Bayan-Olgii Aimag (province) is situated in the extreme western part of Mongolia. It is very remote and isolated place that is home to Mongolia’s highest summit, Khuiten uul (4374 m above sea level) that over looks the borders with the China and Russia. This spectacular peak is covered by giant glaciers, and is the place that one is most likely to see the country’s rarest and most beautiful animal, the snow leopard. The mountain was not scaled until 1956, as it is not only the highest peak to climb but the hardest even to get near. It takes a 120 km rough and potholed drive from Olgii and a further 40 km in the rear to approach the route. Climbing in the Altai range is in many ways more remote and lonely than in the Himalayas. The climb, one needs the best equipment, lots of experience and good local guide.
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The province is home to the largest minority in Mongolia. Over 100 years ago, ethnic Kazakhs had migrated and granted asylum in Mongolia by having a territory apportioned for them. The Kazakhs are Sunni Muslims, and speaks Kazakh as a first language. Even though in 1942 the Cyrillic script became compulsory in Mongolia, Arabic writing has survived and is today making a return in the province, as many books and newspapers are imported from Kazakhstan, which is located much closer than Ulaanbaatar. The Kazakhs are best known for the use eagles with which they use for hunting. It is tradition that goes back over 2,000 years, but became less known during the communist era.
THE EAGLE FESTIVAL
Since 1990 the tradition has seen a revival, and has been celebrated annually since 2001 by the Eagle festival in October. The hunters capture a fledgling eagle and spend months training it to ride on the arm of a horse-rider, to hunt and to return to the hunter when called. Only female eagles are used, as they are stronger and more aggressive.
Kazakhs are becoming known for their tuskiigiiz (embroidered wall hangings), which you can now buy in Ulaanbaatar shops, though they are much cheaper in Bayan-Olgii. These hand-embroidered rugs are often startlingly beautiful, and traditionally every woman would know how to make them. As new ones were made, the old were burned or used to cover firewood or animals, so old ones (many have the dates embroidered on them) have become quite rare. When the Russian empire collapsed, the thread used to embroider the tuskiigiiz became much more unavailable. The Kazakh began using Chinese thread, which is quite lurid; some people like the brightness, but most prefer the wall hangings made between 1930 and 1990 with the old thread. Older, tattered tuskiigiiz are nowadays not thrown away, but cut up made into tourist items like handbags and mobile phone covers. Kazakhs women also make beautiful felt carpets and mats.
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