Catching cold while ice-fishing in Mongolia
Travel Writer: A question to the 4x4 driver led Lorcain Cameron on speeding dash across the ice to investigate
A young Mongolian herder child, with a tradition ger (tent) in the background, braves the cold. Photograph: Paula Bronstein /Getty Images
The interior of the van is covered with thick purple padding to protect passengers from the worst of the bumps, giving it the look and feel of a hip retro cocktail bar in London rather than a rugged 4x4 bouncing along a lakeside track in central Mongolia. It’s November, so the lake is frozen over and the terrain is pure white.
My partner and I are the only passengers. We’re on a four day tour of the countryside around Ulaanbaatar, the capital. We passed the morning camel riding in the desert, then visited a fascinating museum of archaeology and explored a Buddhist temple built on the site of Genghis Khan’s capital city, Karakorum. Now we’re heading to the winter home of a family of nomadic herders, who will accommodate us in their ger (a traditional felt tent) for the night.
About a mile out on the lake I can see a truck and a small group of figures. What are they up to on the ice, I wonder, and I’m about to ask our guide about it when our driver notices them too. He points and says something in Mongolian and all of a sudden we are speeding across the ice to investigate.
Most of the figures are sitting alone and still, sending puffs of cigarette smoke into the frozen air. As we slide to a stop and the four of us climb out into the cold a man in a black ski suit makes his way over, waving cheerfully. They are Russians. They’ve driven here for an ice-fishing trip – at least eight hours from the nearest border crossing point.
We transcend the language barrier with smiles, shivers, and gestures to the extraordinary vastness and flatness of the landscape. One of the fishermen invites us to take his place while he goes to share a smoke with our driver.
My partner and I take turns posing on his little stool and gently tugging on a line which drops from a tiny plastic reel into the hole he’s cut in the ice. No bites, but our guide catches what will become my favourite picture of the trip: my partner is sitting with the reel and we’re laughing at how silly we must look in this totally alien place, like two fish out of water. Behind us the featureless steppe plays a trick of perspective and the van looks like a miniature toy.
The man in black seems to be the leader of the group and he comes back over pointing at his truck. We follow him to the boot where he proudly displays two large sacks full of freshly caught perch, which have all frozen solid in their short time out of the water.
I’m afraid I might go the same way myself if we hang around any longer, so after a few more photos we say our goodbyes and set off back to the van to continue our journey.