Mongolia Winter Festivals
Mongolia Ice Festival is a real winter wonderland, with a unique magical twist! Set on a Frozen Lake Khovsgol, a blue pearl of Mongolia and the largest fresh water lake in country!
This provides a spectacular backdrop at the southern rim of the Siberian forest and symbolises a deep rooted history, as a member of the exclusive club of “Ancient lakes”, which have been around for over 1 million years!
During the winter season and all the way up until may, this entire lake freezes over, with Ice up to 6 feet deep, which provides the perfect winter playground for this unique Ice Festival. With Temperatures dropping down to -35’C it’s chilly but if you wrap up…it will be worth it!
Taking place annually on the first weekend of March, this Mongolian Ice festival surprisingly only dates back to 2002! However, the activities and events are deep rooted traditions of the Mongolian nomad tribes culture and this Ice festival acts as a great way to keep them alive.
Locals from the area of Khövsgöl, Russian people close to the border and a pilgrimage of inspired travellers make their way to this festival each year. The two day event is hosted by the Tsaatan tribe, the group of nomadic reindeer herders left in the entire world.
5 Reasons to Attend the Mongolian Ice Festival?
1. Unique Activities at Mongolias Ice festival
During the Ice Festival expect to see an amazing array of unique activities from, horse sleigh races, Ice wrestling/sumo, dog sledding, archery, Tug o War (On Ice!) and even a bone throwing contest!
These various unique events will give you an entirely memorable and different experience like no other! After watching the Mongolian tribes go at it in the wonderful events, you can have a go a some more common activities such as Ice Skating and even the Mongolian version of Curling or as they call it (Shagain Naadam).
2. Wonderful Ice Sculptures
If you want to feast your eyes upon a truly unique range of artistic ice sculptures, then this is the perfect place for you. Forget, an “Ice bar” in Amsterdam…this is probably one of the most authentic and “non plastic” experiences you can feast your eyes on!
The best part is, as summer approaches…the Ice sculptures melt, which encourages the locals to create new ones the following year.
So any pictures you snap can be truly memorable and unique. One of the funniest parts I enjoyed there was sliding down the Ice slides forward, backward…whatever! I think I enjoyed this more than the local Children!
If you fancy a drink after all that sliding, check out the Mongolian Ice bar! Take a seat on a Ice Sofa and try some of Mongolias famous “Airag” , a fermented horse milk beverage giving it up to 5% alcohol!
If you feel a little weird about trying horse milk here are some words from the Dalai Lama: “The only difference between cows milk and horse milk is one comes from a cow and the other from a horse”!
If that’s not enough the spiritual encouragement, mares milk also has a host of health benefits! You know what they say “when in Rome” or “When in Mongolia”!
3. Traditional Mongolian Costumes & Ceremony
During the Ice Festival, expect to see the Nomdadic Tsaatan tribe and even the local Mongolias dressed in traditional and colorful outfits. If your into your fashion, this is sure a great way to get some inspiration. The costumes the Mongolians wear represent Mongolias 21 regions or aimags. This is great to see a diverse selection of cultures all in one place!
The Mongolian Ice Festival is also a great opportunity for the locals to practice some of their traditional ceremonies such as this famous fire burning ceremony which is practiced as a way to honour the Shamanic beliefs of the region! This ceremony even involved a Bonfire on the Ice! Which sounds crazy but actually did not affect the deep foundations of the Ice lake.
4. The Natural World at it’s best!
Mongolia is a real winter wonderland at this time of year and it’s the perfect chance to see the magnificence of nature intwined with the Ice and powdering of snowfall.
You can even drive across the Frozen Lake Khovsgol the deepest lake in the world to truly achieve a perspective for where you are.
5. Ride a Reindeer!
Move over Santa Claus! As the Khovsgol Ice festival is hosted by the Reindeer herding Nomdadic tribe, (Tsaatan tribe) you can expect to see this magnificent creatures being ridden out into the winter wilderness.
There is some quintessentially magical about seeing an ancient Nomad riding graciously on his Reindeer…it’s definitely not something you see every day!
Although, the Khovsgol Ice festival does not offer Reindeer rides as you would take a pony ride at the county fair. If you would really like to, then some nice members of the tribe which let you have a sit or even take a short walk on it. However, it’s best to learn a few basic Mongolian phrases to help out with this.
How to get to Lake Khovsgol Ice festival?
Lake Khovsgol is situated close to the northern border of Mongolia, about 200 km west of the southern end of Lake Baikal. Your best bet is to hop on a flight from Ulaanbaatar to Khovsgol’s provincial capital, Murun.
If you fancy something a little more adventurous catch a local 12 hour bus from Ulaanbaatar to Murun, this is a great opportunity to take in the stunning Mongolian countryside.
Once in Murun, you can take a local Van (Usually an old school Soviet UAZ) down the winding slopes and spend a night with the Nomadic Herder families. An alternative is to take a taxi to Hatgal a small town close to the banks of Lake Khovsgol…although most prefer the previous!
I would recommend hiring a guide while out there, there are some great agencies in Ulaanbaatar or drop us an Email Mail (at) townandtourist.com and we can hook you up with someone.
When attending the Mongolian Ice festival definitely choose an organized professional package tour which includes flight, an experienced driver and a good car!
As the Mongolian Ice festival has increased in popularity massively over the past few years, a lot of domestic flights and ger camps get full up pretty fast…so it’s best to book in advance.
Where to stay for the Mongolian Ice Festival?
This will all depend upon the level of service which you choose from your Mongolian tour company. Generally, Local and foreign travellers will be perfectly fine staying in the traditional Mongolian home, called a Yurt or Ger.
As the temperature can drop down to -35’C on some cold winter nights, the Ger will provide you with the perfect shelter with the heat being generated from the wood and coal burning stove in the centre of the Ger.
This provides a cozy and warm environment which is perfect for the harsh conditions outside. It’s also a unique experience to stay in one and you feel like a Character out of the Game of Thrones Netflix series!
There are various Ger Camps situated close to the shore of Lake Khovsgol which are “full board” including all your meals. You local tour company should book you a place before you arrive.
Word of warning:
I would always recommended planning you trip to potentially head to both Mongolian Winter festivals as the khovsgol Ice festival is first usually followed by the wondrous thousand camel Festival in the Gobi Desert (detailed below).
The reason being is that due to severe weather conditions, its not unusual for one or both of the festivals to be cancelled. So if you plan on attending both and you lucky enough for it not to be cancelled it will be a unique experience like no other!
If you need any tips on booking flights, accommodation and transport drop us an email at: Mail (at) townandtourist.com and one of our Mongolian experts…maybe myself will get back to you!
Thousand Camel Festival – [Mongolian Winter Festivals]
If you fancy heading further south, to the Gobi Desert during the winter season be sure to check out the “Thousand camel festival”. This is a wondrous occasion, with a very personal touch.
Here you will get the opportunity to see the nomadic herders up close and personal, you will see their way of life and how they interact with camels.
The Thousand Camel Festival begins with a colorful opening parade, where as a visitors you will be encouraging to hop on a Camel and take part! At -10’C be sure to wrap up however if you’ve just come from the Ice festival this will feel like summer!
During the thousand camel festival expect to see a unique array of games from Camel races to Polo. The atmosphere is vibrant and exciting which many colorful flags, cheers from spectators as the events unfold!
The camels are generally used are the two humped (Bactrian camel), native to Central Asia. These creatures look ever so majestic pounding there hoofs through the snow in the desert! One of the best parts is as the camel races unfold you can follow in your car or even drive to the finish line and wait there.
To give you an idea of the atmosphere here, there is a bookie taking bets wildly for each competition with cheers and chants get louder as the races start.
One such event which was quite entertaining was the “unload” competition where the competitors had to unpack and setup a Ger (Mongolian Tent/home) in the fastest time!
Camel Beauty Pageant?
There was even a Camel Beauty pageant! Where the best looking male and female Camel were voted for! When I was there two white camels took the prize as they are quite rare and highly coveted by the Mongolians.
Winter Packing for Mongolia:
The harsh weather conditions of Mongolia at this time of year mean you must be prepared. Pack plenty of warm layers of wool, cotton and even cashmere which is pretty easy to get while in the region.
Thermal socks both cotton and wool. Thermal underwear is also not a bad idea and of course a high quality Polar jacket!
Other extras include: a wooden hat with ear flaps, wind proof gear and even cashmere for under your gloves.
Camping/hiking gear for Mongolia:
Warm Sleeping bag (three/four season), Thermal Mountaineering blanket, waterproof sheet, first air kit and talcum powder is ant a bad thing to bring if hiking in the summer.
Useful Items to Bring to Mongolia: (All Seasons)
– Hidden Money belt (For passport, cash and other valuables)
– High UV protection sunglasses
– Extra pair of Prescription glasses if needed.
– Torch/ head lamp with extra batteries.
– Sturdy watch with alarm
– Ear plugs, eye mask for sleeping on transport.
– Lightweight binoculars
– Sealable plastic bags for wet clothes
– Snacks for travelling (Energy bars, vitamin supplies, instant meals (if needed))
– Maps, magnifying sheet and map kit with compass & whistle
– Matches & lighter with candles
– High Quality Water bottle
– Wash bag kit
– Useful items for wash bag: Shampoo, bio friendly soap , insect repellent, sun block, lip balm, eye-drops and a good moisturising lotion.
– Notebook with pencils, (Pens can be quite unreliable…especially in the cold!)
– Phrasebook. With useful phrases in.
– Swiss Army knife or similar
– For visas check out.
– A hiking backpack with waterproof cover.
– A good Camera to capture some spectacular shots!
– Daytime bag to carry water bottle, camera and equipment
For a great list of cultural Do’s and Don’ts while in Mongolia.
Mongolian Food while Traveling?
If you book with a good tour company, the Ger camps which provide you meals as part of the booking (full board).
The types of food vary with some camps offering an international foods and others just local Mongolian Delicacies. Some great Mongolian foods to try are Buuz Dumplings, and Khorkhog.
Wash the Mongolian foods down with the classic Airag (Alcoholic horse milk) beverage or try tea or coffee if your feeling less adventurous. If you vegetarian or have allergies inform the tour operator in advance so they can make the necessary adjustments.
For more info on Mongolian Food check out this great article: Epic Mongolian Foods (Scroll down toward the bottom for info on foods)