As just another ugly duckling of many standing outside the ‘Dragon Bus Center,’ a gruff Mongolian driver grabbed my bag and chucked it on board. I surmised my situation in the front of the vehicle as it filled with a steady trickle, filled some more, and then filled with rice pallets in the aisle for extra seats. Tickets typed in Cyrillic gave only a vague idea of what was to come, and the journey to Khuvsghul began.
The rendezvous was a small town cafe at the mouth of the Lake, which was more an homage to the creeping dusty streets of Eastwood’s Western classics – made a reality when several phones were left unattended, gone in an order of tea. We chatted with the owner and heard some context: it was Naadam and a highway had just been completed so there were a record hundred thousand visitors this week, not a single Ger was available, most ATMs were out of cash, and food supply was low. Hail poured from the sky and the wind cut fleece to pieces.
We managed to hail a van – communicating was a frustrating endeavor, given the fact that not one of us spoke a lick of Mongolian besides phrases like “hello!” and “right/left/straight.” I cursed all the gods and good people of the earth as we tried to delegate simple tasks to eight intrepid and woefully unprepared foreigners. Thankfully a couple bags of rice, bread, eggs, pickles, chocolates, peanuts, and a plan were arranged – get as far North as possible and hope that something was open.
Alas, everything was booked, so we set up shop in the forest instructing the driver that on Friday – “6 days. Today. In 6 days. Here. Saturday. This time” – to pick us up.
Most of the time was initially consumed with deciding what could be re-purposed for instant noodles and whose responsibility it was to keep the fire going. When the sun finally decided to blaze through the twisted gray clouds, nerves settled, tensions broke, and half of our group set off to the North. I trekked along. It was high-time to rabbit-tail it outta there.
As soon as we set our bags down at the final destination, a herd of sheep sprinted between the awning greenery – wild shouts of horse play and freedom about, they were in and out of our lives in seconds. Along the way we also saw a monument, a dedication to the lives taken during the Soviet invasion, and a shamanistic temple set in the shadowed depths of the wooded expanses, filled with offerings of rice, alcohol, and money.
On a hike up the side of one mountain, we had the opportunity to stare into the vast expanses of one of the largest freshwater reserves in the world. Even from a little less than a thousand meters up, there was simply no way to wrap your head around something of that sheer scale and magnitude. The world dropped off to both the North and South and nothing seemed tangible in a place where time had stood still for millions of years.
For a quick background, some rapid fire facts: Khovsghol sits at the base of the Sayan mountains just South of the Russian border, and as one of the seventeen ancient lakes in the world (over two million years old) and the most pristine, it contains roughly half a percent of the world’s freshwater, is about eight-five miles long and almost three hundred meters deep, and the lake area itself is almost a third the size of Yellowstone. Wow.
The fact of the matter is that this country has some of the most untouched and well-preserved natural beauties in the world, most of which is unfortunately changing. Social development has provided many with cars, travel routes, better sources of nutrition, but also mountains upon mountains of trash, witnessed firsthand throughout many of the Ger camps we passed.
For a country that now boasts the access to goods and resources that only a system such as capitalism can provide, infrastructure to deal with these externalities has not caught up, demonstrated by household policies of burning plastics or simply leaving them in giant piles by the road. With the recent development of the newly built highway, I have the feeling that it won’t change very soon.
As rumor has it, you can walk out onto the ice during winter when the lake freezes over a meter thick, and see straight down to the bottom where the rocks dwell. The clarity and purity of the water is not like anything I have ever heard or seen. Will it stay that way?
It brings questions to mind of economic alleviation, consumer empowerment, and the change we demand to see in the world versus the change we actually have. Yes, we speak many lengths of the economic benefits that Western social philosophies bring and how significantly better quality of life we can help to provide, but what exactly is the trade-off? Especially in these circumstances where many of us living abroad work in fields such as consulting and volunteerism – we sow our lives with ideas but what do we reap? What do we cause?
I see a natural beauty in the sacrosanct Khovsghol Nuur that I’d want to protect, but from whom?
I haven’t a clue, these are just the musings of a meandering muttonhead.