A female camel herder in Mongolia's Gobi Desert
Gobi Desert – Mongolia
July 16, 2018
The town of Kharkhorin in central Mongolia with snow on the hilltops
Kharkhorin – Mongolia
August 2, 2018
Khovsgol Nuur Mongolia

Khovsgol Nuur National Park

Allow us to introduce Khovsgol Nuur National Park in in Khovsgol Province in northern Mongolia.

 

But first, a question. When you think of Mongolia what do you think of? Nomads, horses, wrestlers, Chinggis Khan, gers, wide-open steppe … and maybe mutton?

What about a navy? 


Yes, it may seem a little odd that Mongolia (the second-largest landlocked nation after Kazakhstan and with the closest port (roughly) 1270km away) has a navy. But it does. Of a sort. Based at Khatgal – the small community in the south of Khovsgol Nuur.

The Sukhbaatar III - a Mongolian tug boat that is considered to be Mongolia's Navy

Meet Mongolia’s Navy – tugboat Sukhbaatar III – named after the Mongolian revolutionary leader

But more on this in a bit. 

Khovsgol Nuur National Park was established in 1992. It covers 11,800 square kilometres – the entire watershed of Lake Khovsgol. In 1997, an additional 189,000 hectares of mountain wilderness was set aside as the Khoridol Saridag Strictly Protected Area. Located where the vast Siberian forest meets the central Asian steppe Khovsgol blends elements of both.  The mountainous landscapes add to this. 

Biologists use the word ecotone for places where different habitats meet – where a forest meets a meadow or a lake meets a shore. Khovsgol is an ecotone on a very large scale. The result is a wide range of habitats – wet meadows, shallow ponds, coniferous forest, steppe woodland, open steppe, alpine meadow, high mountains, and the lake and lakeshore. Asian Globeflowers (as captured here by our guest Marian Herz) are found within the larch forests and riverbank meadows of Khovsgol.

Asian Globeflower

Khovsgol Nuur

Probably the most famous aspect of the national park is the lake itself. Tour companies called it the ‘Blue Pearl’ of Mongolia. Mongolians call it Dalai Ej – Mother Sea. A much more suitable name.

The western shore of Khovsgol Nuur National Park in northern Mongolia

Yes. It really can look like this. The water is clean, clear … and … let’s call it refreshing.

Khovsgol Nuur is located at 1645m elevation and is 136km in length and represents roughly 70% of Mongolia’s fresh water and is the younger sister to Lake Baikal in Siberia and 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. This image is the view of Khovsgol from Munkh Saridag captured by our trip assistant Pujee.)

Munkh Saridag Mountain Khovsgol Mongolia

Although Khovsgol Nuur has ninety-six tributary streams flowing into it, most of its watercourses flow strongly only during times of rain and are often dry at other times. Along the lake’s western shore, there is no permanent stream north of Khar Us mineral springs. Khovsgol Nuur is surrounded by permafrost. Permafrost is a frozen sublayer of soil or rock. It occurs at different depths and thicknesses throughout the NP.

East Shore Versus West Shore

A majority of western companies now advertise that they use more ‘exclusive’ luxury camps on the east shore – away from holidaying Mongolians. However, Khovsgol Nuur is a spiritual place for Mongolians and that means they like to visit it. Wouldn’t you if you’re based in Ulaanbaatar or the  Gobi Desert for the rest of the year and you can access the lake via asphalt road?

 And you know what?  We like holidaying Mongolians. You get invited to join in with their family celebration. They spend time practising their English. They’re interested in where you’re from and what you do. And they give you a  different perspective – they make you remember that Mongolia is not just nomads, wrestlers and horses. 

Another reason we like the west shore is as with a bit of ‘puff’ you can explore the Khoridol Saridag Mountains including the 2300m Chuchee Uul with its remarkable view

Image of a Mongolian ovoo (sacred stone shrine) overlooking Khovsgol Nuur National Park

Visit Mongolia and you’ll get used to seeing these piles of stones. It’s an ovoo – a shamanistic construction erected by local families and travellers to show gratitude and respect and to honour the spirits of the surrounding land.

Also, the lagoons on the western side are a unique feature. Formed by the process of longshore drift, the lake waves pound the shoreline but maintain a series of gravel bars that serve as a protective barrier for the lagoons where many water birds find shelter during the breeding season and migration.

Protecting The National Park

Due to the impacts of the climate emergency including rising temperatures, Khovsgol Nuur National Park is experiencing an increased frequency and intensity of droughts and storms as well as other climate threats. An increase in livestock grazing and tourism (both domestic and international) has led to damage to vegetation and pasture.

In addition, although most of the lake water is unpolluted and has a near-pristine water quality it is sensitive to pollution and an increase in tourism, as well as domestic use, has resulted in fragments and films of consumer plastics (including plastic bottles, fishing gear and plastic bags) being found in the lake. This is the reason we work with the ecoDEvshilt NGO – an NGO local to Khovsgol that supports the promotion of waste reduction, sorting at source and recycling to showcase its vital role in preserving the future of the pristine nature of Khovsgol.

Herding households are impacted the most by the climate impacts resulting in what is already a fragile way of life being made more fragile.  Tourism, if managed sustainably, can help to strengthen the resilience of Khovsgol’s herding community through income diversification. This is why we also work with the Sarlagin Saikhan Khishig Cooperative – incorporating their work and the work of the families they work with and support into some of our Khovsgol experiences. As an example, the Khovsgol Dairy Project forms part of the cooperative and provides an outlet for herders to sell their surplus dairy products thereby providing an additional income and an economic buffer. On certain Khovsgol experiences that we offer, you are hosted by families of the Khovsgol Dairy Project.

Baasanchuluu - head of his family and a member of the Darkhad ethnic group. Although young, his knowledge of the local area is as vast as the landscapes of his home. His pasture is located close to the community of Khatgal. Khovsgol Ice Festival, March 2018.

Our Khovsgol treks are led by Basaanchuluu (Bambakh) – a modern ‘malchin’ (herder). He’s a member of the Darkhad ethnic group and has lived in the Khovsgol region his whole life. Like most herders in the area, Bambakh has a home within the town of Khatgal itself and this is where you will stay as guests of Bambakh – in his wooden house within the hasha – a typical fenced compound that belongs to each extended family. We work in long-term local community partnership with Bambakh for all our Khovsgol treks and have been working alongside him since 2006. He’s our go-to man at Khovsgol and his knowledge of the area is as big as his personality. You will often meet with his brother Lokh and his sister Gerel as well.

Khoridol Saridag Mountain Range

The Khoridol Saridag Mountains are a strictly protected area and primarily uplifted dolomite and the very barren, arid upland areas contrast with great beauty against the lower rich alpine meadows. With many peaks close to or topping 3000m, the Khoridol Saridag Mountains are a 150 km-long mountain range of primarily uplifted dolomite that runs between the western shore of Khovsgol Nuur and the Darkhad Depression. The very barren, arid upland areas contrast with great beauty against the lower rich alpine meadows. 

The Khoridol Saridag Mountains in northern Mongolia

The view from one of our trekking routes through the Khoridol Saridag Mountains. Doesn’t it make you want to be there?!

A lot of companies offer trips through Jigleg Davaa and up to Renchinlumbe – the edge of the Darkhad Depression (and a different blog post). However, there are numerous trekking routes within the Khoridol Saridag – quite a few following the migration routes of the local herders. These are the ones we prefer and we never see any other travellers – just passing local herders.

Trekking in Khovsgol and the Darkhad Depression

Image: EL guest Deborah Furrer

Khatgal

This small rural community looks like most of Mongolia’s small rural communities – dusty around the edges. But, dig a little deeper and you’ll find a vibrant local community – especially during Naadam typically held around July 11th and 12th.

The wooden houses and gers of Khatgal community in northern Mongolia

The colourful roofs are typical of rural Mongolian communities


You’ll also find the remains of the Mongolian Navy.

In the 1930s, the Mongolian Navy was reborn under the auspices of the Soviet Union. It received one boat, the Sukhbaatar, to patrol Lake Khovsgol.  The ship was named after Damdiny Sukhbaatar, the Mongolian revolutionary leader who brought independence from China in 1921. 

The Sukhbaatar eventually sank. As did Sukhbaatar II. The Sukhbaatar III is still surviving. But, the Mongolian government privatised its navy in 1997. So now the Sukhbaatar III supplements its income by hauling freight (mainly visitors) across the lake. 

When the lake is not frozen … obviously.

Turuu (my business partner) and our driver Bataa on the frozen ice surfaces of Khovsgol Nuur in Northern Mongolia. As someone said, you’ve got the ice. Where’s the gin and tonic?!

Khovsgol In Winter

And don’t think you can only visit Khovsgol in the summer. Consider the Ice Festival that takes place in early March.  As well as winter ice games (horse-sledge races, ice-skating, ice ankle bones) there is also a cultural element with members of the Tsaatan (Mongolia’s ethnic reindeer herders) coming down from the taiga to join with the local residents. Throughout the event, it’s the ice that dominates – not just the artistic ice sculptures but the frozen lake itself with its deep cobalt cracks and ice waves caused by the ever-shifting wind patterns.

Photo from our recent Mongolia winter tour to Khovsgol Ice Festival

Exploring the frozen landscapes of Khovsgol Nuur on our 3-day horse sleigh expedition during our Khovsgol Ice Festival, Mongolian winter tour. You feel completely free.

This event plays an important part in the winter calendar of the local people. Don’t get caught up in notions of authenticity – the festivals feature a lot of local involvement and always draw local Mongolian spectators as well as westerners and the locals are always more enthusiastic.

If the idea of being amongst any of these landscapes appeals why not have a quick look at our Mongolia small group tours page? We offer both summer and winter departures to Khovsgol Nuur National Park. We can also offer Mongolia tailor-made tours as well that include Khovsgol Nuur National Park. Get in touch for inspiration!

Jess @ Eternal Landscapes

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Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I’m Jess Brooks. I am the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia - a registered Mongolian business and social travel enterprise that focuses on providing travellers with a real 21st Century insight into Mongolia. I have been based in Mongolia since 2006 and together with my beloved Mongolian team, we focus on tourism that makes a positive difference. I'm also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society - awarded for my work in Mongolia and a published guidebook author - having worked together with World Adventure Guides to produce a digital interactive guide to Mongolia. http://www.jessbrooks.co.uk/
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