Robert Barnhill
Mostly About Photography

Mongolia: In the Footsteps of Genghis Khan, Part 4: Lake Khövsgöl, Reindeer People, Black Market and Farewell

This image gallery covers the fourth and final part of our July, 2007, trip to Mongolia (for the third part click here). In this part of our tour we fly and drive northwest from Ulaanbaatar to Lake Khövsgöl, near the border with Russia. There we enjoy the pristine water and unspoiled natural beauty, take a boat ride on the lake, and meet the Reindeer People. On the way back to Ulaanbaatar we photograph Mongolia from the air. Then we visit the "Black Market" (Naran Tuul), enjoy a farewell dinner together, and have one final adventure upon departing for Chicago.


This afternoon some of us depart for a short excursion to Lake Khövsgöl. To get there we will first fly about 350 miles to a tiny outpost called Mörön, from which we will travel overland by 4x4 vehicles the rest of the way to the lake. At the airport in Ulaanbaatar there is much confusion and delay; by the time we are actually able to board our flight it is already dark. Two of our drivers have driven ahead to Mörön with one vehicle; another vehicle and driver will be hired there. At Mörön it is pitch black when we arrive; the only lights seem to be the ones on the vehicles that pick us up. We are taken to a primitive hotel -- the worst accommodations we have encountered in Mongolia -- but the staff tries to make us comfortable with what they have to offer. It seems like a bad start.


At dawn the next morning we look out to see Mörön in daylight. It doesn't look any better than it did in total darkness, but at least we have a fine day. After a quick breakfast we leave immediately for the lake, because this is the only day we have for our visit there.


The drive to the lake takes about four hours, over the roughest roads we have encountered, but the scenery is rewarding.


Jerry, Michelle, Jeanne and Buju are in the Toyota Land Cruiser brought up from Ulaanbaatar (right), while Tom and I are in the hired car (left). This turns out to be a UAZ-452 4x4 minivan, designed for Russian military use but popular in Mongolia for extreme off-roading. It is a very simple design with few comforts, designed for easy maintenance by non-mechanics. This one always smells a bit like gasoline; we keep our windows partly open. The driver speaks no English, and we speak no Mongolian, but it doesn't matter. Gradually Tom and I develop a genuine respect for this vehicle (along with its driver), which handles the rough terrain with equal toughness of its own. It is clearly the most rugged vehicle we have used in Mongolia. Russians nickname it with their word for "loaf", referring to the vehicle's shape, which resembles a loaf of bread.

At the southern tip of the lake we pass by the village of Khatgal. These tidy log cabins provide a food store, cafe and hotel.


Finally the tip of the lake is in sight. There are just a few more boulders, tree stumps and mud gullies to get over.


The southern tip of Lake Khövsgöl shows only a hint of the lake's size, which extends about 85 miles northward from here. Nearly 2% of the world's fresh water supply is contained within this one lake. It is slightly larger in area than Lake Erie, but much deeper -- the deepest lake in Central Asia. In water quality there is no comparison. Mongolians are justifiably proud that this is one of the most pristine large lakes in the world. Fed by 96 streams and rivers, this alpine lake in turn acts as a tributary to its larger companion, Lake Baikal in Russia. But whereas Lake Baikal has become polluted from mining and industrial activity, Lake Khövsgöl remains clean and pure. Along with the dozens of 9,000' mountains surrounding it, the lake is protected by the Khövsgöl Nuur National Park. The park abounds in animals, birds and fish, and is one of Mongolia's top scenic attractions, despite being remote and hard to reach.


We arrive at Dalain Ban Tourist Camp. Our comfortable gers break tradition by facing east -- toward the lake. Gers are usually positioned to face toward the south.

The access road to points further up the lake shore is a badly rutted and muddy strip of land between the camp and the lake.


The view from the door of our ger is perfect. We take a few minutes to rest and get organized before venturing further.


A couple of neighbors drop by for a visit.


It is nearly 11:30AM, and we want to get the most out of our day here. Jerry and Buju discuss options with the camp staff. We decide on a boat ride followed by an excursion into the mountains to find some of the Reindeer People.

We gather for the boat ride. Left to right are Tom, two ladies of the camp staff, Michelle, Jerry, Jeanne, Buju and Hurlee. Michelle is wearing a cast because she broke her wrist in a fall back at Kharkhorin.


Meanwhile, a truck has become stuck in the access road.

Off we go!


We are heading up the lake in two outboard motorboats. This is the western shore, with a few ger camps along it.


The eastern shore has a steeper drop off and fewer signs of human activity, but there is a stupa by the shore at this spot.


We land at a prominent point jutting out from the eastern shore of the lake. It has a small stupa at the top.


Looking north, more unspoiled shoreline.

Looking down, crystal clear water.


As we leave we encounter another group's boat having trouble with a balky motor.


We stand by until they get it working again.


And then we are off once more. In this boat are Buju, Jeanne, Michelle and Jerry, plus a camp staff lady and the boat operator.


Could that be Snoopy peeking at us from over there?


Back at camp we watch the Mongolian Navy cruise by. Or at least it was the Mongolian Navy, for 60 years or more. Mongolia is landlocked, 500 miles from the nearest sea. But this lake is Mongolia's ocean -- the name Khövsgöl in fact means ocean in Mongolian. This ship, the Sükhbaatar III, had officially patrolled the lake since 1938, without ever engaging an enemy. Now privatized, it is available for charter, taking people and occasional cargo up and down the lake.


Buju poses with Miggy.

Then we all pile into the UAZ-452 to look for the Reindeer People. For part of the way we follow a dry stream bed.


We reach one family, at lower altitude than they would normally be found. This family has camped here to be more accessible to tourists and to sell their handicrafts. Buju introduces us, and we are invited in. The family consists of a mother, father and two children. The Reindeer People use a kind of tent similar to the North American Indian tipi, rather than the ger. This one is constructed of rough pine poles covered with canvas tarps instead of animal skins.



The handicrafts are not too special, but they are inexpensive, and we buy some anyway. Then we are invited to visit their reindeer.


The reindeer are kept on short tethers beneath a cluster of trees nearby.


A smoky fire helps to discourage insect pests. Actually it is not good for these reindeer to be brought down from higher altitudes.


There are several adult reindeer as well as several young ones; a horse and her colt are also among the animals here.


The family's mother shows off a reindeer buck, and the daughter shows how to ride a reindeer.


Miggy masters it pretty well, but Jerry has a hard time staying on. You have to use the handlebars.


We return to the camp, have dinner and enjoy a bit of the evening sunset glow.


At dawn we depart, to make sure we will be at Mörön in time for our flight back to Ulaanbaatar.


We must dodge the occasional yak. Or vice versa.


The Eg Gol (Eg River) flows toward Lake Khövsgöl from the south.


Mörön Airport, with inspired Soviet decoration, is a perfect match for the village. The inside is equally charming.

On the flight back to Ulaanbaatar we take the opportunity to snap some views of Mongolia from the air.

After a night's rest we are ready to tackle the huge Naran Tuul Market, also known as the "Black Market" in Ulaanbaatar. This is a sort of open-air eBay, where you can buy anything, if you can find it, and pay any price, if you can negotiate it. John warns us to be particularly wary of pickpockets here, so we are very careful. None of us gets pick pocketed -- except John.


Our final group activity is a farewell dinner at Hotel Mongolia, a hotel and conference center located in the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.



Time to say farewell. It has been an exceptionally rewarding experience for us, and I hope it has been interesting to you as well. Pictured above, from left to right are Buju, Bob (myself), Pranjal, Tom, Jeanne, Orgil, Charlene, Michelle, John, and Jerry.


Flying out the next day I get one last look at Ulaanbaatar. In Beijing I board a United 747 flight to Chicago. But after about an hour the captain informs us that there has been an engine failure and we must return to Beijing. To lighten the plane enough to land safely we are sent to an area over northwestern China, where we fly in circles dumping fuel. That streak behind the wing is jet fuel, probably not helping China's air quality a bit. Still a bit heavy as we land in Beijing we take the entire runway but stop just short of the end. United treats us very well though, accommodating all passengers at a very fancy hotel for the night. The next day they bring in another identical 747, and we depart again exactly on schedule, except one day later.

This concludes the fourth and final part of our visit to Mongolia.

All photographic content herein is Copyright © Robert Barnhill 2009. All rights are reserved.