Road trips in Mongolia don’t include truck stops with amazing pinball machines, billboards, or re-fueling on junk food, and sometimes they don’t even include asphalt.
You may not have to slow down for traffic jams, but big herds of livestock – goats, sheep, horses, cows, and yaks – will undoubtedly get in your way over the course of your journey. A honk or two of your horn will usually get them scampering so you can keep rolling on.
Last week, my husband and I went on a trip up to Khuvsgul Lake. It’s Mongolia’s biggest freshwater lake, and the second largest in Asia. According to Wikipedia it’s 2 million years old. In all that time it’s avoided the worst of the devastating plunder of industry, development and pollution and remains pristine. It’s one of the jewels of Mongolia, a must see if you venture all the way out here to see the beauty of this country and its diverse wildlife. Of course, it’s at its finest in the summer time. The in-law’s family photo albums all have photos from family trips to Khuvsgul with endless green mountainsides and fields of neon-bright wildflowers. Of course, we stay-cationed this summer and went to Khuvsgul after the first few snowfalls of impending winter had hit.
Fall in Mongolia means all the green is gone, and while the trees go all technicolor with the change in season, the winds drop those leaves quickly. In and around Darkhan, the wheat fields have been harvested, the tall grasses around gers have been collected for winter fodder, and if the summer’s been good (and this one was) the animals have a healthy amount of chub to keep them warm as their winter coats grow in. All across Mongolia this time of year, nomadic families are wrapping up their moves to winter camps, stocking up on supplies, and moving big herds to more palatable grazing areas. Summer gers, with thinner walls will be replaced with heavier winter felt, and central stoves are being brought back inside to provide cozy heat. Construction crews across the country are in a hurry to finish jobs they started, or resumed in spring. It’s a race against winter to get cement poured before it starts freezing.
Our asphalt ran out as we left Erdenet, and it when it did show up again it didn’t last very long. Chinese and Mongolian crews were busy working on a road to Khuvsgul. You could spot the difference in the crews depending on the winter jackets they were wearing. The Chinese crews were outfitted with identical long, double breasted, green padded jackets. The Mongolian crews were layered up in a mix of Western sweaters and Mongolian deels, considerably less fazed by the cold.
The trip to the lake took two days through small sums (towns), mountain passes, the occasional stop for an ovoo offering (better safe than sorry), river crossings, and one night spent in a little buudal (hotel) in Arshant. After a quick stop parked next to a small, salt lake (one of three along the way) for a cup of instant kimchi ramen as we watched pairs of wild white geese in the water, we raced the sunset to make it to Arshant. We asked around for the town’s best/available buudal and were directed to a small house behind the police station. We were the only guests at the two room hotel, and on the receiving end of the same Mongolian hospitality you would find with family. The emee (grandmother) who got us settled in and fed for the night was accompanied by her 2 year old grandson as she laid out fresh bedding, got a steady fire in the stove, brought in a rabbit eared TV, and even re-made a bowl of soup that Agii thought was salty. Every time she came in with him, we sent her grandson back outside to their ger with handfuls of candy and cookies, and a container of watermelon to share with his sister. In the morning, in keeping with Mongolian etiquette, the container was returned, cleaned but filled with cookies.
By the afternoon of day two, we had made it to the lake. The snow, the fuzzy yak herds, and the dense birch and pine forests went beautifully together. As we went down the pass to the lake we found a stranded Nissan – poorly equipped to descend steep, snow covered mountain roads. The driver had wisely turned the car back around, but the car was even worse at ascending. A Mongolian driver and translator were trying to take two guys from the Netherlands to a tourist camp on the lake. Three of them were trying to push the car back uphill so they could drive back into town and get a better vehicle for the snow, but then we came along in our sturdy Russian Jeep with 4 wheel drive. With the silk and nylon sashes of three men’s deels strung together and tied to each car, we towed the Nissan back uphill, loaded the Dutch and their massive backpacks in to our jeep and headed back downhill to the lake.
We were at Khuvsgul to check out a small plot of land that a friend was offering for sale, a little over an acre with a lakeside view. We stayed that night and the next day with Baigal and her husband, put up in one of the Mongol gers that they have set up in their hasha (yard/plot of land) for rental to tourists during the summer.
We’ll be back in the summer, when the snow is gone, and the Tsaatan are back down from the mountains with their reindeer herds. Khuvsgul is irresistibly lovely. Falling asleep at night to the white noise of waves in the lake, with billions of stars visible through the open top of a Mongol ger is something special.
On the drive back towards the main road home a lone wolf ran across the road just 20 or 30 yards ahead of us. We stopped the jeep to watch it bound across the dried grass and deep ruts of the road, and up into the safety of the birch and pine forest of the mountainside. Wolf sightings like ours are considered good luck – lifelong. We also spotted a small herd of camels grazing. On the final 100 km stretch back to Darkhan, we saw a roadside stall selling freshly caught and smoked fish from the Orkhon River. As we passed, Agii looked in his rear view mirror to see two reindeer at the stall, and made an abrupt u-turn so we could get out to see them.
A man had brought the male and female reindeer down from a herd in Khuvsgul. They were two years old, not fully grown, but already displaying impressive antlers. The female’s antlers were still covered in velvet. For 5,000 tugrik, passers-by could stop and pose for pictures with them. We weren’t charged any extra for my excessive amount of cuddling and kissing of the reindeer. The pair will be able to stay in the Orkhon valley over the winter, but will need to go back up north to Khuvsgul come springtime, where they won’t be so warm. As gentle and lovely as they were, and as happy as they were with the cookies we fed them, we had to pass on the 10,000,000 tugrik price tag their handler offered us for taking one home.
As far as destinations go, Khuvsgul is a magical one. The people, wildlife and landscape you encounter along the way are as much a national treasure as the pristine lake itself. In a year or two the asphalt road to the lake will be finished. The Mongolian government is already carefully monitoring the development of land around the lake (there’s thankfully next to none), and with a rise in the number of visitors as the road becomes more accessible, they will have to keep up efforts to keep the lake clean and beautiful. I understand the pride Mongols take in their Blue Lake and in the long run, it’s nice to think of how many more people will now be able to experience it for themselves.
In a year’s time, Agii and I will have finished building a small house on the hasha we’ll be leasing there. We’ll put up some gers for summer tourists, keep treats for the neighbor’s dogs, and of course, we’ll keep cookies on hand for passing tsabok.