Ulaanbaatar is a bit like St Tropez: it has a brief seasonal window in July and August when the flights fill to bursting and it is hard to get a room at the best hotel in town. This is despite the country of Mongolia, of which Ulaanbaatar is capital, being roughly the size of western Europe. Sunday brunch at the glittering new Shangri-La bustles with Mongolian families enjoying elegant dumplings and import wines (Mongolia has had one of the world’s highest GDP growth rates over the past five years) along with foreign visitors gathering for the summer Naadam. This is the country’s iconic national festival, held each July, when a crowd of about 5,000 congregates on the edge of Ulaanbaatar, or UB as it is known locally, to watch the country’s archers, wrestlers and young children race the steppes’ stocky stallions. There are so few beds to meet the seasonal demand that in July this year it got to breaking point: the same week as Naadam, 53 heads of state attended the summer’s ASEM Summit. Alice Daunt, a London-based high-end travel agent to 100 or so private clients, was almost forced to go Airbnb instead.
“This rush for a tiny seasonal window confounds me,” says Jalsa Urubshurow, founder of Nomadic Expeditions, one of the only luxury tour operators to the country, who for nearly 25 years has been looking after the likes of Richard Gere and Buddhism expert Robert Thurman on their trips through backcountry Mongolia. “Summer is beautiful, but this country is a lot more impressive than a single festival under a sunny sky. Beyond UB lies a wilderness with one of the lowest population densities in the world. Spring and autumn are missed opportunities. In winter, the numbers are even fewer, with tourism close to zero,” says Urubshurow. “But this is also when Mongolia is at its most magical, especially when you go remote. The first dusting of snow is almost my favourite time of year.”
Putting his money where his mouth is, Urubshurow has spent the past decade and a half pioneering and developing an annual festival that takes place on the first weekend of October and promotes the traditions of the Kazakh nomad eagle hunters who live in the province of Bayan-Olgii in the foothills of the Altai Mountains. Now around 300 visitors are travelling “off season” every year to this wild part of the country – even to Mongolians, the Altai are considered to be on the edge of the world – with Nomadic Expeditions’ $1,000-a-day clients staying in a pop-up ger (round tent) camp that Urubshurow provides, to witness the display of mounted horsemen hunting in their sable-fringed coats, accompanied by golden eagles with 7ft wingspans. Heartened by the festival’s success, which has been attended by a smattering of high-profile visitors trusting in the simple comforts Urubshurow can pull off, his company is now bringing clients to Mongolia in deep winter, to attend a newly inaugurated ice festival in a different area – on a frozen Lake Khövsgöl, in the northwest of the country, at the feet of the eastern Sayan Mountains.
This is the event I have come to experience, in the thick snows of March when Mongolia is so cold that the tails of the cows – so the nomads say only half in jest –snap in two. But Urubshurow is right. It is also breathtakingly beautiful – the simple purity of all the white that coats the landscape, swirling into mist whenever the surface is caught by wind. Even the arteries disappear – the roads, the rivers, the trails cut by herds moving through the short-grass steppe – under snow that transforms frozen lakes into oceans of Dutch lace. While I don’t use the new luxury-outfitted Mi-8 helicopter Urubshurow charters for his top clients, I am warm and comfortable despite the extremities of both the season and place. We lunch at a new camp with just one ger on an island in the middle of the frozen lake, and stay in two cosy lodges on the lake – Ashihai in the south and Harvist Inn on the northern tip. Next year, Urubshurow will put up his own mobile camp for private groups, just as he does for the eagle festival on the shores of the Khovd River – replete with wood fires, camelhair and cashmere blankets, and his field chef who makes crêpes in the morning and Mongolian goat khorkhog for the evening feast.
For now, however, I am more concerned about a crack in the ice than I am about the wine cellar I know Urubshurow keeps, with the best bottles moving with his top clients on obscure journeys across the Mongolian expanse. Yet our Land Cruiser glides over the frozen blue like a speedboat cutting through the calmest of waters – slipping, almost dancing on a surface greased by the weather. Traversing a frozen lake in temperatures dipping to 30 below poses a serious set of risks, however. Already this winter three vehicles have fallen through the ice, says my guide, George Dorjee.
Any feeling of vulnerability is intensified by the facts lurking in the darkness beneath: Lake Khövsgöl is 267m at its deepest point, making it the second-most voluminous freshwater lake in Asia after Siberia’s Baikal. The two sit on the same geographical fault, the Baikal Rift Zone, which is the giant continental crack stretching some 2,000km from northern Mongolia, reaching towards the Arctic. Earthquakes are common, with some scientists speculating that the constant seismic activity will eventually, in roughly 650m years, lead to the Eurasian landmass being torn in two at this very point.
The threat of tectonic rumble isn’t enough to put off the steady stream of Mongolians from showing up – by all kind of nomadic means – to attend the festival. One gets here via a 90-minute flight from UB to the town of Mörön, with the local airport 90km from Khövsgöl’s shores. The alternative is a 10-hour drive from the capital on a newly paved, 680km stretch of road – built with the mining money on which the country now depends.
As we start to cross the lake, we see herders traversing the ice in sledges drawn by shaggy ponies, the leather yokes decorated with bells and coloured felts. One family comprises nine people on a single sled; they are bundled up under blankets that smell of sweet wood and sour sweat. The weather is so bitter their breath freezes in the air as they speak. Traditional gers have been put up on the banks; smoke curling up from holes in their pretty spoked roofs weaves through the groves of Siberian larch.
We drive on, meeting people riding to the festival in the back of olive-green Russian UAZ-452 vans – four‑wheel-drives that look like a cold-war version of the classic VW campervan. A few of the nomads are travelling by motorbike, some with open-topped sidecars. We meet a group of wealthy expeditioners from UB in bright neon gear, travelling on mountain bikes, tyres spiked with iron teeth to grip the ice, pedalling up to 70km a day in their circumnavigation of the lake. The more well-to-do visitors have with them round-faced wives in lipstick; they too are dressed in traditional garb, if with a little more silk buttoning at the neck than some of their Khövsgöl counterparts. Since the breakdown of the Soviet yoke a lot of money has started swilling through this country brimming with gold and copper. Yet Mongolians, whatever the size of their new Toyota 4WDs, also hold on proudly to their nomadic roots.
About 7,000 people have gathered for the event, says Naranchimeg Demberelsambuu, chairman of the Khövsgöl Tourism Association, with curling, ice-skating, tug-of-war, horse-sled racing and a contest for the best-dressed. Unlike tourist versions of festivals, this feels like a party for locals, thrown by locals. They feast and toast relatives and missing friends. Vodka is drunk with enthusiasm, and everyone ends up singing. That’s what this event is all about – merrymaking, in the depths of winter, in temperatures so cold it turns the mercury into a frozen ball at the bottom of the thermometer.
We press on to the lake’s northern tip while the sky remains relatively clear, travelling Khövsgöl’s 136km length before returning to the festival site on the second day. We stop for an elegant lunch en route, at a new ger camp on a small island in the middle of the frozen lake. In summer, says Dorjee, moose swim there to graze. We drink more vodka, eat spoonfuls of caviar and warm up by the fire. The camp’s main ger – simple white with orange-painted spokes – is tucked inside the island’s cedar forest, where the snow is a metre deep and is slipping off the trees like an icy glove. Called Last Frontier, it feels as cosseting as a Swiss chalet in a blizzard, and I am apparently the first tourist to visit. But Khövsgöl is also steeped in a far older, Shamanic culture; on our journey north, we pass totemic poles and cairns as we head for Forever Mountain, a sacred peak that towers over the lake’s northern shores.
Not that the journey is straightforward. Our driver, who used to be one of the region’s highest-ranking wrestlers, spends half an hour digging a way through a wall of ice that has stopped our easy passage. These banks of cobalt, which look like glaciers, are caused by currents and wind patterns on the day the lake first froze. They also move, shifting like a giant jigsaw puzzle through the winter, and now they have changed with the weather, which is beginning to deteriorate as we head to the village of Khank, population 2,500, where I sleep in comfort, curled up in a bed crisp with Russian linen inside a cabin heated so warmly I throw open the windows at night. I have a traditional Russian banya on the edge of the lake, and enjoy grilled grayling in a dining room furnished with a roaring wood-burner. Meanwhile, outside the place – curiously named Harvist Inn – the weather is turning wild.
By the time we are back at the festival, the conditions have become more extreme than any that I have yet encountered, even in the heartland of Antarctica. The wind has hit up to 57.6kph. There are moments when we can move no faster than 8kph, and see no further than a couple of metres. By 10pm, 130 people are unaccounted for across the country, with all roads closed; at the festival, 30 people have been reported missing, says the head of the government agency responsible for search and rescue on Khövsgöl. His team spend all night searching the lake.
Nobody dies. Nor do the Mongolian festival-goers let the weather cramp their style. We join them in their gers, partaking of their food and drink, feeling safely embedded in a culture where I have seen only four other foreigners in as many days. “Even a good racehorse is kept out in this weather,” says Dorjee, who chats in the blizzard with his friends like I might on a temperate summer day on an English high street. Children play in the storm like New York kids in a summer park. The sculptors are disappointed the weather has ruined their work, but otherwise, not a word of a whine. Not even from me when our flight back to UB is delayed. Instead I find myself wishing the airlines might be grounded for longer than a day.