Across the Steppe to Khï¿½vsgï¿½l Nuur
Khï¿½vsgï¿½l Nuur, Mongolia
The crack between the glass and the window frame is causing a freezing cold draft to blow on my face. I have tried shoving a stained sheet into the gap with minimal results. My pillow smells slightly like sheep, much like everything in this country. The lights are flickering, giving me a headache and the train is swaying slightly from side to side, grunting and groaning below us as it pulls out of Ulaanbaatar and begins its slow journey northwards to Darkhan, the second largest city in Mongolia. From here the train will turn eastward and head towards Erdenet, a copper mining town and Mongolia’s third largest city but with a population that barely reaches 75,000 people. From here the plan is to find a jeep that will take us on the next leg of our journey to Khï¿½vsgï¿½l Nuur (Lake Khï¿½vsgï¿½l), one of the highlights and top attractions in Mongolia. Khï¿½vsgï¿½l Nuur is approximately 750km from Ulaanbaatar, the capital and focal point for everything in Mongolia. 2760 sq km of pure water, the deepest lake in central Asia and the world’s fourteenth-largest source of fresh water, and situated among some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, it is no surprise the lake is as popular as it is.
And here we were. The three of us playing cards to while away the time while the train chugged along at a speed barely above running pace, stopping constantly to let people on and off in some of the most empty countryside in the world (less than 1.5 people per sq km of land). The three of us – me, Mitch, a Canadian, and Paul, from the north of England – had just finished three-month volunteer placements working for various newspapers and news agencies in Ulaanbaatar and were ready for some proper adventure travelling.
Fourteen hours later we arrived in Erdenet and negotiated a jeep ride south to Bulgan, where we spent a night before hiring another jeep (with the help of the local English teacher) to take us east to a small town called Mï¿½rï¿½n, where we spent another night before finally heading north to the lake.
As we are leaving Bulgan, we pick up our first hitchhiker. He is a Mongolian of 50 years of age (discovered by drawing numerals on the head rest of the seat in front), who explains he needs a lift 20 km out of town to where his ‘machine’ has run out of petrol. Once we have dropped him off we pick up our second hitchhiker, this time a middle-aged woman wearing a stunning bright ‘del’ (the national dress) and a shiny black leather purse. We pull up outside a ‘ger’ (a large circular felt tent that many Mongolians still live in – very cosy), and we are invited in by the woman in the bright ‘del’. Here we drink salty milky tea and eat doughy biscuits, surrounded by gawking Mongolian children, all young girls. A deformed boy lies on one of the beds staring at us with huge eyes. This all contrives to make us extremely uncomfortable and we are glad when we leave.
Our third and final hitchhiker is picked up from the ‘guanz’ (restaurant/cafï¿½), where we eat a two-course meal of ‘buuz’ (mutton dumplings) and noodle soup followed by mutton and rice, all washed down with more salty milk tea.
By 4pm we are not even half way there. Things begin to flatten out and we drive through vast open plains with nothing in sight apart from the dirt road that disappears into the horizon and the odd herder with their flocks of sheep or the grazing horses. Dusk arrives and the setting sun gives the whole thing a red tint. One horizon after another is reached and passed only for another to rise up in the distance; endless expanses of red earth are covered only for another to appear. It is dark by the time we reach Mï¿½rï¿½n at 11pm, and we struggle for an hour so to find a hotel room. Eventually we find some back-street hotel with cheap rooms. It appears to be the local teenage hangout, with kids inside and outside getting drunk on cheap vodka and groping each other in their cars. The rooms have no shower or heating. We play cards with our driver and polish off a bottle of vodka ourselves.
We left Mï¿½rï¿½n the next morning, having breakfasted and bought a supply of fresh water and pastries from the local shop. Twenty minutes out of town our driver stopped the jeep, began jabbering in Mongolian and pointing at the bottle of vodka we had bought at the shop. We quickly worked out that he wanted to drink it. It was not yet 10am. Refusing to budge until the bottle had been opened we had little choice but to follow his wishes. Once the first shot had been thrown out the window as tradition dictates, the bottle was polished off between us, with shots being poured into and drunk from one of the light fittings screwed off from the inside of the jeep. Our driver clearly had done this before. We were beginning to worry about his drinking habits.
We arrived at Khatgal, a town situated just south of Khï¿½vsgï¿½l Nuur, around midday. It was almost a ghost town, dusty and deserted. We knew it was out of season but didn’t think things would be this bad. Nothing appears to be open; all the tourist camps are closed and there are very few people around. We drive through the centre of town, along a wide dusty road (everything is dusty), passing numerous houses with boarded up windows. The few inhabitants we see stop their tasks and gawk at us. It feels like the Wild West I have seen on many a western movie. We are told that we are the only tourists in the place.
The lake is still frozen and the boats in the harbour where we are staying are going nowhere soon. Where the ice is not too thick, we can see that the water is pristine clear. Having tentatively tested the ice, we decide it is thick enough to take our weight. We carefully edge twenty feet onto the ice and have our picture taken before hurriedly making our way back onto solid ground.
We spend the night in the harbour master’s ‘ger’ and the next morning, we get a knock on our door at about 9am and two local women entered, carrying gym bags full of their wares, which they preceded to lay out on the floor to try and sell us. I bought a pair of socks made (apparently) from camel and yak wool. They are horrible.
Our driver from Bulgan was still here and seemed to be causing quite a stir in the town. Something appears to have gone wrong. The locals have begun running their fingers across their throats whenever we mention him. We know he got drunk last night, but has he gone and done something serious? Communication is proving to be a big problem.
Fortunately the guide we have hired and who speaks excellent English arrived and explained everything. It appears our driver got drunk last night after he left us and was caught drink driving and fined a considerable amount of money. He wants more money of us claiming he doesn’t have enough money to pay for the petrol to get him home. We refuse. The sooner he is gone the better. He is also beginning to smell more than us, none of us having seen a shower since we left Ulaanbaatar.
We had arranged with a local guide to go on a two day, one night horse trek up the east side of the lake. The day was cloudy and cool but with a sun that burnt whenever it came out from behind a cloud. We half ambled, half trotted through pine forests and open meadows, crossing bogs and streams. My wooden saddle made the whole experience distinctly uncomfortable.
Some time in the early afternoon we stopped for tea at a herders ‘ger’, a friend of our guide. Half the ‘ger’ was given over to a pen for baby goats. It was very simple and sparse compared to some of the tourist ‘gers’ we had stayed in before, with little fancy ornaments. The goats wandered in and out, fighting with each other while we drunk salty tea and ate dry bread.
We arrived at the edge of the lake in the early evening, exiting the pine forest to behold the biggest expanse of frozen water I have ever seen stretching off into the horizon, the evening sun reflecting off the ice. We had to smash through the ice to get to the water. Ochie, our guide, chopped down a couple of tree branches, which he used as poles for our tent, a tent that had no ground sheet, allowing the severe wind to get in underneath. Sparks and smoke from the stove and a dinner of mutton boiled with rice, all very salty. It was clearly going to be a very cold night, even with the stove in the tent going all night. It proved to be. On a number of occasions the chimney from the stove became blocked and the tent filled with smoke, choking us and burning our eyes.
The next day a snowy, sleety rain was falling and the wind was howling, shaking our tent. I wore almost every item of clothing I possessed. I was still cold. After a late lunch of hairy pieces of dried mutton and potato noodles, we left camp late afternoon and rode for five hours back to Khatgal, through the same pine forests and meadows. My horse, called Tsagaan (meaning white), became increasingly stubborn, cantering when I wanted to walk and walking when I wanted to trot. We ate dinner at our guide’s home, cooked by his wife. More mutton.
The next morning we hired another jeep to take us back to Mï¿½rï¿½n. In Mï¿½rï¿½n we found a minibus that was leaving for Erdenet and we cautiously got in. We left Mï¿½rï¿½n at around 5pm, having spent an hour driving up and down the sandy dirty litter covered streets of the town picking up passengers until the mini-bus was full. It was drizzling slightly and some of our fellow passengers had begun drinking. A twenty-four year old chain-smoking alcoholic Mongolian calling himself Birar and his friend Dulchelsunin (or something similar) led the way, consuming vodka and beer like there was no tomorrow. Birar’s mother frowned and scolded from the seat opposite, but didn’t intervene. Birar and Dulchelsunin found us particularly fascinating in their drunken state and plagued us with the same questions, via our phrasebook, for the whole journey until Birar threw up and passed out, head resting on the lap of the unfortunate guy sitting next to him, cigarette still hanging from his lips.
The journey from Mï¿½rï¿½n to Erdenet can be described by one word only. Hell. I hope I never have to experience anything similar in my whole life. Bounced, jolted, shook, shaken, and banged, four of us squeezed onto three seats in the back of the mini-bus for sixteen hours through the night. I slept for half an hour, and then only because we stopped for a break. We appeared to have tried to take some short cut through the mountains, driving in the dark at ridiculous speeds along pot-holed dirt tracks through forests and across numerous rivers and streams. At one point we came across a jeep that had broken down. It was 3am and a huge fire had been lit, keeping the passengers warm. At no one point was I comfortable during the entire journey, my head constantly banging against the window and the roof. Every molecule in my body had been rattled.
We arrived in Erdenet early the next morning and had a whole day to kill till our train left in the evening. Erdenet is not the place to be if you have a spare day.
We were finally on the train and on our way back to Ulaanbaatar. Our cabin stank, our socks were off and a Mongolian businessman, who took one smell and asked to be moved to a different cabin, vacated the fourth bed. Someone lit incense outside our cabin door and Mongolian music was playing over the sound system. I can’t wait for a shower.