If you’re afraid – don’t do it, – if you’re doing it – don’t be afraid!
— Genghis Khan —

What a trip from Ulaanbaatar to Khatgal, definitely one of those life-time memories!

The bus trip from Ulaanbaatar to Murun

Therefore, I dedicated an own article upon how to travel individually within Mongolia. This article includes some tips and tricks on how to survive without speaking any Mongolian or Russian. To keep it short here, I took a public over-night bus from Ulaanbaatar to Murun, taking approximately 13.5 hours. The actual amount of time you will spend on the bus is not predictable, the ride should take “11 to 15 hours, depending on conditions”. By conditions, they mean the land the bus drives on. I wonder how the bus drivers orientate themselves, especially during the night.

Taking a Mongolian taxi from Murun to Khatgal

Murun was the closest public bus stop to Khatgal, though still about 100kms away. Therefore, I had to take a “taxi” (which is pretty much equal to hitchhiking and negotiating a price) to Khatgal, the village at the southern tip of lake Khovsgol. I was the only non-Mongolian on this bus and expected no English knowledge from potential people I could ask for a ride. So I trusted in a young girl sitting next to me to help me out. I expected she would know a little English from school and asked her if she can organize a ride for me and for which price.

It worked out, and even this ride was both funny and somehow magic, as it had to happen. I was allowed to take a ride with a dad, who was in Moron buying a bike for his son. His son was in the car as well, and another man who also took this “taxi”. Before leaving Murun, the driver put a kid’s bike into the trunk, but also a living pig. I didn’t expect taxis for living animals at all, how funny.

This other man on the ride spoke some English and asked me about my plans in Khatgal. I told him that I went without prebooking any accommodation, since the hostel owner mentioned a high availability of places during low season. Thankfully, he immediately called one place for me which he recommended. His action indeed saved me some troubles and even enabled some great experiences.

Staying in Khatgal at the MS Guesthouse

The driver of my “taxi” dropped me off at the place that the guy picked as my accommodation. That place, the MS Guesthouse, is located at the very beginning of the village, so still some meters to walk. It consisted of a wooden main building with kitchen and some space to sit and chill. All guests stayed in Ger tents, each tent had three beds. The bathroom was another little building with a roof on top, at the boundary of the whole area to avoid nasty flies or smell in the tents.

Getting to know my French Ger-Mates

When I arrived, I saw a French girl sitting at the stairs, waiting for something and desperately looking at her phone. I asked her what’s up, and she told me that she just arrived, and the Gers were all booked. Any other accommodation still seemed to be closed (due to low season). Lucky me, this guy in the car saved my nights in Khatgal.

Just a moment later, the landlord introduced herself and brought me to my Ger. I saw the three beds and asked the girl if she wants to share the Ger with me. She looked at me, both hopefully and doubtfully, informing me that her boyfriend is still on his way. This was no big deal for me, so I asked the landlord for confirmation. She allowed the three of us to share the Ger tent. This is Karma, guys, honestly. After the other guest in the “taxi” secured me some save and dry nights in Khatgal, I did the same for my new French Ger-Mates.

My experiences in Khatgal at Lake Khovsgol

Mongolian cultural festival of Khatgal

We all didn’t know what to do for the rest of the day, we didn’t have enough hours to walk somewhere further away, and we had to find some place to buy food. A relative of our landlord, I assume her father or uncle, gave us a ride to join a local Mongolian festival. Many families from the village and region were at the festival at a location a little further out of Khatgal.

A variety of Mongolian competitions took place: horse racing, archery, and of course, wrestling. Interestingly, archery was a purely female competition of young girls. I was quite impressed by the little boys on the horses, starting at an age just strong enough to hold a horse. The logic of the horse race was to have as less weight on the horse as possible to have it moving as quickly as possible. This horse race had quite some reputation, so the little boy winning the race became a local champion.

The whole event was like a little festival, some families sold their own food, others their self-made jewelry, baskets, or scarfs. While walking around with the French couple I was sharing my Ger with, the two found a group of other (international) travelers who they know from workaway in the region. It was fun to be a group of internationals, with completely different backgrounds, sitting at a Mongolian rural, traditional festival somewhere in nowhere far off the main tourist routes.

Mongolian Wrestling

We awaited the wrestling event, this one seemed to be quite important for peoples from the region. The Mongolians took it quite seriously, with dances around the flag, referees, and a jury. As a fun fact, the reason for this weird dress is the visibility of boobs. There is a saying that years ago, when the top covered the full upper body, a woman defeated all men. The men recognized her as a woman after she redressed. In Mongolian understanding, wrestling is a man’s sport, they wear this type of top to ensure male-only participants.

We watched several rounds, the man who first touches the ground (by any part of the body different from the feet) loses. We tourists took photos and videos of the event. One fight ended in a deadlock situation, the two fighters couldn’t agree on who touched the ground first and the referees didn’t see it well enough. After that situation, a referee approached us asking for our photos and videos in order to do some video analysis as they do in football or ice hockey. How hilarious!

Cruise on Lake Khovsgol

The next day, I tried to find the Khatgal ferry (Sukhbaatar Ship). The landlord told me it would go out once or twice a day, and I tried my luck. I had to walk straight, following the road until I end up at the ferry. Honestly, I didn’t expect such a distance, the ferry terminal was at the other end of the village. I was walking past really crappy wooden buildings and tiny restaurants which might be open during high season. I even saw both a firefighters’ and a police office – of Playmobil size. At the ferry port, I was able to directly jump onto the next ride departing in 10 minutes. A perfect timing.

The ride itself was quite impressing. Lake Khovsgol is the largest fresh water lake of Mongolia by volume and second largest by its area. It is located about 200 km west of the southern end of Lake Baikal. We didn’t cruise far into the huge lake, just considering its 136 km length (and maximum width: 36.5 km) as a reference. The views were impressive, the clouds mirroring in the lake, the remaining snow on the mountains and ice on the water. Words don’t express my deep impression well enough. Not even pictures can capture the magnificent view and energy which I experienced.

As a fun side note, I was also the only non-Mongolian tourist on the boat, the kids were pointing at me and seemed to ask questions. Some girls approached me asking if they may take a photo with me and I agreed. Some men must have been watching this and approached me in a quite pushy manner. Though, to their disadvantage, I disagreed on any photos with them.

A recommended chill-out spot in Khatgal

On my way back to my accommodation, I checked out some side roads and found the coffee shop “New Roots Coffee”. This nice place belongs to an expat who came to the region for missionary purposes, fell in love and stayed. The owner sat with me and told me so much about his life while I enjoyed some freshly brewed coffee and a sandwich. If you plan to visit Khatgal, stop by at this coffee shop, it’s worth the visit, and you may meet very interesting people.

Other options around Lake Khovsgol

If you stay in the region for a longer time and have some hiking equipment with you, you may hike along the lake for some days. You fill find Ger resorts within a reasonable distance from each other, offering places to sleep for hikers. These resorts can also organize a form of travel back as soon as you run out of energy or time.

The region east of Lake Khovsgol is known for the reindeer herds living with the Tsaatan nomad people. If you want to stay with the Tsaatan people, you would rather have to book an organized tour. Many of the operators from Ulaanbaatar also offer tours to this region. However, these days take multiple days and are season-dependent. During winter time and with too much snow on the ground, this region cannot be reached by normal tourist manners.

You might also enjoy: