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Vodka in Ice Please: Lake Khovsgol Ice Festival

sunny -31 °C

I am standing on the shore of Lake Khovsgol and all I see is an uninterrupted mass of ice stretching far into the horizon. The glare of the sunlight bounces off the crystal blue surface makes me squint even behind my dark sunglasses. The frozen lake is surrounded by mountains shrouded in snow and pine trees framed by a deep azure blue sky. The temperature is a bone chilling minus 31o C and there is not even a tickle of a breeze.

Snow drifts on the lake

Snow drifts on the lake

Lake Khovsgol is one of the most ancient and deepest lakes in the world. It is located about 600 miles northwest of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and is the largest body of freshwater in the country. At 130 kilometres long and up to 40 kilometres wide it is surrounded by the larch and pine covered Sayan Mountains and stretches north to the Siberian taiga. People dive in the lake in the summer but no one has yet reached its maximum depth of 262 metres.

Lake view

Lake view

I am here to attend the Lake Khovsgol Ice Festival, held in February or March each year. The festival is a tourism event, but it is also a social occasion for the families of the local herdsmen and the nomadic Tsaatan reindeer herders to catch up, barter and celebrate the coming of spring.

I decide to be adventurous and motor to Lake Khovsgol from Ulaanbaatar to attend the festival. A group of 16 people pile into two Russian made UAZ minivans, the Russian version of a VW combi and the mainstay of transport in Mongolia. The van is reliable, cheap to run, the mechanics are simple so it’s easy to repair with a spanner, but is mightily uncomfortable. Seatbelts are not even an option.

Nearly 22 staggeringly long hours later, I get my first glimpse of the lake. The van continues to travel along a rough track parallel to the lake, occasionally plunging into volcanic sized potholes. We finally reach the tourist camp where I will stay in a traditional Mongolian ger, the traditional round tent covered with felt used as a dwelling by the nomadic Mongolians, for the next three days.

The ceremony is opened with speeches and traditional music blaring through loudspeakers. The Mongolians wear their finest sheep lined dels, the traditional overcoat, tied with bright silk sashes and fox fur hats. Little kids zip around helter skelter on their ice skates, and people gingerly loiter and shuffle around on the ice.

Locals in traditional dress

Locals in traditional dress

The festivities begin. The area becomes a hive of events including horse racing, dog sledding, ice skating, wrestling, horse and sled racing, and pop up shops with local crafts.

The manly sport of wrestling

The manly sport of wrestling

One of the first things I notice is loud cracking noises that split the silence of the lake. “The cracking is a good sign,” I am told by Bulgan. “It means that the ice is solid. You worry when you don’t hear the cracking – this means the ice is melting.”

With that in mind I make my first walking foray onto the ice. I am mesmerized the further out I venture. The ice on the edge of the lake is so clear I can see the stones on the bottom, but the thicker ice further out forms an intricate lacework of white veins.

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Despite the flaws, the ice is up to five metres deep making it strong enough to support people, horses, cars and trucks. At one time the lake provided a transport route between Russia and Mongolia during winter. Unfortunately, 30-40 unlucky vehicles have broken through the ice. Oil still leaks from some of the petrol tanks.

I visit the elaborate ice structures: blocks shaping sheep, bulls and fish having been cut out of ice with chainsaws. One enterprising gentleman constructed an ice ger where I freeze my lips drinking vodka out of a glass made of ice while reclining on an ice divan. Later, I whiz down an ice slide, hitting the bottom, continuing to slide across the lake. I feel no pain which means the vodka is working.

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A horse race is held in the morning, the riders being young boys between six and twelve years of age, the horses galloping across the frozen ground with ease. The locals use wood sleighs drawn by horses for transport every day during the winter. However, the horses are dressed up in their finery for the festival and today their owners test the speeds of their horses while pulling a sled, the horses coping with the slippery ice by having had small spikes driven into their hooves.

Horses and owner dressed in their finery

Horses and owner dressed in their finery


Horse race on ice

Horse race on ice


Start of the horse and sled race

Start of the horse and sled race

Traditional horse and sled

Traditional horse and sled

In the evening I attend a shaman ceremony in front of a large bonfire built on the ice. A crowd stands around the fire, each of us nurturing, unsurprisingly, a glass of vodka. The shaman comes out wearing strips of white fur and a curtain of beads in front of her face, beating a drum and chanting, eventually falling into a trance. “She will bless you and tell your fortune if you like,” says the gentleman next to me. I pass on the invitation simply because I don’t know enough of the Mongolian language.

The next day I cross the ice in one of the many Russian vans parked on the ice to visit a small ovoo, a sacred stone heap, located on a rocky outcrop on the other side of the lake. It feels funny verging on scary. The van does a few slippery slides along the way and I listen for the comforting cracking noises. I discover that the lake surface is not clean: there are drifts of snow which soften the hard sheen of the ice. The lake is a natural lab of the physics of freezing water.

Russian van on frozen waters of the lake

Russian van on frozen waters of the lake


Russian vans

Russian vans

The wind blows on the third day and, amazingly, it’s noticeably colder. I bundle up under musty smelling wool blankets and take a sled to visit a Tsaatan family. They have set up a reindeer skin tent in the shape of a tepee on the lake shore and I am offered salty milk tea, the choice of drink, but not one that my taste buds readily accept.

Later, I say goodbye to my hosts at the ger camp. I fold myself into a van and make the four-and-a-half hour drive to the town of Möron where I board the plane for the luxurious 80 minute flight back to Ulaanbaatar, imagining the brutal but stunning scenery of Lake Khovsgol in my mind’s eye.

Posted by IvaS 02:37 Archived in Mongolia Tagged festival Comments (0)

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