16 December 2011

Winter In Mongolia - The Nine Nine's of Winter

The Nine Nine's of Mongolia's winter. This is traditionally how Mongolians 'divide' the progress of winter.

I spoke to Turuu today. We spoke about the weather - it's as natural a question in Mongolia as it is here in the UK. Turuu mentioned that that it was a little cool at night (-33) but quite OK during the day (-20) - an introduction right there to his great take on the English language!

A shamanistic ovoo in Mongolia's winter landscapes
The beauty of deep winter in Mongolia
We're coming up to the winter solstice, and with the winter solstice Mongolians start is time to start to talk about the '9 Nines' of winter. From the solstice on, winter is classified into 9 sets of nine days (it’s set from the lunar calendar and understood as the 81 days of winter). Mongolian's in the countryside didn’t always have the luxury of knowing the date or time so a set of 'standards' were set that herders used to determine where they where in winter. Here they are:

  • 1st Nine:  Vodka made from milk freezes.
  • 2nd Nine: Normal vodka freezes/congeals.
  • 3rd Nine:  The tail of a 3 year old ox freezes and falls off.
  • 4th Nine:  The horns of a 4 year old ox freezes and falls off.
  • 5th Nine:  Boiled rice no longer congeals and freezes.
  • 6th Nine:  Roads blacken (start to become visible through the snow).
  • 7th Nine:  Hill tops appear from beneath snow.
  • 8th Nine:  The ground gets damp (snow melting on grass)
  • 9th Nine:  Warmer days have set in.
As Benedict Allen wrote in the Edge of Blue Heaven -

'On arrival and learning that the temperature was minus 18 degrees, I overheard a fellow traveller say ‘thank God. Looks like Mongolia’s enjoying a warm spell.’

If you're interested in the 'best' time to visit Mongolia, why not look at my Eternal Landscapes Mongolia Tour Calendar? I've designed it to provide a brief insight as to what Mongolia experiences are available when.

Snow. Ulaanbaatar in early June.
Steve being introduced to Mongolian weather! Early June!

1 December 2011

Why Camp Not 'Glamp'!

A majority of western visitors to Mongolia use Tourist Ger Camps. However, there is a much preferable alternative.

Within the Mongolian countryside, ger camps are being set up by tour operators and being managed by local herding families. Any ideas that help to protect the fragility of Mongolia's diverse environment must be warmly welcomed.  However,  I don't want to be too enthusing as they are our competition! So, enough about them - what do we do at Eternal Landscapes?!

For me, nothing beats the freedom of wild camping. Mongolia was designed for wild camping - a country of spectacular raw natural beauty where the wide-open spaces and stretching horizons awaken a sense of possibility in you and make you feel free. In a country of nomads, it makes complete sense.

Tent view. Khoridol Saridag Mountains, Khovsgol Province
Hanging out at Khoridol Saridag on our 2012 Wilderness Trails trek
Camping in the wild allows you to explore further within Mongolia's stunning natural environment. And yes, with a little effort,  it can be just as environmentally responsible as an eco-ger camp.

Campsite view.  80km from Ulaanbaatar, on the border of Khustain Nuruu National Park. Look at that view!
Hanging out at Khustain!
I know that 'responsible travel' is the current bandwagon jumped on by all tour operators but for me it is not a selling tool but an important part of our philosophy.

I believe that travel should be a positive experience for both you, the visitor, and for Mongolia -  its natural environment, people, culture and traditions. I believe that travel has to be beneficial to all concerned.

However, I appreciate that wild camping does not suit all. That's why I offer itineraries that provide accommodation in family or ranger operated ger camps. There will be no power showers, nor a useful plug socket so you can recharge your Ipod or phone, or even a ger restaurant selling cold beer. There will also be no large tour groups destroying the silence. What just will there be? - an authentic introduction to the families way of life for you as you experience their daily life and (if you wish) help them with their daily chores - collecting wood or water or helping to herd the animals. It provides an additional income for the families enabling them to remain where they wish to - rural Mongolia. 

Tent. Gobi Desert.
Taking a little time out in the Gobi

I believe travelling in this local way can give you a new perspective.  Things are done differently in countries in which we travel and surely this is partly why we love to visit other countries. Yes camping and staying at family run ger camps will be basic - but it is only for a few short weeks.

So why not travel with EL and let the open-spaces and horizons  help to clear your mind .  Watch the sunrise from the peace and tranquillity of a remote campsite.  Help the ranger of Baga Gazriin Chuluu clear up rubbish left by others. Stay with Batbold and Jargaa at White Lake and run from your ger straight into the lake for an invigorating (as in freeeeezing) dip. Or, sit with a book and feel the warmth of the sunshine outside your tent. 

I appreciate that we are in competition with other companies offering their own private ger camps or at least ger camps with western facilities. For now, through a mixture of wild camping and simple family operated ger camps we endeavour to offer real and local Mongolia in a responsible and beneficial way.

If it's of interest, find out more about my Mongolia sustainable travel philosophy.

Two Mongolian gers. Gobi Desert.

21 November 2011

Mongolia Recommended By National Geographic

The National Geographic Traveller magazine has chosen Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia as one of their 20 destinations to visit in 2012.  I agree. It's a wonderful wild land of high mountains, sacred lakes and nomads.

Mongolian flag. Khovsgol Nuur National Park.
The flag of Mongolia flying high on Chuchee Mountain overlooking Lake Khovsgol
For Mongolians, Lake Khovsgol is a spiritual place and is known as 'Dalai Ej' (Mother Sea). It can come as a surprise to learn that Mongolia is not just the magnificent Gobi desert and stretching grasslands. The northern region of this diverse country consists mainly of wilderness - rugged 3000m mountains, alpine wildflower meadows, river valleys and the southern-forested regions of the Siberian taiga - all dominated by Lake Khovsgol.

Shamanistic ovoo, Khovsgol Nuur National Park
An ovoo  - a stone shrine created to honour the sacred spirits of the Lake Khovsgol area
Ask any of the EL drivers their favourite place in their homeland, and all will answer quite specifically - the area where they were born  and Lake Khovsgol. Ask Bambakh or Lokh, brothers from a herding family local to Khovsgol who also work as our horse wranglers on our treks, why they love their home and their answer is simple - they just stand there with their arms wide open encompassing the whole region (as if we are a little daft for having to ask the question in the first place).

They state in the NG Traveller magazine that, 'If you yearn for a connection to the wild you will find it here'. At Eternal Landscapes, we all agree 100%.

Sunrise. Khovsgol Nuur National Park.
Our camp site at Lake Khovsgol. Peace in the wilderness.
Image taken by John Holman

10 November 2011

Mongolia Is A Country Of Sublime Space

A brief introduction to the vastness of the 'eternal landscapes' of Mongolia. 

If you have read the newspapers, watched the news or listened to the radio recently you will know that the world has just reached a population of 7 billion. It was reported in the UB Post (one of Mongolia's English language newspapers), along with reports including 'Dalai Lama spreads morality message to new generation on eighth visit to Mongolia', 'Nine Mongolian Olympic berths secured for London 2012' and (my personal favourite) 'Tourists bunk with goats in Mongolia'.
'At 1:49:23 AM (GMT +8,) Ulaanbaatar-Mongolian time, the National Statistical Office of Mongolia has informed us that the world population has reached 7 billion. During this moment, mothers from every corner of the world were celebrating newborn babies as “7th Billion Children.” In Mongolia, 21 babies were born during this time, and 2 of them were born before 1:49:50 AM, only a 37 second difference from the time of the announcement.'
Did you know that Mongolia is the size of Western Europe? 1,565,000 square kilometres of glorious space. According to the 2010 census (which 96.5% of the population responded to, not bad for a country with 40% of its population still semi or fully nomadic), Mongolia has a  population of 2,754,685. That works out at roughly  1.7 people per square kilometre. That's a lot of space and makes Mongolia one of the least, if not the least, densely populated countries in the world.

There is a traditional Mongolian saying: 'Man's joy is in wide-open and empty spaces' and in Mongolia this certainly rings true. If its all starting to feel a little crowded, visit Mongolia and revel in the sense of sublime space. It's glorious. 

You can read more about how to visit Mongolia with Eternal Landscapes by exploring my Mongolia holidays and tours page.

Sunset. Khustain Nuruu National Park.
One of our last night wild camps at Khustain Nuruu - surrounded by a whole heap of glorious space!

9 June 2011

The Mongolian Ger - The Cultural Traditions Of The Ger

My brief guide to traditions and etiquette when visiting a Mongolian ger

If there was a tick-list for experiences that travellers look for on their visit to Mongolia then sleeping in a ger would be pretty close to the top. However, when sleeping in a ger or even visiting a family ger en-route there is very much an etiquette that has to be followed. Here are a few interesting facts and some ger rules to help your visit.

Gers. Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Mongolia
The ger has had an influential role in shaping the Mongolian character and Mongolian family life. The small confines prevent privacy but compel families to interact and to share everything. Life in a ger tightens the relationship between relatives - making families stronger.

1) The door of a ger will always face south. It is considered an auspicious direction. The doorway facing south allows for light and warmth of the southern sun to come through the doorway as well as preventing the mainly north-north-west wind from entering, thus providing protection. When entering a ger, try not to step on the threshold of the door or speak to someone across the threshold of the doorway as it is thought that the spirit of the house lives on the threshold and offers protection to the family. 

2) As you walk through the door, you should notice the stove/fire  - the central feature. Either side of the stove are the two central support columns. Try not to lean on them  or pass something between them as it may cause bad luck. The two central posts are said to support the ger, like a husband and wife support the family and also represent the past, present and future.

The structure of a Mongolian ger

3) Guests usually move in a clockwise direction when entering a ger - following the direction of the sun from sunrise to sunset. The west (left) is usually where saddles, bridles and other items associated with men's work are situated (the west side is believed to be protected by heaven). The east (right) is usually where food and cooking implements are situated  - the women's side of the ger (the east side is believed to be protected by the sun). Sitting on beds is not considered rude, these double as seats, even if someone is sleeping in one. The north end of the ger is considered the 'place of honour', the khoimor. It is here the family altar is usually placed. In Buddhist culture, the head is an elevated part of the body in symbolic terms and the feet have accordingly lower status - try not to point your feet towards other people or important items such as the fire or family altar.

The inside of a Mongolian ger

4) Traditional ornamental patterns are a primary form of decoration in a ger - you will find these patterns on the door, the ger supports and other furniture. Orange is the main colour - the colour of joy, energy and warmth. Mongolians value anything old and of good workmanship as they derive real pleasure from craftsmanship and traditional style - often possessions are highly decorated.

A traditional Mongolian saddle
Decoration on a saddle

5) The use of auspicious symbolism is to bring strength, offer protection and bring long life and happiness. You will see designs of the Buddhist Swastika and lions, tigers, dragons and the mythical Garuda. There are also stylised representations of the five elements. Patterns used in embroidery, bedcovers and tablecloths are usually symbols of beauty and nature such as flowers or butterflies. The Buddhist 'Knot of Eternity', a geometric design, is also frequently used.

6) Don't whistle inside a ger as herders believe this may bring bad weather. 

7) Try not to walk in front of an older person - respect should always be shown for their experience and wisdom.  

Admittedly, that's quite a lot to think about in a short afternoon visit. The best thing you can do is relax, try to be aware of your actions and make sure to enjoy what will probably prove to be one of the highlights of your visit to Mongolia. 

If you're interested in experiencing Mongolia the Eternal Landscapes way, why not take a look at my Mongolia holidays and tours?

23 February 2011

Mongolian Legends - Tales From Khongoryn Els - The Singing Sands

Mongolian legends and stories still remain an important part of everyday life in Mongolia

‘The Gobi Desert seems like earth reduced to its most basic elements: rock, sky, glaring sunlight and little else. The apparent emptiness is both compelling and intimidating. But the Gobi is not empty, it is filled with space, sky, history and landscapes.'
Conservation Ink (an American NGO whose mission is to support conservation and environmental awareness in natural and cultural areas through the production and distribution of educational materials. Look out for their excellent maps covering the Gobi, Lake Khovsgol and the Altai).
 If you have been to Mongolia then there is a chance that you visited Khongoryn Els - the singing sands dunes of the southern Gobi. On some of our itineraries we include a visit to Baasankhuur and Maam whose home is located next to Khongoryn Els. A majority of their livestock are camels and Baasankhuur and Maam mainly use them for a supply of wool and milk.  Most people have heard of the infamous airag - the fermented mare's milk. However, camel milk is rich in vitamin C and  herders in the desert make a similar product with camel’s milk known as khoormag. It is even more unpalatable than the airag!
Clothes drying at Khongoryn Els sand dunes, Gobi Desert
Washing day at our rural Gobi  homestay
 Baasankhuur is an incredible guitar player and nothing beats sitting up on the dunes, under the stars listening to his interpretation of traditional Mongolian songs.One of the first times that I visited, I noticed in one of the ger camps that we passed a statue of a camel wearing antlers. I mentioned this to Baasankhuur and this is the legend he told - sitting up there on the sand dunes, the river glowing in the last of the evening light and with Maam on her motorbike attempting to round up her widely spread herd of camels. 
Camel, Gobi Desert, Mongolia
A Bactrian Camel of the Gobi Desert
The Camel's Tale - as told by Baasankhuur
Believe it or not, the camel was once the most magnificent of all the animals! It’s true! He had beautiful big antlers and a long, thick, bushy tail. Day after day the camel used to stand beside the river, admiring his reflection in the water.One day while he was standing there, down from the hills came the Siberian stag.
‘Hi camel!’ said the stag. ‘My brother’, he went on, ‘you have the most magnificent antlers I have ever seen. Won’t you lend them to me? I’m going to a party and I’d like to get dressed up.' 'My antlers?’ said the camel. ‘I’d hate to give away my antlers.' ‘Don’t worry’, said the stag, ‘I’ll bring them right back tomorrow.'
‘Tomorrow? All right’, said the camel, ‘But make sure that you do’.
And so the camel took off his magnificent antlers and lent them to the stag. And the stag ran off into the mountains.The camel stood beside the river, admiring what was left of his reflection. Pretty soon along came a horse.
‘Hello camel’, said the horse. ‘My brother, you have the most beautiful tail that I have ever seen. Won’t you lend it to me? I’m on my way to a horse-race, and I’m sure I’d win if I had your tail.'‘No’, said the camel. ‘I have already lent out my antlers and I just can’t loan out my tail as well’.'‘Don’t worry brother. I will bring it right back after the race is over.'‘You’re sure?’ said the camel. ‘Alright, but make sure you bring it right back.'
The camel took off his long, bushy tail and gave it to the horse. The horse galloped away across the steppe.
The camel stood there beside the river, peering off into distance, looking for his friends. He waited all day. He waited the next day, and the day after that. Neither the stag nor the horse ever came back. The stag stayed far away in the mountains and forests. As for the horse, whenever he meets a camel, he shies away.
And from that day to this, the camel remains waiting by the river, having quenched his thirst just incase either the deer or the horse return. Some people also say that this is the reason the camel can be as 'grumpy' as they are!

If you're interested in experiencing Mongolia the Eternal Landscapes way, who not have a look at my Mongolia holidays and tours page on the EL website?
Bactrian camel. Sunrise. Gobi Desert

10 February 2011

Mongolia's Morin Khuur - The tale of the Horse Head Fiddle

My brief guide to Mongolia's Morin Khuur - Horse Head Fiddle. One of the most traditional of Mongolia's musical instruments

I was trying to think of suitable music to put to a video slideshow that would be the start of a talk on Mongolia. It was a hard decision to make - visit Mongolia and music is all around you. Visit Ulaanbaatar and you will hear the beats of urban hip-hop. Spend time out in rural Mongolia and you will hear a herder singing or whistling with gusto as an accompaniment to their lonely work. Travel during the Naadam Festival and you will come across groups of friends (whether from the city or the countryside) celebrating being Mongolian with a rousing late night tune. I have also yet to find a Mongolian that does not like karaoke.

Horse Head Fiddle statue, Gobi Desert, Mongolia
The Horse Head Fiddle statue in Mandalgov, Middle Gobi
Within Mongolia, music remains an integral part of their culture with the nomadic culture, shamanism and the landscapes all heavily represented. One of the most traditional instruments in Mongolia is the Morin Khuur or the Horse Head Fiddle. 

The fiddle’s significance extends beyond its function as a musical instrument - it was traditionally used as an integral part of rituals and everyday activities of nomadic Mongolians. The design of the Morin Khuur is closely linked to the all-important cult of the horse and when played, it can produce sounds similar to the noises that a horse makes.The Morin Khuur is a beautiful instrument - not just in sound and design but in the legends surrounding its origin.

The Legend of the Morin Khuur (one of the many legends)

Once upon a time, a horseman rode through the night sky and spotted the ger of a beautiful herdswoman. He stayed with her for one night and at dawn he rode away. The second night he returned to the woman's delight, but at dawn again he disappeared.

After several nights the woman decided to keep the horseman by her side. While he slept she crept out to his horse and noticed that the animal had little wings above its hooves. In a drastic moment she cut off the horse's wings. When her lover left the following morning his mount fell to the earth and died.

Despairing over the loss of his horse the man grieved night and day. To sooth his sorrow he carved the horse's head from a piece of wood and transformed it into a two-string instrument, using the bone, hair and the hide of the dead horse.

The Mongolian horse head fiddle is played to this day in celebration of the spirit of all horses.

If you are interested in learning more about Mongolia, why not take a quick look at the Mongolia country profile on my Eternal Landscapes website?

31 January 2011

Mongolia - The Land Of The Eternal Blue Sky

Did you know the average population density of Mongolia (2011) is 1.4 people per square kilometre? This is my brief introduction to the vast 'eternal landscapes' of Mongolia

There is a traditional Mongolian saying: 'man's joy is in wide-open and empty spaces.'  Here at Eternal Landscapes we completely agree - Mongolia is a country of sublime space and to stand amidst its landscapes is to see the world at its largest – nature on an incredible scale.  It makes you feel joyous.

Mongolian ger, Gobi Desert
Physically isolated behind massive natural barriers, Mongolia is the size of Western Europe - covering an area of 1,565,000 square kilometres. With a population of 2.7 million this leads to an average population density of roughly 1.4 people per square kilometre. It is a country of sublime space dominated by the sky. 
Mongolia is an ancient land of marked extremes, from its climate to its extraordinary natural environment. This boundless land stretches from horizon to horizon in bands of colour with constantly changing light and shadows. It is a land of contrast and unmatched geographical diversity (the remote Gobi Desert, the forested and pristine alpine north, the endless rolling steppe and the rivers and lakes that bring vital life to the nomads and their livestock). Mongolia's 'ecosystems  are of global importance because of their diversity, size and continuity.' (Bradt Guide to Mongolia). 
The vast wilderness landscapes are matched only by the vast stretching 'Eternal Sky' and both landscapes and sky are considered sacred by the nomadic herders. The Mongols practised ancestral shamanism, praying to the spirits around them. They worshipped the Eternal Blue Sky (Tenger) and the myriad spiritual forces of nature. The Eternal Sky was the most powerful and mighty of all forces and Chinngis Khan believed that he conquered with the Rule of Heaven - the supreme god of the Eternal Blue Sky. A combination of shamanistic and Buddhist belief remains to this day as an easy and unselfconscious part of Mongolian life. It is expressed in the stone shrines (ovoos) and the names of mountains: most are holy or sacred.

Lake Khovsgol at Khovsgol Nuur National Park, Mongolia
Sacred Lake Khosvgol - Dalai Ej - Mother Sea
I frequently mention to our clients that travelling through Mongolia is almost like a state of mind. It is not a destination where you tick off the number of places seen - it is a country 'just to be' and let each day and each  journey unfold. I like to remind clients to remove their watch, wind down and not to spend time thinking 'when will we get there?' They are already there, surrounded by the beauty, space and diversity that is Mongolia.

Of course, all journeys can be broken up with a turn around an ovoo. These stone shrines are erected by local families and travellers to show gratitude and respect and to honour the spirits of the surrounding land.  They are circled three times in a clockwise direction, and a small offering made, in order to ensure the safety of the trip or to ensure good fortune in life. When you visit, why not leave a khadag (one of the sacred blue scarves)  to fly in the wind - it's a delightful custom and you will leave a little of yourself in the spectacular, fascinating and welcoming country that is Mongolia.

A shamanistic ovoo. Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park, Mongolia

 'With time the ovoos become strange spiritual junk heaps piled with the debris of Mongolian life - a rickety construction of anxieties and hopes'
(Tim Severin)

'Creating them remains an easy, unselfconscious part of travel. a ritual by which Mongolians assert their heritage and the network that binds them'.
(John Man)

If you're interested in experiencing Mongolia the Eternal Landscapes way, why not have a look at the Mongolia holidays and tours pages on my Eternal Landscapes website?

2 January 2011

Mongolian Legends - The Camel Versus The Mouse

One of my favourite Mongolian legends about the animal zodiac. And yes, it is still doing the rounds in the 21st Century

My desk is not always as organised as I would like. I frequently visit the office of my website designer whose desk is impeccably arranged and organised. When I mentioned this he said, 'I am a Virgo - we have a reputation for being neat-freaks.' This made me think about the animal zodiac - the 12-year cycle that relates each year to an animal and its reputed attributes. There are several legends and folk-tales about how the animals were chosen - here is the Mongolian version that I share with clients when we are on tour.

Moonrise over sand dunes, Gobi Desert, Mongolia.
The Lunar Calendar is used in Mongolia for marking the new year, traditional holidays and auspicious dates. It incorporates elements of the lunar calendar with those of the solar calendar.  New Year is known as Tsagaan Sar which means White Month. It marks the ending of winter, the start of spring and a new beginning.
Image taken by Egon Filter.

Once upon a time during ancient times, God decided to create a 'pattern of time'. One day he made an announcement 'I am creating a 12-year calendar; however, I need 12 different animals to distinguish each year. I've decided that tomorrow afternoon the first 12 animals that appear before me will receive one of the years, until I have all 12'. So, the following day, animals appeared before him - an ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and a pig. However, the 12th animal that appeared was actually two; the camel and the mouse. God did not know which to choose.

The camel is proud, big and self-confident and the mouse is the opposite: quiet, shy and modest. God decided to have a contest for the 12th year because both animals were equal to him. The following day the mouse and the camel were told to watch for the sun to rise. The first to see it rise would go back immediately to God and tell him.

The camel sat on a hill facing east where the sun always rises. He was confident that he would see the sun rise first because he thought himself as very intelligent and was taller than the mouse. The little mouse, sat on the camel's hump and when the sun began to rise he saw the sun breaking the horizon before the camel. Thus, the mouse won the contest and became the first animal of the animal zodiac.

(A new addition to an old blog post. Here, in July 2013, we've just said good-bye to the Touchton family who have been travelling with us in the Gobi on one of our Mongolia family holidays I was telling them the above tale when Turuu, the lead driver for EL, asked if I had heard what Mongolian herding families say about the ash left over from the fire in the ger stove. I hadn't. Herders always dispose of the ash a distance away from the ger and camels like to roll in the ash and use it as a 'scratching post' - Mongolian herders say this is as a way of trying to get rid of the pesky mouse that won against the camel!). 

Bactrian camel humps, Gobi Desert
Who's got the hump?!