Should You Visit Khuvsgul Lake in Mongolia?
Lake Khuvsgul, sometimes transliterated as Lake Hovsgol, is the largest fresh water lake in Mongolia and is the source of 70 percent of Mongolia’s fresh drinking water. The lake is very special to the Mongolian people and is often billed by local tourism agencies as a must-see sight.
But is it really? In this article, I’ll share with you my honest opinion about whether you should include the lake on your list of things to do in Mongolia.
Where is Khuvsgul Lake?
Along with the Gobi Desert and the Naadam Festival, Khuvsgul Lake is probably one of the most well-known attractions in Mongolia. That is, to the extent that anything is well-known in this very off-the-beaten-path country.
It’s located far northern Mongolia, in Khuvsgul aimag (district) near the border with Russia. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not too far from the famous Lake Baikal in Russia. In fact, the two lakes are connected by the Ekh River and are known as sister lakes.
How Big Is Lake Khuvsgul?
Looking at a map, it’s easy to see who the little sister is in this family.
Still, when you’re standing on the shores of Lake Khuvsgul, it looks pretty big. I’ve stood on the shores of both lakes, and from that perspective, it’s not obvious that one is any bigger than the other.
And Lake Khuvsgul is certainly a giant in the minds of most Mongolians.
The direct translation of Khuvsgul Lake in the Mongolian language is Khuvsgul Nuur. Sometimes, though, it’s called Khuvsgul Dalai instead, which means “Ocean Khuvsgul”, or Dalai Éj, which means “Ocean Mother”. And yes, that’s the same Dalai as in the Dalai Lama.
That title was originally bestowed upon the spiritual leader by Mongolian Buddhists, who follow a form of Buddhism very similar to Tibetan Buddhism.
For a peek inside the daily life of a working Tibetan Buddhist monastery, read here about my visit to the Labrang Monastery in Sichuan, China.
In addition to the literal meaning of “ocean”, Dalai can also refer to something big or great.
And when talking about Khuvsgul, it kind of has both meanings. At 136 kilometers (85 miles) long and 262 meters (860 feet) deep, it’s certainly big. It’s also the closest thing this landlocked country has to an ocean.
Is Lake Khuvsgul Protected?
Yes, the entire lake area is protected as Lake Hovsgol National Park, one of a dozen or so national parks in Mongolia.
Other national parks of note include Hustai National Park, home to some of the last remaining wild horses in the world, and the Gun Galuut Nature Reserve, which protects a wide diversity of ecosystems, including high mountains, steppes and wetlands.
Ecologically, the Lake Khuvsgul National Park is extremely important because it’s a transition zone between the Siberian taiga and the Central Asian steppe.
Khuvsgul is more than 2 million years old, making it one of the most ancient lakes in the world. It’s also one of the cleanest, and the water is perfectly safe to drink without any treatment.
What Wildlife Can You See at Khuvsgul Lake?
The lake and surrounding area is home to a variety of fish, birds and mammals, including brown bear, Siberian moose and elk. Of course, your chances of seeing these animals on a quick visit are pretty low, especially if you stick to the tourist camps on the southern end of the lake.
When Nick and I visited Khuvsgul, we saw seagulls, marmots, cows, yaks and reindeer, all pretty close up. Only the seagulls and marmots were wild, though. The cows, yaks and reindeer were being raised for their flesh, milk and/or skin.
Also, the reindeer were tied up and being exploited for photographs with tourists. I didn’t realize this until it was too late, and I regret going to see them.
The reindeer’s natural habitat is the taiga, and traditionally this was where the Tsataan reindeer herders lived. More recently, some Tsataan families have moved down to the lakeshore in the hopes of profiting from the tourism industry.
Their settlement is about a four-hour boat ride from Khatgal, where most of the tourist camps are. This is unsustainable, though, as the land there is not suitable for grazing reindeer.
And then there’s the lone Tsataan man with three reindeer and a tepee, who I went to visit. He sets up camp just outside of Khatgal and makes a living solely from tourists who pay for selfies with the reindeer. If I had known, I would not have gone.
The only way to see the reindeer responsibly is to trek off-road for 45 kilometers into the taiga. This area is not accessible by vehicles and is normally reached on horseback, which poses a whole other set of animal rights issues.
If you want to do it on foot, you could ask tour companies if they can arrange this, but they may be puzzled by the request. Alternatively, try contacting the Tsaatan Community and Visitors Center (TCVC) in Tsagaan Nuur directly. You will need a Mongolian speaker to help you with this.
We didn’t attempt this, as it seemed quite complicated. And, as much as I wanted to see reindeer, I had mixed feelings about meeting the reindeer herders.
Experiencing traditional ways of life in Mongolia inevitably means being confronted with animal exploitation. It’s a tricky thing to navigate as a vegan.
What Activities Are Available at Lake Khuvsgul?
There are lots of activities available at Lake Khuvsgul, including boat trips, hiking, kayaking, and even scuba diving! A ger camp resort called Great Sea Resort offers diving and PADI courses in the summer months.
I don’t recommend swimming without a wetsuit, though, unless you are very thick-skinned. The lake stays frozen from January to May, so you can imagine what the water temperatures are like the rest of the year.
On our visit to Khuvsgul Lake, we went on a boat trip and a hike, so I’ll describe those two activities in a bit more detail.
Boating on Khuvsgul Lake
There is a large ferry boat called Sukhbaatar that does tourist excursions around the lake, but it takes a long time to fill up. Another option is the small, motorized speedboats, which leave much more frequently.
We were able to organize a speedboat trip at Tsenguun Khovoo ger camp, where we were staying. They also have kayaks for rent.
The standard speedboat trip seems to be a round trip from Khatgal to the Wishful Rocks and back. Wishful Rocks is a sacred place that’s popular with Mongolian tourists. They come to make wishes at a pile of stones on a promontory that juts out into the lake.
There were a few dozen people there when we visited, but we were the only foreigners. We had seen similar piles of rocks at other shamanic sites, so that was nothing new. But there were good views from the promontory, and the boat ride itself was a lot of fun.
Our van driver, Adya, had an absolute blast!
Hiking around Khuvsgul Lake
Nick and I tried to hike along the lake shore, but we weren’t very successful. We were hoping to hike through beautiful nature like we had done on the Great Baikal Trail a couple of weeks earlier, but it was nothing like that.
The shores of Khuvsgul Lake, at least around Khatgal where we were, felt way too developed. This is especially ironic in Mongolia, the most sparsely populated country in the world.
During most of our time in Mongolia, we felt completely immersed in nature and very removed from civilization. But at Khuvsgul Lake, the shore was littered with garbage, despite being touted as one of the most pristine lakes on Earth.
Just past our camp, we came across some huge abandoned oil tanks. These were left over from the Soviet era, when the Russians used to drill for oil here.
Beyond that was a short, pleasant stretch of trail through the forest. This soon became a wide gravel road, though, and we kept running into fancy tourist ger camps.
Some of them weren’t even real gers, just log cabins in the shape of a ger. The fancy Leona Resort at least had a nice log swing, though.
The Ice Festival at Khuvsgul Lake
You might have gathered by now that I wasn’t a huge fan of Khuvsgul Lake. There is one thing that might convince me to return there, though, and that’s the Khuvsgul Ice Festival.
This is a relatively new festival that has been held for the past five years or so in early March. The aim is to increase tourism during the winter months, when few tourists travel to Mongolia, and also to give the locals a chance to liven up the dull, cold winter with some fun games.
The lake is completely frozen over at this time of year and becomes the venue for a variety of competitions, ranging from ice skating races to ice wrestling! Locals perform traditional music, dance and shamanic rituals in colorful costumes.
The Tsataan reindeer herders also make an appearance at the festival, so this is a good opportunity to see them if that interests you.
This is also a good alternative to the much less animal-friendly Golden Eagle festival, which is held in Ulaanbaatar city around the same time of year. At that festival, hunters show off their ability to train eagles to hunt foxes, hares and other small animals on their behalf, while they follow on horseback.
In 2020, the Khuvsgul Ice Festival will be held on March 2nd and 3rd. A handful of companies organize group and private tours for people who want to attend. Temperatures typically don't reach higher than -10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit), so pack plenty of warm clothes!
Is Lake Khuvsgul A Worthwhile Place to Visit in Mongolia?
Apart from the Ice Festival (which I haven’t been to yet), my honest answer to this question is no.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVED Mongolia! But out of all the places I visited in the country, I liked Khuvsgul Lake the least. And I definitely didn’t think it was worth the very long and bumpy drive required to get there.
Khuvsgul is 780 kilometers (484 miles) from Ulaanbaatar, and much of that is along dirt tracks that could hardly be called roads.
Our driver Adya did an amazing job and made sure we were as comfortable as possible. But no matter how comfortable a vehicle you’re in, you’ll be sick of being jostled around by the time you reach Khuvsgul.
In hindsight, we probably should have looked into visiting Khuvsgul as our first stop in Mongolia, since we weren’t that far away when we visited Irkutsk and Lake Baikal in Russia. Instead we took the train down to Ulaanbaatar and then drove all the way back up to Khuvsgul. Not smart.
I do recognize that Khuvsgul is important to Mongolian people for cultural and spiritual reasons, and for reasons of national pride. Most lakes in Mongolia are salty, so this huge source of fresh water is rare and is considered sacred.
Unfortunately, it’s been ruined by tourism, at least in the southern areas around Khatgal, where most tourists stay.
Perhaps you could probably have a much different experience if you went further away from Khatgal. But that would involve even more uncomfortable transport, which you will have had enough of.
So, unless Khuvsgul has some special significance for you, as a first-time visitor to Mongolia I would choose a different lake instead. It’s not hard in Mongolia to find a pristine, off-the-beaten-track lake with no other tourists.
Here are a few suggestions (which I have not been to personally):
Other Alternative Lakes in Mongolia
In eastern Mongolia, there's Black Heart Blue Lake, where Genghis Khan was crowned as King of all the Mongols in 1189.
In western Mongolia, there's Mt. Altai Tavan Bogd National Park, which is home to the Altai Mountains and three large fresh water lakes -- Khoton, Khurgan and Dayan.
Within the Gun Galuut Nature Reserve, about 130 kilometers southeast of Ulaanbaatar, are Lake Ikh-Gun and Lake Ayaga. The latter is said to be particularly good for birdwatching.
The Ideal Visit to a Lake in Mongolia
After our disappointing visit to Khuvsgul, our guide Ulzii from Vegan Travel Mongolia took us to a little-known lake that her family has been visiting for years. We spent the next two nights there, and it was perfect.
I’m not going to reveal the name of the lake, because it’s a very special and fragile place. I would hate to think that I’d contributed to it being ruined like Khuvsgul has been.
If you contact Ulzii through the Vegan Travel Mongolia Facebook page, I’m sure she’ll be happy to arrange your trip there. Currently, no other tour companies bring tourists to this lake.
There are just a couple of small ger camps, and these are used only by Mongolian locals. Our camp had no electricity, showers or phone network, so don’t expect the kind of luxury that you can find at Khuvsgul.
But if you want to unplug and get away from it all, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place for it.
Apparently it can get busy with domestic campers in July, but it was very quiet when we were there in mid-August. Although there was still trash on the lake shore.
The hiking here was excellent, and the hill near our camp made the perfect sunset-viewing spot. Surprisingly, the weather was much warmer than at Khuvsgul, and so was the water temperature.
We could even swim in the lake! Except that we kept getting nibbled at by little critters in the water that looked like tiny shrimp. The locals believe that these critters take away your illness when they bite you and are therefore good for your health.
While I wasn’t too fond of these critters, I adored all the ducks, geese and swans that we saw swimming in the lake. Oh, and this beautiful grasshopper.
I’m so glad that we visited this hidden lake on Ulzii’s recommendation. I had asked her to take us to Khuvsgul because I’d read great things about it on some tour company websites, but it was a disappointment.
In hindsight, I should have left it up to her plan our whole itinerary based on her local knowledge. Mongolia has plenty of pristine spots of natural beauty that are more rewarding than Khuvsgul.