Mongolia Five Gods Summit to Steppe with Tim Cope

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World Expeditions

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Join adventurer and author Tim Cope for a unique exploratory journey by foot and canoe through Western Mongolia's Altai Mountains

Operated by:

World Expeditions

World Expeditions is an adventure travel and ecotourism company that offers guided small group trekking and adventure holidays.


Arrive in Ulaanbaatar

You will be met at Ulaanbaatar airport and transferred to the group hotel. Following an orientation tour in the city including a visit to the national museum, and a traditional Mongolian concert, we will meet in the evening for a group dinner and briefing.

Fly to Western Mongolia and drive to Tavan Bogd

Following an early morning breakfast we transfer to the airport for a flight to Olgiy, the capital of the semi-autonomous province of Bayan-Olgiy. The majority of Bayan Olgiy’s population are Kazakh - a Turkic, nomadic people whose territory stretches from the Altai, across the steppes of Kazakhstan to the Caspian Sea and the Volga River in geographical Europe. The Kazakhs are nominally Muslim, and speak their own Turkic tongue but share an ancient nomadic way of life (and roots in shamanism) on the steppe with Mongolians. They have become renowned for preserving the art of hunting with Golden Eagles - a tradition the Mongolians lost when they adopted Buddhism. Whilst Kazakhstan itself suffered cultural upheaval during Stalin’s push to industrialize the Soviet Union, the Kazakhs of Bayan Olgiy were partially protected and their nomadic traditions have carried on largely unchanged. In Olgiy we will meet our Kazakh trekking guide and drivers and begin travel by Russian vans and jeeps west towards Tavan Bogd National park. We first travel across arid plains and then a deep V-shaped valley to Baga Oigor valley, home to one of the richest rock art galleries in Asia designated as the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The gallery is 15km long and 500m wide and dates back to Stone and Bronze ages. Images depict wild and domestic animals and scenes of human life such as hunting, handling domestic animals, worship etc. Here we set up our first tent camp and explore the rock carvings.

4WD transport to the trailhead in Tavan Bogd National park

Today we will make our way into the far west corner of Bayan Olgiy into the shadow of the Tavan Bogd peaks – a spectacular drive through deep valleys and ancient nomad lands. These upper valleys are primarily home to Tuvan families- a minority group of Western Mongolia and southern Siberia with their own unique heritage and history. At the end of the road we will reach the entrance of Tavan Bogd National park and meet our nomad guides (and their camels) with whom we will be spending the next week of trekking. Camp will be made at the trail head leading to Tavan Bogd Basecamp.

Camel assisted trek to Tavan BogBase Camp, near Potanin Glacier (3000m)

This morning we will meet the Tuvan nomads, and their animals that will be accompanying us for the duration of the trekking leg of the journey. The presence of camels and horses during trekking and campingand the vast knowledge and insight the nomads can share with us will become a central part of the journey’s experience. Today we will make a gentle 15km day of camel assisted hiking to the base camp at the foot of the Tavan Bogd peaks. Two thirds of the trekking route is a gradual but continuous ascent on a high mountain terrain. Expect to see broad, rocky valleys and peaks and the dominating spectre of Tavan Bogd with its impressive walls of ice and rock. Tavan Bogd is home to 34 glaciers, and we will be overnighting near the largest of these – the massive Potanin Glacier which covers 23 square kilometres and meanders down from the highest peak in Tavan Bogd, Khuiten Uul (4374m). It is the Potanin glacier which can be considered the ultimate source of the Khovd River.

Trek up to summit of Malchin Peak (4050m)

Conditions permitting we will attempt to climb to the summit of Malchin (herder) Peak (4050m) which is one of the five peaks of Tavan Bogd, and the only one accessible without requiring technical climbing skills and equipment (only trekking poles required). We first hike along the Potanin glacier moraine for an hour before stepping on the mountain. Although clearly established the trail is mostly on scree. Once at the top you can enjoy spectacular bird's eye views of glaciers beneath and of the Russian territory as the ridge overlaps with the border. The views from the summit of Malchin Peak look across what is widely regarded as Mongolia’s most dramatic landscape. The sprawling peaks, ice and rock provide a source of water and life for all of western Mongolia and form a natural border with both the Chinese and Russian borders. The tongue of the Potanin glacier abruptly gives way to olive green pasturelands that have been a rich source for grazing and hunting for the inhabitants for untold millennia. A second option in the case of bad weather and for anyone who would prefer a gentler walk is a day trek along the so-called ‘Russian-Mongolia border trail’ along a lower ridge from where one can also peer into Russia. We will overnight at basecamp.

Camel assisted trek to the Tsagan Gol river

Today, assisted by our camels and nomad guides, we will begin our gradual descent, at making our way to the infantile waters of the Tsaagan Gol (white river). It will be a day of gentle trekking 15-20 kilometres, and camping on the banks of the river. There will be a couple bogs to navigate. The day’s trek will be slightly longer than the trek in.

Trek or horse riding (optional) Shiveet Mountain to the base of Takhilt Pass

Today everyone is welcome to ride a horse (or trek on foot if preferred) as we travel clockwise around Shiveet Uul mountain. Shiveet Mountain, 1,843 metres above sea level, is a sacred mountain for the Tuvan nomad communities that live in the upper White River valley. Tuvans are still deep believers in Tengrism – a form of shamanism that was once the dominant belief system of nomads across the Eurasian steppe. A huge slab of glacier-polished bedrock here has been engraved with hundreds of petroglyphs through millennia, the oldest dating back to 11,000 BC. Drawings of wolves, ibex, horse, cart, bow and arrow appear like a mural of the history of nomadic life in the Altai. The trek will take us over undulating terrain as we visit the petroglyph sites and move towards the base of the Takhilt mountain pass. Camp will be made this night among Tuvan nomad families. Trekking/riding distance will be approximately 18-20km.

Camel/horse assisted trekking over Takhilt pass (3,300m) with optional climb to peak (3,700m)

In the morning we will meet our Tuvan nomad guides and their horses and camels that will be travelling with us for the next three days. Starting after breakfast we will begin the climb up to the Takhilt pass along a traditional summer migratory route. From the 3,300 metre pass there will be the option to travel higher to a peak at around 3,700 metres, before descending via scree slopes and alpine lakes to meet up with the camel/horse train. Spectacular views of the glaciated Altai peaks that feature on the border with China, and further towards Tavan Bogd. On the far side of the pass we will begin to descend towards the headwaters of the Khovd River (also known as the White River) and camp either in Alpine pastures or on the White River banks. A campfire here might be possible. An opportunity to learn stories from our Tuvan guides about Tuvan folklore and their ancient connection to the environment. Distance 12-13kms.

Trek down to White River Valley, camp in Alpine Meadows

We trek down to the banks of the upper white water river (which is the upper Khovd river) and begin to follow it south through Siberian larch forest. Our aim will be to camp on the shores of ‘Heart Lake’ – a small, spectacular alpine lake overlooked by high mountain cliffs and dense stands of forest. A campfire here might be possible. It is also an opportunity to learn stories from our Tuvan guides about Tuvan folklore and their ancient connection to the environment. Distance, 15kms.

Half day trek along the white water river valley followed by canoe familiarisation.

Today’s trek will take us further through, forest, lakes, and along the white water river to the steppe with opportunities to see ancient stone marker lines and graves. At lunch we will meet the canoeing staff and farewell the nomads. The afternoon will be a dry land canoe instruction and familiarization. Camp on the banks of the white water river. Trek distance approximately 10 km.

Canoeing Khoton Nuur Lake

Today will begin with more canoe instruction and preparation before we put the boats on the water and meander our way down to where it flows into a large alpine lake known as Khoton Nuur. Expect some gentle rapids, a visit to nomads camping on the banks, and spectacular vistas as we leave the steep sided white water river valley and begin to enter a much winder, grander landscape. Forest, snowy peaks, steppe, river and open water are all a feature of today’s introduction to the canoeing leg of the journey. We will only need what require for during the day (packed into waterproof barrels) as the vehicles will meet us at camp on or near the shores of Khoton Nuur.

Canoeing Khoton Lake

We will start early and begin paddling across Khoton lake - a huge alpine body of water at an elevation of around 2,200 metres that is set between two dramatic ranges of snow capped peaks. After crossing the lake we will follow the forested southern shoreline for most of the day with a possible visit to a nomad family. The southern shoes are very inaccessible and the nomads here live a very traditional life, and share their summer grazing grounds with bears, snow leopards, wolves, and a plethora of other wildlife. In the afternoon we will cross back to the north side and camp at a protected cove near to a significant petroglyph site.

Rest day, visit to petroglyphs.

Today will be a general rest day, and an opportunity to explore nearby rocky hills that are dotted with slabs of petroglyph galleries. The vistas from the small peninsula at camp, and from the rocks above allow us to see all the way from Tavan Bogd in the distance from where we began to Khurgan lake and beyond to the Khovd river. Our cove has a sandy beach, and weather permitting a swim may be possible.

Canoe Khoton Nuur and Khurgan Nuur Lakes to island camp.

Today we will paddle the eastern half of Khoton lake before negotiating the swift moving channel between it and its sister lake known as Khurgan. As we paddle the lengths of these lakes mountain vistas to the south on the border with China continue to reveal peaks, valleys, and forests that are part of the greater Tavan Bogd National park. After lunch there will be an opportunity to visit a remote shop that services the nearby barracks of a Mongolian border outpost. This afternoon we will repack the canoes expedition style before paddling out to an island on Khurgan lake that is usually the summer home of a herd of horses. Camp will be made on the island.

Canoe Khurgan Lake and the upper rapids of the Khovd River

After an early start we will canoe to the eastern tip of Khurgan Lake and around lunchtime aim to reach the beginnings of the Khovd River that flows out into a small gorge from the lake system. This afternoon we will negotiate the largest rapids of the journey. The guides will decide which rapids can or cannot be safely navigated (usually all but one that is only suitable for more experienced paddlers). Portaging and lining canoes, and walking around rapids may be required in one or two places. Camp will be made nearby a large and spectacular grave site known as a Khirigsuur that dates back to the bronze age.

Full day of canoeing the Khovd River

A day of gentle rapids and swift water makes this a joy to paddle and view the scenery. To the south we have a backdrop of the snowy peaks, and downriver we enter steppe, then deep gorges. Many kazakh nomads make their early autumn camps along this stretch as the receding water levels (of spring and early summer) create verdant pastures on the banks at this time of year. We carry on until the confluence of the Godon and Khovd Rivers and camp. This can possibly be expedition style, self supported, or with vehicle support depending on the decisions of the guides.

Canoe swift water and rapids down spectacular gorges to Tsengel Village

In the morning there will be some more serious rapids to negotiate which may involve lining the canoes rather than paddling. In the afternoon however the river becomes gentler and once again we will be gliding at pace through a landscape of steppe, gorge, and rocky peaks. At these lower reaches of the Khovd River we start to see more nomadic Kazakh families with their distinctive steep-pitched yurts. It is not uncommon to see herds of horses or yaks being herded across the river, and locals traversing from bank to bank with camels and horses. We will visit the primarily tuvan village of Tsengel before making camp near the confluence of the Tsagan Gol river and the Khovd.

Trekking day to explore gorge to Ulaankhuus valley (bad weather contingency day)

From near the confluence of the Tsagan Gol, the Khovd enters a deep gorge that is deemed too technical for the canoes. Instead, we will have the chance to stretch the legs for a day and follow the gorge on foot to where the river spills out into the Ulaankhuus valley. Alternatively, this day may be used as a bad weather contingency day at any stage of the trekking or canoing segments of the journey and will be at the discretion of the guides. The vehicles will be portaging the canoes around this gorge. Camp will be made in the upper Ulaankhus valley.

Full day of canoeing through wide, fertile valley of nomads

Today we will be passing through a rich, fertile valley that will be dotted with countless nomad families and their herds. The Kazakhs moved to this part of Mongolia in the mid-19th century and we will have the opportunity to visit traditional Kazakh cemeteries that date back to those times. The river for most of today becomes slower and meandering than in previous days, however in the afternoon the wide valley abruptly contracts and we enter a narrow gorge. After negotiating some swift water and rapids we will make camp expedition style in the middle of the gorge amongst trees. This will be our last camp on the river and it is a spectacular vantage point from which to reflect on the journey past and the days ahead as we begin towards the end of the journey.

Full day canoeing gorge, then through steppe to Olgiy.

For most of today we will be meandering down the swift, azure waters of the Khovd as it winds through a gorge dotted with cliffs. After lunch we are spat out of the gorge and enter the open steppe. By mid afternoon we will float in among the gers, minarets, soviet apartment blocks, and mud huts that make Olgiy such a special crossroads of Central and North Asia. Tonight we will be staying in a hotel or a ger camp.

Explore the Olgiy museum market then enjoy a Kazakh concert.

Today will be an opportunity to explore Olgiy with its bustling market charm, museum, and access to internet cafes for those who want to reach the outside world. In the evening we will have a private traditional Kazakh concert and a feast of Kazakh national dishes such as Bes Barmak.

Fly from Olgiy to Ulaanbaatar

We travel to the airport of Olgiy and take the three hour flight to Ulaanbaatar.

Ulaanbaatar/contingency day

Day of leisure in Ulaanbaatar followed by farewell dinner. Please note this day can also be used as a contingency day. If the flights are delayed out of Ulaanbaatar we may use this day at the beginning of the itinerary. If the flight back to Ulaanabaatar is delayed we may spend this day in Olgiy.

Trip concludes in Ulaanbaatar

After breakfast in the hotel you will be transported to Ulaanbaatar airport for the flight home or onward journey.

Additional Information

Tim Cope, canoeist Ernst Waldenfels, and Mongolian brothers Battsengel and Batbayaar, have designed an itinerary to maximize the intrepid traveller’s experience of the diverse landscapes and nomadic heritage of western Mongolia. Five Gods, Summit to Steppe River and Trek expedition combines a trek over high passes on nomad trails supported by herdsmen with their camels and horses, a horseback ride around the sacred peak of Shiveet mountain, and a canoe voyage down the Khovd River system including the spectacular Khoton-Khurgan alpine lake system. By minimizing mechanical transport and travelling with local nomads on foot, horse, and river through mountains, forest and steppe it allows the traveller to immerse more fully in the natural world and the cultures that have evolved here over untold millennia. The trip begins in Tavan Bogd (meaning ‘Five Gods’), which is home to Mongolia’s highest peak, Khuiten Uul, 4374m. Here we will attempt to trek to Malchin peak (4051m). From the summit we will be able to stand on the cultural cross roads of Mongolia, China, Russia, and very nearly Kazakhstan. The sprawling Potanin glacier that flows from Tavan Bogd is not only the ultimate headwater of the Khovd river but has been the hallowed source of water and life for cultures in Western Mongolia since the dawn of time. As we begin to trek, ride and paddle down from here, we will be travelling among a diversity of nomad communities including Tuvans, Kazakhs, Uriankhai, and Oirat Mongolian tribes. Ancient burial mounds, Turkic stones, and petroglyphs found dotted throughout the valleys and slopes of the Khovd River basin remind visitors of the remarkable continuity of horseback, nomadic life that has been unbroken here for at least 5,000 years. The Khovd River, which flows 516 kilometres into the lakes and wetlands of the Great Lakes Depression, will be the guide for much of the journey - weaving, meandering, and sometimes tumbling its way from glacier-fed rapids across alpine lakes, through forests and steppe, and gorges that cut deep into rugged semi-deserts. At this time of year as summer crosses into autumn, nomads migrate down from the mountains to the banks of the Khovd River giving us the opportunity to experience their daily realities and understand the intricate nature of their migratory cycle. Whilst this is a challenging journey, it is also designed to cater for a range of abilities and interests. Canoe experience is not mandatory or required, and the most demanding trekking and canoeing sections are optional. For those who are keen riders, or who would like a horse as back up, the entire trekking route is possible by horse and this can be arranged through your agent. The camps include dining tent and other facilities, and vehicle back up is available for part of the trek and much of the canoe journey.

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