Backpacking in Mongolia: Top 5 Must Do’s in the Altai Mountains

Mongolia is a massive country and finding information on the best “tourist destinations” can be difficult. Most travellers will either book a tour starting and finishing in the capital city of Ulanbataar, or do as we did and try and make our way across Mongolia independently.

Going independent is not without its fare share of difficulties, but regardless of what local tour guides in UB may tell you, it is possible. If you have time up your sleeve we recommend heading as far West as you can go, until your practically knocking on Russia and China’s door, this area is known as the Altai region and is especially known for its impressive mountain ranges.

To reach the Altai mountains you’ll want to head towards the city of Olgii. This city is a concrete wasteland and honestly is a depressing place with nothing to offer so get in, find a driver, and get out!

We were lucky enough to run into our driver, Japaar, at the hotel we were staying at but you can also head towards the local market, or just approach anyone who owns a Russian ex-military van and see if they are a guide/driver. Finding someone who speaks English may be difficult but most older drivers will know some Russian so knowing a few words in Ruski helps!

The Altai Mountain region is a Unesco World Heritage Site that offers something for every kind of traveller. If you love hiking there are treks that will take you past lakes, through amazing countryside, and also to the Potanin glacier.

For those who love to see how locals live, there are numerous nomadic families who are more than happy to invite you in for a cup of tea and some biscuits. Many of these families are also famed eagle hunters.

The scenery is breathtaking for all the avid photographers out there with the countryside constantly changing before your eyes. We even spotted some keen cyclists along the way but that maybe only for the hardcore, the roads are rough the days are long and the nights are cold!

Five Things Not To Miss:

1. Nomadic Stay in A “Ger” (Mongolian tent)
There are many local families tending to their flocks of sheep and goats that you will find scattered all through the countryside, many of which are happy to open their homes to visitors needing a place to sleep. The general fee is about 10,000 Tugriks or $6 USD per person, this will get you a meal (usually lamb noodle soup) a mat to sleep on and as much tea as you can consume!

2. Visit the Potanin Glacier
This glacier is inside the national park so there is an entrance fee or two that need to be paid along the way. Upon reaching the rangers ger you will have to leave your driver behind and hike on foot the remainder of the way to the glacier, this is about a 9 hour round trip on foot.

Along the way you can witness yaks grazing, crazy mountain goats scaling steep mountainsides, enjoy the beautiful wild flowers in the fields and also experience the coldest river crossing ever! The river isn’t deep and it’s not far across, but there is no way to cross without getting you toes wet and the possibility of squealing like a little girl from the shock of the cold!

The glacier itself is a stunning site but make sure you pack for the elements we had everything from warm sunshine, to bitterly cold winds and finally a total soaking from a rain storm: be prepared!

3. Visit an Eagle Hunters
The eagle hunters in this region are famed in Mongolia. This type of hunting is called “Berkutchy” and is a lifelong practice that is handed down through generations of Kazakh families.

The hunting season generally begins in October but the birds are displayed proudly near the owners Ger at all times of the year, some will allow you to hold the eagle at a cost of 5,000 tugriks (this is what we paid as a couple but they could charge your this as a solo traveller)

4. Go on a Horse Trek
There are a couple of companies that offer horse trekking in this region and it is a great way to see the countryside.
Note: most of the treks take a couple of days so be prepared for a sore butt!

5. Camp in the Wilderness
As explained earlier, Mongolia is a countryside of spectacular scenery and wildlife and there is nothing better than packing up a tent, some essential camping supplies and heading out into the wilderness.

There are a few treks around that range in distance so it all depends on how long you want to spend exploring the Mongolian countryside. Make sure you do some research in advance about where you are allowed to travel and also what the weather will be like. There is not much food available so stock up well in advance or you may be hunting and eating marmots!

Mongolia is a country of incredible, almost untouched beauty. Heading there may be for the more adventurous of travellers but regardless of your level of backpacking expertise it will most definitely be a experience you’ll never forget!

Discover more amazing places to go backpacking on our backpacking destinations page.