To get from Ulaanbaatar to the shores of Khovsgol, you can go with a tour group. You can board a plane for most of the 700 kilometers. Or you can wheedle, argue, flirt, sing, drink, giggle, and spine-crunch your way through public transportation. Tuya and I opted for the latter option.

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Our fellow travelers fashioned their seats out of leaky barrels, dingy towels, and a random box of pap-smear equipment. (Alas, each piece of said equipment was in shatters by the end of the trip).

The route crossed through six main points:
UB -> Darkhan -> Erdenet -> Murun -> Khatgal -> Jankhai, where you finally hit the lake shore

On the longest leg, returning from Murun to Darkhan, our van made a total of 28 stops. The 400 mile trip took 23 hours. Sometimes our two drivers wanted to grab more passengers. But sometimes they just wanted to buy blowtorched marmots.

marmotfire

15000 tugriks a pop:

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Altanhuyag and Monkhjargal halted to chat with fellow travellers, help me frame photos, and explain the finer points of Mongolian legends about the camel. One of those photos:

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Meanwhile, Yoomie and Dylan found ways to entertain themselves during the constant stops.

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About one third of the stops happened when our drivers wanted to assist other vehicles in distress. Despite his bum leg, Altanhuyag didn’t hesitate to grab his tools — his nuts, bolts, and axe — and squiggle under a creaking bus to get it moving again.

fixingthevan

It’s a Mongolian tradition to help out others on the road. And no one should argue.

When you’re on the path from Moron to Erdenet, six hours from either town, surrounded by puddles and broken bridges, and your van’s battery decides to explode at 3 am in the morning, what can you do?

Our drivers boasted mad skillz with tires and axles. But they couldn’t do much with the battery — aside from dousing the smoke with a bottle of Russian mineral water. Eventually a random driver wove into our field of vision. He bore a lighter in his teeth and wielded the all-important Scotch tape. Thirty minutes later, the headlights turned on; the tape deck fired up again with Abba’s “Happy New Year.” And our van rolled on.

The van’s final stop on the way home, next to the Darkhan river.

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In the world’s least densely populated country, a trusty driver is a baatar: a hero.

In the north of Mongolia lies the turquoise pearl of Lake Khovsgol. It runs one hundred miles long and holds 1% of the world’s fresh water. Mongolians don’t call it a lake, however; they refer to Khovsgol as Dalai Eej, or Mother Ocean.

You can see ten, twenty feet down with perfect clarity.
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You can ride or hike up the encircling mountains and breathe in the fragrance of dozens of wildflowers.

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Khovsgol Dalai Eej is home to Mongolia’s navy. (AKA: the ship Sukhbaatar, docked behind us in this photo).

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Because of its remoteness, this gorgeous place doesn’t draw too many people. When I visited, I saw more yaks dotting the lake than foreigners. Here are my friend Tuya and I, two lasses from Mongolia’s far East, sitting in the northern sun with a new friend.

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We met a bunch of government workers from a village in Ovorkhangai. All eight of them wanted to take photos with a “gadaa hun” (foreign person).

gadaahun

I felt like a movie starlet… until the next gadaa hun wandered along and they mobbed him for photos too.

Tuya and I wandered across a singing contest between a German tour group and their Mongolian guides. It took place next to a blazing bonfire. I played for the Mongolian side with my rendition of the popular song, “Mother’s boiled tea.”

bonfire