The hour-and-15-minute prop plane flight north and west from Ulaan Bataar to Moron, a bustling provincial capital of about 40,000 people, is much like a flight anywhere until we come within a few miles of Moron.
Then the pilot announces that the runway is closed for repairs. Not to worry, he reassures us, he can land on the grass nearby – and so he does, quite smoothly.
From Moron we drive north on a rough dirt track that, thanks to a massive influx of foreign aid, is in the process of being transformed into a graded, if still unpaved, highway. The construction project, which is being carried out by four different construction companies, including one from North Korea, is a response to the new boom in domestic travel that has seen the once isolated and pristine Lake Hovsgol transformed into one of Mongolia’s fastest growing tourist destinations.
This summer, even as the physical obstacles to travel to the lake are being reduced by the somewhat smoother driving, the logistical ones are increased by a severe shortage of fuel. The problem is country-wide. On our trip to Hentie and around Ulaan Bataar, we found many gas stations closed. Acquiring fuel almost anywhere in the country now requires special permission.
The English language newspaper in the capital claims that all of this stems from a heavy-handed attempt by Russia to coerce Mongolia into giving it a monopoly on retailing gasoline. Russia already provides 90 percent of the petroleum used here, but until now, most of the retail distribution has been handled by Mongolian-owned companies. The Russians want to cut out the middlemen. In any case, for whatever reason, fuel here, as everywhere, is being tightly rationed.
Fortunately, for the weeks of hard driving that lie ahead, our driver has managed to procure three or four jerry cans of diesel. Our duffle bags , the fuel cans, and a small amount of food share the back of the Mitsubishi Pajero we have rented for the month. Unfortunately, the rough jostling of the car causes some of the fuel to spill within the first half hour of our three hour drive. Since our windows must be tightly closed to keep out the clouds of road dust that engulfs the car, we are forced to endure the hard, 100 km drive immersed in fumes of raw diesel.
The only distraction from my throbbing headache and constantly pounded back are the spectacular views from the dirt-covered windows of the car. Although the dust would suggest otherwise, there has been more rain here than in Hentie, and the hills are quite green. Pairs of Demoiselle Cranes with spindly-legged chicks seek insects in the grass where purple thyme and blue pasque flowers bloom.
Lake Hovsgol lies at an elevation of 1642 m – about 5000 feet. This is yak country. As we approach Hatgal, the little village that hugs its southern shore , the numbers of yak and cashmere goats increase, sometimes blocking our route.
The town has changed a good deal since my first visit here in 1994. Then there was one bakery, one or two small stores, and a public shower house where water was heated over an open fire and released at a scalding temperature next to a pipe that brought ice cold water directly from the lake. Now there are “tourist camps” every few hundred yards along the southern shore, and a strip of stores locally called the mall.
Thanks to Mongolia’s improving economy and the new phenomenon of “leisure time” for some of its population, with enough gasoline to get them here, visitors will come from all over Mongolia to enjoy the beautiful clear water of the lake. And so, during the narrow window that is Mongolia’s summer (late June to early September), two of the country’s rarest commodities, gasoline and water, become intertwined, for better or worse, at the place Mongolians call the “Blue Pearl.”
From here we will head north along the eastern shore on a road that many consider the worst in Mongolia. The mud there, famous for grabbing cars and holding them for days, will make our few hundred kilometer drive a 10 hour endurance test.
At the end of our journey lies a study site that the University of Pennsylvania has been using for the last several years to study changes in vegetative growth due to climate change. Here, too, are some of the herding families we are eager to talk to. If all goes well we will remain there until the second week in July, when I will travel further west into the even more remote Darhad Valley.