Visiting Zuun Nuur (also known as Zunn Lake in English) is the highlight of our Day 4 Mongolia adventure tour. Zuun Nuur lake is situated about 2000 meters above sea level and it can be really cold (below 13 degrees) in the evening even during summer time. It is a salt water lake and it’s so exclusive that it is not even marked on the google map! We took 5-hour bone grinding ride on the trusty 4-wheel drive through rolling plains and mountainous tracks to reach this lake.
The ride became adventure when our vehicle’s radiator got overheated after traveling for more than 4 hours of bumpy roads. As our driver had stopped to refill it with water, we soon lost sight of the leading vehicle which has our local guide on it! We tried radioing our local guide, Saruul using our walkie-talkie but the hills blocked the signals. We started to get worried as it meant we could be spending the night in the open plains with no warm food, fire and comfy Ger beds! After filling the vehicle with at least six bottles of mineral water, our experienced and trusty driver cooled down the radiator and managed to find the leading vehicle by tracing for fresh tyre tracks on the hills.
From far, this lake looks normal to me with its icy cold water and stony-pebbles shore. We were told it’s a great place for birds watching but unfortunately there was no bird in sight at all. Perhaps they all flew away when they knew we were coming?
But Zuur Nuur lake is anything but normal as we found out later.
Starting Fire 101 with Pine Tree Wood
Our Ger camp was situated about 100 metres from Zuun Nuur Lake with a strip of pine tree forest buffering us from the cold winds blowing in from the lake. Behind the Ger encampment was a huge pine forest. In fact at the outer Mongolia plains, pine trees are everywhere and their fruits and needles give off a pleasant scent that is quite therapeutic. It is touted to beneficial properties for those with respiratory problems like colds and congestion.
From the forest, we collected fallen and dried pine tree branches as firewood for the night on advice by our handsome guide Saruul. The large chunks of firewood provided in the Ger are wet due to the cold weather and hence it’s very difficult to start a fire directly. The collected branches are used as tinder for starting a smaller fire so the wet wood chunks can burn easily.
With our trusty Swiss Army knife, we made some wood shavings from the dried branches. And then we lighted some toilet paper (it burns damn well!) and in no time we go the wood shavings burning and then we heap on the dried branches. When we have a steady fire, we start putting in the wet chunks. This is how we self-start fire in Mongolia.
We also gathered some pine fruits along the way and we roast them on top of the fire oven so the pleasant pine smell can permeate the whole Ger. It’s like aromatherapy but the natural way! Always remember to pack an authentic Swiss Army knife when you go on this type of adventure tour. You never know when you might need it!
Picturesque Place to Enjoy Whisky & Cigars
After collecting enough firewood, we had nothing much to do and we decided it’s time to enjoy the bottle of Macallan 18 Years single malt whisky we bought from the Changi Airport duty free shop. We placed our stools in a circle just right outside the Ger door so the heat from the fire burning inside can keep us warm. Luckily our lone lady traveller was smart enough to ask for small plastic cups from the duty free shop so that we were able to sip and enjoy the expensive but damn good whisky while enjoying the scenery of the salt water lake and pine forest right in front of us.
We banter and joke on almost anything and occasionally our laughter (mostly from the lone lady traveller) pierced through the scenic peacefulness of the lake and pine forests. It was like time has really stopped for us to truly enjoy the whisky, scenery and the excellent camaraderie we had. Little did we know that we had finished half the bottle and we have to remind ourselves ration and keep the remaining half for the rest of our journey. Hey, we were only halfway through our Mongolia adventure trip!
Then Mr. Shi (the better half of the lady traveller) brought out his treasure – cigars which he kept for very special occasions only. The sweet scent of the burning cigar, pleasant pine forest smell and expensive whisky became an intoxicating mix. The allure is too much for Mr. Leong, our youngest traveller to resist and he started his first cigar puff. Boy, there was no turning back and he finished the cigar till the very last bit until his fingers couldn’t hold the cigar anymore. Rest of us enjoyed the 2nd hand cigar smoke and fragrance while sipping sparingly on the whisky. That is what I call life enjoyment in the simplest setting with great company – its heaven.
Fresh Lamb for Dinner
After we woke up from our stupor, we felt hungry and are ready for our dinner. We were told that the Ger camp owner actually went to a nearby sheep herder family and bought a piece of lamb leg from a freshly slaughtered lamb to cook dinner for us. We were definitely not disappointed with the dinner menu as we had very nice lamb stew with potatoes and double servings of rice. I polished up everything because the meat tastes really tender with no strong sheep odour.
Sunset and Bonfire by Zuun Lake
After dinner, we thought the night has ended and we were quite sad that we only spent a little time at this magnificent lake. But our guide came and told us to get dressed and go down to the lake with him. We are going to have our very own bonfire by the lake! That really excites me and even though I have had campfires before during my scout days during secondary school, I knew this would be different. We are having it right at the lake and where in the world do you get this one-of-a-kind of experience?
Boy, when dusk falls, the night was cold and even though we knew we are going to have a bonfire, we still pile on layers of warm clothing before we walk to the lake. We gathered broken and dried branches from the small strip of pine forest before the lake for our firewood. Our guide Saruul, is expert in setting up the bonfire and soon in no time, we had a roaring and comforting bonfire burning. The crackling of the firewood is like music to our ears while we warm ourselves right beside the fire. We even brought along a flask of water to boil and make tea!
We stayed for over an hour and we really enjoyed ourselves with endless bantering and photos taking. When the sun was about to set, the whole lake area and sky was transformed into a water colour painting in shades of pink and orange. The reflection of the clouds, sunset and mountains off the calm lake water was really magnificent and is definitely the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. Everyone started bring out his cameras and started clicking non-stop to capture this fleeing moment. I’m sure all of us hope that the time had indeed stopped during that moment so we can bask in it forever!
The Only Regret
The only regret I had in Zuun Nuur Lake was not having a dip into the icy cold salted lake water. It has sort of become our transient tradition (Mr. Leong and I) that we have a dip in all the lakes we visited in Mongolia. Just imagine our resolve when we couldn’t find a lake during our Day 1, we make do and have a dip in a river stream instead!
We didn’t take a dip because we had the perception that the Zuun Nuur lake water is too cold for us and it is 100 metres walking distance from our Ger. If we had taken a dip, we would probably freeze to death from the long walk back to our heated Ger. But having the bonfire right at the lakeshore would have solved this problem and till today I still couldn’t recall why we didn’t think of that when we had a roaring bonfire that night. Perhaps we were too high from the vodka, whisky and cigar and merry making to be “sober” enough to jump into the lake!