Nestled in the Altai mountains in western Mongolia, this small city was established in the 1840s by Kazakh bandits 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 bringing law and order to the region suppressing traditional bandit culture and superstitious cults during the Chinese Civil War in the 1930s. During this time Ölgii became a staging point for Soviet support of Mao's revolution against the Nationalists in western Muslim regions of China. After the Chinese Communists won, Kazakh bandits and cult leaders were purged, about 500 arrested and 100 executed in Bayan-Ölgii alone. Following Soviet doctrine of maintaining native cultures, once external influences were mitigated the region was largely returned to local control allowing Kazakh's unique culture based on nomadic herding, vibrant art and music, and large, close families to prosper free of outside influence or religious meddling. 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.
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. 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. Shared jeeps typically have at least 10 and up to 15 passengers for a 5 seat jeep.
To the Soums
There 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;
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.
Bayan-Ölgii has developed a reputation around Mongolia and Kazakhstan for its unique craft production that is not found anywhere else. Local artisans export brightly colored embroideries with elaborate curving designs. The Kazakh designs has recently been used for handbags, wallets, computer bags, pillow cases, place-mats, and a wide range of products. Before the end of communism, the designs were used primarily for wall hangings on gers, traditional clothing, and the takiyat (Muslim prayer cap). Tourists visiting in the 90s started buying wall hangings (tuskies), some 40 or 50 years old, and created a demand for new wall hangings and other items. Local artisans also make fox fur hats, dombras (traditional instruments), chee (painted straw panels, and many other crafts that are used everyday by locals.
Like much of Mongolia, the number and quality of shops have grown exponentially over the last 3 years. Three years ago, there was 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 Tughrik, though tour guides and tourist activities will be priced in dollars.
The dining choices in Ölgii are limited, but generally more tasty than Mongolian food elsewhere in the country. Most of the food here is Kazakh or Mongolian, though Turkish, Uighur, and International options are available. The biggest difference between Kazakh and Mongolian is that Kazakh meals have Halal meat (without blood) and more spices. Kazakh food is delicious and usually slow cooked over several hours with lots of meat, potatoes, noodles, and spices. The best dishes are bisbarmak ("5 fingers", slow-boiled mutton), sirne (grilled mutton), and kaz (smoked fatty horse sausage).
Mongolians and Kazakhs rarely eat meals without meat. Vegetarians should stick to the large restaurants and tourist camps. 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.
All restaurants, other than those at tourist ger camps are located in the city center near the apartment blocks and the Bazaar.
Ölgii has several small guanz (cafes) are located in the center which have mutton pancakes (hoshuur) or manti (dumplings) for cheap, usually served only with milky tea.
Kazakhs, like Mongolians, drink milky tea, though Kazakhs use less salt and more tea. Shops carry Coke, Fanta, juices, instant coffee, and alcoholic drinks, usually at room temperature. A few stores sell wine, imported beer, and whiskey (at very high prices). Restaurants and bars usually serve beer and coke cold.
Friday is officially a dry day with no alcohol legally sold in respect for the Muslim majority. Bar and Nightclubs are closed on Friday, though some restaurants and shops will still sell to foreigners. Be aware that you should not openly carry alcohol on this day or be visible drunk. Public drunkenness on any day is not common like 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.
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.
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 to 250,000T a month, if you can find someone to translate and advocate for you.
Getting money or using the internet is surprisingly easy for such an isolated place. There are around a dozen ATMs that take Visa, Mastercard, and UnionPay from foreign banks. There is also Western Union at XAAH Bank in the square, and MoneyGram south of the square at Capitron Bank. Additionally, all banks exchange major currencies and can do wire transfers. Some business accept payment by credit card.
Internet cafes are all over, including the ger district. Payment is usually around 500-600T/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 1500T, haircuts start from 2000T, and massages 10,000T. Operating hours are 10am to 10pm everyday, though Sundays are very crowded. Stalls aren't very clean, but the will wipe it down if you ask, and it is almost always hot. Going early (10am) results in no lines and clean(er) stalls.
Kazakh 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 foreign, though that is often the only word they know.
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.
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 is a 630,000 hectare park on the border of Russia and China, containing the Tavan Bogd Mountains ('5 Saints', highest in Mongolia at 4374m), 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 3000T 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.
Tsambagarav National Park is a 110,960 hectare 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.