26 November 2013

Mongolia's Monasteries - Tuesday's Snapshot

Tuesday's Snapshots - highlighting images from the EL team and our guests based on a Mongolia theme. This week...introducing Mongolia's monasteries:

Amarbayasgalant Khiid, Selenge Aimag

The complex of Amarbayasgalant Khiid was constructed between 1726 – 1736, when Mongolia was under heavy Manchu influence. Amarbayasgalant was built to honour the memory of Zanabazar - the first spiritual and political leader in Mongolia and considered one of the greatest Renaissance artists in Asia (he was revered as a sculptor, artist, politician and religious teacher).  After he died his remains where brought to be buried in this monastery.
Chuluun Sum (Rock Temple), Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Dundgobi Aimag

Monastery and temple buildings were frequently set up on sites within the presence of water with buildings often founded in the foreground of hills or mountains (if the landscape features made it possible), which protected them from the strong wind coming from the northwest. The surrounding hills and mountains were honoured and on their peaks ovoos were frequently erected for the worship of local spirits. In addition, holy springs (rashaan) and special rocks (for example uushai - human shaped rocks) of the area were worshipped.
Gandan Khiid, Ulaan Baatar

Construction was started in 1838 by the Fourth Bogd Khan (Living Buddha). Its full name Gandantegchinlen translates roughly as ‘the place of complete joy’ and it is considered the centre for Buddhism in Mongolia. The main monastery temple (the building that looks a little similar to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet) is the Migjid Janraisig Sum. This is home to a 26 meter gold gilded statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Janraisig in Mongolian) - bodhisattvas are able to escape the cycle of death and rebirth but choose to remain in this world to assist others in reaching nirvana.
Erdene Zuu Khiid, Kharkhorin, Ovorkhangai Aimag

The monastery was founded by Abtai Khan in 1586. Monasteries are built not just as centres of worship but as centres of learning - their elements are designed to teach and inspire. The architecture of a monastery will be practical and at the same time deeply symbolic.
Ongiin Khiid, Dundgobi Aimag

The destruction of the monasteries during the political and religious purges of 1937-38 was so great that huge monastic complexes with hundreds of buildings were decimated including buildings with half meter thick stone walls - what was not destroyed then, was finished in different ways in the almost 70 years of communism that followed. Today, in a majority of the sites, there are visible signs of the original foundations of the old buildings marked by elevations or stones/bricks - however small the monastery and its buildings were. In some regions, part destroyed buildings have been revived and are currently used as a temple.

19 November 2013

Wild Flowers of Mongolia's Khangai Mountains - Tuesday's Snapshot

The diversity of plant life in Mongolia is shaped largely by the complex geography of the land. V.I Grubov (a renowned expert on Mongolian flora) divided the country into 16  plant-geographical regions each defined by its own characteristic composition of landscape and vegetation. Throughout the season, during our trips, we come into contact  with a wide variety of Mongolia’s flora which varies depending on the location – whether desert, steppe or mountain. It can be the delicacy of some in such a harsh environment, or the vivid colour against a vast terrain. I am not an expert but with the help of the books we carry as part of our library, I thought I would  share some of the beauty we have come across in 2013.

 Yellow Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla flavescens) 

This perennial herb flowers towards the end of May and into June. You will find it growing on steppe hillsides and within meadows. In traditional Mongolian medicine, the roots are used for treating scurvy, broken bones and diarrhoea. 
Great Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis)

This flower grows in July  and can be found with the high mountain to steppe zone. It also grows within marshy and steppe meadow, alongside river and stream banks and within larch forest glade. The roots and flowers are used to treat diarrhoea and to suppress bleeding.

Edelweiss (Leontopodium ochroleucum)

Edelweiss can be found in August on the dry steppe.  In ancient Mongolia, it was used to make a footpad for boots to help treat low blood pressure.
Alpine Aster (Aster aplinus) - seen here with a beautiful Globe Thistle

Flowers in July to August within high mountain and forest steppe. It can also be found on rocky, gravel mountain slopes and within meadows and larch forest. In traditional Mongolian medicine, flowers are used to treat low body temperature.
The Asian Globeflower (Trollius asiaticus)

Flowers from June until July in meadow, by forest edges, and within forest glades. It is called Asian Globeflower as it only grows in Asia. In traditional Mongolian medicine, the flowers are boiled to make tea to treat angina and mixed with other plants to apply to open cuts to help scabs form.

15 November 2013

My Guide to Mongolia's Seasons

One of the most frequent questions I get asked is about Mongolia's weather.  As our previous guests would say, expect everything

The problem is that you have to be prepared to bring everything or at least be prepared to purchase on route anything that you suddenly require - from a large sunhat to thermals or wellington boots (seriously!). For those planning on coming to Mongolia, I recommend the Weather Wunderground website - I provide a link to it in our Pre-Departure Guidelines so clients can analyse the weather in Mongolia prior to their arrival.  But, if you don't have time for that, here in (almost) a nutshell is a guide to the Mongolian seasons.

Summer time in Mongolia! 


(March to May, very few visitors, dry but very windy) 
Spring brings with it strong winds - a time of year when locals say that everyone has a little bit of the Gobi in their ger (brought in by the wind). It is also an industrious time of year, cashmere is being combed from the goats and livestock are giving birth to their young. Although dry, arid and wind-blown, the landscapes are coloured have a light covering of the first precious shoots of spring grass. 

Freshness of spring


(Late May to August, the busiest time of year for international visitors, rainy and hot (with some humidity)
Summer is one of the busiest times of year for Mongolian herding families. In July and August, summer rains bring fresh grass growth and livestock are moved looking for the rich summer pasture so they can fatten, enabling them to survive the harsh winter. Summer is also known as the White Season due the processing of the livestock's milk into other dairy products such as airag (fermented mare's milk), orom (clotted cream) and aruul (hard cheese). Summer brings the highlight of the Naadam Festival (the Three Manly Sports).

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(September and October, not very crowded, clear and cool)
Naturally, autumn is a time of spectacular colour. Nature is still visible before the start of the long hibernation period with birds such as the Demoiselle Crane gathering in large flocks to start their annual migration. There is also harvesting of the wheat and barley crops and the cutting of the winter grass that will be used as fodder for the livestock. In the late summer and early autumn 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. 

The stunning Orkhon Valley
(In western Mongolia, late September and early October are the beginning of the Kazakh eagle-hunting season, opening with the spectacular eagle festival held in Bayan-Olgii and its surrounding communities.)

October 2013


(November – February, the quietest time of year, dry but bitterly cold)
Winter is a quintessential Mongolian season. It is cold, very cold, but the cold is an important part of what makes Mongolia and its landscapes extraordinary at this time of year.  The Mongolian Lunar New Year falls in January or February with visitors being welcomed to celebrate one of the most important times of years in the Mongolian calendar. (There is also the 1000 Camel (Tumen Temee) Festival held in the southern Gobi.)

(Did you know, that from the winter 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.)

12 November 2013

Mongolia's Sacred Stone Ovoos

Tuesday's Snapshots - highlighting images from the EL team and our guests based on a Mongolia theme. This week...introducing Mongolia's sacred stone shrines known as 'ovoos'

Travel across the landscapes of Mongolia and you will frequently come across small mounds made up of rocks and stones. In the forest steppe regions, these mounds often consist of branches of trees. 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.

A combination of shamanistic and Buddhist belief remains to this day as an easy and unselfconscious part of Mongolian life. The creation of ovoos are an expression of this. However, visit the far western provinces of Mongolia and you will notice that ovoos do not dot the landscape...this is as the main minority group here are Kazakhs and they practise Islam. 

Look more closely at an ovoo and you will see steering wheel covers, plaster casts, crutches, empty bottles of vodka, sweets, small pieces of dairy products such as cheese as well as many 'khadag' (Mongolia's sacred blue scarf that represents the 'eternal blue sky'). 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. 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.

Ovoos 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. 
 ‘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

8 November 2013

Zavkhan and Uvs Provinces in Mongolia

 I came across the updates that I wrote when we were heading west on our Wild Treks Research Trip. These were my thoughts and notes from the road from September 30th to October 4th when travelling through Zavkhan and Uvs Aimags on our way to Bayan-Olgii

Off road travel at its very best within Zavkhan Aimag
(The Gobi can be divided into four geographical areas and we were driving into the immense Pre-Altaic Gobi – sandwiched between Khangai and Altai, in the region of the Great Lakes Depression.) 

Otgon Tenger - Mongolia's most sacred mountain. To learn more...http://eternal-landscapes.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/thoughts-from-jess-in-abode-of-gods.html
Lunch with a view! At Otgon Tenger
Uliastai – a terrible hotel (and I’m usually positive about local hotels). My particular favourite facilities of the hotel have to be the flushing toilet with no flush (metal bowl provided as an alternative), the shower cubicle that when you stepped into it, tipped over almost onto your head and the electric sockets pulled out of the wall. Nevertheless, the fantastic lunch we had at the Crystal Restaurant more than made up for the not quite perfect night’s sleep – filled with all the local office workers, a great recommendation from the local meat shop!

Khar Nuur – a freshwater lake surrounded by the Bor Khyarin sand dunes in Zavkhan Aimag – although this brief description does not do this remarkable region justice. We have spent two days exploring – one by foot and one by vehicle and it is safe to say that although the finer details of our research in this area will remain a secret to us...it will be included on future itineraries where suitable.

Taking time out at Khar Nuur
Our home at Khar Nuur
Time spent in small town communities such as Urgamal (where we consumed freshly made steamed dumplings and three mugs of hot tea.). Or, the night in the local hotel of Erdenekhairkhan – not marked in any guidebook and just a dot on the map. A majority of the beds had been taken to the hospital, where some of the elderly of the community were spending 10 days (the report was they are not sick, just having a little rest before winter). Ross and John got a (form of) bed each, Turuu and I slept on the floor. Nevertheless, the stove was lit to take the chill of the room and the level of care, even with such basic and limited facilities, could not have been kinder. Yet another Mongolian experience.

Preparing dinner in the EL office at Erdenekhairkhan 
Khyargas Nuur - a vast soda lake located deep with Uvs Aimag and part of the Great Lakes Depression. Admittedly, it was not the most ‘pretty’ of our campsites (it had the feel of a ‘gone bust’ beach resort), but it was a special moment looking at the wide stretching horizon, listening to the haunting sounds of ‘Urtiin Duu’ (Mongolian long song) on the machine radio. The sunset was stunning, the campfire warm, the mutton bones delicious and the acts of friendship priceless (a bottle of Mongolian vodka given on a cold windblown night).

Friends! Turuu and Basraa

The landscapes of Uvs Aimag
Travelling on dust roads, through vast weathered landscapes  - marmot hunters at the foot of the 2702m (to be precise) Senjit Davaa, Manuukhai (scarecrows to keep wolves at bay) surrounding each ger we pass, mounds of argal (dung) drying for winter fuel in this treeless landscape, black tailed gazelle glimpsed en-route. Glorious Mongolia. 

5 November 2013

The Fearless Furgon! - Mongolia's Ultimate Tour Vehicle - Tuesday's Snapshots

Tuesday's Snapshots - highlighting images from the EL team and our guests based on a Mongolia theme. This week...introducing the 'Fearless Furgon.' Oh how I love this vehicle.

Also known as UAZ (УАЗ) -  an initialism for 'Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod' which translates to "Ulyanovsk Automobile Plant" (based in UlyanovskRussia, the UAZ factory started production in 1941 as part of the Soviet war effort).

'Love the Furgon' - en-route to northern Mongolia for a horse trek to the Tsaatan
 The Furgon/UAZ is produced in several modifications, with the main difference being the body type - the exact configuration varies depending on the specific modification. There are two separate fuel tanks.
One of the main reasons we love the UAZ is its deliberately simple design, which allows for easy maintenance and repairs. 

The Furgon/UAZ has reached legendary status thanks to its reputation as a very reliable and capable 4x4 with impressive off-road capability (and our EL tours certainly test that off-road capability!).

1 November 2013

Landscapes of the East - Through The Eyes Of One Of Our Guests

Ross, travelled with us on our Landscapes of the East itinerary. This is his review of his time in Mongolia with Eternal Landscapes. I thought I would share his words as it gives a different perspective to the trips that we run. So, in the words of Ross…

I travel with Eternal Landscapes, Jess tour leader extraordinare and Turuu, the best driver in Mongolia. Both owners of the company. The other member of our party is U.K.Sue from Cambodia.

The adventure begins in Ulaan Baatar with shopping on our way out of the city and then travelling south to the eastern Gobi. Baga Gazryn Chuluu, Ikh Gazryn Chuluu - great campsites and fabulous rock formations leading out to the Gobi steppe and home to White Paw (named by Sue) , the dog who befriended me when I was out walking and slept across the mouth of my tent even when the rain came.

The glorious rock formations of Ikh Gazriin Chuluu
A stop at Mandalgobi, to share a meal with Byamba and Radnaa. They have a voluntary project called Gobi Oasis. They propagate trees and plant them on the northern side of town to help protect the town from the effects of the prevailing north wind. We plant trees and help water the trees planted by previous visitors. I have my first shower in a public bath house. A very welcome clean up. Mandalgovi has been a great stop.

Radnaa and Byamba - dedicated to Gobi Oasis
At Ikh Nart, we meet Ulzii who takes us to find Agaili sheep. After driving through some amazing craggy landscapes we locate several to observe through our binoculars. Another group is spotted and we care able to drive closer, a short stalk on foot and the photos of a lifetime. Ulzii invites us to stay in his ger , he plays his guitar and he and Turuu sing. Wonderful.

Off to the Khentii, birth place of Chinggis Khaan. Traveling the enormous eastern steppe, driving in the same valley for a whole day and not getting to the end of it. I have stood where the Mongols galloped their horses, fought battles and formed a nation that became the world's largest empire.

At Baldan Bereeven Monastery we absorbed the peaceful atmosphere as we completed the meditation walk and visited the restored Tibetan style temple. The site is stunning and the building beautiful. A huge thank you to the caretaker for opening the buildings for us.

Peaceful Baldan Bereveen Khiid
I sat beside the campfire listening to wolves howling in the forest across the valley, a 1200 year old wall beside me. Magical. We are camping at Oglogchiin Khererm, the wall encloses a small valley and uses natural rock formations to complete the enclosure. I sit and try to imagine the ancient people's who have passed by here. 

Dadal, a lovely town of log buildings and a very fine guanz (restaurant) serving great khuurshuur (mutton pancakes). This was to be shower stop but the public bathhouse was under renovations and because there was a power supply fault somewhere the camps could not heat or pump water. We stayed at a camp where the people went to great lengths, there was a fresh water spring that fed a sort of spa, the people started the wood fired boiler and heated water which was then used to fill baths by bucket. My first bath in 7 years, how luxurious. Dadal is the birth place of Chinggis Khan which is evident by the numerous monuments dedicated to him.

A new taste sensation at Tolson Khulstal National Park. We are camped beside a pretty little lake on he hunt for white tailed gazelle which we see in the morning as we drive through the park, two large herds and several sightings of smaller groups. The herds numbered 100 plus, and speed off, bounding across the steppe their white rumps disappearing over the rolling hills. While at camp we are visited by a young herder ( we were often when camping), he is invited to dinner, but goes off and later he returns with a bag containing some hard cheese and beautiful, thick, clotted cream and a bottle of fresh milk. Clotted cream with muesli and milk, delicious. Extended to biscuits and the different styles of breads, with or without jam, even better.

Sunset at Toson Khulstai

As part of our itinerary we have stayed in a variety of provincial hotels, an intriguing experience not to be missed. They have all had their own quirks that make your stay memorable. The toilet cisterns that did not work, a bowl provided to pour the water down, no wall sockets but the wires were taped up, the hot shower where the water lasted for 30 seconds and took 45 minutes to heat again, peeling wallpaper, peeling paint but all were clean, the staff as helpful as they could be and the beds comfortable and warm. I would happy use them all again.

I have only touched on this memorable trip. There have been many other amazing experiences, every day providing something new, from ferry crossings, shopping, food, learning shagai, and meeting the wonderful people. We drive the ever changing landscapes, so enormous and beautiful that there are not enough words to describe them. Mongolia will touch your heart and cause you to look inside yourself, the experience is rewarding beyond words.