Every year, Mongolians flock to Khuvsgul Lake to celebrate the Ice Festival. According to this article, the Ice Festival first started in 2000 as a celebration of the lake. Despite extreme temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius, the Festival attracts many visitors and it is getting more popular every year. Here are 5 reasons why you should go to the Ice Festival in Mongolia, too!

vehicles lining up on top of frozen Lake Khuvsgul during the Ice Festival in Mongolia
How crazy is it to drive on a frozen lake!

The Ice Festival takes place in a remote, isolated place

Khuvsgul is a very popular destination among Mongolians during the short summer season. I had the chance to visit the lake last August and it felt like a small beach town bustling with energy. In winter, though, given the cold temperatures, this place is deserted. And although there is a decent crowd of visitors at the festival, the venue is just a tiny speck in the vastness of the lake and its surroundings.

Landscape of frozen lake Khuvsgul with the mountains in the background and a tree in the foreground
view of the lake from one of the camps

Find a spot to yourself and enjoy the quietness of the lake, only disrupted by the sounds of the ice cracking and, sometimes, the random car passing by in the distance. The stillness of this place will give you the chance to connect with nature and your inner self.

The Ice Festival takes place on the frozen Khuvsgul lake

close up of the lake with a crack on the frozen surface
details of the lake with ger camp at the end

The real highlight of the festival is the lake itself. It is very difficult to put into words how beautiful the landscape is (I have been trying for a while now, and nothing seems good enough). I will tell you, however, that you will find this place to be a natural canvas: air bubbles, frozen in time, that could not make it to the surface; frozen ripples and cracks carving random geometric forms. Mother Nature, you are a great artist.

People renting ice skates at Lake Khuvsgul during the Ice Festival in Mongolia

Not only is the lake a visual delight, but the experience of walking, or rather shuffling, on its surface is also quite amusing (albeit challenging and tiring). If you get tired of shuffling back and forth, you can swap your boots for a pair of ice skates, quite a fun way to move around. Did I try it? No. Do I regret it? A little. I really wanted to but not hard enough to take off my shoes in -20 Celsius… Maybe next time??

Full cultural immersion at the Ice Festival

The Khuvsgul Ice Festival in Mongolia, like other equally awesome Mongolian festivals, is a rich cultural experience. The different activities and ceremonies are an honest display of Mongolian culture and lifestyle; nothing fancy to impress tourists. And you will notice the truth in my words when you realise the curious and shy looks of locals who aren’t used to seeing foreigners.

The Ice Festival in Mongolia is not intended to be a demonstration for foreign visitors, so forget about seeing anything in English. But don’t worry about it, that’s part of the fun! Besides, chances are you will visit the festival with Mongolian friends or a tour guide. So, you are all covered!

Mongolians dress in colourful deel coats, which contrast with the pale blue of the lake. They also participate in different activities like sumo wrestling, ankle bone throwing or horse sleigh racing. At night there is a big campfire and a unique Shamanist ceremony.

Even though there is a significant language barrier, locals are very friendly and will appreciate any effort to communicate with them. One of my travel companions from Vietnam told me: “even though they don’t speak English, I could feel their hospitality”.

The Ice Festival in Mongolia is a great opportunity to meet the Tsaatan people, one of the many unique ethnic groups in the country. These people are nomads native to Khusvgul province and south of Siberia (Tuva region). Their society is built on their relationship with reindeer, with whom they have a special bond.

Another experience you’ll get to enjoy if you overnight in any of the camps is to live inside a ger under extreme cold weather. Spoiler alert: it gets hot.

Mongolian ger camp in winter

Mongolian food

You will find an abundance of spots selling local bites, mostly meat and dairy products. Sorry, this is remote Mongolia, no veggies for you. Funny enough, you will not find bottled water at the Ice Festival, so don’t forget to buy some at the supermarket. The highlights were warm fermented camel’s milk and roasted lamb. If you are staying in a camp you might be able to try buuz (Mongolian dumplings), khorkhog and other Mongolian traditional dishes.  

Close encounters with Mongolian animals

Mongolian horse

Mongolian family going for a horse sled ride on the frozen Khuvsgul lake during the Ice Festival in Mongolia
This family was all happy that I was taking photos of them and were waving at me

This horse breed is one of the oldest breeds in the world and looks very different from what we’re accustomed to seeing in the West. The Mongol horse is shorter, bulkier and has a slightly different head shape. Don’t let them fool you for their pony-like appearance though, these horses are the real deal and are known for their incredible strength, stamina, and energy. At the festival, you will see the horses pulling sleighs on the ice, and people riding them on the ground.

Reindeer

Two travellers posing for a photo with two reindeers at the Khuvsgul Ice Festival in Mongolia
You will have the chance to see the reindeer people

Have you ever come face to face with a reindeer? At the Ice Festival in Mongolia, you will have the chance to meet the Tsaatan people, also known as the Reindeer People.

Did you know that there are only 9 countries in the world that have reindeer? According to the Smithsonian Magazine online, the best places to see them are Norway, Sweden and Alaska. I dare to say they should include Mongolia, too.

Is it ethical to ride a reindeer at the Ice Festival in Mongolia?

If you are worried about how ethical it is to pay to ride an animal such a horse or a reindeer let me give you some context. Mongolian nomads and Tsaatan are horse and reindeer societies respectively as they rely on these animals for their everyday life. They are essential as a mode of transportation and for food and their societies would not exist as we know them if it weren’t for these animals. They are working animals yet they are free to roam in the countryside and, in my opinion, have the best life an animal “with an owner” could ever wish for.

The Reindeer People are a society that lives under very harsh conditions and they make do with what little they have. During the Ice Festival, some herders come down from the mountains where they live and introduce their culture to the festival visitors. To me, it is quite evident that no harm is being done to these animals, and that is why I personally chose to briefly jump on a reindeer for a photo.

3 Mongolian horses and a Mongol rider on one of them at the Ice Festival in Mongolia
Mongolian horses

And now the not so nice side of the story. As I was writing the very paragraph above I was a hundred percent sure that my opinion about hopping on a reindeer for a pic was valid. However, I reached out to a friend of mine who works in the tourism industry and made me rethink my choices.

While it is true that some Tsaatan herders will attend the Ice Festival for cultural purposes and earn a little extra cash, it turns out that there are also fake herders around the lake. These fake herders have their reindeer in this area year-round for tourism purposes. These reindeer, which have adapted to high mountains and extremely cold weather, have been removed from their natural habitat. This results in an increase in disease and a shorter life span.

Now that I know that, and I have passed this info on to you, hopefully, we can make a more educated decision in the future.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, the Ice Festival in Mongolia is a perfect destination for nature lovers and culturally curious minds.

It’s the perfect winter weekend getaway if you live in Mongolia and want to get out of the city. Likewise, if you are passing by Mongolia as part of a bigger trip, it is an awesome stop in your itinerary.

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42 Comments

  1. Awesome report on your frozen frozen Khuvsgul lake experience! I’ d love to go there one day and exhibit artworks on the frozen canvas 🙂

    1. That would be a great idea. There was a little display of art, very interesting and varied, despite the fact that there weren’t many pieces. More pieces would be a great addition.

  2. Oh wow, this is a truly luxury experience. I can’t imagine how cold it would be but the memories will surely stay with me for a long time.

  3. Hi Patri. What a wonderful and detailed account of visiting the ice festival at Lake Khovsgol. I have never been to it but have always thought about going. I have no idea how Mongolians walk on ice so skillfully, I can barley keep upright shuffling! Hopefully I’ll be able to make it to this festival one year 🙂

    1. Hey Jenny! Glad you enjoyed the read 🙂 I am sure you’ll make it sooner or later. In the meantime, we’ve got the Tuul river to ice skate >D, which by they way, I haven’t done yet.

  4. Omgosh I’d be so terrified walking / driving // ice skating on a frozen lake! Haha! I think I’ll just imagine horror things in my head (like what if it cracks and we all go down lol). But that’s just me. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it here too after seeing it in person! 😀 Too bad they don’t open it more to foreigners.. thanks for sharing that there will be some language barrier. 🙂

    1. I promise you it is not as bad as it may appear >D Many foreigners don’t come to Mongolia in winter because it is uncomfortably cold, but the experience is quite worth it, plus there are other festivals you can go to at the same time to make a more complete trip.

  5. Wow! your article caught my interest as I’ve been living in China (Shanghai) for 2 years. Unfortunately I’ve never made it to Harbin Ice Festival. Now learning that there is another Ice Festival in Mongolia that looks absolutely worth visiting, I wanna go back!.

    1. I am glad you decided to check out my post! I would love to check out Harbin Ice Festival, I have seen some pictures and it is so impressive!

  6. What an amazing festival! It must be quite awesome to take part in this local event and discover this part of the Mongolian culture! I would love to see it too one day!

  7. Wow! What an interesting place. Having grown up near the shores of Lake Erie in the U.S., I love the magic of a frozen lake. We did a lot of walking on it, but never took a horse. They must have special horseshoes to grip the ice. Thanks for sharing about this cool event.

  8. This sounds awesome! I lived in the Yukon for 10 years so know all about -25, and even up to -50 (wouldn’t recommend it lol). I’d love to go to this festival one day – it’s exactly the kind of thing that interests me when travelling.

  9. Wow. Mongolia has been on my list for a very long time but I never considered going in the winter. This looks really amazing. I have saved for consideration in the future. Your photos are great.

    1. Thank you for your words :). Mongolia is certainly a unique place to visit but winter gives you a very different feel for it. The best is just to enjoy the countryside since the city has too much air pollution.

  10. I have always wanted to go to Mongolia! It looks like such a beautiful place. I recently interviewed Mark Beaumont who said it’s his favourite country, and I read an interview where Graham said the same, so I must go!!

  11. Wow! Very interesting post. This looks fantastic so amazing! I hope I could explore this experience someday. Will save this.

  12. Mongolia is on my list for such a long time. This place looks surreal and would love to experience it myself

  13. What a great read! I’ve been wanting to read more about Mongolia and I’m happy to find your post. It must have been really chilly but the warm smiles and animals made it worth it.

  14. Wow, what a fascinating experience! It sounds like a great way to get an authentic experience of Mongolian culture. And what an incredible landscape to experience it in! Thanks for sharing it!

  15. I really enjoyed this super interesting post. I’d love to experience this festival. I think how it is for the local people and hope it will remain that way. I appreciate your discussion of some of the ethical issues.

  16. I had become super interested in Mongolia after visiting Northern China and this post is definitely stirring up those same feelings! It seems like a super cool time to visit (figurately AND literally), but I’m not sure if I could handle the weather haha. I have a question though: is there a way to tell if someone is an actual Tsaatan herders vs a fake herder?

  17. Wow looks and feels so magical! I can’t believe how much cultural meanings we all are unaware of in this world

  18. This ice festival looks amazing! I would love to experience this some day! The roasted lamb looks so yummy. My kiddos would love all the animals, especially the reindeer!

  19. What a unique trip! I love seeing different cultures especially when they aren’t concerned about tourism. Glad you got to participate!!!

  20. Wow! I had never heard of this festival before but it sounds awesome! Definitely one for the bucket list 🙂

  21. This was a very interesting post. I don’t come across travels to Mongolia amongst these travel blogs very often. The frozen lake looked incredible. Loved seeing the frozen ripples and cracks on the surface. The ice festival was also interesting. It must be difficult to acclimate to such cold surroundings.

  22. There’s a lot of information given in this blog that intrigues me, so first of all: thanks for sharing! I’ve always wanted to go to Mongolia, this blog makes me understand why. How did you experience the cold of -20 celsius? And, I also want to applaud you for being honest about hopping on a reindeer. I will for sure take this into consideration while being there 🙂

  23. I’ve been eyeing Mongolia for so long and you gave me a huge wanderlust to it! Although, I’m thinking about the extreme cold since I’m used to a tropical weather. Any advice? Thank you for sharing!

  24. What an amazing experience, I will have to add it to my list! Thank you for your research and documenting your amazing trip!

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