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.