Suitcase and World: Khövsgöl Nuur.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Khövsgöl Nuur.

uick lesson in Mongolian. "Nuur" means "lake" so this posting is about our visit to Lake Khövsgöl. Don't ask me how to pronounce the name....I'll mangle it.

Lake Khövsgöl is contained within the boundaries of a national park. Somewhere I had read that the area around the lake is a popular vacation spot for Mongolians and that its alpine feel gives it the reputation of being known as the "Switzerland" of Mongolia.

We arrived into our ger camp, which was located lakeside, as a gentle rain fell. It was overcast, rainy day and it stayed that way for the entire two days we were at the camp....not the best weather conditions for photographing scenic landscape....especially a lake as beautiful as Khövsgöl is reputed to be.

Walking around the camp grounds, I could see the alpine forests that ring the lake. I could only imagine how impressive the same views would have been had the sun been shining. Even through grayness of the rain, I could still admire the beauty of Mother Nature.

Unfortunately, the rain did severely limit our options for outdoor activities. Nonetheless, we found ways to spend our time. Of course, this was good time to catch up on some reading and some folks chose to do that. There was a pool table inside the main hall of the camp. Several of the guys decided to play a few rounds. A few of the gang also went for a horseback ride....not far and apparently, not much fun in the rain.

Violeta slept :-) I have to admit, it really was perfect sleeping weather but I didn't come all the way to Mongolia to sleep so I was determined to spend my time doing whatever activities I could do.

For example, I killed a few minutes shopping. Yep, shopping :-) A small group of local Mongolians had set up *shop* outside the front entrance to the camp. There were a lot of carvings, paintings, and woolen goods for sale. Forrest and Eric managed to buy some really nice skeins of camel wool for knitting. Surprisingly, I, the knitting did not buy a single ball of yarn. Maree had her eye on a beautiful silk Mongolian really did look good on her. I opted for a small carving and some paintings, done on deer skin, to bring home....small items I knew I could fit into my backpack.

With wool available courtesy of Forrest and Eric, we soon had a felting lesson from Jenny and Forrest. This was a very artistic bunch of travellers. Who knew we would have not one but two felters (not exactly a common skill) in the gruop? Having been spending time sleeping in gers which are covered with thick felt, I was curious it was actually made. Simply done, it's strands of wool carefully laid down side by side on a piece of plastic. The strands are then soaked with soapy water and rolled up and kneaded. Keep repeating the process until the strands all mesh together. I forget how many times you have to do this but what I learned is that like so many handicrafts, felting is incredibly labor intensive and time consuming. Luckily, I don't have to cover my dwelling in felt....I would be freezing in no time.

Eric also wanted to learn how to knit so I took my turn as teacher. First, we had to fashion some knitting needles. That we had Forrest do for us using a pen knife and a pair of wooden chopsticks that I had carried with me all the way from China. Knit, purl, knit, purl and soon Eric was on his way to making himself a scarf from the camel wool he had just bought.

Adrian and I also managed to convince one of the drivers, Erka, to take us the rain. Yes, we were crazy. I don't think Erka was really keen on going fishing but Adrian and I pestered him so much, I think he gave in just to keep us quiet.

Erka drove us around to several spots along the lake where Erka, Adrian and I took turns casting out and reeling in. It was a cold and dreary day. Rain was steadily falling. We were slowly getting drenched. Can you believe Adrian had shorts on? It wasn't exactly ideal conditions for fishing. Not even one nibble. We soon called it quits and headed back to camp. It wasn't until I got back to camp that I learned that fishing is illegal in Lake Khövsgöl. No wonder Erka was reluctant to go!

We did get to do one *cultural* activity and that was to pay a visit to a Tsaatan family. The Tsaatan are nomadic reindeer herders. The lifestyle of the Tsaatan people is defined by migration governed by the need of their reindeer. The Tsataan make use of the reindeer primarily as pack animals and to provide milk which they process into various forms. The Tsaatan do not slaughter reindeer for food.

I can't remember if it was Adam or Puji who told us this but before we headed out to visit the family, one of them told us that while the Tsaatan nomads are indigenous to the region around Khövsgöl, that the area immediately surrounding the lake is actually too low in elevation for the proper raising of reindeer. The family we would be visiting was essentially bringing the reindeer down to the lake for the tourists. A bit sad in a way. Adam urged us not to take photos or do anything that would look like we were condoning the suffering of the animals so I restrained from petting the animals or photographing them because doing either would require some form of payment to the family.

We set out shortly after breakfast to visit the Tsaatan family. We should have realized that we were definitely falling into another tourist trap when we arrived at the family's compound after a short 10 minute walk. Yep, that's how close we were to the family.

 Unlike *regular* Mongolian nomads, the Tsaatan live in tents....basically tepees. A small herd of reindeer were also on the compound. We walked to see the reindeer but no one took up the family's offer to sit atop one, pet one or even photograph one. The thought that these animals were suffering for our supposed benefit took the enjoyment out of the experience.

Puji waved at us to go inside the tepee. We entered into a very small, dark space with small rugs scattered about the ground. Cushions lined the perimeter. Cooking pots, utensils and other paraphernalia for storing food filled up a small corner.

We squashed ourselves into the space. I looked around and tried to imagine what it would be like living like this. Didn't take me but a few seconds to thank God for my worldly comforts. I could never survive as one of the reindeer people :-)

Sitting inside the tent were four people. The matriarch of the family and seated behind her, three western tourists.

The matriarch of the family seemed very friendly. With Puji interpreting, we learned a few trivial facts about her e.g., several of her adult children continue to live the nomadic lifestyle though one has left and is living and working in Ulaan Baatar....that must have been culture shock.

As much as we were interested in her, I think we were all more curious about her three visitors....all three of whom were apparently staying with her.

One of the visitors was a young Frenchman, who was playing acoustic guitar and singing khoomi when we entered into the tent. As we listened to him perform, we were all wondering who the heck he was and how did he find his way to this remote part of the world. After he finished entertaining us, we peppered him with questions. Thanks to Alexandra, who speaks fluent French, we were able to have a conversation with him. He had arrived in Mongolia three weeks earlier and is on his way around the globe. Amazingly talented, he had picked up the artform of throat singing in just the three weeks that he had been in Mongolia.

The other two visitors were Germans...and man and his wife. She was pretty shy....didn't say a word to us. He was quiet but he held his end of a conversation. As we learned, the Tsaatans practice Shamanism which is essentially a religion that is based on nature worship. The matriarch of the family is a shaaman and apparently the German couple returns every year and spends about 4 months or so with this family. They've been doing this for several years.

Soon, the conversation with the family matriarch and the visitors began to die down. That was our cue that it was time to leave. We each left her a small *token* of appreciation (read turgrik), said our thank-you's, goodbye's and went on our merry way back to camp. It was a short but interesting visit.

The return trip took a bit longer as we stopped to watch a flock of goats being herded across the road.

Along the way, I quickly darted towards the lakeshore to capture one lasting image of the lake. Though this visit to Lake Khövsgöl did not turn out as I expected it to, it was still a nice stay.....very relaxing.