“The best place in Mongolia is Khovsgol Lake.” The middle-aged local man pointed at a vast blue patch on a map of his country and nodded assuringly. He drew an imaginary line from the capital of Ulaanbaatar, where we were currently standing, straight through the town of Moron and into the Northern part of the country, near the border of Siberia. “That is where you must go.” That was all the convincing we needed.
Known as the Blue Pearl of Mongolia, Khuvsgol Lake holds an astounding 1% of the entire planet’s fresh water. In the winter this enormous body of liquid completely freezes over, allowing vehicles to use it as a thoroughfare. But in the summer it shines under a bright Mongolian sky, surrounded by forested peaks and blooming wildflowers. Even without the local man’s insistence, there was no way we were going to miss this highlight.
Our eight-day tour of the Gobi Desert had come to an end and we were ready to move onto greener (literally) pastures. The annual Naadam Festival was fast approaching and Lesh and I had decided that we wanted to avoid the busyness of the capital for the celebrations. One of my old friends from my first year in Canada was planning on joining us for a few days (which would surprisingly turn into five weeks of chaotic adventures), and we were keen to catch up on old times.
We met Dan and his girlfriend Christine in Ulaanbaatar and jumped on board an overnight bus to Moron, following the man’s invisible line.
Anyways, shameless plugs aside, after a typical Mongolian transport debacle involving late passengers, two tire blowouts and a random three hour nap break in the middle of the night, we arrived in Moron, tired but excited.
The next few days revolved around wrestling, archery, horse racing and drinking lots of beers. The Naadam Festival is Mongolia’s biggest event and celebrating it in one of the smaller aimags is definitely something worth considering if you are in the country during mid-July. Unfortunately for us we found the whole festival to be a little bit lackluster and underwhelming. A lot of standing around waiting for something to happen, a lot of vodka-filled Mongolian men staring us down everywhere we went, and a hell of a lot of dust covering everyone and everything. Still, just our opinion and don’t let that deter you from checking it out for yourself.
With the festival coming to an abrupt close we now had our sights set for that big blue patch north of Moron. For Lesh and I, Khovsgol Lake would have to wait. We took a seven-day detour to visit the Tsaatan reindeer herders in the isolated taiga between the lake and Siberia. That in itself is an entirely different adventure that will be told in due course. (Spoiler alert – One of our best travel experiences EVER!) But once the memorable journey had come to an end we met up with Dan and Christine in Khovsgol Lake’s southern-most town, Khatgal.
We checked into our own private ger at Khovsgol Inn right on the shore of the lake and spent the next few days drinking more beers and wine, relaxing in the immaculate sunny weather and catching up on old times. A luxury ger with lake views, wood fire stove, free wifi, clean shared bathrooms and all the relaxing you could handle cost us a budget-friendly 15’000MNT per person – about $7.50 each. Khovsgol Inn gets a lot of thumbs up from both NOMADasaurus and Dear Mum.
Khatgal is a friendly and tranquil village whose location hints at glorious wonders behind the surrounding mountain peaks and across the waters of Khovsgol Lake. While we could have easily spent a month in blissful content sipping imported wine in Khatgal, we all knew that more unspoilt beauty was only a few hours further north. It was time to pack our camping gear and see what else we could find.
The most common way for travellers to explore the banks of Khovsgol Lake is either by horse or on foot. Having had enough horse riding for a while, and deciding we wanted more relaxing rather than trekking, we opted for the lazy-man’s mode of transport – a taxi. Olgi, the owner of Khovsgol Inn, organised a Russian van to take us as far as the military checkpoint on the Western side of Khovsgol Lake for 90’000MNT. We knew this was a slight overcharge, but having been on the road for so long we are well past the point of caring over a few dollars. And what we have since discovered about Mongolia is that if you want anything to go according to plan, you have to pay extra for it.
Stocked up on food, beer, more wine and a bunch of chocolate, we left on a gorgeous morning and bounced along a rough dirt track for two hours. On one side of the road pine forests crept up the ravine-scarred hills and on the other the lake glistened dazzlingly. Every few minutes we would spot a sprawling patch of grass, exclaim, “Look at that sick camping spot!” and then bounce along further.
Once we reached the ranger’s checkpoint the bored official gave a cursory glance at our passports, jotted our details down on a piece of paper and waved us off with a smile. We unloaded our backpacks and supplies from the van, loaded them onto our bodies and began hiking into the woods.
With all the abundance of food and alcohol we had with us, we hardly looked like we were well-seasoned adventurers off to explore the remote wilds of Mongolia. Indeed under a blistering heat we trudged along exasperated, cursing ourselves for bringing so much extra crap. Our plan was to hike for a few hours until we found the ultimate secluded camping spot and then make base. We were already dreading the upcoming ramble.
As luck would have it we had walked barely 20 minutes when a patch of heavenly pasture emerged from beyond the pine trees. A field of blossoming lavender and golden wildflowers speckled the shores as far as the eye could see. Khovsgol Lake lapped at a stony beach; turquoise and transparent as anything the Caribbean could muster together. Mountains rose skyward to the west. Drop the bags, pitch the tents, crack a beer – we had found paradise!
The first afternoon passed by with physically demanding activities, such as laying in the wildflowers reading books, skipping rocks on the lake (quite possibly my all-time favourite thing to do), building a kickass campfire and getting stuck into our wine and beer. Day turned into night, the sun exchanged places with the radiant Milky Way and we passed out in our tents, delighted and filled with booze.
In the morning we rose from our beds, slightly weary and heads cloudy, and made plans for the day. Dan and Christine were going to chill around the camp while Lesh and I ventured into the mountains to see what the view was like from up high.
Walking back to the ranger’s station we followed a dirt road up to towards a rising peak. The ascension was mellow, and with every few hundred metres we were rewarded with fleeting views of the lake now far below us, and more obligatory wildflowers waving gently in the alpine breeze.
Nearing the summit the distant mountain ranges that hid the Dukha reindeer herders loomed into view. We wandered around the peak and discovered a plethora of shamanistic shrines. On this clear day we could see all the way to the northern extremity of Khovsgol Lake, where Mongolia ended and Siberia began.
Feeling satisfied with the day’s mission, we skipped back down the mountain and to our camp. Dan and Christine were waiting with a roaring campfire and more cold beer. Despite the lake having still been frozen over only six weeks prior, I took the icy plunge to wash the day’s sweat from my skin. Evening came in similar fashion as the previous one, with more views of the Milky Way and another few litres of beer consumed.
Our third day at the lake wasn’t quite as spectacular as the first two. A storm front had drifted in and torrential rain was bucketing down as we woke. We peeked out from our tent to assess the grim outlook. Today was a day for shelter and card games. Unfortunately neither of our tents were large enough to house a communal game, so we isolated ourselves from the other party with just the occasional call of, “Fucking Mongolia!” to break the sound of pelting rain.
The rain never stopped, and we managed to achieve the exciting accomplishments of reading a whole book, completing no less than 75 games of gin and drifting in and out of consciousness with intermittent naps.
When morning came the rain was still falling and our beautiful campsite had turned into more or less a swamp. Our pre-organised taxi was due to pick us up at 2pm, and we were facing the tedious task of having to pack up our tents in a storm. Luckily we must have had some good karma stored up somewhere and the clouds broke away by 11. We hung out our saturated gear in the now shining sun and did a little dance of gratitude for the shamans above.
With the weather back on our side we didn’t really want the fun of camping in Khovsgol Lake to come to an end. The wildflowers beckoned us to stay and the water returned to its hues of pale blue beauty. But alas with no more beer or wine to drink and our chocolate supplies running dangerously low, it was time to move on. In our minds we had already decided to forego our horse-buying adventure and head out to Western Mongolia. Now we had a whole lot of days of uncertainty ahead on how we would make that happen.
Our bags were packed, significantly lighter luckily, and we hiked back out from the swamp towards the ranger’s station. Those days camping in Khovsgol Lake were some of the most serene and picturesque of all our time in Mongolia. We left with photos that don’t do the place justice and memories that saturate the highlights over time. And while it wasn’t as adventurous as our reindeer herder quest or full of historic sights like the Gobi Desert, it was every bit as awesome.