19 April 2013

Mongolia's Tea Road

The Tea Road was an important commercial route that connected China with western Russia. In Mongolia, camel caravans transported bricks of tea through the Gobi to (what was then) Urga (Ulaanbaatar).

I am currently travelling in Morocco with my parents and we sit, surrounded by commerce and hubbub sipping on mint tea ('Berber whiskey') combined with the exotic smell of petrol fumes. Within less than two weeks I will be arriving in Mongolia to guide the first three week trip of our 2013 season. Once there, the tea will change from mint to Suutei Tsai - the Mongolian milk tea. Tea in Mongolia is an important part of the culture as here in Morocco. 

The tea road was a trade route that was officially recognised by a treaty between Russia and the Chinese Qing (Manchu) Dynasty in 1689. It connected eastern China and western Russia - heading northward from China through the Gobi and Mongolia, then west across the Siberian taiga to arrive at the cosmopolitan centres of the Russian empire. 

Early 20th century photograph of Mongolia
Ulaan Baatar as it used to be prior to Soviet control
The key to the early northern route was Zhangiiakou (aka Kalgan), the mountain pass used for horse-trading between the Ming Dynasty and Mongolian herdsmen and the easiest terrain for the transport of goods - this route is now the line for both the rail and road link into Mongolia - the Trans-Mongolian.

For centuries, the preferred method of packaging tea for transport was in the form of compressed cakes or bricks - this allowed greater value to be packed into a smaller volume. Bricks of tea became a major component of the tea trade up to Russia through Mongolia. Most tea was transported by mule or mule-carts from either the port of Tianjin or Beijing to Zhangjiakou (Kalgan), where it was re-packed and loaded onto camel caravans for the ride up and over the pass to the high plateau of the Gobi. 

Camels and mules at a high pass on the border of China and Mongolia, early 20th Century
En-route from Mongolia to China (http://www.camelphotos.com/camels_china.html)

(Turuu mentions that his great-grandfather was the head of one of the camel caravans that used to cross the Gobi and on to Beijing. Turuu believes that his love of the freedom of the open road comes not just his upbringing as a nomadic herder but that it runs deeper in his veins from the time of the camel caravans.)

‘We rolled ourselves in our blankets and slept for the first time on Asiatic ground and under the clear sky of Asia. The next morning, whips cracked, the horses snorted, and the caravan rolled off on a new day’s march. We had to work hard at once, for the caravan mounted that day from 2400 feet to 6400 feet. We all helped, we pulled and lashed, we yelled and shoved...We climbed the remaining three hundred feet, which brought us breathless but exultant to the top of the pass. We stood on the threshold of the wide plateau at the entrance of the land of the nomads. We could not have  dreamed of a more captivating entrance to a new country, and when the sun sank upon that day, we felt as though born into a new life – a life which had the strength of the hills, the depth of the heavens and the beauty of the sunrise.’
 (Danish Explorer, Henning Haslund-Christensen, 1923)

Here in Morocco, we have made sure to leave blanks in the day just for taking time out to drink tea. Just like I do in the itineraries I design for Mongolia - there must always be room for tea drinking moments. It's not so much the tea but also it helps to break language barriers and to slow you down enough from your everyday life that you spend time just sitting and relaxing and just being part of another culture and way of life. Every good trip should have time for drinking tea.

We go home tomorrow. The bags will be in the hallway. The kettle will be on and the teapot at the ready.  Nothing beats a nice cup of tea. Or two. Whatever the location.

12 April 2013

Mongolia's Famous Mutton Pancakes

An EL guest describes her love for Mongolia's famous (and delicious!) mutton pancakes.

Eternal Landscapes is all about Mongolia - a country that gets under your skin and into your heart. As part of the EL Blog, I have invited our clients to write their own posts about their experiences and their thoughts on this boundless land where all have experienced its magical combination of time, freedom and space.  These are the words of Emer Levins.

It was on the train that I first heard the word khuushuur. A local cross-border trader had joined my carriage as I travelled from Russia into Mongolia. As we struck up a conversation we inevitably ended up on the topic of all things best in Mongolia. When it came to food khuushuur and buuz were his top tips. However, if I’m honest buuz was easy but khuurshuur took me a bit of time to get my head around. It took several tries on his part before I could make out what the word was and then several goes on my part before I could pronounce it in any form that he approved of.  The way I remember how to pronounce is like this  - hore-shore.

However, having tasted it I will forever remember how to pronounce it as it’s Mongolia’s most delicious and abundant fast food. A firm favourite with Mongolians, it usually makes an appearance at a stall or two at festivals and can be found in most local restaurants in the aimags (towns). You’ll find the drivers will never turn down the offer of some khuurshuur, unless they don’t like onions!

So, what is khuurshuur? It usually comes approx the same size as a small pitta bread, crescent in shape and filled with deliciously flavoured mutton.  It’s typically deep fried and at its best when hot.  Sharing some khuurshuur with new friends or old, in a dusty van in a new aimag or at a festival with a bottle of beer is a uniquely Mongolian experience.  Highly recommended to all who travel  through the open expanse of this land.

A typical Mongolian dinner table
A Mongolian Feast!
Emer Levins has travelled with us three times now. If you're interested in experiencing Mongolia the Eternal Landscapes way, why not take a look at my Mongolia holidays and tours on the Eternal Landscapes website?

5 April 2013

Where To Go In Mongolia? East or west...just where is best?

Outer Mongolia is the 'Land of the Eternal Blue Sky'. Both are evocative names that entice and call out to you. You answer that call, purchase the ticket and book time off from work to visit this remarkable country but just where do you spend your time.

I'm in the process of arranging a trip to Morocco for my father's 70th (bear with  me here). Up until now, all the family holidays we have taken have been in destinations where I have worked and lived. However, I have never been to Morocco and it's proving tough to arrange. Why? Mainly because everywhere seems a highlight and yet time is limited. What do you do? Spend longer in fewer locations so you have more time to sit and drink mint tea in a local cafe and watch the world pass by? Or, do you opt for the 'mix and match' - a couple of highlights as well as trying to find somewhere just that little bit off the beaten trail.

Whatever the decision, the planning process for Morocco (unfortunately, a little bit last minute and flying by the 'seat of our pants') has got me thinking about Mongolia.

Travel under the sacred Eternal Blue Sky

The country is not just vast but remarkably diverse.  Located at the crossroads of the Central Asian steppe. the Siberian tundra and the Gobi Desert, Mongolia hosts a range of globally important biodiversity. Mongolian herders divide their country into three main landscapes -Gobi, Tal and Khangai (desert, steppe and mountain).

I'm often asked where is my favourite location in Mongolia. And that is a very tough question to answer.  All I can do is describe why these distinctive landscapes make my heart sing:

The Gobi

Along the southern tier of Mongolia lies the vast fossil-rich Gobi Desert. For me, what makes the Gobi so incredibly spectacular is the vastness of the landscapes - there is something raw and pure about them. Towns in the Gobi, although dusty and wind-blown have names such as Bayandalai (Rich in Ocean) and Erdenedalai (Jewel Ocean). Although far from the ocean, I think travelling through the epic distances of the Gobi gives you the same sense of power that the ocean gives (it's just that the tide is out!).

At home in the Gobi

The Altai

Western Mongolia is dominated by the Mongol Altai Mountains. This major mountain chain - Mongolia's highest - is a region of intensive mountain building and high seismic activity. Summits reach 4000, plus and are covered with permanent snow, ice and glaciers. For me, within this incredible region of cold, permanently glaciated peaks, alpine lakes and hidden valleys, you feel as if time is standing still - these vast and timeless landscapes will make you think and reconsider your priorities.

The land where time stands still

The North

The northern region consists of dense coniferous forests of pine and larch - where the southern edge of the circumpolar boreal forest touches the grass plains of Central Asia. Northern Mongolia is dominated by Lake Khovsgol - known as Dalai Ej (Mother Sea) - it's water is considered some of the purest on earth. Lake Khovsgol is a spiritual place for Mongolians and its diverse natural beauty makes it a stunning location for getting a little more off the beaten track. I especially love hiking north along the western shore to where the lake seems to meld together with the slopes of the magnificent Khoridol Saridag. Nothing beats this walk on a clear day when the lake reflects the sky in shifting shades of blue.

Sacred northern landscapes

The East

Eastern Mongolia is dominated by the history of Genghis Khan, the Khan Khentii Mountains and extensive stretching grassland steppes. This is one of the largest expanses of unspoilt, temperate grassland in the world. Mongolia has the lowest human population density of any country in the world, and the Eastern Steppe has one of the lowest densities in Mongolia - few human settlements or fences interrupt this breathtaking landscape. In this region, there is something about the limitlessness of the horizon and the sky that will restore your sense of the world's immensity.

Eastern Eternal Landscapes

The Heartland

From my perspective, central Mongolia provides a rare slice of tangible Mongolian history - (historically names) Karakorun- the ancient capital of Ogodei Khan and Erdene Zuu Monastery (the oldest monastery in Mongolia and considered its sacred heart). This area is rich in history relating to the Huns, the Turks and the Mongol Empire as well as the founding of Buddhism in Mongolia. This region is dominated by the glorious Khangai Mountains which form a stunning wild backdrop.

Buddhist Heartland

Of course, wherever you choose to visit, remember one thing. You are walking in the invisible footsteps of people who have gone before and each footprint has added to each landscape - whether they be the footprints  (or in some instances, hoof-prints!) of Mongol kings, monks, traders, pilgrims, herders or modern-day travellers.