The Khovsgol Ice Festival takes place on or around March 3rd and 4th in northern Mongolia.
Khovsgol is short for Khovsgol Nuur National Park located in Khovsgol Province. Probably the most famous element of this glorious national park is the 136km lake itself. Tour companies call it the ‘Blue Pearl’ of Mongolia. Mongolians call it Dalai Ej – Mother Sea – a much more suitable name. The lake is the younger sister to Lake Baikal in Siberia – part of the same Rift System. If the sky is clear, you can stand on the shoreline and see the snowcapped Sayan Mountains – the border with Siberia (the highest point in the Khovsgol watershed is Munkh Saridag at 3491m in the Sayan Mountains).
Connected to Murun by a relatively new and reasonably good asphalt road, the small community of Khatgal is located at the southern tip of the lake where it channels into the Egiin Gol (river). Khatgal is often bypassed but has an ambiance that is a pleasure to discover especially during the Khovsgol Ice Festival.
The Ice Festival is held in Khatgal to promote tourism outside of the main tourist season – it focuses on the region’s special features. Don’t get caught up in notions of authenticity – the Ice Festival features a lot of local involvement. The festival draws local Mongolian spectators as well as westerners and the locals are always more enthusiastic – including often wearing their best winter dels. Unlike tourist versions of festivals, this feels like a party for locals, thrown by locals.
‘The opportunities to meet local people we met were very important in getting to know about Mongolia’ EL guest Sally-Anne, Khovsgol Ice Festival Expedition
(All the following images were taken by our guest Kairi Aun.)
But, don’t come expecting a rigid programme of events that all occur on time. Yes, there are activities and competitions throughout the two days but this festival is more a celebration of local community, networking, and collaboration to ensure a better future for the region and its herding community. So. Ditch your watch. Wrap up warm. Use the EL van as a base to warm up when needed and come and enjoy meeting the locals and being part of this festive atmosphere which includes Ice Sumo, tug-of-war, ice sculpting an ice-driving rally, and ice skating. There is also usually a shamanist ceremony as well as a musical concert.
The Darkhad are an ethnic group of predominantly nomadic herders with a cultural identity and dialect distinct from the majority Khalkh Mongols. They live in the Khovsgol region (their summer pastures are located in the grasslands of the Darkhad valley, while many migrate through the Khoridol Saridag mountains to their winter camps close to Khovsgol Nuur). In the winter months, the Darkhad use horse sleighs to travel over frozen Khovsgol Lake. (Why not consider joining us on our Khovsgol Horse Sleigh Expedition? Riding over the ice makes for a hauntingly beautiful adventure and the expedition is timed to finish with the Ice Festival .)
‘Love the slower travel philosophy that gave us more time to experience the amazing landscapes’ – EL guest Yi-Hsin, Khovsgol Ice Festival Expedition
You will come across other companies offering tours combining Mongolia’s ice festival with the camel festival. However, this requires multiple domestic flights, and emissions per kilometer for domestic flights are always much higher because such a large proportion of the flight is spent taking off and landing. This is one reason why for our Ice Festival experience, we arrange a road trip to and from Khovsgol. We believe that flying from place to place gives you no context of location, no real experience of the country or the lives of the people in-between. Travelling across country slows you down and gives you time to experience the ‘places in-between’, the places and communities not actually mentioned in the guidebooks. The landscapes take on an extraordinary beauty in the winter, and being part of them is the only way to experience them. It also allows for a slower-paced more immersive experience.
‘Everything was a revelation. The scenery of Mongolia is stunning and driving through it was so enjoyable. Visiting the monasteries and seeing the creativity in the landscape’ – EL guest Sally-Anne, Khovsgol Ice Festival Expedition
If you’re interested, you could always join the Eternal Landscapes team as we celebrate alongside the locals from the rural community of Khatgal at the Khovsgol Ice Festival by joining one of our Mongolian winter tours. And yes, there are many companies and offering to help you to plan such an experience so why would you choose EL? I’ll leave you with the words of our guest Yi-Hsin:
‘I’ve been trying to travel in ways that give back to the local communities whenever possible, instead of funnelling money to overseas owners while paying locals a minimum wage. Also, I’ve traveled with other companies, where when you ask questions about the tour it’s obvious that the person answering your question has probably never been to the country you’re going to. I really like that EL is a small company and the people in charge are still really connected with what’s happening on the ground.’
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes.