30 December 2013

A Jewel of Many Colours - 2013 Wild Treks Research Trip

We're lucky enough that here at EL we get returning clients. This year we had the pleasure of John's company on our Wild Treks research. Having visited in 2009 and 2012 (I enjoyed the remoteness, the feeling of immense space, the secluded camping and the great balance between programmed experiences and the freedom to explore independently'), John decided that maybe he had time to make a final visit to Mongolia on our trip to the Altai  ('the prospect of the 'unknown' certainly excites me'). John wrote wonderful updates whilst on the road, and having been kind enough to share them, this is the second in a series written by him.

Currently we are in the stunning Zavkhan Aimag...

The kettle is on! Buyant River views
A brilliant blue sky and warm sun welcome the day and thaw the ice after another freezing night. The route today continues to meander down the broad valley of the Buyant Gol to the small settlement of Buyant, a desolate little village, very exposed to the elements and bearing many reminders of the last Russian incursion in the 1950s.

Throughout the last few days we regularly come across burial mounds – by now probably numbering in excess of one hundred. The majority have four corner-stones and would most likely date back to the bronze age. Those without the corner stones probably date back to the Hunuu era from about the third century BC. Mongolians believe that their ancestors descended from the Hunuu (as did apparently Attila the Hun) and from which the Mongolian word for person ‘hun’ is also derived.

Mongolia's ancient past
This entire area has, for the last two or three years, been in the grip of a hamster plague which have so degraded the pasture that life has been made even more difficult for the families living in these valleys.

We turn off into another valley and are making good progress on another short cut when a local marmot hunter informs us that the way ahead is too difficult. After our past experiences the mind boggles at the prospect. So it’s back to the main road for the longer but more assured route to Uliastai, the provincial capital or aimag of this province Zavkhan. After a long climb to Gantsiin Dava, another very high pass and the gateway to Uliastai. The town is tucked away amid a vast random expanse of peaks, ridges, spurs and valleys reminiscent of a huge crumpled blanket – quite a spectacular view.

The town itself is rather uninspiring and once again with many Russian relics but we find comfortable – by Mongolian standards at least – accommodation and enjoy a very pleasant meal at an adjoining hotel.

Aimag life
 The next morning is spent shopping and attending to emails in an internet cafĂ© before lunching in another very nice restaurant. Then begins our afternoon journey of 120 kilometres to a lake that neither Jess nor Turuu has visited before. The road passes through familiar terrain but we are constantly rewarded with great views, amazing rock formations, and fleeting glimpses of the tough life of herders and their families.  Around many family camps we see scarecrow-like figures or manuukhai which are designed to discourage wolves from venturing too close.

As we bounce our way down a particularly boulder-strewn gully we are suddenly confronted with a breathtaking vista. The bluest of blue lakes nestled snuggly amongst dark rocky crags and flanked by golden brown sand dunes. A herd of Bactrian camels stroll lazily across our path and a pair of brilliant white whooper swans cruise gracefully along the shoreline. 

The truly stunning Khar Nuur
As we traverse the southern shoreline the colour of the lake changes constantly with the light – amethyst, jade, emerald, silver and turquoise, while from our campsite nestled between the lake and the dunes the soft  pastel pinks, blues and mauves of opal in the eastern sky at sunset are reflected in the mirror-like surface of the lake. The name of this gem is Khar, a very simple name for a simply beautiful place. We are lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of small waves idling across the lake ahead of a gentle breeze.

Home sweet home!

19 December 2013

Westward Ho! - 2013 Wild Treks Research Trip

We're lucky enough that here at EL we get returning clients. This year we had the pleasure of John's company on our Wild Treks research. Having visited in 2009 and 2012 (I enjoyed the remoteness, the feeling of immense space, the secluded camping and the great balance between programmed experiences and the freedom to explore independently'), John decided that maybe he had time to make a final visit to Mongolia on our trip to the Altai  ('the prospect of the 'unknown' certainly excites me'). John wrote wonderful updates whilst on the road, and having been kind enough to share them, this is the second in a series written by him.

Currently we are in the stunning Khangai Mountains in Zavkhan Aimag...

For our westward journey from White Lake to Otgon Tenger Uul Strictly Protected Area there are two options – follow the main road which takes two days, or follow a more direct one day route  which is not shown on the map. To save time the latter option is chosen.

From White Lake we cross first the South and then the North Terkh River, broad, fast flowing, crystal clear streams which provide most of the water for for White Lake. The route then follows the broad, flat floor of the North Terkh  for many kilometres. The valley floor is at times probably three to four kilometres in width before gently rising to the foothills  and finally more steeply to the surrounding peaks. The rocky crags have disappeared as have the stands of larch but the rich yellow, beige and brown of the grasses is a constant reminder that winter is just around the corner.

With such a generous cover of pasture to provide fodder for their herds, the valley is more populated than usual with a number of family ger camps visible at any given time.

High passes and sacred stone shrines
Our track eventually departs the valley floor and commences a long, steep and challenging climb to the Nudengiin Davaa pass which we estimate to stand at about 3000 metres. The panoramic views from the pass are stunning with a light mantle of snow on the higher peaks. If we thought that the climb to the pass was demanding, it pales into insignificance compared to the descent. The furgon’s tough, go-almost-anywhere capabilities and Turuu’s outstanding driving skills really come to the fore in handling the toughest challenges. By this time it is perfectly clear why this road is not shown on the map as it is probably only negotiable for a month or two at around this time of year. However, it serves its purpose in saving a day’s travel and certainly provides more highlights that the main road.

The road west!
Our reward is another spectacularly broad river valley flanked by peaks sporting some amazingly sculpted granite outcrops. Camp is set up on the bank of the Buyant Gol River. We soon discover that, from just a short distance downstream of the camp, we can catch a tantalising glimpse of our objective, Otgon Tenger, the most sacred mountain in Mongolia standing proudly at the head of an adjoining valley. While at 4021 metres it is not the tallest mountain in Mongolia it has a permanent mantle of snow and gives rise to the only glacier in this range.

Next morning we are reminded, not only that winter is on the way but that camp is located at about 2500 metres for there is a generous layer of ice on the tents and even the edges of the fast flowing are sporting mantles of ice. The sun and the eternal blue sky soon brighten the day, however.

Our home next to the Buyant Gol
During the drive to the mountain,  the closer we come (we are not to mention its name in its presence) the more imposing it becomes. From its commanding position at the head of the valley it certainly seems to radiate quite an aura and it’s easy to understand why it commands the position it does within the Mongolian community. We continue to the foothills passing on the way a very large, imposing statue of Ochivan, Buddhist god of the mountains, taking pride of place in front of a shrine bedecked in colourful prayer scarves.

Ochirvan protecting sacred Otgon Tenger
We continue to the end of the ‘track’ – another challenging drive – and have lunch with a splendid view down the valley and the mountain standing guard behind us. We then take a ramble across a boulder-strewn ridge to the sacred lake Badar Khundga nestled snuggly below the peak. This is the place that all Mongolian parliamentarians must visit before taking their seat in the chamber. It is a time for private contemplation and the building of individual cairns/ovoos. Finally we all wash our hands and face with water drawn from the lake in Ross’s camera lens cover as it is forbidden to place your hands in the water.
Lunch with a view!
Our return to camp by the river is fairly quiet as I think we are all still deep in contemplation. In all, a very special experience.

Time for a little contemplation

17 December 2013

Mongolia's Gobi Desert - Tuesday's Snapshot

Tuesday's Snapshots - highlighting images from the EL team and our guests based on a Mongolia theme. This week  our extended camel trek.

These images are from Khongoryn Els arranged through Baasankhuu and Maam.  However, we also work with the  Gelgegarash family at  Bayanzag.

Sunrise over the Gobi. The view from the home of Baasankhuu and Maam of the sun rising over Gurvan Saikhan National Park 

The wonderful Maam - our host at Khongoryn Els

Time out en-route. Get away from it all as you explore and discover the highest sand dunes in Mongolia

Sometimes its better with four legs than two. Exploring by camel gives you a more local insight into the everyday life of the camel herders.
Under the Eternal Blue Sky of Mongolia

13 December 2013

This Is Us 2013! - The Eternal Landscapes Team

In the winter months I go into review mode and as part of this winter's review I am considering a new look blog and newsletter. The guy who is helping me asked about my love for Mongolia and why, out of all the roads I could have chosen, I followed this one. I mentioned that I couldn't it without the loyalty and friendship of the team that I have  - here is a brief introduction to 'us' - the EL team!

'Boss 1' - Jess

A 'selfie!'  - 'Boss 1'  on our 2013 Wild Treks Research Trip at the Kazakh Eagle Festival, Bayan-Olgii
I oversee all aspects of the business. The winter months are spent re-evaluating, reviewing and adapting Eternal Landscapes. The summer is dedicated to running and overseeing our trips. Working as a senior tour leader for a leading adventure company brought me to Mongolia where I fell in love with the spirit of the country and the distinctive and unforgettable landscapes. Mongolia has made a home in my heart for the last 9 years.

I was inspired by the knowledge, understanding and pride of the Mongolian team that I worked with when I first arrived in Mongolia, and this motivated my to take their love of their home country and to use it in order to bring it to others within the concept of fair tourism. Fair for our clients, for my team and for Mongolia – its natural environment, people, culture and traditions.

I believe that local travel is the best form of travel. Yes, the amenities are minimal, the weather can be challenging and the roads at times difficult but ultimately it's the time spent exploring the landscapes, meeting the locals and experiencing their way of life that is the most uplifting and enlightening.  Mongolia gives you time to think and gain a fresh perspective - it provides the perfect antidote to the rush and crowds of everyday life elsewhere.  

Of course, I couldn't do it al on my own!

'Boss 2' and Lead Driver - Turuu

The 'Boss 2' with his beloved Furgon meeting new friends and contacts on the road. This time, having just crossed  the Onon River near Binder by the 'birwaz' ferry. Turuu's Furgon becomes the EL mobile office and our home during the summer months.
Enktur is from Erdenedalai in Dundgobi Aimag - the 'middle Gobi'. Turuu was the lead driver of a team of four drivers on my first ever trip that I led in Mongolia. From day one, his experience, input and the respect he has for his culture became an integral part of how I ran a tour.

He has a natural talent for driving, mechanics and improvisation. But, he also has a natural talent for heading a small team. Admittedly, he is at his happiest when faced with the freedom of the open road but he is also remarkably adept at being the second in command via mobile phone from a windswept campsite somewhere in Mongolia! 

Turuu is known throughout the drivers' community as a great man - and all members of the EL team would agree with that too!

An EL style business meeting - Jargalant, Northern Mongolia
Turuu and I operate some of EL's small group and tailor made adventures and, although it can prove a logistical challenge for us and will increasingly continue to do so, we both believe that being on the road allows us to stay in touch with the ‘real’ Mongolia and helps to keep our knowledge fresh. Our friendships with local people are genuine friendships - forged over time, mainly with tea, sometimes with vodka. This means we offer adventures that give that local perspective and our local knowledge and genuine love for the country underpins every one of the journeys that we design and offer.

However, two shoulders are not big enough so are slowly building our team.

Khaliunaa - 'Annie'

Annie with her kilowatt smile!
Annie is a new mum, she is studying for a Masters in English whilst preparing to set up a new cafe business in UB (which I am very excited about). Annie was the translator on my first trip and we have been firm friends ever since. I like to call Annie the cog in the EL wheel - helping me with UB based jobs when I'm in the UK and providing vast reserves of support and friendship when I'm in Mongolia. Finger's crossed, Annie will hopefully be working as one of our Trip Assistants on one or two of our shorter trips in June 2014. 

Second Drivers - 'The Boys'
Our second drivers are of the 'strong and silent' type - but all with personalities the size of Mongolia itself. They all bring so much more to each trip than their role as a driver. Although their English can be limited, they are accomplished members of the EL team and just through their presence, they help to enhance our guests' experience of Mongolia.

Turuu with Sandag and honoured (pink) guest! Sandag has been great friends with Turuu for many years and is a truly great Furgon driver who is always looking to improve his skills. We employ Sandag for his vast experience and knowledge and we love him for his loyalty.
Hasaa! New to EL in 2013,  Hasaa is delightfully kind with a stunning singing voice that stops you in your tracks. He may be our youngest driver, but the old traditions of rural Mongolia run deep with Hasaa. His home town is in the middle Gobi and when passing through he just loves to show off his new young family.
Ganba! Ganba has a gentle soul and is our very own gentle giant.  His Furgon van is his 'home away from home' and he always makes sure to offer the warmth of Mongolian hospitality even when on the bumpiest road.
The EL Trip Assistants - 'The Girls'
Our trip assistants are not professionally trained guides but local women who have a genuine love for and connection with their country. Their main role is to act as a facilitator - to provide a link between our guests and all things Mongolian. They deeply love their country, are highly competitive at impromptu games of shagai (ankle bones), give great informal cooking lessons and genuinely care about our guests.

(Finger's crossed, Gaya who runs Gaya's Guesthouse in Kharkhorin will be joining the EL trip assistant team in 2014.)

Enkhee - collecting berries in the Orkhon Valley! Enkhee is from the small community of Chuluut in Arkhangai Aimag and although her base in now in UB, her genuine respect and love for rural Mongolia is an essential ingredient in all the adventures she works on. She worked as a translator with me when I first arrived in Mongolia and it makes me immensely proud that she is now working for EL as a trip assistant.

Selenge! We're lucky to have Selenge as we are certain she is destined for  bigger things. Selenge works at the  International School of Ulaan Bataar. Her love is hiking and she especially loves exploring the Khovsgol region as this is where her family are originally from.

10 December 2013

Small Group Adventures in Mongolia - Tuesday's Snapshot

Tuesday's Snapshots - highlighting images from the EL team and our guests based on a Mongolia theme. This week...introducing our June small-group adventure with Sarah, Stacey and Alison - Untamed Mongolia

Clearing up Dungene Am in Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park in the southern Gobi. Doing our bit  for World Environment Day. (Helping to clean up the natural environment is
 an integral part of our responsible travel philosophy)
Our home at Khustain Nuruu National Park - Tov Aimag. Sublime space!

Another one of our homes with a view at sacred Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia.
It is truly stunning!
Camping alongside the Toin River close to the small community of Jargalant in northern Mongolia.
 These two delightful children joined us at our camp
Twister at Khongoryn Els ( Mongolia's highest sand dunes known as the singing sands)
on a stormy night - wonderful fun!

9 December 2013

Slowly Westward! - 2013 Wild Treks Research Trip

We're lucky enough that here at EL we get returning clients. This year we had the pleasure of John's company on our Wild Treks research. Having visited in 2009 and 2012 (I enjoyed the remoteness, the feeling of immense space, the secluded camping and the great balance between programmed experiences and the freedom to explore independently'), John decided that maybe he had time to make a final visit to Mongolia on our trip to the Altai  ('the prospect of the 'unknown' certainly excites me'). John wrote wonderful updates whilst on the road, and having been kind enough to share them, this is the second in a series written by him.

Currently we are in UB...

After sorting through my luggage – what to take, what to leave in storage – it’s off to the Granville Pub for brunch. Gentle little snowflakes are settling on the roadway as I venture outside and, although it doesn’t feel really cold, the temperature must be below freezing as the snowflakes are dry enough to scurry busily across the road ahead of a strengthening breeze. As I look ahead down the street the tops of the nearby hills are sporting a light mantle of snow. I have now experienced three different faces of Mongolia, the hot, parched, barren Gobi in 2009, the cooler Gobi awash and tinged with green last year, and now cold and snowing!

A short wait ensues as the pub doesn’t open until 09.30, but along with a few other early arrivals, we are soon enjoying the welcoming warmth, hospitality, good food and coffee on offer inside.

As midday approaches it’s time to return to the hotel and await contact from Jess who is returning today from one of her other adventures. I’ve not long to wait as there is soon a knock on the door and a warm, welcoming hug from a radiant looking Jess. A very quick update and exchange of information takes place before heading down to a broad grin, firm handshake and a another big  hug from Turuu. The broad plan is for a get-together at the Granville this evening to farewell departing friends and plan for tomorrow’s departure.

Street Art - UB style
Jess had as her guests Sue from the UK and New Zealander Ross, who will accompany us tomorrow. Ross seems as enthusiastic as I am about the prospects of the venture into the Altai Mountains and so, along with Jess and Turuu I’ll be in excellent company.

Our adventure to the Altai will be a little different as it is a voyage of discovery for all of us. Jess and Turuu are exploring the possibility of including this spectacular and remote corner of Mongolia in future itineraries – possibly for pack horse supported walking tours – and I guess, in a way, Ross and I will be ‘guinea pigs’ and hopefully able to provide some useful feedback and photos while also finding  lots of opportunities to ‘do our own thing’. So while there is a plan, there is no firmly set itinerary for the trip except for a much anticipated visit to the annual Eagle Festival. Turuu is concerned that in the first day or two we will be traversing some country already familiar to me but I assure him that it would not matter how many times I revisited these areas they would be just as captivating and full of interest as they were the first time.

Awake early to find that, while still cold, the ‘eternal blue sky’ has returned. By 10.00 we are weaving our way through suburban traffic on our way westward on the main, sealed road. Our destination is Khongo Khan a beautiful and remote area  - it is both locally sacred and an historic site of significance, with the ruins of a monastery which was destroyed during the last Russian incursion.

Just one view of magical Khogno Khan
We stay in the same gers that provided such welcome shelter from a raging thunderstorm last year and as usual we are made to feel most welcome by our hosts. The camp is nestled snugly between some magnificently sculpted granite peaks and part of one of the longest chains of sand dunes in Mongolia through which a sparkling little stream of crystal-clear water meanders its way. 

The following morning brings a clear sky and a sparking, frosty ground. Nestling on the banks of the Orkhon River is our first objective, Kharhorin (Karakorum) the legendary supply centre for Chinggis Khan’s armies and the capital of Mongolia under the rule of his son Ogedei. From our vantage point overlooking the city it is easy to picture Chinggis’s armies setting out westward across the steppe on another of their incursions into Europe. The splendid Museum, funded by Japan, traces the history of this renowned site from early stone-age ruins through to the Khan dynasty era. The other attraction is the magnificent remaining temples within the walls of what was a much larger complex, once again a casualty of the Russian invasion. A visit to one of Jess’s family gur hostesses, Gaya, is followed by the sampling some of her ‘famous’ cooking – vegetable and meat dumplings – for lunch and, after sampling about eight of them (you just have to make sure that you like them) I can thoroughly recommend them.

The truly delightful Gaya
Our destination is Tsetserleg primarily for the quite large market which will allow us to stock up on supplies as from here on, apart from White Lake, it’s into unknown territory and supplies may be limited. Tomorrow it’s White Lake and then westward into the unknown.

The vibrant Tsetserleg market

3 December 2013

Untamed Mongolia - Tuesday's Snapshot

I've been updating our website and uploading our 2014 small-group adventures. Through this process I have been looking at the spectacular photos from this year and last - both my own (which as I am no photographer are not always that great) and on the photos that guests have been generous and kind enough to share (which are FAB-U-LOUS!). As a result of this I thought over the winter months I would introduce 'Tuesday's Snapshot' - five weekly photos from our adventures throughout the wild landscapes of Mongolia. Enjoy the journey!

This week...introducing our May tailor-made adventure with Helen and Carlo - Untamed Mongolia

On a day hike, overlooking the Orkhon Valley within the Khangai Mountains that stretch for 600km through central Mongolia reaching heights on average of 2800-3500m.

Planting the first EL trees of  2013 at Gobi OasisPart of our philosophy is to actively support and work in partnership with local projects that between them provide greater opportunities and benefits for local communities within Mongolia.

We explored river valleys and ger encampments near Ulaan Tsutgalan in Ovorkhangai Aimag on this stunning spring blue sky day. We then returned to the home of Tomorbat where we enjoyed a sunset beer.

Overlooking the spectacular Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park within Arkhangai Aimag. Our home, staying with Batbold and Jargaa, was down by the lake shore.

Dinner? Learning to make Banshtai dumplings for 'banshtai shol'. Can you guess which ones were ours?!