29 January 2015

Focus on Mongolia

As events happen around the world so I sometimes turn to the Mongolian media to see how they are portrayed. I also do a weekly read of the Mongolian media sources so that I know what's going on in the land of the 'eternal blue sky'. Here is a round up of events highlighted by the media in Mongolia this January. 

Three Million!

On January 24th Mongolia's population made it to 3 million! For those interested in the small details, it was a baby girl born in Dalanzagad in Omnogobi Aimag (the southern Gobi). A total of 181 new-borns were registered on January 24th. The President of Mongolia (Ts.Elbegdorj) was asked by the young parents to name their child and so he did - Mongoljin. 

Taken from infomongolia.com
For those who have the time....
  • The globe symbolises that Mongolia's third millionth citizen could have been born to Mongolian parents anywhere in the world
  •  The three human shapes represent a child growing up within a family and the welcoming and honouring of Mongolia's third millionth citizen
  • The wheat sheaths represent the fertility and growing population of the country 
  • The emblem at the top is the national symbol of Mongolia - the Soyembo which has a myriad of meanings including strength and unity

Snow Leopards

In Mongolia? Absolutely! 

Image of a snow leopard in Mongolia from snowleopardconservancy.org

Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are endangered and only found in the rugged mountains of Central Asia. As with other wildlife species, human threats have created an uncertain future for these beautiful animals despite a range of over 2  million (square) kilometres, there are estimated only to be between 4000-6500 snow leopards left in the wild which is heartbreaking. 

Back to Mongolia. The Tost Mountains in the southern Gobi have one of the densest populations of snow leopards in the world (yes, you read that correctly - snow leopards in the southern Gobi).

Unfortunately, Tost is not a protected area and is located in a region of Mongolia where mining activity is increasing with currently 22 mining licenses threatening the area. 

The Snow Leopard Conservation Foundation in Mongolia (an NGO) are looking for funding to produce a documentary to help raise awareness of this situation and to campaign for the importance of turning the region into a national park. 


Isn't this a Japanese sport? Traditionally, yes. 

The 69th Yokozuma - Mongolian bord Munkhbat Davaajargal.
Image from Reuters/Thomas Pete
Yokohama means grand champion. On January 25th Munkhbat Davaajargal (known by his Japanese name of Hakuho) created a new page in sumo history by winning his 33rd championship title and becoming the sole record holder of the title.

An article in Reuters mentions that Munkhbat Davaajargal has 
'risen through the ranks on the back of his greta strength, agility and flexibility.'
It mentions that 
'many have compared his rural upbringing in Mongolia to that of the great Japanese wrestlers of the past, able to develop his core power by horse riding and carrying heavy objects as a youth.' 
Dakar Rally

The Mongolian Uniqa Sandliner team. Image from infomongolia.com

For the first time a Mongolian team has participated and completed the Dakar Rally in the car category - all 9000km of it! Mongolian roads must have proved a  good training ground!

The team (Uniqa Sandliner) were driving a Toyota Landcruiser 200. Altogether, 420 teams competed in which 216 completed (for those that like statistics - 79 were motorbikes, 18 were quads, 68 were cars and 51 were trucks).

This is what the driver - Lkhamma Namchin had to say about the experience prior to the race:

'It will be the first time a Mongolian will do the Dakar in a car. The people in Mongolia are very happy about this news and I will try my best in 2015. I also have experience in car races. I often participate in races either on bikes or in cars in Mongolia. You can't race alone in a car, it's a team effort. I would like to help my team and do my best to make it to the finish of the race.'

And finally…..

Three Suns

Ever heard of a parhelion? I certainly hadn't. Not until an email popped into my inbox from my friend Sue with the following link.

On Sunday January 18th, Mongolia experienced a rare celestial event when the sun appeared to be flanked by two reflections on either side. 

Image from the Independent.co.uk

Nope. It's not an extra terrestrial case  - the scientific name is parhelion and it occurs when light from the sun at low altitude passes through ice crystal fragments in the earth's atmosphere, causing light to be refracted.

See. You learn something new everyday!

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20 January 2015

15 of my favourite Mongolian views

Here are 15 of my favourite Mongolia views. Because traditionally all journeys go in a clock wise direction so this one does as well.  

 Tasgaany Ovoo - Ulaanbaatar

Strange inclusion you may think. However, this is one of my favourite views in the city - taken at Tsagaany Ovoo overlooking Gandan Monastery. 

The ovoo is connected with the monastery. Come up here and you'll share the space with monks, local teenagers, a family and a whole heap of pigeons. It also gives you a great perspective on the city's own unique Mongolian identity - a city of nomads rushing headlong into the 21st century.  

Dariganga - Sukhbaatar Aimag

Western Mongolia is becoming more and more a popular destination. So where's this? The wind-scoured lowlands of Dariganga in south-eastern Sukhbaatar Aimag. Inhabited only by Grey Wolves, White Tailed Gazelle and a few hardy nomads.  
Here, at the location 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 basalt/cinder formations - all 200 of  them are extinct volcanic cones. This area, where the skyline is dominated by Shillin Bogd and Altan Ovoo is isolated, immense and stunning. 

Image by our guest Mandy Wong.

Baga Gazriin Chuluu - Dundgobi Aimag

Those who read my blog often will know that this image is a favourite of mine! It's common for most companies to fly their clients directly down to the southern Gobi but the granite rock formations of Baga Gazriin Chuluu remain one of my favourite locations in Mongolia. Although it has become more popular with the budget guesthouses take a picnic and the day will offer up hidden landscapes with immense views where eagles make their home.

Image by our guest Egon Filter

Tsagaan Suvraga - Dundgobi Aimag

It's name in English is White Stupa which has Buddhist connections. This is an open expanse consisting of sun-scorched rock, scrub, 30m high limestone formations and emptiness. It is an eroded landscape rich in marine fossils as well. Groups come here but pass through quickly so let them take their selfies and shout out at the space and then once they've gone listen to the Kestrels and Martins circling on the currents and be at one with the immensity of this incredible landscape. 
Image by our guest Egon Filter

Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park - Omnogobi Aimag

Gobi Gurvan Saikhan is Mongolia’s largest national park – a mountainous terrain rising out of the extensive desert plains and a region of incredible biological diversity. This mountainous region was formed by the same tectonic activity that created the Himalayas and is part of the Gobi Altai Range – the outer crumple zone of the Himalayan geological activity.

Yolyn Am is popular. Quite right as well as it is beautiful. However, heading for the hills provides an entirely different experience of the landscapes of this national park. That normal grey dot in the middle of the photo - that's our Furgon! Some of the mountains in this image top 2500m. 
Image by our guest Violaine Coard

Khongoryn Els - Omnogobi Aimag

Known locally as Duut Mankhan or the Singing Sands, these are Mongolia's largest sand dunes.  The reason I chose this photo was because it shows the southern side of the dunes which is a view not that many visitors get to see. Climb on your camel, remove your watch, and spend five days or so circling this incredible area for views that really do take your breath away and for a 21st century digital detox.

I took this image on our Wild Gobi Research Trip

Khermen Tsav - Omnogobi Aimag

This is Khermen Tsav in the southern Gobi. Visiting here has been one of the highlights of my entire 10 years in Mongolia. The journey to get here, the in the vehicle/out the vehicle to push it through the terrain, the lack of road, the immensity of the space, the silence apart from the wind and then a magnificent sunset in an incredible location that gives you a sense of perspective that is so hard to find in our modern fast paced lives

Khogno Khan Nature Reserve - Bulgan Aimag

Put on your walking books and head to the immense granite massif of Khogno Khan which extends north to south for some 12 miles and east to west for around 6 miles. It also rises to 2000 feet over the surrounding steppe and sand dunes. It may only be 285km from UB but the views here provide the perfect antidote to the rush and crowds of everyday life elsewhere.

Image by our guest John Holman

Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur National Park - Arkhangai Aimag

This is Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur in Arkhangai Aimag. The Altai is an ever increasing popular trekking area - as is Naiman Nuur in Ovorkhangai Aimag but for me Terkhiin Tsagaan Nuur presents a very exciting region to explore and discover on a trek. A national park in its own right it is also bordered by the Tarvagtai National Park. Both are in the central Khangai Mountains and as you can see from the image (taken by Helen Long on her private Untamed Mongolia trip) it is an incredible region.

We do day and extended treks here and our extended treks are arranged through Monkhoo - a local herder who works together with his younger brother Boldor. Frequently, marmot is on the menu - cooked by Monkhoo and Boldor for our guests, out on the Mongolian steppe, cooked the the traditional way, over an open fire with hot rocks.  Known as 'boordog' in Mongolian, most guests (not vegetarians!) agree it is delicious!

Khar Nuur - Zavkhan Aimag

You may not have heard of it but companies head here with camels and kayaks and horses providing multi activity trips. However, we do it the old fashioned way - just placing our tents and taking a few days to explore and discover on foot.
In the words (and image) of our  guest John Holman on our arrival at 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.’

Uvs Aimag

Where?! North western Mongolia. The trekking routes of Altai Tavan Bogd,  Kharkhiraa and Tsambagarav may now be quite a well beaten path but it's the landscapes in-between that I love. The inbetween places may not be mentioned in any guidebook as they are not considered a highlight but the landscapes are stark, weathered and forbidding and for me, that's what makes these areas an absolute joy to explore. 

Image by our guest John Holman

Khovsgol Nuur and Khoridol Saridag - Khovsgol Aimag

I love this photo taken on one of our day hikes. Although it requires two hours of steep uphill climbing I feel the effort was worth it?! Behind us you can see Khovsgol Nuur but what you can't see over to the right of the photo is the magnificent Khoridol Saridag providing an immense limestone backdrop. No vehicle was required - we walked from our campsite along the lakeshore, through the forest and up into the land of the gods. These boots were made for walking....Image by our guest John Holman

Selenge Gol - Khovsgol Aimag

Most companies fly back from Khovsgol to UB. However, jump in the Furgon and  look what you can find. This is one of my favourite sunset viewing platforms in Mongolia. That's the Selenge River you can see stretched out in front of you - the same one that flows into Lake Baikal.

Image by our guest Violaine Coard

Amarbayasgalant Khiid - Selenge Aimag

The complex of Amarbayasgalant Khiid is situated in a haven of rugged beauty in the cul-de-sac of a long, deep valley backed by Mount Buren-Khaan against which the monastery is built. The valley is well-watered by the Iver River and has long provided an essential water source for nomadic herders and their livestock. No real maps of the area exist but that's OK - once again, just put your walking boots on and head up for immense views like this one. By some companies, Amarbayasgalant would be considered very much beaten track. Really? Where is everyone?!

So. That was 15 of my favourite. There could be another 15. Another 30 in fact. For now though, if you want to see more images from our adventures through Mongolia, why not have a quick look at  the Eternal Landscapes website?! Or, if the idea of being amongst any of these landscapes appeals why not get in touch? I look forward to hearing from you!

15 January 2015

Food of the Nomads - Your introduction to Mongolian cuisine!

Mongolian food typically has a bad reputation - it's all boiled mutton and not a vegetable in sight. Well.

The brilliant local market in Mandalgobi

Being Vegetarian in Mongolia

It makes sense that as Mongolia was a country of nomads following a traditional herding lifestyle so their diet focused on meat and dairy. Understandable. When it's -35 and you're working outside, a fresh advocado salad is just not going to provide the required amount of energy to keep you warm.

However, being a vegetarian in Mongolia no longer proves that much of a challenge - a wide variety of fruit and vegetables are available in Mongolia - obviously in Ulaanbaatar but also in the more rural areas....although you will still come across the odd rural shop that has just the one onion on the shelf. 

(According to a  report, Mongolia's 2014 harvest yielded approximately 102.5 thousand tons of vegetables (not including potatoes and not including the statistics for the smaller market gardeners that grow items such as cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce.)

True, as a visitor, although there probably will always be just that little bit more mutton than we’re used to, Mongolia’s cuisine is delicious - where simple base materials are processed with a surprising variety of methods, and combined with vegetables and hand made noodles and other flour products for fresh homemade delights. 

Vegetable dumplings - one specialiy made by Gaya in Kharkhorin. If she has the time, she likes to collect and dry nettles from the grounds of Erdene Zuu Monastery to add to the ingredients.
So. I thought I would run a series of posts introducing you to the delights of a typical Mongolian table. Having spoken about how being vegetarian is no longer such a challenge in Mongolia I thought I would go to the opposite extreme for the first Food of the Nomads post and introduce, in my mind, the indisputable culinary highlight of Mongolia - khorkhog, or the Mongolian barbecue. Just to clear things up, this is not the foreign invention that you may have experienced in a restaurant which bears not the slightest resemblance to the ‘real’ Mongolian barbecue. 

(Also, don’t confuse this with bordog - that’s the barbecued marmot and a whole different blog post.)

Khorkhog - Mongolian Barbecue

Khorkhog is definitely a favourite for a celebration. There are two options - an entire goat, is cooked through with hot rocks. However, if you’re a little short on time then a few kilos of mutton or goat cut into convenient sizes - leaving the bone in. 

Turuu in charge of dinner!
Collect your rocks and heat them in a fire - twenty or so rocks will be fine. Rocks the size of a small fist will do....no need to bring mountains. 

The rocks - obviously! These are the rocks once the khorkhog is ready so they've turned black from the heat and from the fat of the meat that they've absorbed.

Once hot, layer the cut (and seasoned) meat and the rocks into a chosen pot - milk urns are quite typical for this. Place carrots and potatoes (some people place cabbage but I’m still out on this) on the top adding any extra seasoning. You then add water to the pot until there is a sufficient quantity to create a 'steam bubble' inside the pot. 

Taking the rocks from the fire to add to the meat

Ready to put the lid on and let the rocks do their work!
You then close the lid making sure there are no gaps. If need be, place the pot back on the fire (embers not full blaze) and the heat of the stones and the steam will cook the meat inside the jug. 

It can take up to an hour or more to cook. How do you know when its done? The 'cook' listens to and smells the meal to judge when it is ready. It's best to remove your watch, have a beer and relax!

When finished, the khorkhog is ready to eat. 

The (delicious) finished product!

The hot stones are said to have beneficial properties so are passed person to person each who toss them hand to hand. Naturally, khorkhog is eaten with your fingers - with shared knives to slice the meat of the bone. Diners usually eat khorkhog with their fingers, although one can use a knife to slice the meat off the bone.

And to finish, in the words of our guest Lynn McCaw (who took the images above during her June Mongolia small group tour Untamed Mongolia):

'Khorhog is a party meal, to prepare and eat with friends and to be accompanied by much beer, vodka, laughter and jokes. We enjoyed a wonderful khorhog with our hosts at White Lake, overcoming the language barrier with ease after everyone’s vocal chords had been lubricated with vodka.'

Just the one bottle though!

9 January 2015

The Nine Nines of Mongolia's Winter

Have you heard of the term halcyon days? What do they make you think of? For me it's the warmth of summer. No idea why. It's just I've always equated the expression with the warmth and calm of the longer summer days.

I found out the other day that it's actually a term dating from a Greek legend when the halcyon days were a period of calm around the winter solstice (December 21st) when the 'Halcyon' or 'Kingfisher' built a floating nest at sea.

By the 16th century the phrase had lost its association with the nesting time of the kingfisher and had taken on a figurative term meaning 'calm days'.

(Bit of a leap coming up here but hopefully you'll get the connection!)

Mongolia has a phrase for weather around the time of the winter solstice - the Nine Nines.  Those who read the Eternal Landscapes blog on a regular basis will know that I write about this every winter but I find it fascinating.

From this....
The view from our Selenge River campsite. Late summer.
Image by our guest Hui Li, 2013

To this....

The same view. December 2014. Taken by Turuu on the second of our 2014 Winter Journeys.

From the solstice onwards, Mongolians mark the progression of winter with the Nine Nines - nine series of nine days that each describe a phase of winter and that measure the intensity of the cold during those phases. 

The Nine Nines are set from the Mongolian lunar calendar and are 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. 

From this....

Ulaan Tsutgalan - the Orkhon Waterfall in August

Image by our guest photographer Nick Rains

To this....

Same view....December 2014. Taken by on the first of our Winter Journeys.
Here they are:
  • 1st Nine:  Vodka made from milk (shimiin arkhi) freezes
  • 2nd Nine: Normal vodka freezes/congeals.
  • 3rd Nine:  The tail of a 3 year old ox freezes and falls off.
  • 4th Nine:  The horns of a 4 year old ox freeze and fall off.
  • 5th Nine:  Boiled rice no longer congeals and freezes.
  • 6th Nine:  Roads blacken (start to become visible through the snow).
  • 7th Nine:  Hill tops appear from beneath snow.
  • 8th Nine:  The ground gets damp (snow melting on grass)
  • 9th Nine:  Warmer days have set in (Hurrah!)
And to end this short post, I'll leave you with the words of travel writer and explorer Benedict Allen in his book on Mongolia - Edge of Blue Heaven:

'On arrival and learning that the temperature was minus 18 degrees, I overheard a fellow traveller say ‘thank God. Looks like Mongolia’s enjoying a warm spell.’

(Why not join us in Mongolia for one of Mongolia winter tours? Our next group trip is departing  February 16th. Go on take  a peak. You'll be one of few who have had the delight of experiencing the utter beauty of Mongolia in the winter. End of sales pitch!)

7 January 2015

Mongolia's Population - three million and counting....

Read anything to do with Mongolia at the moment and the news on everyone's (?!) lips is that about the 3rd millionth citizen being born. By the end of January, the population with have increased to three million.

Cue some very cute photos...

Yep...its got the cute factor alright!  Image by our guest Hui Li

The National Statistical Office has been given the task of identifying the third millionth citizen. Together with the Ministry of Health and Sports, they held an online meeting and provided a formal explanation.

So just in case you need to know....

The third millionth citizen of the land of Chinggis Khan and the Eternal Blue Sky. 

The child must have a Mongolian nationality (that clears that up then).

If the child has been conceived by a mother living overseas but who hasn't changed her Mongolian nationality then they can be counted.

The child can be born naturally or by scheduled delivery (there's some controversy over this as there is a possibility of women choosing to have  a C-section just for the purpose of winning. However, the government is keeping the exact population number sort of secret (see below) to try and prevent this from happening.)

According to the NSO, 1% of pregnant women give birth at home (or elsewhere outside of a maternity hospital) in Mongolia. Those who are not able to give birth in a hospital have been told that they should notify their district hospital with the date and details of the delivery as soon as possible to prevent any potential conflicts. 

The Baatar family at Baga Gazriin Chuluu. Image by our guest Hui Li.

Apparently, residents living in remote areas will be able to send information (provided formally by the doctor) with time adjusted (just to add to the general confusion, there is an one hour time difference between western Mongolia and UB) to Ulaanbaatar's time - with mothers having their address and movement verified before leaving the hospital (as of course they may be a nomadic family).

And.....(are you keeping up?!)

According to the UB Post, as rumours have been spreading the NSO formally announced the population of Mongolia. On December 31 2013, the population of Mongolia was 2,930,277. In the year leading up to December 31 2014, 81,715 babies were born with 1,124 of them being born abroad. 16,495 people died in 2014 meaning that the total population became 2,995,949 as of January 1 2015.....which as far as I can make out....the numbers don't add up.

Never mind. On average, 200 to 240 children are born each day, while over 40 people die. Basically, the third millionth citizen will be born some time from January 20th onwards (depending what source you read). The third millionth citizen will be identified from all 21 provinces and the 9 districts of Ulaanbaatar. 

There's still confusion (mainly mine having read through all the articles!) about what will be awarded in the way of benefits. As far as I can make out, the provinces and districts will each identity one contemporary baby born in their area close to the time the third millionth citizen is born in Ulaanbaatar. Some articles say that the third millionth citizen will be awarded with an apartment or monetary reward equivalent to 70 million tugrik and the contemporary babies will be issued with three million tugrik. Another article says that 30 newborns will be awarded a cash prize of 70 million tugrik. Apparently the governors of the 21 provinces and nine districts are responsible for issuing an apartment to the children selected as contemporaries of the three million citizen.

Either way, there's going to be a lot of very happy children!

Baasankhuu's daughter and friend - Khongoryn Els. Image by our guest Hui Li
As a final thought....

Our friend in UB mentioned, (they are due to have their second child in January.....) as he remembers the clock in the delivery room where their first child was born was around 7 minutes slow....

Also, don't panic on the population density thing....even with 3 million people there is still approximately only one Mongolian person for every 1.9 square kilometres of Mongolian land. Phew!

Anyway. There you go. Just a short post on something very relevant in Mongolia at the moment. If you're interested in finding out more about Mongolia, you can always spend a few minutes exploring the Mongolia page on the Eternal Landscapes website. Looking forward to seeing you there :-)

3 January 2015

New Year in Mongolia - Shine jiliin mend khurgie!

Happy New Year!

If you wonder how Mongolians celebrate December 31st...

In Ulaanbaatar the Capital City Municipality (try saying that after some shimiin arkhi!) arranged the Silver Night of Ulaanbaatar concert. All I can say is I wish I had been there...

Chinggis (Sukhbaatar) Square with the (pink) New Year tree in place. Image from www.ulaanbaatar.mn
Image from www.ulaanbaatar.mn
Now that's what you call a party! Image from www.ulaanbaatar.mn

Image from www.ulaanbaatar.mn
Image from www.ulaanbaatar.mn

Image from www.ulaanbaatar.mn

From 8pm through to the early morning,  music and entertainment was provided for this great public concert including music by composer and pianist Batchuluun whose music I absolutely adore (as do most Mongolians).

And if you wonder what they do on New Year's Day...

One of my trip assistants (Oyun) joined  a volunteer group called Jack's Tours. They climbed Tsetsee Gun - the highest peak (2256m) of the Bogd Khan mountain range that dominates the landscape south of Ulaanbaatar. It took around 7 hours of hiking in total (11km with 5.4km dedicated to the climb up) but look how they greeted the start of 2015....

Image by Batbileg.B

In Mongolia, the practise of greeting the rising sun from a high place is connected with their (still current) shamanistic beliefs. As the rising sun brings forth the birth of a new beginning, a new day, a new life. so it should be greeted with great respect. 

And if you wonder how Turuu spent his birthday on December 29th....

I arranged for my team to have a seasonal celebration  - not everyone could make it (especially Sandag, Ganba and Hasaa who live in the middle Gobi) but according to the Facebook messages I received throughout the day, it was a huge success.

The EL Team....just not quite complete but looking good anyway!

As some of you will know, every three weeks or so I arrange for the EL trip assistants to meet up. The training is based on a theme and cover anything including meal ideas for future trips (and preparing them). This time round they prepared Takturitan which is a Mongolian interpretation of the Korean dish Dakdoritang (a spicy chicken stew). 

It also happened to be Turuu's birthday. Don't they say that a  picture can tell a story of a thousand words...?

Introducing the Furgon!

The idea belonged to Turuu's daughter. I think she knows her dad quite well??!!

That's it for the moment but for those who read the blog, I wish you all a very Happy New Year!