Mongolia: Lake Khövsgöl

It was finally time to bid farewell to Ulaanbaatar for good. After having spent several weeks there we were thoroughly over it, even after discovering such gems of the very limited food scene as Rosewood and Millie’s. We packed up and headed to the Dragon Center on the west side of town to catch our morning bus to the hilariously-named town of Mörön in northern Mongolia. The Dragon Center is a scene to behold, even in the early hours of the morning, with dozens of long distance buses being filled with people and cargo. After not too much searching we located our bus and secured our seats and supplies for the ride. At this point nobody could give us a straight answer as to how long the journey was, so our best guess was around 10 hours, but that ended up being a fairly sizable underestimation.

After at least 14 hours on the road –a mostly paved one, in fact– we rolled into the dusty and dilapidated Mörön. Mörön is not unlike the towns we described from the Gobi, but it’s considerably bigger, with a few paved roads and quite a few more inhabitants. We had reached out to Bata of Bata’s Guesthouse in advance, so his sister was waiting for us at the bus stop. We were whisked off down the sandy alleyways until we reached Bata’s. We met a nice Canadian couple with similar plans, so we all pitched in for a ride up to Khatgal the next day.

Khatgal is where most of the tourist activity in the region starts from, so we planned our trip accordingly and checked into M.S. Guest House. We knew we wanted to ride horses, and had a vague idea of hot springs somewhere a few days up the east side of Lake Khövsgöl, so we worked out a six day itinerary to visit the hot springs on horseback. Our plan was to head out around mid day the following day, once they had wrangled a few semi-wild horses to ride.

Shavaa’s horse and Aligjee grazing.

We met our guide, Shavaa, who was decked out in a deel (traditional Mongolian countryside overcoat) and a baseball cap emblazoned with the word Atlanta and were introduced to our horses, Aligjee and Borigchee. Shavaa seemed friendly enough, and he even knew a bit of English. We headed south out of town, bidding farewall to our Canadian buddies who were going on a trip up the west side of the lake, and crossed a bridge over to the east. Oona, as an experienced rider, had no problems coaxing her horse to her bidding. I, on the other hand, having ridden a horse once or twice when I was much younger, had a hell of a time at first. In addition to having no idea what I was doing, an excruciating pain in my knees cropped up shortly after each time of hopping on Aligjee. I suppose this hampered my ability to control the horse, who was relaxedly shuffling several hundred meters behind Oona and Shavaa.

Shavaa taking the horses for a drink.

We settled on a beautiful and secluded camping spot on the lakeshore after about 20km of riding and started to set up camp. At this point, it was clear that the guest house had forgotten to supply us with cooking gear as they had said they would, so between the three of us there was one shallow and fire-worn pot, one spoon, and one bowl, all of which belonged to Shavaa. We laughed about our misfortune a bit and set out to figure out a way around it. Shavaa, like most Mongolians, is an absolute wizard when it comes to living off the land, and he whipped us up some surprisingly straight and sturdy chopsticks from some driftwood we found. We ended up sharing most meals on the basis that we had only one pot, and Shavaa was prepared to the degree you’d expect from a Mongol. They somehow survive off the bare minimum of sustenance for weeks at a time; for six days, Shavaa had with him a small loaf of bread, two tubes of liver paste, a bag of tea cookies, and a small bag of mutton very much nearing its expiration date. He surely would have survived, but we still felt bad, so we shared our food as thanks for using his pot.

Chopstick prototype and final version, with shared pot and bounty.
Misty morning by the lake.
Oona throwing a rock into the lake.

We started our second day with Oona’s and Borigchee’s relationship developing swimmingly, with Oona deftly guiding her through the dense woods. Aligjee, on the other hand, was basically doing his own thing with little regard for the rider on his back. This was actually a welcome change, as it meant that he’d keep up with the others with minimal intervention on my part. The ride was a bit longer that day, at around 28km, and we settled on a not-as-nice spot near a much more stagnant inlet from the lake. A fisherman came up to us as we were lighting a fire and threatened to throw our camera in the lake (or that’s what we gathered from his hand signals and Shavaa’s fairly limited English) if we took a picture of him fishing, as apparently he wasn’t allowed to do so there, and was somehow worried that the park rangers followed us on Instagram or something.

The inlet on the second night.
The horses tethered up in the trees.

Most of our time riding we were regaled by Shavaa’s singing. He would launch into patriotic ballads about the wonders of Mongolia or such things, and his rich tenor would echo across the valleys in a very Mongolian way. We’ve concluded that Mongolians have a genetic predisposition for having great teeth (they’re always bright white and straight despite never brushing them) and fantastic voices (we have yet to hear a Mongolian who can’t sing). Some time during our second day of riding, the soothing tune echoing back from ahead was clearly that of Minii Ulaanbaatar, which reminded us of our days in UB. Shavaa was pretty thrilled that I knew the song, so over the remainder of the trip he taught me the lyrics, which I’m trying my damnedest not to forget.

Always eating.

Our third day was a final push to make it all the way to the village of Bolnain, where the hot springs are located. We stopped for a brief lunch after 25km of riding, and bore witness to dark clouds rolling our way, with the occasional thunderclap in the distance. Just as we were mounting up in hopes of beating the rain, another local guide with an older German woman rode up. We joined them at a brisk trot as the rain started to fall. We spotted an abandoned-looking wooden house (many dwellings in the north of Mongolia are like European style houses rather than yurts) in the distance and hoped we could at least duck under the awning and wait out the downpour. We rode up, tied up the horses, and Oona managed to untie the cloth keeping the door closed. It was empty inside, but just big enough for the five of us to relax a bit and stay dry. In true Mongolian fashion, the rain clouds passed relatively quickly, and the sky brightened up again. We left the German woman and her guide and shot off like the wind in the direction of Bolnain. I got up to a gallop for the first time on our mad dash to finish the day, although Oona had easily managed to by the first day. Oona had been telling me about the different gaits of a horse, and the smooth gallop was a clear winner over the tumble dry of the trot. Unfortunately having the pack horse kept us from sustaining such speeds for most of the trip, although Oona managed it quite a few more times.

Borigchee and Aligjee in the front.

We finally crested a steep hill to views of the broken down houses of Bolnain. The hot springs themselves are a collection of springs from the rocks leading into the nearby river. Each spring had its own shack fashioned around it, and the water pours into a wooden tub of sorts in the floor. The site was reasonably well-maintained, but had a bit of an abandoned vibe to it, and there wasn’t another soul in sight. Shavaa told us about a guest house a kilometer or so down the road. Apparently they had food, which sounded pretty attractive after several days of not nearly enough of it to go around, so we decided to splurge for the night. We made it in plenty of time for dinner, which was a heaping pile of freshly-made tsuivan, certainly a welcome change from the weird, ad hoc stews we had been making. We gorged ourselves (Shavaa included) and headed back to the hot springs for a dip. The rain started falling and the lightning striking as we were relaxing in the warm waters, it was cozy and comforting to look out across the darkening sky and sheets of rain from the comfort of our 44° (Celsius, duh) tub. The sun had long gone down by the time we were finished, and the rain and lightning were only become more intense, so we rode back to the guest house with the greatest of gusto. We parted ways with Shavaa, to whom I had loaned my head lamp for the night, at the front gate and he headed down to his tent site near where the horses were tied up.

Typical dinner on the trail.

It wasn’t particularly cold, but the rain and thunder prompted us to light a fire in the cabin’s wood stove. The matches I borrowed from management didn’t quite do the trick, but seemingly by pure coincidence a boy appeared at our door with a blowtorch and a fire in his eyes and exclaimed “pire!” (Mongolians have a tough time with our ‘f’ sound). Unbelievably, even the blowtorch wouldn’t keep it lit, but it wasn’t long until an old woman came up in a drenched rain coat with a bucket of wood chips and an even bigger blowtorch. At this point there wasn’t a damned thing the fire-to-be could do about it and it lit up in a snap. The rain was pouring in buckets and the lightning and thunder was crashing down with startling frequency. The empty bed in the cabin reminded us that our trusty guide and new friend Shavaa was probably cowering in a soaked tent outside. I went outside with a headlamp to invite him in. I found him tending to the horses in his oversized rain coat and suggested he come in and sleep in the bed. He politely declined, citing good old Mongolian fortitude as the reason for his insisted-upon comfort, plus, he said, he had to look after the horses. With our consciences reassured, we drifted off to sleep under the constant rainfall and crackling of our fire.

The rain only stopped briefly in the morning, and the guest house gave us a care package of khuushuur left over from breakfast for the road. The day proved punishing, with fairly constant rain soaking us to the bone. Our destination was the same as the second night, but we rode with yet more gusto in hopes of warming our chilled skeletons. By sheer chance, we ran into another westerner out on the trail. This time it was a Canadian woman whose fortitude and grit rivaled that of the Mongolians. She told us tales of sleeping under rocks in her summer sleeping bag from just days before when the temperatures dropped below freezing at night, or of her previous 700km horse trek in the Gobi, or of when she lived off the grid for several years in Canada farming her own food. She insisted that she aimed to ride all the way back to Khatgal that day (at least 40km) instead of putting up with the constant rain.

When the rains proved ever constant, and our clothes could soak up no more water, Shavaa would guide us to an isolated yurt or wooden cabin with a plume of smoke from the chimney to dry off a bit. Apparently this is a common Mongolian practice when nature is punishing; most Mongolians will welcome random travelers in to dry off and warm up next to the fire with a cup of hot milk tea for a spell. However, they’re not always so welcoming, and after running into the Canadian again down the road, both our groups converged on a house that looked like a decent respite from the elements. After not long inside there was talk, via Shavaa, that they did not want us there and that we should probably leave. 

We took off in a hurry and made it to our camp not long later. At this point, the rain had finally subsided and the sun even came out a bit. We hurriedly unpacked our gear, set up the tent, and lit a fire. Everything was soaked. Our softshell coats were no match for the onslaught and had given up repelling the water long ago. Our backpack and sleeping bags bore the brunt of it, and we spread them out in the dwindling sunlight in hopes of drying them out before sleep. Shavaa crafted a massive fire which definitely helped to dry our shoes, jackets, and souls out though. We retired to still damp sleeping bags in hopes of better weather the next day.

Back at the inlet, the mountains with their first coat of snow.

The following morning’s weather was indeed better, and the sun shined through the clouds for sustained periods, enough to dry off the remainder of our stuff. Before packing up, we wrapped the tent’s rainfly around our sleeping bags and backpack in case the rains picked up. This proved unnecessary as the sun shone all day. Our final night was to be spent near a yurt belonging to some friends of Shavaa.

The location was beautiful, right next to a rushing river, but the dwelling itself felt a bit like a white trash trailer park yurt. They had a gasoline generator running outside to power a washing machine inside, random scraps of metal lay on the floor, and several babies slept scattered around the yurt. Fortunately this was not our domain for the night, and we set up camp down near the river.

After an elaborate sheep wrangling ceremony, the rules of which we couldn’t really determine (as usual), Shavaa prepared for the slaughter. With the sheep turned on its back, he drove a freshly-sharpened knife directly into its stomach and reached his arm, elbow-deep, into the still-living sheep and grasped ahold of something vital until the sheep stopped moving. The operation, while macabre and slightly horrifying to us, was carried out with the utmost in respect and precision. During its last throes, the sheep lay silent and Shavaa had a strong yet soothing grip over its neck, and he muttered comforting words as it died. Once its last breath was gone, he skinned and gutted it with unbelievable care. The carcass hung on the wall of the yurt while the innards and blood were boiled into a revolting stew, which the Mongols seemed pretty wild about. We managed to dodge participation in the innard stew feast because of the time. We were quite tired after the day’s ride, and the stew wouldn’t be ready until midnight, so we insisted on retiring to our tent, to the dismay of Shavaa. We made a not-particularly-impressive concoction of pasta and sauce on the fire by our tent, but we were quite glad to not be slurping up pancreas and intestine and who-knows-what other organ back in the yurt after hours of waiting.

A whole family affair.

We joined Shavaa in the yurt in the morning, and he was happily chewing on the contents of the stew from the night before, which at this point had congealed into a sort of paste of cold fat and organs. My curiosity got the better of me, and I accepted a generous piece of stomach from the bowl. It was awful. The taste of grass remained, and it was so tough I eventually had to swallow it whole. All I could see was the sheep’s lifeless eyes staring into my soul as I ate of its flesh.

The day’s ride was not long, it was only 20 or so kilometers back to Khatgal. We said goodbye to Shavaa back at the guest house and were grateful for his companionship and expertise while in the wilderness. Being back to civilization, we had a few beers and ordered a home cooked meal of tsuivan from the guest house. The food wasn’t particularly impressive, and may have led to us becoming very sick. We woke up in the middle of the night to fairly strong symptoms of food poisoning, and were bed-ridden with fevers and dependent on frequent bathroom visits for the whole next day. In my fevered state, I dreamt that I needed to make wooden car doors and deliver them to an Estonian man named Einar in order to move on from Khatgal.

The mountains on the west side.

The following day we were feeling strong enough to head back to Mörön, wooden car doors for Einar be damned. We are now finally in Ölgii, in the far west of Mongolia. The trip from Mörön to Ölgii was extraordinarily difficult and long, and we’ve dedicated a blog post just for that. So stay tuned for the riveting tale a few days from now.

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