Khuvsgul Ice Festival

Lake Khuvsgul is the largest fresh water lake in Mongolia. When winter freezes it over, there is a small bay nestled by a crescent of land a few kilometers from shore where locals of the province set up a festival.

Getting to the ice festival was quite a journey: 13-15 hours in a van with 11 other people across the rocky terrain with nary a road in sight. Once you reach the provincial capital, it’s another two hours to a small village called Hatgal, which is a wonderful little place that sits on the edge of Khuvsgul lake. From Hatgal, you hire a driver to take you across the ice for a few kilometers until you reach the sites of the festival. People from all over Mongolia, and a few from foreign lands, descend upon the lake to enjoy ice-themed festivities.

Reindeer People.

One group that makes the strongest effort to show up and make their presence felt are the Reindeer People. A group of nomadic herders on the taiga of the Mongolian/Russian border, they raise reindeer and are among some of the last true nomadic people in the country. They bring their reindeers to show other Mongolians, who are very interested in their culture and way of life, as well as foreigners in the area to visit. During the first day of the festival, I was fortunate enough to catch a traditional drum dance of theirs. The parallels I see between the Reindeer People and Native Americans is quite striking. In addition to the Reindeer People, many artisans who make knives, cups, and other goods from reindeer and yak horns set up shop on the frozen waters.

A few of the cups leaked slightly, but they sure were nice to look at.
A few of the cups leaked slightly, but they sure were nice to look at.

There were a few ice sculptures, but it appeared that some had been knocked down or destroyed, leaving only their frozen pedestal to mark where they were once erected.

One of the few remaining sculptures: That of a wrestler.
One of the few remaining sculptures: That of a wrestler.

Ice games were to be had: Ice wrestling, ice skating, tug-of-war, soccer, and so forth. One interesting game I saw being played was ice shagai. Shagai is the Mongolian word for ankle bone, and in the summer, people will play a variety of games with the ankle bones of sheep. Ice shagai, however, replaces the ankle bones with ice, and plays by different rules. As far as I could see, you take large blocks of ice and push them as hard as you can into a block pushed by someone across the way, so that your blocks smash into each other (and into many smaller shards). I could not see any sort of point system going; just a good deal of ice smashing.

Ice Shagai.
Ice Shagai.

This has been my second international ice festival. While it was nowhere in size or scope compared to the one I saw in Harbin, it was definitely a very enjoyable experience. I must say it is rather difficult to walk on ice, though. I was reduced to a shuffle, and I could not go more than a few minutes before I saw someone slip and fall. I guess that’s a risk many were willing to take.

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