29 June 2013

True Gobi and Heartland - On The Road Update

A quick review of one of our most recent tailor made trips 

I write this in Bulgan Hotel in Bulgan Province in northern Mongolia (copy and paste is a glorious invention!). It is a delightful hotel which very much reminds me of the BBC series 'Fawlty Towers' - especially the antlers on the wall, the stern faced manager and the showers that when the tank is ready with hot water play a medley of Christmas songs starting with Jingle Bells. Today, June 26th, is the day of the Presidential elections here in Mongolia and Turuu and I are watching the results with interest (currently 63% of the population have voted with results still to come in  from the western aimags of Khovd, Bayan-Olgii and Uvs which are one hour behind Ulaan Baatar). 

We are currently on our Untamed Mongolia group itinerary but as I had the time to sit and write, so I thought I would put together a brief update on our last trip - on May 26th we welcomed our True Gobi and Heartland guests to Mongolia. They arrived on the 13.15 from Beijing - the morning had started out damp and cold but by late lunchtime the sun was warming the day.

The Trans-Siberian

Traditionally in Mongolia, where possible, your journey should always go in a clockwise direction - just like within a monastery, a ger or when circling one of the sacred stone shrines that here in Mongolia are called ovoos. So, as tradition states we started off heading south to the vast expanse of the Gobi. The heat was welcome as on May 27th Ulaan Baatar and the surrounding Tov Aimag experienced a snowstorm - we were returning from a day visit to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and entered into the city to find total gridlock - it took Turuu 5 and a half hours to travel 80km!

Gorkhi Terelj (prior to the snowfall that brought chaos to UB!)
We found peace, quiet and warmth camping within the sacred granite rock formations of Baga Gazriin Chuluu. From there we travelled south and another of our camp locations was at Bayanzag - famously known as the 'Flaming Cliffs'.

The Gobi is a glorious wide-open space of huge extremes and its plateaus (including Bayanzag) can be starkly bleak, windswept and yet beautiful. To Mongolians, Bayanzag means 'rich in zag' - the Gobi shrub that we know as Saxaul. Bayanzag is an ancient eroded rock formation where were discovered some of the most notable dinosaur fossils of the 1920's by Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions. Why is it named the Flaming Cliffs? In the words of Roy Chapman Andrews himself:
En-route to Bayanzag - where land and sky meet
'From  our tents we looked down into a vast pink basin, studded with giant buttes like strange beasts carved from sandstone. One of them we named the dinosaur, for it resembles a strange Brontosaurus sitting on its haunches. There appear to be medieval castles with spires and turrets, brick-red in the evening light, colossal gateways, walls and ramparts. Caverns run deep into the rock and a labyrinth of ravines and gorges studded with fossil bones make a paradise for a palaeontologist.  One great sculptured wall we named the ‘Flaming Cliffs’, for when seen in early morning or late afternoon sunlight it seemed to be a mass of glowing fire.’
 (And yes, we were lucky enough that for us, the cliffs did indeed put on a display of colour.)

 From there we headed to Khongoryn Els sand dunes.  June 1st is Mother and Children’s Day and celebrated throughout Mongolia. We passed through Bulgan sum in the southern Gobi and as well as a refreshing water melon, a battery charger and a kilo of apples. we picked up some small gifts for Maam and her two daughters Barkhas and Uransanaa.
Happiness in the Gobi!

Leslie had mentioned that as a weaver she liked to connect through her hands. At Khongoryn Els, we spent the evening once the sun had set in the family ger attempting to make camel hair rope as they use in the construction of their gers.  A whole heap of patience and quite a lot of spit was required.

The ‘heartland’ part of the True Gobi and Heartland included a stay at Ulaan Tsutgalan also know as Orkhon Waterall, at the Khogno  Khan Nature Reserve as well as a night in the modern town of Kharkhorin (once the capital city of Ogodei Khan – Karakorum and the site for Mongolia's oldest monastery - Erdene Zuu). Here we stayed with our friend Gaya and we spent an enjoyable evening making (or in my case, failing miserably to make) Mongolian dumplings. There was very much an exchange of information and skills that evening as Leslie passed on to Gaya the art of needle felting and the making of the cutest of soaps wrapped in wool.
Mongolia's Buddhist heritage
Our last port of call was Khustain Nuruu National Park – we arrived in the afternoon so that Leslie and Ken could enjoy the flexibility to explore and hike on their own. They were privileged enough to see over 36 Takhi – the wild horse also known as Przewaslskii.

(Takhi are social animals – living in harems of between 4 to 20 individuals (including a leading stallion, mares and offspring). Each harem has its own range where they spent up to 95% of their time.)

Before returning to our campsite on the outskirts of the national park we spotted Siberian Marmots close to their burrows – using rocks as vantage points to check for the enemy – birds of prey. In fact, it was quite a trip for wildlife as we had also spotted White Tailed Gazelle in the Gobi and on the outskirts of Khustain.

And that in just over a nutshell was our True Gobi and Heartland Discovered. By June 28th we will be back in UB to say good-bye to our current guests before welcoming those travelling with us on our Journey Among Nomads June 29th departure. Yes, I will be posting a full update on our Untamed Mongolia and Journey Among Nomads trips both here and on our Facebook page so feel free to stop by and pay a visit if you have the time. For now, thanks for listening and I wish you were here.

28 June 2013

Expectations Of Travelling In Mongolia

We have just returned from leading out first Mongolia small group tour of 2013 - our 22-day Untamed Mongolia. Herders here divide their country into three main landscapes - Gobi, Tal and Khangai (desert, steppe and mountain) and Turuu and I created this particular itinerary to allow our guests to gain an essence of all three of these spectacular landscapes and the people and wildlife that inhabit these diverse regions.

(20 days, numerous ice-cold stream washes, one hot shower, secluded campsites, many dung fueled camp fires, one grey wolf spotted as well as Siberian Ibex and White Tailed Gazelle,  hot rock barbecued mutton, sunset over the Gobi, moonrise over Lake Khovsgol - Untamed Mongolia)

En- route, we spent a night camping alongside the mighty Selenge River. A storm passed quickly overhead (with the sound of the thunder echoing impressively through the valley - and YES! we did flinch!) and as the storm moved on so the late evening sun lit up the surrounding mountains and the part forested steppe.

The view from our 'sunset rock viewing platform' just above our camp!

As our three guests retired to their tents to read, I spent an hour or so updating our Pre-Departure Guidelines - re-writing the section on Mongolia and What to Expect. I sat looking out over the 'eternal landscape' of the Selenge and decided what better way to help with expectations that through the words of a past client.

Zeynep Ozbek travelled with us last year on our 21-day Wilderness Trails Mongolia trekking tour. As I shared her thoughts on our updated Pre-Departure Guidelines so I share them here. 

 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 Zeynep Ozbek:

'Mongolia is not an easy country in many ways. The country is only adjusting to being independent and the infrastructure that one takes for granted in most places - power and water supply, road networks and public transport etc. are vastly below universal standards. On top of that, the country is huge, the population is minimal (under 3 million living in a country the size of western Europe) and visiting regions far away from Ulaan Baatar is a challenge in itself. Half the population is still living a semi-nomadic life living in gers and moving as and when their herds of livestock need new grazing grounds and there are few permanent settlements spread over huge distances. The tourists who visit therefore, should go bearing all above in mind.  A holiday/adventure in Mongolia is all about living the Mongolian nomadic way of life, sampling first hand a nomad's life which is not a walk in the park but very basic, whether staying in soviet style old hotels, gers or tents. A luxury holiday it is not. Having said that, living like the locals brings you in touch with nature, experiencing the joys of watching huge herds of horses, camels, yaks, sheep or goats on the move, fauna and flora in abundance everywhere and pristine lakes and rivers whose waters we didn't even have to boil to drink.  The vast steppe landscape makes one feel free and forget the hurly burly of modern life. It is like stepping back in time to a different era and way of thinking and living and is probably one of the last few places on earth which has stayed true to its history.'

The view from Zeynep's tent on our 2012 Wilderness Trails
It was 11pm when I finished updating the guidelines and the light had only just faded from the western sky - I went to bed with the sound of the river flowing fast and the wind in the trees. Yes, I will be posting a full update on our Untamed Mongolia trip both here and on our Facebook page so feel free to stop by and pay a visit if you have the time. 


14 June 2013

On The Road Review

On the road review of our Untamed Mongolia private tailor made trip

Our clients arrived on the 06.10 from Irkutsk and after a few exploratory days in UB, we headed south. May 11 was National Reforestation Day here in Mongolia. Although we were a few days early, we did our bit and spent an evening at the home of Radnaa and Byamba - the owners of Gobi Oasis, a tree planting project based in Mandalgobi, Dundgobi Aimag. The spring time wind whipped up during the day, but although sand and dust were blowing hard out on the desert steppe, within the project area all the soil remained in place providing evidence of the benefit of tree planting in the Gobi.

Planting Elms at Gobi Oasis

Water in Mandalgobi is scarce and has to be piped in from 30km away. The size of the Gobi Oasis site does not allow for the low pressure of the water pump to reach all the trees and shrubs. We resorted to the good old fashioned bucket method! 
We obviously built up an appetite as not only did we make these khuurshuur (mutton pancakes) but we ate them all as well. Can you tell the ones we made compared to the ones prepared by our host?! Our finishing skills weren’t quite up to scratch!


Our clients had asked to experience 'a beautiful country up close' and when designing the itinerary, I thought what better way than to spend 3 or so days in a location, exploring and discovering the area on foot.  Those days were spent within the central Khangai Mountains, with four nights at Ulaan Tsutgalan staying with the Tomorbat family and three nights at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur staying with Batbold and Jargaa.

Tomorbat and his wife Nangilmaa are in the photo below. Tomorbat is making a traditional Mongolian game called bogtoc shagai (well, that's Turuu's - the lead driver of EL - term for it) - although a simple game it is fiendishly difficult to complete!

A natural highlight of Mongolia, Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park encompasses an area of wild nature - volcanic craters, rugged mountains, river valleys and rolling steppe. After a day spent high on the hills, we cooked a Mongolian barbecue using the hot rock method. We enjoyed this delicious and traditional home cooked meal as the light from sunset faded and the candles were lit and as the vodka was slowly finished to the sound of the wind on the lake shore (sorry for the poetics but it truly was a glorious evening of simplicity and friendship).

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur from on high - note the ice!

Spring flowers were and still are in abundance. During our day-hikes throughout our May Untamed Mongolia we were very much accompanied by the beautiful 'shar yargui' flower used as a forage plant and in traditional Mongolian medicine.

On our return to UB, Carlo and Helen kindly volunteered to be our guinea pigs for the first of our ger district walking tours arranged through the Buddhist NGO Asral. We are hosting the second of such walks on June 28th and I will write more of an update then.

On our last evening in UB, over a ice-cold draft Chinggis beer, I asked them to describe one of their favourite moments on the tour...

Helen: 'Waking with the sunrise and climbing to the ovoo (sacred stone shrine) that overlooked our campsite in Dungene Am (Gobi Gurvan Saikhan). It was just me, the view, the silence and the space.'

Carlo: 'Every location was more beautiful than the other. The size of the country and camping within it gave a sense of freedom and an incredible sense of its epic landscapes.'

Of course, a trip wouldn't be possible without the driver and so I asked Turuu the same question: 'Knowing that summer has arrived and that we will be spending the next 5 or 6 months out on the road showing our Mongolia to others.'

I completely agree!