28 February 2014

Destination Bayan Olgii - On the road update

It's Friday. And it's time for the EL weekly update. Yesterday I spent an hour or so discussing the new look website with Nick who is helping me to make it more interactive and user friendly. Yes, the website is a selling tool but as with the EL monthly newsletter it was never intended to just 'sell our trips' but to be informative and insightful as well. That is also what I try to achieve with this blog. Throughout the summer months I write updates with thoughts from the road and our adventures but in the winter the blog becomes more focused on Mongolia in general...but still with the aim of it being informative and insightful.

When I'm in the UK there are certain things that will immediately evoke memories of Mongolia for me - the togrog notes that smell of mutton fat (try it, really!), messaging online with Gaya in Kharkhorin or Selenge at Mongolian Quilts. Looking through the photos that our guests have sent to me. And, finding a blog post on a word document that I wrote back in 2013 on our Wild Treks research trip and have never actually uploaded. So, here it is...and as I said above, I hope you find something from it that is informative or insightful. Maybe?!

Destination Bayan Olgii

The Altai are the most northerly mountains of Central Asia forming a biogeographic divide between Siberia and the desert basins of Central Asia, and representing a centre of biodiversity for many plants and animals. We are driving through them on our way to Bayan Olgii witnessing subtle changes in our local environment – changing time zones, mud brick flat roofed dwellings, women wearing headscarves, a variation in shape and height of the Kazakh gers compared to that of the typical Mongolian ger, even the faces of people seemed to have have changed to fit in with their harsh environment.

Bayan Olgii is time for replenishing the larder – as we drive in search of supplies I immediately like the vibrancy and energy of this provincial wild west town as the sunsets over the dust filled valley. And then the next morning one of the reasons we are here – the Eagle Festival. Although I think for the four  of us it is the empty early morning streets with the two fur clad hunters side by side on horseback riding down the pavement that is our favourite moment of the day. Especially so as after the space and solitude of the vast and weathered landscapes we have been camping in I think we all find the crowds of the festival a little overwhelming.

There’s the shashlik stalls with the option for horse meat, there’s a delicious all pervading smell of khuushuur, there are groups of eagle hunters discussing local politics whilst speaking on their mobiles and there’s the delightful business woman – determined that I was going to purchase one of her Kazak wall hangings. There are wayward eagles who aren’t focused on their prey of marmot meat but seem happy to dive bomb the observers. There are crowds of travellers with cameras determined to get ‘that shot’. And then benches where side by side sit eagle hunters, a cross section of the local community, a few camera touting westerners and (in pride of place) a golden eagle. That might have to be another highlight....sitting next to a 6-year old golden eagle both of us soaking up the atmosphere – her (the females are said to be more aggressive and better hunters) wearing her Tomaga – the hood that blinds the eagle. 

(I later learn the wall hangings are called  Tus Kiis (pronounced "tush keez") – hand crafted for a newly married couple – often with a date and name embroidered into this stunning work of lovingly made art.  The seller and I become firm friends over the two days. I didn’t buy a wall hanging but I thoroughly enjoyed my time watching her eyeing up her prey and striking the deal.)

However, on the second day we opt to leave early as we’re finding the crowds a little overwhelming. So with a hot shower at the shower house we head once more for the open road and we all seem to breathe a collective sigh of relief as we are once again surrounded by vast stunning landscapes. 

We camp at the foot of Tsambagarav Mountain – it’s cold but we warm ourselves with a small fire, dinner, an urn of tea and talk of the Almas – the Mongolian yeti. Seeing Tsambagarav I just know that it will become the new  destination for tour companies who are always competing to offer something just that little bit different or more exciting. But, right now, surrounded by the magnificent landscapes of the Altai, there is the option not to worry about 2014 and what the competition will be offering. Instead, there is the option just to be. Under a star studded Mongolian sky. 

26 February 2014

From Sunrise to Sunset in Mongolia - Tuesday's Snapshot

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

Sunset through the trees alongside Tsenher Goli. Yes, Tsenkher Hot Springs are worth visiting for relaxing in the hot springs. However, we are also rather fond of camping alongside the river where you can swim,  watch the locals bringing in the yaks and relax around a camp fire as the sun sets through the trees.
Shilin Bogd is located in the wind-scoured lowlands of Dariganga in the south-eastern Sukhbaatar Aimag.  Here, at the site of one of Mongolia's most sacred mountains, the grasslands of the northern steppe and the expanse of the Gobi converge to create a unique landscape consisting of wetlands, basalt stone formations, steppe and sand dunes with the skyline dominated by Shillin Bogd and Altan Ovoo - two of the extinct volcanic cones. The area is isolated, immense and stunning.
Sunrise over Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park at Khongoryn Els - Mongolia's largest extent of sand dunes. At Khongoryn Els we stay with Baasankhuu and Maam and arrange extended camel treks through them. Such treks can take you to the foot of Mount Zoolon, to the open steppes through saxaul bushes & shrubs towards Dund Us (Middle Water) and even maybe via Chono Kharaikh (Wolf Jumps).

Ulaan Baatar is very much a developing city – frequently resembling a building site. However, visit the Russian monument – Zaisan Hill, in the south of the city and here you can mix with local families, art sellers and students and feel above it all. (Zaisan is memorial of modern Socialist art that depicts scenes of friendship between the people of the USSR and Mongolia.)

You can stand with the panoramic sprawl of the fast growing modern city in front of you knowing that behind you is what is said to be the oldest protected area in the world and still a home to Gray Wolves and Lynx.  All for a 400 Mongolian togrog bus ride from the city centre. The sunset is pretty good as well!

Sunset over Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park in the Khangai Mountains. And yes, it really is this glorious. Especially when you know you have dinner cooked by Jargaa waiting for you. 

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur is a freshwater lake with 10 tributary rivers and over 6000 hectares of wetlands of international importance. It is one of 70 Important Bird Area’s (IBA) in Mongolia and part of the East Asian Australasian Flyway protecting migratory water birds.

23 February 2014

Where Eagle's Dare - 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 Bayan Olgii Aimag. All the images were taken by John.

We spend the night in the small settlement of Erdenekhairkhan (Jewel Mountain) which doesn’t quite live up to its name, in a small hotel which is quite comfortable from our experiences, but quite a culture shock for our Italian friends who are experiencing a Mongolian hotel for the first time. After a drink or two, however, they settled in for a warm and comfortable night. There are only six beds in the hotel – the rest have been taken off to the hospital for some elderly folk to have a week or two of respite – so Jess and Turuu sleep on the floor.

The next 180 kilometres of our journey takes us across a vast expanse of high, remote plains which become more and more arid the further we go. We see only one other vehicle on the road, no more than a dozen gers and very few livestock. Probably as numerous as the gers are small pump houses with concrete troughs for stock as there appears to be no evidence of surface water. Great excitement is aroused at one point when I think I see a pack of wolves in the distance. I am only a little disappointed to discover that they are in fact black tailed gazelle. While widely distributed, their numbers are small and they are a rare sighting.

Crossing the landscapes of Bayan Olgii
 We are constantly fascinated by the immense range of colours in the distant bordering hills, from black through various shades of grey, brown, orange and beige to almost pure white, often mingled together in the one range. Occasionally, away to the east, are glimpses of the Khangiy River still bordered by yellow sand dunes.

We eventually cross the river on another ‘interesting’ bridge at the small town of Urgamal. The river is now quite broad and although mostly quite shallow is flowing strongly and we follow its northerly course into the Great Lake Depression to camp the night on the stony shore of Lake Hyargas, the second largest of the areas salty lakes.

Our view from the camp fire at Khayargas
 Next morning sees us crossing a huge expanse of Gobi-like gravel with the spectacular permanently snow-capped peaks within the Tsambagarav Uul National Park as a backdrop. At up to 4200 metres, they give rise to a number of glaciers which can be clearly seen as we get closer. Our route eventually picks up the large river Khovd and we also pick up a couple of hitch-hikers whose motorbike has broken down. The river leads us through a steep sided gorge before opening out onto broad river flats densely clothed in trees resplendent in late autumn colours. We again cross the Khovd where it emerges from the RAMSAR listed freshwater Lake Achit which still has many birds even this late into autumn, and head southwest towards the town of Olgiy, home of the now quite famous Eagle Festival. The people from this region, while Mongolian, are Kazaks, and we notice subtle differences in the shape of the gers –more pointed roofs - and the character of the town with many flat roofed dwellings so typical of central Asia.

Achit Nuur

 Our accommodation is in a very large, very ornately decorated gur in traditional Kazak style which until recently was the family home.

Our Welcome Table
 Next morning, having purchased out entry tickets, we are among the first to arrive at the festival site, a stony plain in the shadow of a rocky crag and surrounded on all sides by tall mountains. Under a gentle sprinkle of snow it is a busy scene with gers being erected for food stalls, locals laying out their wares for sale, mounted eagle hunters resplendent in their fox fur coats and brightly coloured hats beginning to arrive and officials attending to last minute arrangements. A continual stream of vehicles begin to arrive many carrying tourists, some of whom have just flown in from UB for the occasion and will possibly return there tomorrow. By midday there are, in all, around 1000 people present and a large semicircle of vehicles encompassing the competition field. 

The festival begins
The event is eventually under way with a grand parade of the fifty-seven eagle hunters who have registered to compete, probably along with some who haven’t, and three camels bearing a Kazak family, the two youngsters bouncing along in ornately decorated boxes, one each side of the humps. Each competitor is then individually announced and presented to the judges in a formal ceremony before competition can commence after lunch. A horse race featuring a dozen young jockeys rounds out the mornings activities.
For the eagle hunters, the afternoon competition involves having their bird released from half way up the rocky slope then calling it in to land on their outstretched arm as they gallop towards the judges. The performance of the birds and handlers, like the setting, is spectacular. Time is obviously important, but credit is also given for how well handlers are able to retrieve distracted birds. 

 While the eagles are in action, an archery competition is also under way with each archer using the uniquely shaped Uriankhai bow and soft tipped arrows ninety centimetres in length. Each competitor also has a woven reed ball about twelve centimetres in diameter. These are placed in a row on a cleared patch of ground and the objective is to strike one or more of the balls from a distance of about forty metres. Encouragement for each archer is provided by way of a chant and fellow competitors relaying instructions in much the same way as in lawn bowls before leaping quickly aside to avoid the flying arrow. While not quite as spectacular as the eagles, it is certainly fascinating and attracts a sizable crowd of spectators.

This uniquely entertaining day is rounded out with a meal at a Kazak restaurant and for Jess and Ross, a Kazak concert performed specially for festival guests.

19 February 2014

Auspicious Symbols 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 Mongolia's traditional symbols. 

On the Mongolian flag, there are three equal, vertical bands of red, blue and red – red symbolises progress and prosperity (it is said that the red initially represented Mongolia’s socialist beliefs) and blue represents the Eternal Blue Sky. In yellow/gold  is the national emblem – the Soyembo which contains individual symbolism within it (see below). The old Mongolian flag was roughly the same design but with a socialist star. 

The Soyembo is the first character out of the Mongolian Soyembo script (created by Zanabazar, the First Living Buddha of Mongolia). It serves as a national symbol of Mongolia. The elements in the symbol are given the following significance (from top):
  • The three flames represent fire and the fire represents prosperity, regeneration and success. The three tongues of the flame represent the past, present, and future.
  • The sun and moon symbolize the universe and are believed by Mongolians to be the mother (sun) and father (moon) of their nation.
  • The two triangles pointing at the ground are arrowheads and represent Mongolian's willingness to defend their nation against interior and exterior enemies.
  • The two horizontal rectangles give stability to the round shape and represent the honesty, justice and righteousness of the Mongolian people.
  • The Yin and Yang symbol represents complementary opposite forces existing together in the universe - such as positive and negative, male and female, passive and active, fire and water, etc. The circle can also be interpreted as two fish that never close their eyes, representing the watchfulness and vigilance of Mongolians. 
  • The two vertical rectangles represent pillars or walls of a fort and symbolize strength and unity (a Mongolian proverb says that ‘The friendship of two is stronger than stone walls’).
Botanical motifs and natural phenomena
This includes stylised representations of the five elements. Patterns used in the embroidery of bedcovers and tablecloths are usually symbols of beauty and nature such as flowers or butterflies. The motifs representing nature symbolize origin and growth. Stylised motifs linked to the cosmos illustrate respect for the powerful forces of nature - such as fire, water, thunder, mountains, the sun and the moon.
The Ulzii Hee represents longevity and is used as a form of protection against evil spirits. The plaited/squared interlace is said to represent the universe and eternal movement. The Buddhist ‘Knot of Eternity’, another geometric design, is also frequently used and is said to represent the endless cycle of rebirth.

Khatan Suik and Khaan Buguivich – Wedding Ring Designs.
The man’s wedding ring is a design of two interlocking circles called Khatan Suik – or Queen’s Carriage. The women’s wedding ring is a design of two interlocking triangles called Khaan Buguivich – or King’s Bracelet. Both symbolise the strength of everlasting love.

14 February 2014

Moments That inspired The Creation Of Eternal Landscapes

News this week? I'm still working on the new look blog, newsletter and website. Why all this effort?  Eternal Landscapes is a very small business with some very tough and much larger competition. Each of the three - the blog, newsletter and website are our voice as well as my way of trying to demonstrate the values and show the personality of Eternal Landscapes.  

One new feature of the website will be our photo  gallery – with a  short description surrounding each image. I am privileged that our guests continue to share their photos of their time in Mongolia with us and as this is very much the Mongolia that all our clients experience, I wanted a way of showcasing these images in a better way. I'll be trialling the photo gallery in the February Newsletter (coming soon) but for now, they say that a picture tells the story of a thousand words...

Nope. It's not the most remarkable photo in the world but it captures a moment in time - the birth of what would become Eternal Landscapes  - certainly the idea if not yet the name. Turuu and I had been working together since 2006 working as a tour guide / driver team for a leading UK adventure company. We were returning to UB with my parents and I had just heard that due to restructuring, the company I was working for would only be employing locally trained guides.

My Mum and Dad are returning to Mongolia this summer for their second visit. One afternoon, over a mug of tea, I asked my mum why she loves Mongolia. So, here in the words of Mum!

The Brooks family - Tsagaan Suvraga, Gobi Desert

'Travelling through the landscapes of  Mongolia, you feel its landscapes still survive as nature intended. It still has the essence of land, man, and animal existing together.'

'It can be tough at times but trying to do things the local way - shower houses, mutton pancakes in local cafes, not wearing a watch, going with the flow, embracing the weather. It gives a more real insight into the daily way of life.'

'The Mongolia we experienced is very much modern day but how things are now still have elements of how things were.'

'The landscapes - I appreciated open spaces before my visit but travelling through the landscapes in Mongolia you start to understand the immensity of the country. You really do feel that you could go on forever....or as far as you can get in a fortnight.'

'The monasteries - Mongolians live in a wild environment and the remote monasteries feel part of this wilderness not in a sense of domination but more part of a bigger picture.'

'The Furgon and the way it just keeps on going. It is definitely a work horse - give it a rest, patch it up and then head to new horizons.'

'Primarily for the people - you are part of their life for only a little while but you take something with you when you go - you take a memory of their kindnesses.'

Heading to new horizons! The Furgon en-route through the Gobi.
Other news? I could write about the Bar Headed Goose that has flown from the Darkhad Depression in northern Mongolia to India (Bar Headed Geese are some of the world's highest flying birds - reaching heights of 29,000 feet, or that Mongolia has sent two athletes two the Sochi Winter Olympics , or that Mongolia has been awarded the Wanderlust award for Top Emerging Destination 2014.

However, for now I'll say thanks for reading and your support and interest in what we do. Turuu is going to be carrying out a little research for me in locations close to UB in the next few weeks so watch this space for reports and photos from the winter landscapes of Mongolia.

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur - by mum!