14 December 2012

Trekking Wilderness Trails in Mongolia - Trip Review

   'In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. The winds blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like falling leaves.'
(John Muir)

In 2012, we started the first of our yearly Mongolia trekking tours  itineraries. Mongolia is a vast and spectacular country and trekking gives you the opportunity to capture the true wilderness of the glorious landscapes that dominate throughout. There is a traditional Mongolian saying that ‘man’s joy is in wide open and empty spaces’ and trekking through Mongolia's incredible landscapes makes this saying ring true.Our 2012 trek took Eternal Landscapes and our four clients to Khovsgol Nuur National Park in northern Mongolia - a true nomadic journey with pack-horses carrying our equipment and nomadic herders acting as our local guides.
Northern Mongolia is dominated by Khovsgol Nuur - a national park with a beautiful fresh water lake at its core. Mongolians know Lake Khovsgol as Dalai Ej (Mother Sea) and its water is considered some of the purest on earth. The lake reflects the often-clear sky in shifting shades of blue - this is a truly stunning area.
Sacred Dalai Ej (image by Egon Filter on one of our 2009 trips)
Biologists use the word ecotone for places where different habitats meet - where a forest meets a meadow or a lake meets a shore. Khovsgol is an ecotone on a very large scale. The result is a wide range of habitats - wet meadows, shallow ponds, coniferous forest, steppe woodland, open steppe, alpine meadow, high mountains and the lake and lakeshore. Khovsgol Lake is surrounded by wilderness. This diversity of natural habitats leads to an incredible variety of wildlife and we  were graced with the company of elk, chipmunks and whooper swans to name but a few.
Shore side wildlife (image by Lee on our 2012 Wilderness Trails itinerary)
Our trek style at Eternal Landscapes is 'non-itinerised', which means that once we set off we don't follow a predetermined route - allowing us to make the most of whatever adventures may come our way and the local knowledge of the herders who always accompany us. This was a cultural trek - following a route that provided us with an insight into the nomadic way of life. We frequently followed a horse trail which was the  migration route of the local herding families from one seasonal pasture to another - passing herders cutting hay to provide fodder for their livestock during the long, hard and deep winter, stopping off in family gers for Mongolian milk tea and freshly made ger bread served with orom (clotted cream) and a coating of sugar. Travelling on foot allowed my clients time to really experience Mongolia and gain a true taste of its variety and diversity without feeling rushed or trying to cover too much distance in too short a time.  
Bambakh and Gerelt crossing the medicinal Khar Us - Black Water (image by Erin on our 2012 Wilderness Trails itinerary)
The remoteness of the area visited during a trekking journey in Mongolia influences the accommodation choices and therefore the amenities available. There were no showers or access to western style toilets. But even a hot power shower couldn't beat the feeling of freedom and the nightly camp fires under a blanket of stars.

One of the major highlights has to be spending time with our horse wranglers during the trek - Bambakh and his sister Gerelt. The people of Mongolia are well-matched to the land they inhabit and have a deep connection with the immense open spaces, the sacred landscapes, with nature and the elements. To gain a true understanding of the life of a nomadic herder it is important to witness and experience their daily life and the landscapes that they are dependent on and spending time with Bambakh and Gerelt very much allowed my clients to gain a true insight into this unique way of life. Especially the evening we spent in their home at the end of the trek - drinking tea, eating khuushuur, eating tsuivan, drinking tea, eating bread and cream, drinking tea......
En route through the Khoridol Saridag Mountains (image by Zeynep on our 2012 Wilderness Trails itinerary)

There were three distinctive parts to our trek - firstly, we followed the flat western-forested shore of Lake Khovsgol to Jigleg Pass passing lakeside lagoons - a major and unique feature of the ecology of the national park, which provide an important breeding and migration ground for many waterfowl. Jigleg Pass is one of the few routes into the interior mountains and the small town of Renchinlumbe located within the Darkhad Depression. 

Our route then took us into the  Darkhad Depression - a region of incredible natural diversity - an intricate system of wetlands, ponds and lakes surrounded by a broad expanse of open steppe along with deep coniferous taiga forest. This area is considered a sacred landscape where every hill, river, tree and stone is the dwelling place of a natural spirit. The Mongols practised ancestral shamanism (the worshipping of the Eternal Blue Sky and the spiritual forces of nature) and shamanism remains a strong element in the culture of this area.

Sacred ovoo at Jigleg Pass (image by Lee on our 2012 Wilderness Trails itinerary)

From the Darkhad Depression we trekked through the Khoridol Saridag Mountains - our route taking us over 2800m mountain passes and along gravel river beds. The Khoridol Saridag Range is primarily uplifted dolomite and the very barren, arid upland areas contrast with great beauty against the lower rich alpine meadows. 

Exiting the panorama of the Khoridol Saridag Range (image by me on our 2012 Wilderness Trails itinerary)

 This is not the kind of trek that has a definite goal in mind - such as climbing Tavan Bogd in the far west of Mongolia or achieving Everest Base Camp. It is the kind of trek when you remove your watch and follow the pace of the pack-horses. In the words of one of our 2012 Wilderness Trails clients, Zeynep Ozbek:

      'A trekking adventure in Mongolia is all about living the Mongolian nomadic way of life, sampling first hand a nomad's way of life. Living like the locals brings you in touch with nature, experiencing the joys of watching huge herds of animals on the move, flora and fauna in abundance everywhere and pristine lakes and rivers. The vast landscapes make you feel free and help you to forget the hurly burly of modern life. It is like stepping into a different way of thinking and living.'

Under the Eternal Blue Sky (image by Zeynep on our 2012 Wilderness Trails itinerary)
I would like to thank Bambakh and Gerelt  who alway do a great job and offer their hospitality with such warmth and kindness. I would also like to thank Zeyenp, Lee, Erin and Jon for booking onto our 2012 Wilderness Trails itinerary - it was a pleasure to share our Mongolia with you.

In 2013, the rugged Khangai Mountains in central Mongolia will form the stunning backdrop to our Wilderness Trails trek -  a wonderful, wild part of the world and one of the world’s reservoirs of biodiversity, a land of mountains, lakes and nomads. Please get in touch soon if you would like to join us on this adventure.

'Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.'
John Muir

Bambakh taking time out on the way to the Darkhad Depression (image by Lee on our 2012 Wilderness Trails itinerary)

11 November 2012

World Toilet Day - Off the beaten track with a toilet....

It's World Toilet Day on November 19th (bear with me here). The aim of the day is to raise global awareness of the struggle 2.6 billion face every day without access to proper, clean sanitation.

Loo with a view - Khovsgol!
Toilets. Always high on the list of travel stories and experiences - especially the ones involving a dropped passport out of the back pocket into a long-drop pit toilet. In health and safety terms, toilets should have a risk assessment heading all of their own. Toilets, as the founder and principal guide of Eternal Landscapes, are strangely, always at the forefront of my mind.

Our itineraries focus on camping in the wild or using family operated ger camps. That means there is a lack of western style flush toilets (no bad thing, as frequently these are worse than the long-drop - I sense a nodding of heads in agreement and in a country where water sources are scarce use up a valuable resource). But what to do. Bury it. Pack it out. Don't care and just leave it under a rock. Then again, Mongolia is a country of herders owning up to 55 million head of livestock* - that's an incredible amount of dung so need we worry?

* 63 million as of  December 2016
Rush hour - that's one whole heap of dung right there!

Regarding our material waste, we follow the philosophy of pack it in and pack it out as much as possible - we do not bury or burn and we even clean up rubbish left by others and carry that out as well. Mongolia has very restricted waste disposal (frequently roadside dumps that are set on fire at random intervals) so we try to recycle (mainly plastic bottles, drinks cans and glass bottles).

However, pack it out is now the accepted norm for human waste as well. There you are.  First day of your  ten day Wilderness Trails hike in northern Mongolia. Nothing but you, your four clients, your two horse wranglers and five extremely lovable and strong-willed pack horses. It is recommended that you pack out your own waste in a strong sealed container to dispose of later - you can imagine the briefing, even better the loading and transportation issues especially when the horses (being the strong-willed type) often take a dislike to something on the trail (loud noise, sudden movement, falling leaf) and break loose and gallop off leaving a trail of equipment and strong sealed containers full of poo. Then there is the question of what do you do with it when there will be no flush toilets for at least 13 days and the first one you know you will come across is a communal one at a Soviet era hotel with bad plumbing?

Of course, there is now the Wag Bag, this is not a designer handbag purchased by a girlfriend of one of the UK's premier football team, but a toilet bag that is biodegradable and approved for landfill (a 12-pack weighs 3lbs, costs £34.91.....how many would you need for all the clients and staff for an entire season,  that's a whole heap of statistics waiting to give me a headache).

So. For now, I follow four guiding principles: avoid polluting water sources, eliminate contact with wild animals, maximize decomposition, and minimize the chances of social impacts. But in celebration of World Toilet Day, I've revised our practises.

From 2013, every client will be provided with a toilet bag- toilet paper, small hand trowel, biodegradable plastic bags (where possible) and an anti-bacterial hand-sanitiser. As we do now, small groups and/or in little visited areas will dig widely dispersed 'catholes' 6-8 inches deep. With our larger groups of eight and/or in more visited areas we dig a communal hole that all use - usually a loo with a truly remarkable view. If we can find biodegradable bags then we encourage clients to use them for their toilet paper, if we can't locate any then toilet paper is buried. Paper is never burnt as it rarely burns completely and for the main reason of starting a grassland or forest fire (and that's a whole heap of other trouble).

It took us a long time this autumn to find suitable trowels......the Gobi is hard-packed earth, dense forest cover is perfect apart from where you hit a root, tussocks are a nightmare. We bought a surplus supply.

 And then there is the question of what do you do when it's minus 20, you have your trowel and the land is frozen.....Told you, toilets are always at the forefront of my mind. Cash-flow forecast. Staff training. Toilets.

November the 19th. World Toilet Day. I bet you didn't know there was so much to think about....!

21 October 2012

Mongolia's Olympian Spirit

Friday August 17th 2012. The Granville Restaurant and Bar. Downtown Ulaan Baatar. The Olympics had finished with the Closing Ceremony on August 12th and we were having our own 'closing ceremony' of our 3-week Untamed Mongolia adventure.

During the Untamed Mongolia itinerary, Suzanne from Australia did a truly superb job of keeping us all up to date with the Olympic results with the help of the recharging unit of the Furgon van, her IPhone and then her sister still at home in Australia. Whenever we had signal she would be bombarded with requests - has ______  won any of the heats, how many medals does _____ now have, when does the _____ take place.

At the end of the tour during our farewell dinner, one of our clients asked Turuu, the lead driver for Eternal Landscapes, about the Mongolian medal tally of 5 - their best ever result yet but still with gold remaining elusive. He replied, in his own self-taught version of the English language, (helped in confidence by a couple of large draft Chinggis beers) 'we are very happy. We are a country of about 3 million people and 5 medals is good. The colour is not important - it's being in the Olympics' (it's not the exact quote but then I had also had a couple of large (and delicious) draft Chinggis beers).
Team Mongolia! (www.mongolianartlondon.wordpress.com)
Although the country of Mongolia is superbly vast with a minimal population it was easy to feel the Olympic spirit in Mongolia this summer (and no I don't mean the vodka). Pierre de Courbertin revived the Olympics - he formed the IOC (the International Olympic Committee) in 1894 and Athens hosted the first modern Olympic games in 1896. De Courbertin believed that 'the important thing in life is not to triumph, but to compete' - the Olympic motto is 'Citius, Altius, Fortius' - 'Faster, Higher, Stronger' challenging each competitor into being the best they can be and to me that is certainly the attitude with which the Mongolian team attacked the 2012 London Olympics. Mongolia is developing a reputation as a country that punches above its weight at the Olympics - a team of 29 competed in 7 sports with the medals being won in  judo, wrestling and boxing.

Maybe its their heritage, following in the footsteps of Chinggis Khan and the Mongol tribes and the influence of their nomadic culture (that locals say still runs in the veins of most - even some of the city-based) that leads to their strength, endurance and competitive spirit. Judoka Tuvshinbayar Naidan became the first Mongolian athlete to win two medals in Mongolian Olympic history with his 2012 silver. The 2008 gold medal winner competed in the London 2012 100kg men's judo final even though he suffered a tear to his anterior cruciate ligament in the semi-final (and although I don't know much about these things, it sounds most certainly painful).

There was certainly a sense of pride in the Mongolian athletes representing their country - however remote the chance of winning a medal. Oyungerel Gantumur competed in the women's 100m breaststroke and although she didn't make it past the heats its pretty damn impressive for a landlocked country where the number of swimming pools can be counted on one hand (with a few fingers left over) and any fresh water lake is frozen hard for at least a third if not more of the year.

Tuvshinbayar Naidan celebrating his semi-final victory (FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)
Now, the Mongolian athletes have returned home with the province of Bulgan (the home province of Tuvshinbayar Naidan) holding a Naadam Festival in his honour to celebrate his return and in a country where a glass of vodka is often given in honour, that's a pretty big honour to receive!

Although I'm from the UK I couldn't be in London to experience the Olympics. But Mongolia is my second home and it certainly made a good second  to experience the Olympics from - it was thrilling, it was heart-warming, there was brilliant sportsmanship and yes, at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur I did find myself in the family ger shouting my head off for someone whose name I had much difficultly in pronouncing but who I really wanted to win in a sport that I had previously no knowledge of  - it was just brilliant.

14 July 2012

Mongolia's Naadam Festival - Saikhan Naadaarai!

In need of a little celebration in your life? A little colour? Put July 11th and 12th in your diary and come to Mongolia to experience the national Naadam Festival - Erin Gurvan Naadam - The Three Manly Sports. 

'Naad' means games and Naadam highlights the three manly sports of wrestling, archery and horse racing. It is a time when Mongolians celebrate who they are, how proud they are to be Mongolian, their heritage and the qualities that produced the warrior nation and Mongol Empire. 
The horse racing is a test  of speed, stamina and strength. In Mongolia, it is the horse and not the jockey that wins the race. Child jockeys are chosen as they are lighter - their role is not to force the horse but only to guide it to the winning post.
The origins of Naadam can be found in the Khan meetings - the traditional councils held by warrior Mongols. Victory on a battlefield alone did not confer legitimacy of rule until publicly acclaimed at a gathering of representatives from every part of the territory. At the gatherings, competitions were held in traditional games - considered essential skills for warriors. 

The Opening Ceremony  - the National Naadam Festival - Ulaan Baatar
I love Naadam. I love the atmosphere, the crowds, the noise and the colour. Yes! I know a majority of international visitors and tour companies prefer a Naadam based in the countryside and I agree, as they are very special local events. However, I retain a fondness for the 'big one!' It is a true Mongolian celebration of ordinary people taking pride in their country and century's old tradition melded together. It is a great time to be in Ulaan Baatar and I really believe the festival deserves to be seen - I say you just need to adjust your perspective and see it through the eyes of a Mongolian. 

Before and after every match, each wrestler does the traditional 'Eagle Dance' (devekh) based on the flight of the mythical Garuda bird - said to symbolise power, strength and invincibility. This unique dance is an integral and indispensable aspect of the wrestling tradition.
I really do believe that it is important that you see Naadam from a Mongolian perspective - a time when Mongolians strengthen their ties with friends, family and their heritage. It's a true celebration and is a time to eat, sing, drink and enjoy life to the full - all of which Mongolians are talented at. 

It's a true celebration of all things Mongolian and you don't get much better than that! 

Winners of the archery competition are usually awarded the title of 'mergen' meaning 'sharpshooter'. Archery competitors are accompanied by a choral tune (Uuhai) where men and women stand on either side of the target (set up to 75 metres away for men) and sing with their hands raised to indicate the results.

5 June 2012

Why Spend Autumn in Mongolia?

If I was to have a favourite time of year in Mongolia, September would have to make it to close to the top of the list. 

As autumn slowly unfolds, the peak tourist season has come to an end - September is a time for late-comers looking to enjoy the sense of space and peace that descends now the crowds have gone. It can feel as if you have the country to yourself  and it restores your sense of the world’s beauty and makes you feel free. 

Autumn days - Ikh Gazriin Chuluu
The vastness of Mongolia is a perfect antidote to the rush and crowds of everyday life elsewhere. The days are dominated by the blueness of the sacred Eternal Sky. Nature is still visible before the start of the long hibernation period. Naturally, it is a time of spectacular autumn colour - throughout the grasslands and the mountain-forest steppe. 

Demoiselle Cranes start their migration in early autumn - this is one of the toughest migrations of all birds - high over the Himalayas.
Autumn is a time of  industry - there is harvesting of the wheat and barley crops and communities come together to help create eskii - the felt used for covering gers. However, it is also time for locals to 'take five' before the harshness of the winter takes hold. 

For example, when staying with Batbold and Jargaa at White Lake  (Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park), their son, who had completed school in the June, was enjoying the freedom of not having to return to boarding school and was out on horseback tending to the yak herd that they keep. The four of us adults also had a similar sense of freedom - duties had to be completed but our afternoons were dedicated to marathon games of  shagai (ankle bone shooting - highly addictive and competitive) fuelled by bread, jam and clotted cream and  washed down with tea. DE-LIC-IOUS!

Autumn evenings - White Lake

I was asked by two individual clients to design itineraries in September - one based on mountains, Buddhism, Przewalski's horses, nature, flowers and people and the other to the east of Mongolia and the Gobi.

Neither of the itineraries were based on 'tick list' travel -  the core experience when travelling in Mongolia lies not in going to a lot of places but rather it lies in 'just being' and the itineraries concentrated on the amount of time spent in a location and the wildlife, history and nomadic communities of those locations. As I've said, a majority of other visitors have been and gone and travelling in the autumn creates the strong feeling that you are in a secret corner of the earth - it restores you sense of the world's immensity and makes you feel deliciously free. It was a true delight to run the itineraries and we're gladly looking forward to the crisp autumn days of 2013.

Religious life at Erdene Zuu - part of our  Monasteries, Mountains and Nomads itinerary

1 May 2012

PURE GOLD! - Mongolia's 2008 Olympic Success!

Gold! Mongolia has it in spades - underneath the surface of this remarkable country lies wealth in the form of untapped mineral deposits including gold mined by companies such as Rio Tinto.  It has also has gold in the shape of two gold medals from the Beijing Olympics.

2008. It was an interesting year. Results from the June 29 election caused riots of protest throughout the city centre of Ulaan Baatar. The Parliament Building in Sukhbaatar Square was the focus point - demonstrators using violence against Mongolia's police force and interior troops leading to the death of five and to President Enkbayar declaring a state of emergency. Closely followed, of course by the Beijing Olympics and the first ever gold medal victories for Mongolia leading to instantaneous celebration.

Proud to be Mongolian
The first scenario saw us at Khustain Nurru National Park on the last  night of a three-week itinerary, trying to get a phone signal to see if the police were permitting movement of vehicles into the city. Once back in UB, it was a subdued last night - no alcohol and everyone off the streets by 10pm. A few dates later and there we were, same location but a different set of circumstances. Trying to get phone reception for the results of the boxing match. Listening in to the phone call, all I could hear were a cacophony of car horns -Mongolia had just won their second gold medal.

In August 2008 we were travelling across the landscapes on a research trip. Turuu stopped at every local habitation - whether a single solitary ger, a mining enclave or  a small-town community. Traditional greetings follow a time-honoured order - this time around traditional greetings were brisk from our end - I certainly didn't hear the pattern of how are you, how is the weather, how are your animals, how is the pasture. Just the quick use of brakes, a loud hold your dogs above the engine and 'do you have news?'

To an affirmative answer, in we  crowded to get an update. Where required the generator was started up, the television connected to the battery and frequently someone outside with the aerial in a series of contortionist shapes. Black and white, fuzzy and distorted sound, it really didn't matter as the Mongolians surrounding me knew exactly the minute Mongolia had won its first ever Olympic gold.

From rioting crowds of protesters to celebrating crowds of all age groups. On the occasion of both wins, Mongolians took to the streets of UB in instantaneous celebration - those clever entrepreneurial kids who always know exactly what to sell when were out selling the Mongolian flag. The city erupted in a flood of vodka toasts, the national anthem, blaring car horns and an explosion of fireworks - the nation's flag flying from hands, vehicles and the tallest buildings.

Main street junctions came to a complete standstill - who needed to get anywhere - stay and celebrate instead. 

 (Image from www.lightstalkers.org)

And hear we go again for 2012. A new round of  parliamentary elections due in June in this vigorous democracy followed by the London Olympics starting in July with Mongolia sending a team of roughly 30 athletes to the London games - mainly representative of  the sports of judo, wrestling, boxing, shooting and archery.

Not into the Olympics? Experience it in Mongolia and you soon will be. A vast country, a small population and a whole heap of pride. Oh, you had better start practising the national anthem as well - for speak to a Mongolian and there will be a definite need to sing it come this summer!

Quirky Extras: