Trekking Lake Khovsgol in Mongolia

Colorfull sunset over Mongolian Steppe

The lake Khovsgol near Hatgal is famous not only for being the 2nd largest fresh water lake on the Asian continent, but also for it’s colourful mountain ranges located on the West bank of the lake. For this reason, most foreigners when visiting the area take horse guided tours towards these mountains.
Here’s a great tip for you however: the best way to enjoy the beauty of the mountain’s reflection on lake Khovsgol is not by being on top of the mountains, but by being on the other side of the lake. Forget about the West bank, go to the flatter and less appealing area of the East side.
This is what this 200km trek through the Mongolian taiga and steppe is all about, with a bonus in the middle of it: some natural hot springs!

Full Disclaimer

Being a pretty advanced hiker, what you are about to read might not be applicable to you. 
Please get to know who I am before adventuring yourself in this article.
We do not all react the same way to the local environment and the weather could turn out to be very different.
Make sure you understand your body and mental fitness before engaging yourself in rough hikes. 

Quick Summary:
– Hike type: 1 out of 2 stars Loop
– Packing: 3 out of 3 stars (3 / 3) Heavy Backpack (~70L)
– Hike length:  4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) – 200km / 125miles total. Doable in 8 days
Hike elevation: 1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5) 500m / 1,650ft – 0.6% overall steepness
– Accessibility: 1.5 out of 5 stars (1.5 / 5) – Use of bus recommended
– Overall difficulty: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5) – No real difficulty except for the remote aspect of it

Preparation

The lake Khovsgol is located 1000m above sea level, meaning it gets cold quite quickly. Not just in term of season but also when the sun sets. Get ready for some very cold nights even during summer. Bring an insulated sleeping pad and a -5°C (19°F) sleeping bag as bare minimum. And forget about that trek anytime outside summer. 
On the opposite side, days get quite warm. So you’ll need light clothes and sunscreen.
Doubting about what you should wear? Read this article about Appropriate Hiking Gear.

Be psychologically ready to see wildlife (wolves and horses) and domesticated animals, with the latest being actually the more aggressive kind. Stray dogs wander around everywhere and are known to carry rabies. Be careful.
You might also run into some locals. They are very friendly and welcoming. If you run into any issue, don’t hesitate to aim for a inhabited yurt.

/!\ This journey will lead you to the middle of absolutely nowhere with no medical assistance anywhere near and no phone network. This is NOT a marked trail. I simply followed a map knowing there would be hot springs at some point. You don’t have to do the same.

Getting there

The Hatgal village from the East bank of Khovsgol lake
The Hatgal village from the East bank of Khovsgol lake

GPS coordinates: 50.434629, 100.159127
The trek I designed starts in Hatgal, located on the south point of the Khovsgol lake.
To get to Hatgal, you can either drive there yourself should you have a vehicle, and then leave it at one of the local hostels. Though if you have a vehicle you might as well drive around.
Otherwise you’re only other option as of now is to grab a bus from Ulaanbaatar to Hatgal. It’s anything between a 13 and 16h journey, but thankfully you’ll be using the only paved road of the country.

The Khovsgol Lake Trek

The Khovsgol lake trek is a 200km long journey that will take you anything between 8 to 10 days depending on your speed. Elevation is very low, as you won’t hike up more than 100m per day.

To start your journey, you must first cross the lake. The only way to do so is to walk downstream and use the only bridge in the area, located just 1 or 2 km south of Hatgal.
You will then follow the East bank of the Khovsgol lake for 10km. You’ll notice a clear dirt road which you can follow. Just pay attention as it sometimes divide itself with no clear sign on where it’s going.
If you don’t want to be bothered by the very very few cars you might come across, just follow the road from a dozen meters away.
Eventually the road will take a slight curve right and go up for less than 100m of elevation. Follow it.
You’ll reach a flat area with rocky hills on its left and forest on the right. Keep following the dirt road for another 13km until you reach a little stream.
After walking for 10km, feel free to cut through the woods of the North hills. If you keep walking North-NorthEast (check your compass) you’ll meet the stream mentioned just above.
(Camping spot n#1 50.477560, 100.385308)
Once you reach the stream, cross it (if you followed the dirt road, you’ll get a bridge, otherwise take your shoes of), and then follow the stream upward briefly before heading North towards a slight upper valley.
After 12km, you’ll have a choice: follow the dirt road or cut East through the land. (50.554861, 100.489918)

If you follow the road, aim East at the next intersection 5km from now. You can’t miss the turn, just follow the electric poles.
If you cut through the land, maintain an East-North-East direction. Follow what feels the most natural path for you. You might come across a few dirt bike trails here and there. Eventually you’ll reach a rather large plain and will have to cross 2 small rivers separated by 2 or 3 km.
(Camping spot n#2 50.560643, 100.583474)
Keep your course, going through forests, up and down in small valley and after 15km since you left the dirt road, you should end up on it back again. Follow it for 5km. You will now be walking towards the East.
After 5km the road is going to turn slightly left then take a sharp right. You’ll have no choice but go North or South. That’s where you stop following it and turn left (North) in the valley instead. (50.600187, 100.759494
(Camping spot n#3 50.620363, 100.727675)

Each natural hot spring pool has a private cabin
Each natural hot spring pool has a private cabin

Go to the end of the valley for 10km and follow the new dirt road going up North-East. After 5km of up and downs, you’re going to reach the entry of a densely wooded and hilly area. Stay on the path all the way through for 5km as it’s a very abundant forest. You’re now only 4km away from the hot springs. One last forestry hill and you’ll be there, so stay on the dirt road until you get there. (50.775277, 100.799677)
Once you’re done with the hot springs, get back on the dirt road going North. You will come across some wooden huts, walk pass them, cross the bridge and reach some more huts surrounded by a wooden wall. Keep going North and do not head West yet in what seems to be a welcoming valley.
(Camping Spot n#4 50.806645, 100.795045)
The path you’re following is going to get narrower and narrower. Eventually becoming only a slim trail before completely disappearing. Just before that you’ll cross a little stream. Fill you bottles because that’s the last one for a while.
Walk for 10 to 15km North and then cut West when you feel like it. The area there is swampy and bushy, so be ready for it. (50.863497, 100.733172)
If you get worried just remember: the dirt road is only a 3 to 4 km West.

Feeling lonely on the Mongolian steppe
Feeling lonely on the Mongolian steppe

Once you reach the dirt road, just follow it South for 80km all the way back to Hatgal. Within 40km you’ll recognise the area where you had initially left the road to turn East a few days earlier.
The dirt road will pass the lake Khovsgol by less than 1km more than a few times. Take time to get close to the water to enjoy the view or even camp.
(camping spot n#5 50.827833, 100.656278)
(camping spot n#6 50.757748, 100.519179)
(camping spot n#7 50.481949, 100.396211)


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