29 March 2013

Landscapes of the East - Trip Review

 If  someone asked me to describe Mongolia in one word, the one word that would spring to mind is 'vast' - vast landscapes, vast skies, and vast horizons. Shilin Bogd is located in one of Mongolia's vastest landscapes - the wind-scoured lowlands of Dariganga in the south-eastern Sukhbaatar Aimag.

Here, at the site of one of Mongolia's most sacred mountains, the grasslands of the northern steppe and the expanse of the Gobi converge to create a unique landscape consisting of wetlands, basalt stone formations, steppe and sand dunes with the skyline dominated by Shillin Bogd and Altan Ovoo - two of the extinct volcanic cones. The area is isolated, immense and stunning.

Landscapes all to ourselves - sunrise over the vast Dariganga region
Look through a guidebook on Mongolia and Shiliin Bogd does not usually make it as a highlight. But it most definitely is. The immense space, the pure air and the fact that you can’t see anyone or anything except the wilderness landscape, the boundless sky and the stretching horizons - all this conspires to restore your sense of the earth's immensity and your place in it. It is very much as Stanley Stewart describes in his most excellent book (In the Empire Of Genghis Khan) -
'From the air Mongolia looks like God's preliminary sketch for earth, not so much a country as the ingredients out of which countries are made: grass, rock, water and wind.'
Sunrise over the southern eastern Gobi
In traditional Mongolian culture, mountains are the closest thing on earth to the Eternal Blue Sky and thus many are venerated and sacred. Mountains are the king of the area and given strong titles as their guardian spirits hold a direct connection with Tenger (the God of the Eternal Blue Sky). Tradition states that the soul of any man who climbs Shiliin Bogd will be renewed and filled with optimism and strength for the future, therefore Turuu  (the lead driver of EL and my co-founder) wanted to visit as much as I did.

We camped at the foot of the mountain surrounded by silence and space. We watched the moon set as well as the sunset. As dawn broke the skyline, and the morning star slowly faded, so we made the short walk up to Shillin Bogd. Here we circled the sacred stone shrine in the footsteps of those who had gone before us and made our offerings of rice, milk and vodka as we thought strong and positive thoughts. The Mongolian men present removed their hats to honour the sun as it rose over the horizon, an ancient tradition.

Then we were hungry! Having returned to camp a group of local men joined us at our breakfast table. Having renewed their souls (they were late for sunrise and we watched from the top their 4x4 dust trail as they raced towards the mountain), they presented us with a bottle of vodka. So there we sat, in the vastness of the Dariganga landscapes, at 08.50, and as we sipped on it we all felt a little rejuvenated by the wild landscape, the epic sunrise and our new found friends. 

Genghis Gold Vodka - best with epic landscapes and new found friends

22 March 2013

Take a food tour of Mongolia

The food of Mongolia certainly gets a bad press but if you know the best places and the seasonal availability then I think you will be in for a very pleasant surprise. 

Really. I do. I can still sense some disbelief. I believe that getting a real ‘taste’ for Mongolia means sampling the local cuisine and taking into consideration the time of year, I provide clients who wish to an opportunity to try dishes from this simple yet delicious traditional cuisine. Just what is the food of the nomadic herders out in the wilds of the Mongolian steppe? Here are a few of my favourites...

As to be expected, the nomads of Mongolia sustain their lives primarily with the products of their domestic livestock (that will be meat and milk then!). These simple base materials are processed with a surprising variety of methods, and combined with vegetables and hand made noodles and other flour products such as dumplings and pancakes.

Suutei Tsai

Taking Mongolian tea is a time-honoured tradition - at the root of all nomadic hospitality.  The sharing of tea provides nourishment, creates comfort, and puts all at ease  - the custom of serving tea to guests is nearly as old as the history of nomads on the steppe - a vital part of the tradition of Mongolia. Tea is frequently served with boortsog - home made biscuits cooked on the ger stove. The everyday beverage is salted milk tea (Suutei Tsai), which may be  turned into a robust soup by adding rice, meat, or dumplings (bansh).

Tea time is anytime

Mongolia's nomads sustain their lives directly from the products of  their domesticated livestock - cattle/yaks, camels, horses, sheep and goats. Milk is therefore a major ingredient of the nomads diet and is processed into cheese (byaslag), dried curds (aaruul), yoghurt (tarag) as well a light alcoholic spirit distilled from yak milk (shimiin arkhi). However, the best of the best has to be orom -  clotted cream. It is at its most delicious with jam (short on jam?...just add a sprinkling of sugar) on a thick slice of fresh bread. YUM!

Orom? Yes please!
At regular intervals near the roadside, you will find gers signed as 'guanz' which operate as simple cafes (the term restaurant would lead to expectations which might not be met). A particular weakness of mine is khuushuur (freshly made mutton pancakes deep fried in mutton fat - the overdose of mutton might put you off but find the right guanz (my top three being Bulgan in the southern Gobi, Dadal in the north east, and Kharkhorin in central Ovorkhangai) and you will be in a little bit of culinary heaven). In addition, guanz are frequently the home of the person preparing your dinner and whilst you wait you get an insight into everyday life and get to meet the extended family members.

A Mongolian inspired feast
This is one of the most surprising (and delicious) of dishes and is typically only cooked on special occasions. The  meat (usually mutton or goat) gets cooked in a sealed pot, with the help of hot stones which have been preheated in a fire. This is a particular favourite of the EL drivers who are consummate cooks when it comes to this dish. What adds to the experience, is the celebratory and communal aspect of the dinner - others are always invited to share in the meal (and we always make sure to offer our EL hospitality to those around us when we are cooking khorkhog) and then there is always the fire to relax around when you have finished eating.

The REAL Mongolian barbecue
The most prominent national beverage is airag, fermented mare's milk - this yeasty drink is at its best when it is cold and fresh. For an insiders tip, try not to buy from the immediate roadside as the product is frequently watered down. Everyone has their favourite aimag (province) for airag, but for some of the best you need to head to Bulgan Aimag in northern Mongolia where the landscapes make for some of the most spectacular driving routes. The rainfall in this mountain/forest steppe region brings life to the pastureland - providing rich grass which the free roaming mares eat which thus adds a richness to the milk. Stopping off for airag en-route through these havens of unspoilt natural alpine beauty will provide you with a true insight into nomadic life on the high steppe.
Little changed for centuries - foals are brought in so that the mare's will release their milk and thus the milk (airag) can be collected.
Of course, I could also mention the many other delcious meat dishes  -  including buuz (steamed dumplings), or tsuivan (stir fried noodles) or guriltai shol (flour noodle soup). 

Naturally, the Mongolian diet includes a large proportion of animal fat which is necessary to withstand the cold winters where temperatures are as low as -40  and to provide sufficient energy reserves for the outdoor work of a herder. However, if you're vegetarian or worried about you cholesterol levels why not try the wild berries that are best served with yoghurt (even better mixed together with sugar for a wild berry smoothie), or the sweet tasting watermelons, cucumbers or tomatoes home grown in the southern Gobi or even the smoked Khovsgol lake fish. 

Whatever you choose to eat on your trip to Mongolia, be sure to try some of Mongolia's infamous vodka (usually made with barley). Toast your travelling companions, toast your Mongolian team and make sure to toast the spectacular country that is Mongolia. Toktoi!


15 March 2013

Mongolia's sacred ovoos

Travel across the landscapes of Mongolia and you'll frequently come across small mounds made up of rocks and stones. In the forest steppe regions, these mounds often consist of branches of trees. Look more closely and you will see steering wheel covers, plaster casts, crutches, empty bottles of vodka, sweets, small pieces of dairy products such as cheese and blue scarves. Here's your introduction to what they symbolise

Honouring the sacred spirits of Mongolia at an ovoo - Chuchee Mountain, high over Lake Khovsgol

A Sacred Landscape

Mongolia is known as the 'Land of the Eternal Blue Sky' and the Mongols practised ancestral Shamanism worshipping the Eternal Blue Sky (Tenger) and the many spiritual forces of nature. In 21st Century Mongolia a combination of Shamanistic and Buddhist belief remains as an easy and unselfconscious part of Mongolian life. The stone shrines are known as ovoos - erected by local families and travellers to show gratitude and respect, and to honour the spirits of the surrounding land.

Travelling Etiquette

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. You don't need to find a plaster cast or consume an entire bottle of vodka - small stones are enough of an offering. The discarded casts, crutches, steering wheel covers and food offerings are people's ways of giving thanks for better health, a safe journey or maybe thanking the spirits for the much-needed rain.

As Tim Severin wrote in 'The Search of Genghis Khan',
'With time, the ovoos become strange spiritual junk heaps piled with the debris of Mongolian life - a rickety construction of anxieties and hopes.'
Don't be alarmed if you see a horse's head. The horse is a symbol of strength of spirit, freedom and independence - an honoured animal for a Mongolian herder and often when a herder's best horse dies, the spirit of the animal is honoured by the head being placed on an ovoo. This ovoo is at Jigleg Pass en-route through to the Darkhad Depression from Lake Khovsgol.
Travel through Mongolia and on your journey you will be accompanied by road side ovoos - stopping and circling them is almost guaranteed to become a memorable part of your Mongolian experience.Ovoos are an integral part of Mongolian life and any visit to Mongolia. The scarves (known as khadag) are the traditional ceremonial scarf of Mongolia and represent the Eternal Blue Sky. You will also find prayer flags (known as Wind Horses) and with either, the essence and the image of the prayer scarf/flag is activated when the wind blows and creates auspicious energy for the area in which the flags/scarves are located.

Before you leave Mongolia, make sure you circle an ovoo and leave a khadag to fly in the wind - it's a delightful custom and you will leave a little of yourself in the magnificent country that is Mongolia. 
Travel through Mongolia and on your journey you will be accompanied by road side ovoos - stopping and circling them is almost guaranteed to become a memorable part of your Mongolian experience.