The westernmost Aimag in Mongolia is very different from the others. In this province of roughly 100,000 people and about 1.5 million heads of livestock most people are of Kazakh descent, and speak their own language. The culture is quite unlike the rest of Mongolia.
Typical arid landscape in Mongolia’s westernmost Soum (county). Although there are some trees, much of the Aimag is treeless. Much of Bayan-Olgii is mountainous. In fact, Mongolia’s highest mountain, Khuiten Uul (4374 m), lies on the border of Bayan Olgii and China.
Camels are a common sight in Bayan-Olgii. One would not expect to see camels in the snow, but they are well adapted to the arid and cold climate of the province. Herders will often send the camels off into the desert on their own, checking up on them only sporadically.
With 25,000 people this is a reasonable sized town. It is a typical Mongolian town with apartments and some old industry, long shut down. What sets it apart from the other towns are the absence of gers in town: many of the residents live in traditional flat-roofed twig and mud houses. As a result one’d think that one was in a middle eastern country rather than Mongolia.
Not much has changed in downtown Olgii since Socialist days. The buildings still look much the same as before 1990, when entering the provincial building you are greeted by the busts of Lenin and Sukhbaatar.
Much like in middle eastern countries lunch is served in a communal bowl, from which everyone eats. The food is more middle eastern too. I had the best bread I ever ate in Mongolia at this meal. Kazakhs look more Turkish than Mongolian, and they are Muslim rather than Buddhist. Since 1991 Islam is making a comeback again in Bayan-Olgii.
The other ethnic group in Bayan Olgii are the Tuvans. They are Buddhist, originally from the neighbouring Russian republic of Tuva. The two ethnic groups are culturally quite different. Tuvans are well known for their throat singing. There are sizeable populaitons of Tuvans in Bayan Olgii and Uvs.
Bayan Olgii is famous for its eagle hunting. The hunter carries the eagle on a special perch on his horse. Once on the hunting grounds, the eagle is released to catch prey.