Lake Khövsgöl, 9 October 2012

We left at 9 o’clock, with Purev driving us in a right-hand 4×4: standard fare in Mongolia, in this case imported second-hand from Japan. For two hours we drove northwards, towards Mongolia’s border with Russia. The road was tarred most of the way, although it was still being completed; there were sections where we had to career off the road and drive on the prairie alongside the road; Purev’s driving seemed more fluid and certain on these sections, he’s not in his element on tarred roads. Endless vistas of an empty land accompanied us along the way: this country, which six times bigger than the UK, is home to less than three million people, half of whom live in the capital alone.  Here and there, we would see the white ger, the traditional Mongolian tents, of herders dotting the landscape, with herds of yak or sheep browsing the dry grass.

As we drove, dark clouds started coming towards us.

“Snow”, said Purev, but it held off. Finally, we arrived at a village. Purev swerved off the road and raced up a muddy track which coasted a nearby ridge. Down the other side, the track deteriorated rapidly and we crawled along, bumping from one puddle to another, from one rock to another. But we made it in one piece to the ger camp which was our destination.

And there in front of us, lapping at the edges of the camp, was the southernmost tongue of Lake Khövsgöl, which is what had drawn us to this remote part of a remote country.

A few facts. The lake, 136 km long and 262 m deep, is the second-most voluminous freshwater lake in Asia, and holds 0.4% of all the fresh water in the world. It is one of seventeen lakes worldwide that are more than 2 million years old (nearby Lake Baikal is part of this select club, as are Lake Tahoe in the US, Lake Titicaca in Peru, and Lake Tanganyika in Africa, among others; but I digress). Lake Khövsgöl is one of the most pristine of these ancient lakes. It has very low levels of nutrients and primary productivity and so very high water clarity.

But forget the facts! Remember only that the Tuvans, a Turkic people who lived around the lake, gave it its name: Khövsgöl, “Blue Water Lake”. And startlingly blue it is indeed, the blue of the Mediterranean on a sunny day, probably because the water is so clear and the sky in Mongolia so blue.

But blue was not the only colour that greeted us. There was the smooth greyness of the pebbles on the beaches, which reminded us so much of the pebble beach of our village in Liguria, echoed in the weathered, grey tree trunks that littered the shore.

There was the white of the first snow of the year, which finally blew in with a vengeance and fell all night as we slept, huddled under the bedclothes in our ger. It greeted us under lowering clouds in the morning when we stuck our nose out.

But it was quickly melting away during the day when the clouds blew away and the sun shone in a blue, blue sky.

There was the glorious autumnal yellow, with rare light green tinges, of the Siberian larches which flowed down from the northern taiga and lapped up against the lake’s sides: golden yellow for those needles still clinging to the trees, straw yellow for those that now clothed the forest floor.

And finally, there was a droplet of violet offered by a small flower that contrary to all expectations bravely blossomed by the water’s edge.


Mörön, 7 October 2012

I like turbo-props, I find the deep roar their propellors emit is much more satisfying to listen to than the whine of jet engines. So I was looking forward to this flight from Ulaanbaatar to Mörön, capital of Mongolia’s northernmost province of Khövsgöl, in a little 36-seat turbo-prop. And it was a lovely afternoon, with a blue sky, so I expected to have good views from seat 9C at the back of the aircraft.

Good views we did indeed have as we took off from UB, climbed, banked, and set off north, with the propellers settling into their deeply comforting roar. The ugly outskirts of UB dropped out of site and we were now flying over a brown landscape of late autumn. Small rocky hills jutted out of valley bottoms, many of which had small rivers flowing lazily down their middle. Never have I seen such lazy rivers! They looped back and forth, fraying, rebraiding, leaving stranded oxbows behind. Mongolian valleys must be flat as a pan.

My wife, in seat 10C, remarked that the hills looked buried in dust. So true! It must have been a trick of the light on the yellow grasses sprinkling the land, but the hills really looked as if they were emerging from thick layers of powdery brown dust.

We picked up the Siberian larches, larix sibirica, quite soon after leaving UB. These are the southernmost tassels of the vast larch forests that cloak the Siberian taiga. They were always high on the hills and clustered on the latters’ northern, colder, side. In the late afternoon light, they cast long shadows. At first there were vestiges of their summer green showing through their autumnal yellows, but as we droned ever further north autumn caught up with us and their colours became uniformly yellow.

Soon after we were dropping into the vast bowl which Mörön finds itself in, flying over the town as we came in to land. Small houses with bright red or blue roofs and surrounded by a square of wooden fences hove into view and rushed by us.

And now we were down on the tarmac, with the plane’s propellers giving their last braking roar before we trundled to a halt before the terminal.

Tomorrow, we go to Lake Khövsgöl.