Khovsgol Lake: the Dark Blue Pearl of Mongolia
Nicknamed “the Dark Blue Pearl of Mongolia”, Khovsgol Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Mongolia by volume and second largest by surface area. The lake is also the second most voluminous in Asia.
Khövsgöl Lake (or Khövsgöl Nuur) is located on the northwestern part of Mongolia, close to the border with Russia. Its northern Mongolian location forms a part of the southern border of the great Siberian taiga forest, in which the infamous Siberian larch tree is dominant.
It is surrounded by mountain ranges, craggy peaks and rolling green hills, which are completed with colorful wildflowers during the short summer months. The Khoridol Saridag and the Bayan Mountain Ranges are located at the western part, whilst the Munkh Saridag Mountain Range occupies the northern shore of the lake. On the east one can find sloping mountain sides covered by lush forests between flat-topped mountains, which are the source of 29 of the lake’s tributaries. The highest peak is the Burenkhaan, also known as the Monkh Saridag, with a height of 3,492 meters, located at the northern end of the lake, at the Mongolian-Russian border.
The lake is considered to be the most scenic destination in the country. From a geological point of view, Khovsgol is the younger sibling of the Siberian Lake Baikal, which is located 195 kilometers to the northeast, and was formed by the same tectonic forces 23 million years earlier.
Khovsgol Nuur starts at the town of Khatgal in the south and stretches towards the border with Russia. The town of Hatgal is located at its southern end. Four main islands can be spotted on the lake: Modon Khui, Dalain Khui, Khadan Khui and Baga Khui.
Lake Khövsgöl was first used for transportation in 1913 by Russians and is still in use today. During winter when the water freezes, transport routes were installed on the lake’s icy surface, offering shortcuts and alternatives to local roads. This is now forbidden to prevent pollution from oil leaks and trucks, which broke through the ice. Some 30-40 vehicles sunk in the lake over the past years.
Khövsgöl Nuur holds nearly 70% of Mongolia’s freshwater and 0.4% of all the freshwater in the world. It has a relatively small watershed, and is fed by 46 small tributaries. The lake drains on the south by the Egiin gol River, which makes its way southeast and pours into the Selenga River, thence into Lake Baikal. The water travels 1000 kilometers to reach Lake Baikal from Khovsgol and falls a total of 1,169 meters.
The lake’s surface totally freezes over during the winter and produces an ice which is 1-1.5 meters thick. The ice layer starts to form at the end of fall and can stay frozen until June.
Flora and Fauna
The lake provides habitat for 10 different species of fish and 44 different water plants. Its shores are home to 750 plant species. 291 species of birds can be seen around the lake, of which 258 are migratory birds. The Baikal teal, the bar-headed goose, the black stork and the Altai snowcock are some of the best-known birds.
68 mammal species were discovered here, of which 10% are endemic. The abundance of wildlife is mostly represented by ibex, argali, elk, wolf, wolverine, musk deer, brown bear and the Siberian moose.
The most popular fish living in the lake are Eurasian perch, burbot, salmon, sturgeon, grayling, and lenok. The Hovshol grayling also lives in the lake, and although it has become endangered because of poaching, it is still abundant through much of the lake.
Khovsgol Lake is one of the 17 ancient lakes in the world, formed more than 2 million years ago. Because it is so clear, locals use its potable waters without any treatments. It is the most significant source of drinking water in the country. The lake area is a huge national park, and is very strictly protected and regarded as a transition zone between the Central Asian Steppe and the Siberian Taiga.
The Hovsgol Long-Term Ecological Research Site was established in 1997 and an extensive research program began on the lake. This project is now part of an international network of long-term studies. The LTERS provides the opportunity to nurture the scientific and environmental infrastructure in Mongolia by studying climate change, and developing sustainable solutions to some of the local environmental challenges in the Khovsgol Nuur area.
Origin of its Name and People around the Lake
The lake’s name is derived from the Tuvan word meaning “Blue Water Lake”, whilst the term “nuur” means “lake” in Mongolian. Because of various transcriptions, the lake is often also referred to as “Hubsugul” or “Khubsugul”.
The lake area is home to three separate, unique peoples: the Darkhad, the Buriat and the Tsaatan people. Their religion of choice is shamanism, and they are known to be very spiritual.
Tourism and Leisure
The lake has witnessed a sudden increase in tourists in the past few years. Two scenic roads can be taken along the lakeshore, both turn into bumpy paths after 30 kilometers, ideal for horseback riding and hiking. The western road is considered to be more beautiful, whilst the eastern trail is less touristy.
Fishing is allowed on the lake only if one purchases a fishing permit for 100 Tug, which is valid for either three days or until one catches 10 fish (whichever happens faster). These permits can be bought either from park rangers or at local guesthouses. A fine of 40 dollars must be paid in case of illegal fishing.
The small town of Khatgal or Hatgal is one of the starting points for every adventure around Khovsgol. Kayaks and canoes can be rented in town, where yaks and horses roam the small paved streets. Tourist camps can also be found near Khatgal.
An annual Ice Festival is held every winter on the coast, at Khar-us. It consists mainly of outdoor games, the gathering of locals, meeting of nomadic reindeer herders and performances by shamans, musicians and sportsmen alike. It is open both for locals and for tourists.