Dog Sledding in Mongolia with Al Donatio

In February 2023, KE traveller Al Donatio joined our Lake Khuvsgul Dog Sled Adventure, an exceptional winter journey across the blue ice of Lake Khu... Read more
Dog Sledding in Mongolia with Al Donatio

In February 2023, KE traveller Al Donatio joined our Lake Khuvsgul Dog Sled Adventure, an exceptional winter journey across the blue ice of Lake Khuvsgul in Mongolia. This incredible expedition is part of our Pioneer Collection, a range of holidays that offer remarkable and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. 

Al (and his friend Andy Brenan - also a KE traveller) popped into the KE office for a coffee and to tell us about his epic experience on this trip, take a look at his blog and amazing photos. 


Who is Al?

Al Donatio is semi-retired and lives in Boston, USA. When Al joined the scouts at a young age, he developed his love for the great outdoors and now he's all grown up, spends most of his time (when not on a KE trip), hiking and walking, while living in his log cabin nestled in the mountains. Al has now been on 35 trips with KE since 2010, ranging from the Ultimate Everest Trek to Trekking the Transylvanian Alps in Romania and loves anything that pushes his boundaries. When Al popped in to the office with his friend Andy Brenan, he told us that he and Andy had met in 2014 on KE's Julian Alps to Triglav trekking holiday and had been firm friends ever since. 

Al took us through some of the amazing experiences he had while on the dog sledding adventure and said that this KE trip was one of the most epic adventures he has ever done. It was remote, incredibly beautiful, a challenge and a real 'out there' experience. He'd always wanted to drive a dog sled ever since he got a taster on our Finland Winter Activity Week, so when he saw this adventure launched, he had no hesitation in booking his place. 

Read Al's blog below;

Hello Friends, Family and Fellow Travelers.

I recently returned from Mongolia, where I participated in an exceptional winter journey across the blue ice of Lake Khuvsgul. The lake is the largest fresh water lake in Mongolia and is located on the Russian border.  I drove my own sled of seven dogs as we circumnavigated the lake which is 135 km miles long, between 30 and 37 km wide and 260 meters deep.  

During the nine days on the lake, we camped on the lake-shore, went ice fishing, stayed in traditional gers (yurts), experiencing Mongolian culture and hospitality. 

Our guide, Joel Rauzy, a Frenchman, is an experienced musher who has been exploring Lake Khuvsgul for 20 years.  He knows every corner of the lake, how to gauge its pressure ridges and how to pick the best route according to the winds.  A word from Joel, "The lake in winter is beautiful, there's a magic there created by the elements.  During the nine nights we'll spend on Khuvsgul, we will see the lake changing, evolving, its frozen surface transformed, ice cracks opening and closing.  This is a true adventure, which we will try to bring within the reach of beginners.  The days spent on the ice with our dogs will remain unforgettable moments, not only for the guests, but for myself and the team".  I could not have said it better myself. 

After a long flight via Seoul to Ulaanbaatar and then a 2 day drive of 700 km across the steppe, we finally arrived at Khatgal, a small town at the tip of the lake, a former Russian colony.  There were three other mushers besides myself, Jason, Daniel and Darin.  We quickly became best friends. After settling in, we met our team which included Joel, his right hand man Lagua, the guide who attended to dogs (we called him Dog Man - he always had a cigarette in his mouth) and the guide who drove the motorcycle and side car (I called him the Shaman because he looked like one and 3% of Mongolians who practice Shamanism. He also wore a long fur coat and hat).

That first evening we had our initial briefing which started off with a bottle of Mongolian vodka (the first of many named after Chinggis). I knew it was going to be good trip.

Joel and Lagua drove one team of 10 dogs, while the four of us had our own teams of 7 dogs.  The Shaman and Dog Man followed us around on the motorcycle and carried the tent, portable wood stove, chainsaw and any other gear necessary to set up camp. 

We got quite the reception when we met the dogs for the first time. They knew that they were going to be running soon and were barking and jumping up and down with excitement. Most of the dogs were Alaskan huskies. There were also 3 Greenland dogs, a mother and her two sons and 1 Afghan hunting dog. He was bigger than all the other dogs and wandered into Joel's camp one day looking for a home. Joel trained him and he is part of the team. He, like all the dogs are super friendly to us.

They jump on us, smile and bark. However, the dogs don't like it when another team of dogs is trying to pass them. They are very competitive and start fighting with each other.  One day the Afghan hunting dog bit the collar off of one of my dogs because we tried to pass him.  I had the same lead dog, Bonnie, every day. She also did not like anybody passing her. Whenever another sled approached, she would run in that direction to cut them off. 

The next day we packed up the dogs, sleds and ourselves and took a short drive to the lake where we began our journey.  We rode the sleds between 4 - 6 hours a day and between 35 - 60 km.  Once the dogs were all attached to the sleds they were jumping and screaming because they wanted to run.  Each sled has two emergency brakes, giant claws, that you step into the ice in order to prevent the dogs from running away with the sled.  Joel would raise his arm and all the dogs would look at him and keep quiet.  We then released the brakes and off we went.  It was wild sledding across the blue and black ice. I had never seen anything like it.

At times it looked like you were on a lake.  There were giant cracks everywhere and you could feel and hear the ice cracking all the time even while sleeping in our tents. When we arrived at our first accommodation, a nice log cabin we were all ecstatic. After unpacking the sleds and feeding the dogs we settled in for our evening meal. Each meal started with a bottle of Mongolian Vodka. After a hearty meal of meat (we ate a lot of meat) we turned in early. We slept in beds that evening which was a treat.  

It was a beautiful sunny day when we rose the next day, fed the dogs and packed up. We were still ecstatic from the day before.  As we approached the widest part of the lake, even though we remained close to the shore, we could feel the intensity of the winds which were unusually strong that day. It was decided that because the winds were strong and the dogs and we were being blown around, that Joel would call the family with the satellite phone who we were staying with that night to come and collect us. They must have made numerous trips to collect us, the 38 dogs and 5 sleds. 

We hung out with the family, wife, husband, 7 year old daughter and 10 year old son in their one room house which had two beds, a wood stove for cooking, a small dining table, dresser with family photos and a tv. Nobody spoke English but we communicated just the same. I had some grapes in my bag that I had bought in the supermarket in Ulaanbaatar that I took out and gave to them. They don't get a lot of fresh fruit. The husband asked if we had any batteries for his headlight and he complained that the Chinese batteries only lasted a day. Darin had some spares and he was very happy that his headlight worked again. I taught the son thumb wrestling and a few other hand games and we quickly became friends. 

The wife cooked non-stop. People would come in, eat and then leave. We were served yak meat on the bone. Mongolia was celebrating New Year the week we were on the lake, so everybody visits family. It is an open house wherever you go. All you have to do is show up and the family will feed you. They were very hospitable. The next day the son gave us pine cones and we were eating the seeds. While we were hanging out eating the seeds, the wife put on makeup, her best outfit and then went out to milk the cows. The father owns a large truck and is a logger. They own many animals and are well off. His brothers and parents all live nearby. Joel has been staying there for many years. 

Luckily, the winds had subsided and we were off mushing over the blue ice and snow.  When we stopped for lunch on the lake, we met a couple from France who were walking around the lake pulling their own sled and sleeping on the ice in an unheated tent. Their trip was going to take 27 days. After a full day of mushing we arrived at our first campsite. Eight of us slept in a large, insulated, heated canvas tent. There was a portable wood stove that Joel designed where the meals were prepared and the heat kept us warm. As a matter of fact, it was so hot in the tent that we had to open the windows. 

At this point, let me mention the temperatures. The average daily temp ranged from minus 5 to plus 15 degrees Fahrenheit and I was NOT cold at all. I had all the cold weather gear that I needed. However, when I had to leave the tent during the evening to use a the bathroom, the temperatures were minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.  Now that was cold, but the stars were amazing. There were times at night while we were sleeping in the tent, a dog would start barking (maybe it was having a bad dream). Then all of the dogs would start barking and howling. It was like listening to a chorus. Then, all of a sudden they would all stop barking at once.

One day when we stopped for lunch, Joel fired up the portable grill and cooked up yak steaks served with a bottle of French wine. It was the best picnic of my life! The meat was so juicy and the fat so tasty.  And here we were on the lake surrounded by beautiful mountains enjoying a nice steak lunch. Each day while we are eating lunch the dogs just lay around. They are fed breakfast and dinner, but no lunch. However, they know when our lunch is over. They can hear the Tupperware containers being closed and they can see the grill being emptied so they start howling and jumping. They want to start running again. This goes on for as long as it takes us to pack up the picnic. Once we are done, we release the brakes and they run.

At the northernmost point of the lake we settled in for two nights at a camp which included comfortable heated yurts, beds and a "bagna", a Russian sauna. It would be the only time we washed on the trip. The next day we had a day off from sledding and went ice fishing. Sad to say, but we had the distinction of being the first group to never have caught an edible fish. 

When we drove back to camp, the Shaman (who doesn't speak any English) was saying to us in Mongolian, "What do you mean you didn't catch any fish? Go back out there and try again." Now I really don't know what he said but I am sure that was it. Well later that evening when I was outside in minus 30 degree temps and I saw him driving his motorcycle on the lake away from camp. I thought he had a girlfriend in the next village. When we got up the next morning, Joel told us that he caught 35 fish!  We feasted for the next several days on smoked grayling and grilled grayling at lunch (more great picnics, this time with white wine). So tasty and much needed after eating so much meat.  

After our ill fated attempt at fishing, we visited a nomad who welcomed us into his home, fed us sweets, tea and dumplings. We gave him some Mongolian money as a tribute. It was all part of the New Year's celebration where every house is open to visitors.

Each day on the lake was different from the day before. Sometimes we were on the ice, sometimes on the snow and sometimes on the "highway". I use the term "highway" because vehicles drive across the ice all winter. Every time a vehicle passed us, they would stop and the entire family would get out and wave and video us on their iphones. I am positive that we are on every Facebook page in Mongolia.  Joel is the only person in the country who runs dog sledding tours and not may Mongolians are clients. 

Most Mongolians have never seen it before. The mountain scenery was spectacular. We saw wolf tracks and wolverine tracks on the lake and because of the unusually high winds there was a fair amount of what they call "bad ice". This ice rises above the surface and is extremely challenging trying to sled over it. Joel would always seek out a better route, but sometimes we just had to ride over it.  

When we arrived back in Khatgal, The Shaman and his wife invited us to have dinner with them on the last night. We ate dumplings stuffed with meat and drank plenty of vodka, both homemade and in the bottle. A great way to end our time at the lake.

All in all, an EPIC adventure. Joel and his team did an amazing job navigating, cooking and caring for the dogs. My three fellow mushers and I got along great and shared an adventure like no other. The real stars of the trip were the dogs. I miss them already and have been dreaming about riding my sled every night. 

If you would like to find out more about dog-sledding across the blue ice of Lake Khuvsgul in Mongolia like Al did, visit our trip page.

You can also check out this short video for a taster of what it is like to mush your own dog sled across the blue ice of Lake Khuvsgul.

Want to find out more about KE holidays, then give us a call on 01768 773966 or USA/Canada toll-free 1888 630 4415. You can email; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and we can also organise a face-to-face zoom meeting on request. We offer trusted holidays with financial protection and flexible booking conditions. 

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