Our first days in Khoton Nuur, a lake in a Kazakh-speaking part of Western Mongolia. Complete with the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen, yurt-building, and way more Kazakh than we ever spoke in Kazakhstan.

Sunset on our first night in Western Kazakhstan, in Ölgii, a town of 30,000.

Sunset on our first night in Western Kazakhstan, in Ölgii, a town of 30,000. This was our first yurt that we actually slept in — getting to this point took entirely too long, given how much time we’ve spent in Central Asia!

After our jaunt across the border and a couple hours drive, we found ourselves in Ölgii. It was a Saturday, so we knew that we’d have little time to get settled before we would be moving on, since traveling on to Western Kazakhstan would involve permits that we could only get on Monday morning. On recommendation of our guidebook, we stayed at the Traveller’s Guest House, which was everything and more.

Mongolian millionaires. We needed to take out a lot of cash in advance -- around $500 to cover various expenses and to have some with us, since we would be traveling in an extremely remote area.

Mongolian millionaires. We needed to take out a lot of cash in advance — around $500 to cover various expenses and to have some with us, since we would be traveling in an extremely remote area.

We showed up on a Saturday without a plan. On Sunday morning, Nazgul, the owner, sat down with us and showed us our options. We made a plan, bought a flight from the next town down the road to go on to Ulaanbaatar for the following week, and by noon on Monday, we were equipped with rented sleeping bags and borrowed cooking gear, had our permits for Khoton Nuur, and were getting into a car to take off. That afternoon, we spent 6 hours driving through some of the most glorious scenery I’ve ever seen. The roads may have left something to desired — roads, in fact, was a rather generous term, and we certainly felt every single bump in our Soviet-made military van.

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Although the sky was dramatic and overcast for most of the way, by the time we reached our destination, Khoton Nuur, the sky cleared and we were pretty much awestruck by what we saw.

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Small Kazakh settlements surround the shores of this glorious lake, and our driver set us up with our hosts, a family that lived spread across a couple yurts. Here was the couple that really hosted us, Oturbai and Manshuk, who were right about our age, with four young children. Immediately, we sat down to tea and a large spread of assorted dairy products.

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We bid goodbye to our driver and confirmed our pickup time three days later. Our original plan was to start there, and wander around the lake, but no sooner had we settled into dinner for the first night than we were invited to a wedding two days later in the area. Obviously we were going to go, so we decided to stick with this family for our three nights, and just wandered during our days. This was our first sunset at Khoton Nuur.

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One thing that especially added to the atmosphere was the feeling of being totally remote. No phone coverage. No internet. Nothing. Communication from yurt to yurt was done by horseback, or else people climbed into jeeps. It was amazing. The next morning, we awoke, had a lovely breakfast of dairy products (two kinds of cheese (none of which would pass for cheese in the US), butter, cream, milk), baursaktar (Kazakh fried bread), salty-milky-tea, and a little coffee that Maki and I whipped up for the family. We were also especially pleased, after six months of living in Kazakhstan, to finally get a chance to speak a lot of Kazakh. Although things were a little rusty and awkward at first, we grew more and more comfortable. The family told us that we were the first foreigners who ever showed up knowing any Kazakh. We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, even if our communication skills left quite a bit to be desired…

The perpetual table spread. We also decided to bust out our peanut butter to share, as you can see in the picture with Manshuk and Oturbai above.

The perpetual table spread. We also decided to bust out our peanut butter to share, as you can see in the picture with Manshuk and Oturbai above. The child in the center is Akbota, white-baby-camel. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the names of the others.

After we had had our fill, we set out to hike and explore. The scenery was truly spectacular.

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After about a half hour or so of walking, we made it down to shore of the lake. It was very cold.

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Along our walk, we came upon a Kazakh family that was moving one of their yurts a few meters over to another spot, since the last spot had become flooded.

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We asked if they needed help. They seemed pretty shocked at having two foreigners come up and ask, in Kazakh, to help, but they were game!

The state of things when we arrived.

The state of things when we arrived.

We, of course, were really excited to see how a yurt was built first hand. We jumped into action. At first, we helped with carrying over the various parts, but then we moved towards continued assembly.

The yurt at various stages.

The yurt at various stages.

I mean, how often do you get a chance to build a yurt?

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The kids also seemed genuinely amused by having strangers around.

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After the yurt was looking a lot more assembled, we headed inside another of the family yurts, where we drank tea, admired the two-week-old baby human, and played with an even smaller baby goat. And after we had had our fill, we headed onwards along the lake, stopping to make ourselves a lunch of buckwheat and sauce. Simple but filling. We continued winding our way around the lake, but eventually got stuck with the marshy ground and headed back, stopping periodically along the way. This picture was from a couple days later, but seriously — this scenery!

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We ultimately returned to our family after a solid day of walking.

Maki sits with the grandfather of the family.

Maki sits with the grandfather of the family.

We told them about our day, and even shared a few pictures, obviously over tea and dairy products.

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Then we helped with some of the evening chores, including helping herd the animals in for the night. I’m not sure we added too much, but we certainly had fun. The kids also wanted pictures taken.

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Oturbai was quite affectionate with the kids.

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These kids! In the first picture, Oturbai sits with his daughter. In the second, Oturbai’s brother plays with his daughter.

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The sunset was pretty glorious too.

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And afterwards, we headed inside into the warm yurt, heated by the oven, and enjoyed a hearty meal with our family, before calling it a night ahead of the next day’s activity: a Kazakh wedding. But more on that next time.

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