From then on I wear lined hiking boots and our leader Badral, indulging me with his impish smile, gives me some serious gloves to supplement my wool mitts. Even the vehicles wear blankets on their bonnets at night, and one diesel jeep had a brazier fire lit underneath to thaw the engine.
The huge wide open spaces of Mongolia release the soul and make the heart sing. The white snowy steppe reveals intricacies of shadows and colour as the low winter sun traverses the amphitheatre of the vast blue Mongolian sky. We drive north and west for 12 hours on a good road lined with packed snowdrifts, flurries of spun silver blowing across the surface and black ice lurking in treacherous corners. A frozen veil lines the inside of the car windows.
Our cavalcade stops for a snack –- boar and horsemeat — and three well-kept mastiffs appear out of the empty landscape to politely beg for titbits. In the monochromatic landscape, a man in a crimson deel and turquoise sash pushes his car back from the ditch into which it had skidded. A flock of sheep pick their way through the snow, herded by a boy huddled on his brown pony. Herds of horses with shaggy winter coats fend for themselves, pawing at the unpromising ground to find something to eat.
The short days are framed with an insipid dawn and a lingering rosy sunset that sucks all colour from the countryside. As we pull into Murun with headlights blazing for the overnight stop, a sliver of new moon rises above the harsh black outline of the hills.
The swirling steam, bulky silhouettes and tooth-aching cold remind me of my winter journey the long way home from Nepal in 1974. By rail through Siberia, only 20 km north of Khankh, testing my personal limits by travelling defiantly alone on boats and trains — from Japan to Scotland.
Next morning we offer prayers to the lake with sprays of vodka, then gingerly drive onto the frozen, glittering surface. Badral explains: “It’s early in the year and the lake is only just driveable – the ice is only 50cm deep now, but next month it will be one meter thick and safer to drive.” This is a massive body of water measuring 135 by 45 km, and in places is 240 m deep. Mongolia’s sacred ‘Mother of Oceans’ contains two thirds of the nation’s fresh water and is linked by a meandering river to Lake Baikal.
As we venture away from the shore, the texture of the lake ice keeps changing. We ride the smooth black, fractured white with cracks, sometimes frozen ripples as though a wind has suspended the ruffled surface, and then clouded waves like circular lily pads. We slide to a halt and get down to dance on the ice, pausing at a shaman shrine amidst pine trees on the lake’s largest island.