29 January 2014

Horses - The Spirit of Mongolia - Tuesday's Snapshot

Tuesday's Snapshots - highlighting images from the EL team and our guests based on a Mongolia theme. This weekMongolia's horses.

‘They gallop like the wind and their power is that of a mountain avalanche.’ (Song Dynasty Annals)

One of the most traditional instruments in Mongolia is the Morin Khuur; the horse head fiddle. The fiddle’s significance extends beyond its function as a musical instrument - it was traditionally used as an integral part of rituals and everyday activities of nomadic Mongolians and to this day, the Morin Khuur repertory has retained some tunes (tatlaga) specifically intended to tame animals. The design of the Morin Khuur is closely linked to the all-important cult of the horse and when played, it can produce sounds similar to the noises that a horse makes.

Mongolian horses live in herds, led by a stallion who guides the horses to water, shelter and safety. The horses are hardy and adapted to living out in temperatures that can reach -45c. The Mongol horse is small (1.3 metres at the shoulder) and relatively light (between 300-350kg on average). Unlike westerners, Mongolians do not give their horses names. It is enough to designate them by the colour of their coat and their character. 

The young, one or two-year old horse is examined at the end of summer or in early autumn. It is broken at the age of two. In the springtime, the herds are inspected and young males are castrated. This is also the time when the horse’s mane is cut. Only stallions keep a long mane.

Mares are generally not ridden in Mongolia. Instead they are used for breeding and producing Mongolia's national beverage  - airag (fermented mare's milk).  

Horse racing is one of the Three Manly Sports of the Naadam Festival. The races are a test of speed, stamina and strength. In Mongolia, it is the horse and not the jockey that wins the race. Child jockeys are chosen as they are lighter – their role is not to force the horse but only to guide it to the winning post. 

27 January 2014

Preparing For Mongolian Lunar New Year - One dumpling, two dumplings, three dumpings, four...

I'm a little delayed in the update this week - I'm in Ireland to visit a very good friend - we met in Mongolia and she's been a huge supporter of EL ever since. The Mongolian New Year known as Tsagaan Sar (White Month) is fast approaching and our friends and EL team members will be busy preparing this week for what is one of the most important holidays in the Mongolian calendar. I spoke to Gaya in Kharkhorin on Wednesday - she was about to start preparing around 1000 buuz (Mongolian dumplings) and Turuu has already prepared 1500 - an activity that is taking place in many other homes throughout Mongolia as I write this.

Gaya with her family - her younger brother Puujeee, her sister-in-law Erka and their son Hashaa. Gaya is also with her mother Chatral and her two daughters Ganju and Nomioko
According to the 12-year animal cycles of the Mongolian calendar, this year brings the Year of the Horse. I wrote about Tsagaan Sar in the EL January Newsletter. (Sign up here if you're interested www.eternal-landscapes.co.uk). As a very brief introduction - the colour white symbolizes happiness, purity and an abundance of milk products. Tsagaan Sar symbolises wealth and prosperity in the family and is a celebration when Mongolians come together to show respect to the family elders and to renew friendship. The day before New Year is called Bituun - this means 'to close down'. On this day people eat to be full - it is believed that if you stay hungry you will be hungry for the coming year – hence why many buuz are made and eaten. ...In the UB Post this week there was an interesting article on the personal meaning behind Tsagaan Sar.

As part of Tsagaan Sar, the Blue Moon Art Gallery in UB is hosting an exhibition of horse themed art from 10 artists. This stunning picture is by the artist Li Gang. 
Tsaagan Sar is one time of year that I have not been in Mongolia for. Over the years I have received many invites from friends, the team and the families we work with. I'm considering it for next year but doubt if I would look good in a deel - one of the most traditional items of Mongolian clothing.

Is it cold? Yes! But travelling to Mongolia in the winter months is an extraordinary time of year to visit and it will leave you longing to return.  To me, the landscapes seem without limit and the days are frequently dominated by the blueness of the sacred blue sky (Mongolia on average experiences 260 days of sunshine per year, a majority of these fall in the winter months). Visiting Mongolia at any time of year can be a truly exhilarating adventure but in the winter all experiences are heightened.

The vast emptiness of Bulgan Province 
Turuu and I between our daily to weekly phone conversations pass ideas backwards and forwards. There are numerous festivals that are held in Mongolia in the late winter months - all are used by tour operators as a way of extending the season. Turuu and I are working on an itinerary that includes the colour of the festivals but with a special twist. We have warm invites from Bambakh his family in Khatgal, the small rural community on the southern shoreline of Lake Khovsgol where the Ice Festival is held. An equally warm invite has been received from the Gelgergerash family at Bayanzag (famously known as the Flaming Cliffs) during the Thousand Camel Festival held in the small community of Bulgan in the southern Gobi. 

These would be shared adventures in that as our guest, you would stay alongside families who make their home in the countryside. You would travel with both families to the festival - by camel and by horse and be hosted by them throughout the time you spend with them. We believe that visiting the festivals in this way offers our guests an opportunity to to interact with the herders and see their nomadic way of life, up close and personal. I'm looking for feedback on such an idea so let me know what you think!

The winter landscapes of Gorkhi Terelj National Park
Finally, I received an email this week from clients from a tailor made trip in 2013. They want to mention Eternal Landscapes in a newsletter they contribute to over in the States. Why? 'Not as an advertisement, but more as a company run by a woman who fell in love with Mongolia and is trying to make a difference.' Watch this space!
That's it from Ireland for now. As always, thanks for listening. Jess

23 January 2014

The Eighth Wonder of the World - 2013 Wild Treks Research Trip

We're lucky enough that here at EL we get returning clients. In 2013 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 Zavkhan Aimag. All the images were taken by John.

Sunrise over Khar Nuur
 We awaken to a glorious sunrise across the lake to take the chill away from the coldest night we have so far experienced. The lee side of all the dunes are white with frost and all the little backwaters and flotsam along their verges are frozen solid.

A very relaxing day is spent exploring the dunes, the lake shore and the surrounding hills, attending to some domestic chores and keeping Turuu company while he changes a couple of universal joints on the Furgon. The ability to carry out major mechanical repairs in the middle of nowhere – this year universal joints, last year a differential bearing – is testimony to both the Furgon’s uncomplicated design and Turuu’s mechanical skills. The day provides not only many ‘wow’ moments but also complete tranquillity, for we see no one else apart from a local fisherman until late afternoon when one of Turuu’s local driver mates, Basra, joins us. We are to enjoy the benefits of Basra’s extensive local knowledge for the next couple of days.
Quiet days at the lake side. No where to be but just here.
 It is with mixed feelings that we take our leave the next morning – anticipation of adventures to come tinged with regret at having to leave this glorious setting so soon. We collect Basra and his crew from the ger camp on the other side of the lake then set out into uncharted territory.

We pass through a valley where no families live for it is home to many wolves. They do not fear the wolves but rather respect them. They simply fear for their stock. The valley is bordered by dark craggy peaks wrapped in cloaks of sand and we cross several icy streams before climbing steeply to a broad grassy summit with many large outcrops of sedimentary rock sculpted into amazing shapes by wind, rain and ice. From a distance they resemble the ruins of ancient castles. The trail passes through a natural arch some seven to eight metres high in one such outcrop and before us we can see the way ahead - row upon row of sand dunes stretching away into the distance.
The weather beaten, monumental landscapes of Mongolia
Our descent follows the course of a small stream emanating from a spring a little way above the trail, the green grassy terraces of which are under a mantle of ice and the water gurgles gently below a beautiful latticework of glistening dagger-like crystals. We lunch where the steam meets the foot of the dunes and discover that, not more than one hundred metres further on, the water simply melts away into the sand.
Just another Mongolian road

After crossing the dunes we emerge onto a sparsely grassed plateau and stop on the brink of a steep descent into a sandy, rock-strewn valley. Here Basra announces, “We find river.” Here? Really? In this parched landscape?
After trudging along the valley floor for a couple of kilometres we crest a small rise and there before us, to our amazement, is a river bed some 20 – 30 metres in width. A thin veneer of water ripples over the deep ochre sandy bed with the occasional deeper channel and upstream is a herder watering his flock of goats and sheep. Further upstream is a massive, very steep sand dune probably 100 metres tall which Basra informs us is the site of the spring which gives rise to the river.

A hidden secret
 It is a further kilometre or so to the source where we find ourselves in a huge amphitheatre about 150 metres wide encircled by the imposing walls of the dune which are striated with yellow,  mauve, brown and greenish-grey and sculpted into weird shapes. The reason the river at this point is named Mukhartin, meaning cul-de-sac, becomes immediately obvious. There must be a high mineral content in the sand for the dune is much more colourful and much steeper than pure sand could form. There is no obvious spring with water just seeping gently to the surface around the entire base of the dune and quickly gathering into strongly flowing channels. We quickly realise that the sand by the base is like quicksand and to be avoided at all cost. So impressive is this spectacle that Ross names it the eighth wonder of the world, and I can’t help but agree for it is truly spectacular sight.

Unlike this morning’s stream the flow is sufficient to avoid being swallowed up by the sand and further downstream it is supplemented by other springs to form the Khangiy river which we will more or less follow into the Great Lake Depression tomorrow.

21 January 2014

Mongolia's Orkhon River Valley - Tuesday's Snapshot

Tuesday's Snapshots - highlighting images from the EL team and our guests based on a Mongolia theme. This week...introducing the Orkhon River Valley - one of Mongolia's UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Orkhon Valley is located near the centre of the country, within the large massif of the Khangai Mountains - one of Mongolia’s three main mountain ranges. The Khangai stretch 600km from the northwest to the southeast of the country and are some of the highest mountains of northern Mongolia – with peaks of 2800m-3500m. This is a unique ecoregion characteristic of the Siberian taiga forest, alpine meadows and the high open Mongolian steppe 

Taken by Ann Ang on her Essence of Mongolia trip. This is from Gaya's Guesthouse in Kharkhorin - where your reception from Gaya will be warm and genuine. Kharkhorin is also known as Karakorum and was the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire as well as a State Farm of the Order of the Golden Star when Mongolia was a communist state under the control of the Soviet Union.

Erdene Zuu means 'One Hundred Treasures' and is Mongolia's oldest monastery. Erdene Zuu was part destroyed during the political purges of the 1930's and virtually abandoned until 1990 when the Buddhist religion was reintroduced as the national religion having been outlawed during the communist era. However, there is now again a permanent community of monks based at Erdene Zuu and it features highly as a pilgrimage site to ordinary Mongolians.

The mighty Ulaan Tsutgalan - the Orkhon Waterfall. The Orkhon River Valley World Heritage Site encompasses an area of approximately 121,967 hectares of extensive pasture land on both banks of the Orkhon River and includes numerous archaeological remains dating back to the 6th century (including Kharkhorin). Collectively the remains in the site reflect the symbiotic links between nomadic, pastoral societies and their administrative and religious centres, and the importance of the Orkhon valley in the history of central Asia. 
The Orkhon Valley was at the centre of traffic across the Asian steppes and became the capital of first the Uighur Empire and then the Mongol Empire. The night skies have changed little over Millenia with very little light pollution to impact on them.

18 January 2014

Books! Books! Books! - Books About Mongolia

 Everyone prepares differently for a holiday, but for those interested in reading, it can be a way to spend a very enjoyable few hours, exploring a country's past, present and future, before you arrive. So, here are just a few options from our quite comprehensive (and ever growing!) book list. Nothing ever makes it onto the list until I have read it. 

On the Trais Khan: An Epic Journey Through the Land of the Nomads. By Tim Cope.
This is a new addition to the EL reading list! Inspired by a desire to understand the nomadic way of life, Australian adventurer Tim Cope embarked on a remarkable journey: 6,000 miles on horseback across the Eurasian steppe from Mongolia, through Kazakhstan, Russia, and the Ukraine, to Hungary retracing the trail of Genghis Khan. 

 Wolf Totem. By Jiang Rong - Winner of the Asian Man Booker Prize. 
Take yourself off to the wild steppes of Inner Mongolia during China's Cultural Revolution in this  part fiction/part biography 

 Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection by John Man 
This is a good introduction to Genghis Khan's  life and his influences. For an indepth introduction on the Gobi, I highly recommend John Man's Tracking the Gobi. If you like his style of writing, he has written about the life of Kubilai Khan as well.

Hearing Birds Fly. By Louisa Waugh - Winner of the RLS Ondaatje prize
This travelogue describes the year the author spent living in Tsengel, a Kazakh village in western Mongolia. The descriptions of the stark landscapes and local stories make this an honest account of time spent in Mongolia's westernmost town. 

Eagle Dreams: Searching for Legends in Wild Mongolia. By Stephen J Bodio. 
A perfect read for if you're considering visiting western Mongolia as it gives a good account of 
the life of the Kazakh eagle hunters as he spends time living among them and their birds, learning their traditions.

If you're wondering what I'm reading at the moment - The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols by Robert Beer, The Secret History of the Mongols by Urgunge Onon and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (absolutely nothing to do with Mongolia but a very good read!)

(The other books listed in the photograph are also worth reading! The Tea Road by Martha Avery, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford and In The Empire of Genghis Khan by Stanley Stewart. I particularly like one quote from Stanley Stewart's book - 'Their resources were limited but their hospitality boundles.')

14 January 2014

Lakes of Mongolia - Tuesday's Snapshot

Tuesday's Snapshots - highlighting images from the EL team and our guests based on a Mongolia theme. This week...introducing just five of Mongolia's stunning lakes. And yes, we visit all of them!

The lake shore of Khayargas Nuur in Uvs Province may not be beautiful but this saline lake is a national park in its own right and forms part of Mongolia's Great Lakes Depression.   The basin is 600-650 km in length with a width of 200-250 km in the north and 60-100 km in the south. The basin belongs to the Central Asia Internal Drainage Basin.
Khar Lake (Black Lake in Mongolian)is located in the Zavkhan Province within the Khangai Mountain. And yes, it is as beautiful as it looks.

Khovsgol Nuur forms the centre piece to Khovsgol Nuur National Park. This is Mongolia's largest fresh water lake and is part of the same rift valley as that of Lake Baikal in Russia. In Mongolia it is known as Dalai Ej (Mother Sea). The mountains you can see form part of the Khoridol Saridag Strictly Protected Area.
The stunning Shireet Nuur forming part of Naiman Nuur (Eight Lakes) - created by volcanic activity within Ovorkhangai Province.
Terekhiin Tsagaan Nuur is a freshwater lake, protected as a national park in the Khangai Mountain Range. The lake is fed by 10 tributary rivers and has numerous bays and peninsulas along the northern shore. Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur is part of the Asian-Australasian Migratory Bird Flyway and is a Ramsar Wetland.

7 January 2014

Mongolia's Five Snouts - 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 livestock - the five snouts or the tavan hoshuu mal.

In Mongolia, pastoralism has been the central feature of life from ancient times, and almost every aspect of society has been shaped by it. 
Herders continuously micro-adapt to the climatic conditions and the quality of available pasture.  Fat animals survive the long winter better so it is important to try to fatten them throughout the summer.  If there is poor grass in the summer, the animals go into winter thin and weaker, and there is likely to be high mortality particularly if the winter is harsh. 
Herders do not own land but recognise land use – with accommodation made for changes in water supply and productivity.
Traditionally herders have grazed animals by rotating animals over shared pasture according to the seasons. Depending on the characteristics of the environment and the climate, some pastoralists will move hundreds of miles while others only move short distances. Similarly, in some areas or during certain years, herders may make frequent moves in a year, whereas in other areas they may move just a few times.

Co-operation between herders was and is still common – such as the traditional khot-ail . This is a group of nomadic families that share the labour resources and control grazing.


1 January 2014

Family Life in Rural Mongolia - Tuesday's Snapshot

Tuesday's Snapshots - highlighting images from the EL team and our guests based on a Mongolia theme. This week...introducing some of the families that we work with. 

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 their and our local knowledge and genuine love for the country underpins every one of the journeys that we design and offer.

Davaasuren at Khogno Khan in Bulgan Province who together with his wife Doljinsuren, provide simple ger
accommodation at the base of the Elsen Tasarkhai sand dunes. Davaasuren is a renowned horse herder and loves nothing more than to spend the day on horse back introducing the landscapes of his home to others. The EL team also considers the airag (fermented mare's milk) made by this family to be some of the best in the country!
Image by Nick Rains

The truly wonderful Maam. Together with her husband Basaankhuu, they operate a small number of guest gers close by Khongoryn Els, the singing sands in the southern Gobi. Their work keeps them busy but we find ways of spending time with this truly delightful couple - hanging out with a beer or two at the base of the dunes or on an overnight camel trek led by either Basaankhuu or Maam.
Batbold and Jargaa who operate their own ger camp at Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur in Arkhangai Aimag. Ask any of our EL guests and they will talk about the genuine warmth and hospitality with which this couple welcome all. Jargaa is also an incredible cook - her freshly cooked 'Bin' is now a legendary staple on the EL breakfast table! (If you're wondering what I'm talking about, you'll just have tocome and try it for yourself!)
Radnaa and Byamba - the owners of the Gobi Oasis Tree Planting Project in Dundgobi Province, the middle Gobi. Their passion for trees transcends any language barriers and they welcome their home to all.

Lokh! Together with his older brother Bambakh and his sister Gerel, this young herding family act as our local guides on our extended treks through the Lake Khovsgol region.