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Mongolian Altai Expedition Horse Trek
If the thought of riding deep in to the Altai mountains with pack-horses, while pioneering new routes through the untracked wilderness of 'no-mans land' along the Chinese border gets your heart racing, this is the trip for you (17 days). Too long, too short, or no availability for your preferred travel time? Ask us about other trip options which may work for you.
- 1 Sep - 17 Sep 2018 All the fun of our trek in the Altai Mountains, plus a visit to the Sagsai Eagle Festival. A smaller, more intimate version of the festival in Ulgii. UPDATE This trip is under way.
- 22 Sep - 8 Oct 2018 Just before winter hits, we have one last trek in the Altai Mountains, finishing with the Ulgii Eagle Festival. UPDATE This trip is fully booked.
- 6 Jul - 22 Jul 2019 Summer is kicking off now, the herders are happy as their animals fatten up, and nomadic life is good. UPDATE September 2018: Accepting bookings now.
- 25 Jul - 10 Aug 2019 A busy time of year in Mongolia - animals to be milked, cheese to be made, gers to be repaired. You may need to lend a hand along the way. September 2018: Accepting bookings now.
- 31 Aug - 16 Sep 2019 All the fun of our trek in the Altai Mountains, plus a visit to the Sagsai Eagle Festival. A smaller, more intimate version of the festival in Ulgii. UPDATE September 2018: Accepting bookings now.
- 21 Sep - 7 Oct 2019 Just before winter hits, we have one last trek in the Altai Mountains, finishing with the Ulgii Eagle Festival. UPDATE September 2018: Accepting bookings now.
The Altai Expedition takes us to a remote and beautiful corner of Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, amongst the snowy peaks forming the border with China. This is an area normally closed to foreigners, so you won't be seeing anyone else here. Luckily we have a good relationship with the Mongolian border patrol - everyone knows everyone around here. Our local friends who will be accompanying you on this trek know all the secret game trails and hidden passes from the days when they hunted here.
This is a mountainous region, and the weather can change rapidly, bringing snow at any time of year. On the bright side it is more often warm and sunny. Terrain ranges from open plains to dense forests, alpine grasslands, and high snowy peaks, with crystal-clear rivers and lakes. It all makes for beautiful, but challenging, riding country. And Mongolia's increasingly rare wildlife can still be found here, when it has been driven close to extinction elsewhere. Keep an eye out for Asiatic ibex (we have seen over 60 in one herd), elk and argali mountain sheep. Elusive snow leopard, bears (seen on a trip in 2016) and wolves are here too but you will be very lucky (some may say unlucky!) to encounter them.
Meet the colourful locals
The local people are ethnically a mix of Mongolian and Kazakh. Their generosity and friendliness to strange foreign horse riders has to be experienced to be believed. There will be plenty of opportunity to enjoy their hospitality during our journey, including seeing their hunting eagles. Most people in the area are related in one way or another to our team. Amangul, our main guide, is something of a local celebrity, famous for her singing and playing of the two-stringed dombra. Her balzak (rather like a deep-fried donut) are fabulous too.
We start off riding across open country and through valleys inhabited by nomadic herders and then begin to climb in to the mountains, as we set off for 12-13 days exploring on horseback. After riding in to the National Park as far as the 4WD support vehicle can accompany us, we set up a base camp, with our large ger (or yurt, the traditional felt tent used by the local people) to retreat to if the evenings are cool. You will have the opportunity to help erect the ger during our first trek of the season (in fact it is culturally not the done thing to watch and not participate). From this point there are no roads and barely a game trail to follow, so we will need to load up the pack-horses (or camels), and be fully self-sufficient.
Venture in to spectacular new country with us, as we check out new routes - there's lots of potential options. We will have plenty of time to try different trails if the terrain proves too difficult. Each evening we will pore over maps and discuss possible routes. Your input is welcomed.
This can be a challenging trek, so you need to be prepared for some longer days and hard riding. The rewards will be great - to ride where few people, even locals, have ever travelled. We will travel fast and light, much like the local people, stopping when we reach a suitable camp site, and cooking simple meals over an open fire. And then sit around the camp fire and be amazed at the brilliance of the night sky!
For experienced riders there are some great spots for a gallop (and these horses can really move!). The area is also famous for its khun chuluu (literally 'man stones'), ancient pre-Mongolian stone statues of Turkic origin.
It's not all about going hard every day, so there will be rest days - read a book, enjoy a hike, or just take it easy.
Our two September departures include the annual Eagle Festivals at Sagsai and Ulgii. These celebrations of eagle hunting and horsemanship really are amongst the world's great cultural festivals. If you think you've seen some strange and interesting festivals elsewhere, this is sure to impress even the most jaded festival-goer. Don't just take our word for it, this is what Emily from New Zealand thought of it:
"There's not much to be said about the Eagle Festival except that it was undoubtedly the best festival in the history of the universe and two of the best days of my time in Mongolia. Awesome, awesome, awesome..."
Everyone dresses up in their best outfits, which are spectacular; even the camels get to wear brightly coloured rugs. There is a general air of chaos with no clear line between contestants and the watching crowd - sometimes you end up closer to the action than you might like!
A crowd favourite (amongst the women at least) is Kyz Kuar, the 'race between a man and a woman', in which the woman pursues the man, giving him a good whipping as they gallop across the steppe. Bushkazi, a tug-of-war with a dead goat involves two riders holding each end of the goat and trying to pull each other out of the saddle as they gallop randomly about - including into the crowd. Brutal certainly, but a true spectacle, and very fiercely contested. It's quite incredible how far out of the saddle a rider can be pulled without actually falling.
If your are lucky you might get to see the Central Asian version of bushkazi, as played in Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and other stans. Instead of just two riders and a dead goat, this involves two teams of riders. The mayhem is multiplied! Keep your wits about you or you're liable to get caught up in the melee.
For a real test of horsemanship, riders lean down out of the saddle at speed to pick up small targets off the ground in the sport of tiyn teru. Very useful when you drop your hat. Archery from horse-back is another ancient skill on display, and evidently very difficult. Genghis Khan would not have been impressed! In the Mongolia of today it is not a skill in great demand (luckily for us).
When the riotous crowd of people, horses, camels and eagles gets too much, you can always pop into a ger for a cup of tea and khuurshuur (mutton pancake). We stage our own mini festival during the ride so you can have a go at tug-of-war with a dead goat (or an old sack in our case) or try to chase and whip your fellow riders (not that we encourage that sort of thing of course). Some of our riders have actually ended up competing in the festivals!
We will be attending the first day of the festivals, and possibly part of the second day, depending on the domestic flight schedule (most people find that one day is just the right amount of time).
Community Garden Project
As a way of saying thank you to the village where our Altai trips are based, we have started a community garden using our 5% donation from your trip fee. If you have any skills in growing vegetables, particularly where the growing season is extremely limited, your input will be welcomed. Read more about the project here: Community Garden Project.
A Final Word...
This is a remote and mountainous region, with demanding terrain. Therefore it is essential that you are fit and active and willing to take on a challenge. If you are not familiar with the outdoors, or are unsure whether it is the right trip for you, we are happy to discuss it.
Read all about our August 2014 Altai Expedition, including great photos, in an entertaining series of blogs by Liz, The Young Adventuress. Liz rode with Christian, Kristina, Katherine, Adam, Echo, Fiona, David, Mike and Jennie, from the UK, US, Germany, Australia and New Zealand, accompanied by Ian & Amangul (guides), Anar (translator), Jybek (cook), Adilkhan & Khalipa (drivers), Khatran, Muaitkhan, & Inkarbek (wranglers). Germanbek came along as chief-wrangler-in-training.
To see what nomadic life in the Altai Mountains is really like, watch this fantastic short (6 min) movie, filmed in the area where we ride: Nomads of Mongolia.
|Day 1||Meet for dinner in Ulaanbaatar|
|Day 2||Fy to Ulgii, drive south (4 hours), meet the horses and take an introductory ride|
|Days 3 to 5||Ride up in to the mountains of Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, and establish a basecamp|
|Days 6 to 11||Day and pack horse-supported longer rides to explore the surrounding mountains|
|Days 12 to 14||Ride back down from the mountains through The Pass of Death|
|Day 15||Final ride, drive to Ulgii|
|Day 16||Fly back to Ulaanbaatar|
|Day 17||Transfers to airport|
Note: our September departures include the Sagsai or Ulgii Eagle Festival, on Day 15.
- Great riding country - open plains, alpine meadows, and forest, with a backdrop of dramatic snow-capped mountains.
- Wonderful horses - these are the ideal mountain horses, sure footed on the steepest trails, but able to take you for a gallop that will leave your legs shaking. You will want to take them home with you!
- Fascinating culture - meet the local people and experience their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Not as part of a contrived tourist experience, but a genuine meeting of cultures.
- Archaeological sites - keep an eye out for 'man-stones' ancient stone figures from the pre-Mongolian past.
- True remoteness - as with our Zavkhan trips, this area has no tourism development, with it's often unfortunate consequences.
- Pack horsing - the only way to get in to this area is to use pack horses.
- Rare wildlife - the chance to see Mongolia's wildlife in the best way possible, on horse-back.
- Community project - contribute to the development of a sustainable village vegetable garden.
- Build a ger - learn how to erect a ger, as we set up our mountain basecamp (first trip of the season only).
- Eagle Festival - on our September departures we finish by attending this spectacular celebration of eagle hunting and horsemanship in Sagsai or Ulgii.
If you would like to find out more about this ride, please contact us.