Ölgii is the capital of Bayan-Ölgii province and is also known as Olgii, Ulgy, or Ulgii.
Nestled in the Altai mountains in western Mongolia, this small city was established in the 1840s by Kazakhs fleeing the expanding Russian Empire. Though what is now Bayan-Ölgii was likely a wintering grounds for nomadic Kazakh herders living in what is now Xinjiang Province of China, more Kazakhs came after Stalin started suppressing traditional cultures and religion and during the Chinese Civil War in the 1930s. During this time Ölgii became a staging point for a Soviet-supported rebellion against the Nationalists in the western Muslim region of China. After the Chinese Communists won, Kazakh rebels and religious leaders were purged, about 500 arrested and 100 murdered in Bayan-Ölgii alone. The region was largely ignored since then, allowing the Kazakhs' unique culture based on nomadic herding, vibrant art and music, and large, close families to flouriah. Nowhere else on earth has the traditional practice of hunting with eagles been so well preserved, with 250 active Kazakh eagle hunters in this small remote province.
Ölgii serves as the starting off point for visiting Altai Tavan Bogd National Park and Tsambagarav National Park and the beautiful snow-capped mountains, glaciers, plentiful wildlife, nomadic herders who live in felt tents called gers, and eagle hunters just outside the city.
Ölgii experiences a desert climate with long, very dry, very cold winters and short, warm summers.
By planeÖlgii Airport is 5 km from the center of the city. The airport has a new concrete runway and modern controls. Most flights are from Ulaanbaatar with the occasional stop on the way in Hovd, Ulaangom, or Moron. There used to be flights to Kazakhstan, but there are none now.
phone: +976 11 330373 (Ulaanbaatar), +976 8808 0025 (Ölgii)It is generally cheaper, but uses older planes. Flights are several days a week, with an expanded schedule during the summer tourism season. Most flights still sell out during the summer so book early.
By busThere is a daily bus from Ulaanbaatar (at least 30 hours on mostly paved roads) costing 80,000 ₮. It leaves from UB from the Dragon Center in UB, and to UB from a lot south of the city center on the road to Hovd in Ölgii. Bus to Kazakhstan leaves every 10 days, and cost US$100 to Astana. You need to get a visa in UB first. Tickets can be bought in the basement of the west wing of the theater building. Buses leave for UB daily at exactly 15:00. There are shared jeeps daily to and from Hovd. These are cheap, but very overcrowded. They leave from the Bazaar in Ölgii and Black Market in Hovd. Times depend on the driver. Travel time is roughly 8 hours, with a stop around halfway for dinner of buuz and hoshuur (steamed mutton dumplings and fried mutton pancakes). Price of shared jeep to Hovd is 20,000 ₮.
Taxis cost 700 ₮ per km.
Ölgii is not a large town so you should be able to get most places by walking, 30-40 minutes at the most. There are no addresses. Business cards usually provide directions from a nearby landmark. For example, an office might be "2nd floor of Altai Cashmere Building next to Post Office." Unofficial taxis are cheap and can be found alongside major roads or in/near the city square. You can signal for a taxi by sticking your hand out waste high and flicking your wrist. As of 2013 it cost 700-2100 ₮, depending where you're going, more if you don't speak Kazakh. Most drivers will speak Kazakh, but can speak Mongolian; bring a pencil and paper to write down numbers (in ₮) if you don't speak either.
By going to the bazaar you can also hire a shared taxi which is going further away into nearby towns. The bazaar is closed on Mondays. Most taxis leave around 15:00 or 16:00. The Tourist Visitor Center can help arrange jeeps for getting out into the countryside and permits for various parks. Shared jeeps typically have at least 10 and up to 15 passengers for a 5-seat jeep.
To the SoumsThere are shared jeeps on most days, except Monday, to the various Soums (villages) in Bayan-Ölgii. Jeeps leave the soums in the morning for Ölgii and return in the afternoon. Below are approximate prices in togrogs of transport to each Soum;
- Altai, 10,000 ₮
- Altantsogts, 4,000 ₮
- Bayannuur, 12,000 ₮
- Bugat, 500 ₮ (For shared jeep, taxi is 3,500 ₮)
- Buyant, 7,000 ₮
- Deluun, 15,000 ₮
- Nogoonnuur, 6,000 ₮
- Sagsay, 4,000 ₮
- Tolbo, 7,000 ₮ (paved road) - 60 km
- Tsaagannuur, 5,000 ₮ (paved road)
- Tsengel, 6,000 ₮
- Ulaankhus, 5,000 ₮
MuseumYou should take time to visit it before heading out to the countryside to see the displays of Kazakh culture, local history, and wildlife. The 3-story museum has an entire floor dedicated to various tribes living in Bayan-Ölgii including the majority Kazakhs, Uriankhai, Dörvöd, Tuva, and Khoshuud, including a complete Kazakh ger (much larger and more colorful than Mongolian gers). There are also costumes and ancient artifacts from each tribe. The second floor has local history from the Communist era, and the ground level covers local wildlife, with many stuffed animals, and has a gift store full of Kazakh handicrafts. Outside is a small display of ancient small Turkic Stone Men (ones in countryside are much bigger).
Green GardenIt is a nice place to hang out in the evenings; has cheap beer and soft drinks, and is one of the greener spots in town. Most tourists come in the summer when it is quite brown and dusty (in the winter it's snowy!), so green is a rare thing.
Kazakh National TheaterThis giant red building was constructed to promote Kazakh culture and host events in the city and now has concerts and plays from locals and groups traveling from Kazakhstan or elsewhere in Mongolia. Though it is not especially nice or well maintained, it does hold regular concerts and plays throughout the year.
PetroglyphsThere are an estimated 1 million images throughout the region dating back 12,000 years. Petroglyphs are images that have been carved into rocks. The images trace the history of early cavemen to more recent groups like the Blue Turks (ancestors of modern Turkic language groups) as transition from hunter gather to pastoralism to 'modern' horse-based nomadism seen today in Mongolia. Several sites with large concentrations make up the Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai UNESCO World Heritage Site inside Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, though other sites are only a short drive outside of the city.
Turkic Standing Stonesare unique stone artifacts made by the ancient Blue Turks and others made between 2000BC to right before the Mongolian Empire. These standing stones are carved to look like a man and can be over tall. Other standing stones have images of deer that appear to be flying, made by Turks or possibly Tuvans. There are around 1000 standing stones in the province, with a small number of deer stones.
StatuesÖlgii has many modern statues besides its ancient stone men. The central square is dominated by the Soviet-Mongolian War Memorial commemorating Mongolia's contribution to the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Facing the square is statues of Lenin and Sukhbaatar ('Ax Hero,' hero of the war of independence) in front of the government building. Inside the beer garden is a full size statue of a man playing a dombra (traditional Kazakh instrument). The most unusual statue is a full size statue of a local war hero, Akie, that died in 1929 during the war between White and Red Russians in Mongolia. Akie is firing a pistol backwards while running.
MosquesThere are at least a half dozen mosques in the city that have all been built in the last 25 years. The call to prayer can be heard around town several times a day. The old mosque was destroyed in the 1930s during religious purges throughout Mongolia. You are free to go inside and take pictures, though you should follow Muslim customs inside the mosque. Another large mosque and minaret is at Bilge Tegin School just north of the shower house next to several large communist-era apartments.
Altai MountainsIt's worth going on hikes up into the nearby mountains; find someone familiar who can guide you there, or just walk in any directions. Bugan Tou Mountain to the southwest can be hiked at 2775 m.
It's also worth experiencing Kazakh hospitality in a ger, or white felt round-house. Many people set up gers in their yards in the summer, but you can also go outside of town to see gers in their "natural setting."
Altai Kazakh Eagle FestivalThis smaller eagle festival usually has 30 to 40 eagles and their horse-mounted masters. The event is held over 2 days and features displays of skill by the trained eagles, traditional Kazakh horse games such as a camel race, kokpar, Tiyn Teru, and Kyz Kuar. The event has handicrafts, food, and gers to stay in.
Golden Eagle FestivalIt is the largest gathering of eagle hunters in the world with 70 eagles and hunters at the event, which has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Cultural Event. There are 2 days of events starting with various competitions between eagle hunters such as appearance, returning to master on command, and catching a piece of fur pulled behind a horse. Other events are a camel race, kokpar (tug-of-war over goat carcass while on horseback), Tiyn Teru (race to pick up a coin on the ground), and Kyz Kuar ('woman chase' with woman whipping man while racing). There are locally-made Kazakh handicrafts, food tents, and other entertainment at the festival site. Those with tickets to the event can attend a traditional Kazakh concert at the Kazakh National Theater in Ölgii.
NauryzIt is the traditional Kazakh New Year during the spring equinox. There is a parade in the center of town, a concert, and everyone is dressed in traditional clothing. It is mostly a family holiday with everyone going from house to house to eat Nauryz soup and wish people a happy new year.
NaadamIf you are in town during Naadam (the Mongolian summer festival, usually in early July) there's a nice little celebration outside of town up on the hill, with horse racing, drinking, and lots of people picnicking and shopping at tents set up there. Village Naadams are held throughout the summer, and can be very entertaining.
Altai Nomad's FestivalThe event has Kazakh horse games, cultural performances, and wrestling. Food, lodging, and handicrafts available during the event.
ToursThere is not a lot of infrastructure in Mongolia in general, and Bayan-Ölgii especially. There are no paved roads or many places to stay or eat or even buy food outside of the city. The parks are completely pristine, often without even border fences between Mongolia, Russia and China. Therefore most visitors use one of the several tour groups located in Ölgii for transportation, camping equipment, food, and guides. The largest companies offer unguided tour options to the main National Parks with only transportation and supplies, but no guide, cook, or other services. While other activities like mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, or going with an eagle hunter on a hunt will require a guide for most people.
phone: +976 9942 7003They provide fishing, bird watching, mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, jeep, hiking, whitewater rafting, and mountain climbing. The owner, Bekbolat, is an expert mountain climber and whitewater rafting guide. They operate a ger camp, guesthouse, and restaurant in Ölgii.
phone: +976 9942 6311, +976 9966 2324Bear Valley has tour packages that offer cultural experiences, trekking, hiking, horseback-riding, fishing, cycling, kayaking, and mountain climbing. The owner, Akhmaral, has been a guide for many years. They have a ger camp and restaurant in Ölgii.
phone: +976 9493 4994They are a large tour operator in Bayan-Ölgii, with ger camps in Sagsai and Ölgii, scheduled shuttle services to Tavan Bogd and Tsambagarav National Parks, tours in Russia, China, and Kazakhstan Altai regions, a wide selection of tours including unguided tours, and the only snow skiing trips in Western Mongolia. Though, Blue Wolf sometimes uses inexperienced guides.
phone: +976 9942 9910, +976 9305 7710Family-owned and -operated travel company that has extensive experience with foreigners and U.S. Peace Corps volunteers. Offers packaged trips to Tavan Bogd National Park, fishing trips, and other custom packages.
phone: +976 9942 2006They offers a broad selection of tour packages and services, including scheduled shuttle services to Tavan Bogd and unguided tours. Their tours have many exciting activities such as fishing, bird watching, eagle hunting, mountain climbing, and whitewater rafting.
phone: +976 85550666address: 2-10-21Western Mongolia Tour is owned by local tour guide B. Baldyrgan who is from the western Mongolian Bayan-Olgii province. It is full service local travel agency that serves every type of condition and accommodation in western Mongolia. With this travel agency you are able to arrange tours in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park such as trekking, hiking etc. Company provides accurate tour information, camping equipment, driver and van, translator guide, chef, lodging, manage horses and any other service necessary for safe and enjoyable tours in western Mongolia or in Bayan-Olgii province.
Like much of Mongolia, the number and quality of shops have grown exponentially. There used to be a few small general stores selling candy, flour, and cheap vodka. Today there are several supermarkets, cashmere shops, specialty stores for computers, home appliances, and fashionable clothing. The availability of particular items can still be inconsistent, but is still good considering the isolation.
Most prices are in Mongolian Togrogs (₮), though tour guides and tourist activities will be priced in US dollars.
BazaarThe bazaar is a sprawling collection of small shops, kiosks, and street vendors in the center of the city. Meat, vegetables, fresh dairy, and packaged food can be bought next to Chinese clothes and goods, next to local crafts makers and souvenir shops. Outside the market, you can find shared jeeps to various villages and neighboring provinces, outdoor billiards tables, and small cafes. The bazaar serves as a central gathering place for commerce in the province, and is a must see place in Ölgii. Safety or theft is not a big issue in the market though there may be drinking near the billiards tables.
Altai CraftThis cooperative is a providing women with employment by sewing. They have some beautiful Kazakh embroidered bags, pillowcases, placemats, coats, Kazakh hats, and even Christmas stockings!
phone: +976 9942 9906Kazakh Craft is an Ölgii based maker of traditional Kazakh embroidery and eagle hunter accessories. Though most of the actual embroidery is done at one of the 40 women sewers' homes. Their products can also be found in Ulaanbaatar and Kazakhstan. Their products are more expensive than most due to better sewing machines and use of high quality thread and leather.
phone: +976 8842 8092She is a local artisan of decorative straw panels used to cover the inside walls of Kazakh gers. These panels are made of painted wheat straw tied together in a slow laborious process. They make smaller panels for placemats, hot plates, and wall decorations. They do not speak English, so you will need a translator.
Mongolians and Kazakhs rarely eat meals without meat. Vegetarians should stick to the large restaurants and tourist camps or patronize the bazaar and some supermarkets, which have decent selection of fruits and vegetables. There is a regular supply of bananas, apples, pineapples, carrots, bell peppers, cabbage, oranges, and watermelon throughout the summer and fall. A much more limited selection is available during the winter due to the nearby Chinese border closing.
All restaurants, other than those at tourist ger camps are located in the city center near the apartment blocks and the Bazaar.
BudgetThere are several small guanz (or cafes serving 2 or 3 fast, greasy dishes) in the center of town, which have mutton pancakes (hoshuur) or manti (dumplings) for cheap, usually served only with milky tea.
Chinese Uighur CafeIt serves spicy Uighur dishes with lots of vegetables and spices. It is a welcome departure from the normal meat and flour of Mongolian canteens.
Tolganai ShaykhanaA small guanz with standard offerings of hoshuur and buuz washed down with milky tea. Prices are very cheap and service is fast.
Pamukkale Turkish Restaurantis a nice Turkish-owned restaurant, serves Turkish, Mongolian, Kazakh, and some western dishes and salads. Most dishes include meat, rice, carrots, salad, and french fries. Serves koumis, coke products, juices, coffee, and desserts. Does not serve alcohol.
ArvinsArvins is a small Mongolian restaurant, which is a little more expensive, but has nice food.
Blue Wolf CafeThey can make Kazakh, Mongolian, and western dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a reasonable price. Though most people eating there have their meals included in the cost of their room or tour package. Only open during the summer, has live entertainment. Disappointingly, the "western toilets" don't work.
Friday is a dry day with no alcohol legally sold, out of respect for the Muslim majority. Bars and nightclubs are closed on Friday, though some restaurants and shops will still sell to foreigners. You should not openly carry alcohol on this day or be visibly drunk. Public drunkenness on any day is not common like in other parts of Mongolia, and could result in a visit by the police.
There are about a dozen bars and 3 or 4 nightclubs in the city. Bars typically include karaoke and VIP rooms with small selection of beers and hard liquors.
- Kumiz is similar to Airag and is made from fermented mare's milk. Kazakhs drink it during the summer until it runs out in late winter. It has a fizzy sour taste and a small alcohol content. Several restaurants serve it, and there is one Kumizhana, or 'kumiz place.'
KumizhanaServes kumiz (fermented milk), milk tea, and occasionally kebabs. Also has a hookah lounge in the back.
phone: +976 9942 7003The guesthouse opened in May 2013 with 12 rooms and 24 beds. Each room has a bathroom with a hot shower, cable and WiFi internet. There is a restaurant with live entertainment and a fully stocked bar. Prices are per bed.
phone: +976 7042 3046The hotel has 12 hotel rooms in simple (shared bathrooms), semi-deluxe (separate bathrooms), and deluxe (separate bathroom and sitting room). There is a restaurant and WiFi throughout. All bathrooms have hot showers.
Duman Hotelphone: +976 9942 1515Duman has 40 rooms, most are in a new building that opened in 2011. Rooms are simple, semi-deluxe, and deluxe. There is a restaurant and nightclub in the hotel.
phone: +976 9493 4994It has free Wifi, hot showers, laundry, and a small restaurant at the ger camp in Olgii. Restaurant has live traditional entertainment and gers are Kazakh style.
phone: +976 9942 7003It has 10 gers with 2 or 3 beds each. There is a restaurant located in a large ger serving international and Kazakh cuisine. The camp has modern indoor restrooms, clean showers, and WiFi in the restaurant. There is live entertainment and Kazakh art available also. Price of the stay and meals are included in tours.
phone: +976 9942 6311, +976 9966 2324A tourist camp with ten gers and a restaurant that serves local and international fare. The camp has hot showers, indoor toilets, WiFi internet and computers, and laundry service. Meals are included in the price of rooms.
Camping/ HomestayIt is possible to camp along the Hovd River flowing through town, though you will want to stay away from other homes or gers to avoid dogs that guard homes and livestock. Water from the river should be filtered before drinking since livestock graze near water during the summer months. Some families welcome travelers into their home for the night. Go to Ger-to-Ger to find families in Ölgii. Ger-to-Ger
For a longer stay, it's possible to rent a local apartment for 150,000-250,000 ₮ a month, if you can find someone to translate and advocate for you.
Internet cafes are all over, including the ger district. Payment is usually around 500-600 ₮/hour and prints and faxes available. Internet quality isn't great, and viruses are common. WiFi is available in several hotels and Pamukkale Restaurant.
Public Shower House is West of Kazakh Theater in a fenced lot with trees (rare). Showers are 1500 ₮, haircuts start from 2000 ₮, and massages 10,000 ₮. Operating hours are 10AM to 10PM everyday, though Sundays are very crowded. Stalls aren't very clean, but they will wipe it down if you ask, and it is almost always hot.
LanguageKazakh is the primary language spoken, though everyone should understand Mongolian. Russian is also common especially among older people. Turkish and English are understood by many educated adults, but not usually conversationally. Children will say 'hello' to anyone that looks European, though that is often the only word they know. Most signs will be in Cyrillic Mongolian.
Nearby destinations include several-day excursions into other areas of Bayan-Ölgii province to see the beautiful mountain scenery, Kazakh herders, and ancient petroglyphs. There are around 60 deer stones, over 1,000 Turkic Stone Men and a million petroglyphs (pictures carved into stone) in the surrounding region. There are around 250 Kazakh eagle hunters living outside of the city that hunt for prized Corsac foxes with captured golden eagles released from horseback. These hunters are often followed by documentary film crews during the winter months.
National parksBayan-Ölgii is home to 5 national parks and protected areas. The most popular are Altai Tavan Bogd National Park and Tsambagarav National Park with lots of wildlife, mountains, glaciers, lakes, and archeology. Sillkemiin Nuruu National Park and Kokh Serkhiin Nuruu National Park have large populations of Argali Sheep and Ibex and archeological sites. Devliin Aral Strictly Protected Area and the nearby Achit Lake serve as an important rest stop for millions of migratory birds.
Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is a 630,000 hectare park on the border of Russia and China, containing the Tavan Bogd Mountains ('5 Saints', highest in Mongolia at 4374 m), the Pontuninii Glacier, the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Petroglyphic Complexes of the Mongolian Altai, and several large lakes. This is the most visited park in Western Mongolia, and famous for mountain climbing, fishing, archeological sites, and eagle hunters living inside the park. Park Permit is 3000 ₮ from the Visitor Center in Ölgii (southeast corner of square), and border permit (Chinese border permit at army barracks in Ölgii, Russian border permit at Tsagaannuur village north of Ölgii).
Shuttle services to the park are provided by 2 tour companies to the park on regular days to the base camp of Tavan Bogd Mountains. This is usually part of an unguided tour package with additional fees for tents, food, and extra services.
- Blue Wolf Travel provides transfers to the Tavan Bogd on Wednesdays and Sundays and from the park on Mondays and Fridays.
- Kazakh Tour has shuttles to the both sides of the park each Sunday, the Tavan Bogd Mountains Ranger Station and the bridge between Khoton and Khurgan Lakes (hiking or horse ride between these two places is a popular trek). The van is US$214 divided by each passenger (up to 8). Shuttle begins on June 22nd.
Tsambagarav National Park is a 110,960-ha park surrounding the sacred Tsambagarav Uul Mountains. The 4208m snow-capped mountain (2nd highest in Mongolia) towers over archeological sites, glaciers, lakes, waterfalls, and beautiful lush valleys. The park is supports many rare and endangered species like the Argali Sheep, Ibex, Snow Leopard, Rock Ptarmigan, and Altai Snowcock. During the summer nomadic Kazakh and Uriankhai herders live inside the park. Blue Wolf has a shuttle to Tsambagarav is on Wednesday and Saturday and from the park on Wednesday and Sunday.