Explore Mongolia’s Lakes With Us: Our Comprehensive Guide

How to Visit a Mongolian Nomadic Family Respectfully
January 21, 2024
Proud Mongols With Our Trip Assistants
February 6, 2024
Sunset over Buir Nuur in Dornod Aimag - Mongolia's eastern most province.

Explore Mongolia’s Lakes With Us: Our Comprehensive Guide

Mongolia’s lakes are not just geographical features but essential components of the country’s cultural identity, ecosystems, and way of life. Providing crucial habitat for a range of plant and animal species, the wetlands surrounding some of Mongolia’s lakes are critical breeding grounds for migratory birds. The lakes also support a variety of fish species, contributing to the overall biodiversity of Mongolia. The fishing industry supports livelihoods and increasingly contributes to food security in many rural areas of Mongolia. Also, some lakes have historical significance and many are considered sacred, with traditions and customs associated with them. Mongolia’s lakes are also increasingly becoming a source of tourism revenue, drawing nature enthusiasts, birdwatchers, and adventure seekers.

Here’s our overview of some of Mongolia’s lakes and the reasons to visit them.

Mongolia is at the ecological crossroads of Asia where the great Siberian coniferous taiga forests meet the vast Asian high-altitude grasslands (steppes) and the forbidding, arid expanses of the Great Gobi Desert. Its lakes, rivers, streams, marshes, oases, and other wetlands support distinctive flora and fauna.

As the world grapples with the effects of climate change, Mongolia is not immune to its impacts. The country is experiencing changes in temperature, precipitation patterns, and glacial melt all of which are impacting the lakes with some water levels increasing and others decreasing.

To minimise your impact on Mongolia’s precious lakes and fragile wetlands, as a visitor to Mongolia, you can take several responsible steps. Here are a few suggestions.  First and foremost, practicing Leave No Trace principles is paramount; refrain from littering, ensure proper waste disposal, and respect the natural environment. Secondly, selecting low-impact accommodations and tour operators with sustainable practices can help make a significant difference. You should also adhere to designated trails and avoid trampling on sensitive vegetation. Moreover, being mindful of water usage is crucial in regions where water is precious. Also, if you plan to engage in water activities like boating, kayaking, or paddleboarding on the lakes, do so responsibly and avoid disturbing wildlife.

By following these as well as other responsible travel practices, you can contribute to the preservation of Mongolia’s unique and diverse ecosystems, ensuring that these vital natural wonders continue to thrive amid the challenges posed by climate change.

Central Heartland

Ogii Nuur

Ogii Nuur is known for its bird life – it is one of 70 Important Bird Areas within Mongolia (designated by BirdLife International), part of the East-Asia Australasian Migratory Bird Flyway, and a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. The extensive alluvial plains, wet grasslands, small freshwater and saline pools, and marshy regions make a perfect home for an incredible variety of wildlife.

A boat sits in the middle of one of Mongolia's lakes at sunset, offering an intimate experience for small group tours.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park

This national park, a significant component of the Tariat volcanic field, alongside the lava terraces of the Chuluut and Suman Rivers, features a substantial freshwater lake – Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur, often referred to as White Lake – stands as the largest lake in the central Khangai Mountains of Mongolia.

Despite its relatively modest size, with dimensions of approximately 16 kilometers from east to west and a width ranging from 4 to 6 kilometers from north to south, Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur holds immense ecological importance. The national park boasts an intricate network of ten tributary rivers and encompasses over 6,000 hectares of wetlands, recognised as internationally significant. In recognition of its ecological value, Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park was included in the Ramsar Convention of Wetland Protection in 1997.

Sunset at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park

The diverse landscape surrounding the lake includes several smaller lakes to the west, while the northern shore is adorned with numerous bays and peninsulas. These features collectively serve as habitats for many bird species, including the Bar Headed Geese, Ruddy Shellducks, and Northern Lapwings. Such avian richness has led to the inclusion of this area in the list of 70 Important Bird Areas in Mongolia. Furthermore, Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park plays a vital role in the East Asian Australasian Flyway, safeguarding migratory water birds as they traverse across this magnificent landscape.

Northern Mongolia

Khövsgöl Nuur

Khövsgöl Nuur, undoubtedly one of Mongolia’s most iconic natural wonders, holds a special place in the hearts of both locals and visitors. Its breathtaking beauty has earned Khövsgöl Nuur the moniker “Blue Pearl” of Mongolia among tour companies. However, the more apt and endearing name given to it by the Mongolian people is “Dalai Ej,” which translates to “Mother Sea,” reflecting the deep cultural and spiritual significance it holds.

As Mongolia’s largest freshwater lake, it boasts the remarkable distinction of containing approximately 70% of the country’s entire freshwater supply. The lake is an integral part of Khövsgöl Nuur National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty and significance. But, Khövsgöl Nuur is not just a lake; it is a living testament to the ancient geological history of the region. As the younger sibling of Siberia’s famed Lake Baikal, it shares its origins as part of the same Rift System.

The western shore of Khovsgol Nuur National Park in northern Mongolia. One of Mongolia's lakes

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

Despite the presence of ninety-six tributary streams that flow into Khövsgöl Nuur, many of these watercourses only run with vigor during periods of rain, often remaining dry during other times. This dynamic water flow adds to the ever-changing character of the lake and its surroundings. However, there are challenges in environmental stewardship in the region, as well as impacts from the climate emergency, and some of these rivers no longer flow even during times of heavy rainfall.

Frozen Khovsgol Nuur Mongolia

On the western shore of the lake, lagoons can be found, formed through the fascinating process of longshore drift. The relentless waves of the lake shape the shoreline while simultaneously creating a series of protective gravel bars. These bars serve as vital barriers for the lagoons, offering sanctuary to numerous water bird species during both the breeding season and their migratory journeys. Khövsgöl Nuur’s intricate ecosystems and diverse landscapes make it a true treasure for both nature enthusiasts and those seeking to immerse themselves in Mongolia’s natural beauty.

Eastern Mongolia

Khar Zurkhnii Khokh Nuur

Located in the foothills of the Khentii Mountain Range, Khokh Nuur is comprised of two interconnected  freshwater lakes located on south side of Mount Kharzurkh. Khokh Nuur holds a profound historical and cultural significance, as it was here, in the year 1189, that Temuujin ascended to the throne as the ruler of the united tribes of Mongolia, bearing the title of ‘Chinggis Khan.’ The importance of Khokh Nuur is immortalised in the Secret History of the Mongols, where this sacred location is referred to by name. It is here that a pivotal moment in the annals of Mongolian history unfolded.

Buir Nuur

Sunset over Buir Nuur in Dornod Aimag - Mongolia's eastern most province.

The largest freshwater lake in eastern Mongolia, Buir Nuur is situated within the expansive and awe-inspiring Menengiin-Tal region. This immense landscape, a part of the world’s largest temperate grassland expanse, is characterised by its vast treeless plains and gently undulating hills. Here there are numerous vital wetlands including Buir Nuur which stretches across the border between Mongolia and China.

Buir Nuur has ecological significance and is very important for biogeographical biodiversity. It is also a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance and also one of Mongolia’s 70 Important Bird Areas.

There is only one outflow from the lake, the Orshuun River, although there are extensive areas of wet grassland, reed beds and willows in the Khalkh River delta close by. These habitats are vital ecosystems in their own right, nurturing a diverse array of plant and animal life.

Western Mongolia

Achiit Nuur

Achiit Nuur is a shallow freshwater lake but the largest in the Mongolian Altai range and located in the Khovd River basin. Another one of Mongolia’s 70 Important Bird Areas, you’ll find at different times of year species using the site comprising Swan Goose, Houbara Bustard, Pallas’s Fish-eagle, and the Lesser Kestrel. If driving to/from Achit Nuur via Ulgii, you’ll pass the Develiin Aral Natural Reserve established around Develiin Island on the Khovd River. 

Khar Lake

A glorious image of Khar Nuur in Zavkhan Province - it is quite remarkable - a crystal clear alpine lake surrounded by mountain steppe and sand dunes.

There are many Khar Nuur’s in Mongolia but this one in Zavkhan Province is also known as Ulaagchinii Khar Nuur. It is a freshwater lake and also one of Mongolia’s 70 Important Bird Areas. Surrounded by the Bor Khyarin sand dunes, Khar Nuur is part of a transitional zone between Mongolia’s central Khangai Mountains and the Great Lakes Depression and is a combination of both these zones – an alpine lake surrounded by dunes, although this brief description does not do this remarkable region justice.

Dayan, Khoton & Khurgan  Nuur

Khoton & Khurgan Nuur Altai Tavan Bogd National Park

Khoton, Khurgan, and Dayan Nuur are a series of freshwater lakes of glacial origin located in Tsengel soum (district) in Bayan Ulgii Province and protected by part of Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.  Fed by glacial melt and annual snowfall, they form the headwaters of the Khovd River. (Khoton Nuur and Khurgan Nuur are connected by the 3 km-long Sargaal Channel.)

All three lakes form part of two of Mongolia’s seventy Important Bird Areas. As well as supporting bird communities characteristic of the Eurasian steppe and desert and Eurasian high montane biomes, the areas regularly support at least 1% of the flyway populations of Ruddy Shelduck, Northern Lapwing, and Bar-headed Goose in the autumn months. At Dayan Nuur three globally threatened species occur in significant numbers: Saker Falcon, Lesser Kestrel, and the White-throated Bushchat.

Great Lakes Depression

Mongolia’s Great Lakes Depression is also known as the Great Lakes Basin and includes six of Mongolia’s major lakes and contains important wetlands of Central AsiaIn Mongolia, it covers parts of Zavkhan, Uvs, Bayan Ulgii, Khovd, and the Gobi Altai aimags. What makes the region so unique is that it is rare to find such a variety of biological diversity (ecosystems include semi-desert, interconnected shallow lakes with wide reed belts, dunes, steppe, grasslands, forests, and mountains) in such proximity. The six lakes are:

  • Uvs Nuur

The largest saline lake in Mongolia with a small part lying in Russia, the lake and its basin have an extraordinary landscape diversity ranging from cold desert, the Altan Els dunes, wetlands, and marshlands to tundra. It is a unique wetland in a desert-steppe landscape fringed by high mountain ranges; it has a maximum depth of 20m. Its dynamic ecosystem, adorned with reedbeds and river deltas, serves as a vital sanctuary for numerous migratory waterbird species, providing crucial nesting and resting grounds. Recognised for its exceptional ecological significance, Uvs Nuur holds dual honours as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

  • Khyargas Nuur
  • Airag Nuur 
  • Dörgön Nuur
  • Khar Nuur
  • Khar-Us Nuur

This is Mongolia’s second-largest freshwater lake but with an average depth of only 4m. As well as being an Important Bird Area it is also a Ramsar wetland site. The Khovd Gol flows into this lake and vast reedbeds provide a suitable habitat for a large number of breeding and migratory waterbirds.  Areas within this protected region are the natural habitat of the rare (wonderfully odd-looking) Saiga antelope.  Connected with Khar Nuur and Dörgön Nuur the lakes are of fundamental importance for the groundwater recharge of the area, and are of social and cultural significance because of the presence of several sacred places and archeological sites.

Mongolia’s lakes are a testament to the country’s natural beauty, rich culture, and diverse landscapes. Whether you’re an adventure enthusiast, a nature lover, or a cultural explorer, these lakes offer a variety of experiences that will leave you with unforgettable memories. As you plan your trip to Mongolia, include some of these stunning lakes in your itinerary to truly appreciate the remarkable diversity this country has to offer.

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I'm Jess Brooks, the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia and the voice behind EL's blog posts. For more than a decade, since 2006, I've been based in Mongolia, working closely with my beloved Mongolian team to advocate for a tourism approach that brings about positive change.. What sets our blog apart is our deep understanding of Mongolia—our home. Unlike content from influencers or creators, our posts prioritise authenticity and firsthand knowledge as guiding principles.
Sign Up For Our Newsletter!

Penned by Jess, the founder of Eternal Landscapes, our newsletter is all about quality, not clutter. We respect your privacy—no spam, no sharing of your details, and no irrelevant offers. Expect updates once or twice a month, just enough to keep you intrigued without overwhelming your inbox.

We respect your privacy.