LAKE KHOVSGOL AREA OF NORTHWEST MONGOLIA

KHOVSGOL PROVINCE

Khovsgol Province (750 kilometers northwest of Ulaan Baatar) borders Siberia and covers 39,000 square miles. Ideal for camping, hiking and horse trekking, it is covered by vast forests and year-round snowcapped mountains. Its centerpiece, Lake Khovsgol, has been described as the “blue pearl of Mongolia” and is a major source of water for Russia’s Lake Baikal. More than 200 species of bird as well as brown bear, ibex, elk, wild boar and musk deer can be found in the province. Ger camps are scattered here and there. A popular horse trek is the ten-day Renchinlkhumbe loop which follows Lake Khovsgol and then goes through the Saridag Mountains and Darhand Valley to the former monastery town of Renchinlkhumbe. Flights to Khovsgol land in Khatgal, on the southern end of the lake.

The western and eastern parts of Khovsgol (also spelled Hovsgol or Huvsgul) Province are mountainous, and the area is mostly covered with forests. Several dozen families of Tsaatan (reindeer breeders) with a unique lifestyle live in taiga and steppe to the north and west of Lake Khovsgol retaining their ancestral culture based on shamanistic rituals and nomadic reindeer herding.

Mongolian shamanism is very much alive in this area. Mongolians consider the earth “Mother Earth” and the sky “the Father”. Shaman act as intermediaries between man and the spirits and determines the behavior and decisions of nomads towards nature. Nowadays, shamanism is practiced especially in the northern part of the Lake Khovsgol area. This respect for nature is still alive in the ritual of the “ovoo”. Before going up a mountain, Mongolian people throw a handful of stones onto a cairn-like pile (called “ovoo”) and walk three times around this pile of stones. To honor the spirits, bottles of vodka and pieces of blue silk are also added to the stones. Ovoos are abundant in the countryside on mountains peaks or passes.

Lake Khovsgol

Lake Khovsgol (near Russia, 800 kilometers northwest of Ulaan Baatar) is a stunning fresh water lake situated among evergreen forests, with numerous caves and beautiful meadows in the area, in Khovsgol Khatgal National Park. Covering 3340 square kilometers (1,300 square miles), it is Mongolia's largest lake and has delightfully clear water and is full of salmon and other fish. Around the lake are nomads, gers, horses and yaks and mountains that reach a height of almost 3,000 meters and often have snow on them.

Also spelled Hovsgol or Huvsgul Nuur, Lake Khovsgol is sort of like a scaled-down Lake Baikal in a more pristine environment. Referred to as the “Dark Blue Pearl of Mongolia,” it is the world’s second deepest lake and second oldest lake after Like Baikal, the forth largest lake in the world and holds one percent of the world’s and 65 percent of Mongolia’s available fresh water. A total of 96 rivers flow into the lake. One flows out — the Egin Gol — which flows into the Selenge Gol, which in turn flows into Lake Baikal.

Khovsgol Lake is 136 kilometers long, 36 kilometers wide, 262 meters deep and is located at an altitude of 1645 meters above sea level. The lake and the mountains, meadows and forests that surround it are in Lake Khovsgol National Park. During the winter the ice on Lake Khovsgol freezes to more than a 1.2 meters in thickness and often doesn’t completely melt until June. The ice is thick enough to drive trucks on — a practice that was banned in the 1980s after it was found that oil leaking from the trucks was polluting the lake. Over the years several dozen truck have fallen through the ice. The lake is also prone to flooding. For the most part the lake is amazingly clean, It is fowled a teensy weensy bit by run-off with animal waste and pollution from the rivers that flow into the lake.

Khalkha Mongols, Buryat (Buriat), Darkand and Tsaatan minorities have traditionally lived around Lake Khovsgol. The Tsaatan reindeer herders have traditionally lived in the mountains to the northwest of the lake but now some come to the national park to earn money from tourism. Their reindeer are not allowed in the park because of the damage they cause. There is a lot of wildlife in the area. Among the 68 species of mammals are moose, wolves, bears, sable, marmots and deer as well as nine species of fish, and scores of bird species, including storks and cranes.

Moron and the Drive There from Ulaan Baatar

Moron (650 kilometers northwest of Ulaan Baatar) is the jumping off point for Lake Khobsgol. It is a provincial town with about 40,000 people. It can be reached by plane but is not a place one wants to stay long especially when considered that spectacular scenery is not far afoot. The town has a monastery built in the late 19th century, a museum with lots of stuffed animals and a shopping area made from half-built wrestling stadium

Moron (also spelled Murun) is the administrative center of Khövsgöl Aimag (province) Although a poorly developed town, it has a hospital and a theatre. It was connected to the Mongolian central power grid in 2004 and is connected by a paved road to Ulaan Baatar, finished in 2014. The Mörön Airport has two runways, one paved and one gravel. It is served by regular flights from and to Ulaanbaatar. Some flights to the western aimags may stop over.

Bulgan (roughly half way between Moron and Ulaan Baatar) is small town that often serves as an overnight stop or at least a rest place for those traveling between Ulaan Baatar and Lake Khovsgol. There are a couple of museums and a rebuilt monastery and a couple hotel. There are a number of deer stones and Turkic balbals in the area. About 20 kilometers south of Bulgan, just east of Orkhon, are seven standing deer stones

Uran Mountain is an extinct volcano with a crater that is 600 meter wide and 50 meter deep filled with a small “crater lake” about 20 meters in diameter. It has been protected since 1965, and today enjoys the status of “Natural Monument ”. There are green woods in the center of the Crater Lake. It is a really fascinating mountain. Red deer, Argali, Wild boar, Siberian Ibex, ruddy Shelduck, and duck are found in this area

Deer Stones at Uushgiin Uvur

Deer Stones at Uushgiin Uvur (40 kilometers east of Moron) is part of The Deer Stones Sites in Mongolia, which was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014.It is located in Burentogtokh soum, Khovsgol province. Coordinates:N49 40 22.3, E100 41 28.1 Deer stones are ancient megaliths carved with symbols found largely in Siberia and Mongolia. The name comes from their carved depictions of flying deer. There are many theories to the reasons behind their existence and the people who made them.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Deer stones are unique monuments dating to the Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age that are found mostly in Mongolia and in some Central Asian countries. The Bronze Age funeral practice, sacrificial ritual and ideology and animal style art, which were spread among ancient nomads, are all together represented through deer stones. [Source: Mongolian National Commission for UNESCO]

“The term “deer stone” is derived from highly artistic illustrations of deer on stone. The deer stones are created from a long block of granite with four flat sides, on which deer and other images are engraved. Deer stones have three ornamented anthropomorphic sections: a “face”, “torso”, and “lower body” section. The face part contains human faces, symbol of sun and moon and earrings while stylized deer, elk – occasionally horses and ibexes – are engraved in the torso. In the lower body part there are images of weapons, belt and horse riders. The main decoration, deer images are classically depicted in superimposed extraordinary abstract style. However, in many cases deer image or other animals such as horses, ibexes and pig images are occasionally depicted in rough appearance.

“The size of deer stones range between 1 – 4 meters in height and 20 – 40 cm in thickness and 30 – 80 cm in width. A combination of different art making techniques is applied on the deer stones statues. Researchers believe that these sophisticated statues, which require enormous effort and skill, were dedicated to leaders and great warriors of a tribe. Therefore on the bodies of the deer stones there are engravings of various types of weapons such as daggers, grindstones, mattocks, bows with cases, spears, shields and mirrors as well as belts with decorative patterns.”

The Bronze Age cultural complex site with deer stones at Uushgiin Uvur “is located south of the Uushig mountain of Burentogtokh soum, Khovsgol province, occupying approximately 400 hectare area. It is fascinating and interesting to see a complex of 30 deer stones and big khirgisuurs and slab burials. In terms of statue number, skillful works and illustrations this complex site is a great representation of this culture. Especially, statues with images of human face draw attentions of many scientists and considered one of the rarest statues.

Khatgal and Tsagaan Nuur

Khatgal is a small town and southern gateway to the lake. It is a bona fied backpacker town with cheap hotels, guesthouse and backpacker style restaurant. Accommodation is available at places like the Blue Pearl Hotel for US$5 a night), which also makes arrangements for homestays, ger camps and outings. Khatgal is located on the Engiin Gol at the mouth of the lake. Views of the lake are possible from hill just outside the town.

Most people stay in homestays or ger camps. Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: Compared to other places in the area, Khatgal “was a booming town, due to its bucolic setting on the deepest lake in Central Asia. A handful of markets sold such staples as bread, vodka and chocolate, and ger camps touted their services, available in the summer tourist season. We spent the night in another two-room home furnished with narrow, ornately painted ger beds not conducive to tossing and turning. [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, May 13, 2011]

Tsagaan Nuur (50 kilometers west of Lake Khovsgol) is a lake located in a the Darkhadyn Depression. About the same size as Lake Khovsgol, the lake is a glacial lake, whose name in Mongolia means White Lake. Tsaatan reindeer herders live in the area but they are hard to locate. The lake itself is very difficult to get to. There are 300 or so lakes located here and they are popular with well-heeled fishermen who are flown in by helicopter.

Tourism at Lake Khovsgol

Lake Khovsgol receives a fair number of tourists. It can be reached from Moron by air (US$250 round trip) or by 20-hour jeep ride. Guides can be arranged at the park entrance at Khatgal. The western side of the lake is prettier and us better developed for tourism,. A rough round on the east side goes all the way to the Russian border. But it is described as one of the worst road in Mongolia which is saying a lot. The road of the west side is little better but peters in the mountains about two thirds of the way up.

Activities include hiking, horse-back riding fishing, kayaking, caving, camping and horseback treks. Hikes and rides can be done around the lake or un the mountains that surround it, Horses can rented at the ger camps and from locals. Ger camps obviously will charge you ore. Long distance horse treks are best arranged in Khatgal. Kayak trips are arranged through tour companies. There aren’t really places where you rent a kayak and go out on your own. Fishermen should bring their own gear.

As for accommodation, there are several ger camps, some of them in stunning location. There also designated camps site, aimed towards Mongolian and Russian tourists. Otherwise you can camp wherever you like. It is said that some of the nicest spots are western side of the lake about 10 kilometers north of Toilogtm between Jankhai and Ongolog.

Traveling in the Lake Khovsgol Area

Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: “The two-week trip started and ended in UB, with the middle portion dedicated to visiting the reindeer tribe. But we spent more time traveling to them than being with them. It’s hard to overstate how bad the “roads” are in the countryside. If this helps any: The trip from Moron, a 90-minute flight northwest of UB, to the Tsaatan winter camp is less than 300 miles. On paved lanes, the drive would take about six hours; our journey during mud season proceeded for two solid days — each way. Rather than pushing through the night, we decided to break the trip in half, spending one night in the town of Ulaan Nuur on the way up and returning via Khovsgol, a lake “resort” not far from the Siberian border. [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, May 13, 2011]

“We divided our group among two cars, a Toyota Land Cruiser and a Soviet-made van that bounced around like a puppet on a string. I spent all but one short leg in the SUV, often riding shotgun beside our hulking driver, a former wrestling champ fond of saccharine Mongolian songs. You’d think that with 17 hours of driving, you’d get tired of the sweeping steppes lightly salted with ger camps and herds of goats, yak, sheep and the occasional pack of two-humped camels. Nope. The rugged terrain resembled an extreme sports arena. The vehicles would bump along, catching air and sometimes overheating. In sticky spots, the drivers would stop to calculate the probability of, say, successfully crossing a deep slushy river or traversing a bridge many planks shy of the opposite bank.

“The tourist infrastructure in these parts is, well, nonexistent. If you don’t have actual roads, what’s the point of erecting a Wawa or a Subway? There is also a paucity — I use that word generously — of lodging. In Ulaan Nuur, we saw no hotels during an evening stroll among the tidy rows of gers and wooden homes enclosed by fences. For our overnight there, we unrolled sleeping bags on the floor of a two-room house guarded by a clingy yak. The family allowed us to use their kitchen to cook meals and to wash up with their water, which they paid for at a well one to two miles away or collected from the river behind their home. We also monopolized the baby, a rambunctious toddler who waddled around in the shoes we’d removed.

After dinner, our driver shared stories from his professional wrestling days. He showed us pictures of broad-chested men in the official uniform — bikini bottoms, boots and a fitted off-the-shoulder shrug — and explained that the prize for winning a match is a horse. (He won six in his career.) The next morning, he invited over two wrestling buddies for an impromptu demonstration.

Damdin Enkhbold, our driver/wrestler, faced off with Mijiddorj Jargalsaikhan, an instructor in town and a former champ. For the opening move, Enkhbold flapped his arms and circled the room like a soaring eagle. He and Jargalsaikhan then set up the starting position (thumbs in bikini bottoms or along the edge of the vest) before jumping into the heavy lifting. The lesson ended with our driver dangling Andrew upside-down and the instructor wrapping Frank around his shoulders like a scarf.

Reindeer and Horse Trekking in the Lake Khovsgol Area

Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: “We rendezvoused with Zorigt at the bottom of the mountain and loaded our gear onto the reindeer. The diminutive animals appeared frail under the weight of duffel bags, large bottles of water, cooking utensils and camera equipment. I whispered an apology before they set off.” [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, May 13, 2011]

“We rode sturdier beasts, Mongolian horses that glided like ballerinas over the deeply rutted ground studded with roots and rocks. The family provided us with our own canvas teepee, kindly constructing wooden platforms so that we wouldn’t have to sleep on the cold wet ground. When the light started to fade, the herders gathered the reindeer, which glowed white in the dark.

“In the morning, we saddled up for the first of two herding parties that day, following the 100-strong herd on their quest for breakfast moss. The animals were tethered as pairs, making for poky progress. Plus, they walked like lawn mowers, barely lifting their heads between bites. At the bottom of the mountain, we said our farewells to our host family. Then we piled into the car, taking back with us two nieces and one of Zorigt’s sons, who were running late for school.”

On his encounter with a Tsaatan camp, Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: As our guides cinched the bags tight, I noticed a white tepee in a grove of trees. A tepee in the middle of Mongolia? Then we saw the two large animals tethered to ropes. One was white, the other half-gray and half-white, and both had enormous racks of horns that sprouted from their heads in fantastic shapes. It was the first time I had ever seen reindeer. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, August 6, 2006]

“A woman in a thick black robe stood at the door of the tepee alongside her husband, who was dressed in a dirty smock. They were Tsaatan, also known as Dukha, the nomadic herders who used reindeer for every necessity in their lives, from milk to the leather that formed the walls of their tents. My guidebook said there were only 200 of them left in northern Mongolia, and only a handful wandered this close to Khovsgol Lake, away from the Darkhad Depression.

“Their tepees and shamanistic practices suggested a connection with American Indians, whose ancestors had crossed over from Asia in prehistoric times. We edged closer to the couple standing by their tepee, but our horses kept their distance because of a snarling guard dog. We decided to steer wide of the encampment and return to the trail leading up the valley. Two reindeer stared at us from the bushes, then dashed off.”

Horse Trekking in the Lake Khovsgol Area

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “I began having second thoughts about riding a horse through northern Mongolia right around the moment I slammed into the tree trunk. Without warning, my horse had bolted toward it and I had no idea how to regain control. The impact flung me through the air. I landed hard on the forest floor as my horse scampered into the bush.Then a crashing sound came from behind — Chuka, the Mongolian guide who had been bringing up the rear of our group of four travelers, had been thrown off his horse too. A short, round man, he picked himself up and shook his head to bring himself back to his senses, or maybe just to blow off the cobwebs of a bad hangover from a vodka binge the previous night. So even Mongolians get tossed off horses, I thought, somewhat comforted. “Once we had rounded up the prickly horses with the help of two local guides, we figured out that our seemingly irrational mounts had stumbled into a beehive in the middle of the forest. It was an inauspicious start to what was to be a three-day horse trek” in September 2005.[Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, August 6, 2006]

“At Khovsgol Lake, we hired our horses and guides for the three-day trek through Ganbaa, the owner of the Monkh Saridag ger camp (lake-Khovsgol@yahoo.com or horseride-ms@yahoo.com, 976 998-12323) in a settlement called Khatgal on the southern shore. We paid US$5 a horse a day, and US$10 for each guide and his horse. For our group of four travelers and a cook, we hired five riding horses, two packhorses and two guides with their own horses. We paid for four days because of the guides’ travel time from and to their home. Two nights in a ger, at the start and end of the trek, were included in the price. The total cost for our group was US$220.

“The plan was to rent horses and hire local guides after reaching Khovsgol Lake and strike out toward the Darkhad Depression, a mysterious plain of 300 lakes settled by the Tsaatan people, reindeer herders who still practiced shamanism. What could be more evocative than riding across the steppes of Central Asia, following the ghosts of the great Khans and meeting reclusive tribes? Horseback riding seemed to be the definitive way to see the countryside; even in the 21st century, this is the favored mode of transport in rural Mongolia, with nomads corralling sheep and other livestock while galloping beneath the endless blue sky....Our original plan, though, was thrown off track as soon as we reached the lake. Chuka and a cheery campsite owner named Ganbaa said recent snowfall and resulting high waters in the rivers would make it impossible for inexperienced riders like us to traverse some of the mountains.”

Life on the Trail During a Three-Day Horse Trek the Lake Khovsgol Area

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Ganbaa suggested taking the horses through a protected forest area called the Khoridol Saridag Nuruu, to the west of the lake. He arranged for horses and two guides to start with us the next morning. That night, after a day of hiking around the lake, we sat around a campfire and properly kicked off the journey in true Mongolian fashion, by feasting on mutton cooked using hot rocks, then downing shots of vodka. The Mongolians insisted that each of us sing a song before drinking. We all managed to belt out a tune, but none of us could compete with a Mongolian horseman who astounded us with traditional throat-singing. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, August 6, 2006]

“That night, we unrolled our sleeping bags in one of Ganbaa’s gers, the round felt tents that Mongolian nomads erect and disassemble as they move their animals from pasture to pasture as seasons change. Mongolia has some of the coldest winters on earth, but people stay warm in these gers, with the help of a central stove, thick blankets and the company of family and friends.

“We drove up the lake shore the next morning to meet our horses and guides at a small settlement called Toilogt. Though nursing a painful hangover, Chuka managed to help the guides, Tsenggel and his 19-year-old son Boggi, pack the food into saddlebags and strap the tents and other camping gear to the horses. We were all relieved when we saw that the saddles on our horses were leather and not wooden, the kind usually used by the Mongolians. The guides paired me with a light-brown stallion with a long, flowing mane. He seemed calm in temperament, exactly the kind of steed I wanted. It had been six years since I had last ridden, in a Tibetan region of China, and I did not want to deal with a hothead. Little did I know the abuse my body would endure just hours later.

“We were surprised by just how short and stubby Mongolian horses were compared with those in the American West. Given the legends surrounding Mongolian cavalrymen, it seemed paradoxical that these horses should appear to be of inferior breeding. But I learned from history books that it was the relatively small size of these animals that had given the Mongols a tactical advantage in Genghis Khan’s time: the warriors could quickly leap on and off the horses in the middle of battle.

“We saddled up after lunch and began sauntering north. The autumnal winds had picked up, bringing a chill, and rain clouds began moving over the lake. We veered west to climb up into a valley that led toward the protected forest area. The leaves had begun changing, and patches of ground were colored red and gold. Controlling a horse is not an instinctual matter, at least not for me. The guides had shown us some basic techniques — for example, snap the loose end of the reins against the horse’s rump to get it moving. Gently pull back on the reins to get it to stop. Kick your feet against its flanks if it refuses to go. The guides made it all look effortless, but when I tried spurring my horse, it continued plodding along about as quickly as a bicycle with two flats. The horses simply fell in line with one another, not showing much imagination or initiative, and stubbornly refused to obey our efforts to direct them.

“We were still trying to figure out the proper way to handle them when the first raindrops began to fall. It soon turned into a steady drizzle, and we had to dismount in a clearing to throw plastic covers over our bags. The rain came and went throughout the afternoon. It was during a sunny patch that our horses ran into the beehive along the path. Chaos ensued for a few minutes, as Chuka and I both found ourselves knocked flat onto our backs. I stared up at the sky, shaken and disoriented.

“We made camp farther up the valley, setting up tents in the cold rain. Chuka boiled soup for dinner. The next morning, we climbed over a low pass and descended through a windswept bog, a wall of mountains in the distance. On our third and final day, we came across a small Mongolian camp in a green pasture. A smiling, fresh-faced couple invited us into their new ger. They had just married, and for the summer they lived alone in this ger, affording them some privacy, while other family members stayed in a log cabin next door. The wife, Ulaanaa, made fresh mutton dumplings for us, her belly swollen with their first child. In the coming months, the entire family would move into the ger, finding warmth together. That was the key to survival here in Mongolia — taking refuge in the goodwill of family, friends and even strangers. As Ulaanaa ladled out steaming bowls of milk tea and dumplings for us, the wind began to howl outside. Winter was not far off.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mongolia tourism and government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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