Khovsgol Lake, Mongolia

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
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Trip End Aug 10, 2007


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Flag of Mongolia  , Hövsgöl,
Sunday, June 17, 2007

At an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, over 100 miles long, and surrounded by mountains and Siberian evergreen forest, Khovsgol Lake is Mongolia's scenic crowned jewel.  With a sprinkling of ger camps and other tourist facilities it's also one of Mongolia's main attractions.  Khovsgol has many similarities to the larger and more famous Lake Baikal to the northeast in Siberia, including exceptionally clear water and a depth so great that Khovsgol Lake holds about 2% of the world's fresh water.  To me it feels like Alaska or maybe an oversize version of Yellowstone Lake.

Even at Khovsgol Lake, though, when it comes to accommodation the only stars we see are the ones overhead on the way to the toilet at night.  Nevertheless, a bed in a ger with a wood burning stove at its center feels like the height of luxury after weeks of sleeping on the ground in a tent.  Our two nights at a ger camp with bathroom and restaurant facilities breaks up the daily monotony of truck chores, cook group duty, and setting up tents.  The opportunity to go hiking or ride horses relieves the stress of cramped truck life and the feeling of living in a bubble. 

At the Blue Pearl ger camp the gers were similar to the family gers I entered except for having permanent concrete floors.  There was a wood burning stove in the middle which a lady came to light in the morning and before bed but which you were otherwise responsible for attending to yourself, enabling you to keep in cool or heat it up to a saunalike temperature depending on your preferences, a freedom that led to some serious disputes between ger-mates.  Traditional gers are made of felt with a waterproof outer layer of animal skins, but nowadays it seems like all gers (not just those in tourist camps) are covered with an outer later of white waterproof polypropylene material.  The toilets and wash basins at the camp were a good walk up hill, hot water for showers available in the faintest of trickles only for a couple hours twice a day and heated by burning wood.

Shortly after we arrived at Blue Pearl, I was in my ger with the door open and head Virginia yelling from the next ger, "Stop that, naughty boy, stop that, get out, naughty boy."  I rushed out thinking it was yet another time that I'd have to rescue her from some brute by pretending to be her husband.  The assailant this time turned out to not only be the camp puppy but a little girl doggy as well.

Ever since Vanya won our first competition, wrestling, I had been looking for another challenge.  At dinner in the ger camp dining hall Vanya claimed that Mongolians eat faster than any other people.  I responded that I eat faster than anyone else I've ever met.  A second challenge was born.  As soon as the waitress set down both of our controlled-size portions of goulash with noodles and vegetables we spontaneously raced to the finish as Tamir watched us and giggled.  This contest I won hands down, so at this point Vanya and I were one for one which led us to start looking for a tie-breaking competition.

Later on that evening I was telling Vanya and Tamir all about American rodeo events, a subject they as Mongolians raised around lots of livestock found fascinating but had heard little about, despite their seeming saturation with American culture from TV.  Maybe I had a beer or two too many, but I found myself agreeing to Vanya's proposal to make steer wrestling, my favorite rodeo event, into our next and final competition.  Vanya was very excited. Even though people on the truck were all betting beers on steer wrestling abilities, two days later Vanya somehow morphed this concept into "baby yak wrestling" since the cattle in northern Mongolia scarce and yaks plentiful.  "Wait a second.  I've seen some of those yaks and they act a lot more aggressive than steers.  I'm not sure this is such a good idea".  I'm also sure my travel insurance won't cover me if I get injured wrestling a yak.  So, we eventually settle on "mutton-busting", catching a sheep in a pen and pinning it down as a timed event as our third competition, even though I think a shepherd boy like him would have an unfair advantage at it.

On our third day at the lake our plan was to go on a guided mountain hike with Vanya up into the range to the west of the lake, perhaps up to one of the summits over 10,000 feet from the 6,000 lake level.  On our return trip we'd try to find some of the Dukha people, a reindeer herding tribe that follows shamanistic religious beliefs and migrates between mountain valleys in summer and the lakeshore in winter.  Nature had different plans for us, though, and brought driving rain throughout the night and morning and snowline only a few hundred feet above the lake that became apparent when skies cleared in the afternoon.  So instead Roberta and I joined Vanya on a visit to some friends of his, a local ger-dwelling family with two sweet buys aged 4 and 7 that owned a horse-rental business for tourists to supplement their otherwise subsistence lifestyle.  As usual we had joined them for some salted tea with yak's milk (yuck!) and homemade bread.  The family lived an interesting for of nomadism, spending the summer on the western side of the lake and then moving their yurt and herds across the frozen lake in November to spend the winter on the eastern side where their herds (sheep, yaks, and horses) could more easily reach food through the thinner snowpack.

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