The western and south-western regions of Zavkhan contain the massive Bor Khyarin Els sand dunes that stretch for over 100 kilometers within the Zavkhan, down into Gobi-Altai aimag. One of the largest lakes in Zavkhan, Bayan Nuur ("rich lake") is nestled among the dunes.

Lakes in Western Mongolia: Khyargas as Lake is a one Mongolia’s largest lakes, covering 1,406 square kilometers. It is 75 kilometers long, 31 kilometers wide and 80 meters deep. The lake surface is at 1,028 meters above the sea level. The water is brackish and has rare fish such as Mongolian Grayling. Ureg lake between Tsagaan Shuvuut and Turgen Mountains. 1,426 meters above sea level, covering 237 square kilometers. It is brackish, 42 meters deep. Khar us is a lake in Umnugobi soum, 1,597 meters above the sea level. The water is a brackish, and replenished by water from the Orlogo River which rises from the eternal snows of the mountain of Kharkhiraa. Achit Lake is one of the largest lakes of Mongolia, covering 311 square kilometers. It is between Kharkhiraa Mountain and Turgen Mountain, at 1,464 meters above sea level.

Mt. Otgontenger: Sacred Mountain

Mt. Otgontenger (60 kilometers east of Uliastai) stands on the western edge of the Hangain mountain range. Worshiped as a sacred peak, it is 4,021 meters above sea level. There are beautiful views from Bagar Hundaga lake. Otgontenger means "youngest sky". It is both the highest (4,031 meters) and only peak in the Khangai range capped with a permanent glacier. The mountain is located in the 95,510 hectare Otgon Tenger Strictly Protected Area. An image of the mountain can be seen on the aimag's coat of arms. Otgontenger is associated with the Bodhisattva Ochirvaani.

Otgontenger Mountain is one the Sacred Mountains of Mongolia, which were nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. It is located in Otgon soum, Zavkhan province; Coordinates: N49° 30' 50" E97° 20' 50". According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The tradition of worshipping sacred mountains and waters is one of the outstanding cultural heritage elements created, developed and practiced by Mongolians since ancient times. The tradition initially developed and thrived during shamanic period and was later enriched with Buddhist ideologies and rituals. This significantly contributed to the preservation of our natural environment and wildlife as sacred and pristine. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]

“The tradition of worshipping mountains has very specific customs and rituals. There are many wonderful intangible cultural heritage elements associated with the worship of sacred mountains that have been preserved and continue to thrive, such as chanting sutras and sharing folk knowledge, legends, benedictions, odes, epics, folk songs, folk art and performing art.

Nomadic Mongols worship and revere the highest, lofty and beautiful of their local mountains. According to reliable sources, the khaans of the Xiongnu Empire, who established the first Statehood in the territory of Mongolia, and later Chinggis Khaan all revered the mountains, conducting and practicing them as rituals of state worship. In the legal sources such as “Khalkh Juram” (or Khalkha Rules) of 1709, especially beautiful and scenic Mongolian mountains and lakes were designated and protected by the State law, and in 1778, the Bogd Khan, Khan Khentii (Burkhan Khaldun) and Otgontenger Mountains were declared as State protected and worshipped sacred mountains.

Otgontenger Mountain, the highest point of the Khangai mountain range, is located in Buyant Bag of Otgon Soum, Zavkhan Province. Its elevation is 4031 meters above sea level (ASL). It has snow-capped peaks and glaciers which remain from the "Ice Age". Earlier, people used to worship Otgontenger Mountain with shamanic perspective and rituals. The sutra created by Lama Agvaanprinlaijamts (1860-1936) is read during the worship ceremonies at present.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mongolia tourism and government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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