Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lake Khovsgol

Situated in northern Mongolia, right at the Russian borders, lies Lake Khovsgol, second largest lake in Mongolia. I extended my trip in Mongolia, having spent 2 weeks in South Gobi, to go to the north to see this lake.

I took a flight from Ulaan Bator to Murun, the nearest town with an airport. While the flight itself is only an hour or more, there was a flight delay that left me 4-5 hours behind schedule. And the journey from airport to the guesthouse near the lake that I signed up with, was a whole 3 hours or more, so when I finally arrived, it was like 11pm!!

I had 3 days at Lake Khovsgol, but unfortunately, it was overcast and drizzling all the time I was there. Thus, I could not witness the actual beauty of the place. Nevertheless, the grandeur of the lake is evident. The lake is also the source of fresh water for the entire Mongolian people around the region. From washing, to cooking, to drinking, all the water comes from the lake. Interestingly, here at Lake Khovsgol, a transport route opens only in winter. While I often hear of passes being closed in winter due to heavy snow etc, this is just the opposite. Apparently, in winter, the lake freezes over, and the surface ice is so thick that trucks and cars can travel over it, right into Russia! Amazing huh!

The experience at Lake Khovsgol is definitely very different from the Gobi. Thus, if you have enough time, a trip up north from a normal Gobi Mongolian trip is highly recommended!!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Gobi

The Gobi Desert, while more well-known in Mongolia, emcompasses both China and Mongolia. The word gobi actually refers to the rocky gravelly terrain and while that covers most of the Gobi Desert, there are other terrain types such as the steppes and the famous sand dunes.

The Gobi is the biggest desert in Asia. Thus travelling in it takes time, and lots of it. Along the way, however, you'll be amazed to see the nomads living in their gher and living in this land for thousands of years. With horses as their main form of transport, and the kind of environment they contend with, you can't imagine the kind of hard life they have been living. And as you stand in the wind swept plains or steppes, you could really imagine the scale, the grandeur, the enormity of the Mongol Horde.

The other highlight of the Gobi Desert would have to be the sand dunes. Being wind eroded, the sand in the sand dunes are extremely fine. I visited one of the sand dunes, known as Khongoryn Els, which stretches 100km long, 20km wide and 800m high! There are many photo ops here, however, do note that because of the conditions, you have to be mindful of a few things :
  • Changing of lens takes extra care. If possible, don't even change lens. If you do, do so within your bag or a trash bag or something. With the slightest breeze, the sand particles will whirl right into your film/CCD/CMOS!
  • Even while taking photos, some photographers enclose their SLRs with rain gear. The sand particles are so fine that they'll squeeze into whatever space they can find. I use my SLR "in the open" and after a while, I can hear grinding sound when I turn my lens zoom! Yes, the sand can even squeeze into that!
  • The sand particles even went into my tripod joints. But unless you don't intend to use the tripod (then don't bring up the sand dune!), then there's nothing much you can do to prevent that. After the trip, my tripod had to undergo "servicing" to remove the sand particles.
  • Exposure wise, nothing really special. Just note that with the shadows formed by the dunes etc can lead to many interesting compositions.
The Gobi is definitely a highlight of a Mongolia trip. Easily seen in any tour package to Mongolia. The difference is how far into the Gobi you want to venture.....

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Naadam Festival

One of the most compelling reasons to visit Mongolia in July is their Naadam Festival. The festival runs for 3 days and is usually held from Jul 11-13. This traditional festival is the country's biggest and most well-known festival and the highlights of the celebrations would be the "three manly games". Three sporting events would be held all over the country - horseracing, archery and wrestling.

The biggest games would be held in Ulan Bator, where the stadiums would be filled with spectators watching mainly the wrestling and archery events. As the festival fall somewhere in the middle of our south Gobi circuit, our guide told us that we would watch the festival in some of the smaller towns, which could probably be more authentic and less crowded.
Sadly, luck was not with us. Firstly, the location that we supposed to see the festival only had horseracing. So we did not get to see any of the archery or wrestling events. Secondly, as the roads are bad, and vehicle breakdowns are common, that left us very little time to watch the full horseracing. So we had to make do with what little time we had.

Horseracing in Naadam is interesting. It's all about the horses. So the various races are categorised according to the age of the horses, and not its riders/jockeys. So you could actually see a 5-year old girl racing with a 12-year old boy, but on horses of the same age category!! The races are all held in open grasslands, with no markers etc. So it all seems pretty chaotic! All I could see is a rider holding a flag of some kind....

It was an extreme pity that we could not see the full Nadaam. Nevertheless, I enjoyed what I could. It was still an eye-opener, and certainly given the chance, I would want to experience it again - in its full!

Saturday, July 5, 2008


As exotic as it sounds, and as exotic as I imagine it to be, Mongolia delivers its promise of wonder to city folks like me. Fed with stories from TV and books of Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde, the very idea of travelling to Mongolia is an adventure already. So to make sure I fully make it worthwhile, I joined a group of photographers for the trip. And to make it even more adventurous, I decided to extend the trip on my own, and it would be my first solo backpacking trip to an under-developed country!

Mongolia is a huge landlocked country, with a population less than Singapore, but living in a land area over two thousand times the size of Singapore. So transportation wise, the trip would be best enjoyed with a personal vehicle and guide. My two weeks of travel with the photography group would be a circuit round south Gobi, while my solo extended trip would bring me up north to Lake Khovsgol near Siberia.

Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital city, is of course the gateway into Mongolia. The city, with its Soviet style architecture, was not my favourite part of the trip. There's an air of solemnity about, which I didn't like and I've come across many young beggars on the streets. I later read that there're many orphans living in the sewers under the city! However, we are only in Ulan Bator a day or two, and we're off to the countryside!

The immense Gobi, with its shifting sand dunes, the Nadaam Festival, Lake Khovsgol - these are some of the many highlights of Mongolia which I hope to cover in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!