This corner of the world is completely covered in ice. Shiny ice sculptures adorn the land, bubbles of air trapped inside them until spring. Despite the sub-zero temperature on Lake Khövsgöl, the spirit of celebration is palpable in the air. Nearby, horse sleighs carry people to the lake’s farthest corners. Sipping steaming tsai (a mix of black tea, camel’s milk, and a pinch of salt), onlookers surround the tug-of-war game in action.
This is Mongolia. Near winter’s end, Mongolians celebrate the passing seasons at the Lake Khövsgöl Ice Festival. Called the “Blue Pearl of the North,” the freshwater lake stretches deep into the Siberian taiga. The surrounding Lake Khövsgöl National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, including wolves, ibexes, and moose. But the draw of the festival is enough to overshadow them. It’s an opportunity for Mongolians to reconnect with their heritage as they play ancestral games and take part in shaman rituals in traditional costumes. Visitors also meet Tsaatan reindeer herders, nomadic people who live in the hard-to-reach northern regions. Tsaatan tribes make the annual trip south to supplement their vanishing way of life.
By dusk, the celebrations move to the nearby shore. A circle forms around a pile of wood, soon to be transformed into a roaring fire. As the shaman chants fill the air, fire sparks fly up into the dark. Before long, crowds dissipate to start the journey home, only to return again the following year.