27 December 2016

Mongolia's Winter Festivals

For those who choose to travel to Mongolia in the winter there are definitely challenges (just the packing list can provide a headache!) but is it worth it? Yes! Not only does Mongolia produces a stunning natural show but there are festivals to enjoy and experience. 

If you're interested in travelling to Mongolia and considering a winter visit, then you probably do not want to look at the temperature at the moment … a cool -29 degrees in Ulaanbaatar. Brrr. But, on the up side, for those that do brave the winter the rewards are without limit.


True, it's not for everyone (especially if you like to 'travel light'). But, for those who choose to travel at this time of year, not only does Mongolia produces a stunning natural show but there are festivals to enjoy and experience. Although it's 'out of season' local communities organize annual events in collaboration with tourist companies. These are in addition to the traditional festivals. 

Travelling in the winter in Mongolia you will feel that you have the country to yourself. I'll put this into perspective. Mongolia (18th largest country in the world, second largest landlocked country after Kazakhstan) received … 393,000 international visitors in 2015 (World Bank). And, most of those arrived in the summer. (If you need a comparison, Kazakhstan received 4,560,000 visitors).

So. Pack those thermals. And the fleece sleeping bag liner. And the wool socks. And the hat, scarf and gloves. And the down jacket. And come and visit and be beguiled by the beauty and colour and atmosphere and celebration.

Thinking About It?

Most of our guests have heard my philosophy behind our 'road trips' - that flying from place to place gives you no context, no real experience of the country or the people in-between.  The power of the landscapes is an integral part of any journey in Mongolia and that’s what I'll encourage you to do  -  experience Mongolia’s winter landscapes as well as the festivals. 

Tsagaan Sar - White Month - Mongolian Lunar New Year

Mongolia’s Lunar New Year is known as Tsagaan Sar - White Month. It is one of the most important and traditional of celebrations in Mongolia and falls on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice. 
Tsagaan Sar brings together family members and lasts a minimum of three days. In 2017, the year of the  Fire Monkey will finish and the Fire Rooster start. Tsagaan Sar also marks the end of winter as well as the beginning of a new year's cycle.

Khovsgol Ice Festival

One of the 'newer' festivals on the winter season scene.  Held at Khatgal to promote tourism outside of the main tourist season it focuses on the region's special features.  Don’t get caught up in notions of authenticity - the Ice Festival features  a lot of local involvement. The festival draws local Mongolian spectators as well as westerners and the locals are always more enthusiastic.  

What to expect? There will be  a horse-sledge race (12km) and ice-skating race (up to 100km around a 6km circuit) and creative ice sculptures. Other scheduled events include a wrestling competition, ankle bone shooting and also evening entertainment.

Thousand Camel Festival

The camel festival is an annual celebration held in the southern Gobi organised by  a local NGO to help protect the Bactrian camel and the essential role it plays in the lives of the nomadic herders in the region. It is a celebration of the way of life in the harsh Gobi and a chance for the local herders to come together as a community at what can be quite an isolating time of year.

Highlights include camel races, camel polo competitions even a camel beauty pageant (although the criteria for the winning camel is never clearly announced or explained). As with most Mongolian festivals it includes a concert of traditional music and dance.

Nauryz Festival

Nauryz  means 'new day' and is the spring festival that is celebrated through Central Asia and falls on the spring equinox. It is essentially  a celebration of the coming of spring. In Ulgii in Western Mongolia, there is a two-day celebration with a colourful parade on the first day and horse racing and games on the second including bushkashi (also known as kolpar) where horse-mounted players attempt a tug-of-war to drag a goat carcass toward a goal. Competition is typically fierce! There is also a mini eagle festival.

Interested? Curious? Not too sure? Why not have a look through the Mongolia winter tours that we offer at Eternal Landscapes. Alternatively, just email me (jess@eternal-landscapes.co.uk) - I'm always happy to be of help and all advice is free with no sales pitch. 

Unless I have mentioned otherwise, all images used throughout this post were taken either by EL guests or members of the EL team. This is the Mongolia you will also experience if you chose to travel with us.

 Pack your thermals and come to Mongolia this winter and do something a little out of the ordinary.

22 December 2016

The Nine Nines Of Mongolia's Winter

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. So here it is (once) again.

Arriving into Ulaanbaatar (UB) in mid-winter can be a tough experience. Very tough. As in very cold type of tough.

The Orkhon Waterfall frozen in winter, Ovorkhangai Aimag, Mongolia

Read about UB and you'll see it is frequently given the title of 'world's coldest capital.' Is it? Well, I'm not a meteorologist but I can tell you that it does sit in a valley at around 1300 metres above sea level. And, Ulaanbaatar is the capital city of a country which has a continental climate - that means a lack of any moderating influence from seas or oceans creating the mentioned continental climate with a temperature range to suit.

January frequently sees temperatures of -30C and can easily dip below -40 (with some parts of Mongolia experiencing below -50C). Now that's a little bit on the chilly side.

* On the positive side, in those temperatures, who needs a freezer when the balcony will do? (When you're next in UB, ask your host what they do with the many hundreds of dumplings each family makes for Mongolian Lunar New Year).

A sacred ovoo (stone shrine) on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar in the winter
An asphalt road in Mongolia in winter
From the winter equinox onwards, Mongolians mark the progression of winter with the Nine Nines - the 81 days of winter. 

Traditionally, rural Mongolian's s 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. Whereas we may say 'it's bloody freezing', Mongolian's would use the Nine Nines to describe a phase of winter and that measure the intensity of the cold during those phases. 

Mongolian gers in winter
Gers in winter in Mongolia

For those of you, due to visit Mongolia within the next few months, here's your traditional Mongolian temperature chart. I've even included the dates so you'll be able to know whether to expect your vodka to freeze or your rice not to freeze.
  • 1st Nine:  December 22nd to December 30th  - Vodka made from milk (traditional shimiin arkhi) freezes
  • 2nd Nine: December 31st to January 8th -  Normal vodka freezes/congeals
  • 3rd Nine:  January 9th to January 17th -   The tail (or horns, depending on what you read) of a 3 year old ox freezes and falls off
  • 4th Nine: January 18th to January 26th - The horns of a 4 year old ox freeze and fall off
The frozen ice of Khovsgol Lake in northern Mongolia

  • 5th Nine:  January 27th - February 4th -  Boiled rice no longer congeals and freezes
  • 6th Nine:   February 5th - February 13th -  Roads blacken (start to become visible through the snow)
  • 7th Nine:  February 14th - February 22nd - Hill tops appear from beneath snow
  • 8th Nine:  February 23rd - March 2nd   - The ground gets damp (snow melting on grass)
  • 9th Nine:  March 3rd -March 12th  Warmer days have set in (Hurrah!)

The 81 days takes us through to March … just when the spring winds arrive … but that's a whole different blog post.

A dust storm in Mongolia's Gobi Desert

The good news? For those thinking of visiting Mongolia to experience Tsagaan Sar (White Month) - Mongolia's Lunar New Year, in 2017 it falls on February 26th - 28th - firmly in the Eighth Nine and well on the way to warmer temperatures. (Maybe one layer of thermals instead of several!).

Our Mongolia winter trips are shared adventures in that you will stay alongside rural families. Enjoy being part of a minority who visit Mongolia in the winter - enjoy slowing-down and seeing and experiencing Mongolia like few other people get to do.
Whether you choose to experience one of the community festivals, live alongside Kazakh eagle hunters or just experience the rural way of life at Gorkhi Terelj. Our winter trips can usually be adapted to fit with the arrival and departure of the Trans-Mongolian/Trans-Siberian. All can be tweaked, adapted, shortened or extended to suit you.

Just pack thermals. Good ones. 

Unless I have mentioned otherwise, all images used throughout this post were taken either by EL guests or members of the EL team. This is the Mongolia you will also experience if you chose to travel with us. 

18 December 2016

Do Something Completely Different - Experience Mongolia In the Winter

Our website is currently down due to a major hardware issue with the servers. Our website and email are hosted by a great local company called Formoda and they are working around the clock to resolve this.

Unfortunately, this means you cannot access details of the trips we offer. For now, I will use the EL Blog as a platform.

Enjoy the journey!

Now up - Winter In Mongolia

Today (December 18th) is the EL Party. It's something Turuu and I arrange for our small Mongolian team as a thank you. A thank you to them for their loyalty and hard work, for their care of our guests and for their genuine love for Eternal Landscapes. Even Jako, our brilliant Kazakh translator,  has come all the way from Bayan Ulgii to Ulaanbaatar to be part of it. As I write this, they are currently enjoying a private meal, washed down with some alcohol and finishing off with some karaoke. A very Mongolian celebration.

This is some of my great team on a previous winter picnic.

Why hold it in winter? It's low season in Mongolia and I like to arrange events for our team throughout the low period so they have an opportunity to come together and meet -  to enjoy each others company away from the structure of work.

People who know me, know that I am passionate about Mongolia. And that passion also focuses on making sure that our form of tourism is a positive force. That it has a positive impact - on Mongolia's environment, people, their local communities and the culture. Although, as we are a  micro business we take small steps rather than world-dominating ones!

That's one reason I promote winter travel in Mongolia. Rather than focusing on how much money can be made in peak season (July), I try to spread our support throughout the whole year - providing a more sustainable income for those we work with. 

Also, I genuinely love winter in Mongolia. As anyone that reads the EL Blog regularly (thank you!) knows … I often bring it up. 

But, I didn't want you to only hear my voice. That gets a little dull. So, here, in their own words, are why some of my brilliant female Mongolian trip assistants like winter in Mongolia.


'It's a challenging time of year. It makes us stronger people - facing the harshness of winter. Also, I like snow and think that winter in Mongolia will be good for tourism.'


'Winter in Mongolia makes my country look even more vast. It seems endless. With the mountains and mountain steppe all covered with snow, it is like an infinite milk sea. The beauty of it makes you catch your breath.'


'Every season is completely different in Mongolia. If you want to know what winter is like in Mongolia, then really, you have to come and experience it yourself. Our Mongolian winter really has its own taste - especially our Lunar New Year celebration.'


'The weather is really unique. It can be so harsh and also so mild. No two days are ever the same. It's a very real time of year - with our people and our livestock battling the changing weather conditions.'


 'I like the snow in winter. Also, our winter holiday which is Lunar New Year - Tsagaan Sar - is very special for us. We meet with out relatives and celebrate. Although winter is a very cold season, Tsgaaan Sar celebrates the warm season - the coming of spring and the warmth of being together with our relatives and family.'


'During the winter time we can sledge with our children - after the fresh snow. It is wonderful in the mountains - with nothing else except snow. It is just WOW.
And the challenge of the winter makes me admire my ancestors and my country makes me think about who I am and where I am from. How Mongolians  have always faced the challenges of the winter.
And of course, there is our new year celebration - Tsagaan Sar.'


'One reason I like winter in Mongolia is because of Tsagaan Sar - our traditional New Year. It is an important time to be with family and this means I get to travel to my home in the countryside and meet with my relatives.'
Sunrise on New Year's Day - Mongolian Tsagaan Sar - Lunar New Year - Tsagaan Suvraga - Gobi Desert

As our website is currently down, I can't direct you to it. However,  if you would like to experience winter in Mongolia, then here are the details of a few trips you might be interested in. All are guaranteed departures.

Hunting With Eagles - March 14th 2017 - 10 Days   * two places remaining

Khovsgol On Ice - February 25th 2017 -  12 Days * six places remaining. Includes Mongolian Lunar New Year and Ice Festival

Tsagaan Sar Insight (Mongolian Lunar New Year) - Feb 25th 2017 - 13 Days  * four places remaining. 

Tsagaan Sar Insight (Mongolian Lunar New Year) - Feb 25th 2017 - 5 Days * four places remaining

We can offer either a small group experience (maximum group size of six for that more personal experience) or a private tailor made trip. If you want, bring your family as we offer family trips as well. We offer a 15% discount per person on all of our winter trips as a way of promoting tourism in Mongolia outside of the main season.

Finger's crossed we'll have our website back by this week coming. For now, thanks for being here.



16 December 2016

The Kazakh Eagle Hunters Of Western Mongolia

The Kazakh Eagle Hunters Of Western Mongolia

Why did I choose western Mongolia? Well, two things have happened recently which puts it firmly in the front of my mind.
First … a little (ish) introduction ...

A major part of our philosophy is that we work directly with local families. Our friendships with the local people of Mongolia are genuine friendships. We go out and meet people. We get to know them - to learn about their lives and their needs - without being invasive. These are real people with real lives to lead. We don’t ask them to change their daily schedule or to put on an ‘act’. We know the stresses and the strains they face. We know their strengths and weakness. We know their likes and dislikes.They are much as part of our team and the EL family as we are.

Here are the two reasons why western Mongolia is in my mind:

Bashakhan The Eagle Hunter

Image by our guest Shobha Gopinath
Image by our guest Shobha Gopinath
Bashakhan is a Kazakh eagle hunter from the district of Ulaankhuus in Bayan Ulgii that we work with.  He came to Ulaanbaatar this week (a journey of 1700km (one-way) on the public bus). He met up with Turuu and Onroo - just to say hello and to say that he enjoys working with us. Would you travel that distance on a public bus just to say thank you? We found it very humbling. 
His beautiful golden eagle (White Necklace) died this October during the time that Bashakhan was hosting  an EL photography group. Everyone was devastated. We will be sending  a private photography guests out to Bashakhan at the end of December. We have already made for him a photo album dedicated to White Necklace.

Here's an excerpt from a blog post written by an EL guest about Bashakhan and White Necklace:
'With the festival just days away, he had a few practice runs with White Necklace. It was quite a beautiful sight to behold. Bashakhan handled White Necklace with such tenderness and love. That he is a kind and gentle man, was apparent from the way he was with his little grandkids. But the way he communicated with his eagle was nothing short of extraordinary. Bird and man were bound by an inexplicable link.'

Image by our guest Shobha Gopinath
Image by our guest Shobha Gopinath

Aisholpan The Eagle Huntress 

Image by our guest Shobha Gopinath
Aisholpan is a female Kazakh eagle hunter. Not only is she young, but she is also the first female eagle hunter. She entered her first eagle hunting competition at the age of 13 - and won. 

A new documentary (aptly named the Eagle Huntress) documents Aisholpan as she learns from her father to train her eagle -  breaking a centuries-old tradition that says the skill is handed down from father to son (after Aisholpan's brother left to join the Army).

The film has caused quite a stir - with even Daisy Ridley the Star Wars actress getting involved.

Groups are queuing to meet her and photograph her. So. We do things a little differently. We invite her to dinner. She even brings her mum - Almar. Yes, Aisholpan is the first female eagle hunter (and now a film star) but she is also a young woman who enjoys going to school and meeting with her friends. 

All of my trip assistants are female and Mongolian. What I have enjoyed the most is seeing how Oyuha (our youngest trip assistant) and Aisholpan have formed a firm friendship. One of their discussions included dreams and ambitions (Aisholpan - surgeon, Oyuha - member of parliament). All I can say is watch this space.

And, in another extract from a blog post written by an EL guest:

'This child is about to become a Hollywood star.  Yet, she had no airs whatsoever. In fact she had just returned from L.A. and had only a couple of weeks practice before the competition and yet she achieved an overall 3rd place this year! Somehow I think she will remain grounded, just looking at her upbringing, environment and ambition to become a master eagle hunter.
She has inspired other little Mongolian girls to take up the eagle-hunting - like the 12 year-old who took part this year. Talk about breaking barriers!'
Image by our guest Shobha Gopinath

13 December 2016

Photo Diary - 2016

Here are some images from our 2016 adventures to help inspire you for 2017. 

Our website was down when I put these together in a slight panic '…. website not working … website not working. How to get across all that we do in one blog post. Not possible. OK. Breathe. Choose some images. Which ones? Oh no, that means another decision. More breathing.'

Anyway.  It is only a small selection but enjoy the journey.

White Necklace

Image by our guest Shobha Gopinath
This is the Golden Eagle owned by Bashahan - one of the Kazakh eagle hunters that we work with. In fact, he was recently came to  Ulaanbaatar and met up with Turuu. It's only a 1685km trip  one way.

A Loo With A View

Image by our guest Shobha Gopinath

See the small box in the bottom left of the photo? That's one of our toilet tents. Each of our vans has one and not only to they provide you with privacy but they help manage our impact on the local environment.

Turuu designed them - buying the materials from local shops in  
Ulaanbaatar. Yes, they're still basic but you can't complain about the view!

Gobi Oasis Tree Planting Project

This is one of our youngest EL guests planting her family tree at Gobi Oasis this July - five-year old (definitely not four!) Annie.

Each EL group typically plants a tree at the nursery - EL and our guests have now planted over 108 of our own trees which represents around 3% of the total number of trees planted at Gobi Oasis. A single young tree can absorb 26 pounds of CO2 per year so we’re (very) slowly doing out bit towards managing Carbon emissions. 

Winter Experiences

Image by our guest Yi-Hsin

This is Basaanchuluu (Bambakh) and another member of the EL extended family. Bambakh and his relatives are a family of young ‘malchin’ or herders who make their home in the mountain forest steppe roughly 8km from Khatgal in Khosgol Nuur National Park. 

Bambakh is your trek guide for any of our Khovsgol horse or foot treks. He is also your host for the Khovsgol Ice Festival or Khatgal Naadam. This was him in March - saddling up his horses for a one-day horse trek with our EL guests. 

National Naadam Festival 

The National Naadam is held in Ulaanbaatar on July 11th and 12th. 

It is important that you see Naadam from a Mongolian perspective. Naadam is for Mongolians and we as visitors will not understand or necessarily agree with every aspect of it.  Naadam is a time when Mongolians strengthen their ties with friends, family, and their heritage.  It’s a celebration of ordinary people and century’s old tradition melded together. It is a time when Mongolians eat, sing, drink and enjoy life to the full. It is a true celebration celebrating all things Mongolian. 

We always walk our guests down to the Stadium - joining with the local Mongolians as they walk down. No air conditioned minivans for us. Having watched the Opening Ceremony (this year arranged by N. Naranbaatar  - the director of the National Academic Drama Theatre) and the start of the wrestling, we take our EL guests out for lunch. 

Here we are!

Cooperative Ar Arvijin Delgerekh 

In 2016, we started working with members of the Cooperative Ar Arvijin Delgerekh. This cooperative, located in central Arkhangai Aimag, focuses on working with yak herders producing spun yak wool, providing them with an alternative to diversify and increase their income. An alternative form of income is provided by hosting visitors and in 2016 we have stayed with the Dondov, Mandakbayar, Batbileg, Tulga, Galbadrakh families. I’ll leave the rest as a surprise. You won’t be disappointed at all. 

On Top Of The World

OK. Not quite on top of the world but the top of Malchin Peak - all 4050m of it. It is one of the 'five gods' that forms the Altai Tavan Bogd National Park. 

Malchin Peak is considered a non technical climb. That means there's no special equipment required - just a prayer to the weather gods and a lot of puff and determination. Most climbers base themselves close to the 20km long Potanii glacier (the biggest of the glaciers in the Mongolian Altai and in the shadow of the ‘Five Holy’ peaks). It is a stunning setting from which to explore. It's around a 7 to 10 hour return trip from the base camp depending on your speed. The classic quote that tells you “not to look at the whole mountain take it one piece at a time” is something you will come to understand. 

Russell, one of our 2016 guests, climbed Malchin Peak in early September. Together with his Mongolian EL trip assistant Oyuha. These are her images.

A Mongolian Sunrise

If someone asked me to describe Mongolia in one word, the one word that would spring to mind is 'vast' - vast landscapes, vast skies, and vast horizons. Shilin Bogd is located in one of Mongolia's vastest landscapes - the wind-scoured lowlands of Dariganga in south-eastern Sukhbaatar Aimag.

Think of over 200 volcanic lava and cinder cones on an otherwise flat expanse of grassland. Close enough to the Chinese border that you can see their military vehicles on patrol. For those that need to know these things, the cones range in height from 25 to 300m, and vary from partially eroded to completely preserved.

In traditional Mongolian culture, mountains are the closest thing on earth to the Eternal Blue Sky and thus many are venerated and sacred.  Tradition states that the soul of any man who climbs Shiliin Bogd will be renewed and filled with optimism and strength for the future.

Back in September, we camped at the foot of the mountain surrounded by silence and space. We watched the moon set as well as the sunset. We climbed up under a starlit night and as dawn broke the skyline, and the morning star slowly faded, so we circled the sacred stone shrine in the footsteps of those who had gone before us and made our offerings of rice, milk and vodka as we thought strong and positive thoughts. The Mongolian men present removed their hats to honour the sun as it rose over the horizon, an ancient tradition.

Get On Your Bike And Ride

Image provided by our guest Sarah Carpenter
Image provided by our guest Sarah Carpenter

In 2016 we hosted and provided the logistics for trek guides Sarah and Don as they led a private biking group.  If you’re looking for a different way to experience Mongolia but within the EL philosophy then consider one of our 2017 small group bike explorations. Come and enjoy the freedom of the open road, rejuvenate your spirit of adventure and escape the pressures of the western world.   We combine cycle sections with travelling by  4x4, day  hikes on foot and with the option of horse treks. With the focus being on local living.