“I don’t think we get many tourists at this time of year.” The Mongolian airline official looked doubtfully at the lines of stocky Mongols lined up at the Hong Kong airport check in desks.
“Mostly only foreigners coming for business. Winter in Mongolia. It is cold.” In Ulaanbaatar it is dark when we land but the roofs and streets are white, and pavements packed with snow and ice. In the gloom, plumes of horizontal smoke gush from tall chimneys beyond the highway– the city is heated by coal, and there is an acrid taste in the back of my throat.
Actually it is almost always cold in Mongolia. “We have such a short summer — the tourist season is only a couple of months in July and August.” says Shatra, swathed in cashmere fleece and fur as we head out of the city in the early morning dark to drive two days, yes two days, to the remote Mongolian town of Khankh, on the northern border adjoining Russia. Our task for the week is to train locals to help them improve ecotourism in the Khuvsgul Lake National Park. This settlement on the Siberian end of the lake is best accessible in winter when the lake freezes solid.
Our Mongol team, in a convoy of three warm SUVs, take their equipment seriously. They do not venture outdoors without layers of high tech clothing, big jackets, hats, gloves and scarves. Soon I discover why. The unforgiving temperatures are never less than 20C below zero and one night it reached up to minus 47C. Cold enough to send shooting pain through a carelessly ungloved hand and make my track-shoed feet ache.
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.
Snow is blown into icy ridges and glittering blocks where the great sheets of ice have melted then collided and overlapped, crashing into uneven joined gullies of anxiety for the drivers. Long cracks have formed into a frozen furrow, sometimes several metres wide. These cause the most concern and have to be inspected before our cautious convoy dare proceed — some are still soft but narrow enough for us to splash across. The trusty Toyotas forge through in a fog of steamy confidence, but other fissures require long detours. 13 13 Toktor, our stolid and highly skilled driver, has stopped singing Mongolian songs, his broad brow creased into a frown. Most alarming are the gunshot booms as the ice expands, cracks, and ricochets in the unusual cold. The thermometer on the dashboard reads minus 29C and it is midday. Toktor adjusts his brown fur hat and radios to his colleague in the car behind. “I’m so frightened I can hardly speak,” comes the reply. Toktor sighs when we reach the end of the lake. “Landed!” He grins, his big face wrinkles with relief.
The Khankh lodge door opens in a dramatic swirl of vapour, like a pantomime entrance of dry ice as the frozen air condenses in the warmth, frost crystallises inside the door frame, and big boots clump inside. It was late that evening, nursing milk tea by the stove with flame patterns flickering on the cabin’s wood ceiling, that Shatra tells me the real story. A pony whinnies outside.
“The drivers were unusually nervous because last night the Khankh school van ended up at the bottom of Lake Khuvsgul. In the reckless dark, the driver hit an unseen crack. There was plenty of time for him and the ten teachers to get out unharmed, but now the school has no transport.”