Ölgii is the capital of Bayan-Ölgii province, and is also spelled as 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 current day 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 Nationalist in the western Muslim region of China. After the Chinese Communist 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 Kazakh's unique culture based on nomadic herding, vibrant art and music, and large, close families. No where 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 still living felt tents called gers, and eagle hunters just outside the city. Official Tourism Website
Routes to enter include coming by plane to the Ölgii airport, usually from either Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia or from Kazakhstan; routes can also include biking in, driving in by bus (from Ulaanbaatar or the Altai region of Russia), or by private taxi/transit.
Ölgii Airport is located 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 is a bus 3 times a week from Ulaanbaatar (48+ hours on most unpaved roads) costing 80,000 Tugriks. It leaves for UB from the Dragon Center in UB, and to UB from the Theater (giant red building west of square) in Ölgii. Bus to Kazakhstan leaves every 10 days, and cost $100 to Astana. You need to get visa in UB first. Tickets can be bought in the basement of the west wing of the theater building. Buses leave for UB on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday exactly at 3 pm. 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 20,000T.
Taxi is 700T 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. 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 costs around 700-2100 togrog, depending where you're going, more if you don't speak Kazakh (The exchange rate as of 1/25/2013 is 1395 togrog to $1). Most drivers will speak Kazakh, but can speak Mongolian; bring a pencil and paper to write down numbers (in Tg) 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; Only Mondays baazar does not work. Most taxis leave around 3-4 pm afternoon. The Tourist Visitor Center can help arrange jeeps for getting out into the countryside as well as permits for various parks.
To the Soums
There are shared jeeps on most days, except Monday, to the various Soums or villages in Bayan-Ölgii. Below are approximate prices in togrogs of transport to each Soum;
Ölgii is the capital of the Kazakh homeland of Mongolia. It has a unique traditional Kazakh culture and is the cultural, religious, and economic center of the region.
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."
Most people come to see the surrounding areas and don't spend a lot of time in Ölgii itself. It really helps to know someone local who can introduce you to other people! Learning at least a few words of Kazakh will also be helpful and people will really appreciate it.
There 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 borders fences between 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.
There's a small bazaar, mostly filled with cheap imported stuff from China, but also some local stuff, as well as fresh produce and meat. This is the best place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
There are lots of small shops in the center of town that also sell food and odds and ends, plus many expensive cashmere shops.
Manti (dumplings) is a must! There's a shop just off the center of town, facing the "BU Palace," which makes delicious manti soup. Has some other reasonable dishes as well, and usually has beer and soft drinks.
Several smaller shops will have meat patties or manti for cheap, usually served only with milky tea.
If you're lucky, you'll find a shop or friends that serve delicious bisbarmak (Kazakh traditional food - lamb and noodles) or kuz (fat mixed with dark lean meat - very tasty!). Kazakh cuisine always has lots of slow cooked meats, potatoes, and flour with seasoning.
You'll probably find it difficult to eat well as a vegetarian, as Mongolians and Kazakhs rarely eat meals without meat. Though, the bazaar and some supermarkets 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.
You can find Coke, Coke Zero, Sprite, and Fanta in most shops, though only a few keep it cold. Juice and sweet tea drinks like Fuze are also in most shops.
Most stores sell beer and vodka, though usually hot. You can also buy wine and whiskey at some of the larger supermarkets, although you may find it difficult to buy alcohol on Fridays because of religious observance. Many Kazakhs will drink alcohol, even though they will say that it isn't appropriate according to Islam, but they may not drink on Fridays. Restaurants almost always serve cold beer and cokes, though it will be difficult to get on a Friday. The best way is to get a VIP room at a bar or restaurant. Also, only a few smaller stores will sell alcohol on Friday. You should bring a backpack to put the beer in.
There are about a dozen bars and 3 or 4 nightclubs in the city. Bars typically include karaoke and VIP rooms.
There are several hotels and ger camps in Ölgii. Hotels are open year round and cater to locals most of the year, while ger camps are only open during the main tourist season from May to October.
Check out the Duman hotel for moderately priced rooms ($20 or so a night).
It 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 around $150-200 a month, if you can find someone to translate and advocate for you.
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).
Bayan-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 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 park of an unguided tour package with additional fees for tents, food, and extra services.
Tsambagarav National Park Centered around the Tsambagarav Uul Mountains.