Mongolia’s Otgon Tenger Mountain is the highest mountain in Mongolia’s central Khangai Range – with its permanent snow-capped peak, it is said to be 4021m. Located in Zavkhan Aimag, it is considered by many Mongolians as the spiritual centre of the country and one of Mongolia’s most sacred mountains.
Otgontenger (‘Youngest Sky’) is remote and spectacular and receives very few Western visitors. The peak and its environment are protected to conserve the high alpine ecosystem and form part of the 95,500-hectare Otgontenger Strictly Protected Area. In fact, it is the only mountain in the entire Khangai range to have a permanent glacier. The southern face is dominated by Mongolia’s most extensive granite wall.
Mongolians consider the mountain to be the mystical abode of Ochirvan (Vajrapani), the fierce, dark blue protective deity of the Buddhist religion (one traditional Mongolian belief is that wrathful divinities inhabit some of Mongolia’s sacred mountains). Since 1779 (when worship of Ochirvan began at Otgontenger under the decree of the Qing Dynasty emperor Qianlong), it has been a pilgrimage site.
Övör Badarkhundaga Nuur is a glacial lake nestled in a cirque just below the south face of Otgon Tenger. Its name translates into ‘begging bowl’, and it is at this lake where offerings (including those of the President of Mongolia who visits every four years) are made. Historically, the offering was a silver cup decorated with nine jewels. Other offerings include gold, silver ingots, coral and pearls. It is also believed that the natural spring water and the purity of the artz (juniper) that grows in the area are offerings/blessings of the mountain to the people.
From its commanding location at the head of the valley, Otgontenger certainly seems to radiate quite an aura, and it’s easy to understand why it commands the position it does within the Mongolian community.
Although we’re a small company (150-200 bookings per year) we receive returning guests. John Holman had travelled with us twice (‘I enjoyed the remoteness, the feeling of immense space, the secluded camping and the great balance between programmed experiences and the freedom to explore independently’), before deciding to return for a third visit including Otgon Tenger Mountain. Here are his thoughts on the mountain:
‘For our westward journey from Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park (White Lake) to Otgon Tenger Uul Strictly Protected Area there are two options – follow the main road which takes two days, or follow a more direct one day route which is not shown on the map. To save time the latter option is chosen.
From White Lake we cross first the South and then the North Terkh River, broad, fast-flowing, crystal clear streams which provide most of the water for White Lake. The route then follows the broad, flat floor of the North Terkh for many kilometres. The valley floor is at times probably three to four kilometres in width before gently rising to the foothills and finally more steeply to the surrounding peaks. The rocky crags have disappeared as have the stands of larch but the rich yellow, beige and brown of the grasses is a constant reminder that winter is just around the corner.
With such a generous cover of pasture to provide fodder for their herds, the valley is more populated than usual with a number of family ger camps visible at any given time.
Our track eventually departs the valley floor and commences a long, steep and challenging climb to the Nudengiin Davaa pass which we estimate to stand at about 3000 metres. The panoramic views from the pass are stunning with a light mantle of snow on the higher peaks. If we thought that the climb to the pass was demanding, it pales into insignificance compared to the descent. The Furgon’s tough, go-almost-anywhere capabilities and Turuu’s outstanding driving skills really come to the fore in handling the toughest challenges. By this time it is perfectly clear why this road is not shown on the map as it is probably only negotiable for a month or two at around this time of year. However, it serves its purpose in saving a day’s travel and certainly provides more highlights than the main road.’
Our reward is another spectacularly broad river valley flanked by peaks sporting some amazingly sculpted granite outcrops. Camp is set up on the bank of the Buyant Gol River. We soon discover that, from just a short distance downstream of the camp, we can catch a tantalising glimpse of our objective, Otgon Tenger, the most sacred mountain in Mongolia standing proudly at the head of an adjoining valley. While at 4021 metres it is not the tallest mountain in Mongolia it has a permanent mantle of snow and gives rise to the only glacier in this range.
Next morning we are reminded, not only that winter is on the way but that camp is located at about 2500 metres for there is a generous layer of ice on the tents and even the edges of the fast-flowing are sporting mantles of ice. The sun and the eternal blue sky soon brighten the day, however.
During the drive to the mountain, the closer we come (we are not to mention its name in its presence) the more imposing it becomes. From its commanding position at the head of the valley it certainly seems to radiate quite an aura and it’s easy to understand why it commands the position it does within the Mongolian community. We continue to the foothills passing on the way a very large, imposing statue of Ochivan, Buddhist god of the mountains, taking pride of place in front of a shrine bedecked in colourful prayer scarves.
We continue to the end of the ‘track’ – another challenging drive – and have lunch with a splendid view down the valley and the mountain standing guard behind us.
We then take a ramble across a boulder-strewn ridge to the sacred lake Badar Khundga nestled snuggly below the peak. This is the place that all Mongolian parliamentarians must visit before taking their seat in the chamber. It is a time for private contemplation and the building of individual cairns/ovoos. Finally,we all wash our hands and face with water drawn from the lake in Ross’s camera lens cover as it is forbidden to place your hands in the water.
Our return to camp by the river is fairly quiet as I think we are all still deep in contemplation. In all, a very special experience.’
Otgon Tenger Mountain is located in the beautiful Zavkhan Aimag – one of the four provinces (along with Khovd, Uvs and Bayan Ulgii) that form western Mongolia. We we can highly recommend combining it with a visit to Khar Nuur (also in Zavkhan Aimag) – https://www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk/khar-nuur-zavkhan/. However, we only recommend this route to those who enjoy an adventure and a road trip as to access this region with its vast and weathered landscapes requires travelling on some of Mongolia’s most challenging roads. For us, the beauty of Otgontenger doesn’t just come from what the mountain means to local Mongolians but also from its immensity, remoteness, and silence. The fact that is not an easy journey adds to the feeling of isolation.