After the long journey and a night in a cosy ger, I treated myself to a lie-in. The cold wasn’t exactly tempting me away from the fire.
Eventually I managed to tear myself away and headed for the frozen lake. I caught my first view of the village of Khatgal in daylight.
I felt as though I walked onto the set of a western-film. There were wide dusty streets, wooden shacks and a row of deserted shops and cafes. As I walked towards the lake I passed numerous guest houses which were either boarded up, half built or in disrepair, and ger camps characterised by empty circular platform where gers will appear in the summer. I walked down onto the frozen lake at the southern arm of the lake, and strolled out onto the ice.
The lake is incredible – my brain struggles to comprehend how something that size can be frozen. It’s beauty is in its diverse patterns, cracks, air bubbles, juts of ice and ridges created where the ice has come together forcing it up and freezing it in place.
The most surprising element is the sound of the lake. The ice is alive! As the water, more than a metre below, moves under the ice it gargles and gurgles, bubbles and cracks – like walking on the belly of a giant with indigestion. At first it is completely disconcerting – I told myself (following tyre trails in the snow) that if a truck can drive on it, I should be okay.
And so I walked on, zig-zagging across the lake, following patches of snow, avoiding the sheer ice, and the near-certainty of ending up on my backside. As I walked the lake widened and its scale became clearer. It’s enormous. After an 1 ½ walk along the lake I reached where the ice festival was to be held. They were still building for the festival, completing the ice ger and digging down into the ice to remove large blocks to used for the ice sculptures. I was probably the first person to have a go on the ice slide!
The next day Tsog, who worked where I was staying, took me to visit several f his relatives in Khatgal (for Saagan Sar). The hospitality in Mongolia is wonderful, and in each home I was treated as part of the family. This did mean eating plenty of buutz, and drinking several shots of vodka, and acting as children’s entertainer (some things transcend language and culture – such as silly faces, funny noise and the classic paper-scissors-stone).
After a lovely afternoon, I headed for the lake to walk off some of the buutz and vodka. I walked around the disused oil depot and the frozen dock – to see ships impounded by the ice. The controlling force of the ice, dictating the use of such large vessels is impressive. I took a ride on a horse around the boats. The horse seemed as nervous as me when stepping onto the sheer ice. I returned to my ger to relax by the fire and reflect on a great day. It was so nice to be away from the city.
The fire in the night must have gone out early, the cup of water by my bed having turned to a solid block of ice. The dilemma facing me was whether to leave the cosy sleeping bag to light the fire. Eventually I forced myself to – it was cold out there! At the ice festival, some of the tourists who had paid through the nose for a tour were complaining that the staff had not come in and fuelled their fires in the night. Ahhhh!!
The ice festival itself was fairly low key, but a nice event nonetheless. I admired the long-distance skaters, skating 200km over two days. The cold and the isolations (there were not very many of them) must have a test of character. I was invited for a wrestle on the ice with a Mongolian and, rather predictably, I didn’t last too long! I blame my shoes – inadequate grippage – otherwise I would have had him. Honest!
On the second day of the festival I went dog-sledging. For all their woofy enthusiasm, dogs really aren’t too bright. They tear across the ice, across ridges, snow mounds and rough surfaces completely forgetting they are towing someone who is not too keen on falling face first into the ice. Inevitably I took a tumble, but just the one. It was a fantastic experience and a great way to see the lake.
Unfortunately the next day I had to head back to UB. The Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia, for all its useful information begins a paragraph about Khovsgol:
“If for some strange reason you travel to northern Mongolia in winter…”
Well, I found plenty of reasons. Khovsgol is a beautiful place I hope to see again (and in winter) before I leave Mongolia.
More Photos: http://picasaweb.google.com/chris.guinness