Back in April 2022, we were contacted by adventurers Renaud Fulconis and Aliénor Scrizzi the team behind On Va Marcher Sur Le Lac. Mongolia had just reopened to tourism again having been closed since March 2020 due to the impacts of the pandemic. The email included a request for logistical help together with a photograph of a sled and a brief introduction to their idea – to walk across frozen Khövsgöl Nuur from south to north and back. We said yes.
‘I loved this connection to nature, this freedom to have nothing to do other than to become aware of my environment, to get to know it, to ask myself questions about what surrounds me. I found myself in my right and just place as a human being. I loved our life as nomads, leaving only traces behind us. It brought me a lot of happiness and fulfillment. I marveled to tears at the beauty of the lake, and often found myself small, humble and vulnerable in front of it. Its sounds and its changing aspects sometimes gave me the feeling of walking on a huge living animal, asleep during the day and waking up at night. I liked our “human” encounters on the lake, a pleasure increased tenfold by the fact that they were rare and fleeting, but always warm, forcing us to imagine other means of communication than speech, for lack of knowing how to speak Mongolian. I realized that the recipe for happiness was much simpler than I imagined and I believe that many ingredients are found in our ability to reconnect with nature and with each other. With this adventure, I had the impression of learning to live better.’
On their return from the expedition, Renaud and Aliénor were kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
1. What made you choose Mongolia for this expedition?
‘Khövsgöl, a name that already rings in our ears like an invitation to travel. That of an immense expanse of water taken in winter by the ice, in an equally mythical region of the world, Mongolia.’
Initially, we planned to do this adventure on Lake Baikal in Siberia. A project called into question at the outbreak of the war. It was during a discussion with a friend that Mongolia turned out to be a possible destination. We immediately liked the idea, as this country has always made us both dream. We like large expanses, and the low density of Mongolia could only feed the image we had of the country. And then we had read about hospitality, about the Gobi Desert, about the passion of the Mongols for horses, but then knew nothing about Lake Khövsgöl.
Preparations For The Expedition
Renuad and Aliénor planned a 30-day expedition pulling sleds over frozen Khovsgol Nuur from Khatgal – a small community on the southern shore of Khovsgol where the lake becomes the Eg Gol – to Khank – a small community in the north – and back.
To help deal with the negative temperatures they would face – made worse by the wind chill factor – Renaud and Aliénor started daily ice baths one month prior to their departure. They also had physical training including a Nordic ski expedition.
They also had a detailed breakdown of the food they would eat during the expedition including Pringles, cheese, chocolate, dried meat, butter, energy bars. (They carried nearly 35 kilos (over 4000 calories a day) worth of food in their sleds!)
As well as regular calls through their satellite phone to their support team, Renaud and Aliénor received live weather updates, carried a comprehensive pharmacy (3.5 kg of medicines and care products having had received emergency first aid training including ice diving), had 24-hour phone access to the Ifremmont team including with a doctor specializing in extreme conditions and extreme cold, had emergency evacuation in place through our partnership with Global Rescue as well as general travel insurance.
2. What impacted you most about Mongolia?
The immensity of the landscapes reinforced the idea that we had of them. We really enjoyed the trip between Ulaanbaatar and Khatgal. The very low urbanization and the dry land, snowy or not on the hills we liked a lot.
As part of our expedition, we met few people, but all the interactions were rich and most often memorable. We loved the contact and the hours spent with the Eternal Landscapes team, in particular, Unuruu, Nyamka and Khishigee, but also the ones spent in Khatgal.
Working With Bambakh
At Khovsgol we have worked in long-term local community partnership with Baasanchuluu (Bambakh) since 2011. Head of his family, Bambakh, a member of the Darkhad ethnic group, has lived in the Khovsgol region his whole life and knows the area like the back of his hand and understands how it changes with the seasons. Renaud and Aliénor went on a reconnaissance of the lake with Bambak before setting up the tent for their first night not far from Khatgal.
On the lake, we furtively met the occupants of a few cars. Each time, they seemed very surprised to see us walk like this, on foot, and to know that we were also sleeping on the lake. These rare meetings were strong and we then often mentioned them.
3. What were the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge was preparing ourselves for this nearly month-long adventure on the lake. It took us almost three years. Gathering a team of experts who can train us, choose and then acquire the appropriate equipment, prepare us physically and mentally, identify the food we were going to bring in our sleds (35kg each), and make sure that above all, we don’t miss anything. We loved this experience together, even if some aspects that we had initially identified were a bit difficult. Only wash ourselves every day with a wipe that had to be thawed near the stove, for example; or not to change our clothes. In the end, it was part of the adventure and only added spice to the thrills that we have so often felt. Sleeping with the creaking of the lake and its bursting bubbles was more fascinating than difficult.
4. What small actions did you do to help protect the natural environment?
To preserve the environment, we have been very careful to leave only traces behind us. Our garbage bag quickly filled with our waste, especially the containers of our freeze-dried meals. We were sensitive to the beauty of the lake, the clarity of its ice and the special attention paid by the inhabitants of the region to its protection. We therefore only passed through, without any trace of our adventure remaining, except our memories, our photos and videos.
5. What were the highlights of being on the lake in winter?
We were amazed by the beauty of Lake Khüvgül, by the colors and shapes it gives to its ice. We were sometimes disturbed by the passage, although infrequent, of vehicles on the route, but loved the loneliness sometimes felt on the western part.
We liked being on our own, carrying all of our equipment and food for the adventure. We liked this disconnection with the world. Our satellite link devices allowed us to have contacts, but we could choose when to have them. One night, we were welcomed into the house of a family of breeders. We greatly enjoyed these shared moments, even if communicating in detail was impossible for us. We enjoyed this moment of sharing, sleeping on the floor in the overheated room. The first two weeks, we were often cold. Ditto when we progressed and slept on the ice to live. Never, however, we cursed or regretted being there. We never wondered why. We loved living on and with the lake, and have since been nostalgic for these strong moments experienced on the ice.
We really want to go back!