Lake Khovsgol National Park Guide
Lake Khovsgol is located in the northernmost province, from which it takes its name, 900km northwest of the capital Ulaanbaatar. Khovsgol sticks out like a tongue into Siberia and away from the central plains of central Mongolia. The bio geography of the northern half of the province contrasts sharply with the mostly desert and mountainous steppes that cover the rest of the country. In 1992, a vast area of around 70,000km2 of the province was designated a National Park by the Mongolia Ministry for Nature and the Environment. At its heart is Lake Khovsgol.
The lake and its environments are spectacular. The habitats surrounding the lake are varied and therefore home to a diverse array of wildlife. The wet meadows and lagoons are important for waterfowl. Wild boar and five species of deer move between the flanks of the Siberian larch forests and the flower-rich mountain meadows that dominate the western shore of the lake. Of the predators that roam Khovsgol, the wolf is the most revered, while in the mountains the snow leopard is thought to reign supreme.
This most elusive of all the big cats feeds on the majestic mountain monarchs, Argali sheep and Asiatic ibex which roam across the two main mountain ranges of the region: Horidal Saridag to the west and Mynk Sardag to the northwest. Argali and ibex are vulnerable to hunting pressure and in 1997, Horidal Saridag Strictly Protected Area was created immediately west of the Park.
Lake Khovsgol National Park includes parts of four sum — Renchinlhtimbe, Hankh, Chandman’-Ondor, and Alag-Erdene, as well as the villages of Hatgal and Hankh. Beyond the mountains to the west is the vast Darhad plain. This is where many local people live in their gers, traditional Mongolian tents made from woolen felt.
How Lake Khovsgol Came to be Called ‘Mother’
Many years ago Lake Khovsgol was surrounded by beautiful mountains, lush forests’ and meadows full of flowers. The people who lived there thought it was the best place in the whole world. But one terrible day, an ogre came to the lake. He despised beautiful things and in a rage he drank every last drop of water from the lake and ate every last creature, until nothing was left to cast even a shadow. An age later, an old woman travelling through the dry lake, stumbled across a tiny boy who was no bigger than a thumb.
Together they became a family and journeyed in search of water and a home. For three days and three nights they traveled without rest over an ocean of sand.On the fourth day they spied a large rock and when the old woman lifted it, crystal clear water seeped up through the dry earth. They dug a well and being always careful replace the rock, so the water would not escape, they declared the place home. The child grew amazingly fast and very soon became a normal sized boy.
There wasn’t much to do and he was a little bored so he sang songs every day. Once while he was singing, a beautiful girl appeared and then suddenly vanished. The boy wished he could find this girl and hoped that she would come. Finally, after three years had passed, the girl appeared again and this time she stayed with the old lady and the boy. They were a happy family until one day they forgot to cover the well with the rock and water poured out causing a flood.
This flood caused another ogre to arrive (ogres hate water) and he drank up all the water. The boy, who was very strong, killed the ogre and cut off a mountain top to cover him up. The water still poured from the well, so the old lady dove down under the water and put the rock back over the well. Unfortunately, this took all her strength and she couldn’t make it back to the shore and she drowned.
The lake stopped getting bigger thanks to the old lady. The boy and the girl were very sad and they started to call the lake “Mother” in honor of the old lady. Today in Lake Khovsgol, you can still see the mountain top which covers the ogre as it is the biggest island in the lake, The smaller island is the rock which covers the well.
Lying at an altitude of 1645m, Lake Khovsgol is Mongolia’s largest and deepest lake. Situated near the Russian border, the lake stretches 125km from north to south reaching a depth of 262m. Created by volcanic activity it is part of the Baikal Rift System. This system extends from northern Mongolia northeastward through Buryatia. Irkutsk and Chita republics of southern Siberia in Russia.
There are numerous tectonic basins in this System, some with small lakes, such as Lake Gusinoye in southern Buryatia. However only two tectonic basins presently have large lakes, Baikal and Hovsgol. The Khovsgol basin extends due south from the Sayan Mountains, Mongolia’s northern border with Russia. The Sayan Mountains were formed during the Paleozoic period (65 million years ago), and predate the tectonic activity associated with the formation of Lakes Baikal and Hovsgol.
The Baikal Rift System resulted from the pressures associated with the collision between India and Asia. This collision, an on-going process, is dated as beginning about 55 million years ago. Baikal is generally regarded to be about 20 million years old; Hovsgol may be less than 10 million years old. The highest point in the Hovsgol water-shed at 3,491m is the top of Mynk Saridag Mountain at the northern end of the lake.
The outlet of Lake Khovsgol, Egiin Gol, flows southward from Hatgal at the southern tip of the lake, and then turns eastward to join the Selenge River about 200km to the east, at Erdenet. The Selenge River is the major river draining north-central Mongolia, and is the largest source of water entering Lake Baikal. The pristine nature of the lake may provide a hydro logical lifeline to the severely polluted Baikal water.
Low in nutrients, primary production of the lake is very low. Despite this Lake Hovsgol has nine fish species of which one species, a kind of grayling, is endemic. i.e. found nowhere else in the world. In addition, several of the insects found near the shore-line are endemic to the lake, and one may represent a new family of caddishly.
Lake Hovsgol National Park Statistics
Established: 1986 Protected Area 1992 National Park.
Location: 50° 30′ — 57° 35′ N 1000 15′ — 100° 40′ E 380.7km’ (1-2% of world’s freshwater)
Lake size: 125x50km: 2,700km2 (The largest freshwater lake in Mongolia, second largest lake after saltwater Livs Nuur)
Visitors to the Park can only really begin to understand the ecology of the region by first recognizing the geomorphological processes that have been at work for the past 65 million years. Although on a latitude similar to that of northern Europe and possessing an extremely continental climate Khovsgol has experienced glaciation throughout its history.
Lodging in the west of the Horidal Saridag mountain range and north of the Chiglig pass shows clear evidence of this: steep sided valleys, cirques and moraines. The geology of the region is very varied.
In the southwest the rocks are mostly sedimentary with some low grade metamorphic. The main rocks are dolomite, dolomite limestone, pelites, quartzitic limestone, conglomerates and prosperity. The influence of the dolomite and limestone can be seen in the very barren, arid upland landscapes.
There is an absence of surface water and there are no permanent streams south of Har Us on the western side of the lake. Underlying the Chiglig pass itself and northwards are mainly older rocks of the Proterozoic. They are a mixture of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks — basalts, rhyolites, conglomerates, dolomites and schists.
Further north igneous rocks dominate — mainly intrusive, dolerites, granodiorites and granite. The most prominent geomorphological features seen along the lake shore are the ter-races and lagoons. There are three obvious terraces: lm, 3m, and 9m.
The I m and 3m terraces are conspicuous while the 9m ter-race is often obscured by trees and is not as clearly developed along the whole of the landscape. These terraces are evidence sudden changes in the level of the lake. There are a number of possible reasons these sudden changes apart from the obvious one: a change in precipitation.
One possibility is tectonic uplift of the shoreline, another is a sudden change in the drainage pattern of the lake — there is at least one sink hole in the dolomites/limestones along the western side of the lake south of Har Us. The sink hole is currently blocked, although this may not have always been the case.
The lagoons are a feature unique to the western and especially southwestern shore. They are formed by the process of long shore drift — the movement of sediment by wind and waves, especially those from the north east.
These lagoons are dynamic, the forces that shaped them, are still present and as a result they are constantly changing. In addition they are affected by the variations in the lake level. These lagoons are a major feature of the ecology of the Park, providing an important breeding ground for many invertebrates and attracting large numbers of waterfowl both during the breeding season and during migration.
The last option, and potentially the most rewarding, is to stay with local families either in or outside of Hatgal, if invited. By staying with a local family, you will have an opportunity to learn much more about the traditional Mongolian way of life. You may not get a hot shower, but you may learn a Mongolian song, or how to play Dam (a truly challenging Mongolian version of checkers).
The park is home to a wide array of landscapes and wildlife. The trails marked on the map follow well defined tracks and are designed to maximize your enjoyment and to minimize disturbances to the region. For the most informative trek you are advised to hire a local guide through the Hovsgol Guide Association who will take you to the best parts of the Park.
For more information about the Association, contact The Blue Pearl in Hatgal. There is a fine horse trail that follows the western shore of the lake. It begins at the northern tip of town 200 meters beyond the boat docks (just walk to the left of the diesel storage facility). This trail is easy to follow and can take you all the way to Hankh (at the top of the lake) if you so desire.
It offers beautiful views of the lake, excellent places to camp, and great opportunities for fishing. If you prefer just a short day hike, there is an 8km loop trail that begins at the same location.
PLACES TO VISIT
Har Us Mineral Springs 65km north of Hatgal, along the western shore of the lake, is the Har Us (Black Water) mineral spring, famous throughout Mongolia for its medicinal properties. The spring water gushes from a single large rock, with many little streams each marked by signs denoting which body part the water will heal.
In June, people come from far and wide to eat the Halite fish which inhabits the stream. This fish, eaten at this time, is said to have amazing healing powers.
Horidal Saridag Mountains
For 30km along the eastern shore the peaks of Qngoloch, Hevertzeg. Ich Uul and Uran Dosh Uul are all accessible from the lake. Up high is the best place to appreciate the lake, and a number of trails will help you find your way. At 2,793m Uran Dosh is the prominent flat-top mountain that dominates the western shore landscape and is the one referred to in the fable about the origin of the lake.
From the Toilgot camp it is possible to climb Uran Dosh in a couple of days although it is not advised without a guide — some routes are extremely dangerous. Those who are successful and reach the summit will not only be rewarded by views west into the rest of the majestic Horidol Saridag mountain range, but may also be treated to glimpses of alpine birds such as ptarmigan, snow bunting and Altai snowcock.
Hovsgol is home to the Darhat Depression or Valley. You can access the Depression by horseback along the western shore of the lake. Cutting in land across the mountain pass. You will arrive Renchinlhumbe, a slightly smaller town than Hatgal and this is the pedal base to explore the region.
The Darhat Depression is a long, wide valley just west of the Horidal Saridag Mountains. The valley is approximately equal in size to that of Lake Hovsgol a may in fact have been a lake at one time. It a land of many lakes and rivers bordered on all sides by high mountains and rolling forested hills.
The Darhat people who reside here have their own languages, customs, and very special style of singing. It is also the last place in Mongolia where Shamanism is widely practiced.
This area is famous in Mongolia for its special breeds of white horse, big tailed sheep, and enormous bulls. Here it is possible to see all the fascinating details of countryside life including nomadic herders making their seasonal migrations from one pasture to another, their belongings carried by yak cart or camel.
It is also a birdwatcher’s paradise offering an opportunity to see the extremely rare Relict Gull. The Tsaatan, or reindeer people as they are sometimes known, live in the Darhat valley. There are two different populations in the mountains to the north and the west of Tsagaan Nuur sum. These people are closely related to the Tuva of Russia and are unique because of their relationship with reindeer which they ride as well as use for food and clothing.
There are only about 30 families living in the traditional way and the majority of these are extremely poor. Visits to the Tsaatan people must be very sensitively handled as their way of life is severely threatened. If you wish to meet the Tsaatan, be sure you use a guide with friends in the Tsaatan community, as many Tsaatan do not wish to be visited by tourists.
Also, when the Tsaatan are visited by tourists, they generally profit very little from the experience. The best thing you can do for them is to take clothes, rice or flour.
Hankh and Buren Khan
At the top of the lake lies Hankh, a small port town just 20km from the Russian border. Once an extremely busy place as the embarkation point for oil coming into Mongolia, the town has grown sleepy since the decline in trading with Russia after the Democratic Revolution.
Hankh is where you will begin your ascent of Buren Khan (3,300m), the second highest mountain in the Mynkh Saridag range and the highest in Hovsgol aimag. Majestically beautiful, snowcapped, but not prohibitively technical, this mountain affords spectacular views of both Lake Hovsgol and Tunkinsdiya National Park in Russia.
As this is Mongolia, you should be prepared for any kind of weather at any time; and as this is a challenging mountain you should have proper climbing experience. It goes without saying that you should go with an experienced guide. Note: Hankh, like Tsagaan Nuur, charges a permit fee.
Ar Darhan Reserve
18km northeast from Hatgal is Ar Darhan — a specially protected animal reserve used for captive breeding. Marmot, Red, Musk and Roe Deer inhabit this peninsula protected by a high wooden fence erected by the Park. To visit you should contact Tomorsokh the Park biologist at the National park offices.
The reserve is accessible by horse. Further up the lake, about 30km from Hatgal, you will find the Alagtsar River. The mouth of the river is excellent bird habitat. Here you can see the rare white-tailed sea eagle hunting.
Medicinal Hot Springs
Due east of Hatgal are the sum centers of Chandaman Ondor (60km) and Tsagaan Oor (100km). About 35km north of Chandaman Ondor sum centre (also called Khunkhuu) are the hot springs of Bolnain Rashaan with different pools ranging in temperature from 25°C to 55°C.
This spring is reputed to have exceptional medicinal qualities. Below the sum center. along the banks of the Arig River, are the ruins of the Arig Monastery, burned in 1939. 75km north of Bulgan, along the Oor River, is another medicinal spring, Ooriin Erhnii Rashaan.
This spring lies in the homeland of the Urianhkai Oigar people — a tribe of Tuva people very closely related to the Tsataan and speaking a similar language.
Dayan Deerkhiin Cave
35km beyond Tsagaan Nuur sum (Bulgan) centre, near the Zerley River, is the Dayan Derkhiin Cave. Famous throughout Mongolia, it is reputed to have ancient paintings on the cave walls, created by Mongolia’s early inhabitants — many thousands of years ago.
Nearby the cave are the ruins of another monastery, Dayan Derkhiin Khuree, also burned in 1939. This area is one of the most beautiful in Hovsgol.
Finally, no tourist guide to Hovsgol would ever be complete without mention of the Sukhbaatar, the tugboat depicted on every painting of Lake Hovsgol ever created. The Sukhbaatar constitutes Mongolia’s Navy and thus is a source of national pride. It is the latest descendent of a line of ships which began transporting goods to and from Russia in 1911.
It has also been used to ferry American scientific expeditions to research sites on the lake. At the time of printing the Sukhbaatar had just been purchased by a wealthy Ulaanbaatar businessmen. What he intends to use the ship for is unclear. The boat is quite suitable for tourist use and hopefully the new owner will use the boat in this capacity.
Horseriding in Hovsgol
Most Mongolian horses that you will come across are ponies by European standards (less than 1.5m shoulder height) but these animals are very tough. They have tremendous reserves of energy for work and can carry heavy loads for long periods.
During winter, Mongolian horses are not given any supplementary food by their owners and must therefore rely on their summer reserves and the forage they can find under the snow. Most males are castrated at about five years (maturity). Saddles commonly seen are either Mongolian or Russian.
Traditional saddles (see opposite) are wooden structures with high pommels at the front and back and a thin padded seat. They are often decorated with metalwork and some have long sidepanels beneath the stirrup leathers. Russian saddles lack the high pommels, but instead have two shafts of wood resting on the horse’s back which are joined by a loop of metal with merely a bag of padding strapped onto this framework as a seat.
Both types of saddles are held in place by two narrow girth straps made from plaited leather. For Longer (and even short) horseback trips a Russian saddle is highly recommended for the inexperienced rider. The bridle usually consists of a jointed metal bit and home-made leather strips which are knotted together. There is a short rein which loops between the two ends of the bit, and a second, longer rein called the lead, attached to the left-end.
The lead is used to tie up the horse and should be held during riding. Do not wrap it around your hand, though, or you could get tangled in the lead, if you fall off the horse. Stirrups usually have a round base. When not in use horses may be kept in a corral, herded to graze, tethered to a stake, tree or rock, or hobbled with a strap which ties one hind and two front legs together.
Mongolian horses should always be approached and mounted from the left. If you try to mount from the right, you may startle the horse. The traditional riding posture of Mongolians is quite long compared to the European style of riding, and the left stirrup is slightly longer than the right. More weight is therefore taken on the left buttock.
The reins, including the tying rein, are held in the left hand, and the animal is guided by gently moving the reins against the side of the neck in the direction the rider wants to go. Mongolian horses will also respond to pressure of the rider’s heel on the side of the body opposite to the direction the rider wants to go.
Trotting is the most natural speed for Mongolian horses, and can be continued for many hours without stopping. Mongolians yell out ‘Zhu!’ if they want a horse to speed up, or use the free end of the lead as a crop to encourage the horse. To stop a horse pull the reins hard to one side rather than straight backwards as is usual elsewhere.
Mongolian horses are powerful animals and in spring when they are well-fed and have a lot of energy, they can be dangerously head-strong. A common cause of problems for horses are ill-fitting saddles and the development of saddle sores. There needs to be an adequate layer of padding between the saddle and the horse’s back so that raw patches do not develop on either side of the withers.
If you are going on a long trip you may require a pack-horse — just bear in mind that pack animals should never be overloaded because equipment which is tied onto a horse does not move freely and therefore causes greater pressure on the back.
Adequate padding is required and bags should not rub on the skin to avoid sores. Sores called girth galls can also form where girth straps run under the chest of a horse. When selecting a horse, animals with evidence of any kind of sores should be avoided, especially for long trips.
If sores do develop, padding should be increased and the animal be given a rest if possible. One last point of information for comfort: should you fall it is not a long distance to the ground and you will probably be fine — just make sure that you get straight back on your horse again!
The People of Hovsgol
The total population of Hovsgol aimag was 112,000 people in 1992. Three quarters of the aimag’s population lived in rural districts, and the mainstay of the local population remains animal husbandry. Hovsgol aimag has a total of around 1.75 million livestock, most of which are sheep.
Most of the population of Hovsgol aimag are registered as Halh — the majority ethnicity of Mongolia. There are a number ‘of other officially recognised ethnic groups living in the region, however, such as the Darhat, Tuvans (Urianhai) and Buryat. The 1989 census reported 14,300 Darhat living it Mongolia, mainly in the north-east of Hovsgol.
The Darhat speak a dialect of Mongolian, and are considered by some to be an ethnic group of Turkic origin who became Mongolised. During eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when Mongolia was part of the Manchu Empire, the Darhat were ecclesiastical subjects (shay’) of the Jaysandamba Hutagt — the ‘living Buddha’ — reincarnate head of the Buddhist church of Mongolia.
The Darhat territories, the eastern part of what is now Hovsgol aimag, were administered by ecclesiastical officials on behalf of Jaysandamba Hutagt until the 1920s when the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party came to power. Most of what is now Hovsgol aimag was included in a new administrative district called Delger Ih Uulyn aimag, and in 1931 the region was renamed Hovsgol aimag.
Hovsgol is also home to several thousand Tuvaans, also known as the Urianhai, Soyot or Duha, who speak a Turkic language distantly related to Mongolian. Over 200,000 Tuvans live in the Republic of Tuva, which is now part of the Russian Federation, and which lies to the west of Hovsgol aimag.
The Tuvan lands were administratively part of Outer Mongolia from around 1760 until 1921, when the nominally independent republic of Tuva was established.
Later, in 1944, Tuva was formally absorbed into the USSR. Some reindeer herding Tuvans live in the northern part of Hovsgol, mostly in Tsagaan Nuur sum, where they produce antlers and other reindeer products. This is a numerically small group (numbering eighty or so families), but they are relatively well-known by the name of Tsaataan or Tsaatanguud by which Mongolians often call them — meaning ‘reindeer-breeders’, Another important minority group in the region are the Buryats, who have their own dialect of Mongolian.
Most Buryats (about 350,000) live in the Republic of Buryatia in the Russian Federation, which borders Hovsgol to the north, a region that has been under Russian administration since the eighteenth century. One group, the Tunh-Sanaga Buryats, moved south into the Hovsgol region around 1912-1916, just before the Russian Revolution.
Herders and the National Park
Nomadism is still the recognized way of life for many Mongolians. The herders that traditionally have resided within the boundaries of Lake Hovsgol Park form an integral part of the ecosystem. Now most people in the Park live in Hatgal village with 3,750 residents, in Hankh sum center, with approximately 3,000 residents, and the small bag center of Horo.
The primary sources of income for the people in these communities are animal husbandry and government services. Moreover, herders from adjoining areas regularly move into the Park in winter in search of grazing for their livestock.
Most of the herders on the western shore of the lake come from Renchinlhumbe sum. The pastoral households of Renchinlhumbe sum are organized into 7 sub units (bag).
The households of this bag (fifth bag) regularly use pastures within the Park for seasonal livestock grazing. There are 51 households in the 5th bag, all but three of which winter in Dalain Zah at the edge of Lake Hovsgol. They are spread over an area approximately
50km north to south along the lake.
According to the 1995 end-of-year sum statistics these 48 households included 230 persons. Together they owned a total of 376 horses, 1,163 cattle (including yaks and cross-breeds), 1,689 sheep, 1,256 goats and 45 dogs.
This herd composition seems fairly typical of the other only bag in this sum, although with a slightly higher proportion of goats. The pastoral families of the fifth bag generally use the Dalain Zah pastures from November to April, spending spring, summer and autumn further west. The families undertake an annual migration of 65 and 80km. Their movement system is discussed more fully below.
Movements of Herders
The herding households of the Renchinlhumbe and Hankh sums undertake very different migrations. The herders from Renchinlhumbe make a long trek over the Horidol Saridag range. via Chiglig Pass. They climb from their summer pastures at around 1600 m up to the pass at around 1800m, before descending to their Dalain Zah lakeside pastures at an altitude of around 1700m (Figure 2a) The total annual movement for most Renchinlhumbe households is around 150km, with many households moving very similar distances.
The use of the lakeside for winter pastures is extremely important for the households concerned. The most difficult time of the year for livestock is generally the late winter and early spring when both the fat reserves of the animals and much of the available vegetation is exhausted.
The lakeside pastures offer rich, tall grasses allowing animals to find vegetation that generally sticks up through the layers of snow. The herders leave their winter pastures in early April or late March, and back across the Chiglig Pass to their spring pastures, where they stay until late May or early June. After moving to their summer camps, they stay there until early September, when they move to their autumn pastures. In late October or early November, before it becomes too cold, they make the long trek back to their winter sites.
They, along with two other households belonging to the bag, stay to the west of the Horidol Saridag range all year, making shorter moves. The households of the first and third bags of Hankh sum, who graze the pastures along the Northern edge of Lake Hovsgol, have a very different migratory cycle.
In general the winter and spring pastures tended to be at higher altitude than the summer and autumn sites, although there was very wide variation in the location of seasonal camps. Today almost all annual movements in both districts is done using animal transport.
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- Khovsgol adventure will take you to northern Mongolia which has high mountains, river valley, thick forest and historic site of Khovsgol Lake.
- Nomadic tribes’ tour in which you can come across Taiga nomads in their natural habitats and attend the most popular eagle festival of Mongolia.
- The big loop tour offers you a chance to explore the soft spots of the country and many other interesting destinations.
- Ice festival of Mongolia