As our time in Mongolia began winding down, Emma and I wanted to take one more trip outside of Ulaanabaatar. There is so much of the country we didn’t have time to see because she was in school and I was working. We thought about the Gobi, but we see so many desert landscapes in the southwestern US that it didn’t seem as intriguing as the forested, mountainous northwestern part of the country.
I have always been fascinated with Lake Baikal in Siberia, and we were thinking about visiting, but we didn’t have time to make the trip across the border to Russia. Baikal is a rift lake, and it is both the largest by volume (larger than all the US’s Great Lakes combined) and deepest lake in the world. Lake Khuvsgul in Mongolia is considered its sister lake; it’s part of the same rift system, but it’s a bit smaller. Also very deep, with incredibly clear water, and the photos I’d seen of it were absolutely gorgeous. The surrounding mountains are home to the Tsaatan, a small (and shrinking) ethnic group of reindeer herders that straddle the border between Mongolia and Russia. I had read that we could meet some Tsaatan families if we visited Khuvsghul, so it was high up on my list of places to go.
If we drove out to Khuvsghul, it would be about 10-12 hours on a recently finished paved road, but we could fly there in about an hour. If we were going for more that four days (which is what we manage), I’d have opted to drive out from UB for sure. But though Emma had just finished school, I had to grade my finals and finish up my school year, so we didn’t have much time. Instead, we took the hour-long flight on the amusingly-named Aero Mongolia. We arranged with a tour company to have a driver and guide meet us at the airport in Mörön, the closest airport to Khuvsghul, and take us on a four-day trip to the lake.
When we arrived, the weather was beautiful. The forecast had predicted a day and a half of rain, so I knew it would change soon, but then we’d have a couple of clear days on the lake as well. The plan was to spend the first night near Khatgal, a small town at the southern tip of the lake, and then drive north to spend two more nights at a ger camp on the lake shore. We were hoping for a boat ride out on the lake, and a chance to meet and talk to a Tsaatan family as well.
On our way to the lake, we stopped off at the deer stones of Uushglin Uvur. On an open, grassy plain, the stones have been standing upright since the Bronze Age, 3000 years ago. Oogii, our guide, explained that some of the stones have been looted, and there were more lying broken on the ground, but the ones still standing were impressive, carved on all sides with ornate stylized reindeer carvings, as well as figures of people, leopards, antelopes, and possibly other animals. The original purpose of the stones is not known, but there are similar stones scattered around Mongolia (there is one in Hustai, not to far from Ulaanbaatar, but we didn’t have a chance to see it), Kazakhstan, and Siberia. This particular site also contains Bronze Age burial mounds, known as kherekshures, so at one point this was a burial ground, though the deer stones themselves aren’t associated with human remains.
The green grass, dotted in the distance with white sheep, surrounded by orange, brown, and dark green mountains, and the bright blue sky overhead, were a feast of colors after our winter months in Ulaanbaatar. This was the steppe at its most glorious. But we could already see the clouds starting to come in. We headed on for Khatgal, about an hour and a half away.
The sun was still shining when we crossed into the national park surrounding the lake and arrived at our first ger camp near the lake’s southern end, but barely. We had driven past herds of yaks, and my love affair with the creatures was well underway. We saw a lot of yaks during our stay in Khuvsghul, as well as the larger khainag, crosses between yaks and cattle. Their sounds surrounded us; they seem to grunt and moo a lot more than cows tend to. There was a yak herd living next to our ger camp, and we got to see the female yaks come in to be milked beside the pens that corralled their calves. The calves were tiny, and the youngest grey one reminded me of an Old English Sheepdog. Yaks generally were a lot smaller than I thought they would be. They stayed shaggy as adults, their hair ranging in color from grey to reddish brown to black. Emma and I both fell in love with their crazy, shaggy coats that flew about them when they kicked up their heels and ran.
The lake extended far to the north from our camp, but it is very narrow at its southern tip, so it was easy to see across to other ger camps on the opposite shore. The water was extremely clear and cold, and we could see the bottom easily from the end of a small jetty near the camp. I have no idea how deep it was there, and neither of us was going to jump in to find out. The lake was surrounded by larch forests, which were now completely green, and wildflowers grew in the grass along its shores. Red and black lady bugs crawled across grey rocks on the shoreline. We could see lots of birds out on the lake as well.
The clouds continued to build in the sky, and Emma and I went on a walk along the lakeshore with Oogii, who told us about the lake and about her involvement with a youth education group in her hometown of Mörön. We then took a short drive to a market in Khatgal. The landing dock of the ferry was also there. The Khankh-Khatgal ferry goes back and forth to Turt on the northern shore, where a road continues on into Russia at the Khankh border station. Khatgal grew from a small settlement to a town in the early 20th century based mainly on trade with Russia. The small market chiefly carries hand-made items that the local people make during the long winter to sell to tourists who stop through in the summer, on their way to the tourist camps further north along the lake. Emma and I were leaving Mongolia soon, so we weren’t in shopping mode, but she found an interesting necklace made with a wolf’s fang, and I bought a packet of locally made salt to try out.
Then it was time to head back to the camp for dinner and sleep. The rain was starting up at this point, and we could see it falling from the clouds on the other side of the lake. At dinner, I discovered that of all the milks that I had sampled in Mongolia (cow, horse, and camel), I liked yak milk the best. We had an early night in our warm, dry ger, before starting the drive up to our next ger camp in the morning.
As we drove north along the lakeshore, we saw that the lake was still frozen past its narrow southern tip. It wasn’t frozen solid, but rather covered with a kind of slush divided by rivulets of water. So what we had seen the day before was all we would see of the famed clear water of Lake Khuvsgul. Oogii reassured us that we’d still be able to go on a “small boat” out on the lake, because the ice was breaking up. By then the rain had started in earnest, though we hoped it would stop before we had to leave on Monday. We had plans for a horseback ride as well as the boat, and that would be a lot less pleasant in the rain.
The ger camp where we stayed the next two days was amazing. It was called Art 88 Resort, a new compound featuring not only Mongolian ger, but also Tsaatan-inspired teepees (which weren’t open, unfortunately) and several wooden cabins for larger families or groups. The main building had a first-story café, and a second-story restaurant overlooking the lake. There was also a building with a small lap pool, which didn’t seem to be open yet. It was early in the season; we imagined everything would open in a few weeks. People flock to Lake Khuvsgul during the summer holidays, especially after the Naadam festival in July.
Emma and I stayed in a ger, which was equipped with a glass chandelier and a telephone. We never tried the telephone to see if it worked. The other feature of the ger that we both appreciated immensely was the mattresses. They were the softest mattresses we had slept on in Mongolia. Our apartment had ridiculously hard beds, and the typical ger mattresses were just thin, hard pads on top of wooden planks. These were actual mattresses, and we could have stayed in bed forever. But it was lunchtime, so we went to the camp’s main building to eat.
The food at Art 88 is really good, though they don’t quite understand the idea of vegetarianism yet. While we were there, a Mongolian woman was staying with her British husband and kids; she was there to teach the kitchen staff how to bake cakes and pastries. We were joking that I should stay and teach them how to make vegetarian fare. They actually made plenty of vegetarian-friendly food; they just didn’t think to serve it to us vegetarians. The meat dishes would come with very nice-looking vegetable side dishes. But the first meal we were there for, they seemed not to be able to deal with people who didn’t want meat, so they offered us fried rice, and then that was what they served us for every lunch and dinner while we were there. I tried to ask for other things, but it wasn’t effective. Plus, Emma has a much more limited palate than I do, so she was happy sticking with the fried rice for the first day. After that, it just made us laugh.
The weather did not improve during our stay at Art 88. A new forecast came in, and it was set to rain the entire time we were there. In the end, our boat ride was cancelled, and Oogii wanted us to go ahead with horseback riding, but neither of us wanted to ride in the rain, so we spent most of our time going for long walks along the lake. The scenery was stunning, with the thawing lake ice producing mists rising off the surface of the slushy water. We went on our first walk with Oogii, and we passed a herd of yaks, and another herd of horses who seemed to be quite intrigued by us. They stood around us in a half-circle, until the stallion kicked and bit the others away from us. We walked back through the increasingly muddy fields to the edge of the forest, and then wound our way back to the camp through the larches. That afternoon we drove back down the road a ways to visit with a nomadic family and learn about life with yaks.
At this point, Emma and I had had several of these visits with nomadic families, but it was still interesting to meet people and talk to them (through our translator) about how they lived. In this case, we met a young woman who had three children and a husband who was away working. She was not nomadic herself, and they were actually planning to build a house on the plot of land where their ger stood. But as far as tourists went, she was a representative of the nomadic lifestyle, and she gamely took us out in the rain to show us her yak herd and milk a few yaks while talking to Oogii about yak care and any number of other things. Her daughters tagged along, giggling. When she was done, she let the yaks out of the pen and they disappeared off into the mist.
The second day we were there, we drove back down the road we’d come up for about an hour, to a place I’d seen with a number of wooden ovoo – large teepee-like structures with colorful ribbons strewn on them. We stopped there and found a Tsaatan family camped there, next to a small stall selling locally made crafts. It was still pouring rain, so we were invited into the family’s teepee, and they served us the usual milk tea with some bread. We sat by the fire, and I asked them about how much their lifestyle and environment had changed over the last couple of decades. They said it was getting harder to find permanent water and food sources for the reindeer in the mountains, which was where the rest of their extended family had gone on their summer migrations. They traveled over a month away from the lake in the summer, with the reindeer carrying most of their belongings. Then, in the fall, they would make the same month-long trek back down towards the lake for the winter. We got to meet the reindeer that had stayed behind, including a newborn who looked less than happy with the damp, rainy weather. Reindeer don’t like the rain.
Seeing the Tsaatan family wasn’t really what I had imagined. The tour information had described riding horses to get there, but they were camped right along the road. They were clearly there so that tourists who didn’t have the time necessary to go into the mountains could still see a Tsaatan family and camp. I’ve written before about my ambivalence about human tourist attractions, but in Mongolia it is part of the tourist experience. The nomadic lifestyle is a source of pride for even urban Mongolians; it’s their cultural identity, and they want people to know about it. Hospitality is also an important part of Mongolian culture, and offering visitors milk tea and food is customary. For this family, meeting people was also interesting, and they asked us a lot of questions as well.
What was striking was how few possessions they had, compared with the other nomadic (and semi-nomadic) families we’d visited. Many Mongolian nomads now use trucks to get around, and they have solar panels to power their flat screen televisions. The Tsaatan family had some mats on the floor for sleeping, yak-skin rugs, some pots, jerry cans for water, and the stove, besides the tent itself. Everything they had could be moved by reindeer. Tsaatan have to be able to move easily for the reindeer to find food and water, unlike other nomadic families who tend to camp in one place for a full season and only move a few times a year.
There was a young boy there, about 7 years old, who wasn’t related, but whose mother ran the craft stand. He sat with us and helped translate (so I got to talk to a young person about climate change, which is one of my favorite things to do). He spoke amazing English and had an extensive vocabulary, which he had acquired by watching YouTube videos. He could talk with us about almost everything, and he did. I’m not sure what he will end up doing in his life, but I very much got the impression he was going places. He took us out to meet the reindeer and told us all about them. He had an affinity for the calf, especially.
The Tsaatan couple also had socks available for sale. They were not handmade, but I bought a couple of pairs because they looked warm (they were made from yak and camel hair). We also bought a couple of things from the craft stand, including a stuffed yak and reindeer made from felt, with crazy bead eyes. Then we drove back down to Art 88.
Emma and I took a couple of walks on our own, while Oogii rested at the camp. On one walk, along the lakeshore again, the rain had almost petered out, but then it came back. We both had rain jackets and waterproof boots, so we didn’t mind the rain, but Oogii was worried about it, so while we were walking back up through the field towards the camp, we saw her running down with a couple of umbrellas for us. I prefer walking with my hands free, especially over uneven terrain, but I gamely took an umbrella. Emma refused. I explained that we almost never have rain where we live in California, so we think walking in the rain is a treat.
For our last walk, we went back south along the dirt road instead of the lakeshore to see what we could see. We found a couple of bovine skulls along the side of the road. On our way back, we noticed a black yak that had been grazing near the roadside. It would walk down the road towards us (we were all walking in the same direction), and every time we stopped, it would also stop and look off to one side, as if to say, “I’m not following you.” But every time we started walking again, it would walk behind us. We joked that it was stalking us and planning to do away with us. Yak assassin.
That evening, our driver and a couple of other drivers who were there with a small Korean tour group talked with the locals about the drive back to Mörön. The road back crossed over what was usually a shallow or dry river, but with all the rain, it seemed possible that the river might become unpassable. So we all decided to leave early in the morning to try to make the 10 am plane out of Mörön. The Koreans had to catch a flight back to Korea that evening, so they were eager to make it back. We decided to leave before 6 am, and the restaurant would pack a breakfast for us to eat on the road. We made a caravan of three vehicles (two old, decommissioned Russian military vans that the Koreans were traveling in, and our grey four-wheel-drive SUV), heading out in the pre-dawn stillness.
Sure enough, the road was washed out. There were a couple of cars parked on the other side of the river as well. Our drivers got out and looked at the river to see if there might be a way across. One of them got a slender fallen tree and tried to gauge the depth of the water, but it didn’t work very well. The group contemplation of the flood went on for 15 or 20 minutes, which gave us time to enjoy our atmospheric surroundings. The clouds were breaking up a bit, though some came clear down to the earth.
In the end, the drivers decided to turn left and go down a narrow dirt track that skirted along the river. It wasn’t anything approaching a road, just two tire tracks through the mud, but it took us in the right direction. For a little while.
The other two vehicles were ahead of us, and after about 20 minutes or so, one of them went left when they should have gone right and got stuck in the mud. The other vehicle had gone the other way and made it through, but had stopped on the other side of a muddy stream that had caused the second van to become stuck. This commenced a long discussion among the drivers, followed by a couple of attempts to push the vehicle out of the mud. It didn’t work. Everyone had gotten out and were looking at the stuck vehicle. Emma and I noticed that the Koreans were all wearing flipflops or white sneakers—incredibly inappropriate footware for the circumstances, but probably OK for an early summer flight to Korea. At one point, Emma pulled me back from the crowd and whispered, “This is the part where the deranged murderer comes out of the woods and kills us.”
It was a beautiful spot to be stranded in, and the rain had nearly stopped. I did what I always do under these circumstances and took plenty of pictures. (This wasn’t the first time I’d been with a stuck vehicle in the middle of nowhere.) Still, we needed to get to the airport to catch our flight. At that point, there wasn’t yet a daily flight to and from Mörön from Ulaanbaatar, so if we missed our flight, we’d have to hire a car to take us back to the city.
Suddenly, one of the drivers emerged from the woods with a long, twisted metal cable. Where had that come from? They used it to attach the vehicles together. We all got back in our vehicle along with some of the Koreans to make it heavier, as the driver tried to haul the stuck van back out of the mud. Eventually it worked. By then, a couple of motorcycles had shown up with some people I recognized from the camp, and they went ahead of us down the track, to show us the best ways to go. We made quite a little caravan, lurching down the muddy track through the forest.
Soon we were out of the woods, and the riverbank was flatter and grassy and much easier to pass. We got to a point where we could drive across the river and continue southeast, towards the main highway to Mörön. The motorcycles went far ahead and then stopped; we waved at them as we drove off onto the paved road. Even the paved road was flooded at a couple of points, but nothing our four-wheel-drive vehicle couldn’t pass over. By then, it had completely stopped raining, and the weather close to Mörön became warm and sunny.
We got to the airport in plenty of time for our 10 am flight. Unfortunately, a little while after we arrived, we learned that our flight had been delayed until that evening because of a problem on the UB end. The Koreans had continued on to UB by car. I thought about it, but our flight was supposed to leave at 10 pm, and we decided to wait it out. So we had an extra day in Mörön. All of that stress over making it to the airport to catch our flight was for nothing. We drove into town and had an early lunch at a hotel restaurant while Oogii figured out what we could do. The driver left us to go get the car fixed, and Oogii called a friend who had a guest house where we could wait until they took us back to the airport that evening. She’d come get us from the hotel later on.
In the meanwhile, Oogii gave us a tour of Mörön. We walked down the street to the regional museum, where we got to learn something of the history of Khuvsghul aimag (province). The museum had an impressive collection of art and artifacts, but it was all in Mongolian, so Oogii explained parts of it to us. I paid the extra 5,000 tugrik (around $2) to take photos. After the museum, we walked to a nearby Nomin supermarket to get ice cream, because it was really starting to get warm, and then we continued down the street to the market. I bought some grapes as a snack while Oogii talked to her friend who ran one of the produce stands.
Then we walked through the market and caught a taxi to the Buddhist monastery, a beautiful temple complex on what is now the edge of town, though it probably won’t be for long. New apartment buildings had gone up across the street from it, but the site still had an expansive view of Mörön’s surroundings. The temple, like many in Mongolia, had been built in the early 1990s after the end of the Communist government. An older temple had been destroyed during the Communist pogrom against Buddhism in the 1930s. There were several smaller buildings in addition to the main temple, and a row of white stupas, each with different doors. While we were there, a young man came to the temple and was praying. Oogii explained that students often came there to ask for help in passing their exams, so we imagined that was what he was doing.
After that, we took a taxi back to the hotel where we’d had our earlier meal, and we walked down towards the town’s wrestling palace, a blue-roofed dome at the end of a main street. On the way back to the hotel, we walked through the town square, which had an old theater as well as the municipal building. Signs of summer were evident: kids rollerblading, and an inflated paddle pool set up at one end of the square alongside some bicycles and electric kids’ cars for rent. At the center of the square, a statue of Chingunjav, a local hero of Mongolia, sat astride a rearing horse. He was born in Khuvsgul aimag and led an unsuccessful rebellion against the Manchu in 1756, after which he and his entire family were brought to Beijing and executed. He had also been featured in the museum.
Oogii’s friend came by with her car. Her guest house was not centrally located. It was on what felt like the eastern edge of town, off a wide dirt lane. A mural showing a mountainous forest, with a green field strewn with ger, cattle, yaks, and running horses extended along its outer wall. We were shown inside to a large upstairs room with several mattresses around the edges and a table in the middle. At one end was a tapestry with a monkey riding an elephant. At the other end, next to the door, was a plastic sheet that said “Pets,” with several dogs in clothes against a sunny green field.
At that point, Oogii went to make us dinner, while we rested. We had the room to ourselves for the moment. From a dormer window we could see the colorful roofs of houses in the foreground, and the forested mountains in the distance.
While we waited for dinner, Emma and I went for a walk up and down the main street. We had seen a shop or two coming in, and we decided that it was time for chocolate. We found a grocery store that sold Alpen, the Russian chocolate we often got in UB. We then walked down to the end of the street and back, attracting the attention of some kids. We stopped to admire a cow skull in the center divide of the street. Then it was dinner time.
Oogii came back with some food that she had cooked herself, rice with some vegetables that was better than what we had eaten at Art 88. She told us that the flight had been postponed again, and that her friend would take us to the airport at 1 am. Oogii herself was leaving on a tour the next day, so she wanted to go home and get ready, and get some sleep. We said goodbye, and then we sat and read. At one point, a man came into the room and took a mattress across from us. He talked on his phone for a while (in Mongolia, so I only caught the occasional word). Then he lay down on the mattress and fell asleep. He snored really, really loudly, so it was impossible for us to nap, though at our hostess’s insistence, I lay down and pretended to.
Eventually, our hostess came and took us out to a van to bring us to the airport. We drove through the dark, sleeping town and arrived at the airport at around 1:10 am or so. We said our thank yous and good-byes, and went inside to sit on the plastic seats, waiting for our flight. We waited, and waited, and waited, along with several other people who had been there when we arrive, and several more who came in after. The only thing that gave me hope (because there was no flight information) was the fact that we weren’t alone, and that the airport staff and ground crew were still there. Finally, around 3 am, a plane arrived, and sleepy passengers got off. We went through security and waited some more while they got the plane ready to return to UB. We arrived at UB after 4 am, and a driver from the tour company was waiting for us. We were home and in bed by a bit after 5:30 am. Fortunately, Emma didn’t have school, and I didn’t have to do very much that day.
So between the rain and the 17-hour flight delay, our trip didn’t go exactly according to plan, but it was a lot of fun. The day in Mörön was definitely an added bonus; I’m glad we got to see the town. Afterwards, I remembered that one of my students was from Mörön and had gone home already, so we could have spent some time with her as well, instead of hanging out in the guest house on our own. But I was happy I’d had the chance to see Lake Khuvsgul and the area. It may not be what most people think of when they think of Mongolia, but it was beautiful. If I have the chance to go back, I will.